Finding her Roots Reaps Indescribable Experience

Holstege, Sean. "Finding her Roots Reaps Indescribable Experience." Tri-Valley Herald, 10 July 1996.

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA - When Marge Jergentz-Stout arrived in Friedenstal she sobbed, overcome by a "tremendously deep sorrow."

All the gravestones were gone. They were stacked neatly in a cow pasture some distance away. The town, west of the Ukrainian city of Odessa, was renamed Mirnopolje.

When Adolph Hitler marched his armies on the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin sent all of Mirnopolje's German-speaking inhabitants to fight or on cattle cars to harvest trees in Siberia. For every tree they cut in the labor camp, they got a slice of bread to supplement a diet of insects. Many died.

Jergentz-Stout, a Livermore woman who teaches people how to write their family histories, had no family left in the place she recently visited as a village coordinator for several heritage groups.

She sobbed, too, because she never thought such a journey would be possible. Only the painstaking research of German-Russian genealogists made it possible.

"I never dreamed in my lifetime I could ever research my father's side of the family," Jergentz-Stout said.

"Standing in the place that they had stood so long ago is just an indescribable experience. It brings a person full-circle. It's a completion. It's like coming home," she said.

Jergentz-Stout returned last week to Livermore with a huge round loaf of bread. In family custom, each member broke off a piece and dipped it in salt--symbolizing their bond.

She had just returned from a two-week exodus to trace her roots. Friedenstal was the second leg. The week before, Jergentz-Stout joined the first U.S. delegation to attend a conference in Stuttgart, where the German government tries to repatriate Russians of German ancestry and link them with local relatives.

Some 65,000 lined up at tables to find their relatives. Many were separated by the war, half a century ago. Jergentz-Stout watched the reunion of two long-lost cousins there.

The trip to Germany and Ukraine was arranged by North Dakota State University.

Germans began settling parts of Ukraine three centuries ago, at the invitation of Catherine the Great, who wanted to repopulate land that had been retaken from the Turks. The Lutheran Germans were happy to flee the turmoil of the Reformation.

Modern residents of Mirnopolje--including a family from Chernobyl living in the home of Jergentz-Stout's great-great-grandfather--have no knowledge of that history. As they shared a meal, the family admitted having no idea the village was once Friedenstal and that the sports center was once a Lutheran church.

Jergentz-Stout's family arrived in Friedenstal in the 1830s and stayed until the 1880s. Then it emigrated to the United States. In 1921, her grandfather went to work in wineries near Lodi.

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