Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers Commentary
Written by Tom Isern, West Fargo, North Dakota (Distinguished Professor of History, North Dakota State University, Fargo)
Plains Folk, Prairie Public Radio
In my mail appears a copy of a new book, entitled Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers: Growing Up German from Russia in America. It comes to me courtesy of Carol Just, one of the authors.
Carol is a daughter of that historic little country church near Zeeland, St. Andrew's Lutheran Church. Actually, St. Andrew's is two churches. There is the old, 1893 church, built of native stone and gumbo clay, plastered with cow manure, in good German-Russian vernacular style; and next to it the neat, white, wood-frame church built in 1906.
St. Andrew's has an active preservation committee, which carries out some wonderful heritage activities. Last summer, for the burial of Alfred Dockter, his body was carried into the cemetery on a wagon drawn by heavy horses.
What happened at graveside there was an exercise in what we historians call collective memory-that is, the recognition and refreshment of a common heritage through narrative and ritual, thereby affirming community identity. Collective memory lives in memory groups. The St. Andrew's Preservation Committee is a memory group centered in local identity. It also is a cell in a much larger memory group, that of the Germans from Russia.
The story is yet to be told how the Germans from Russia emerged from a muddled history to become a crystallized memory group, with common stories, symbols, and associations holding it together. It happened sometime in the 1970s. Before that, there was a reluctance to embrace publicly an identity that was both German, thus identified with the enemy in two world wars, and Russian, thus carrying Cold-War associations. The labels "Russian-German" and "German-Russian" gave way to the descriptive appellation, "Germans from Russia" in order to clarify the emerging identity of a memory group.
All of which leads me to say, there is no better expression of the collective memory of a memory group than this new book, Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers. It is a multi-author collection put together by members of the North Star Chapter of Germans from Russia, a Minnesota organization affiliated with both of the big memory associations of Germans from Russia: the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, and the American Historical Association of Germans from Russia. Many of its members are expatriates from the prairies of North and South Dakota now living in or near the Twin Cities.
Now I'm complicating things, and that's not I want to do with Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers. The editors say, "Making this book has been like putting together a quilt." Every story is a colorful piece. Stitched together they answer the question, "What does it mean to be a German from Russia in America?" Here are some pieces from the quilt.
* Picking juneberries in the coulees, and canning them with molasses to save on sugar
* Picking rock for 15 cents an hour to buy firecrackers for the 4th of July
* Wearing overalls to school, and feeling bad about it until you see that everyone else is wearing them, too
* Citing Biblical proofs to affirm that the God of the Old Testament spoke German
* Boiling a pig's head to make Schwartamagan, head cheese
* Declaiming the exclamation of exasperation or glee, "Donnerwetter noch einmal!", as one word: Donnerwetternocheinmal!
Donnerwetternocheinmal!, this is a good book.
The book, "Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers: Growing Up Germans from Russia in America", is available at http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/general/hollyhock.html.
The book is featured in the February column of In Touch with Prairie Living - http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/articles/newspapers/intouch/2014/intouch0214.html.