Societies Preserve German Heritage
Johnson, Larry. “Societies Preserve German Heritage.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 4B.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Society is part of a cultural revival of uncertain duration.
“One of our real concerns in the society is we don’t have any young people (as members),” says Armand Bauer, Mandan, editor of the society’s Heritage Review publication.
Since the late 1960s, two German-Russian cultural societies have been formed in the United States, several books and numerous articles have been published and thousands of American immigrants have looked back to the old country - which in the case of German-Russians means both Russia and Germany.
The societies - the Germans from Russia Heritage Society based in Bismarck and the larger American Historical Society of Germans from Russia organized in Colorado - are international in the sense that they have members in other countries.
Bauer says the Bismarck-based society has nearly 3,000 members, with nine chapters in North Dakota, one in South Dakota and one in Calgary, Alberta.
The potential membership is much greater, since about 28,000 Germans from Russia immigrated to North Dakota alone.
Bauer says the founding of the much larger American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, now based at 1139 S. Seventh St., Lincoln, Neb., provided the impetus for a separate society based in Bismarck. Although the societies have the same basic purposes, the Bismarck society provides a “more democratic” method of choosing directors, according to Bauer.
Many German-Russians, including Bauer, who served on the board of directors of the Nebraska society a few years ago, are members of both organizations.
Bauer says it’s fortunate the societies organized when they did, in 1971, while people who could provide links to the past were still living.
Since its inception, the society in Bismarck has published or made available the principal historical accounts of the Germans from Russia. The Germans left Germany from 1766 until 1865 on arduous journeys to Russia for a variety of reasons, primarily to obtain land. After the Russian government began a program of russification, the culture-conscious, Germans began a mass migration to the United States in 1872.
Bauer says that before 1972 there were few English-language books on German-Russian history. “The books are definitely on the decline” again, he adds, since the major historical work has been finished. He says most of the articles now being published on German-Russian history concern specialized topics and family histories.
He says the Heritage Review, which his wife, Elaine, helps edit, publishes virtually anything dealing with German-Russian history, from passenger lists to folklore and songs.
Each year, one of the four issues of Heritage Review deals with genealogical research, such as cemetery lists, family data sheets and other sources of information members can use to trace their roots.
The Society recently moved its headquarters into a new, more spacious office it purchased at 1008 Central Ave. in north Bismarck.
“We act almost like a bookstore in that we handle materials (for sale),” says Bauer. “The one big problem we have with (publications) is your audience is relatively limited and publication costs are too doggone high.’’
He says the most successful book financially has been a German-Russian cookbook, “Folklore and Food,” compiled by Beata Mertz of Bismarck. Bauer says food is the strongest display of German-Russian culture, much as dance groups, crafts and cultural-exchange programs have been for other groups of immigrants.
Singing groups have been formed by several North Dakota chapters of the society, Bauer says. The chapters were formed partly as social organizations, he explains, and singing groups were an acceptable compromise for German-Russians of varying religions, some of whom don’t approve of card-playing or dancing.
The society’s new office also contains an expanded reading room for research and other genealogical work. Translations are done by members in their homes.
Bauer says the society does not have the resources to undertake extensive genealogical research; rather, its goal is to be able to steer people in the right direction and refer them to sources of information.
He believes it was a search for identity that spurred the interest in the society and German-Russian heritage about 15 years ago. The interest is probably the greatest among people of Bauer’s generation, in their 50s.
“The people that migrated, Germans from Russia, were relatively closemouthed people,” he says. “Those (children) that were born here really weren’t told an awful lot about the German-Russian stay in Russia.”
He recalls that children were frequently shooed from the room when adults began talking, especially about earlier days in Russia. “You didn’t become involved in conversations with adults about where they were from,” he adds.
Bauer says most of the German-Russians who immigrated to North Dakota wanted to forget about their life in Russia, which ended with animosity among Russians toward the Germans.
The North Dakota immigrants still considered themselves totally German and most couldn’t speak Russian, says Bauer. “About the only Russian I heard from my grandparents probably would have been profanity.”
The question of what the ethnic group should be called was controversial even when the society was formed in 1971.
Whether it should be German-Russians , Russian-Germans or something else was debated by the society’s organizers, who finally settled on Germans from Russia.
Bauer says he’s ambivalent about the labeling. “We know who we are,” he says. “The name we go under shouldn’t make any difference.”
Who, then, are the Germans from Russia?
“We’re descendants of Germans who migrated to Russia and spent several generations there before migrating to the United States . . . a group that essentially maintained its language and culture,” says Bauer.
He says the one link many German-Russian families are missing in their heritage is the name of the immigrant who traveled from Germany to Russia.
The German colonies in Russia no longer exist, he explains, and their records were either kept by the churches or have fallen into the hands of the Russian government.
The Mormon Church negotiated to obtain access to the records several years ago, according to Bauer, but he says the deal fell through and negotiations had to start all over again.
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.