Gwen Bernice Black Pritzkau
By Kenneth L. Messmer May 4, 2006
I feel greatly honored to be asked to share a few thoughts and remembrances with you today of my friend, Gwen. I know there are others who could do better at this but due to circumstances could not be here today. I will include some of their thoughts. There are many throughout not only the United States but from Europe and elsewhere who thought of her as a dear friend. In paying tribute on behalf of so many who knew her through her work with the German Russian groups, I must note that it is not for this that Gwen would want to be most remembered. Her greatest love in life was her husband and family. When I last spoke with her just after her diagnosis of cancer her primary concern was for them, especially her daughter, Lori. She so appreciated Julius’ allowing her to pursue her German Russian research. She said she always tried to show it by never leaving a dirty dish in the sink or a meal that was not prepared. This was in addition to rearing a family and pursuing a career.
Gwen’s passion and dedication to her research also sprang from her devotion to her family. I first met Gwen back in the late 1970’s and told her of my frustration in searching for information on my German Russian ancestry. At that time I hardly knew there was such as thing as a German Russian as the family did not talk about it. Gwen told me at that time of her earlier diagnosis of cancer. She was a young mother with young children and she pled that if her life could be extended to see her children grown she would devote herself to this research. She never let down in that commitment and her prayer was answered.
We are at a point in time when none of the first generation of those brave immigrants who left the steppes of Russia for the Great Plains of America survives to tell their stories. Few of the second generation remain to reminisce about the stories they heard from their parents. Anyone who begins to try to discover their German Russian heritage and genealogy will find that they are dependent on the work of a select group of individuals who have sacrificed to provide a record of that heritage. Gwen Pritzkau was certainly one of the giants of that group. I believe she was one of those who helped organize the Germans from Russia Heritage Society and attended all of the annual conventions.
Gwen’s good friend and collaborator, Margaret Freeman, tells of Gwen’s involvement in these conventions and other activities. Margaret says it seems as though she and Gwen have always known each other. “We first met in 1980 at the GRHS convention in Grand Forks, and, as with many people, found a lot in common to discuss and work on. The most productive part of our friendship came when we [along with Carolyn Wheeler] started the Gluckstal Colonies Research Association in 1986 and we truly began to work more closely together. Since GCRA is now in its 19th year, and has started on the eighth book, that is a large amount of sharing goals and work. A lot of Gwen’s work was published in the GCRA Newsletter, but it is only a portion of what she was able to accomplish. She did private research for many, GRs [German Russians] and beyond. Each convention she had people waiting in line to talk with her. She was always gracious, even though this meant she rarely, if ever, got to a workshop during convention.”
In 1980 Gwen prepared and presented at the World Conference on Records held in Salt Lake City a paper entitled “Pioneers on Two Continents: Germans to Russia and America.” I mentioned earlier that I had first met Gwen in the late 1970s. Unlike Gwen, who never gave up, I became frustrated after several years of research and feeling there was not much more that I could find, I set aside my German Russian research for a number of years and did not have contact with Gwen. Sometime in late 1999-2000, I became interested once again and on a business trip to Bismarck visited the new headquarters of GRHS to see if I could find anything new. There I found extracts from something called the St. Petersburg records. I was more than excited to find the name of my great great grandfather, Johann Conrad Messmer as well as other relatives. As I found out more about them a whole new world of research was opened to me. What was not surprising was to find that Gwen Pritzkau was instrumental in pushing for the obtaining of the records and cataloging them to be published in a useable format in Thomas Edlund's The Lutherans of Russia. I marvel at the scope of their work. The films consist of over 127,372 frames on 135 microfilm reels taken from 274 volumes with over 250,000 pages of handwritten text. These films would be nearly impossible to use without the index which she assisted in preparing.
More amazing than Gwen’s publications and formal presentations was her encyclopedic knowledge of all things German Russian. On several occasions I have mentioned to her some new area of research I thought I had run across only to have her say something like, “Oh, Yes. That was in the Berdjansk colonies. You can find it in these records.” One of many similar experiences with Gwen’s knowledge is related by her good friend, Carolyn Wheeler.
“Like every other German Russian, I thought I was the only one. What an unbelievable coincidence to find there was another. I will never forget that day in Salt Lake when you said, ‘Yes, I know your family.’ Then you led me to a reader, threaded a film through the reels, turned the crank, pointed to a name, and said, ‘There! There is your great grandfather. There is your lost family.’ I remember just sitting and staring at it. It was so hard to see it through the tears. Both you and I just sat there and cried. Could this really be true? Could God indeed have sent me an angel with the missing records I needed – desired – so badly? He did. He sent me you. And you have been my angel and friend every since.”
It is most fitting that only last year an endowment was established in Gwen’s name to provide scholarships for student essays on the subject of family history.
Many who became acquainted with Gwen and her research would be surprised to find that she had no German Russian ancestry. Gwen was rather an unusual choice to be one so knowledgeable in this area. How did a young mother of eight children, living in Riverton, Utah, far away from any center of German Russian descendants, herself a descendant of Danish Mormon pioneers, and without any extensive training in history or languages become an expert on the German Russians? I think there are a number of reasons.
The first is that when she married her husband Julius she accepted his heritage. She spoke often and fondly of his parents and of their sacrifices. Growing up under humble circumstances I think she related her husband’s pioneer ancestors to her own. On one occasion she related to me of speaking to his mother who lost two children before they outlived childhood. She asked her how she survived and carried on. She said her mother-in-law told her. “It happened to everyone. We just trusted in Jesus and went on.”
The second reason is expressed in a poem by the poet Robert Frost. His poem, “Mending Wall” begins with this line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…..” and ends with this,
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
Gwen Pritzkau did not like walls, and she did not let them stand in her way. If you wanted help she was willing to help. It did not matter what your background was or what your education, she was ready to share and patiently teach. She would sometimes say before a presentation, “What can I give them new that I haven’t already done?” And yet give more she did. She was a friend to anyone. I remember when I attended my first convention in Rapid City how she looked out for me. She introduced me to her many acquaintances as her friend from Utah. She made sure I was welcome at her table at meal times.
Gwen did not let the lack of college degrees stop her learning. She had a mastery of history of both Europe and the United States. She knew the geography of Europe especially the German Russian areas, like the back of her hand. If you had wanted to take the time I am sure she could have told all about the partitioning of Poland and how it affected the German Russians.
One of the walls that discourages many seeking to do research is that of language. How does one learn to read the German Gothic script, especially one who does not know German? Let me tell you what I recently learned from Gwen as to how she did. I told her one day of the success I had helping someone at the family history library discover their parents' marriage entry in the Bessarabian records. Gwen said, “Oh, yes. Those are great records and we have had them since” and she rattled off some year. Then she said, “I have them all on index cards. That is how I learned to read the German script.” She learned not only German but also Latin and Finish and who knows what else.
One of her great joys was working with inmates at the Utah state prison who are involved in a project of extracting names from the St. Petersburg records. She had a deep compassion and love for those she worked with there. She mentioned a number that she had worked with in the past who had come to visit her when they learned of her recent illness. She had a deep empathy for their situation and had only love and concern for them. As we think of Gwen we cannot help but recall the verses in Matthew:
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
(St Matthew 25: 34-40)
I know that Gwen truly believed that and also lived it. Many have echoed the thought, after learning of Gwen’s death, that she is probably having quite a homecoming with the German Russians on the other side. When I last spoke with Gwen just after she was diagnosed several weeks ago she indicated that she was renewing her passport and submitting to be a presenter at the GRHS convention in Portland this July. I know that the only passport Gwen will need is the life she has led. However, I think she should have her presentation handy because she will probably be presenting something to all of those German Russians that preceded her to the other side. I can see her saying to one of them, “Oh, yes! I know your great granddaughter, Carolyn. She is a good friend of mine. Let me tell you about her.” Or to another. “There you are Johann Conrad. Your great great grandson has been looking all over for you. Do you think you could have made it a little easier?”
In closing I would like to read from the heartfelt comments of Carolyn Wheeler.
“What a homecoming you must be having! How I wish I could be there to see it. I cannot even imagine how many friends are now surrounding you. From my family alone there are three thousand. I look forward to the day when I shall see you again. I am so grateful that we share not only a love of family history but an even deeper love of Jesus Christ. Gwen, I salute you to a life well lived. You have earned your eternal reward. I will miss you for now, but I will see you again.”
Gwen’s passing leaves a void but also a rich legacy of determination, learning, caring, scholarship, and compassion. That we might emulate and build upon it is my prayer.