Weigel Honored for Preserving Heritage
Every village settled by the Volga Germans had a storyteller.
Lawrence Weigel does not claim that title for himself, but the Hays resident does know a lot of stories. And songs. And jokes.
Weigel’s knowledge of Volga German folklore turned him into a local speaker and tour guide. But his writings and research also made him known outside Hays and Kansas by scholars and devotees of the subject.
Last month, Weigel’s contributions on the local, state, national and international levels were recognized at a conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia named Weigel as recipient of its top honor, the Distinguished Service Award.
Despite its name, the AHSGR is an international organization with more than 10,000 members.
Weigel has picked up his share of plaques over the years, but this one “means an awful lot,” he said.
The 78-year-old Weigel did not travel to Canada for the convention, so the award will be presented to him at a reception Sunday at Kennedy Middle School cafeteria. The reception is from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.
Weigel grew up in Victoria, a second-generation American. But the Volga German heritage shared by so many immigrant families to Ellis County became a vivid part of his childhood.
They were the descendants of Germans who migrated to the Volga River region in Russia in the 1700s, with their descendants leaving Russia for America in the 1800s.
Weigel can recall listening to the old men playing cards, telling stories and jokes in German. Many youths find little interest in hearing stories about the past. Not Weigel. His fascination started at a young age and stuck.
A German dialect was spoken in many Volga German homes in Ellis County, but it was during a four-year stint in a seminary in Pennsylvania that Weigel learned “high German.”
He is comfortable speaking, reading and writing in German – and offers his translation skills free of charge.
His latest translation task involved taking a letter written in English by a woman in Dodge City and translating and typing it in German. He will send it back to Dodge City so the letter writer can sign it and mail it overseas.
Weigel, who played the trumpet and sang in local bands, figures he played at an average of 100 dances a year – for about 30 years.
It was his collaboration with Ellis Countian Nick Pfannenstiel in the 1950s, however, that led to the written preservation of German songs. No longer did generations have to rely on the oral tradition to remember the songs of their parents or grandparents.
The two worked in tandem. Pfannenstiel played and sang, while Weigel put it on paper. Pfannenstiel died in the late 1950s, but Weigel carried on, compiling hundreds of German songs.
Weigel and his wife Elizabeth raised four children. A basement room in the family home on Centennial Boulevard became what Weigel called “my Volga German room.”
He worked at Allied Inc., but some nights he would stay up until 11 p.m. or midnight, working on Volga German history in his basement.
The neat but compact room contains the tools of an historian and folklorist: a manual Royal typewriter, an electric organ, and a cassette tape machine.
Tapes of speeches and songs are shelved and labeled. Five and a half years’ worth of weekly columns about Volga German traditions written for The Ellis County Star are bound in a collection.
“I’m a great guy for documenting,” he said.
Weigel’s current projects are translating the German diaries of his great-great-grandfather Joseph Linenberger. He also professes excitement about delving into the census records that are becoming available of Volga River villages in Russia.
Weigel was nominated for the AHSGR award by Leona Pfeifer of Hays and Rupert Pfannenstiel of Munjor. They, like Weigel, are members of the AHSGR Sunflower Chapter.
“Equally as important as his accomplishments,” Pfeifer and Pfannenstiel wrote in their nomination, “is his unselfish willingness to share all of his material to help anyone seeking assistance.”
Weigel contributed hundreds of items to the ethnic collection at Fort Hays State University’s Forsyth Library. When plans were announced to create a Volga German House in Hays and fill it with memorabilia, Weigel, who was now retired, went out in his pickup to pick up donations. The Volga House is west of the Ellis County Historical Museum at 100 W. Seventh.
Bell’s palsy now affects Weigel’s speech, but he finds “it’s funny” he can still sing.
“It’s just been a work of love,” said Weigel, who delights in showing a letter written by a nephew in California.
The nephew, Ed Weigel, traveled to Ellis County in 1990 for a family reunion. The Volga German’s story impressed him.
“When I was young if I had known who I was and what I was my life would have been easier,” Ed Weigel wrote.
“What emerged was an exciting and fascinating story. I was not the product of ignorant old country peasants, that I was led to believe. Our people were a bold, adventurous lot with great courage and strength of character. ... They were not just a part of the world, they helped shape the world.”
For Lawrence Weigel, that has been the driving force behind his labors, and also his reward: “To get young people to realize they were from great stock.”