Interview with Helen Krumm (HK)
Conducted by Bob Dambach (BD) with Michael M. Miller
7 October 2001, Hague, North Dakota
Transcription by Lena Paris
Proofread and edited by Beverly Wigley
Prairie Public Collection
BD: Did you learn religion though? Did your parents teach you religion?
HK: Oh yes, oh yes. See, we had it in church before church started or before church let out. So we had catechism.
BD: So you were able to go to church as a child.
HK: Oh yah, oh yah.
BD: How old were you when couldn't go to church any longer?
HK: You mean when Communists took over? It started in the '30s already, in the '30s when the starvation was. There was wheat and there was vegetables and there was everything growing, but we couldn't have it. They came and took everything away. So if you didn't want to starve, you had to go to kolkhoz collective [farm], you know what they said. Then you got your three meals. And when the year was out, you got so much a day--maybe a thousand ruble, not even that much. So you had to live with that. But we could have a cow, couple of pigs, couple of chickens and a little wine garden. You know what we had vegetables - it's maybe 50 acres. That's what they let us have, you know.
In the '30s when the Communists took over that’s when they took all the people away. First, they took the teachers away, then they took the people who was a little smarter and helped other people. Then they took the priests away. My father died May 5, and he was the last person that got buried in Strassburg. Then they took Father Kopp, Theobald Kopp,* away. He was from Krasna. And from that time on they started to acknowledge the church.
They threw the bells down, then the steeple down, the statue, and the big organ. Everything was hauled out and burned, and they made a show hall out of the church. Our church, I think, 600 people it holded with the pews. And then when the Germans came and took over in 1942 they brought their own chaplain with them. Then they cleaned the church up, painted all new, brought some bells and hang them up in the church and everything. Those chaplains married people for three days, they baptized people for three days, and heard confessions for three days. Because in 1935 we had no church until the Germans came in. We were out of priests. People prayed at home, they buried at home, they baptized and married at home. So we made our own. But we had no contact with the outside world. There was only one radio station and what they told us. That's all. No newspaper, no nothing.
BD: For how long did you not have contact?
HK: Seven years, yah. From 1935 when my father died till the Germans come in in '42. But see it was hard for the people. They had no contact with what goes on in Baden oder Selz oder Kandel. And a lot of people had relatives in Germany and in America. They got packages and they got all put away. Every night they came [to take people away]. "Joe take your cap and you go with us." "Well, where do we go?" "Well, you'll find out." And that's the end of it.
I think [it was] in the 90s [the number of people] they took away alone from Strassburg. Every night that's the way they cleaned up. So they said, "If you want to live and don't starve, you go to kolkhoz," you know, "Komsomol." See what they called that - well, I don't know how to say it in German. They were all Communist parties or whatever they were. But when the Germans came in they helped us again, but it didn't took long. It only took two years. Russia lost the war between [the Germans and the Russians] and Germans had to leave again. They said, "You are on your own, there's nobody [that] can help you."
One day they came to the house and knocked on the door and they said, "Well, pack. March 23, 1942, (1944) - that's when we’re going to leave." It was raining and snowing. Two - three families went together and put up stuff. What they had - a little Rauchflasch (smoked meat), bread and a couple clothes. They didn't have too much clothes, all in one wagon and that's the way we start to driving. We were supposed to go way up [actually south] to Franzfeld - from there we're supposed to go with the ferry over to Romania. It started snowing, the Russians came and they threw bombs and bombs and bombs. A lot of people didn't make it over, but my ma was such a feisty lady. She said, "We're going to make it over. We're going to make it. We will stay a little bit behind and maybe the snow is going to quit." She was right, but we couldn't take nothing - just what we had on our shoulder.
HK: …Well, we came to Germany - all the people did. It was just - you cannot imagine! People and people and people! Nobody knew where we [should] go or what we [are to] do or who's going to help us. Germany was in down in ruins too, because they bombed every night, every night. The Americans came and demolished all that was left of Germany.
BD: What year was this?
HK: In '44. And then my mother had a sister and she was married to a German [Kriegs]gefangene – How do you call it - from World War I?
MM: Prisoner of war?
HK: Prisoner of war, yah. And she said, "You know, we should go. Maybe we find Tante (Aunt) Josefa and maybe she can take us in. We were all set at the train, ready to go then die Flieger (pilots) came and they threw bomb. That car, where we were in, didn't get hurt. The back and the front [of the train] was gone. So my ma said, "We cannot go now and look for Tante Josefa." It was about 10 kilometer where there was a big farm, an orchard. Farmers came out and they said, "You need help? You want something?" Well, we were hungry and had no place to go. "Well, we could use some people to work for us." So they took us in, my mother and my two sisters. I was seven months pregnant with my first child. My husband was killed already and my brother was killed already in Budapest. So they took us in and we worked for those farmers for just cheap [wages]. They had nothing either, you know. I worked for them for six years.
And then, you know, the Americans sent those packages in, the CARE packages. Here in Hague there was Father Nebler, Josef Nebler and in Dickinson was Monsignor Aberle, I suppose you heard of him. They organized those CARE packages every month. This man who let me come (later on) did that. Every month he sent a package over, $25 worth. A lot of people - and we got one of those packages and there was his address in and it was Josef Krumm and Katherine Krumm from Hague, North Dakota. And they kept on sending us soap and Crisco and needles and combs, whatever we needed. I went to work for those people. See, Josef and Katherine had no children. They adopted three, and they were all married already. Then he asked once, he wrote a letter and he said, "How about coming to America? My ma said right away, "That would be good! That would be good! You could make a life for yourself and Marie. (My little girl was six years old.) Here in Deitschland there is nothing. You'll always be a maid."
We kept on talking and talking, back and forth. Then I finally thought maybe I should go. And then I said to my ma, "Wouldn't you get homesick if I go away?" "I'm just glad when you got a happy home for Marie and for yourself." Then people said, "Yah, you want to go so far away?" I said, "I don't know Ma, maybe I shouldn't go." She said, "You go!" She was a feisty woman. She got us through all that stuff. This one lady I worked for, she was such a good lady. She said, "Yah, Helena, you want to go out to them Amerikaner? They catch people and they're selling people." That was the story from the Indians, you know. That's what they knew in Germany at that time, see. Then, well, my ma said, "Make up your mind." So I wrote, "I'll come." And then he said (Monsignor Aberle), "They're going to pay just from New York up to here, and the rest of it the Catholic Caritas paid for everything. So it took a year till I got all my papers and the shots and everything. Now on October 10th I had to leave Herr Matthausen, where I used to work, and everybody was crying. I said, "Oh, don't worry. Columbus took a chance too. Why shouldn't I?" So I went. We stayed in Bremerhaven till October 23rd, and then we got loaded in a big remodeled American warship to bring displaced people over here. We went in that boat, so we were nine days. In November 2nd we came on in New York, in the evening.
BD: What year was that?
BD: November 2, 1945?
HK: 1945, yah.
BD: When you were growing up in Strassburg, were your family farmers or shopkeepers?
HK: No, my dad was a Handwerker, a craftsman. They made wagon wheels and they made wagons. They made coffins. They put wooden floors in and the roofs. There were so many who brought [the skills] back from Germany. They were all craftsmen, they could do anything. Schuhmacher, you know, made shoes. At that time you couldn't buy your shoes. You had to go to the shoemaker and he measured them on [your feet] and he made your shoes. The Schneider (tailor) did your coat – measured you for your coat and your dresses. I cannot really say, but there was a lot, a lot of craftsmen.
BD: Was he a carpenter then?
HK: Yah, yah.
BD: What's the German word for carpenter?
HK: Schreiner. See, his dad already when they came in from Elsaß-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorraine) - they were so overcrowded, they had no work [in Germany] and so they volunteered to go into Russia. And that's why they built it up. I know my pa said his dad said when they went out in the field they had to turn around right away so they found the way home again, so much it was overgrown with wilderness and stuff like that you know.
BD: So it would've been your grandfather that came from Germany?
HK: My great-grandfather. But I said, too, if it wouldn't be for the Germans, Russia wouldn't have made it. It's like here in America, too, if it wouldn't have been for the German-Russians, America wouldn't have made it. The Indians wouldn't build it up, and that's the way it was there [in Russia]. They built right away the church and they built the schoolhouse and they made roads. They just kept on going. And pretty soon Strassburg, Mannheim and Kandel got too big. The ones who came later on had to build more out in those Futter[wiesen] (meadows cultivated for fodder). I said I would never go back to Germany but I would like to go back to Russia one more time but I think that's impossible.
BD: So you haven't been able to go back since?
HK: To Russia, no. I was in Germany three times. See, my mother lived in Germany with my two sisters. So I went back three times to visit them. My mother died now. My sisters are still living there. They got married to German boys, and they have their homes over there. We had my mom coming over for a year from Germany. She could not believe we have such wide roads! In Germany, you know, trees and everything is built up. She said, "Yah, you could seed some stuff in here!"
She could not believe one of my boys. Paul, he's such a little loudmouth. He always crawled up the tree. And she said, "Paul, you're going to tear your pants!" "What's bothering you?" he said. "Well, I'll have to patch them." "We don't buy patches for pants," he said, "we're going to buy new ones. Americans throw the pants away." Then she laughed and he said, "Well, if you don't like it here, go home!" [laughter] It was funny. She liked it here too, you know. Joe said, "Well, stay another year." "Na," she said in German, "ein alte Baum, kann man nit verpflanze." "An old tree, you cannot transplant it," she said.
BD: Now when you got over to here, in America, were you surprised at all the names you could recognize?
HK: Oh yah, yah. First you feel - I even got lost in that little town. I went to church one morning and didn't [find my way home]. Went all the way und I said, "Well, where do I live now?" Finally one lady said, "Yah, you live over there." [laughter] You know, when I came over here and I heard them talk German, they made everything up! They added on to their words. But when I was in Germany, like in Schwäbisch, they talked like we [talk]. Well, like I do now. But here they add some on, they took some away.
BD: Why don't we go back and just touch on a few dates here and Michael can help. Just from a date standpoint - When you left Strassburg in South Russia, when did that happen?
HK: 1944, March 23rd, 9:00 o'clock in the morning, and we only made 10 kilometer. It was rain and snow until – Well, we just slept under the wagon and the next day we drove to Franzfeld. That was about 50 kilometer too. And the horses, you know, it's impossible to go when it rains and snows. We had to feed them. We had to get straw and hay for them, but there was nobody there. In every town we came, everybody was gone already. Just the cats and the dogs were running around. From Franzfeld we went to Akkerman. That's where the ferry should take us over to Romania across that river. It froze and it thawed, and it snowed and it rained, then the Russians had a good chance to bomb. So they always came with the Tiefflieger (low-flying aircraft) and just threw bombs there. So people holded back, but we had to go over anyway. They brought little ferries, but you couldn't take nothing with - just what you had - your coat or your blanket or something.
BD: When you left, you really don't have any pictures or anything like that?
HK: Everything gone, everything. In the early days they didn't take so many pictures like now, but once in a while a photographer came around in the community and took a couple of pictures, but that stayed all behind. We just walked out with Brot (bread) and smoked meat and stuff like that. There was no medication, there was nothing, nothing. We didn't have shoes like we have shoes here now, so there was nothing.
BD: When did you leave [Germany] and when did you arrive in America?
HK: I came in 1951. October 23rd we went to the Bremerhaven. The ship's name Stewart, General Stewart. Nine days we were on the ocean. The 1st of November we came to New York, the 2nd we got unloaded, and each one got his tag on where we [were to] go. They gave us $5.00. We didn't even know what to do with it. But in the train we could get food to eat. On the 5th of November I came to Bismarck and that night, the 5th of November, came right here to Hague.
BD: You were traveling with your daughter, weren't you?
HK: Yah, she was six years old. Then she started school here. The sisters gave her extra school so she learned the English right. See, here the Germans - they talked English, but it wasn't right. The sisters took her in and teached her how. She graduated from high school and she married a farmer.
BD: Did she help you learn English?
HK: I learned on my own. I had the radio going, and I knew how to write and read. I was what you call a bookworm. I loved to read, and I learned myself. Joe had the radio and you could get Yankton in South Dakota, Lawrence Welk, and that's how I learned my English. A lot of people say, "Did you went to school?" I said, "Yah, I went to school, but a Russian school not the English school. But one thing I regret, I should have learned spelling. The German spelling and the English spelling is different. You lose so many Silben (syllables) and then you add an "r," and when I write I always have to have the dictionary so I don't make a mistake. [laughter]
BD: Could you describe your house in Strassburg when you were a child?
HK: Yah, I could do it. We had a nice home and there was a Viertelstube (a front room) and a side room. Ma used to sleep in the front room and we girls. In the middle was the kitchen and then the entrance. We had two rooms at the back, one for Joseph and one the younger girls was sleeping in. Behind that was the barn. There was the chicken coop, and the two cows we had and the little pigs we had. I would say it was about 75 feet this way and it had a sandstone entrance. Der Giebel (the gable) used to be with stone. There was a Mauer (wall) around with stone all the way, and in the end where you come in, where you put your trash in and stuff like that.
On the way down we had a garden, an Obstgarten (orchard) - all kinds of apples, Pflaumen (plums), peaches, and what they used to call Helmehitsche, where we had the straw and oats for the cows and for the horses we had. But then later on when Communists took over we couldn't have it - just one cow, that's about it.
BD: When I visited over there I've seen a lot of the houses have summer kitchens. Did you -
HK: Oh yah, summer Küche and the Keller (the cellar) where you went down. Ours was about 10 feet down, 10 steps down where we had all our watermelon, apples, sauerkraut and cucumbers and everything for the winter. That we had all down there. The smoked meat we hung up in the attic, you know. We made our own [dried] fruit by cutting apples, pears and grapes and laid them on the roof and let them dry. Then we put it in sacks and we made compote where they cooked the fruit.
BD: Did you have one of those ladders that went up to the attic?
HK: Yah, yah. We had one with steps that went way up.
BD: Tell me a little about the summer kitchen. What would you do in the summer kitchen?
HK: Nobody wanted to clean the big house over the summer. There was kind of flies too around, so we had the summer kitchen, and there was the Backofen beside there. You baked your bread in there. You eat in the summer Küche, but you only went to sleep in the big house. So that's why we had the summer Küche, yah. The well was beside there. We dug the well. It was about 20 feet deep where you got the water out.
BD: Now my memory is that the houses were long and narrow.
HK: Yah, narrow. And you know, when the war was (I forgot to mention this) - Before the Germans came, Russia made us all paint our houses black with ash, the whole houses, so the Germans couldn't see where the village are. That's what they told us. We had to take wood ash and mix it with water and then you took the brush. They had the spray there. And the houses - you know, we always schmeared our house with Lehm (clay) and then we painted it white, but it took forever to get it off – that [black ash]. It looked terrible. When you got out at night you could see nothing. But the Germans were in town already, and so why? Yah, but that's the way they did - the Communists, you know.
BD: When we visited over there – actually, the houses right now are pretty colorful.
HK: Oh, yah.
BD: Were they colorful when you were growing up?
HK: Oh yah, oh yah! We had flowers around und like in Germany they have the geraniums on the window. That's what we had too. A lot of flower gardens - raised our own flowers. The vegetables and the fruit, like the apples and pears - The Jews came out from Odessa in spring and they contracted your garden, whatever you had. And there was so much you'd get. All you had to do was deliver it to them in time, and that's the way we got rid of our [vegetables and fruit]. But they were good to us, and there was no problem with them, you know.
BD: Did you have fences in front of your houses?
HK: Yah, yah. A Mauer around and come Saturday we had to sweep the yard. Everything had to be cleaned up - no shovel out, no rake, nothing outside.
BD: Where was your house in relation to the church in Strassburg? How close were you to the church?
HK: About two blocks maybe, and we walked. Later on we had some bikes and the boys rided horses, but mostly we walked. There were some people that came from 20-30 miles to church yet, and then they took their shoes off and walked barefoot till they came to church and then they put their shoes on again. They took them off again to save the shoes because we only had one pair of shoes, one kid from the other one.
BD: When we were in Strassburg, I think the school was about two blocks east of the church.
HK: Right, right. It’s the same school and the first teacher I remember was Schiller. He was from Germany. Him and his wife teached school there, but then they took him away too.
BD: What would you have done for fun? What sort of games did you play?
HK: Oh, we danced, we singed and we played tricks to each other. In fall, like here we have Thanksgiving, we had Fasenacht (Mardi Gras). We had a big dance and put different clothes on. Like when a couple got married, we stuffed [clothes of] a man and wife laying in the bed. It's all kids' stuff but was it fun. It was fun. Each group had her leader and he could play the organ or the violin. Singing is the most important [thing] what we had down there. Our choir in our church had 60 singers. And our Schulmeister (schoolmaster) was Ferdinand Kraft. Michael, you know the Kraft from Strasburg that had a store? That was his uncle. We had a choir and everything Latin we had to sing, everything in Latin. But then, just like in Christmas you sing, "Stille Nacht" or "Komm Christkindlein," that was in German. But the other ones were all in Latin.
BD: How did you meet your first husband?
HK: We were just almost neighbors, yah, and went to school together and stuff.
BD: What would your wedding have been like? What would be a traditional wedding in the village of Strassburg?
HK: Three days. [laughter] The first day they had it in the house were the bride was. They didn't send cards out like they do now. They had Ladmadle and Ehevadder- they drove around with the horses and the buggy and said, "You are invited to the wedding to so-and-so in the church." So they went from house-to-house. The dinner was done always with noodle soup and chicken, ketchup sauce, kholodetz, you know what I mean, "pigs feet," salad and Kuchen. And wine, you know, they set it with the pitcher on the table. Then when they all had a good time - when they cleaned out the Hinterstube, where the beds were in, and then the dance started. You know, at that time there was a 'ground' floor. There was dust and everything! But they danced and drank their wine. Then when they ate supper, they stole the bride. So the bridegroom had to pay to get his bride back. It was a lot of fun too. He had to pay but the money went back to him and her. The next day they cooked a big kettle of vegetable soup and all the stuff what was left. Then everybody could come and had a good time. They danced almost three days so it was fun.
BD: You said you had gone to Odessa, but there must have been a point when you couldn't go any longer.
HK: No, we couldn't. We only could go so much, maybe two kilometer out of the Dorf (village). No, no place, no.
BD: This would have been in the '30s?
HK: Yah, yah. And even they came and said, "What are you thinking about? We should raise some money.” And if you say you didn't have any money, "Well, it's good for you what the country does, so you better give what you have." They came and took everything we what had. We had a loaf of bread in the cupboard, they took that one out. Nothing, nothing left.
BD: And you were old enough that you really noticed there was a difference, didn't you, between when you were younger and -
HK: Oh yah, oh yah. And I said, too, you know we did everything on our own. We made our clothes or we had our clothes made by the Schneider. Communists wouldn't allow us - I think people said they knew that worse was going to come, that's why they wanted to keep us down. Stalin said, "If you want to live, you go to Kollektiv (collective) or [if] not you're going to die." And that's why people layed on the street, and they blowed up like that - starved.
BD: When you came here in the '50s and you settled in Hague and Strasburg, North Dakota area, did some of the food seem similar to you? The foods that the people were making and eating that they called German-Russian food, was it similar?
HK: Yah, but not compared to the German food. The people I worked for, they ate a lot of pork and cooked a little different. But here, too, they switched - like with the language too, you know, like "washing dishes" in German they say "Spüle das Geschirr." It's a different language what they had, but I liked the German food. They drink that apple cider. Apfelsaft, that's what we used to drink. In Germany they make their own whiskey. They have all their own fruit and make their own whiskey. When I was with those people when the Germans gave up, and the Americans had so many black guys there. They came and got the whiskey from those people and it just went like that. They didn't know what it is, those black soldiers. We had a hard time at that time when the Americans came in. We had to wear old clothes and smear our faces up. They raped a lot of girls and we had to be really careful.
BD: When you look at the German foods that we have here or that they serve at the Hague Cafe, are there some things you would have made in Russia?
HK: That's the Russian food what we made like cheese buttons or those strudels, yah, potato salad or knepfla soup. That's the real food.
BD: So you would have had knepfla soup over in Strassburg?
HK: Yah, [laughter] a lot of knepfla soup. We made our own sausage, Blutwurst, Schwartemagen and all that stuff.
BD: What was your favorite meal when you were a younger child?
HK: I want to tell you what my mother learned me.
I didn't like schnitten (cut) noodles, those fat noodles with
potatoes in. I never liked it. She said, "Helena, you got
to eat it. That's all what we have." I was sitting out on
the steps with my little dog, and the other three kids were in
and they ate their noodles. She came out, she took that bowl and
hit me over the head with the noodles, and the dog started licking
the noodles up. She said, "Now you how it is. We're poor.
We cannot afford that." And to this day I just don't go for
those schnitten noodles! I just can't look at them. [laughter]
That's the way my ma was, but it was alright, you know [that she]
hit me over the head.
BD: As a child growing up, would there have been any sweets that you would have been able to get?
HK: Well, that time there was nothing about ice cream. We didn't know about ice cream. We had our grapes, and we made our homemade candy, but no ice cream. When we came to Germany, then they called it Eis, and then we got Eis.
BD: How about Christmas or Easter traditions?
HK: Oh, that was great! Easter, and Christmas too, but we had no Christmas tree. We went out and cut a dry branch off and took it in the house, colored some onions and little colored paper and popcorn rolls and hung it. And that was our Christmas tree. Then the Christkindl came, and we all had to sit in a row. "Was she good, was he bad?" "Yah, der ist bees (böse, bad) und der ist gut." She had a little thing, and she hit us a little a bit. And Ma was standing behind the Christkindl, and she'd hold a doll or whatever she had to give us, you know, and that was the Christkindl. Then we had ham, potato salad and wine and baked our own cookies. Strudels and rolls; we did it all our own.
BD: How about Easter traditions?
HK: Easter, too, the whole week was Holy Week. I remember Good Friday when they put Christ in the tomb and the Mesner (sacristan, sexton) had to stay posted there for a couple of hours. Every three-four hours then they changed it again. [Sie] haben gewacht am Heiland, sein Grab. That was real nice too. Then we colored some eggs. We dug little houses beside the house and put a little green grass in and then the Oschterhas (Osterhase), what they call the Easter bunny, came. Ma was out early [with the eggs] and she always put them in there so that was nice.
BD: Now when we go to visit the villages we see things that are very unusual for Americans to see, things like the common area for the cows. When you were growing up was there a common area where the people would come to milk the cows?
HK: You mean your own cows oder (or) -? See, we had cows in the earlier days, but there was a Kihhirt (Kuhhirt, cowherd), the one who took the cows in the morning out in the pasture and in the evening they brought them back. Each cow knew her way to go to the yard and then we milked the cow and tied her up. The next morning the Kihhirt, he came, and you let your cow go and she'd go out.
BD: Now the villagers, especially the Beresaners, at noon they all come together around the well.
HK: Yah, there were big wells. You know they took them around, they drinked and then they milked the cows there.
MM: Remember when you came to Hague, were the people speaking English or German?
HK: At that time they hardly knew any English here. The church was German, and then later on it switched in the '60s. They switched everything to English. There were a lot of farm kids out there who came in the Hague school, they didn’t know English. They had to learn. They spoke German all the way, yah. Oh yah.
A funny thing, you know, there was a couple of ladies they always thinked they were a little bit above [everyone else]. I was at home once and Joe and his wife went someplace. They came and knocked at the door and I said, "Come in." They said, "We are so-and-so." They said their names. "We came - we wanted to see if you are so Frau bis wie mir." They wanted to see if I was just a woman like they are. [laughter] At that time they had still here had no permanents in the hair. I had permanents already so that they wanted to see "so Frau bis wie mir." [laughter]
BD: Did you get a German newspaper at home?
HK: Yah, Joe had the Dakota Herold and Josephs Blätter, they used to call that, was the Catholic newspaper.