Emil Knapp tickles the keys of his accordion while Marlene Reich strums her guitar during the potluck picnic for the Lodi Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia on August 10 at Micke Grove Park.

Many Lodians Share Heritage With Society of Germans From Russia

Snyder, Jennifer. "Many Lodians Share Heritage With Society of Germans From Russia." Lodi News Sentinel, 18 August 2004, 6.

German heritage rang through the tunes of the accordion to those gathered at the potluck picnic for the Lodi chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

The chapter met August 10 at Micke Grove Park. The group is for anyone who is interested in the history of Germans from Russia. And many people in the Lodi area could be interested, as several have an ancestry of Germans who emigrated to Russia. Out of those ancestors, several made a stop in the Dakotas before moving to Lodi for richer farmland and a warmer climate, Pastor Herbert Schaal, chaplain of the group, explained.

Lodi's chapter started in 1972, and there are currently more than 60 members. Chapter members and guests gathered around the picnic tables with plates of ethnic food including bratwurst, sauerkraut and stuffed cabbage rolls. They shared stories about themselves, where their families came from and what they've discovered in their genealogy - all goals of the society. Emil Knapp, of Lodi, well-known in German music circles, provided accordion music, and Marlene Reich accompanied him on the guitar.

Every member has a different story to tell, but each is unified by their similar ancestry and their desire to know more.


So how did they go from Germany, to Russia, to the Dakotas (or other states) and end up in Lodi?

Two main groups of Germans went to Russia at different times. The Volga Germans left Germany in the late 1760s, and the Black Sea Germans went to Russia in the early 1800s.

One reason Germans left was because of an invitation by Catherine the Great to settle in sparsely populated lands by the Volga River. A second wave of immigrants went to southern Ukraine near the Black Sea. German colonists eventually went west because of social unrest in Russia, according to group history.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of land to immigrants, according to history by Walter Kiesz, a former president of the club, German families from the Black Sea area settled in Dakota Territory. They continued to immigrate up to World War I. Many of the Germans from Russia ended up taking a train to the Dakotas from New York. Wilheim Hieb, who lived in the Dakotas, traveled to the San Joaquin Valley in 1896, according to Kiesz. He was called "Columbus" because he led the way for the Germans from Russia to move from the Dakotas - for a warmer winter and better farmland. Many familiar family names - Hieb, Mettler, Gottlieb, Schmiedt, Preszler, Baumbach, Bechtold and Kirschenmann - settled in the Lodi area to become farmers. While about 25 percent of the population in North Dakota were of German-Russian decent, the estimate of the Lodi-area population in 1933 was 50 percent, according to Kiesz's history.

"Lodi was the promised land - the mecca," Schaal said.

The society

The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia was founded in 1968. The goal of the group is for individuals and families to research their past and find out their ancestry. Some members of the group have even found that, in a roundabout way, they are related to one another. The society is now international, with chapters in Canada and other countries including Argentina, where Schaal found people whose ancestry included Germans from Russia, and he started a chapter there.

Lodi's chapter meets six times a year. Meetings usually include a history lesson, presentations about culture and a genealogy session. They meet for a German (and English) worship service in December and a picnic in the summer.

Emil Knapp provided music for the evening with his accordion. Accompaniment was done by Marlene Reich and Leon Adamsen, on the guitar. Ken Isaak, membership chairperson, said Knapp travels all over and is one of the few Lodians who plays accordion.

"Emil is well-known in German music circles," Isaak said.

Schaal said the German-Russian heritage has influenced the Lodi area in many ways. He helped name Heritage School, which was almost named Columbus Hieb School, as suggested by a woman of German-Russian ancestry. He helped do a survey of homes in the area to see what the native language was and found out 17 different languages were spoken. Columbus Hieb would be too narrow a name. He suggested the name Heritage, and it was used. Still, members say that Columbus Hieb has been suggested for other buildings or landmarks -maybe someday it will stick.

Stories to tell

Eunice Friederich has been a member since 1979. She joined after trekking to South Dakota and New Mexico to do genealogy. She started by going to a small town in South Dakota and walking in a store that bore her family name. She was told to go to the library, and she found out she needed to travel to New Mexico; there a person who helped her told her to join the society so she could get more help. In the society, she has gone to conventions and spent some time at the LDS library.

Friederich said when she was a child, she was teased about being German and was associated with Attila the Hun, even though the Huns were not part of her ancestry.

Other young Germans in the 1940s also had difficulty with teasing and were called Nazis, even though their ancestors immigrated to Russia and to the United States long before the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany.

"Americans were often blinded with propaganda," Schaal said, adding that many people rejected their ancestry because of hatred of the Germans and Russians.

Pauline Litfin joined the group in 1984 after giving a presentation to the group about her life - something that she had tried to forget for 30 years.

"It was hard for me," she said. "At first I was afraid to talk about it."

She was born in Ukraine, southern Russia. Her family left Russia during World War II and resettled in Poland. Then they took a month-long wagon ride to Germany, where her family worked on a farm for seven years. When the United States was open to refugees, her father's uncle, living in Kansas, wrote and asked if they would like to move to the United States; he would sponsor them. They lived on the Kansas farm for a year and then decided to move to Lodi, where Litfin's father had cousins who were grape growers. Though Litfin was a fifth generation born in Russia, she had German ancestors.

Members of the group have many stories to share, and their common ancestry brings them together.

The next meeting of the Lodi chapter is Oct. 10. For more information, call Ken Isaak at 368-2334.

Reprinted with permission of the Lodi News-Sentinel, Lodi, CA.

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