Monk Finds Family Home in Germany: Gross Family came from Village Massenbachhausen
Sailer, Linda. "Monk Finds Family Home in Germany: Gross family came from Village Massenbachhausen." Dickinson Press, 29 November 1992, 2B.
Bro. Placid Gross, a member of the Benedictine Order at Assumption Abbey, hit the genealogist’s jackpot during his recent two-week trip to Germany.
Through prior research into his family’s heritage, Bro. Placid had traced his ancestors from the prairies of North Dakota back through Russia and into Germany. Because he knew the Gross family came from the German village of Massenbachhausen (located near Heilbronn), he stopped there for a visit.
“I found the place where the original Gross house was located. The Grosses had scratched ‘1793’ into the wall,” he said. “That was so exciting!”
The house/barn, which is still occupied, was constructed in style of dwellings built 200 years ago. The village isn’t even located on the map.
“I had heard by word of mouth that the Grosses had a flour mill before they went to Russia. We kept asking people on the street. They said there used to be a water-driven mill at the edge of town. I found that mill!” he said.
Bro. Placid knocked on the door of a nearby house, and the lady served coffee and cookies, while showing him pictures of the house and part of the mill. He learned the mill operated until 1950 when it was partially destroyed in a fire.
Bro. Placid found it difficult to describe how he felt in finding the home of his great-great-great-grandfather. “Our old German dialect has an expression that says it pretty well—“ich hab ģmant mir bleibt der ochdem steh: (I thought my breath would stay standing. (or) My breathing would stop.)
Bro. Placid’s odyssey to Germany started with a childhood interest in stories and names of relatives who settled in Napoleon-Strasburg. These families came to America from the Kutschurgan Colony located along the Russian Black Sea. After leaving home, he began writing down the information. Eventually, he compiled the research into five books about the gross, Schweitzer, Vetter and Schmaltz families.
Bro. Placid is also very interested in German-Russian folklore, which includes children’s poems, games, music, recipes, dress, and religion. As stories and customs are described, they are written down for future publication.
Because of his interest in folklore, Bro. Placid was invited to take the two-week trip to Germany, funded in part, through the University of Mary Danube Studies Fund established by John Michels. “My purpose was to interview Germans who recently came out of Russia,” he said.
“The numbers of people crossing the border into Germany are so high it staggers the mind,” said Bro. Placid. One estimate put the rate of German-Russian immigrants at 400 a day or 150,000 per year.
“I can speak the Schwabish dialect. It was spoken at home all the time,” said Bro. Placid, adding that in Germany, “They were amazed that I could speak their language.”
However, he had trouble with the German dialect spoken on the streets because words have been invented to keep up with technology.
Only one person—Fr. Eugen Reinhardt from Frankfurt—knew that Bro. Placid was arriving. While at his home the first evening, Bro. Placid called Josef Schosser who was looking for Schmaltz relatives in America. It turned out that the two of them were related. “This man kept saying ‘Is this ever a surprise!’ over and over again. It ended up all his relatives settled around Strasburg. I know a lot of those he was talking about.”
Schlosser insisted that Bro. Placid spend the evening with him. One visit led to another, and he ended up staying with ten different German families throughout the southern half of Germany. Almost all of them had lived in Russia.
Bro. Placid learned from four elderly women that life was good in the German villages of Russia until 1929 when the collectivization of farms began. Later, World War II broke out and Hitler’s Army marched into Russia. Some 350,000 German-Russians were taken back to Germany, making the three-month trip by foot and wagon. After the war, Stalin said the families had to return. Some 250,000 people were transported in cattle cars and scattered throughout the vast Siberian region. It’s estimated that between 25 and 30 percent of these people died from hunger, freezing and execution. Since 1955, the German families have continued their search to be reunited.
Despite challenges of resettlement and finding housing, the German-Russians say their life is better in Germany than in Russia. The elderly are given pensions and the youth are finding jobs.
Because of the mass migrations, many Germans have lost their history. Bro. Placid’s information about German settlers coming to America was the first that many relatives have received in over 100 years.
One 29-year-old man, Victor Gross, who was born in Siberia, asked many questions about America. He tried to understand why his great-grandfather remained in Russia, only to be deported to Siberia, while Bro. Placid’s great-grandfather came to America. He would ask, “Why is life like that?”
Bro. Gross welcomed the train trip from family to family. “It was a relief to rest my mind,” he said. “I didn’t know I had relatives in Germany. I thought they were in Russia.”
There are many more German-Russians who desire to immigrate to Germany. However, they must document their German ancestry through family trees, traditions, language and songs that are still practiced at home.
“Since I’m home, I have many questions I didn’t ask,” said Bro. Placid, adding that many Germans expressed a desire to visit North Dakota. “They’re curious about us.”
Bro. Placid, one of 13 living children, has spoken about his trip with family members, including his 90-year-old mother, Magdalena Gross of Bismarck.
He would love to return to Germany. “The more answers you have, the more questions you have.”
Reprinted with permission from The Dickinson Press.