Gisela Schilling Keller Gift

Udo Gerhard Keller zu Kellerrode Fund, NDSU Development Foundation

This donation is given in memory of my dear husband, Udo Gerhard Keller zu Kellerrode/West Prussia, and in honor of his family.

Family Photos
Gisela Schilling Keller announces major gift to NDSU Libraries, July 20, 2001
Program and Reception Photos, July 24, 2001

I specifically asked for this donation to be put to good use at the North Dakota State University Libraries for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, to assist in the repair of damage caused by the flood of the year 2000. By doing this, I am following a family tradition of supporting the community, either with donations of land or money, to benefit where aid is needed most and can be used by everybody.

At the beginning of the 19th century, my husband's great-grandfather, Carl Johann Keller, donated a large portion of his land to the railroad in order to place tracks for making the area accessible for transporting goods and people. Besides honors he received from the king in a private audience, a beautiful china service in cobalt blue and gold was specially made for his family. The famous Royal Prussian Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin, founded by King Frederick II on September 3, 1763, produced this complete twenty-four place setting of china. Later, this china service was divided within the family to daughters or sons, whereby my husband inherited a breakfast service for six through his father, which I proudly display in one of my curio cabinets.

At approximately the same time, my great-grandfather donated large portions of his land for public use to the city of Halle on the Saale River in the province of Saxony. Some of his donated land was used to build an open-area zoo, public parkland, and buildings for public or government use, among other things. More than one-fourth of the city of Halle has been built on his donated land. The emperor received my great-grandfather in person and presented him with the certificate of an honorary title as a Kommerzien-Rat, roughly translated, commerce-counselor. Also, a great aunt of mine who was not married, before she died in 1943, donated to the county her entire estate of 10,000 acres (3,000 acres of forest and 7,000 acres of rich farmland) near the city of Magdeburg, southwest of Berlin. This donation included a clause that said, "If, at any time, portions of this donated land would be taken for private use, the entire donation would be null and void and would fall to the five branches of her family heirs."

In 1990, when the Berlin wall fell, a cousin of mine, whose son was a lawyer, could prove positively that parts of the donated land had been used for private benefit. After a lengthy struggle, the five family branches (myself among them), received a certificate stating we were now the lawful inheritors of an estate. At the time when the will was made, the value of the estate was sixty million dollars. Now, after more than fifty years, its value is not even half that. The land was always used for profit but without any reinvestment. And I am sorry to say that we, the inheritors, have not seen a dime from it and probably never will. Always making excuses for the delay in resolving the issue, the left-oriented government stands to profit greatly. It is difficult to go against them, and they know it.

Although we would like to follow our family tradition of donating land, in our case, there is a difference. The wealth of our forefathers was lost within an hour's time when we fled from Russian tanks in the winter of 1945 in chilling -20°F temperatures. We were dispossessed by Russian forces in central Germany and bombed out in Berlin. Nothing was left of all that wealth, other than a few suitcases with which we came to America. Because of the war, our things were "gone with the wind." Our donation, therefore, comes from the work of our own hands, which may be even more meaningful. Our tradition is the family honor.

But why, one might ask, would I request my donation to the NDSU Libraries be directed to benefit the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection? Our family does not belong to that group. The answer is, when I got married in 194l, I followed my husband to his estate in the Warthegau. This was the eastern region of Germany that fell to Poland after World War I by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. In 1939, Hitler regained it. He then made a pact with Stalin to bring the Germans in Russia "back to the homeland," and to our area, the Warthegau. My husband volunteered in their resettlement, and I helped him by visiting and comforting them, trying to lift their spirits. I've recorded all the details in my memoirs, "Refugees - One of Many," published by the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, in "Heritage Review," Part One, December 1981, and Part Two, February 1982, available at the Varsity Mart, Memorial Student Union, NDSU.

The Germans refugees from Russia certainly needed our support in every way, because their disappointment was too much to bear after all they had hoped for and expected. If they had had a choice, they would have turned back immediately. But there was no return possible. Likewise, their forefathers, who had responded to the call of Catherine II of Russia in 1763, with ten special privileges for German colonists to advance her vast empire with their knowledge and skills, found there was no return. I empathized with them very much, not knowing that I would have a similar experience four years later. For me, too, there was no return. My husband had already been drafted into the German Army when my neighbors and I had to flee during the winter of 1945, in -20°F temperatures. My neighbor with his wife and daughter, another mother and two children, and I were leading a trek of seventy-three covered wagons, with mostly Germans from Russia, on side roads into safety.

While I was a textbook manager at the Varsity Mart, I was informed that I was entitled to free tuition of three credits per quarter. The university had started a new evening class about the heritage of the Germans from Russia taught by Mr. Tim Kloberdanz, later Dr. Kloberdanz, my faculty advisor. Having not taken classes for over 40 years, I thought this would be a good class to start with since I was familiar with the subject. When I shared with Mr. Kloberdanz about my experiences with the Germans from Russia, he urged me to write everything down, because up until then they had only the immigrants' view. I wrote my memoirs, which were later approved for publishing. Along with the Joseph S. Height Memorial Literary Award in 1982, I received seven complimentary copies of my published two-part memoirs.

That evening class was my start in returning to school and working toward a degree. I received a bachelor's degree in 1981, and went on to get a master's degree in 1986. As a textbook manager at the Varsity Mart where I dealt with professors, my desire was for them not to think of me as an ordinary housewife; besides, "ordinary" does not sound good translated in German. Having received a very good education in Germany, I really did not need anything further. What I desired was simply a certificate, just like the scarecrow in the "Wizard of Oz!"

But, what was completely new to me was what I learned about North Dakota. I realized what a very special and interesting state it is: either very dry or very wet, and either very hot or very cold. And nature, humans as well as animals and plants, behave accordingly. The exciting things I learned about North Dakota gave me the idea to put it "on the map" so to speak, by bringing international travelers to North Dakota. Also, another economic resource for North Dakota would be a small "thank-you" from my family and me for giving us a home again and work. My idea was to interest European travelers, when they signed up at their travel agency for a New York-San Francisco tour, to include a three-day visit to North Dakota. They would fly into Fargo where they would begin a bus tour viewing historic sites such as battlegrounds, trading posts and military forts along the way to Bismarck, where they would visit an open-air American Indian museum, then fly onto their west coast destination.

I had worked out all the details such as brochures, hotels, prices, buses, students knowledgeable in foreign languages as tour guides, plus orientation programs with explanations about what the tourists were going to see. When consulting with the state tourism manager, he was enthusiastic about my motivation to recognize North Dakota as a distinctive destination for tourism with interests beyond agriculture. From my own experiences traveling all over the world, I knew we had a unique combination of cultural treasures to show travelers. I am sorry to say that my tourism plans for North Dakota did not come to fruition since I did not have the needed additional time while in Berlin to work out details with travel agencies. But the idea remains and could still be tackled.

From 1971-1974, I traveled alone to visit my mother in a nursing home in Berlin. At that time, since we did not have much money, and I was still working part-time, I joined the Sons of Norway for a less expensive airline flight. I also purchased a Eurail-Pass for three weeks of unlimited travel for $230. The rail pass allowed me to visit thirteen countries in all directions, available only for first class or student pass. Either at the beginning or end of my visit, I reserved three or four days for personal traveling. I arranged for long distances to take night trains and slept in my first class compartment, which was always empty because people who traveled first class usually stayed over in hotels. I didn't eat at restaurants, but inexpensively saw the world, at least in part, by traveling with a bottle of mineral water under one arm and a long loaf of French bread under the other arm. Later, when our income improved a bit, I traveled with tour groups, because there are countries where women should not travel completely by themselves. But it was more fun to do it the hard way; I always liked the challenge!

Some years went by before I began writing about the time from 1929-1950 and later times under a shortened form of the title, "Remember always to act as if the fate of the whole nation depends on you, and you alone would be responsible for it." This manuscript is written in German, but not yet published. I am currently translating the text into English. This book offers a very different view of history; but I must wait to publish it, since people may not yet be ready to learn from contrasting evidence. From the proceeds of this book, I had hoped to make a donation in memory of my husband. That donation, though, would have been for potato research, which Udo had been involved with as a research technician at the NDSU horticulture department.

But then we had the flood last year, the flood of the year 2000. Fargo was hit very hard, both north and south sides in various places, but the North Dakota State University Library got the worst of it. They needed help and a donation in my husband's name would be welcomed there. And so with the donation, the circle comes to a close. My married life with Udo started in the Warthegau with the resettlement of the Germans from Russia. Therefore, a donation to a collection dedicated to documenting and preserving resources on the culture and history of these people in memory of my husband seems appropriate since we had so much in common. And for my family and me it is a rehabilitation. That honor is more than money and worldly wealth; the tradition is the family honor.

Gisela Schilling Keller
Fargo, North Dakota

July, 2001

For additional information about the life of Udo and Gisela Schilling Keller, read the following articles:

"Refugees - One of Many: Memoirs: of Gisela C. Keller: Part One", Heritage Review, Germans from Russia Heritage Society, volume 11, number 4, pages 7-21.

These issues of Heritage Review are available by contacting the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1125 West Turnpike Avenue, Bismarck, ND 58501 (

Gisela Schilling Keller received the Joseph S. Height Literary Award in 1985 of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society for these articles.

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