Hays Man Has Own Version of ‘Roots’

Belden, Chris. "Hays Man Has Own Version of ‘Roots’." Hays Daily News, 3 April 1977, 1, 3.

Tales of poverty, slavery, determination and the search for freedom, all passed orally from generation to generation.

One might first associate the stories with characters from Alex Haley’s epic novel “Roots.” But according to Lawrence Weigel, Hays, the tales also fit accurately into the history of his ancestors and those of most Volga-Germans.

Weigel, who became interested in the lives of his ancestors though his love of the old Volga-German songs, has traced his roots back 213 years. He is quick to draw a parallel between “what we saw in “Roots” and the history of the Volga-Germans.

“Our people were beaten, sold as slaves from one master to another, and the women were violated. Families were separated. They dreamed of going back to their homes,” said Weigel. “They always had that desire to return to freedom.”

He begins the story of his ancestors in 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War in Germany. In Baden, Bavaria and the lower part of Germany, the people were out of work and they were poor. The promises of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, lured 28,000 Germans to that country between 1763 and 1767.

Germans migrating to Russia traveled by boat and on foot. Many did not survive the journey. When they sailed down the river to Saratov, they realized many of the things Catherine had promised did not exist, but they were too poor to return.

Crop failures, general displeasure with life in Russia, and raids by the Kirghiz made life miserable for the settlers.

The Kirghiz, nomads from beyond the Ural Mountain region, rode into the Volga valley on horseback in 1769 and 1770, destroyed three towns and carried more than 1,000 Volga-Germans into slavery.

Weigel’s great-grandfather’s grandfather, a nine-year-old boy who was herding the family’s sheep, was taken by the Kirghiz and sold as a slave. Years later a compassionate Kirghiz woman helped him escape, and he returned to the Volga valley.

Like the story of Haley’s Kunta Kinte, the Kirghiz story was told by father to son, until Weigel’s great-grandfather wrote it down.

Called “Grandfather’s Story,” the leather bound German manuscript was passed from relative to relative, “because no one in the family attached much value to it.” In 1955, Helen Hall, a professional genealogist and relative of Weigel’s borrowed the manuscript and had it translated and published.

When promises made by Catherine the Great were rescinded in 1874, schools were Russianized, and Volga-German boys were drafted into the Russian army. The settlers sent scouts to the United States to look for a new home.

The first group of Volga-Germans came to this country in 1875. Wooed by railroad agents looking for immigrants to settle along the railroad, the group decided the Hays area was suitable for colonization.

“They wanted to have separate little towns like they did in Germany and in Russia,” said Weigel.

Because the towns did stay separated, Ellis County Volga-Germans would have very little trouble tracing their ancestors.

“In Roots, that man (Haley) had an awful job hunting down all that information,” said Weigel.

Volga-Germans are in an enviable position if they are interested in genealogy.

“We have so much information available because the people stayed together for 200 years,” Weigel said. “In Russia and here, Victoria people remained Victoria people and Munjor people stayed in Munjor. Although the people were of the same heritage and religion, there was no intermarriage or mingling of culture.

“I’m related to 43,000 persons in three large genealogy books,” said Weigel, “but I’m not related to a soul in Munjor.”

When Weigel, who is from Victoria, started to date in 1935, it was unheard of to go to Schoenchen for a date. He recalled an instance in which some Victoria boys rode on horseback to court a Catherine girl and were chased away by the local boys with shotguns.

All four sets of Weigel’s great-grandparents are buried in the Victoria cemetery, not “one off in California and another in New York.”

For those interested in tracing their heritage, the local cemeteries are a good place to start. Weigel also said local census and church records are very good sources of information. The Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, has a wealth of genealogical information. “I tested them, and everything I had checked out,” said Weigel.

Although times are changing and the young people are moving all over the United States, “instead of staying here like the old people, who were farmers,” Weigel is encouraged by the interest the young people are showing in their heritage.

“They’re constantly asking for information,” he said. “If you knew how many letters I get in a week...”

Weigel has also given talks to many schools in the area. “I thought the young people would be bored, but they’ve listened for an hour and then asked questions.” He added, “They even asked me to come back.”

Unlike Alex Haley, Weigel has not been able to return to the Volga valley to visit with distant relatives left behind.

In 1941, the Russians were afraid the 600,000 Volga-Germans living in the valley would collaborate with the German Army if it overran the area. Every man, woman and child was shipped to Siberia in the dead of the winter, and 175,000 persons died on the trip.

“Not a one, to this day,” said Weigel, “has been allowed to return to the Volga valley. Families were broken and scattered, and the people started over again.”

Although Weigel is interested in genealogy, he is more concerned with preserving the customs, folk humor, songs and folkways of his people.

Weigel has learned, through his association with persons in the International Historical Society of Germans from Russia, of which he is a member, that many of the folk songs sung by Volga-Germans in Ellis County date back to the 16th and 17th century.

“The songs related happenings or events, and recorded them, although the people were primarily illiterate,” said Weigel. “The songs tell the story of our history.”

In 1956, Weigel and Nick Pfannenstiel published a book with the words to 200 Volga-German folk songs. The collection, which he continued after Pfannenstiel’s death, now contains more than 300 songs, all passed down orally, from generation to generation.

With the help of professionals, the music has been transcribed, and as Weigel says, “we have something concrete that will be preserved.”

Weigel also has tapes of “hours and hours of interviews” with older persons in the area who shared anecdotes and “the way they used to do things.” He plans to study the tapes and possibly do some writing when he retires.

Like Haley, Weigel is concerned with preserving history before it is lost.

“Most of the young people don’t speak German anymore,” he said. “We’d have 213 years of tradition, and then ‘boom’ – no one would know what happened.

“That’s why we’re trying to get it down in writing, so our grandchildren will know who they are, and where they came from.”

Lawrence A. Weigel, Volga German Historian is reading the plaque. Note the railroad tracks in the background and South Main St. now West 9th, 1998.
The plaque which commemorates the location along the old Kansas Pacific R.R. (now Union Pacific R.R.) where our forefathers stepped off the train when they came here in 1876-1877-1878 is located in the corner between the box car and the depot, of the Kansas Pacific R.R.
North Main St., 1885 Hays City, Kansas (Now West 10th St.)



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