History and Work of the Germans From Russia Heritage Society

By Armand and Elaine Bauer, no date

The organization presently known as the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) had its roots in the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR), which is now headquartered at Lincoln.  The organizational meeting of “The Ad Hoc Committee on creation of an organization of the descendants of Germans form Russia” (which led to formation of AHSGR) took place on September 8, 1968 in the Danish Room, Windsor Gardens Denver, Colorado.  Present were 42 persons, of which 39 were from Colorado and three from Nebraska.  This committee decided that a “German Russian” organization should be created which would have no restrictions on membership (including) ethnicity), set an annual membership fee, seceded to hold monthly meeting for further discussions on name, structure etc.

In subsequent committee and general membership meetings in September, October and November, 1968, the name of the organization was selected (AHSGR); the form of administrative and functional structure was developed; and officers comprising the Executive Committee and the members of the Board of Directors were elected.  With establishment of a Board of Directors, the organization was incorporated as a non-profit institution under the laws of Colorado, and on December 20, 1968, the Secretary of State issued a Certificate of Incorporation to the American Society of Germans from Russia.  Incongruously, a plate prepared for the First International Convention, June 19-20, 1970 in Greeley, Colorado, bears this inscription (on the backside) “To honor our forefathers, the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia was founded October 6, 1968, in Greeley, Colorado, site of this convention”.  This plate was presented by the Lincoln, Nebraska Chapter of the (AHSGR) Society, the first chartered chapter of AHSGR.  Apparently, it was in the first meeting following the September, 1968 organizational event that the society was officially named.  This inscription designating the “founding date” was challenged, discussed, rebutted, and became a point for divisiveness among some of the members of AHSGR.  Another aspect of this first convention (just as a side light) was that one of the meals was served in a church bearing the name “St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of the United Church of Christ”.  David Miller of Greeley, Colorado served as the first president of AHSGR.  Mr. Miller is a lawyer, and with others of that profession is a member of the American Bar Association (ABA).  Like most organizations, the ABA too has its conventions.  While it is not known to me when, but it was at one of the conventions of the AAABA that Mr. Miller met a member of his chosen profession from North Dakota, who as it turned out, was of the same ethnic background and who also was so strongly interested in his ethnicity as to accept “election” to the Board of Directors of AHSGR and to promote and be the leader to organize and develop a “chapter” in North Dakota.  The North Dakotan was Ray R. Friedrich of Rugby, Second Judicial District Court Judge.  Ray Friedrich is recognized as the founder of what is now GRHHS.

Mr. Friedrich was born near Fredonia, North Dakota in McIntosh County.  (More than 90% of the residents of McIntosh County were, and still are, of German-Russian descent).  He received his grade school education in a one-room school in Hoffnungstal School District, high school in Kulm, baccalaureate degree from University of North Dakota, and after service during World War II in the European theater of operations, his legal education at University of North Dakota and University of Minnesota.

Meetings preliminary to organizing a chapter of AHSGR in North Dakota were held in the summer of 1970 involving, in addition to Mr. Friederich, Rev. Simpfernderfer, Arthur Leno, LaVern Neff, and members of the Executive Committee of AHSGR (private communication with Mr. Neff).  In the autumn of 1970, Mr. Friederich sent an invitation to all known members of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia who lived in North Dakota to an organizational caucus for the purpose of “initiating steps to organize a statewide group which would foster and promote the compilation and preservation of the German people who migrated from Russia to the United States and particularly North Dakota”.  This caucus was held on October 10, 1970 at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Bismarck, ND in conjunction with the annual meeting of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

An oral invitation also was issued at this meeting, for the benefit of those who had not received a written invitation, to attend the caucus.  Eighteen attended the caucus.  Mr. Friederich and Mr. Arthur Leno were elected President pro tem and Secretary pro tem, respectively.  Mr. Friederich appointed LaVern Neff, Arthur Leno, William Simpfenderfer and Armand Bauer to draft Articles of Incorporation and a recommended Constitution and By-Laws, and to serve with him as incorporators and initial Board of Directors.  Rev. William Sherman, Karen Retzlaff, and Alice Essig were appointed as a publicity committee, and LeRoy Oberlander as a committee of one to receive and record inquiries about membership.  From expressions made by individuals at this meeting, it appeared to be the unanimous opinion of those present that action be taken immediately to establish and make functional a statewide historical society of Germans from Russia which would work in concert with the national organization (AHSGR) which was headquartered in Greeley, Colorado.  The Articles of Incorporation were duly drafted by LaVern Neff and sent to Mr. Ben Meier, Secretary of State of North Dakota (himself a German-Russian) by December 22, 1970.  Signing of the Articles by the Incorporators took place on January 9, 1971, officially marking the “birth” of the North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia.  The official organization meeting was held on the same day at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Bismarck, ND and at least 98 persons signed the attendance roster.  Among the significant actions taken by the members were:  1) Adoption of by-laws, 2) elections of a 10-member Board of Directors by the members, and 3) adoption of a resolution binding the board of Directors of NDHSGR to “make application for affiliation of this organization with the American historical Society of Germans from Russia”.  The resolution was submitted by Mr. LaVern Neff.  Its adoption was effected without a dissenting vote.

The 10-member Board of Directors consisted of the five incorporators, indicated above, and Tillie (Mrs. Douglas) Dettman, Alice (Mrs. Walter) Essig, Elsie (Mrs. Rueben) Huether, Dwight Kautzman, and John V. Kramer.  At its organizational meeting this Board elected Ray Friederich, LaVern Neff, and Alice Essig as President, Vice-President, and Secretary, respectively.  William Simpfenderfer was elected treasurer.  Of this original Board, Armand Bauer served uninterruptedly until 1984 – the longest period of service.  The tenure of Mr. Friederich and Mr. Leno was terminated by death.  Procedures to self Board members and the offices of the Board, initiated at the founding, are still followed today.

Choosing the name North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia did not pose any particular problem, but nevertheless there was considerable discussion about the part “Germans from Russia”, earlier there had been among the organizers of the American Historical among the organizers, evidenced by remarks such as “we’re German not Russian”, “we’re not Roosians”, “we want nothing to do with Russia”.  Apparently the strong anti-Russian attitude had developed among those who emigrated from Russia after about 1890, after the Zemstvo Legislation that essentially had taken the local government out of the control of the German colonist and had placed it under Russian domination.  This anti-Russian feeling in the post 1890 emigrants seemed much stronger among them than among the earlier emigrants.  As youngsters growing up at Zeeland, ND we knew our grandparents (in most cases) had been born in Russia.  I distinctly recall a survey that probably was made by the County Superintendent’s Office which asked for our nationality”.  To this our response was “German-Russian”.   In our way of thinking we were German-Russian.  Names such as German-Russian or Russian-Germans were rejected by the organizers even though it was argued that the German-speaking peoples in Russia were citizens of that country and such a title would be more descriptive.  Another argument advanced by the North Dakota organizers was that choosing the name NDHSGR would pose a problem because of the similarity to the name Historical Society of North Dakota.

Some of the same discussion (German-Russian, Germans from Russia, etc.) again arose when the idea of a name change was debated by Society members in 1979, prior to the adoption of the name the Society presently bear,  The Germans from Russia Heritage Society.  Strongly active in this discussion was Mr. Paul Reeb, who drove (with his Volkwagen) the length and breadth of North Dakota, contacting various individuals and soliciting their support for a name change.  Mr. Reeb had long contended that we were German-Russian – that our ancestral homeland was Czarist Russia, but that ethnically we were German.  Hence, the word “German” should take the adjectival position, much as we refer to Germans in America as German-Americans.  Mr. Reeb was not  happy with people like myself who said they could live with “German-Russian”, “Russian-German”, or “Germans from Russia”, stating that such “fence rider” were the worst of the lot.  (My argument for being a “fence rider” was that as long as people defined what they meant by the term they used, it didn’t make any difference what the label was).  He also pointed out in An Editorial which is in HERITAGE REVIEW; 23 April 1979, that the “Germans from Russia” part of the name for AHSGR was a direct translation of the German “Deutschen aus Russland”, which was a term usage adopted by ethnic German (like our ancestors) who had been born in Russia but who are not living in the Federal Republic of Germany. 

Within the Society itself at the present time are some who would prefer to include the letter “F” for the word “from” in the abbreviated title (Monagram); it would then rind GFRHS instead of GRHS.  As adopted by the Society, the “from” is a preposition and therefore is excluded from the monogram.  This could well eventually lead – at least in usage – to referring to the Society as the German-Russian Heritage Society, (in keeping with the letters of the monogram), especially by those unaware of the adopted name.  It would fulfill the hope of some that it would happen just that way.

Split from AHSGR
At its inception, AHSGR did not have a clear conception of the chapters in its organization.  Although the newly organized group in North Dakota voted to be affiliated as a chapter of AHSGR, in reality it was never formally accepted.  A question arose relative to dues structure the question whether it was necessary to p ay the dues of AHSGR in order to qualify for membership in NDHSGR.  A concern of the Board of NDHSGR was that its membership would suffer if AHSGR dues also were required for qualification.  A concern of the Board of AHSGR was that the newly-founded NDHSGR also had begun a publication – called the NDHSGR Workpaper, which, also was the name of the publication of AHSGE publication.  This was not acceptable to some members of AHSGR, for various reason(s), one being that this would be a duplicative effort.

Judge Ray Friederich, as a member of the Board of Directors of AHSGR and president of the newly-founded of NDHSGR attempted to bring together the principals of both organizations for discussion.  To this end, Mr. David Miller, president of AHSGR, was invited to be the Keynote speaker at the first convention of NDHSGR, (which since has become an annual affair) on September 24-26, 1971, held at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Bismarck, ND.  After accepting the invitation, circumstances not known to me prevented Mr. Miller from making an appearance.

NDHSGR’s Board of Directors then issued an invitation to the AHSGR’s Board of Directors to hold their 1972 mid-winter meeting in Bismarck.  When NDHSGR had received no acknowledgement to their invitation by its December 11, 1971 meeting, it took action to extend the invitation again, with Mr. Leno adding that the letter be sent by registered mail.  However, a meeting of the two Boards was never held.  The issues were never resolved.  Several years later (I recollect it was at the Second Lincoln Convention of AHSGR in 1975) in a conversation with John Werner, a member of the Board of Directors of AHSGR at the time, remarked that “we (the AHSGR Board) should have come to Bismarck when we were invited”.  This was the last attempt to meet for formal discussions.  In March of 1974 when I was attending a meeting at Freeman, SD as a member of the Board of Directors of AHSGR, one of the AHSGR members asked me the question “when are we going to merge (the two societies?”).  My response was in the form of this question.  “How are we going to do that?”  His reply was:  “Just tell the members of NDHSGR that they are now members of AHSGR”.  That was the end of the conversation. 

Among the purposes for which NDHSGR was formed was to “publish papers, pamphlets, books and articles, or by any other means disseminate historical information”.  To this end, the first publication of the Society was issued as The NDHSGR Workpaper No. 1 in April, 1971 with the words           BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT 9GEBURTS ERKUENDIGUNG) on the cover.  (More about covers later).  Mr. Arthur Leno assumed the role of editor.  The six sheet (six papers) publication was typed by Tillie (Mrs. Douglas) Dettman.  The need for a Society publication, patterned after the AHSGR Workpaper Workpaper, had been discussed at the NDHSGR organization meeting of January 9, 1971. 

At that time I roused the ire of Mr. Leno by suggesting that Tillie Dettman be the editor.  It was not known by me that Mr. Leno wished to fill that role.  (We made our peace).  Under Mr. Leno’s editorship, the Society published four workpapers, the fourth in September, 1972.  Following discussions at subsequent NDHSGR Board meetings, the decision was made to change the name from the Workpaper to HERITAGE REVIEW, the suggested name to be credited to Dr. Joseph Height.  Although the name of the publication was changed, the numbering sequence was retained, and in June 1973 issues 5 an 6 (double) appeared – it also was called the “Centennial Issue” to commemorate the arrival of the first German-Russians to Dakota Territory – of the publication bearing the name HERITAGE REVIEW. 

The golden color for the cover, selected by Mr. Leno, has been retained to the present day with but one exception.  Mr. Leno was editor for issues one through Number 9, and upon his demise on March 19, 1975, the Board appointed me together with Alice Essig and Albert Hausauer to the editorship.  Mrs. Essig and Mr. Hausauer acted in an advisory in an advisory capacity for one issue.  Since then I have had the sole responsibility to make decisions on what is published.  The year 1975 was the first year that three issues of HERITAGE REVIEW were published.  This has been continued to the present.

DER STAMMBAUM, the genealogical companion of HERITAGE REVIEW, was issued the first time in 1973.  Elsie (Mrs. Rueben) Huether was the principal force with assistance from Alice Essig, Elaine Bauer, and Phyllis Feser.  Elsie Huether also selected the name for the publication.  Genealogical aspects of the Society were not a favorite of several members of the Board of Directors, especially Mr. Leno.  He opted not to have any concern about that publication; hence its publication remained the sole responsibility of the Genealogical Committee for several years.  Beginning with DER STAMMBAUM No. 7, 1979, the Board requested that the editor of HERITAGE REVIEW also be editor of that publication.  This same year saw the beginning of the four-issue annual format of, DER STAMMBAUM and three HERITAGE REVIEWS.  DER STAMMBAUM was first published as a sub-title under HERITAGE REVIEW in 1981.  The present numbering system of Volume and issue No. 1, 2, 3, 4, was instituted in 1980, the tenth year of the Society.  Dr. LaVern Rippley, especially, urged the adoption of the system, which is used almost universally.

Initially, and continuing for several years, both the HERITAGE REVIEW and DER STAMMBAUM were typed by volunteers to be “camera ready”.  This was lower priced than typesetting, which is now being done.  Appearance-wise, however, typesetting is much more appealing to the reader.  Eventually, we (the Board) ran out of “volunteers” and we then were forced into paying about a dollar per page for typing.  With the Boards approval on a trial basis, typesetting began with HERTAGE REVIEW issue No. 24, September 1979, without any comment from the Editor.  The response was favorable from the membership and, hence, this method was adopted on a permanent basis.  The double column format in use was adopted through the urging of Mr. Reeb, although Mr. Leno during his tenure as Editor, used such a format for the “Editor’s Comments”.  Needless to say, typesetting eased the problem of locating typists to prepare camera-ready pages.   Printing of the Society publications has been done exclusively by United Printing at Mandan, except for the first three issues.  That firm’s employees, especially Carol Stack and Henry Beckler, have been most helpful and generous in their assistance.  Carol Stack has done the entire layout on the issues for several years.

Although typesetting of HERITAGE REVIEW began in 1979, only the articles of DER STAMMBAUM were typeset beginning in 1980.  The Surname Index and lists of people who submitted family data sheets, and in some year’s items such as cemetery lists continued to be typed until 1985.  Henceforth, assuming no policy change, all aspects of the publication will be typeset.

I want to briefly comment on the cover of the Society publications.  Finding suitable photos or materials for a collage is a task in itself – usually it is the last item to receive attention.  While Phyllis Feser was available, she assumed this responsibility and, in my estimation, did an outstanding work.  A casual inspection of past issues, reveal ideas for a cover we have considered.  There are plenty of pictures available for use on a cover, but we feel there should be an expression of a central theme – like for example, wedding garments – a theme that is informative, and at the same time depicting aspects of German-Russian culture.  The first year the chapter at Minot hosted the convention, we chose a picture of a dwarf magician (ala the Minot Chamber of Commerce) with the caption “Why not Minot??”  (The issue was printed immediately prior to the convention.) Needless to say, Board members expressed themselves as to the inappropriateness of the selection.  Since them, items selected have been considered primarily on the basis of what it expresses about the ethnic group. 

Publications other than HR and DS supported by the Society – financially and otherwise – have been several in numbers, meeting expressed objectives in the Constitution.  EXERIENCES FROM MY MISSIONARY LIFE IN THE DAKOTA (trans. By Armand & Elaine Bauer) was the first to be published with full financial assistance, with the agreement that the Society would receive all of the proceeds.  It was published in time for the 19973 Convention commemorating the arrival of German-Russian to Dakota Territory.  Partial financial assistance was provided for the publication of FATEFUL DANUBEJOURNEY, translated by Col T.C. Wenzlaff.  In this venture, the Society and Col. Wenzlaff shared in the proceeds in the same proportion as each contributed to publication costs.  However, after Co. Wenzlaff recovered his costs he contributed his share thereafter to the Society.  (This book has since been reprinted.)  Also financially supported in part, was Mrs. Diede, to publish HOMESTEADING ON THE KNIFE RIVER PRAIRIES.

Books whose publication costs were totally financed by the Society include two song books – SONGS WE LOVE TO SING, I and II, compiled under the direction of Elsie Heuther; FOOD AND FOLKLORE, complied by Beata Mertz Gerber; INDEX I of the WORKPAPERS, HERITAGE REVIEW,  and DER STAMMBAUM 1971 through 1978 compiled by Walter Essig.  (As an aid, indexing the Society’s publications is done annually and the annual index is published as part of DER STAMMBAUM.  Walter Essig did this for several years, but in the last three, this has been done by Frieda Nusz.  It was the expressed intent of the Society several years ago to consider an issue of Index II as a sequel.  Completion of such a project likely will depend on availability of funds).  Publication of the translation of TEPLITZ also was totally financed by the Society.  TEPLITZ was translated under the direction of T. J.Schmuer of Albuquerque, NM.  The most recent investment in support of publication was the re-printing of Mary Worthy Brenneman’s THE LAND THEY POSSESSED.   Publication of several books has been “Under the auspices of the North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia”.  Included is two of Dr. Hidght’s trilogy.

Material prepared by Society members – such as a map of North Dakota showing towns predominantly populated by German-Russians – prepared by Elaine and I for the first membership brochure issued by the Society – have been used extensively in other publications, with and without credit as to source.  George Rath, author of the BLACK SEA GERMANS, requested permission to use t he map in his book stating that “it was the most accurate one I can find”.  He was one who used it without understanding the source.  Elaine Bauer prepared the format of the first family data sheet.  Personally, I am pleased when someone requests permission to use materials original with the Society, and always assent to its use with the stipulation that the user indicate the source.  I feel that this is one of the better forms of advertising the Society can have.

Since its beginnings in 1971, Society headquarters in Bismarck have been located in chronological order:  on the ground floor of a room at the Grand Pacific Hotel (since razed), the second floor of the old Woolworth Building at the corner of Main and 4th Street, two rooms on the first floor of the Logan Building at 219 7th Street North, at 1811 East Thayer (front part of a smoke house), and then to its present (own facility) at 1008 East Central Avenue.  The first office manager was Mr. August Schall, and then Mr. Schall together with Otto Richter (both now deceased).  Alice Essie joined Mr. Schall at the old Woolworth Building Office.  These three persons served the Society without pay for several years.  To my knowledge, Alice Essie was eventually compensated $50/month for the equivalent of two days work at the office (she always took work home, such as lengthy correspondence, genealogical research etc.) after the headquarters were moved to the Logan Building.  The work done by these people was monumental – and truly this is a “labor of love”.  Following Alice Essie as office manager were Phyllis Fester, Dorothy Prefab, Frances Feast, and presently Frankie Feast and Edythe Keller.

Individuals contributing to the functions of this Society are innumerable – all without compensation.  Service on boards, committees etc. is without re-imbursement.  Indeed, it is a cost to many who serve since some traveling is required.  In addition to the office manager(s), the only office paid for services is the treasurer, at $25 per month.  There have been, and at present, many individuals who have left their mark on the Society.  At the risk of what some may consider an injustice, because a member a member is not included on this list, I want to mention four members, now deceased, whose influence was felt throughout the Society.  The first was Judge Ray Frederic.  As the founding father and first president, the direction of the Society in the early years was shaped by him.  The Judge was influential, an inspiring leader, highly respected, etc. etc.  In all the years I served on the Board of Directors I know of only one time that the Judge was on the minority side on a specific motion.  (The motion dealt with managing the office).  And being a Judge helped when legal matters needed attention.  Others in the legal profession – members of the Society – responded positively to his requests for legal assistance.

Mr. Arthur Leno was dedicated to making a success of the Society.  He was a tireless campaigner for recognition of the German-Russians as an ethnic group, and the contributions of this ethnic group to the American (and especially the North Dakota) scene.  Mr. Leno had considerable experience in public relations and he used it to good advantage to promote the Society.  (I have already mentioned his role as Editor).  He carried a lot of weight at Board meetings in that issues the considered important were always discussed.  Mr. Leno had been in the teaching profession at one time. 

Dr. Joseph Height’s major contribution was in his published works.  His opinions were greatly respected within the Society.  He expressed himself as being very confident that the young chapter of AHSGR could function as a separate entity.  HE was very supportive of the HERITAGE REVIEW, submitting for publication several items that eventually also appeared in the third book of his Trilogy MEMORIES OF THE BLACK GERMANS, and was a frequent speaker at the early conventions.  It is no secret that he did not see eye to eye with members of the Board of Directors of AHSGR; especially in their dealings with Karl Stumpp on publication of his book THE EMIGRATION FROM GERMANY TO RUSSIA IN THE YEARS 1763 to 1862.

Mr. Raul Reeb was a tireless and dedicated worker, not only for the Society, but for the German-Russian ethnics in general.  Mr. Reeb invested more money in GRHS than any other member.  His financial contribution for the present headquarters constituted about 50% of the total cost.  He conceived the idea of a Literary Award and for several years provided the funds for the winner’s lifetime membership as well as the design and the cost of the plaque’s construction.  When he promoted a change – such as the name change – he covered the entire stat carrying his message, spending weeks and even months.  Mr. Reeb strongly promoted publications, preparing many articles himself and urging others to do the same.  He felt that the most lasting benefit the Society could render for future generations.  Even after his death, The Society is the beneficiary of his estate, receiving funds for the Society’s publications. 

The length of time the Society has been in existence is beyond my hopes and expectations.  At the outset, I said to Elaine I would “give it about 10 years”.  Today it has more members than any time in its history and perhaps is as strong as or stronger than at any time.  This is a tribute to its leaders on the Board over the years and the many dedicated workers in its membership.

I believe the Society has been of greatest service to this ethnic group by making its people aware of their rich heritage and instilling in them a pride in the accomplishments of their ancestors.  Many more German-Russians will today reveal and admit that they are indeed of this background.  I recall a personal incident that happened in 1973 – the year the Society noted the 100th anniversary of the first German-Russians to Dakota Territory with its convention in Bismarck.  Mr. Leno advanced these “medals” on my person for the purpose of selling them.  On this occasion I was in the Steakhouse at Lisbon frequenting the bar in preparation for dinner.  When I tried to make a sale to one of the locals who had come to our table (as a friendly gesture), he told me he was not German-Russian but that the lady behind the bar was.  When I approached the lady to make my pitch to sell her a coin she said “no” and furthermore I’m not German-Russian”.  When I asked her name and where she was born (this had already been told me by our local table visitor) she replied it was “Baumgartner” and she was from “Strasburg”.  As it turned out, her grandfather Baumgartner was one of the four founders of Strasburg, ND.  Perhaps what I’m suggesting is that the openness of Society members in admitting their German-Russian ethnicity has given others courage to do likewise.  (A smilar incident was related also by Victor Reisweg of Benson County about a meeting he called).  It is always a source of satisfaction to me when people speak with pride about their ancestors.  Perhaps most touching has been the comment – which has come individually from several members during the course of a convention – “I’m so glad somebody did something to promote this ethnic group”.  Elaine and I are glad as well as many others, that we were part of that “somebody”.



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