The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie

Interview with Ron Vossler

Click here for German version

The documentary film, The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie, tells the story of one of America's most distinctive and enduring ethnic groups. Ron Vossler, the film's scriptwriter, traces his own ancestry to German Russians who claimed homesteads a century ago near Wishek, North Dakota, where he grew up.

Educated at Arizona State University, he has held various jobs, including farm laborer, archaeological fieldworker, small magazine editor, and high school teacher in Lahore, Pakistan. Currently a free-lance writer, and Senior Lecturer at the University of North Dakota he is the recipient of various awards, such as the North Dakota Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, and more recently, the Larry Remele Fellowship from the North Dakota Humanities.

His publications include essays, book reviews, memoirs, and a collection of short stories. Most recently his short story "Frieda the Trowel Queen and the Lost Jehus of Gnadenthal County" appeared in Forkroads: A Journal of Ethnic American Literature; and two poems about travel in Ukraine and Russia were published in Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. He is currently translating Stalin era famine letters, for a collection entitled "The Crucifixion by Hunger of the Black Sea Germans."

Here are some of his responses to the questions about The Germans From Russia.

Q. What do you feel is the theme of this film?

A. The prevailing theme of the documentary is, I think, the complexity of both the history and the character of the Germans from Russia ethnic group. It became apparent as I researched and wrote the script that there was no simple answer to who these people were. There seemed too much to say.

The easiest way to show this complexity, or the theme, was to compose a series of paired contradictions which is how the documentary begins: a practical people, who sought eternity; a people rooted to the land, who were also wanders; progressive, yet traditional; who wanted to forget, yet always remembered.

Q. How has your German-Russian background affected your work on the documentary?

My background growing up in Wishek, North Dakota, which is the heart of Germans from Russia country helped me considerably in writing the script. I knew the history from the inside out, growing up hearing German spoken by grandparents, ect. I knew, or felt I knew, what typical German Russian attitudes, sounds, and behaviors were. I knew and had heard some of the stories included in the documentary. I saw firsthand from my grandparents and parents the urge to simultaneously forget their own history, yet still adhere to fixed views of the world.

But that familiarity with German Russian life also presented a few problems. During interviews I didn't always feel comfortable asking people to tell their stories, or asking them questions about their lives and attitudes. I still carried, I realized, some reluctance to probe into people's lives, and I sometimes felt intrusive for that went against what I'd been taught, to not talk directly about the past, to let the dead alone."

My German Russian background also at times made it very difficult to read and research on certain aspects of the documentary. So much of the documentary had a personal component to it. After all, the story I was telling was that of my direct ancestors, my grandparents, my great grandparents. I felt compelled to try to get it right, accurate, honest.

When I found and began to translate famine letters -- most of those in the documentary were written to my relatives in America, to my great grandmother, or my great uncle, or to my grandfather's sister-in-law -- I felt deeply moved, and emotional. It was hard to draw back and be objective to use language that was clear and not emotional loaded, when I wrote things like "at its height in the spring of 1933, one person died every three seconds..."

Q. What do you think viewers will take away from this documentary?

A. I think that viewers will begin to understand the rich drama of this ethnic history. I think viewers will also see how distinctive and enduring the Germans from Russia are. I think viewers will see how the Germans from Russia were marked by the two great frontiers they tamed, the steppes and the prairie, and how those frontiers live on in the descendants of this ethnic group.

Q. What did you take away from your work on the film?

A. In doing all the research and writing and travel associated with making this documentary, I felt like I'd finally come home again, that I'd been true to my own background, to those who'd come before me; that in some small sense I'd reshaped some of the suffering of "unsera "Leute", the Germans from Russia, in an accurate, and I hoped, at times, poetic account of an ethnic group whose history had been long ignored by the general public.

I felt I was giving voice to a story which needed to be told, that many wished would finally be told, like when my mother's 90-year-old cousin, when we arrived to film her making strudels, took my face in her hands and said, "Oh Ronnie, please don't let them forget about us Germans here on the prairie..."

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