Germans From Russia Preserve Their Past: Heritage Society Will Move Into new Headquarters December 13, 2000

Tobin, Paulette. "Germans From Russia Preserve Their Past: Heritage Society Will Move Into new Headquarters December 13, 2000." Grand Forks Herald, 26 November 2000.

In a couple of weeks, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society will move into its new headquarters in Bismarck, a reflection of the interest Germans from Russia have in discovering their roots and connecting with their rich heritage.

It wasn't long ago, however, when many Germans from Russia kept quiet about who they were.

Because of Germany's role in World War I and World War II, there was a time when anything German was branded as Nazi or evil. And being a German from Russia could mean a double dose of ill will, because Russia also became an enemy to America, said Janice Huber-Stangl, a society board member who lives in Sterling, Va.

"It wasn't until the 1970s and even until the early 1990s that I felt comfortable in saying my ethnic background was Germans from Russia," Huber-Stangl said.

Today, however, in chapter meetings and conventions, through historical groups, newsletters and Web sites, and from records still being brought out of Russia, the Germans from Russia are learning more and sharing more about themselves.

Founded in 1971, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society since 1981 had been headquartered in 2,000 square feet in a building in Bismarck, said Rachel Schmidt, society office manager. It eventually ran out of room to collect and preserve its historical documents, and about two years ago its board began talking seriously about looking for new space.

"We felt as leaders that if we did not make an effort to provide resources and the space in which to store those resources, the society would stagnate and possibly eventually die," said Ted Becker of Williston, N.D., a board member and chair of the building committee.

Thanks to $250,000 from its members and a $500,000 donation from Roger and Roberta Haas of Portland, Ore., the society broke ground last summer for its new international center and home of record. The new building is just south of Interstate 94 at Exit 157.

That the land and building are already paid for is a reflection of the group's tradition of thriftiness and how its members feel about debt.

"We as German-Russians are going to make darn sure that sucker is paid for when we build it," Becker said.

The new building, which has just under 6,000 square feet, was designed by Ritterbush-Ellig-Hulsing architects of Bismarck in the manner of the traditional long, low home, the "baurnhof" or farmyard of the German villages in Russia.

"We tried to keep it traditional. Those buildings were very utilitarian," Schmidt said. "Our building has two wings with a middle connector, and there is a small courtyard."

One wing will be a library and research area. The center part will have a reception area, work room and office, and another wing will house inventory and the conference room. The courtyard will have a plaque naming the building for August and Kathryn Schauer Haas, the parents of Roger Haas. It also will have an iron cross, the traditional grave marker for the Germans from Russia, and a walking plow.

"Both represent us very strongly," Schmidt said. "We believe in the cross, which is faith, and the plow, which represents hard work."

The Germans from Russia left Germany about 200 years ago to escape wars, economic hardship and religious conflict. They settled in south-central Russia, invited by Czarina Catherine the Great and later by her grandson,Czar Alexander I, and were promised self-rule, freedom from military service and other benefits. But by the late 1800s, Russia's leaders had forgotten their promises, and the Germans began moving, this time to America.

Many of the society's members are the second and third generations to live in America, and society members hope its new headquarters will help it connect with the fourth generation, Becker said.

Huber-Stangl, who grew up at Bowdle, S.D., and co-authored Marienberg: Fate of a Village, about Germans who stayed in Russia, said past generations didn't always appreciate their heritage, either.

"There is an old saying that the grandson wants to know what the grandfather wants to forget," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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