The old Home Town

Olsen, Debbie. "The old Home Town." Red Deer Advocate, 24 November 2007.

Genealogical research is a popular pastime that often involves travel to distant locales. There is a special kind of pleasure derived from seeing an ancestral cottage, finding a gravestone in a hometown cemetery, or searching out a record that somehow links you to those who have gone before you.

Unfortunately, some homelands are easier to visit than others.

Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was virtually impossible for people of Russian descent living outside the country to visit their homeland.

Over the past 10 years, these areas have opened up to visitors and genealogy tours to the area have been popular.

North Dakota State University Libraries organizes genealogical tours for Germans whose ancestry traces to Russia and these tours have resulted in a number of Albertans finding their ancestral homes.

Diane Lewis of Louisiana recently returned from a genealogy tour that took her and 17 U.S. travelers to areas of Germany and what is now the Ukraine, where her great-grandfather and great-grandmother lived before they immigrated to North Dakota and later to Medicine Hat.

Lewis has been researching her genealogy for more than 30 years, so visiting her ancestral homeland had special meaning for her.

“I didn’t like history when I was in school, but genealogy has made it come alive for me,” says Lewis. “I had heard and read a great deal about the villages where my great-grandparents grew up, but I learned so much more by actually being there.”

The first stop on the tour was the city of Odessa on the Black Sea in Ukraine.

After enjoying the beach and being royally wined, dined and entertained in authentic Russian fashion, Lewis visited the historic Gluckstal Colony area of the Ukraine with nine other people whose ancestry can be traced to the region.

This area of the Ukraine is no longer inhabited by Germans, because they were killed, fled, or were exiled during the Second World War.

“It’s a beautiful country, but very primitive in many ways,” she says. “There is still no running water inside the homes and people survive by subsistence farming. Everything is done by hand, so it’s like stepping back in time. Staying with host families provided an opportunity to really see what life there was like.”

The main village of interest was Neudorf, where her great-grandfather lived until 1885.

“I took pictures of the house, which was built in a typical German elongated style, and we went to a former Lutheran church building in the village that is now a Russian Orthodox church,” says Lewis.

“They were in the middle of a service when we walked inside. I was surprised when a Russian woman approached me, spoke to me in English, and invited me to meet the priest. I had brought five Russian copies of the New Testament and was able to give them to him before we left to spend the evening in the nearby village of Gluckstal with a local family.”

In Gluckstal, they visited the local museum and an American monument, as well as the former Lutheran church in the village of Kassel.

“I was saddened to see the Kassel church in ruins,” admits Lewis. “During the Second World War, many German churches and cemeteries were ransacked and destroyed. Others were converted into places of worship for other sects and nationalities.”

Another highlight of the journey was a stop in Bessarabia and Liebental districts, where Lewis identified three ancestral homes on her grandmother’s side in the tiny village of Freudental.

Having a translator helped her communicate with the occupants of these homes and other people in the village.

“With the assistance of the translator, I was able to have a short visit with the Russian families who are currently living in the houses,” says Lewis.

“Both were very hospitable and helpful with information and I left with a gift of a large homemade cheese.”

“The Edwin Kelm Museum in Friedenstal was worth visiting. I was able to meet the mayor and priest of the village of Friedenstal, Leibental, and leave some more Russian Bibles at the church.”

After the Ukraine, the group traveled to the Stuttgart and Wiesbaden areas of Germany, where Lewis hired a German/English speaking taxi driver to take her to three German villages where her ancestors had lived prior to moving to Russia in 1804.

“The highlight of my day was a visit at the village administration office in Murr,” says Lewis.

“I was escorted to the basement vault and shown the tax roles for the Mutzenberger family, which date to back 1692.”

The group ended their tour by attending the German Bundestreffen in Wiesbaden. “The music and dancing was excellent and the venue was enormous,” says Lewis.

“I met many people and had more opportunities to learn about German/Russian history and make contacts with other village people from New Russia. The entire trip was an experience I won’t forget.”


Lewis will make a presentation about her trip to the Red Deer Genealogical Society on Wednesday, May 28, at 7 p.m.

Visitors are welcome to attend the meeting, which will be held at the Red Deer Museum and Archives.

If you go:

The North Dakota State University Libraries will sponsor the 14th Journey to the Homeland: Germany and Ukraine Tour on May 20 to 30, 2008.

The tour includes May 21 to 25, Odessa, Ukraine, and the former Bessarabian, Black Sea and Crimean German villages; and May 25 to 30, Stuttgart and Alsace, France.

Leading the tour will be Michael Miller, director and bibliographer, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU.

The tour costs US $4, 850 per person and includes accommodations, tour guides and some meals.

For 2008 tour registration information, visit: or contact Michael M. Miller, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, N.D., 58105-5599 (Tel: (701) 231-8416; e-mail

More information for Germans from Russia can be found at:

A number of companies offer genealogical tours to various homeland destinations, so you need not be of German-Russian descent to participate in a tour. Explore the web to find other tours relating to you family heritage.

One interesting site is:

Genealogy – getting started

Start by tracing backwards. Contact any living relatives and find out what they know.

Try to establish as completely as possible the basic genealogical facts (date and place of birth/baptism, date and place of marriage, and date and place of death/burial) of as many of your near relatives as you can.

See what documents you can find (certificates, letters, newspaper cuttings, family Bibles, photograph albums, diaries, etc.). Ask for photocopies of material from other relatives.

Document your sources (census records, church records, tax records), so that someone else can verify your research.

Keep a careful record of what searches you have done, so that you don’t end up searching the same source again.

Check to see if the research has already been done. You may be able to link into other research performed by distant relatives. An excellent list of genealogy websites can be found at:

Search the international genealogical index at: (website produced by the family history library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

This site contains millions of entries, mainly of baptisms and marriages, many of them taken from parish registers.

Visit the Genealogy Library, which is housed in the Red Deer Archives and is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday evenings from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The library is located at 4525 47th A Ave. in Red Deer.

Join the Red Deer branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Meetings are held at the Red Deer and District Museum’s Stewart Room (4525 47A Ave.) at 7 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of every month (except July, August and December).

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe based freelance writer.

Diane Lewis has her photo taken with a Russian family in Freudental, Bessarabia. It was the home built by Diane’s ancestors in the early 1800s.
This Lutheran Church in the village of Kassel could once sit 800 at worship, but now it stands in ruins. During the Second World War, the German community fled the area, and the Russian Army took over the building, using it as headquarters.
A farmer tills long rows of corn by hand at former German village of Bergdorf, Ukraine.
Roadside markets are common in the Ukraine. Here, the woman is keeping the flies off her fish with a homemade swatter, a plastic bag tied on a stick.
Honest stock: old German records of 1719 in Murr, Germany, record the crops grown by Diane’s ancestors, the Mutzenburgers, and the taxes they paid.
A common sight is a horse-drawn wagon returning home with a load of hand-cut hay for the family cow.

Reprinted with permission of the Red Deer Advocate.

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