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, 26 March 2009, 14.
(Editor's Note: This is part nineteen of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

Time of Troubles: Schmalzes Who Stayed Behind in Russia

Bishop Antonius Zerr of Ukraine (1849-1934). He was an ethnic German from the village of Franzfeld near Odessa and later the Catholic bishop in Tiraspol.

In late 1929 and early 1930, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s regime implemented the forced collectivization of agriculture across the USSR. Stalin wanted to break all peasant resistance to such socialist policies. As a result, authorities branded many Soviet citizens like Eugenius Betsch and Ludwig Schmalz as “kulaks,” meaning “fist,” a term used to describe so-called “wealthy peasants” who stubbornly resisted government efforts. Communist authorities played on class and personal antagonisms within these communities, encouraging villagers to turn on each other.

In the initial phase of collectivization, both of these young men endured banishment to the desolate prison labor-camp of Archangelsk (named after Archangel Michael) on the White Sea close to the freezing Arctic Circle. The old friends, however, proved just as stubborn in the Far North and managed to escape from remote exile, traveling approximately 1,500 miles for a few months as fugitives presumably mostly on foot and perhaps at times by train across Russia’s great expanses, all the way to western Ukraine on the Black Sea. By summer, they had arrived back in familiar Selz on the Soviet border. As marked men, they could not stay home long, as that risked endangering family and friends who harbored them. Once across the border, they sought only to live in freedom and recount their harrowing story, but the memory of their homeland remained strong.            

Eugenius’ fate after this episode remains unknown. According to an account published in Germany in 1990, however, Ludwig apparently stayed in Krasna (the only German-Catholic village in Bessarabia) until  in late 1940 when the Nazis relocated all Bessarabian Germans to “Greater” Germany (the ever-expanding Third Reich). He later served during World War II as a German soldier on the eastern front. In 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine, he was stationed close enough to pay a final visit to his native village of Kandel. After that point, his life story fades into oblivion.

More drama in Soviet Russia surrounded the lives of Barbara Schmalz, her daughter Emma (Schmalz) Rieger, and their village. According to village survivors and recently opened Soviet archival records, Barbara (1899-1937) was a widow with seven children by the time Stalin came to power. Her late husband was Nikolaus. In the early 1930s, she had participated in clandestine religious activities with the assistance of the elderly Bishop Antonius Zerr (1849-1934), the longtime head of the expansive Tiraspol Diocese. His background was also Ukrainian German. He had served as a prominent Catholic Church diplomat between the Vatican and the tsarist and early Soviet governments.

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.

Staying in Kandel during the early 1930s, as Soviet persecution of religion intensified, Bishop Zerr ordained young priests and administered to the pastoral needs of the local population in secret. At the time of his death, he was staying at the widow Schmalz’s house. The village, which was predominantly Roman Catholic, attended his funeral in 1934. The Soviet regime regarded this public display of affection for the late bishop as a demonstration of political resistance. Mrs. Schmalz was arrested and detained for almost two years, because she took care of the old bishop in her house during his final days. In 1937, she was sentenced to death and shot for her religious dissident activities, one of many millions of victims at the height of Stalin’s Terror.

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