A Brief Visit To My Ancestral Village of Rastadt,
Ukraine, October 20, 1999
By Suzanne Ellen (Heiser) Crawford, 8416 Lake Crest Terrace, Fairfax, Virginia, 22039
Suzanne Ellen (Heiser) Crawford's four grandparents were born in the Beresan villages of South Russia (now Ukraine) near the end of the 19th century. Her paternal grandparents were George Heiser (born in Katharinental, Ukraine, and Martha Bosch, born in Karlsruhe, Ukraine. Her maternal grandparents both born in or near Rastadt (sometimes spelled Rastatt), Ukraine were Jacob Sticka (son of Ludwig and Monica Jordan Sticka) and Rosa Heidt (daughter of George and Sophie Hebber Heidt (who reportedly lived in Steinfeld, Ukraine). Rosa Heidt's grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Landau, Ukraine.
Our cruise ship, the Norwegian Dream, docked at Odessa at 8:00 a.m. on October 20, 1999 and was scheduled to sail away from Odessa at 6:00 p.m. With about seven hours available to travel, visit and return, Suzanne and husband, Rondal G. Crawford, set out at 9:00 a.m. to make arrangements for a local driver and interpreter to take us approximately 75 miles northeast to the Beresan villages. It was immediately obvious that everyone in the Ukraine is suffering from the incredible failure of the overall economy since the break up of the communist system of Government and independence for the USSR. Due to an excessive amount of bureaucratic bungling by the Odessa Intourist office, we arrived later than planned on the outskirts of Rastadt (current village name in Russian or Ukrainian is Porechye) at approximately 1:00 p.m.
The former German villages we passed through or by on our way to Rastadt (Guldendorf, N. Mannheim, N. Rohrbach, Worms, N. Munchen, N. Rastadt and others) all looked in about the same condition of disrepair and lack of maintenance. We could tell the villages were all laid out in wide streets with homes built by the German pioneers - all looking impressive in consistent architecture but virtually all in great need of repair and paint.
Rastadt was joined for at least 10 km to the main highway (northern route) from Odessa to Nickojew (a good asphalt road) by a very attractive stone surfaced road which has survived pretty much intact, but was very rough and cold not be traveled more than about 15 km per hour. Almost every house had geese, chickens or turkeys and dogs running noisily about making it difficult to talk with local people. While the air was clean and clear, there was a slight odor of farm animals all over the village. We were awe-struck by the utter poverty of everyone. There was no electricity being used, gas, telephones, running water or indoor plumbing. We saw no cars or trucks. Since it was cool (about 50 Degrees F), very few people were outdoors, but we saw no wood-burning or other smoke emanating heat (people simply dressed with layers of old, worn-out clothing and could not afford to heat their homes.)
We did not see any stores in the village, only a school building and a community center where the beautiful church once stood. There was no post office in Rastadt and no mail boxes. A bread truck was dispensing bread door-to-door - we bought a loaf for approximately ten cents - it was stale, but crusty and multi-grain texture. The houses looked all lived in, but on this Wednesday afternoon, there were very few people outside. The people we did see, were all solemn and somewhat aloof, but still approachable. When engaged in conversation with our driver and interpreter, they seemed eager to help. We had absolutely no fear of being robbed, but it was clear all were poor, hungry and trying desperately to survive. We passed an archic sugar beet processing barn. Tons of beets were laying on the ground, uncovered in large piles beside a wooden barn. Eight women were methodically using hand-held sickles to cut off beet tops and undesirable parts of each sugar beet, then piling them in a somewhat unorganized pile. Cabbages and pumpkins were the only small garden crops we saw. The surrounding acreage stretched perhaps a mile or more in all directions and was uncultivated and unused except for a few goats grazing. We did see several old horse-drawn wagons in and around the village. Nearby was a small, modern looking water tower.
To orient ourselves, we asked several people where the church was, and to our amazement, most people did not know the site of the church, but seemed to know it has been destroyed by the Bolsheviks. Finally, an older woman was able to tell us the location of the church, which is the site of a rather unimpressive square "community" building with few windows. We were also told the cemetery had mostly been destroyed and grave markers removed.
To our amazement, one older person told us a 93-year old German man and his family still lived in Rastadt (the only Germans there today). We visited him and think the spelling of his name is Shmaltz or perhaps Schmaltz. We think he said he used the name Iliya Frantosivitch after World War II. We could not make out the name of his wife. His daughter and son-in-law also live with them. Since he has forgotten how to communicate in German and knows little English, we had difficulty getting any specifics. Through the interpreter speaking Ukrainian, we learned that he returned to Rastadt after many years of exile "up north" (probably Siberia) to find, of course, that his beautiful home was owned by Russians. Through hard work and German know-how he was able to eventually own and repair one of the other smaller homes built by the original settlers. While his home and yard looked better and more organized than his non-German neighbors, it was also run down and in need of repairs and maintenance. The main house was a small three-room, plus a small entrance room. Inside it was clean, simply furnished and nicely decorated, but very dark and cold. We noticed Roman Catholic accents on at least two of the living room walls. Across a small garden-like fenced in courtyard, was a wine cellar and small one-room kitchen where we were graciously offered "new (red) wine" and potato pancakes. Here we saw a two-burner propane camp stove. We sat together a few minutes and learned that Mr. Shmaltz' brother had gone to America in 1917 and never heard from again. At this point, he had tears in his eyes. He remembered Ludwig Sticka, and Ludwig's young son, Jacob, but could not recall any of the Heidt's or Jordan's who might have lived in or near Rastadt.
Behind the fenced-in courtyard was a second small fenced in area (six-feet high fence) which contained two old, but good, useable outhouses. My husband used the outhouse and reported it was the standard one-hole variety, but as you might expect from Germans, it was clean and wallpapered perhaps years earlier with an expensive-looking (gray with flowers) victorian-style wallpaper - perhaps partly for warmth. The second courtyard also contained several animal or chicken coops - some near ground level and some a few feet above the ground level. All of these cages were useable looking, but very empty. I think these were earlier used for chickens, geese, rabbits, and turkeys. The high fences perhaps necessary to keep wolves and other predators out.
We were able to tell the German family about some of the former inhabitants of Rastadt who had made their way to North Dakota, but not sure the communication was understood. With our lack of communication, and time running out, we resorted to smiles, back patting and eventually to long hugs after the old man was crying when we said we had to leave. He followed us to our car (where our driver was waiting for us) and waved to us as we drove away. His last words through the interpreter were "Don't let America forget us." It brought tears to our eyes.
Not being prepared to meet anyone with knowledge of Susanne's ancestors, we had nothing to give the German family except for dollars. Had we known, we would have carried much clothing, shoes, toiletries, magazines, books and other disposable items from our cruise ship. Later we regretted not thinking to present them with our pocket knife, umbrella, hat, etc., since these people and all neighbors were in severe need of anything we could give them.
With slow local roads and our time mostly exhausted, we dejectedly missed going on to nearby Katharinental and Karlsruhe as we had wanted so much to do, and headed back to our cruise ship at Odessa. We shall never forget our brief visit to Rastadt and especially to the home of the Shmaltz family. We did not have a still camera but we did get about one hour on our 8 mm video camera. If possible we will send care packages and money to them via GHRS or other appropriate organizations. Ukraine (we also spent a day in and near Yalta) appears to be in a severe economic crisis and needs relief from other countries ASAP. Most say that relief efforts to date have not trickled down below the government and upper classes. The masses are suffering and appear to be in danger of not surviving.
There is almost nothing today that is quaint or pretty about the man-made improvements to the attractive Ukrainian countryside. But an informed eye can unmistakenly detect the existing remnants of many formerly flourishing German villages with mostly unimproved and uncultivated rolling farmland between them. An occasional collective farm (forced on the landowners under communism and still operating today), will give a military-like appearance with their fortified fences, barracks, barns, and other bureaucratic buildings in the middle of large wheat fields.
A surprise to us was the undeniable beauty of the overall landscape. The wide expanse of land between Odessa and Rastadt was mostly gently rolling hills and relatively flat valleys with enough rivers and creeks to break the monotony. Another surprise were the trees. Virtually all the villages, roadsides, creeks and rivers were covered with thick and tall hardwood trees which gave a pleasing appearance to the vast grasslands. Most likely the former German owners planted many or most of these trees - especially the walnuts, olive trees, and various kinds of poplars. A third surprise was the relatively warm and long Fall which extends through October providing a surprisingly long growing season which easily accommodates winter wheat and other winter grain crops.
The Ukraine was a shining success story during the 100 years preceding the communist takeover. It was the breadbasket of Russia. With over 300 beautiful villages built and maintained by German settlers brought in by Czar Alexander I, the Ukraine was a genuine showplace. But this relative paradise was beginning to Erode during the 1890's and became a tragedy of historic proportions during the Bolshevik Revolution. Whatever recants of civility and beauty remained were brutally crushed by Stalinists immediately after World War II. Probably over one-million German speaking people in the Ukraine survived World War II. Most of these were German Roman Catholics with some Lutherans and Mennonites. Every last one of these Germans were either murdered or forced like cattle onto rail freight cars and with many deaths enroute deported to Siberia.
The hundreds of German villages stretched over 200 miles in a continuous crescent west, north and east to Odessa. These beautiful and flourishing villages were completely emptied of their rightful owners and mercilessly pilfered. Gradually various non-Germans (probably mostly poorer Ukrainians) were allowed to occupy and eventually own the former German properties. These tragic events accelerated Ukraine's slide into economic ruin.
Economic failure has apparently worsened since the fall of communism and independence from the USSR in 1989. The masses of the people today are in utter poverty and in rather urgent need of relief efforts.
Contact Elvira P. Zakharova of the General Agency for Tourism in Odessa Region, 14 Bunina Str., Odessa 270026, Ukraine, Tel: (380-482) 25-52-88, 22-31-43, FAX (380-482), 22-74-17, 25-93-83, E-mail email@example.com. Elvira speaks good English, and is very familiar with the former German villages, maps, current village names, etc. She can meet you with a driver at your cruise ship in Odessa if you are arriving by ship. If she is available, you should also get Elvira to maximize the quality of time you will spend in the former German villages. We used Maya Potapenko as our interpreter and without her, we would not have made contact with the Shmaltz German family in Rastadt.
If you plan to stay overnight in the Ukraine, you will also need a Visa. For a day trip only, all you will likely need is a passport and other picture ID plus boarding passes to show you are returning to your cruise ship. You should take several $1.00 bills to use as gifts/tips. Since those residing in the former German villages are in such deep poverty, they will appreciate anything you can give them. But U.S. dollars are particularly desired because of the exchange rate.
It will cost you $150 - $200 for a driver, gasoline and interpreter for about six to eight hours. Most of this will go to the General Agency for Tourism, so you might consider tipping the driver (who will likely get $40 including gasoline which is very expensive), and the interpreter (who will likely get $20). If you get your cruise ship Shore Excursions Officer to make the arrangements (like we did - not knowing better) they will likely charge you an additional $150.