Journey to the Homeland June 8-24, 1996
A travelogue by Brother Placid Gross
Assumption Abbey, Richardton, North Dakota
"Da Haam in Russland" (at home in Russia). This is a phrase I often heard starting from the time when I was still quite small. As a child, I had a picture in my mind of how it was in some far away place; indeed it was so far away that one could never, ever go there. Maybe there were no roads going there anymore, or maybe it was so far away that nobody even knew where it was anymore. The older people talked about the good land, the nice and many kinds of fruit they could grow there, the beautiful churches, and so much more. I remember Grandpa Gross talking about "da Haam in Russland". He said it was not nearly as cold there as here in North Dakota. He said they would have two weeks of real cold weather, then alternating freezing and warm days with a lot of mud. When the Fourth of July came, and along with it all the noisy firecrackers, one elderly lady in Richardton said "da Haam in Russland" we did not have this holiday.
When I was a young adult (30 years ago), newspaper articles and books began appearing and I was able to read about our history and study some maps. Now I could see and believe that there actually is a city of Odessa, and a Black Sea. There actually are small farming villages where all the farmers live in town and every cow knows her yard (home) when the entire herd comes in from pasture every evening. The grandparents actually did come from a land that is real.
After many years of dreaming and months of yearning and planning, the great day of traveling finally came. On June 8, 1996, a small group of us met at the Bismarck airport and we picked up some more fellow travelers at the Minneapolis airport. The tour was sponsored by North Dakota State University at Fargo, North Dakota, with Michael M. Miller as the tour guide and director. Earlier, we all had received special T-shirts with the imprint JOURNEY TO THE HOMELAND. It also had the flags of the United States, Germany, and Ukraine. By wearing these T-shirts, we were able to find our fellow pilgrims in the large airports. It was great to meet and get acquainted with those with whom we had so much in common. Our total group was 30 persons. Each one was a descendant of Germans from Russia. For some, it was the parents who were born in Russia, but all had grandparents who were born in Russia. One man was from South Dakota while all the other 29 had roots in North Dakota.
Now in more recent years, many have moved and were from places like Washington, California, Arizona, Arkansas, Virginia, and Minnesota. There were pairs of sisters, pairs of brothers, pairs of cousins, married couples, single people, parents with adult children, etc. The one thing we all had in common was that we all were in search of our roots. All of us wanted to see that land across the water, so far away from where we had sprung. My brother, Pius Gross from Phoenix, was one of the travelers. That was nice as we were roommates and were able to share our common interest.
In 1914, when the First World War began, the gates of Russia were closed and no one could leave Russia anymore. A few years after that, the mail did not go through anymore and all contact with family members ceased. During the Second World War in the 1940's, the remaining Germans in Russia were exiled to Siberia and other places thousands of miles from home where hundreds of thousands of them froze and starved to death. Every German from Russia who had come to America had some family who stayed behind in Russia. However, since there was no contact, it was as if a big vacuum had sucked up our people along with all our history. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, there again was a possibility of traveling and researching in the land of our ancestors. Everyone in our group had an eagerness, a longing, an expectancy. We want to see the land from where our roots had sprung.
Now, back to our travel. When one travels so fast across so many time zones, strange things happen to the clock in your body and also to the clock on your wrist. I kept track of the schedule to show why one gets the illness known as "jet lag". I left Richardton at 7:00 a.m., which means I was up about two hours already before that. The plane left Bismarck around 11:00, and we left Minneapolis at 3:30 p.m. At 5:00 p.m. Central Time, we were served supper. The sun set at 6:30, but being we were way higher than any hills or mountains the sky never did get dark. At 9:30 p.m. by my watch (four and one half hours after supper), it was time for breakfast. This meal consisted of pieces of melons, grapes, rolls, coffee, and tea. Oh yes, before breakfast the stewardesses came with a steaming hot, damp, washcloth which we used to freshen up our faces so that we could feel and pretend to look as if we had a good and long night's sleep.
At 10:00 p.m. Central Time, it was broad daylight and the sun was rising fast in the eastern sky. At 11:00 p.m. we landed at Amsterdam, Holland. Now I turned my watch forward seven hours to make it 6:00 in the morning. It was seven and one half hours flying time and I did not sleep even one wink. Now, tired or not, we are well into a new day. At Amsterdam, we changed planes. Now being on a different plane, we were served breakfast again. This time, it was an egg omelet which tasted really great! At Vienna, Austria, we had a four hour lay over. As we relaxed, we noticed that jet lag was setting in. From Vienna, Austria, to Odessa, it was arranged that we fly by Austrian airlines so as to avoid the poor Russian airplane. We had a wonderful Austrian meal of hot buns, cold ham, and cold (cooked) asparagus. We also received a large mint candy with a note that it was Father's Day in Austria, and this was a special treat.
With all the horror stories I had heard of how poor things are in Russia, I hoarded all the little extra leftovers that I did not use such as the packets of salt, pepper, sugar, jelly, butter, napkins and also the bottle of mineral water. A German proverb says "Save in time of plenty and you will have in time of need". It was one and one half hours from Vienna to Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine). As the plane lowered and circled, all of us were wide-eyed as we got the first glimpse of the Steppes (prairie land) in Russia. There we saw the Black Sea and the endless, flat land - one could not help but be filled with emotion. Even in their wildest imagination, the grandparents could never have thought that 100 years after they left, we would be making this historic tour to the Homeland. And the way we came "flying like a bird" would have been unimaginable. When they came to America, it took a minimum of three weeks and now we went back in less than one day.
Along the runway of the Odessa airport, we viewed rows and rows of old, rusted-out military airplanes. It's hard to know whether they are there for showing or if they just never got around to hauling them to the junk iron dealer. The grass beside the runway is tall weeds and not mowed. This was the first impression of the former Soviet Union as compared to western Europe where most things are as neat as can be.
Centuries ago, this was the country of Ukraine. But in 1764, it came under complete Russian jurisdiction. When the Czar of Russia invited our ancestors to come and live here, it was Russia. In 1990, when the Soviet Union broke up this country claimed its independence and once again became the Ukraine. Our ancestors came from Russia, but now we are visiting the same place and it is Ukraine. (Russia is another country farther north).
Entering the country through the Odessa airport was like a military experience. First, we noticed the very rough and broken up runway (tarmac). The building itself is in a bad state of repair. The first room that we entered and stood in while waiting did not have a light that worked. The only light was through holes in the roof. It seems that we went through half a dozen check points where we had to show our visas, passports, and the sheet we filled out; which among other things showed how much money we were bringing with us. The people behind the desks wore what looked like military uniforms, none of them smiled, all were very stern, and most were smoking cigarettes. It seemed to take an awful long time. The luggage was brought from the plane with something like an open stock trailer, and it was slow in getting there. There were no conveyer belts and we had to get it ourselves and carry it up some stairs., The public bathrooms (toilets) was an experience in itself. In the men's room, the light did not work so the door had to be left open to be able to see. The toilet did not flush. The smell coming through the doorway was intolerable so that people in the lobby would push the door shut. The bench along the wall in the lobby had a broken leg on one end so that the bench slanted down to the floor. The people on the low end of the bench were real close to the floor.
It took almost two hours to go through this small air terminal and we were the only plane coming in at that time. Why does it take so long? Being travel weary and impatient, the emotions among our group ranged from silly laughing to getting angry. We were getting a very tiny glimpse of the former Soviet Union, except under communism it was much worse yet. One member of our group summed it up with the words "they sure are not tourist friendly". Now having described my first impression of Russia, I will not dwell on this topic any further. It was different after we walked through the front door and into the nice, warm, and friendly sun and saw our nice Intourist bus waiting to take us to the hotel. Just as friendly as the sun were the people who welcomed us to Ukraine. There was Elvira, the city guide; Irena, who made all arrangements with the hotel for lodging and meals; the interpreters and general helpers, Sergey and the other Sergey, Svetlana, Irena, Olga, and Pavel; Valery the medical doctor; and perhaps several others whose names I cannot remember.
Our lodging was at the Chornoye More Hotel, which in our language is translated Black Sea Hotel. For seven nights we stayed here, so we did not have to pack and move often. All the meals were in the hotel dining room. The menu was especially designed for Americans and was somewhat better than the average meal would be for the natives.
Before going, we were duly warned to be very careful about what we eat because of contracting certain germs or diseases. Among other precautions we were not to eat any raw fruit or vegetables that we do not peel ourselves, and not to eat certain kinds of fish. We should not drink water from the tap, or even brush our teeth with their water. I went with good intentions of being careful. I even took along some stuff to put into the water to purify it.
Shortly after arriving at the hotel, we were served our first meal. The table was very nicely set and decorated and even had fresh flowers in the center. The first course was cucumbers, fresh from the garden, not peeled but sliced very thin, tomatoes from the garden, fresh strawberries, and some other greens, smoked salmon, and a tiny slice of bread decorated with caviar. The main dish was breaded fried chicken breast which was very good along with about eight (8) peas (one teaspoon full). Now my dilemma!!! How can I peel a strawberry, or cucumbers, and tomatoes that are already sliced? If these vegetables were washed at all, surely the water was from the regular faucet and not with special, sterilized bottled water. The bread and caviar were touched by hands that were washed in ordinary water. I sized up the situation and realized that in one week I will be mighty hungry and even thinner than I already am, which I would not want to be. I quickly decided to eat everything on the table and not to worry a lot about "precautions". Two days later, I even drank the water people offered me in the villages and ate their cherries that were washed in water from the garden hose. Fortunately, I never had any ill effects from the water. One of our men was sick one day. He thought he probably got it from eating cottage cheese in a private home.
My room was on the 10th floor of the eleven story hotel, so I had a fairly good view of the city. From the hallway, we could see the Black Sea. The sky was full of birds swooping and flying in circles and every one was squawking about something. They were similar, but larger than our swallows and I imagine they were catching mosquitoes. (We also had been advised to bring insect repellent, but I never saw even one mosquito.)
Monday June 10--Breakfast at 7:30. Two kinds of bread, jelly, a very tiny sliver of butter, cucumbers, and tiny slices of sausage that contained a lot of fat. The second course was potato patties and warm milk to use with the coffee. This is the last meal that I wrote down what we ate. I would say that all the meals were adequate and nourishing. The sliced cucumbers were there at every meal; morning, noon, and evening. Possibly it is a different brand of cucumbers, as the peeling seemed to be not so hard and not bitter. Noticeably absent were all the American style, overly sweet desserts. There always was a choice of either coffee or tea, but always only one cup. The word for coffee sounds like the way we say it, but tea is "chai". The kitchen ladies brought the plates already dished up. That way, there was no possibility of a second helping and no food was wasted.
At 9:00 a.m. on our first day, there was a Press Conference with an Odessa newspaper called WORD. There were two reporters (men) and one translator. They asked questions about our group and what we are looking for and are hoping to find and see. Michael Miller, our boss, along with Lewis and Dona Marquart were our spokespersons. Michael said, that for us, it is a week long seminar rather than a week of fun and leisure. Later, there was a big article about us in the newspaper, but I do not know what it said.
At 10:00, we left for a bus tour of the city with Elvira, who was our guide all week long. Odessa was founded as recently as 1794, so it is not an ancient city. It is laid out straight and square. The sidewalks are very wide and the streets are very wide with a row of trees between the streets and sidewalks. The large shade trees are white acacia, horse chestnut, maple, and sycamore.
Surely the most visited tourist attraction in Odessa is the Potemkin Staircase. It is concrete stairs that lead from a main street of the city down to the harbor of the Black Sea. There are 192 steps with landings about every 14 steps. The top is about 100 feet wide (my guess) but much wider at the bottom. The way it is designed gives it the appearance of being much longer than it actually is.
The opera house is one of three great opera houses in the world. I never did get to see the inside, however, a few of our group were able to go to a ballet one evening. There are a number of statues of famous people around the town. There are 14 nice, sandy beaches within the city. Otherwise, the shoreline is rugged, rocky cliffs. We did not have time for a swim in the Black Sea, but I did take off my shoes and got my feet wet by a small wave. For noon lunch, we were back at the hotel and did more sight seeing in the afternoon.
After supper, the bus took us across town to the Bavarian House. This is a place where German people promote German culture and various German educational programs. They had set up a very large display of wonderful photos of the former German villages (our ancestral homes). They gave explanations of what they do at this Bavarian House while Sergey translated into English. One humorous word was when he got the word "Kindergarten" and he translated it as "childs-garden". Of course, that word all of us knew. Groups of children and young ladies put on an excellent musical program. Last, but not least, were the sweet goodies and koolaid.
Tuesday, June 11- At 8:15 a.m., was the moment of great excitement for which we had come. We left the city for our ancestral home villages. It was arranged that, as far as possible, everyone would get to see the area from where their ancestors had come. About four different cars or small buses (vans) headed out in four different directions. Each van had a Ukrainian driver and one translator.
There were eleven in my group going to the Kutschurgan Colony. This group of six original towns is on the east side of the Kutschurgan River and are fairly close together and hence the title KUTSCHURGAN COLONY. This was a solid area of Catholics. When some of these Kutschurganers came to America, they settled approximately from Aberdeen to Hague, Napoleon, Harvey, Rugby, Devils Lake, and up into Canada. Our group had fairly easy traveling since all our towns are only about 35 to 45 miles northwest of Odessa. The road is somewhat like Highway 83 from Bismarck to Strasburg, ND, except here the pavement is broken up. The land is fairly level with rolling hills. The water drains off into streams and then into the river, as I did not notice any lakes or potholes.
The first of our villages is Mannheim (the Russian name now is Kamenka). The former Catholic church is easily visible as it sits on a small hill almost in the center of town, so we stopped here. All that is left of this church are the sturdy walls built of cut stone. The steeple was torn down by the communists in the 1930's. I believe the building was used for grain storage, but was abandoned when the roof caved in. The floor also is gone and some weeds are struggling to get established. There still are two rows of large pillars standing. High up on the pillars and on the walls, one can still see crosses in the plaster and cherubs (small angels). Otherwise, everything of religion has been forcefully removed. The eight, large windows on each side were closed with brick. Around the church, there is a large, vacant area which is mostly just a goat pasture.
Mannheim is the village (farm town) where my Gross ancestors headed for when they left Germany in 1830. The Grosses were not with the original colonists, but were a family traveling alone. The legend that has been passed down in our family is that my great, great, great, grandfather died on the way to Russia at the age of 35. We do not know where he was buried. The widow Martha (Fahrni) had to stay over winter at Radziwilow, a town on the border of Russia. Here, she had to sell the wagon and oxen for food. In spring, she and the four or five children continued on foot to Mannheim. Being that they were not among the original settlers, they did not get any free land. The oldest boy, Mathias (my great, great grandfather, age 12), along with the younger ones hired out as cow herders for the village of Mannheim.
Now here we were, Pius and I, so many years later. We are in a totally strange place and the people are strangers but somehow there is a feeling of home. One cannot help but to become emotional as we stand here taking in the sights and sounds of the surroundings and imagining what it was like when this was home to our ancestors. There are many emotions that stir in the soul. All one can do is snap a lot of pictures and try to absorb as much as possible in the short time that there is.
In a little while, we were already in Selz (the present Russian name is Limanskoje). Selz is the former home of my Vetter ancestors. My mother's father and grandparents lived here before coming to North Dakota. Many of my customs, traditions, and dialect were formed and nourished in this village. This was the largest village and the administrative center in my grandparents' day. The church here (of course now in ruins) is massive. It is big, big, big! The windows are enormous. As far as I know, my grandfather left here when the church was still in the planning and building stage and that they never saw the finished product. But surely they heard of the building progress with every new immigrant arrival in Emmons County.
During the early communist era, the church steeple was torn down and anything that looked like religion was taken out and destroyed. The roof and vaulted ceiling are still intact. The glass is out of the windows and the doors are gone. Even the floor has been carried away. All that is standing are the sturdy, thick, rock walls. In my mind's eye, I could picture the very ornate main altar, and the side altars. There had been a hand carved wooden pulpit, the pipe organ with the many pipes. It was such a big, beautiful church and then barely 40 years later it was destroyed. After 50 or 60 years of neglect, it is amazing how the walls are still standing and actually seem to be quite solid.
Around the church, there is quite a large vacant area which is crisscrossed by paths leading from one side of town to the other. The grass is good pasture for the dairy goats which are tethered everywhere.
In this town of Selz, we had arrangements to meet with a 76-year-old lady by the name of Antonina (Welk) Ivanova, who is a third cousin to the famous Lawrence Welk. In 1944, she was deported along with every other German person, but after three years she and her sister came back. They were perhaps the only two people who were allowed to return to their original village but still not to their own house. Even so, she said "for a long time, every night the Communist police would come and interrogate them". This Antonina is a marvelous person to visit with and to get some history of how it once was in a German village. She speaks the German dialect exactly as my aunts or my mother would, except she does not use any English words. I relish every minute that we were with her, although it was much too short. At a community hall, Antonina had arranged a home cooked meal for our group. The food was excellent and of great variety. Several women from the town prepared the meal and our group paid for it. During the course of the meal, Antonina sang several Ukrainian songs and some German songs. There was one beer drinking song that I remembered from my father and his friends singing at name's day parties when I was quite little.
Before the meal, as I was taking pictures of the church, a lady happened to be walking home from shopping and noticed me "an outsider". She hollered "are you a German?" I answered that I am a German from America. She introduced herself and would not let me go until I promised that I would come to her house also. After the meal, Pius and I ran over to her house. This lady is Louisa Riesling. Here is a brief history of her life. She is 60 years old, so she was born in 1935 or 1936. In 1937, her father was shot by the communists, her mother taken away. Louisa and her brother were taken to an orphanage. The mother was not allowed to use her husband's name anymore and the children were not allowed to use their father's name (which was Mautner) so they took on the mother's maiden name which was Riesling. During the war years, Louisa went through all the suffering like everyone else, but in recent years she had been living in Latvia. She had some family documents, and through a lot of political paperwork, she was allowed to come back in 1990 and reclaim her family home. Five families had been living in the house, but the government moved them out into other apartments. Louisa has a husband who does not speak German; she has four children, but only the youngest, a 16 year old daughter, lives here.
Louisa told us of how the house had been changed and the yard was such a mess. They hauled out many truckloads of garbage from the yard before they could establish a garden again. She and the family are in the process of completely remodeling the house and installing indoor plumbing. With the left-over rocks from part of the house, they are building a kitchen. (We would call it a summer kitchen). She showed us the back yard with the fruit trees and garden. They have a pen of chickens and a few goats. The garden area goes right down to the water's edge of the Kutchurgan River. The old German houses did not have basements, but everyone had a large root cellar. At this house, the root cellar with a large outside entrance goes down under the house. The root cellar is enormously large and architecturally well designed. From the root cellar, there is also a narrow spiral stairway up to the kitchen. She gave Pius a half-gallon of homemade apricot juice from the shelf. It was delicious. We drank it back at the hotel. Pius brought the jar home with him. She said that she had an uncle with the Riesling name who was a priest. He was shot by the communists and is buried in this town, but she cannot identify the grave anymore. It was such a joy to visit with her, as she spoke our dialect; but, as always, our van was moving and we had to go with the group. In Selz, I also met two other quite elderly German women, but did not have time for much visiting. One is Emma (Braun) Vogel; the other is Eva Zander, whose father is Balzer Zander, and grandfather was Joseph Zander.
We were scheduled for a visit at the Selz school. One classroom was filled with children and about five teachers. Our group had all collected and brought with us school supplies; that is crayons, pencils, rulers, paper, notebooks, and etc. Each one of us carried about one suitcase full of these things. Our leader spoke in English and Svetlana translated into Ukrainian. We told them that we had come to see the home of our parents and grandparents and that we brought gifts from the children in America to the children in Ukraine.
Next, we went to the school in Kandel which is another village just a few miles away. In fact, I think the two have now grown into one continuous town. The Russian name for Kandel is Rybal'skoje. One classroom was filled with children around the age of 10, along with several teachers and other adults. Karl Lacher, our spokesperson, explained to them that his grandfather had been a school teacher in this same building 100 years ago. The children were allowed to ask questions and I was impressed by their politeness. To ask a question, children would stand up and wait to be recognized before they spoke. In this school, we left the school supplies with the teachers to be passed out later on as was needed. Our group did open one great big box. I can still see the open mouths and wide eyes of the children when they saw it was a revolving globe.
When we arrived at the school yard in Kandel, there was a group of about 12 men and women to welcome us to their town. They had a small table with a colorful table cloth upon which sat a large loaf of bread and a small dish of salt. They had done the same for us at Selz. This is the Ukrainian way of welcoming visitors to their village or home. The guests are supposed to tear off a piece of bread and dip it into the salt before eating it.
In this group, there were several elderly people who were German and could speak the language. One woman had a father, or was it her grandfather, who was Peter Vetter, the same name as my mother's maiden name. I am sure she has to be my relative, but we could not establish any common ancestor in this short period of time. I showed these people a photo of the homemade iron grave markers that we have in the old cemeteries in North Dakota. They said "Ya, that is exactly what our cemeteries looked like". They added that many cross grave markers had a photo in the center and that the cemeteries were so nice and now everything is in ruins.
After the stop at the school in Kandel, we walked a short distance to a winery. The manager of the winery, a man about 40 years old, is a German from the Volga area. The winery is part of the government collective farm. It is a big wine factory with very large "grain bins," and several very large buildings house the huge wine vats and big machinery. At the end of the tour, one of their ladies ran quite a ways to get glasses to let us sample their wine. As it turned out, very few of our group wanted to taste the wine. Some thought the surroundings were not sanitary enough. As part of the winery or collective farm, there were also quite a few pens with pigs. The pens were primitive and a lot of manual labor is needed to do the work. Also, the pigs squealed just like they would here in North Dakota.
Wednesday, June 12--Our group of 27 again spread out in different directions to see our ancestral territories. My group of 12 again stopped at the Mannheim church being that it is right on the main road. From here, our translator had to get directions for Georgenthal which now has the Russian name of Sakretarka. Four of us wanted to see Georgenthal which is a daughter village and was started in 1857. According to my maps, it is only two or three miles from Mannheim but we drove at least 10 or 15 miles. Perhaps that was the best road? My Gross ancestors came from Mannheim and were among the original settlers when Georgenthal was started in 1857. This town was small, and still is small, with only one street and about 60 houses. The church had been a mission from Mannheim and is small compared to some of the other really big ones. We stopped in front of the church and, as in every village, there were people walking the dusty streets. Actually, there are very few cars in any of the small towns. We were told that the former church is now a community hall for dances and meetings. The steeple is gone and a second floor has been put in so that it is two stories. The top floor is the office for the Collective Farm. A few of us went in and up the old choir loft stairs. A corridor goes down the middle with offices on either side. The office staff smiled and welcomed us in but when one cannot speak the language it is difficult to ask any questions. The office space seemed crowded and the furniture and equipment looked outdated compared to our up-to-date Government Farm Service Agency Office.
The Peter and Magdalena Gross family, who now live in Canada, had told me that their house had been the second one to the right of the church. As far as I know, this would have been the original Gross family home. Very likely, it was built by my great, great, grandfather. I took several pictures, but did not try to visit with the people in the yard.
Next, I hurried on to the end of the town. Gabriel and Oskar Gross, who are in Germany now, and are second cousins to my father, asked me to take pictures of their former house. They told me that it is the third last one from the end. I took quite a few pictures here. Our translator now caught up with me and we explained to the lady by the door what we are doing. The far end of the house is falling down and, in general, all of it looks dilapidated. I never got inside a former German house that now is occupied by Russian people.
Beyond the Gabriel Gross house, the street turns into a rutted out trail and a few blocks farther and to the left, we came to the cemetery. This is the new cemetery, but there are old concrete bases lying around which most likely are from the German iron grave crosses. My Gross great, great grandparents were laid to rest somewhere in this cemetery, but of course there is no possibility of knowing the exact spot. I simply sat on a concrete base and offered a prayer. The newer graves of the Ukrainian people have nice upright granite markers with photos on some of them. They also use some simple iron crosses. Many graves have a wrought iron fence around them.
From Georgenthal, we went to Elsass. Always, the first stop is at the former church. Our Ukrainian drivers and translators do not understand what we are about. Why would we want to waste time looking at a building that is in ruins? What does it all mean? At Elsass, the church is another Palace Of Culture and, from the outside, seems to be in good condition. Of course, the steeple is gone so it looks simply like a nice building. We did not see the inside. Also, we did not take time to look for the cemetery here.
A relative of mine from Germany had written me several letters during the last year insisting that I look up an old friend of his in the town of Elsass. The name is Anton Tscheremush, he is a gypsy, is Russian, but speaks the German dialect. A group of women directed me to a house on the next block, so Svetlana our interpreter walked with me. The man at this house told us that Anton Tscheremush, the gypsy, died last year but pointed out the house where his widow and daughter live. It was almost a fourth of a mile but we could see the house on the outskirts of the village. Now that I think about it, I believe this man must have been German because I understood some of the words. I also was supposed to look up a German by the name of Volk in this town, but there simply was no time. Our group was ready to move on and the only reason our van had come here was because of me and the gypsy. Anton is gone and I did not know if the widow would have known my cousin in Germany, so I was willing to go too.
Our tour bosses had packed a picnic lunch, which we ate around a Russian statue behind the church in Kandel. I believe this is also the exact spot where a number of our German people were executed for their faith. Kandel is the town that my Schmaltz great, great, great grandparents helped build in 1808. This is my mother's mother's family. The church here is huge, a magnificent and architecturally beautiful building. This, of course, is true of all these Catholic churches. The church is big enough to have 14 large windows on either side. Now the steeple is gone, and the windows are boarded shut. In the 1930's, when religion was not allowed anymore, the church was converted into a grain storage for the collective farm. By the front door, a dirt ramp was built over the steps so the trucks could drive into the door, and a door was added on back behind where the altar used to be so that the grain trucks could drive out the back. The building does not seem to be used for anything anymore, but was still it locked so we could not see the inside.
The old German cemetery is to the right of the church and up the hill a couple of blocks. Here, we saw a number of concrete bases that once held the German homemade iron cross grave markers. Also, we found about five iron crosses lying around. They are very battered and bent out of shape. Also, there are mounds of dirt and sunken graves, but it does make a good goat pasture. I am sure that I walked over the graves of some of my Schmaltz ancestors and cousins. I might add, that when the Schmaltz family came to America in 1893, they came from a daughter village called New Kandel. Just when they moved from here to help start the new village, I really do not know.
Thursday June 13--After breakfas,t we again headed out to our respective home areas. At Selz, we picked up Antonina, the lady who has been our most valuable adviser about the olden days. She seems to remember where certain graves were in the old German cemetery. (You must remember that all the markers have been forcefully removed from the German graveyards.) If I got my story correct, there was a chapel here and in the basement of the chapel is where the priests were buried. All that remains now is a concrete foundation. Bishop Anton Zerr (a son of the early German colonists) was buried in the crypt. He was one of the last clergy to be shot in this area. As I mentioned before, Bishop Joseph Werth from Siberia was a member of our group and doing the same research as the rest of us. His ancestors also were Germans who came to Russia. Here in this cemetery, we had a short prayer service and Bishop Werth blessed the graves as we prayed for, and to, our departed "landsleute" (fellow country men). Being the cemetery is just up the hill a very short distance from the school, it is a combination of playground and goat pasture. The area is overgrown with weeds and lilac bushes. These hardy lilac bushes, which seem to live forever, are for me the connecting link with my relatives buried here to my family in North Dakota. At the moment, it is difficult to put into words the emotions I felt, to see, feel, and smell these lilac bushes. I could not think of the name for the lilacs in our dialect until Antonina called them "syringa". The new cemetery begins where the old cemetery ends. Antonina's sister died two years ago, so we visited that grave also.
While the others looked at the church one more time, I ran over to Louisa's house. I brought her a stuffed Easter bunny and a box of 98 color crayons for the grandchildren. However, my main reason for going there was that I needed to have another look at the large type Russian stove that our old people talked about. It is a combination cook and heating stove that is built into the corner to heat four adjoining rooms. Louisa was pasteurizing milk in a kettle on the stove. I asked what that was because it must be about 50 years since I had seen milk being pasteurized that way. She then offered me a drink of milk. Well, I could not possibly and graciously refused.
By the front door of Louisa's house, I got interested in a stack of red roof tiles and ended up lugging one home to North Dakota. The imprint says "WILHELM WELK IN KUTSCHURGAN". These tiles were manufactured before 1937 when Antonina's grandfather, who was a rich man, had a tile factory. During the years of Communist collectivization, anyone who had a little more money or property was called a "kulak" and was disposed of. They were either shot or taken to Siberia for slave labor until they starved and froze to death.
The noon lunch was in the shade of the Mannheim church. Our leaders had packed bread, cold cuts of meat, slices of cheese, whole tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, oranges, and water. Naturally the water never saw any ice, whether at the hotel or on the road the water always was "room temperature".
As we were having our picnic, groups of curious children came by to check us out. We always handed out plastic bags of crayons, pencils, pens and paper, etc. Then, they walked off quietly inspecting their gifts. At one of the stops, there were four boys. I gave the smallest one, about an eight year old, a good sized bag of goodies and motioned that he has to share with the others. He inspected the bag, closed it, and took off at top speed. The other three watched him run and looked at me but I did not have anything else to give away. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time I could not help but burst out laughing at the way his bare feet were flying across the grass and weeds.
In these farming towns, many boys wear knee length pants and go barefoot, others have sandals. Most of the girls wear cotton dresses, which are probably homemade. Very seldom do you see a girl or woman wearing pants.
From Mannheim in the Kutschurgan Colony northwest of Odessa, we headed south to the Liebental Colony which is west of Odessa. The Kutschurgan Colony was all Catholic whereas the Liebental area was both Catholic and Lutheran. However, each individual village was either one or the other religion.
At Franzfeld (Catholic), the former church is being kept up and has a lean-to built on one side. The lettering above the door translates into Palace Of Culture which actually is nothing more than a Community Hall. We were not able to see the inside of the church. Most of the group walked a long way (like half a mile) to the old cemetery, but all that could be seen there were lilac bushes.
At Grossliebental (Lutheran) we toured the church, which was once a large, beautiful building. In recent years, it was reclaimed and now is a Russian Orthodox Church. The old front entrance has been closed up and the door is now at the back where the altar used to be. The floor is 12 inch wide, rough lumber. There are no benches. Most of the windows are closed with brick because there is no money to replace the glass. The Russian Orthodox priest was very friendly and showed us a certificate of the last German person that was confirmed here about 60 years ago before the church was closed. Ted, one of our group, whose parents were born in this town, told the story of how during the communist terror, every person in the entire village was summoned to come to the church one Sunday morning. There, they had to watch while a group of their own people were executed (shot) on the church steps. I have heard these kind of stories often before already, but it is different when one stands on the very spot and sees it with your own eyes.
In front of the church, there is a large open area which was sort of a gathering place. This place now is a Farmers' Market once a week. There was a truck with live chickens and about 30 people standing in line. Then they walked home with a live chicken under one arm. There were rows of tables where they sold almost everything imaginable, such as live flowers, cabbage and tomato plants, bread, live geese, meat, lard, pig heads, sardines in a bucket of olive oil, pop, soap, clothing, bunches of carrots, small plastic bags of flour, and many other things.
The cemetery in Grossliebental is solid lilac bushes and I did see at least one ornate iron cross just like the Catholics used in the old cemeteries in North Dakota.
The next stop was at St. Wendelin's Church in the Catholic village of Kleinliebental. This building is very big--long and tall, and like most churches, had extremely large windows. This is now some kind of factory and we did not get inside. To the right of the church near the street stands a large building in ruins which we guessed was the rectory, or it may even have been a school. We did not look for a cemetery here.
Later in the afternoon, some wanted to go home earlier and some wanted to look around a while longer. Being we had two vehicles, we were allowed to choose in which we wanted to go. Naturally, I chose to stay late. When the first car got to the corner where the road goes into Moldova, (another country) Marvin lifted the camera to take a picture of the policeman. Before he even had a chance to snap, the car got stopped and the camera taken inside. The driver and our translator had to do a lot of explaining and apologizing which took about 20 minutes. After that, the driver was angry and then drove too fast and got stopped for speeding. This took another 20 minutes. Our group in the late car were already eating supper when the "early" carload came in. Everyone had a good laugh over this and Marvin never heard the end of it.
Besides the villages mentioned specifically, we drove through a number of others both Russian and formerly German.
Friday June 14--Today, our schedule called for us to stay in the big city of Odessa, and what a blessing that was because today is the only day that it rained. Our big bus took us to the Odessa State Archives. The archivists seemed to be most helpful and explained to us and showed us samples of what can be found in the records. It seems that there is quite a lot of information about our German towns and German people. However, many of their records and books have not yet been catalogued and filed. Everything is written in Russian so it takes one of them to find things. To get the records that we genealogists would like to see will be time consuming and therefore expensive. Also, they are finding out that perhaps the "rich" Americans and Germans are willing to give money to get copies of the records. So to sum it up, I would say that there is a possibility that many of our German church records do still exist.
After the noon dinner at the hotel, we were taken to the Odessa Scientific Library. This is one of those old buildings with very high ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and ornate wood furniture. They let us see many precious old books. They also have many German books. The rest of the afternoon was spent touring more of the city.
During the evening meal, we were entertained by a Ukrainian musical group. I have a feeling that many of us did not appreciate it as much as we were supposed to. For me, it was much too loud. After supper, about 30 people who were university students and other adults joined us for the evening. Our group had set up a large display of excellent photographs of Germans from Russia life in North Dakota. Our group also entertained the Ukrainians with several American songs. Then, different ones were invited to come up and share what we have seen and experienced, and how we have felt about our tour so far. I will try to list some of the comments here in an abbreviated version.
- "To see with my own eyes what I had heard as I was growing up".
- "My parents cannot make the trip so I want to see for them".
- "To take pictures and to see how the people lived".
- "To see the churches where my parents worshipped".
- "To renew the memories that are fading".
- "To see the magical Fairy Land of my imaginations".
- "I am impressed with the many and beautiful trees both in Odessa and out in the country".
- "Everything is just like I had always heard".
- When it was my turn, I was afraid I would become too emotional and start crying so I chose not to express my inner feelings but instead here is what I said: "As we are driving around the country I have noticed that the women do all the milking and that the men are no where near the cows". I continued "The women here in Ukraine are very good and they also are very smart. They know that men are absolutely no good at milking cows and that is why they do not allow men to milk". This helped to lighten up the evening.
One lady (the mother of Sergey, one of our translators) presented Michael Miller with an embroidery she made of our logo. She does beautiful work. The logo on our T-shirts consisted of the words JOURNEY TO THE HOMELAND along with flags of The United States, Ukraine, and Germany. Above everything, there is a flying dove with a red ribbon in its mouth. The lady also added grapes to the embroidery to symbolize some of the type of work that our people did in Russia. During the course of the evening, Pius got acquainted with a German speaking lady who invited the two of us to come to their house the next evening.
Saturday June 15--The different groups again went out to different areas. As I said before, my group had it about the easiest. Those going to the Beresan colony went about 80 miles northeast and their driver kept getting lost and wasted a lot of time. Another group went so far that they had to stay overnight in the village and in Ukrainian homes because there are no convenient motels. One evening, one group did not get back until 2:30 in the morning. They had an interesting adventure! Today, no one went to the Kutschurgan area so I signed up to go to the Liebental Enclave. Even though I would like to see my home area again and again.
In Grossliebental, at the former Lutheran Church, we returned the confirmation certificate which we took along the other day to make photo copies of.
At the entrance to Neuburg, there is a very large concrete and brick sign indicating the Collective Farm. The old Lutheran Church in Neuburg is a Palace Of Culture. The floor slopes toward the stage in front. There is a balcony in the back and on both sides. The windows are so tall that some of the window is below the balcony and some of it is above. In the cemetery, we did not see any evidence of German graves but only the new Ukrainian ones with the wrought iron fence around each grave anchored in a base of concrete. In this town, I again became aware of how many people are walking, instead of driving, along the streets. The small towns do not have sidewalks, so everyone is in the street which usually is blacktopped although there are many potholes. The ditches are full of weeds and often trash.
One of our men knew of a German family in Neuburg by the name of Fitzer. With the help of people on the street, we found the Fitzer home. Here we met Wladimir (in German it would be Waldemar) Fitzer age 52 and his son Igor Fitzer about age 25 or 30. The father of Waldemar was Karl, but he is not living anymore. Waldemar cannot speak German anymore, although he understands some of it. The son Igor has studied German and was able to speak it somewhat. The two men were adding a small kitchen onto their house. Waldemar had his pants rolled up, and with his bare feet, was mixing the plaster. The plaster was made of a mixture of clay, manure, small pieces of straw and water. This they troweled onto the laths on the ceiling. This was most fascinating to me because I remember stomping the same kind of mud mix with my bare feet when I was six years old.
Our picnic lunch was eaten on the steps of the former Catholic Church in Mariental. This church also is a Palace Of Culture. After we had finished our lunch, a lady was coming back to work who let us in and gave a tour. One area (small) is walled off for the town library. There is a stage (platform) where the altar used to be. Another floor has been added to make an upstairs. The upstairs also is a theatre, however most of the windows are broken and the seats are pushed to the other side. It looks like only the birds are using the theatre.
In this village of Mariental, we somehow got to the home of George Loewenstein. George was born here in 1919, and after the war, was allowed to come back because he had been a soldier in the Russian army. The father of George was Daniel Loewenstein. George was named after his maternal grandfather, George Kress. His mother had a brother by the name of Nariys Kress who went to Canada. George, perhaps, has first cousins in Canada of whom he knows nothing.
Everyday, as we crisscross the countryside we see herds of red cattle with several people herding the cows. At noon, the herd is brought to the water, which might be a pond or a well where they drink and chew the cud. Here, the cows are also milked. Today, we came upon a herd right against the road so I hollered STOP! STOP! This was a golden opportunity for the camera. In this case, it was a small herd of only about 30 cows and they were in a make shift corral. (The corral would not hold any cow that would want to get out). The women and a few children came walking from the town, which was at least a mile or farther away. Each had a pail or two and some brought a stool. In the pail was a small amount of water and a rag which they used to wash the cow's udder. Then they poured the water on the ground and began milking. The cows are not tied up, and the only movement they make is with the head and the tail trying to chase the flies off their backs. In other places, we saw where the cows were not even in a corral but simply out in the wide open. (This is how I remember the tame cows from when I was little. When my mother and sisters milked in the yard I would come barefoot and with my tin cup to get a drink of fresh warm cow milk). I was told that they milk three times a day: In the evening and in the morning they milk at home, but at noon they milk out in the field. Then they carry the milk all the way back home. Most of these cows are solid red in color, but occasionally one sees a Holstein or some other cross. These red cattle were brought from northern Germany many years ago and were developed by our German ancestors to be of good quality for beef and dairy. Now, however, they seem to be of poor quality and all are quite skinny. I do not think that the breed has any specific name because in German-Russian books, they are referred to simply as the German red cow. I am sure that these cows are the direct descendant (maybe ten times great) of the red cows that my two grandmothers milked over one hundred years ago on these same Russian steppes (prairie). Now I wish I would have asked that lady if I may milk her cow. I would pay $20.00 if I had a photo of me milking a red cow in the wide open spaces of Russia.
At another spot we stopped for a close up inspection of the vineyards. There were also large fields of either rye or winter wheat that were about ready for harvest.
After supper, the lady whom we had met last evening was there to take Pius and me to their home. She grew up German with the maiden name of Goehring, but her husband's last name is Kikot. We got along fairly well with our German, even though her dialect is quite a bit different. Her husband does not know any German. We went by taxi, but now the taxi had a dead battery, so the driver got out and I got out from the back seat and we got the car rolling enough to get the engine started again. Ludmilla had an uncle who went to the United States many years ago, but the family had lost all contact until about a year ago when she got in touch with her first cousins in America. She was very happy and excited about that. Ludmilla and husband have two sons ages 19 and 20 years old. They know some English and a few words of German. She and the husband both are medical doctors. However, the country has socialized medicine (state operated) and the country is broke financially so the doctors are not getting paid. They have not been paid for six months. Their only income is from a one acre garden three hours away out in the country. He does not have a car but he can go by public transportation (train), however, he still has to walk the last ten miles unless he is able to hitch a ride. To bring anything back to sell in the city, he carries it on his back. It was a very interesting evening as we visited, toured their humble home, ate strawberries, cherries, kuchen, and drank camilla tea. At 11:30, they brought us back to the hotel. They wanted to take a trolley bus, but none came so they flagged down a taxi. Here is another example to show that the country under communism has gone so far backwards that it is almost a "third world country". They have free public transportation and the trolley bus (street car) is supposed to come every 20 minutes, but often they do not come for two hours and then four will come one behind the other. There are traffic lights at the busy intersections, but at some streets the lights do not work and nobody is there to repair them.
Sunday June 16--The 13 or so Catholics in the group went to the Catholic Church for Mass, about a 20 minute walk. Bishop Joseph Werth, also a German from Russia, like us but now the bishop from Siberia was with our group as a regular tourist researching his ancestral roots. Just before Mass, Bishop Werth asked me to do the scripture reading in English. I did the first reading and, after the deacon read the gospel in Ukrainian, I read it again in English. The only other words that I understood of the Mass was an Alleluia and Amen.
Our group sang two songs in English and then at the closing we sang "GROSSER GOTT" (Holy God) in German. One quite elderly lady had tears running down her face so we knew she was German. After Mass we met her and I walked with her to the trolley bus, then I had to run to catch up with our group. Her name is Hatzenbuehler, her father was Bartholomew Hatzenbuehler (the name is common around this area) but she is not aware of having any relatives in America.
At 1:00 p.m., our bus left for the village of Peterstal in the Liebental Enclave (colony). This is perhaps 20 or so miles southwest of Odessa. We toured temporary housing that was put up for the German people that are coming back from the far east regions like Siberia and Central Asia. Germany is spending a lot of money trying to help the people stay in the former Soviet Union (Russia). At the same time, Ukraine and other CIS countries do not want the Germans to leave because they need the good German workers. However, the Germans are leaving as fast as they can. Every year since 1990, over 200,000 Germans from the east are migrating to Germany. Many more would come if Germany would allow them. Here in Peterstal, we toured a bakery which was built to supply some work for these German people who are not permanently settled. They bake 300 loaves of bread each day along with many other bakery items.
In the community hall was a program where Mike Miller presented them with the American flag. There were some short speeches and musical numbers. After listening to their very excellent German Choir we were embarrassed to go on stage to do our American songs. Maybe we would have felt braver if we had been first.
As I am coming to the end of my travelogue in Ukraine, I have to fill in a few gaps that seem to be incomplete. At Strassburg (spelled with a double "s"), which now has the name Kutschurgan we stopped to see the bazaar. This "farmers market" beside the highway at the edge of town has been in this same spot for many, many years.
My great, great, great grandparents Anton and Christina Schweitzer were among the original colonists of Strassburg. Their son Markus, who was eight when the family came here from Germany, is my great, great grandfather. Markus died at Strassburg but his wife Mariana (Mitzel) my great, great grandmother came to North Dakota and is buried near Hague. The Strassburg church with the steeple removed is being used, but I do not know for what. We did not get inside. Perhaps it is another "Palace Of Culture". The cemetery is to the right and back of the church. I could not see any evidence of any German graves, so perhaps the new graves are on the exact same spot as where the old German cemetery was. My great grandparents, John and Christina Schweitzer, and my grandmother, Barbara (Schweitzer) Gross, came from here to America. I can say I saw the church and school that they attended. In 1944, there were 240 families here so it was a rather large village.
With the villages so close together and so many farming families in each village, one can understand why they had to branch off to start daughter villages. Then, as the land became harder to obtain, they began coming to North and South America. Seeing the towns and seeing the land way out helped me to understand why they would camp in the fields overnight during seeding and harvest time.
The farm crops are very similar to what is being raised in North Dakota. Besides the different kinds of wheat there are oats, barley, rye, buckwheat, corn, sunflowers, soybeans, and potatoes. The fields are very large, so they apparently have large machinery; but I did not see any actual field work.
The field work that I did see was people (mostly women) hoeing the potato fields and even the corn fields. We saw people hand picking the potato bugs off the potatoes. I saw men and women raking hay together with hand forks. They hauled hay with horses and wagons, but there were also a few tractors. The hay was loaded by hand and the hay racks and loads were quite small.
Many weeds in Ukraine are easily recognized as they are the same as those in North Dakota. Some of the easier ones to identify by name are creeping jenny, which shows up everywhere, leafy spurge, wormwood, Russian thistle, musk thistle, fox tail, pig weed, plus a few others whose names I do not know. Most of our weeds came from across the ocean, but there are several in Ukraine which I have not seen yet in North Dakota.
The farm wagons have rubber tires, but a few old-type wagon wheels can still be seen. It appears that the Collective Farm is still the rule, but the geese, goats, and one or two cows are privately owned. The grass in the road ditches must be free because that is where the old men sit herding their one cow. When our ancestors came here, there were no trees but only the barren steppes (native grass).
However, sometime or other, the Russian government was into planting trees because all the main roads have one or two rows of trees along side. As we drive along, it is often difficult to take a good picture of some interesting field scene because a tree gets in the way. Of course, many trees have died out and have not been replaced.
In the villages, there are also many trees; but not many large shade trees. I would say they are mostly fruit trees that have been hand planted. Some of the fruit that I heard mentioned growing there are apples, peaches, plums, apricots, grapes, walnuts, and two kinds of cherries. When we were there in the middle of June, the Bing cherries were in season and just perfect for eating. The cherries are planted and cultivated in the gardens, but they also seem to grow wild like our chokecherries. There were places along the street where we were able to pick cherries and eat them right off the tree. Out in the country, older men and women and children were sitting along the highway trying to sell their small pail of cherries. Often, they must have to walk several miles because there are no houses in sight and they do not have vehicles sitting nearby and not even a bicycle. The few private homes that we got into they always offered us cherries to eat. I always ate them even though I knew they were not washed in store-bought, purified, bottled water.
The houses which our German people built are still standing, except for some that may have been remodeled or what ever. The walls are made with square pieces of cut stone. It is like a soft sandstone and is found in certain areas like our gravel pits. In some places, there are underground mines where it is dug out. The roofs of the houses are made with lumber which was shipped in to Odessa and then bought from there. The houses are one story only. They are not really wide, but very long. The rooms were very large, especially when compared to our old houses that were first put up on the prairies of North Dakota. The attic is low and was used mostly for storage, often for sacks of grain. There are no basements. Many yards had a root cellar, which was very large.
As far as the weather goes, I would say that, where my grandparents came from, the winters are much milder than here in North Dakota. The Black Sea is a large body of water and that keeps it from getting so cold. They do get snow and freezing temperatures, but it does not last so long.
Now having given "all my insights", I want to point out that I did not see the entire former Soviet Union and cannot speak for that. What I saw is only a very, very tiny corner of it. Odessa is the only big city I was in and the countryside that I saw is all within 50 miles of Odessa. Other members of our tour got out farther and observed different things and perhaps would express very different opinions.
In those very few short days in the old homeland, I tried to do everything I could to get the feel of how it might have been in my grandparents' day. I dug my fingers into the rich black soil, and even brought home a tiny handful; I took off my shoes and stepped into the Black Sea; I ate the fresh fruit and vegetables that were in season; I saw the large German houses; I prayed in the churches (even though they are in ruins); I looked at the moon and the big dipper in the sky and wondered if that is still the same big dipper that my grandfathers saw as they went to sleep in the fields at harvest time; I let the wind blow in my face and sniffed the air; I saw the German red cows which are the granddaughters (maybe 10 or 20 times great) of the cows that my grandmothers milked early every morning and every evening. Milk from these cows was used to make cheese that was packed for lunch the first days of their journey to America. Oh, what a moment, what a thrill, what a privilege! If only the immigrants to America would be alive now because now I "know" so many questions.
One thing I wanted to see very badly, but never saw, was the stork that brought all those German Russian babies. (It seems they have become extinct in this area). Some of our group did see storks quite a way farther west from where I was. They even saw a nest with young ones on the peak of a house roof.
Monday June 17--A little more touring of the city and a bit of shopping. After dinner, we got to packing and said "good-bye" to the Black Sea Hotel at 2:30. Eight of our Odessa workers accompanied us to the airport and helped with the luggage. These guides, translators, and helpers have been with us for only one week but it seems like we have known them forever and that they are our best friends. Their friendliness canceled out all the not-so-friendly people at the Odessa airport. People exchanged addresses and both sides said "come see us". I have to add that, in general, all the people in Ukraine were friendly and courteous. The thought that often came to me was "are these the people that I was always scared would drop a bomb on me"? They did not look like the communists I had pictured in my mind. These are nice people.
It was a touching experience as we saw "unser heimat" (our homeland) from the air. There were the villages of our grandparents, the large land, the rivers, everything. My eyes almost pulled out of my head as I strained to get every last glimpse of the Old Country. I would like to have stayed much longer. There are so many pictures I did not take and questions I did not ask. Maybe some day I can go back. Until then, I say "Auf wiedersehen".
Back at home, the question most often asked is: "What struck you or impressed you the most?" To that I would have to answer that everything "Da haam in Russland" (at home in Russia) is pretty much exactly the way I had always imagined it from the descriptions of the old people. It was (and is) a beautiful country, but they wanted to get out of there because of the way the government treated them.