Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today

Finding German Russian Roots

Wood, Carter. "Wanderings: The Germans From Russia Today." Grand Forks Herald, 9 July 1994.

Beginning in the 1760s, German farm families migrated by the thousands to the Russian Empire in search of land and freedom. The same search later sent their descendants, now Germans from Russia, to settle the Dakotas. Those who remained fell prey to the worst horrors of the 20th Century: Two world wars, Communist repression and exile. Today, Germans from Russia in the former Soviet Union are wandering again, this time emigrating to Germany. Herald staff writer Carter Wood recently joined a delegation to the Ukraine and Germany to examine the conditions affecting Germans from Russia today.

STUTTGART, Germany - All the Dauenhauer sisters have to do is say where their Black Sea ancestors came from and up pop the distant cousins.

Zita Dauenhauer Gieser of Dickinson, N.D., and Rosemarie Dauenhauer Hoff of Aurora, Colo., have come to expect such impromptu reunions.

"Every time we come to these convention, we find so many Dauenhauers," Zita said at the national meeting of the Society of Germans from Russia in Stuttgart. "There are so many of them."

War, exile, distance and the simple passage of time have broken many ties between Germans from Russian in the United States and their relatives in Germany or the former Soviet Union.

But genealogical work often succeeds in rebuilding those ties, especially if good luck happens to strike.

Take the case of the Dauenhauers, whose parents emigrated to the United States from the Ukraine, raising their children on a farm near Taylor, N.D.

Research showed that the Black Sea colony of Landau was settled in 1809 by a group of German Catholic emigres, attracted by the fruitful land of the Berasaner Valley. Sixty-six families came from the Palatinate, another 27 from the Alsace. A founding settler was Valentin Dauenhauer, the source of the entire branch of the family tree.

So mention Landau and the Dauenhauer in a room of 300 Germans from Russia in Stuttgart, and there's bound to be some connection.

Markus Schmidt approached the two sisters, telling them his mother was Agnes Dauenhauer.

"I have a sister Agnes, and a cousin Agnes and an Aunt Agnes," Gieser said, making the fact known in the German dialect she learned as a child.

Although a Landauer by birth, Schmidt came to Germany from Kazakhstan, the land of exile for many Germans from Russia.

Often the relationships are tenuous, requiring more work to track down. North Dakota State University's Michael Miller, visiting the Ukrainian village once known as Selz, met an ethnic German woman whose maiden name was Antonia Welk.

The name carried an immediate impact, since Miller is the bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at NDSU. The collection includes the archives of Lawrence Welk, the late bandleader who grew up on a farmstead outside of Strasburg, N.D.

"She could have been placed in North Dakota, in Strasburg, and you would never know she came from someplace else," Miller said of his encounter with Welk, one of the few ethnic Germans who returned to the town from exile. "She had that kind of warm hospitality, and, of course, the name Welk was interesting to me."

The 74-year-old woman recognized the names of other families - Schwann, Renner - who settled in central North Dakota, but the connections could not immediately be pinned down.

A two-way street

The interest in family goes two ways, not only from Dakotans and other Americans wanting to find relatives in the former Soviet Union, but vice versa.

"I was amazed how many people came up to me with something that said Dakota, or North Dakota," Miller said. "They have relatives they're already corresponding with, or they think they have relatives."

Those involved with genealogical research say the work - and meeting family members - can bring history closer and make it more personal.

Mel Maier of Bismarck started making family ties during a stint in the Air Force in Germany in 1958. Since then, he has traced some of his ancestors back as far as the 17th century Germany.

His grandfather was born in what then was called Bergdorf, a village now in the Communist mini-state, the Trans-Dniester Republic. Maier visited the town and other villages last November.

"I was almost driven by this interest in wanting to see where these people had come from," said Maier, the administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

From talks with cousins in Germany, he learned about the famine campaigns against wealthy peasants and the Communist labor camps, where thousands of German from Russia worked and died.

"When you listen to all that, you say, 'My gosh! These are my mother's first cousins and second cousins, and we're so unaware of all that here,'" he said. " We heard so much of the Gulags - Solzhenitsyn's book - but that's some of our people."

German-Russian research libraries

BISMARCK - North Dakota boasts two of the major libraries for research into the life of Germans from Russia. Another important library is in Lincoln, Neb.

They are:

  • Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1008 E. Central Ave., Bismarck, N.D. 58501
  • Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Box 5599, Fargo, N.D. 58105
  • The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 631 D Street, Lincoln, Neb. 68502

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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