Arthur Flegel: Chronicler of the Long Trek

Kriessmann Willi. "Arthur Flegel: Chronicler of the Long Trek."New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, no. 19: 19, 13 March 2004.

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


"...the broad horizon itself keep looking like a permanent rise, carrying beyond it the promise and lure of paradise. But it constantly continued to broaden, seemingly forever. At sundown the steppe would be bathed in the hot glow of the most wonderful hues. In the eastern part of the Nogaic Steppe around Melitopol, one encountered toward the Northeast some beautiful villages with German names such as Karlsruhe or Helenental. They lay amidst rich orchards. Houses built of tough stone evidenced former prosperity. Their owners had kept up their German language, expressed via dialects from Hesse, Schwabia, the Palatinate and Alsace.

However, only the old men, the women, and children had been left behind. The other men had long been dragged off by the Soviets..."

That is how Erich von Manstein, Field Marshall and one of the best strategists of World War II, reports in his book "Verlorene Siege [Lost Victories]" as he was leading his army through the expanses of the steppes of South Russia. More than half a century later, I am sitting across from Arthur Flegel in his home in Menlo Park in Northern California. Surrounded by yellowing books, atlases, video cassettes and an Apple computer, I am taking in a kind of saga that fascinates in its overwhelming and incredible scope.

"The Long Trek" is the title Flegel has given to his chronicle that follows his clan over a span of three hundred years, from the heart of Europe into the formerly Russian Bessarabia, from there into the expanses near the Volga and the Kuban rivers, to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Iran, to the pampas of Argentina and, finally, to Western America: Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado and California.

After spending decades in painstaking research, Arthur has composed his family history that, in its encompassing scope, can serve equally well as a report on the fate of millions for that ethnic group called German-Russians. He came into this world in 1917 in Bentley, North Dakota. In very early childhood, at only two and one half years of age, he found himself in Greeley, Colorado. From there he moved, in 1927, to Kansas; until the death of his father in 1929, to reestablish himself in Greeley again, mainly to be of help to his mother.

His family was blessed with many children; Arthur was the ninth among ten. They spoke a German dialect tinged heavily with Schwabian undertones, occasionally mixed with a few Russian-language terms. He kept hearing curious place names such as Kulm and Leipzig, Rohrbach, Lilienfeld and Kronental, Markorovka, Stavropol and Armavir.

His father Johann sometimes spoke: how at the age of 11, he had made the long strenuous trek from Kulm in Bessarabia to Greater Masokovo in the Northern Caucasus; and how at age 18 in 1890, he had been recruited into the Czarist Army; and how after serving seven years, he had returned to Masokovo.

That same year he [Johann] married Juliane Pflugradt from Lilienfeld on the Kuban River. Only two years later, they undertook the long journey from the River Kuban to Kulm/ND/USA. They crossed the River Don at Rostov, reaching the Black Sea near Odessa, where their wagons rolled through southern Europe across Hungary and eventually to the harbor city of Bremen in the German Kaiser's Empire. After a strenuous Atlantic passage they were, shortly before Christmas in 1899, finally able to hug their relatives of the Pflugradt and Beierle clans - in Kulm, North Dakota.

Arthur always listened attentively with great care. Even in early youth, he was no stranger to books and writing. His mother read to him, usually in the evenings, after he had returned home from working in the fields. Flegel's eyes beamed with pride, when he told me that he still remembers the difficult sugar beet harvests that contributed heavily to the livelihood of the Flegel family. His bright mind soon took him from the furrows in the agriculture, to higher academic education, and finally to the lofty environs of the JC Penney store in Greeley.

Arthur's family expanded upon the births of three sons, Robert, Mark and John. The urge to become self-sufficient culminated in a family partnership comprising a furniture store in San Mateo, California. In 1954 he opened "Flegel's Homefurnishing" in Menlo Park.

Arthur Flegel dedicated his entire and strenuous efforts toward expanding his enterprise, which eventually would attain a very fine reputation in the San Francisco Bay area. He even gave of his immense energy to benefit the city community, serving as the director of the local chamber of commerce, in the Presbyterian church community, the Rotarians, and the Historical Club for Germans from Russia.

It was especially in the ethnic German community, where he discovered an interest close to his dreams. To satisfy his enormous urge to search out more roots of his clan: During the following decades, he undertook several trips to Germany, Russia, Poland, Romania, former Czech Republic and Alsace. Tirelessly, he searched in churches and community offices for records concerning the origins of his clan. He visited cities, villages, hamlets and individual estates, conversing with people who bore his family's name. In this manner he was able to discover new branches of the clan, to collect written material and photographs and, progressively amassed a remarkable archive of his greater clan. His diligence was greatly rewarded: When in 1978, a comprehensive three hundred-plus-page family chronicle was published. "Flegel-Pflugrad Kinship - A chronicle of German families from Russia to North America" was an immense, expansive genealogy that spanned six generations. This chronicle encompassed the history and geography of the heartland of Europe, the expanses of the Volga, the Don and the Kuban rivers, as well as the pioneer States of the American West. The widely-branched-out family tree of the greater kinship includes the crowning glory of beautiful German family names: FLEGEL - PFLUGRAD - SAUER - BEIERLE - PFENNIG - MAUCH - HAUSSAUER - REUSCHER - KLEIBER - SPOHN - BURBACH.

During the middle of the 17th Century, as members of this family set out from their traditional homes in Alsace, Hesse, Schwabia, Bohemia, and Moravia, they were largely motivated by a number of very serious reasons: devastating wars, suffering, poverty, famines, religious prosecution, lack of available land, and the hated military conscription. At that time "Germany" consisted of a myriad mosaic of earldoms, principalities, dukedoms, free cities and markets. Habsburg and Hohenzollern alone contained an oversupply of rulers who were continually trying to expand their borders: Some toward the Banat and Siebengebirgen, others toward the Oder and Weichsel rivers. And beyond their borders, there were the immense and unending expanses of the Romanov Czarist Empire reaching to the Ural Mountains and even beyond.

When Czarina Catherine, the former princess of Zerbst-Anhalt, published her manifesto which promised emigrants free land, exemption from taxation, exemption from military service, German schools and their own churches: Hundreds of German families streamed into the Czarist Empire. On the Volga shores, on the Black Sea, on the Dneister River and in Bessarabia, they came upon virgin soil. When Catherine's successor, Czar Alexander I, continued these generous policies: The stream of emigrants from Germany would reach as far as the Terek and Kaban rivers in the Northern Caucasus.

First written documents concerning the Flegels emerge about the same time. Elisabeth Flegel, nee Berg, emigrated to Bessarabia, possibly after her husband's death, and died in 1835 at the age of eighty, in the village of Kulm, a settlement on the Black Sea, about one hundred twenty miles southwest of Odessa. In the course of the next hundred years, folks by names such as the Flegels, Pflugrads, Sauers, Haussauers, Mauchs, Beierles, Muellers and Pfennigs spread across the wide Russian expanses. Joined by marriages and through close kinship, their traces can be found in places such as Kulm and Leipzig in Bessarabia, and Rohrbach in the Cherson. Their villages of Lilienfeld and Kronental, Rosenfeld and Markosovka, Friedrichsfeld and Alexanderfeld, lay between the Don, Kuban and Tere Rivers, in faraway Northern Caucasus. They grew wheat and sunflowers, corn and rye in those wide fields, while they produced a large number of lively children.

This magnificence and splendor, gained through hard work, diligence, and thrift, met a sudden end. Czar Alexander II rescinded the privileges which had originally been promised "in perpetuity." His manifesto of 1861 proved to be very hard on the German settlers: They lost their autonomous administration, their youth was forced into military service, German school instruction was limited to Sunday school only, and Russian language instruction became a requirement. The "Ukase" of 1871 by this Czar led to the exodus of the major part of Germans in the Caucasus, Black Sea and Ukraine. In contrast, the Volga-Germans seemed to be able to maintain their independence and keep it going as far as into Stalin's time.

The Flegel clan undertook on a highly diverse set of travels. One section was not willing to undergo the uncertainties and problems of emigration and decided to remain in the old villages of Bessarabia and North Caucasus. One family group escaped across the Caspian Sea. Others found their way to as far as South America, from where they returned to their former places after only a short stay. Arthur Flegel's own parents finally established residence in Kulm, North Dakota.

Those family groups who had remained in Russia suffered from the confusion of revolutionary activities and loyalties between the Czarist Eagle and the Red Star. The vast majority of the men was arrested and would never return home. All possessions would eventually be confiscated and declared to be the property of the state. The remaining parts of families were degraded to the status of slaves on the collective farms.

At the onset of World War II, the entire German population in the Volga region was deported to Kazakhstan. And the finale exodus took place, or is still taking place, as part of the dissolution of German settlements in Kazakhstan. Descendants of former Volga-Germans are finding new homes in Germany and, to a lesser degree, in Ukraine. A few settlements were established around Trakena on the Koursiky Lagoon in the now Russian enclave of Kalinigrad, formerly called Koenigsberg.

Place names as Kulm, Neu Lepzig, Bremen, Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin, Wishek and Walhalla - all of these appear on the map of the state of North Dakota. And in neighboring South Dakota, settlements with names such as Zell, Humboldt, Wagner, Frankfurt evidence their German founders. And in a country home in Menlo Park, under the shadow of elm and oak trees, Arthur Flegel, grandson in a long chain of pioneer farmers, and a chronicler who is highly conscious of his traditions, remains as the guardian of a grand legacy of written and pictorial material of past generations.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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