Choir's Heritage Familiar

Olson, Jeffrey G. "Choir's Heritage Familiar." Bismarck Tribune, 24 July 1997, sec. 1B.

The faces in the choir would melt into the crowd at Kirkwood Mall. Their names are common to the Strasburg telephone directory and the Strassburg (near Odessa, Ukraine) telephone directory.

The names and faces belong to the 25-member Heimatklaenge Choir of Stuttgart, Germany, on the last leg of a North Dakota tour. The choir performs at 7:30 tonight in the Century High School auditorium.

Choir members, said translator Michael Miller, are also looking for relatives as they travel in the U.S. "These are the children and grandchildren of the Germans living in Russia that immigrated to the United States, and specifically to the Great Plains in 1812 or so."

Miller said several people in the audience of a Tuesday concert in Strasburg turned out to be related. "They were from the Aberdeen area and came to the concert."

The choir journeys to Dickinson for a concert at 8 p.m. MDT Saturday at the German-Hungarian Club. They sing at the 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at Assumption Abbey, relax for a couple of days then fly home.

At a potluck picnic Wednesday evening at Buckstop Junction in east Bismarck, choir members again looked into a genetic mirror. "Since 1991," Miller said, "about 1.6 million ethnic Germans like these people have emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Germany. Today, there are still 10,000 people a month emigrating."

They seldom are welcomed with open arms by Germans. "They have trouble finding jobs, and jobs are scarce in Germany anyway with 15 percent unemployment. Many are settled in the former East Germany."

Waldemar Hergert, a 43-year-old music teacher, left Kazakhstan in November 1995. He stumbled trying to explain his new life, and with a glance begged for help from Laura Illg. The two lapsed into Russian.

"Most of these people were born in Siberia or Kazakhstan," Miller said. "In the U.S.S.R. they were pointed out as Germans and ridiculed as children, later persecuted as adults.

"In Germany they are called Russians and told to 'go home.' It is very difficult for them," Miller said.

Hergert now repairs harmonicas and plays the harmonica and the accordion professionally.

Helene Esau's mother was born in Johanestal, near Odessa. Like tens of thousands of Germans living in Russia, Hitler's troops forced them from village homes in the early 1940s. They lived in camps in Poland and Germany, and when the war ended, Stalin promised them they would return to their villages.

They wound up on transport trains headed for Siberia and Kazakhstan.

"Helene's parents tried to go back and visit their house in 1956," Miller said. "The Russians living there -in their home with their old furniture-wouldn't let them in the door."

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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