The Zeiler's Journey to the Homeland
Courtesy Lorraine and Percy Zeiler

Reprinted with permission from The Alberta Chapter Newsletter, Germans from Russia Heritage Society, Calgary, Alberta, Bulletin number 96, September/October, 2000, pages 6-8.

Percy and I flew from Calgary to Frankfurt, Germany on May 14, 2000 and visited many relatives in Germany that have immigrated from Russia 4 to 12 years ago. From June 7 to 14, we joined Michael Miller's Tour to the Homeland in Vienna Austria and flew to Odessa. As we neared our destination, we saw the first glimpse of the steppes of former South Russia and the Black Sea. Immigration and customs processing, where our tour guide, Elvira Zakharova, met us, took two hours. We finally arrived in our hotel, Chornoye More, (meaning Black Sea). Our room on the 10th floor was small but clean and adequate. We had two single beds, telephone, radio, TV, coffee table, 2 easy chairs and a desk. The TV had one English channel, which only carried soccer games that week. The bathroom had plenty of hot water for the shower but no shower curtain and no base, just a floor drain. The temperature was 30 - 35 degrees, so we used new indoor pool and massages. (Massages cost 50 hryva pr $12 CDN for 45 minutes!)

Although we carried Deutsch marks and US dollars, they preferred US dollars and gladly accepted those for purchases. The bank machine in the hotel lobby provided hryvnas.

Our meals were pre-paid, and the Ukrainian food was excellent but far too plentiful. On the days we toured villages, the hotel sent along lunches of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, buns, packets of cold meat, cheese, oranges, bananas, hard boiled eggs and bottled water. The lunches were so large; we left much of the food with our hosts in the villages. They were grateful to receive it.

On Friday, June 9, the great moment arrived when we left the city to visit our ancestral villages in the Kutschurgan colony. It was arranged that everyone would tour the villages of their ancestors. Each van had a driver/translator. Our driver, Valeria, negotiated the potholes on the somewhat paved roads. The roads were lined on each side by one or two rows of trees planted after WWII. Older men, women and children sat on the roadside selling packs of cherries and apricots. We stopped at Mannheim, Selz, Baden and Strassburg. This was all an urban area, where there were no signs to tell us when we left one village and entered another. In Strassburg we stopped at the market, which is still the same as it was when our ancestors lived there. We purchased l kg of cherries for $.50.

The villages were very poor; the ruined Catholic churches were without steeples, even some were without roofs and floors. The Baden church had a fire several days before we came. It has been used as an Orthodox church, but the fire destroyed it. The cemeteries are also in ruins; the tombstones had been destroyed or removed.

In Selz we shared our lunch with Louisa Rissling and her husband, Anton. Louisa spoke German and told us that in 1992 she gained permission to return from Kazakhstan to her ancestral home. The four Ukrainian families living in her home were moved to apartments. They had returned to a house that was a terrible mess and cleaning it was a major task. Louisa showed us the home where the Brossarts lived and asked the 79 year old lady living there for permission to tour the property. She was most obliging. To stand in the yard where my grandfather, Johannes, had lived was an overwhelming experience for me.

On June 10, we returned to the Kutschurgan villages and visited the village of Ponjatowka. In 1900 the Brossarts sold their property in Selz and purchased land at Ponjatowka, some 20 km north and east of Selz. They had orchards, grapes and a winery there. After WWII only seven remained in the village. Houses were rebuilt on the properties and with the aid of a map we received from relatives in Germany, we were able to locate the Brossart and Wald properties.

From Ponjatowka we returned to Kandel. There were many people walking to and from the villages. Rubber tired wagons were pulled by horses. There are now more cars than there were six years ago, but they are not evident in the countryside. Goats were tethered everywhere in an effort to keep the grasses down. At Kandel, the ruined church had been used for grain and coal storage. We shared our lunch with Lydia Welk Ivanova (a third cousin to Lawrence Welk). We enjoyed some of her homemade wine. Lydia only spoke Russian but our interpreter, Pavel, was wonderful. We then went to Elsass where we met the school principal. He showed us around. The church had been refurbished and served as a cultural centre. It was locked, however, so we were not able to go inside.

On Sunday June 11, we had the opportunity to attend Mass (in Odessa) and the only words we understood in the Ukrainian service was "Americana." After Mass, two ladies approached us, since we wore name tags; and they told us in German that they came back from Siberia eleven years ago. In the afternoon we visited a Brossart cousin still living in Odessa. They have eight children and are very poor. The oldest daughter has immigrated to Portland, and he is preparing his visa to go to the USA as well. His three sisters immigrated with their families four years ago. They only spoke Russian. That evening we attended an opera. The (Odessa Opera) building is magnificent but badly in need of repair. We were given an English program so we could follow the story, even though we did not understand the singing.

Monday, June 12, was the highlight of Percy's dreams. We went to the Liebental colonies; the villages were Kleinliebental, Grossliebental, Neuberg, and Mariental where his father Roy Zeiler lived until the age of 17 when he immigrated to Canada. The church in Mariental is now used for the Orthodox service, but we saw where he worshipped and saw the school he attended. The cemetery had the original stone wall in front, but all the tombstones were gone. There were many lilac bushes in the cemetery. This was a German custom. In silence, we said a prayer for his grandparents and great-grandparents were are buried there somewhere. We found George Lavenstein and showed him our name `zeiler'. He remembered a Leopold Zeiler and told us the house on the Zeiler property was destroyed when the creek flooded. There is now another house on the Zeiler property. we walked the streets where Roy would have walked and tried to feel how it might have been in his day. We will never forget the experience.

The countryside is beautiful, but the villages are seventy years behind us. We saw German houses in the villages. They are typically long and narrow one story homes with root cellars in the yard. The collective farms are all vacant, but we did see crops of wheat, barley and sunflowers. There were also fields of grape vines. We could not find out who was doing the farming.

On June 8 and 13, we toured Odessa which is over 200 years old with one million population. Near our hotel was the Super Market area covering four to five blocks. It was an open market where you could purchase all food, but meat and cheese were sold inside buildings. Everyone was selling something. The train station, a block away was a beautiful structure rebuilt after WWII. Next to the train station was a MacDonald's. We toured the Potemkin steps; 192 steps built in 1841. They lead from the statue of Richelieu, the first mayor of Odessa, down to the harbour.

For images from Odessa visit

We went to the (Odessa State) Archives, where the records are kept for villages in the Ukraine; and we went to the Lighthouse Orphanage. We brought many bags of quilts, school supplies, and hygiene products for the 49 children housed there now. Many of us gave Deacon Alexander money as well. At the Museum of Art, no photography was allowed; and in every room, there was a little old Ukrainian lady watching. At the Garden Park, we purchased our Ukrainian cluster dolls. There were tables of various souvenirs, art, and things for sale. We learned much history of Odessa. Many places were named after Pushkin. All entrances to the 2000 km of catacombs beneath the city of Odessa are closed now.

On our last days, we took off our shoes and socks and waded into the Black Sea for an hour. We got in far enough to even get our shorts wet. The beach was warm, clean, and a very popular place for the locals.

Now was time to pack and say "auf Wiedersehen". This tour was a wonderfully deep experience to see our "homeland". As we watched the villages and fields slowly disappear in flight, we knew our tour had been a dream come true. We are so grateful that our ancestors had the vision and courage to leave all and go to an unknown land to start a new life of freedom.

We arrived back in Calgary June 25, very happy to be home again.

Reprinted with permission of The Alberta Chapter Newsletter.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller