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, 7 May 2009, 13.
(Editor's Note: This is part twenty-two of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

The “Long Trek”

President Harry Truman’s signing of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 made it possible for many thousands of postwar European refugees, including Emma (Schmalz) Rieger and her family, to begin new lives in the United States.

More than 70,000 Ukrainian-German refugees who were granted the right to stay in what became West Germany received assistance through the International Red Cross and various international religious charities and organizations (i.e., Mennonite, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Adventist, and Methodist). During their stay in refugee camps, many also hoped to locate, if possible, family members and friends lost or missing as a result of the wartime chaos. During this period, Emma’s husband, Wendelin (1916-2002), reunited with his family and worked as a military vehicle test driver for the U.S. Army.

Many of these refugees became Displaced Persons (DP’s). President Harry Truman (1945-1953) signed the United States’ first refugee law, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, permitting the entry of people dislocated by World War II into the country. The three main groups of DP’s included Jews (Holocaust survivors), East European nationalities (especially Poles), and ethnic Germans from various parts of Eastern Europe. Between 1948 and 1951, one-third of those admitted into the country were Poles, with ethnic Germans in second place.

In particular, this special category of persons included those forced from their homes and countries under wartime duress or state-sponsored persecution. As the Cold War began, Truman expanded this policy in 1950 to cover those who came from Communist-dominated countries, especially in the Soviet Bloc, and who feared persecution if they should ever return. Around this time, similar DP policies appeared in other countries as well.

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.

After 1948, DP’s of Ukrainian-German background often received sponsorship (as required by U.S. law) from businesses and organizations, as well as from family members or old friends who had migrated abroad years or even decades earlier. With promises by sponsors that gainful employment was available to DP’s (i.e., no state welfare), about 30,000 or roughly 40% of all Ukrainian Germans living in West Germany primarily left for the United States, Canada, South America, and even Australia. Most arrived in their adopted homelands by the mid-1950s and established new lives.

Many Germans from Russia refugees who qualified as DP’s sought new economic opportunities and political liberties outside of war-ravaged Europe. Some also expressed a perpetual fear of Communism as a result of their hard years spent in the USSR, desiring to get as far away from Europe as possible. Perhaps part of the silence about the past stemmed from this intense desire to begin anew.

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