Group Takes Journey to the Homeland

Scherr, Balzar and Blondina Scherr. "Group Takes Journey to the Homeland." Emmons County Record, 29 October 1996.

This newsletter is about our experiences to the "Homeland," our ancestral villages in South Russia, in the country that is now called Ukraine. The village of Strassburg is now called Kutschurgan and is about 45 miles from the city of Odessa, near the Black Sea. Gentle rolling hills and rich black soil produce many types of crops, including grapes, fruit and nut trees. No rocks.

Blondina and I toured the area for five days. Our hotel was in Odessa and every morning vans departed to different outlying villages filled with tour members such as ourselves, all eagerly hoping to visit the villages, churches, cemeteries and people of their parents and in some cases grandparents' homeland. When entering Strassburg/Kutschurgan (see photo) you enter on a two lane road (U.S. Highway 83-type road). About a quarter mile from the sign post is an outdoor market/rest stop. No flush toilets or drinking fountains. If you continue on this road you will come to a "T" intersection. To continue further leads to the country of Moldova which required special visas. None of our tour planned to visit this country so we continued on our way on the road bordering the river Nester which separates the two countries.

Much to our disappointment our father's parish church, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, isn't even recognizable as a house of worship. One wall still retains the gothic type of church windows, the remainder of the building has been altered considerably and serves as a sports and recreation building.

Another disappointment awaited us when we walked behind the church looking for family grave plots. We were not prepared to find instead of orderly rows of grave stones, a tethered goat munching in an open meadow thick with grass and wild flowers. The communists ethnic cleansing was thorough and apparent in all the villages we visited. German churches, Catholic and Protestant alike all were dealt the same harsh treatment-total destruction. In some cemeteries, Germanic bodies, buried in crypts were dug up, and the gold fillings and any jewelry on the bodies stolen. The crypts were left open and the remains were left to the elements.

We are including a photo of the Catholic Church of Selz. Selz is about five miles south of Strassburg. According to the book, "Paradise on the Steppe," this church was a cathedral built very similar to the cathedral in Salzburg, Austria. The cathedral measured 180 feet long and 90 feet wide. It was heart-breaking to see what remained of this magnificent structure, now only a silent window-less reminder of its former glory. Even the floor was ripped out. Nothing remains but the outside walls now home to countless birds flying in and out at will.

One of the residents of Strassburg is Antonia Welk Ivanova, a distant cousin of Lawrence Welk. She lives about one block from the church, Blondina and I together with another woman from the tour, accompanied by a tour interpreter spent nearly 2 hours walking the streets looking for the Scherr family home. Armed with a detailed map of the village and names of the people who lived in the houses, we felt quite confident we would soon find what we were seeking. The first house that we felt had belonged to family member was the house of our Aunt Helen (Scherr) Riffel. We spent some time talking to the present owner, an old woman.

After explaining who we were and what our mission was, we were not invited into her home. After a similar experience near the house where we believed was our ancestral home, we came to the conclusion that perhaps they believed us to be threat to their losing their property to descendants of former owners. Her very big and loud barking dog further decided us to move on with our search for the Scherr homestead. All the homes in the general area are fronted with strong wood or metal gates, blocking much of the homes from sight from the road. Such was the case when we approached the house we felt to the Scherr family home. We glimpsed grapes growing in the back yard, but further sight of the house was not possible due to many trees, brush and a high fence. If that wasn't enough to deter any unwanted guests the fierce barking of two large dogs sent us next door to make further inquiries. They opened the heavy gate and we were led to benches arranged against the wall of the house shaded by grape arbors. Over glasses of cool fruit drinks the owners were not much help in providing us with information concerning the Scherr family. They claimed to have come to the area in the 1950's and knew nothing of the various names we asked about. We thanked them for their hospitality and continued down the dirt-packed road towards the main road.

When Alex visited Ukraine in the late 70s he was not permitted to travel the Strassburg area. Reasons were not explained, but one possibility could be a military post on the road between Odessa and Strassburg/Kutschurgan. All major roads are lined with trees and in some areas three rows of trees block the countryside from view.

All in all, I must have visited 20 villages during our stay in Ukraine, all of them former villages of German residents who had immigrated or their parents had immigrated to this lovely area. I saw no community water towers, flush toilets, public or private and no shop to purchase souvenirs. If our ancestors still lived and were to return to their homes and villages they would find few changes in village life. Our biggest cultural shock was the outdoor privies. Most of us still remember this rather primitive method of outdoor plumbing, but none of our quaint little outhouses prepared us for going to the john Ukrainian style. Toilet facilities in public places and private homes consist of a hole punched though a concrete floor-no sit down arrangements. Fortunately we had been forewarned to bring along toilet tissue and we had this necessity along because this item was not included in the loathsome structure.

All the German people were deported to Nazi Germany in 1940. They spent the war years in Germany. At the end of World War II they were sent to Siberia. Aunt Blondina Stahl gave birth to a child in Siberia. She and the two children born in Germany were allowed to re-settle in Germany. Her third child was not allowed to join her family in Germany because she was considered a Soviet citizen. According to Aunt Blondina, the trip from Germany to Siberia took three months. They arrived at their destination on January 1, 1946. It was bitter cold. Another bit of family history we learned from her was that Father Jacob Scherr, a relative of the Scherr family, was taken by the communists and never heard from again around 1950. He was a retired priest from his home parish of Karlsruhe. At the time of his disappearance he was living near Aunt Helen's. She looked after him as he was old and probably senile. The Odessa airport was an axle breaking runway lined with broken down World War II fighter planes. Not one seemed to be in working order. The terminal building was a dark, unventilated structure with the windows securely welded or nailed shut. The double exit doors were chained shut, either to keep people in or keep them out. We were made to wait in line for what seemed and unreasonable long time, considering we were the only plane that had landed on their airstrip. Meanwhile the area we were kept waiting in was extremely dirty, foul smelling from a nearby restroom and in dire need of a paint job. Many of the airport personnel who checked our passports most suspiciously, still were wearing the Red Star and the Hammer and Sickle insignia. No smiles.

One of our tour members, a woman from Tigard, Ore., was able to share with us a wonderful bit of history on Father Jacob Scherr. While touring an exhibit in the village of Alexanderhilf, we spotted a photo of Father Scherr. Blondina took my photo standing next to the photo. Presently the woman from Oregon walked over, read the inscription and claimed that Father Scherr was the priest that had baptized her father. Later back home in Tulare, we were thrilled to receive a photo copy of the baptismal record that she so graciously mailed to us. Our brother Alex is currently having this treasured document translated into English because obviously it is written in Russian.

Accommodations in Odessa were far from what we consider adequate here in America. Besides a very soiled carpet and thread-bare bed linens, our water supply would be turned off from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. A plastic bucket which I mistakenly thought was a wastebasket, we soon learned from our fellow tour members was in actual fact our storage for our water supply for the use of the toilet during the night. Our shower stall was a 2 foot x 2 foot square area with folding doors, similar to a room divider. If you were a 250 lb. heavyweight, forget the shower it would be a sponge bath for you. We were on the 8th floor, overlooking the city and beyond the roof tops we could glimpse the Black Sea. From our windows we were able to look out over drab unpainted buildings in need of much repair. Had we had small children with us we would have been in mortal fear of their falling out of our window, which had no screens or batteries of any kind. Although our room was below standards, our meals were filling and quite delicious. We learned that one of our tour directors duties for our tour was to go out food shopping every morning. She would return to the hotel kitchen and bring just enough supplies for the days meals. We learned that this rather tiresome method was to prevent the kitchen staff from stealing the groceries. I sneaked a peek inside the clean stainless kitchen and the cupboards were like Mother Hubbards.

Two interesting people we met were a couple who lived quite near the church in Selz. Their home had electricity and running water. The couple was German. After their return to this village, they demanded their home and property be returned to them and this was granted. Antonia Welk did not regain her confiscated property back and there is ill-feeling in the village toward the German couple who have their home back. The Wiesbech family was from Selz and I will be sending them a copy of the church.

Much restoration is going on in the churches in Odessa, both Catholic and Russian Orthodox. We were fortunate to attend Mass in one of these beautiful cathedrals and hear the Mass said in either Ukrainian or Russian language by the Bishop of Siberia. He is very slight in stature and has a very sad look in his eyes, attesting the great burden he shoulders in the awesome job of restoring Catholicism to that vast country which is in desperate need of more priests and money.

Bishop Joseph Werth, Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia's ancestral village was Landau. He accompanied our tour on several trips and joined us for several meals. We have a photo of the Bishop and me taken outside of our hotel in Odessa. We understand he had made several trips to America and visited in North Dakota on at least two occasions.

Another note about the church in Selz. It was actually a basilica and named St. Michael's, according to "Paradise on the Steppe," authored by Joseph S. Height. While visiting in the village of Selz, tour members enjoyed a bountiful picnic lunch in a park behind the church.

A once magnificent Lutheran Church in central Odessa was burned by the communists. All that remains are the walls. Some church buildings that were destroyed or altered in some way such as the church in Strassburg, were turned into movie houses or theaters. One church, the Gross family's parish church, now serves as the business office for a collective farm. The Karlsruhe church now contains a library and two abandoned movie houses - upstairs and downstairs.

The villager's mode of transportation seemed to be walking or motorcycles with side cars. We also saw several buses providing public transportation and a few small American cars.

One of the important aspects of our tour was that of bringing school supplies to various schools visited in the villages. This was one of the more gratifying and enjoyable parts of our trip. The school staff and children were always present and most appreciative. Both students and their parents had many interesting questions for our group. After one such visit was concluded, our tour guide accompanied us on a visit through a collective farm that produced wine. Solid steel gates were opened as we filed through into an inner courtyard with several large buildings near the main gate. Further along we noticed an area littered with broken machinery and odds and bits of trucks that had been used during the war. Behind one of the sheds was a thriving hog farm that was to supplement income for the winery operation. After the tour, the gentleman who was our host invited us to taste their wine. We were led to a large barn-like structure, built of corrugated tin, windowless and home to quite a few swallows. He proudly led us to a large wooden wine barrel, followed by a female winery employee carrying very tall wine glasses which he planned to fill for our enjoyment. One detail of this generous action prevented us from truly appreciating his hospitality. The swallows had singled out this very barrel over which to build their nest, thereby depositing their feces right over the very spigot that he nonchalantly turned to fill a pitcher and pour out the cloudy and very suspect brew. Now, what were we to do in the face of such generosity of spirit. Did we risk being the "ugly American," or worse, risk gagging in front of a very insulted and shocked Ukrainian. Blondina had the perfect excuse, of course, because she doesn't drink wine. The others sipped carefully and graciously bid our winery hosts a grateful farewell. The next time you drink vodka, think about the production habits of their wine industry!

One day I decided to make an effort to locate trash containers in our hotel. I found one on a 6th floor landing and another one on the 3rd floor landing of the staircase. The trash containers were about the size one uses under the kitchen sink. We also noticed none on city streets or hotel lobby. Main streets and sidewalks are swept early in the morning by old women wielding brooms made of twigs.

Construction of much needed housing came to a halt with the collapse of communism. Many buildings in various stages of construction stand waiting to be finished.

The village of Peterstal is a settlement of Germans that have returned from living in Siberia. New and comfortable homes are being built and in the future will become lovely little communities. The German government is providing the funds for the building of this community. There were approximately 40 homes that were completed and that had occupants living there. Their vegetable and flower gardens were carefully and lovingly tended. The homes are fairly large and all had electricity and inside plumbing. The streets were wide and lined with street lights. We toured a bakery built by a family of these Siberian immigrants. The baker told our group he and his family bake 700 loaves of bread daily and 350 types of other yeast products, and at days end he is all sold out. The owner is now looking to expanding and opening a restaurant. I was able to communicate with him in our native tongue. Birds did not have access to the interior of this bakery.

Ukraine has socialized medicine. One of our tour group's added bonuses was the hiring of a medical doctor in the event any of our group should become ill. This young man was a cardiologist and he had not received a paycheck since February 1996 and was even contemplating selling his car to meet living expenses. Another interpreter hired for our tour group, was a university professor and had not received a paycheck since November 1995 and one check since February 1996. I began to suspect our van driver for our tours might also be in some other type of profession because every time we would stop to visit a village, he would start reading a book he had near his drivers seat.

When we left California we were experiencing temperatures in the high 100's and were hoping for a cool respite in Ukraine. Unfortunately the opposite occurred with sizzling 100 degree heat and no air-conditioning in our rooms. Luckily at sunset a lovely breeze came up and we opened the window and were able to sleep quite well. Rains finally came and the weather was marvelous for our last three days visit.

We were all very grateful for the interpreters Michael Miller hired to assist the group tour. They were knowledgeable, friendly, courteous and fun to be around. Several were university students with the exception of two who were of high school age.

I encourage any family member to visit our "Homeland." Ukraine is a beautiful country that holds great promise once it gets on its feet again. I will admit I experienced great disappointment in the village of Strassburg. Perhaps my expectations were too high, and I don't think I was fully prepared for the utter devastation of the church and cemetery.

For those family members living within the viewing area of the Prairie Public Television, with stations in the Dakotas, you will be able to view a four-part series, filmed by a photographer who video filmed our entire tour. We will be purchasing the video when it becomes available. Airing times should be appearing in your local television listings.

According to our Aunt Blondina Stahl, when our dad fled his homeland in 1913, he was accompanied by two other men and one woman. She did not know their identity or their final destination. The group of three men, our father included, decided to flee the country when they discovered they were to be inducted into the Bolshevik army. This would have meant a 25 year commitment to the Russian military. Aunt Blondina also said that Grandmother Scherr is buried in Selz. Unfortunately we did not know of this until our tour returned to Germany and visited with her in Kaiserslautern. Selz and Strassburg in Ukraine are about 4 miles distance from each other.

I have tried to write down as much information as I could about this very rewarding trip. My apologies for jumping from one time from to another, but after I was finished I would remember another incident I needed to share and we wanted to complete the typing quickly and mail out the photos and diary together.

Reprinted with permission from the Emmons County Record.

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