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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.