Handing Down Their Histories

Grantier, Virginia. "Handing Down Their Histories." Bismarck Tribune, 4 November 2005.

Rehearsing scene from Act I of "Handing down the Names" are, left to right, Danielle Stadick, Matt Jacobson-Heck, Amber Wolfe, Kayla Sanford and Ian Knodel.

They were promised a new life in Russia, where they'd be given land, building materials and farm machinery, so they spent a year getting there. That's where they found starvation - because the only promise kept was the land.

They got a plot of land, but the guide who brought them there dropped them off and left them with nothing. There were no building materials or machinery left for the Germans who settled in the Volga region in the 1700s.

They literally had to dig into the ground, trying to shelter themselves from the elements. And about 75 percent of them starved.

But the persistence of those who made it helped turn that region into Russia's breadbasket.

Some of their stories will be on stage this month at Bismarck State College in the play "Handing Down the Names."

About 30 percent of North Dakota's population has ancestral ties to the risk-takers who left Germany for a new life in Russia, said the play's director, Dan Rogers, an associate professor of speech and theater.

Most of the Germans from Russia who later immigrated to North Dakota were from the Black Sea region.

"Handing Down the Names," by a Seattle playwright, Steven Dietz, whose heritage is German-Russian, focuses on the stories of his ancestors who settled in the Volga area.

"Steven wrote the play to honor his family," Rogers said.

Rogers thought the play would be perfect for this area because of the state's large German population, a majority of which have German from Russia ancestors. He said about 80 percent to 90 percent of the cast's 17 members have Germans from Russia in their family trees.

Dietz, 47, said his father, a Burlington Northern Railroad conductor, did a lot of family research. Dietz, the son, had always wanted to make a play out of those stories "as a way of documenting, theatrically, the lives of these people who I never knew."

Dietz said his family left Russia in the early 1900s and made their way to northern Colorado where, like many immigrants there, they took jobs working the beet fields. It was at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley that Dietz majored in theater. His career has evolved from directing plays at regional theaters to being a full-time playwright. His 28th and 29th plays are premiering in 2006.

He thinks "Handing down the Names" is a strong play because "it is evidence of such profound courage and faith, the desire to hold one's family together and keep one's culture alive in the midst of enormous hardships." In a montage of stories, Dietz honors his family's enduring courage and uncommon choice to leave their German homeland and travel to Russia to secure a better future for their children. They and other immigrants became known collectively as the Germans from Russia, a peasant people whose farming skills enriched the barren steppes for 150 years until oppression brought many to America in the early 1900s.

Dietz created a seven-generation mosaic of the "Dorn" family from 1766 to 1949. The play imparts the loss and pain of separation as circumstances split family apart - some family members settling in America while others were forced to return or stay in Russia during the turbulent early 20th century.

Audiences will find a history lesson in the exodus launched in the 1700s when Catherine the Great of Russia, a monarch of German heritage, issued a manifesto inviting her kinsmen to settle land annexed in a war.

The play opens in Germany with Ruth, a young woman whose husband was forced into military service and dies. She is pregnant, and, according to custom, her husband's younger brother offers marriage to hand down the name. They join others in the yearlong trip on the Volga River to a promised land of treeless prairie and hardship.

The 17-member ensemble cast performs multiple roles. Players are Ian Knodel, Andrea Ficek, Karissa Pudwill, Sean Marshall and Conrad Bauer, all of Bismarck; Kelsey Fredricks, Charlie Barber and Matt Jacobson-Heck, Mandan; Amber Wolfe, Hazen; Danielle Stadick, Beulah; Chantal Wike, Wilton; Jordan Axtman, Harvey; Toby Lund, Selfridge; Alexander Duppong, Glen Ullin; Kayla Sanford, Watford City; Courtney Olson, Sidney, Mont.; and Laura Struckman, Savage, Mont.

Craig Moxon, technical theater instructor, provides set and lighting design. Students in lead production positions are Farren Gunderson, assistant director, Mandan; and Jessica Hafen, assistant technical director, Shawnee, Kan.

The Germans from Russia Heritage Society will provide informational displays at the BSC auditorium. Reserved seat tickets are $5 and are available at the box office.

The show will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Nov. 12, and at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 13 in the college's Sidney J. Lee Auditorium.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller