Vossler discusses Germans from Russia
By Verda Seeklander
Emmons County Record, Linton, North Dakota, March 30, 1999,
Complex. Insulting. Hard-edged. Often vulgar-that's Prairie "Spass": the folk humor of North Dakota's Germans from Russia.
Ron Vossler, a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of North Dakota, said the stereotype exists that Germans from Russia, GFR, known for their work ethic, are generally humorless, But he was prompted to look for another side to these people that he called his own after translating the letters of relatives in Russia who wrote to relatives in North Dakota, begging for help during Stalin's "terror famine" of 1933.
Last week the Wishek native told a large audience in his hometown about some of the discoveries he has made since his research began nearly 30 years ago when he began jotting down jokes and sayings that he recalled hearing as a child from his mother, grandmother and others. Some of what he discovered was familiar; some was thought-provoking.
Recently Vossler applied for and received the Larry Remele Memorial Fellowship, making it possible to more thoroughly research Germans from Russia humor. His presentations are made possible through the North Dakota Humanities Council.
Very little of the earthy German-Russian humor has been recorded. As the language disappears from households, understanding of the "Spass," which is shot through with words of more than one meaning, also disappears.
When Vossler told his colleagues at UND that he was studying German-Russian humor, their response was usually in the form of a jest. "That shouldn't take long" was their usual reply. And although he was "a little offended" he wondered if perhaps they were right. He didn't remember laughing a lot while he was growing up.
German-Russian humor, often interspersed with English, is not often appreciated by someone who does not understand the dialect since much is lost in the translation.
Vossler compared German-Russian humor to Jewish humor. The humor that has survived is meaningful; often harsh humor that reflects the historical journey of both groups and indicates that their lives have not been easy.
In 1897 there were 300 babies in McIntosh County alone who died from diphtheria. As a result many times people didn't draw close to their children because of their fear of losing them. This humor is related to the overall history of this ethnic group, and sometimes reflects that historical journey. "Sometimes people misinterpret the harshness of the humor, I know I did." Vossler said sometimes the humor itself, the name-calling, was the one way people could try to draw close to each other.
They liked to have fun with jokes that had hidden or two-fold meanings. Scholars call some of these jokes "ritual insults"; either humorous, sarcastic or sexual in nature, these "insults" were a way for people to let out their anger in a socially acceptable way.
German Russian humor loses its power in translation. For example, Vossler has used the expression "You always give the meanest dog two pieces of meat," if someone becomes a bit aggressive at a meeting.
"I'll think that's kind of funny," he said, "but people just kind of stare at me."
Or Vossler will comment to someone who thinks they know everything--"Well, yah, you're educated up to your horns."
The audience snickered knowingly as he said, "I always think that's kind of funny but people not of German-Russian background don't get it."
The word "Umgangsprache," a form of the German-Russian dialect, sounds like an exotic food akin to koladertz (pickled pigs feet) or schwatamaga (head cheese). Linguists use this term to describe language in which neutral terms can be replaced with emotionally charged expressions.
As an example, Vossler said that if he tracked mud onto his grandmother's clean linoleum floor, instead of asking him to go outside to wipe his boots, she would correct him with what he called "cranky humor"--"Yat, du glana Hossachissa, ich sot dich aus dem Haus ins Schneebank schmissa"--"You little pants pooper, I should throw you out of the house and into the snow bank."
The hard-edged brevity is typical of German Russian humor. In this case "Schmissa" (throw) is an emotional exaggeration that illustrated the fun in German-Russian humor. Instead of saying "little boy," Grandma used the term Hossachissa as a term of endearment.
He attributes the often hard-edged, often vulgar humor, which he called "dung" humor, to the fact that Germans from Russia lived mostly in rural areas where they raised, bred and cared for various types of animals.
Name calling such as "gross gosch" (big mouth) and "stink katz" (skunk), depending on tone and circumstances, were used as terms of endearment, for teasing, or applied to someone caught in some mischief. A tough-minded housewife might be called a `haus dracha' (house dragon). An agronomist might be called a "mischt gavel student" - a student of manure forks.
Vossler said praise and compliments were seldom used because German-Russians believed if you said positive things it would invite disaster or bad luck as well as lead to the sin of pride. And so the often harsh humor was one way to connect with others.
German humor even found its way onto the basketball floor. Vossler recalls the 1966 McIntosh County basketball tournaments and a close, heated game between rivals Wishek and Ashley. Vossler was in the process of attempting a free throw when the Ashley cheerleading section bellowed out "Blutwurst, leverwurst, schwatamaga, speck, (Bloodsausage, liver sausage, headcheese, fat), Wishek Hochschule, wek, wek, wek. (Wishek High School, go away, go away, go away)."
Fans of both teams were amused by the cheer which Vossler said was not only an attempt to disturb his concentration but probably also betrayed the younger generation's feelings about those particular ethnic foods.
German-Russian jokes aims at other ethnic groups and at German-Russians of different religions, and Vossler gave examples. He said some scholars think it's a bad thing to laugh at those types of stories while other scholars say, "It's fun; it serves a purpose, to bring stereotypes and prejudices into the open, and it's not a display of hostility."
Vossler said: "It's better for people to laugh together, so they do let go of these prejudices."
Reprinted with permission of Emmons County Record, Linton, North Dakota.