Strasburgers’ kin Finds his Kind of German Speech in Russia

"Strasburgers’ kin Finds his Kind of German Speech in Russia." Emmons County Record, December 1977.

(Editors Note: The following is an account of a visit inside Russia, by Alex Scherr of Fairfield, Calif. The writer’s account was in the form of a letter to his sister, Theresia Kraft, who lives in Strasburg. Alex is a son of Margaret B. Scherr of Strasburg. He teaches English in a high school at Fairfield.)

Dec. 7, 1977
This is part II of my trip to the Soviet Union. I will discuss each of the cities I visited in order of the visit. Also, I have a few comments about people. Odessa, a principal port city on the Bay of Odessa on the Black Sea, is a city of about 1.5 million people. According to the guide I had one morning, Odessa has over 250 manufacturing plants, 11 institutes and universities, and a number health spas. In medicine, treatment of eye problems is a specialty here.

The Bay of Odessa is located on the northwest end of the Black Sea. That part of the city of Odessa in which the majority of the people live and shop is located on the west side of the water inlet. The manufacturing plants are on the east side of the water inlet. The prevailing wind is from the northwest; therefore, the pollution from the factories is blown away from the people.

Odessa is an old city. Much of the area around the port is crumbling, but the Soviet government is actively restoring the old structures, many of which are used for living quarters. Full restoration will take many years. After all, a slum building is a slum building regardless or its location—Odessa, Russia or New York City.

The apartments are small. Many are centered around a central courtyard which is reached through large gates leading in from the streets. In the courtyards one can see the laundry hanging on makeshift lines. In the evening many elderly people sit and visit while enjoying the pleasant night air.

One of the five most beautiful opera houses and certainly the most beautiful in Russia is located in Odessa. It is nearly a twin of the opera house in Vienna, Austria. The same architect was employed for both structures. The Odessa opera house’s interior is red with gold and white trim. It was redecorated within the past 20 years and, consequently, all colors are still bright and strikingly beautiful.

This opera house is circular. It has five balcony levels. White figurines with gold trim set off all the balconies from each other. In the center of the house high above the audience hangs a chandelier which is about 30 feet in circumference.

I attended two programs here—the ballet Spartacus and the opera Madame Butterfly. Few Russians attended the performances. Nearly all seats were occupied by tourists. Many Russian citizens were out front to purchase tickets from the tourists. Admission price for each program was $2.00, which included a handling fee.

One of the most interesting sights in Odessa is the Port of Odessa. Here one sees cruise ships and freighters from many lands. For example, one freighter in port was the Arco Heritage, an American tanker. One evening I had as a table guest at dinner, the chief deck officer and his wife from a Greek freighter.

The Port of Odessa is reached by descending the 192 Potemkin Steps. These steps are the most talked about and visited attraction in Odessa. In fact, the tree-lined boulevard and park above the steps makes this the most beautiful attraction that I saw during my three weeks’ stay in Russia.

The summer weather is mild in this area. The daytime temperature never went over about 75 degrees F. nor under 60 degrees F. during my two weeks’ stay here. The winters, I was told, get quite severe at times, but it is only about three or four months in duration. The Black Sea influences the weather considerably.

The people here, as every place else, do not look happy. Their faces bear the expressions of people resigned to a boring life. The people do not smile; they just move from one place to another in going about their business. Only when they meet acquaintances are there bright expressions on their faces.

Automobile traffic in central Odessa is much heavier than I had expected. One evening during a 25-minute period I counted one-hundred four private automobiles cross the intersection in front of the hotel Chornoye More (Black Sea). On a normal summer’s day, the corner of Main and Broadway in Linton has nearly that much traffic in such a space of time.

The most inconsiderate of drivers anywhere in this world must be the Russians. It’s "pedestrian watch out for yourself." The drivers speed, are discourteous to all others, and unmindful of pedestrians. At night many drivers, including the city bus drivers, use the street lights for illumination rather than headlights.

After a week in Odessa, I went to Tirospol, about 65 miles (90 km) northwest of Odessa to visit my uncle Josef Stant and his family. Tirospol is the heart of Moldavian orchards. This is the fruit basket and wine cellar of the Soviet Union. I was permitted to stay two days and one night here. I had my visa stamped and my passport checked at the local Intourist hotel Drushba (Friendship), paid for my room by certificate, then went with my Uncle Josef and family to his home where I spent the entire time of my stay. His home is a small three room apartment—kitchen, living room and bedroom. The kitchen is about eight feet wide and sixteen feet long. The living room is about ten feet wide and fourteen feet long. The bedroom is about six feet wide and fourteen feet long. The only indoor plumbing is a cold water tap. Uncle Josef said that he could have moved into a modern apartment with all the conveniences, but that would have prevented his having a vegetable garden. He raises vegetables and flowers. He and Aunt Blontina feel comfortable where they are.

This visit was especially exciting. Speaking the Strasburg, North Dakota German in Tirospol, Russia was nearly unbelievable. There was no communication gap. Uncle Josef frequently said, "But he speaks German just like we do!"

Uncle Josef is a fine musician. He plays the accordion and the concertina. He entertained by playing and singing. A special gift from him was a tape recording of his playing and singing. The recording was made on his son’s recorder while I was there.

The food served was typically German cooking such as I enjoyed at my mother’s table in Strasburg. We had borscht, potatoes, fleischkuchle, sausages, cucumbers, tomatoes, bread and a beverage. My visiting was a special occasion, so the beverage was special—champagne, wine, vodka and beer. The champagne was of exceptionally good quality. The wine, made by one of my father’s nieces, was as good as wine I’ve tasted (and I live in wine country here in California).

Enroute to Tirospol, the train stopped for about ten minutes in Juchergon. I recall the old, green-painted depot on the south side of the tracks. On the north side were many trees and some houses. Later, at my uncle’s place, I learned that Kuchergon is the Russian name for the former Strasburg, Russia, the dorf where my father grew into manhood and from which he left in 1913 to travel to Strasburg, North Dakota.

My uncle and aunt have two sons and two daughters. All are married and have families of their own. There are nine grandchildren.

Uncle Josef is a night watchman at a nearby factory. He was scheduled to work on the night I was there, but he was unable to get a friend of his to substitute for him.

My time in Tirospol was much too short. But the relatives were able to come into Odessa twice to visit so we did spend considerable time together.

When I left Odessa, I flew into Moscow, changed airports and planes and continued on east to Novosibirsk in Siberia. Novosibirsk, according to World Book Encyclopedia, is the Chicago of Siberia.

Two first cousins, Maria Fettich Klein and Barbara Wolf Schofer, Maria’s fifteen-year-old daughter Irena and Barbara’s twenty-two year old son Josef and his wife Luba came from Krasnoyarsk to see me. Karsnoyarsk, where most of my relatives live, including my father’s eighty-two-year-old sister Helena Rifel, does not have an interest in Intourist, so I was not permitted to go there.

Once again there was amazement at my ability to converse with them in the same German that they learned at home in Strasburg, Russia, when they were children.

While in Novosibirsk, my relatives went to the apartment of Waldemar Crab. Waldemar is Barbara’s husband’s nephew. Here we had another feast. An elaborate meal of meats, vegetables and salads was prepared. Naturally, there were many toasts, with champagne and vodka flowing freely. However, with all the alcohol that was consumed, not one became intoxicated. One of the guests played the accordion for dancing and singing. When she was not playing, American rock records were played on the phonograph.

The Novosibirsk countryside is much like that of North Dakota. Potatoes, wheat, corn, and other cereal crops are raised on the broad open plains. The summer sun is hot, the days are long, and the air is breezy. The growing season is about twenty days shorter than North Dakota’s but the winters are much more severe than the winters of the Dakotas. One guide laughingly said that the winters in Siberia are about twelve months long; the rest of the year is summer, -50 degrees F are not uncommon.

Novosibirsk is located on the western edge of Siberia, Krasnoyarsk, the city I really would have liked to visit is an eleven-hour train ride east. There the winters are even more severe.

The people here, too, are resigned to there present way of life. My host has a sister who had been permitted to West Germany five years ago. He would like to visit her, but is not permitted an exit visa. His mother, who is over sixty years old, was finally issued an exit visa and was scheduled to leave Russia in October for a six month’s visit with her daughter.

The apartment in which the Crabs family lives consists of kitchen, living room, bedroom, and private bath. It is small, about eight-hundred square feet, but comfortable. It is one of about ninety such apartments in that one building. About five such buildings are located in this compound. I consider these buildings "instant old and uglies." The ten-story high unit was completed for occupancy in January 1977, but it looks as though it was about twenty or thirty years old. The Crabs live on the seventh floor. The elevator was out of order, had been so for a week. Waldemar told me that they had promised to get it repaired in three weeks’ time. But he doubted that it would be.

Each apartment has two small balconies—one outside the living and one outside the bedroom. However, the bars on the railings are spaced so far apart that small children could easily crawl between them and fall to their deaths. Consequently, all the people grab whatever sheet metal they can, or any other solid materials, and use it to make the balconies fall-safe for their children.

Russia is a nation of monuments. One monument in Novosibirsk is striking. Eight upright slabs, each about twenty feet high and ten feet wide, bear figures of Soviet military, family, or work life. On one slab is the figure of a soldier in battle, on another are a mother, father, and their children, on yet another is the figure of the son leaving to fight, and so on. In the center of all these is the form of a woman mourning the loss of a husband or son. She is looking down upon an eternal flame. On the backs of all these slabs are the names of 35,000 men from the Novosibirsk area who died during World War II. Those 35,000 were from a group of 45,000 who had volunteered to serve their country against the Nazi invaders.

After the maximum four days and three nights in Novosibirsk, I bid my relatives goodbye and flew back to Moscow, four time zones to the west.

I stayed in Moscow two days and three nights. This is the city of eight million people. While in Moscow, I had a three-hour tour of the city. I saw such places as the Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the British and American Embassies, Moscow University, and the site of the 1980 Olympics. I also had a three-hour tour of the Kremlin. I toured Assumption Cathedral where Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and other czars worshipped. I also toured Ascension Cathedral. I did not have the opportunity to tour St. Michael’s Cathedral. All these cathedrals, as are most churches in Russia, are now museums.

I saw the granite structure housing Lenin’s tomb but did not even attempt going through it in order to gaze at one of the most infamous murderers to ever be on the face of the earth.

My accommodations in Russia were comfortable, but quite expensive. A room for one at the first class Intourist hotels cost about twenty-seven rubles per day; this is about thirty-five dollars. Each room was equipped with a telephone, radio, and TV. Meals, except breakfast, were not included in the price. Fist class space in a hotel is definitely less than first class space in a hotel in the United States. The rooms in Moscow were slightly higher than in Odessa and Novosibirsk.

After two days in Moscow, I was ready to leave the Ukrainian Hotel and return to Fairfield, Calif. I left Moscow at 11:05, Thursday, July 28. I flew Aeroflot, the USSR national airline, from there to London, a four-hour flight. After thirty minutes in London, I was aboard a giant Pan Am 747 and on my way to San Francisco. I arrived eleven hours later at 5:00 pm July 28. No my math is not mixed up—there is a ten hour’s time difference between Moscow and San Francisco.

Just one comment to illustrate the hard life that the relatives have led since they have come under the heavy yoke of Communism. While Uncle Josef was entertaining us with his accordion, a cousin of Aunt Blontina’s who was also visiting said, "I am forty-two years old. I have never had anything good in my life; everything has always been bad." Then she went on to say how, when she was a small girl of eight, she and her mother marched over two thousand kilometers to flee into Poland. At times they crawled on their hands and knees to ease the pain of their blistered feet. That statement, along with some comments made by others, told me much about life for them during the past forty years.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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