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German-Russian in former Soviet Union receive aid from ND relatives

The Kulm Messenger, Kulm , ND, December 16, 1992, Page 1

As we settle in for a long winter here in North Dakota, Sherrie Guenthner, Hazen, is sending food to her relatives living in the former Soviet Union to help them make it through the winter.

“I’m worried about them,” Sherrie said. “Mathaus told about how he had stood in line for 12 hours for the American relief. So I thought that since we’ve got more than we could possibly eat, I’d send them a small package of food. I started out small because Mathaus said people steal, and I wanted to make sure they get this package first before I send anything else.”

Sherrie didn’t even know about her German Russian relatives in the Commonwealth of Independent States last year. But with the help of Michael Miller, bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage collection at North Dakota State University Libraries, she was connected with her second cousins Mathaus and Galja Gunthner of Tscheljabinsk, Russia, and Frieda Schiller. Their family hadn’t been heard from since the early 1900s.

“When my uncle Jakob and his family stayed with our parents in 1906, he asked them to travel to the United States with them. For two weeks Uncle Jakob and Aunt Katherine asked my parents if they would like to undertake the trip to a distant foreign country. Father did not want to and so we stayed in Russia,” Mathaus wrote.

Unfortunately, the decision to stay in Russia resulted in much hardship, such as being forced to work in labor camps. “We were the most repressed people. I am one the few who still lives,” Mathaus wrote. “I had to empty this bitter cup to the last drop.”

The labor camps have been long done away with, but now the people of the CIS face economic hardship. “The pension does not stretch,” Mathsaus wrote. “All of which your Aunt Frieda wrote of the long lines and the high prices is a reality. The lines sprung up in 1917 and so it is again today.”

Sherrie said it was wonderful to have found these relatives. “I would always think about those that stayed back, and I always wondered if they were still alive. Mathaus wrote that he just cried and cried when he got my letter because he was so happy to find family again.”

“It’s very rewarding to know how happy you’re making them and to know that you’ve found them after all these years.”

“We are happy that we have so many relatives in North Dakota. Many evenings we sit together and look at your pictures. We love you. We had to go through hard times. We would love to see you. We would have so much to talk about. Too bad that we did not find you in such a long time. It took us over 50 years.”
Miller has received many such letters from other German Russians still living in the CIS. Since the fall of communism, they’ve had the freedom to write letters to find their lost relatives.

The German-Russians found out about the NDSU German-Russian collection, headed up by Miller and Corinne Becker, through an article that appeared in the German-language newspaper “Neues Leben.” Miller and Becker have been helping the authors of the letters track down their relatives that immigrated to North Dakota and other areas of the United States and Canada between 1870 and 1920.

In addition to the Gunthners, Paul Kruger of Piketnoje, Siberia, wrote to Miller asking for help in tracing his relatives.

“I can not say exactly in which year they emigrated, but I believe it happened before my grandfather Gottlieb was sent with his wife and two children (my father Bernhardt and my aunt Martha) to Siberia,” Kruger wrote.

Miller was able to find several of Krueger’s relatives in North Dakota, Tennessee, California and Minnesota and discovered Paul’s uncle Otto Krueger was a United States Congressman from North Dakota in the 1950s.

Kruger recently wrote about having to hunt and do a lot of canning in preparation for winter. “We wouldn’t even dream of that,” Miller said. “It sounds like the homesteading era here in America.”

It’s Miller’s hope to reunite other families with relatives in the former Soviet Union as well as make contact with people who had been in correspondence with relatives during the 1930s and 1940s. Letters from that time period would aid in documenting what happened to the German Russians who stayed in the Soviet Union.

“We would like to see if they might consider donating these letters to us for our collection,” Miller said. “We’d like to develop a clearing house list of who’s corresponding with who and how they’re related.”

Miller can help people of Black Sea or Bessarabian German-Russian descent while letters from those with ancestors from the Volga River region are forwarded to American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Nebraska. There is also a new program called the Russian American Genealogical Archive Service (RAGAS) from the National Archives in Washington D.C. For a small fee, RAGAS will connect American German Russians with relatives in the CIS and vice versa.

Close to two million Germans live in the CIS, and in the last five years about 600,000 have emigrated back to Germany.

Miller said now is an important time for Americans to discover more about those still living in the CIS. “The people in North Dakota are quite unaware of all these people who did not immigrate to the United States and Canada and that story needs to be told because they went through a tremendous tragedy. They were always in the minority and they had less freedoms than the Russians did.”

History of oppression
The Germans migrated to Russia when they were invited to settle in the area around the Volga River beginning in 1764 by the Empress Catherine II, a former German princess. A second invitation was extended by Catherine’s grandson, Alexander I, in 1803. From 1804-1818 Germans settled in the Black Sea region of the Ukraine. Eventually there were more that 3,000 ethnic settlements in Russia, Bessarabia and the Ukraine.

The Germans lived comfortably in Russia until Czar Alexander II revoked the privileges given to colonists when they settled in Russia, resulting a push for Russification requiring Germans to speak Russian and enlist in the Czar’s army.

Beginning in 1874, the German-Russians from the Black Sea and Bessarabian Germans immigrated to North Dakota while the Volga Germans settled in the states such as Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado.

Those who stayed behind suffered during World War II when the Russians were fighting Germany. Ethnic Germans were deported to Siberia and central Asia.

It is only now since communism has ended that the German-Russians who stayed behind have been able to get in contact with long lost relatives.

Miller asks that if anyone is interested in finding relatives in the Commonwealth of Independent States, they should write to him with specific information, including the village along the Black Sea where the relatives lived. Miller can be reached at NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105; his telephone number is (701) 237-8416 and his fax is (701) 237-7138.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Library
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
NDSU Dept #2080
PO Box 6050
Fargo, ND 58108-6050
Tel 701-231-8416
Fax 701-231-7138
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