Germans From Russia to Gather Here

Schmidt, Steve. "Germans From Russia to Gather Here." Grand Forks Herald, 4 July 1996.

Germans and catfishers both will descend on The Forks next week. And the two work together.

The Germans from Russia Heritage Society, which expects 300 to 400 to attend its international convention starting Wednesday, says one of the side attractions is the annual Catfish Days in East Grand Forks. That fun on the Red River is Saturday and Sunday.

Meals for the German event, however, are much more likely to include black bread, perogies, and sauerkraut than fried channel cats.

The German from Russia program is hosted by the society’s local Deutsche Kinder chapter, and it welcomes both members and the general public for a $15 daily or a $30 five-day fee. George Bowman, local president, promises, among many other things:

? Lots of good ethnic food and fellowship.
? No long speeches.
? Helping in researching family history books.
? Chances to visit with people with lines to all ancestral villages in Germany, Russia, and Eastern Europe.
? Guests from across North Dakota, other states and countries.
? Interpreters, so people can converse with Russian students.

Registration starts Wednesday at the Grand Forks Convention and Visitors center on Gateway Drive, and most events will be at the Holiday and Ramada Inns. The gathering begins with tours: first at the Forest River, N.D., Hutterite Community on Wednesday, then the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, Man., on Thursday.

One of the featured programs, supported by North Valley Arts Council funds, is a public concert by the German (Deutscher) Choir of Winnipeg, about 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Holiday Inn - after the banquet.

Among numerous presentations and authors’ readings will be:

? Tim Kloberdanz, of NDSU, telling “the untold story” of the role of Germans from Russia in this region’s sugar-beet industry, from 3:45 to 4:45 Friday in the Ramada Inn.
? Armin Wieb, of Winnipeg, known throughout Canada for his books on Mennonites, speaking at 1:15 p.m. Saturday in the Holiday Inn.
? Michael Miller, of NDSU’s library staff, giving a slide presentation on a recent visit to former German villages in the Ukraine, 7 p.m. Thursday in the Ramada Inn.

German villagers, who kept their own culture amid those of surrounding Russian communities, began to exit by the thousands when their host rulers reneged on promises not to draft Germans to fight wars for the Motherland.

From the photos, you can tell that the land they left near the Black Sea looks as if it easily could have substituted for the images of North Dakota’s Horizons magazine, of rolling prairies and flatlands and lightly trafficked highways.

Given the similarity of terrain, it’s perhaps not surprising that their first houses in the new country turned out to be almost perfect matches of the ones they learned to build and that still stand after more then 120 years or more in the Ukraine - now virtually emptied of Germans.

Sherman and his partner returned with about 2,500 slides and prints from 20 different housing styles in 15 villages that were homes to the grandparents and great-grandparents of thousands in North Dakotans.

He’s done some presentations to small groups, including architects in the valley. Eventually, though, Sherman intends to enrich his writings on the Germans from Russia with a book on their architecture and how they borrowed liberally from the styles they learned in Russia.

The first ones in this region were no-nonsense, no-frill, sturdily made and highly practical homes. They were efficient to the point where livestock barns were built right next to the living rooms, and vegetable and grains were stored in lofts over the bed rooms. Houses often were long and low, designed for maximum protection against the elements and centrally heated with clay oven stoves. Sherman says he knew of one German settler north of Dickinson, N.D., who claimed “not one single nail was used - until he put a wood floor in it.”

Sherman says he hopes to learn what concepts of homes and hearth the Germans had in mind when they first arrived in Russia and began adapting to the conditions they found there. “How do you build a house when you have no money and no wood? So they borrowed from what they saw around them from the Russians. And they used the house plans they already had in their heads. So it was a combination of influences.”

He believes research on architecture, combined with many other aspects of culture from the adaptable Germans from Russia, eventually will complement a big travel industry linking the descendants with their ancestral villages in Easter Europe.

And as Sherman wrote in one of the first sketches of Germans from Russia architects two decades ago, “A house is a testimony to the family that builds it, with its various years of struggle and success. But it is also a monument to a people with their collective experiences, their migrations, their values, and their achievements.”

His hope is that enough of the buildings and their styles will be preserved, whether in Strasburg, N.D., or in Strasburg in the Ukraine, to let the future generations appreciate the quiet, humble, and sturdy people who built them.

The Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks joins a translator, right, and other visitors outside a typical home built by former German villagers in what’s now the Ukrainian community of Elsass. It’s near Odessa, in the Black Sea region. On a recent visit to the former Soviet Union, Sherman found hundreds of homes matching those built by Germans from Russia when they emigrated to the Dakotas and Canada a century ago.


Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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