Local Travelers Shared two-Week Trip to Odessa, Ukraine Last October

Seeklander, Verda. "Local Travelers Shared two-Week Trip to Odessa, Ukraine Last October." Emmons County Record, 31 March 1998, 9 & 10.

Louise Ohlhauser, Hazelton, and Madeline Heer, Bismarck, were recent speakers at the Hazelton Historical Society and Emmons County Historical Society meetings. They spent two weeks in October in the Odessa, Russia area, now known as Ukraine, where they stayed with friends and relatives.

Ukraine, now an independent country, was once part of the former United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) which crosses nine time zones. The Ukraine is a little smaller than the state of Texas. Odessa is near the Black Sea on the southwest edge of the Soviet Union.

Madeline, a retired teacher, is the daughter-in-law of Fred Heer of Bismarck and the late Rose Heer, and is Louise’s niece.

Traveling with them to the Ukraine were Pius and Mary Halter of Bismarck, displaced Germans from Russia who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1952. "I wanted to have somebody there who could speak the language if we got into any trouble," Madeline said.

Sponsored by a Strasburg family, the Halters lived in Strasburg for a short time before moving to Bismarck after their arrival in North Dakota. Madeline became acquainted with the Halters in the early 1990s when Mary was engaged as an interpreter for other Russian immigrants whom Madeline was helping to get settled in their new homes.

The trip to Ukraine was Pius’ first since they left in 1942 although Mary has returned several times to visit family, the last time in 1981. Pius may have had hidden fears about returning to his former home. During the famine in the 1930’s, he was caught eating a handful of dry wheat while at work. He was sentenced to ten years of hard labor working on the Volga Canal in Siberia.

"In a country where everything is controlled, it’s really different," Madeline said. Nadia and Vitaly, Mary’s niece and nephew in Odessa, issued the required invitation before the travelers could obtain a visa. Within 3 days of arrival they had to register with the police at Ukrainian Passport Control. There they filled out more forms and had to relinquish their passports for several days. Madeline said that was "scary." They suspected they were being observed during their entire stay in Ukraine. "But then," Madeline confided, "I was probably a bit paranoid."

Family records are, for the most part, unavailable in Ukraine. Many were lost or destroyed during the years of turmoil and unrest in the USSR. And, because of strong anti-German feelings after WWI and WWII, the names of many of the towns have been changed, as often as three times, from German to Russian, and after the downfall of the Soviet Union, to Ukrainian names. Madeline’s research prior to leaving for Ukraine helped pinpoint areas they wished to visit.

They engaged two of the Halter’s relatives as interpreter and driver to take them to towns, dorfs and collective farms where the Heer and Reidlinger families (Madeline’s in-laws), and Louise’s maternal and paternal families, the Schulers and Goehrings, once lived.

Names of the places Madeline and Louise sought are familiar to Emmons County Germans from Russia. Grosliebenthal and Alexanderhilf, southwest of Odessa, were villages where Louise’s father, Henry Goehring, grew up. Ivonyka, a prosperous collective farm near Wilhemstal, east of Odessa, was the home of her mother’s family, the Schulers.

The large and once beautiful Lutheran Church in Worms where Louise’s parents were married had fallen into disrepair and was even used as a granary for a time. The Greek Orthodox Church, which feels threatened by other religions and is trying to solidify its power, is restoring many old churches including this one for its own use as money becomes available. A priest working on the reconstruction informed the women that they were privileged to be in the sanctuary of the church. In Orthodox tradition, women are not allowed in that area at any time.

They visited a one-street dorf called Gnadenfeld, the birthplace of Christ Heer (father of Jim, Jake, Bill, Henry, Christ, Jr., Fred, Carrie, Freda, and Albert).

New Freudenthal (pop. 8,000), about 65 miles east of Odessa, is where the Reidlinger family (the Heer family’s mother) originated. Hoping to find someone who might recognize some of their family names, Louise and Madeline asked to meet the oldest German-speaking inhabitant of the village. Her name was Freda, born in 1922. But Freda didn’t have the time to visit with them. She was bringing her cow home to be milked and was to attend a family wedding after that. She would speak with them later.

The marriage was a civil ceremony performed at city hall, a place Madeline referred to as a wedding palace. Church weddings are almost unheard of in former communist countries.

They were invited to attend the wedding reception where they observed the old German wedding traditions and were drawn into the festivities because everyone wanted to dance with the Americans.

A bucket of water is thrown in the path of the bride and groom as the wedding party walks to the reception from the wedding palace. The groom carries the bride over the water-strewn path.

A long carpet is laid out in front of the reception table. Tradition says the newlywed that steps on the carpet first will be the strongest one of the family.

To their surprise, the elderly lady they had waited to meet introduced herself as Freda Ohlhauser. Freda said she knew the Kiemele and Weber family names but, because their time was limited that evening, there was no opportunity for Madeline and Louise to follow up on any family connections between those families and Linton area residents with the same surname.

They were surprised to find that most people of German heritage living in that area could no longer speak German. Germans living in Russia in the 1930s and early 1940s were not allowed to speak their native language so it is lost to younger generations. "My German was better than theirs," Louise said.

The Ukraine has many vineyards and people manned fruit stands along the roadside. The countryside is flat and rolling. Two-lane roads, which often become temporary 3-laners as drivers pass despite oncoming traffic, can cause panic for those unaccustomed to the daring driving habits of Europeans. But the beauty of the land, said Madeline, is that it is so much like North Dakota.

Neither telephones or cars are commonly affordable and few women drivers were observed. Most cars are small, older Russian or Japanese models. Only one newer pickup with a club cab was seen. Motorcycles were also used and buses were a common means of transportation. Peddlers hauled their wares in horse-drawn wagons.

Few, if any, pollution controls are in effect for vehicles or factories. "We got behind one big truck and just about died from the exhaust," said Madeline.

Rest areas were nonexistent. There was no graffiti. Western influence was visible and billboards promoted Adidas, Coke, Marlboro, Mickey Mouse and other American made products. They saw several American factories including an ammonia producing plant which was built by Dr. Arnaud Hammer of Arm and Hammer baking soda fame.

Times are difficult. Ukraine, one of the larger states in the new Commonwealth of Soviet States, is struggling with self-government. Madeline learned through a State Department consultant that there is a great deal of uncertainty within the government, nothing is in place to support the economy, and there is much Mafia influence.

Office and government buildings have a lackluster appearance, each one looking much the same as another. A shortage of building materials has left many homes unfinished as owners or builders wait for supplies to become available.

There are no lawns. Yards and public areas including parks are cluttered and overgrown but Louise said the goats and geese make good lawn mowers. Each town square had its monument honoring some wartime or political figure. Statues of Lenin still stand in small villages that lack funds to remove them.

The former USSR is a cash society. Because of its stability, the American dollar is desirable and can easily be exchanged for Ukrainian currency. Personal checks and credit cards are not used. Travelers checks can only be cashed at special banks or hotels that cater to foreign tourists.

The standard of living is improving but still much lower than in the United States. Louise’s cousin, Amalia Sheifel, supplements her pension of 33 griven a month by selling milk from a cow she owns while a woman doctor in Amalia’s family earns 180 griven a month (1.87 griven=$1 U.S.).

Mary’s niece, Nadia, who works for an agricultural commodities broker, earns nearly three times that of husband Vitaly who is a gynecologist in a maternity hospital. Vitaly and his partners have entered a capitalistic venture by contracting lab work with hospitals in Germany. In contrast Mary’s sister receives a pension of 49 griven for her service in the Russian army.

The average income is $25 to $30 a month. Housing is difficult to find and is often passed down from generation to generation. An English teacher assigned to teach in the town of Myoki ten years earlier told Madeline she had hoped to accept a better paying position in a larger city but there was no available housing there.

In larger cities most people live in apartments ranging from two to five rooms. Often, they must pass through more than one heavy locked steel door before gaining entrance to the building. Dingy, unpainted, dimly lit hallways and bare cement stairs lead the way to the apartments. Once inside, patterned old-world style carpets, wall tapestries, floral wallpaper and curtains set a warmer, busier tone.

The North Dakota travelers said public restrooms (with no privacy) and private restrooms were "a real experience." In-home bathrooms consist of two closet-lie rooms, one with a small sink and tub, the other with a stool. Grey tissue resembling stretched out crepe paper and newspaper tacked to the wall were reminders of an earlier era in America.

Washing machines were the size of compactors and left clothes extremely wrinkled.

Most kitchens were tiny with apartment size stoves and small refrigerators. One family shared a communal kitchen on the second floor with other relatives.

Meals lasted an hour or more. A variety of seasonal food with lots of cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes was served in several courses on plates the size of our large dessert plates. Liquor (usually cognac or vodka), always accompanied by a long toast, was served at each meal with fruit juice as a chaser.

Madeline and Louise said it was difficult to evaluate family economic situations and they were not sure if they were served the normal fare or if they were treated as special guests. They surmised that the families they stayed with were putting their "best foot forward" in the same manner as Americans do when they have visitors so they reimbursed their hosts in an amount equal to what they would have spent in a hotel.

Food shopping seemed to be a daily, early morning task for most of the women. Food was costly but there did not seem to be a shortage. Grocery stores were small. Supplies, stacked against the walls, varied. While one store had fresh and prepared meats and a produce department, another had frozen foods and juices. The stores in Myoki, where Amalia lived, had no fresh vegetables.

Vendors from outlying areas brought their raw meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and unwrapped loaves of bread to open air market in Odessa where they were displayed on tables in row upon row of small booths. Shoppers brought their own bags to carry whatever they purchased.

Flowers are a common gift and flower stands were prevalent on street corners. Louise received three roses from Amalia’s family when she arrived in Odessa.

In some stores a potential purchase had to be paid for and the receipt presented to a clerk before it could be taken from the shelf. Jewelry stores, even smaller ones, had guards.

In the collective villages or farms, small (usually painted blue) homes made of cement block with tile, thatched or corrugated metal roofs were aligned behind wooden fences. A small courtyard separated the house from chicken coops, barns, and other attached outbuildings. Gardens produced a variety of red bell peppers, cabbages, potatoes, onions and other vegetables.

Families had chickens, geese, goats, rabbits, and sometimes a cow. The cow, which was the women’s responsibility, was taken outside the village each morning to graze and returned home each evening to be milked.

Madeline explained that in years past, as the villages became too large the next generation moved and started another village. "Quite often they had Lutheran villages and Catholic villages. Sometimes one or the other was pushed out," she said.

Cemeteries were unkept and often vandalized. Many were deserted during the wars. Iron crosses were simple compared to the ornate crosses found in some Emmons County cemeteries. Only four large pieces of granite, the names missing, remained in one of the large German cemeteries they visited at Freudenthal. The remaining grave stones and markers had been either stolen or destroyed. Tables were located in some of the cemeteries so families could picnic and spend time near the graves of their departed family members.

Louise also spent a week in Frankfurt, Germany, visiting another cousin, Magdalena Broekkel, before she returned to North Dakota.

The Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck has information on tours to the former USSR.

Reprinted with the permission of the Emmons County Record
Women shopped for food each day. Open air markets sold fresh and canned fruits and vegetables. Meat, poultry and fish were on ice but flies were still rampant
Louise stands at the doorway of the old Lutheran Church in Worms where her parents were married. The building is being restored by the Greek Orthodox Church.
An example of a toilet room in a Ukrainian apartment.
Louise Ohlhauser of Hazelton stands with Freda Ohlhauser (right), 72, the oldest German-speaking resident in New Freudental. Freda said she knew the Kiemele and Weber families there.
Tapestries, patterned wallpaper, curtains, and carpets were combined in room decors. Madeline and Louise (left) tried to convince Amalia (right) that her hair was too beautiful to be covered with a babushka. She finally removed the hair covering but it was obvious, she felt quite uncomfortable.
These people are selling bullheads along a highway in Ukraine.
Louise Ohlhauser was greeted by a cousin, Amalia Sheifel (left) and family, with 3 red roses when she arrived at the airport in Odessa, Ukraine. Babushkas like the one Amalia wears are still worn by most older ladies in Russia.
Louise (left), Pius Halter (seated), and his wife Mary (behind), in the home of Mary’s relatives in Odessa.
Russian farm machinery, including this tractor, sharply contrasts with farm equipment used in the United States.
Madeline Heer stands inside the gate of a home they visited. Outbuildings and a garden are usually closely connected to the house. Notice the corrugated roof. As with most buildings, this home was painted blue, a color most Ukrainians seem to prefer.
Madeline, Louise, and the Halters attended a ballet in the Odessa Opera House, considered one of the top three opera houses in Europe. The ornately decorated building has gold filigree designs and the stage curtain weighs more than two tons.
Louise stayed one week with cousin, Magdalena Broekkel (second from left) and her family in Frankfurt, Germany. Magdalena was a visitor in North Dakota three years ago.
Horses and wagons seemed to be in common usage. These boys were seen along the road to Worms. They asked if their picture would appear in a U.S. newspaper.
There were many vineyards with fruit-bearing trees and people manned fruit stands along the roadside.

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