Women recall German traditions during Depression

By Dawne Leiker

Hays Daily News, 2 October 2012.

Decades beyond the days when German was the native language in homes throughout Rush and Ellis counties, and families of more than a dozen were not uncommon, manyVolga-German descendants hold close their memories of growing up during the Great Depression.

"I was the oldest in the family, and I had to take care of all those babies," said Laurine Werth, laughing. "And I thought, 'If I ever get married, there's not going to be any babies.' "

Werth grew up caring for her 11 siblings and, despite her early misgivings, she and her husband, Larry, enjoyed raising four children of their own.

Offering cold drinks to her old friends gathered in her apartment, Laurine Werth made sure each was comfortable as they shared memories of growing up in Ellis County.

Faith was central to Betty Pfannenstiel's life, as she was raised attending Munjor's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

"We never got to Hays when I was a kid," she said. "I didn't know there were any other religions."

Likewise, German was the only language spoken in the home until Pfannenstiel's older sister attended school and was unable to speak English. At that time, their parents realized a focus on learning the new language would be central to the children's education.

Learning German, however, was essential in the Wasinger house, where Leona Wasinger Pfeifer grew up. Her father spoke English, German and Latin when he attended Munjor school, later graduating from Hays Catholic College, now Thomas More Prep-Marian High School.

For Werth, born in Schoenchen, few English words were spoken in her home before she attended school.

"I only knew two things in English when I went to school," she said. "One was, my grandfather taught me how to say 'thank you.'

"And the other thing he said was, 'If you have to go to the bathroom, put up one finger, and if you have to really go, then you better put up two. ... That was all I knew."

For the Volga-German people, work always came first, even more than 50 years after the original immigrants settled in Ellis and Rush counties.

"Even at weddings, when it came suppertime, the men would all first go home and do all their chores and come back for the supper," Werth said.

"And the next day and the next day," Pfeifer added, with a little laugh.

Although she said she never had attended a three-day wedding, she had served as a bridesmaid for a two-day wedding in Grainfield. After sleeping in the car the first night, the celebration commenced the next morning and lasted the remainder of the next day.

"Thank goodness they stopped that," Betty Pfannenstiel said.

"One day is God's plenty," Dolores Pfannenstiel agreed, shaking her head.

Some of the women said they are seeing a newfound interest in the Volga-German heritage being expressed by younger people. Pfeifer mentioned a request she had seen in a church bulletin from the Knights of Columbus, which is attempting to collect and display artifacts from Russia.

In addition, Betty Pfannenstiel has been encouraged by her granddaughter to write down her memories of the old days in Munjor.

"That's something that a lot of older people should do in order for the kids to remember that," she said.

Looking back, the days without refrigeration, air conditioning and running water were tough days. The women smiled when they thought about studying with oil lamps, bathing in second-hand bath water, and drinking homemade root beer from an ice cellar. For the small group of women who grew up alongside second- and third-generation immigrants, there were diamonds in those rough days.

"We all grew up poor," Betty Pfannenstiel said. "But I don't think any of us knew we were poor, because everyone was in the same boots."

Reprinted with permission of The Hays Daily News.

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