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, 28 May 2009, 10.
(Editor's Note: This is part twenty-three of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

The “Long Trek”

Bishop Joseph Werth of Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia, visiting a Germans from Russia iron cross cemetery during his first historic tour of North Dakota in the summer of 1993.  At this time, he also had the special opportunity to pay a brief visit with Emma (Schmalz) Rieger and her family in Minot.

In West Germany, Emma sought a way out of Europe as well. She pursued Schmaltz family contacts abroad, because she was already aware of relatives on her father’s side who had left Russia years earlier. She contacted a North Dakota relative who knew John Schmaltz Sr. She proceeded to write three letters to John Sr., who was then in retirement in Linton. He responded in kind around 1948 or 1949. Although their exact family relationship remains unclear (they are probably cousins to one degree or another), he agreed to sponsor Emma, her husband, and their three children at the time to come to the United States as DP’s. John died, however, just a few months before the Riegers’ arrival in March 1952.

Emma and her family stayed for a month with John’s widow, Clara, and pursuing other Schmaltz contacts outside of Linton, they moved in April 1952 to Minot, North Dakota, where her husband worked for 28 years at the Westlie Motor Company. The Minot Steam Laundry employed her as a laundress for several years until her retirement in 1964.

In her new life in a new world, Emma gave birth to a fourth and final child, William. Decades later, she mused in a formal interview with the North Dakota State University’s oral history project that she had produced four children in four different countries, reflecting the many changes in her life: The first, Barbara, was born in Ukraine (the Soviet Union); the second, Bernhardt, in Transnistria (Romanian-occupied western Ukraine during World War II); the third, Frieda, in postwar Germany, and William in the United States. All of the children could speak German well, save William who was the American. Emma’s sister decided to remain with her family in West Germany. Meanwhile, various friends and relatives from Kandel lived in exile in far-off Soviet Siberia and Central Asia, scattered like leaves in the wind.

In the summer of 1993, Emma experienced a strange twist of fate. In Minot, she enjoyed the good fortune to meet Bishop Joseph Werth, an ethnic-German native of Soviet Kazakhstan. Werth was born in 1952. His ancestors included both Ukrainian and Volga Germans whom Stalin had deported into exile during World War II. In 1991, as Russia opened up to the world, Pope John Paul II appointed Werth to be the first bishop of the new Roman Catholic Apostolic Administration of Siberia, Russia, with its headquarters in Novosibirsk.

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.

At the time, the bishop was conducting an ambitious church mission in the United States in order to seek assistance from fellow Germans from Russia for his fledgling congregations.

Following the Cold War, it only now seemed fitting that Emma, whose mother had cared for the late Bishop Zerr during the Stalinist Terror, and Bishop Werth, the young dissident Catholic priest under the Soviets, could meet on the North Dakota prairies. Emma reflected that he was a fine young man. Their meeting would have been unthinkable just a few years before, but here Old and New Worlds again had converged.

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