Germans from Russia in the Great Plains: Bismarck,
|Margie Miller, proud to be a Russian-German-American
By Bernd Riegert, Deutsche Welle Radio, Washington, D.C., May,
When talking about German-Americans, one immediately thinks of
people whose ancestors left Germany and came to America decades
or even centuries ago. Although this may very well account for most
of them, in North Dakota one encounters a different group of German-speaking
immigrants: They are Germans from Russia. In 1763, the Russian tsar
Catherine the Great urged Germans to come to Russia and settle on
the banks of the river Volga and on the Black Sea. She promised
them free land and religious freedom. Yet, conditions changed in
the course of the following decades: life for the Germans in Russia
became more difficult. In the mid 19th century thousands of Russian
Germans from the Volga and from the Black Sea decided to leave the
region and head to America.
By the end of the 19th century, approximately 70,000 German-speaking
settlers from the Volga river region and from German villages
in what is now the Ukraine had moved to North Dakota. Today, half
of North Dakota's population has Russian-German roots.
German is still spoken in some villages there. Margie Miller,
a 72-year-old Russian-German, recalls the German songs of her
Even the North Dakota state capital cannot deny its German heritage:
the city of Bismarck was named after Otto von Bismarck, prime
minister of Prussia and founder and first chancellor (1871-90)
of what used to be the German Empire. In the late 19th century
the chancellor was so popular among the German immigrants that
the Northern Pacific Railway company decided to name the city
after him once the transcontinental railroad was completed in
The Northern Pacific Railway attempted to attract German immigrants
to come and live in the prairie area. Instead, large numbers of
Russian-Germans were drawn by the prospect of cheap and nearly
limitless land. Between 1870 and 1915 a lot of families moved
to America to escape oppression in Russia. The Russian tsar had
deprived them of their privileges, and had even attempted to conscript
them to military service. For the deeply-religious Russian-German
pacifists, this was unbearable. Not only were they running out
of land for their rapidly-growing families, they were now no longer
free to practice their beliefs. Many Russian-Germans, desperate
for a new start in life, headed for America, where they were again
promised land, farms and religious freedom.
These immigrants were not told that their new land in America
was forcefully taken from the Native Americans . North Dakota,
also referred to as the Sioux State after the original inhabitants,
is largely populated by Native Americans. When the railroads were
built and gold was discovered in the Black Hills, thousands of
white settlers were attracted to the area. The Native Americans
were forced to give up their land to make room for the new settlers.
One of the most vivid examples of the determination with which
the Native Americans fought to hold on to their land is the battles
Chief Sitting Bull and his tribe waged at Little Bighorn. The
cavalry was heavily defeated, but the white settlers continued
to drive out the Native Americans.
The Russian-Germans, however, knew nothing of this conflict when
they decided to emigrate to America. When they arrived in North
Dakota, the area evoked memories of the land they had left behind
in Russia: the prairie was flat and almost devoid of trees - similar
to the Russian steppe.
Margie Miller explains: "They settled in land that was like
where they came from. Most of them were farmers. They checked
out the soil and whatever the soil was - it was like in the old
Margie Miller and her family live on a farm north of Bismarck.
The land her ancestors were given was farmland with rich soil,
though working it was hard labor. The first settlers lived in
primitive homes of stone, earthen mud and grass. Glen Krugerberg,
a Russian-German who lives in Pick City, a village near Bismarck,
remembers many moving stories from the early days. Today Glen
and other Russian-Germans meet in the German Club every other
week to keep up their German. Prior to the Second World War, they
spoke only German. When Germany was declared an enemy in war,
the immigrants were forced to stop speaking in their native tongue.
As in many other American communities with a large German immigrant
population, German was virtually banned from public usage. Whoever
was caught speaking German, was faced with strong penalties. Margie
Miller: They even got so far that if you spoke German, if they
heard you speaking German - like in a gas station - they wouldn't
fill gas for you. They thought you were a Nazi or something.
In the course of the years, many Russian-Germans have almost
forgotten their native tongue. Today, the younger ones often cannot
speak a word of German. So when Glen Krugerberg and his friends
meet at the German club, it is often only the elderly who can
still remember the words of the traditional folk songs.
One of them is "Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, du, du liegst
mir IM Sinn",a sentimental song about the difficulties of distant
and unanswered love.
The members of the club keep up a strict rule that may sound
strange to outsiders: If anyone is caught speaking English at
the meetings, he or she has to pay a cent into a special 'penalty
cash box'. Unfortunately, the box is getting fuller and fuller.