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, 30 April 2009, 8.
(Editor's Note: This is part twenty-one of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

The “Long Trek”

A famous photograph of the “Long Trek” of ethnic Germans from Ukraine to Nazi-occupied Poland (the Warthegau). As the war turned on them, the Nazi authorities evacuated about 350,000 Ukrainian Germans to the west between late 1943 and mid-1944. Emma (Schmalz) Rieger and her family from the village of Kandel survived this ordeal in the spring of 1944. It proved to be a difficult race to stay ahead of the rapidly advancing Soviet armies.

During the “Long Trek” (Grosser Treck), as it was known, Emma and her fellow Ukrainian Germans had to contend with primitive living conditions and the harsh natural elements. The danger of Soviet attack and even capture remained foremost in their minds. About 20,000-25,000 Ukrainian Germans died on the fateful journey west.

The Nazis called German-annexed Poland the Warthegau (Warthe District). It had become part of “Greater” Germany. On the eastern border of this new greater state, then, SS officials registered and naturalized the refugees after an initial screening at the Main Immigration Office in Lodz (renamed Litzmannstadt). It might be better to regard Lodz as the Nazi version of Ellis Island for Europe’s ethnic Germans. After processing the refugees, the SS resettled this human flood onto confiscated Polish farms or put them to work at confiscated factories in the Warthegau. On May 28, 1944, the Kandelers arrived near the city of Jarotschin within the district. Living conditions were often poor and overcrowded, particularly as more refugees flocked to Poland.

By mid-1944, Lodz also still contained Europe’s last major Jewish ghetto. As the Ukrainian Germans arrived in the city, the SS eliminated nearly all of the remaining 74,000 Jews by shipping them to the Auschwitz death camp.

By the end of 1944 or the very beginning of 1945, before the last great Soviet military offensive, Emma and her two children at the time were able to leave the Warthegau for Bavaria in Germany, apparently in order to stay with either her sister or sister-in-law who was by that time married to a German soldier and was already living there. The fortunate result was that Emma and her children escaped the Red Army’s rapid advance and capture. Soviet authorities encircled most of Emma’s fellow Kandel villagers in eastern Germany as they raced west in the early months of 1945. These unfortunate souls, including some of Emma’s family and friends, faced repatriation to Soviet Siberia shortly after the war.

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.

By late 1945, Communist authorities had reclaimed most Soviet citizens of German nationality who fled during the conflict. Even in the western occupation zones, Allied officials turned over many of their refugees to Soviet officials, in accordance with Allied agreements. Sometimes the Soviets went so far as to send out posses or make incursions into the western zones. In some instances, they made false promises to these Germans that they would be allowed to return to their native villages and homelands.

After the war, more than 200,000 Germans who were Soviet citizens had to return to the USSR in box cars (cattle cars) to so-called “special settlements” in Siberia and Central Asia. There they remained in state-sanctioned political exile for several years to work in hard labor camps. Fortunately, Emma’s husband, two brothers, and sister had made their way safely to the west.

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