Effort Targets State's German Russians

Tanner, Beccy. "Effort Targets State's German Russians." Wichita Eagle, 12 March 2007.

Dave Deutschendorf remembers all too well the stories his father would tell the family about his life in Russia.

"From what I hear it was nothing to be going along the road and find a headless body," Deutschendorf said.

That's why Henry John Deutschendorf immigrated with a cousin from Russia in 1913. He was only 18 and homesteaded in Oklahoma.

He was part of a mass immigration of Volga Germans who left Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

Now, an international organization representing descendants of those people is seeking help from the public to locate those immigrants' relatives.

Jerry Siebert, president of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, estimates there are more than 100,000 survivors of Europe's "other World War II holocaust" and their descendants are living in the United States.

Between 1874 and 1884, more than 15,000 Volga Germans came to the United States from Russia. Of those, more than 5,000 came to Kansas, establishing Catholic communities in Rush and Ellis counties and Mennonite communities in Harvey and Marion counties.

A different life

Among one of the most famous descendants of the Deutschendorf family was singer John Denver, whose real name was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. and whose songs immortalized Kansas and a rural way of life.

Dave Deutschendorf -- John Denver's uncle -- lived in Newton for years until he retired a few years ago in Colorado Springs. He says the legacy his father brought to America is embedded in the family history.

"We are so extremely grateful he came to the United States and that we are not living in Russia," Deutschendorf said.

Indeed, from 1929 to 1933, those German Russians who stayed in Russia went through horrible atrocities under the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, Siebert said.

Many were chased from their homes and had their belongings, property and stock confiscated. Many were shot dead or shipped off to work in concentration camps.

The labor camps continued until the 1970s.

Learning the history

Some of the descendants of those survivors are expected to gather in Hays from June 10 to 17 to learn more about their family history.

Deutschendorf plans to attend.

So does Siebert, now of Berkeley, Calif. He expects many of the participants to be aging baby boomers.

"I didn't get started in researching my family history until 10 years ago when I went to Russia," Siebert said. "My family said, 'You should go to your father's village.' And I said 'What do you mean? We're German, not Russian.' And that's when I found out what my ancestry was about. A lot of the first generation didn't want to talk about it."

The original "German Russians" were attracted to Russia as early as the 17th century by Catherine the Great to farm and live peacefully. But at the turn of the 20th century, many were forced to leave in order to continue their religious beliefs, which were predominantly Mennonite and Catholic.

Those who left often went to Germany or continued on to America where they lived in settlements and contributed to an agrarian way of life. In Kansas, those Volga Germans contributed to the wheat industry. In Colorado, it was the sugar beet industry, and in California, the fruit industry.

The early Volga German settlers left their mark on Kansas in many ways, some by chiseling limestone from the prairie and using the 700- to 800-pound posts to build barbed-wire fences to mark off fields and homesteads; others by growing vast fields of wheat.

In Kansas, there are seven chapters of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia; the Golden Wheat Chapter is in Wichita.

The individual chapters can help with research and the national organization has village coordinators and a Web site where people can find out what villages their ancestors lived in.

"We are one of the best-kept secrets in the United States," says Dennis Zitterkopf of the Golden Wheat Chapter. "Our target market is anyone with an interest in their ancestry, people who think they are German."

Reprinted with permission of the Wichita Eagle.

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