The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies

Schmaltz, Eric. "The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies." Emmons County Record, 9 October 2008, 18.

(Editor's Note: This is part ten of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

Village of Kandel: On the Banks of the Dniester River

By the early twentieth century, the Ukrainian-German villages had diversified their economic activities and had experienced a significant population increase. The population of a German village in Russia could range from a few hundred (in the case of the newer “daughter colonies”) to several thousand (in the case of older, more established “mother colonies”). In 1908 on its hundredth anniversary, for instance, Kandel numbered more than 2,500 souls, a good-sized community boasting various domestic industries. By 1944, when the Nazis evacuated all Ukrainian Germans during World War II, more than 3,500 lived there, despite the Soviet persecution and terror of the previous quarter century.                                                                                       

Sometimes today we run the danger of viewing the past with too much nostalgia and portraying our ancestors in the best light possible. Without casting aside such caution, we can find much that was commendable in the Kutschurgan Enclave.

Villages like Kandel practiced a traditional form of communal life long before the Communist takeover. For the most part, villagers took care of their own people. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the village community provided for the basic welfare of the sick, elderly, and disabled at home and, later, in special public centers. Also, in time the homes in Kandel, although large and beautiful, were all built according to the same size specifications. Their uniformity was remarkable. Moreover, the village gave each family private plots of equal size, sometimes as much as an acre, and farmland.

One wonders why the Soviet regime ultimately ended up destroying the basic fabric of this relatively successful way of life. It is most likely that the relative wealth of the “foreign” German villages prompted such jealousy and hatred from the outside.

Eric Schmaltz. The author is immigrant Johann Schmalz’s great-grandson.  Born in Minot, North Dakota, in 1971, he is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, where he teaches Modern European and World History.  He expresses his eternal gratitude to old issues of the Emmons County Record as well as various extended relatives by blood or marriage who have assisted him with family history research over the past two decades, in particular Bro. Placid Gross, Mrs. Mary Lynn Axtman, Mrs. Nicole (French) Bailey, Prof. Amy Deibert, and Prof. Michael M. Miller.

In view of the German villages’ relative economic prosperity and many institutional and cultural advances, these people were far more sophisticated than what most scholars and even people of German-Russian ancestry assume today. In North America, there remains a glaring misconception about the world of these people in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian Germans were hardly “peasants” in the strict sense of the word. Many Ukrainian Germans were landowners, skilled artisans, and small businesspeople, not merely farmhands working the land for subsistence as most peasants had traditionally done over the centuries. Again, one has only to look at their uniform style of homes—spacious, comfortable limestone abodes, brightly decorated and painted, with porches, adjacent stone cellars for wine and canned food storage, summer kitchens, yards with verandas covered by grapevines to offer shade, and barns for animals. Along the wide main streets, limestone walls and metal gates enclosed each homeowner’s private property. These were extended, compact communities, practically small urban centers.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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