Not Until the Combine is Paid and Other Jokes: From the Oral Traditions of Germans from Russia in the Dakotas

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Vossler, Ronald J. Not Until the Combine is Paid and Other Jokes: From the Oral Traditions of Germans from Russia in the Dakotas. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russian Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2001.

Over a 20-year period, Ron Vossler kept a file of notes in which he recorded humorous stories told by Germans from Russia. This is a collection of those stories. Some he heard in public places; but most, and the same ones repeatedly, came out in normal "visiting." One he picked up in the Ukraine while riding in a jiggling cart. It is sometimes hard to tell which have their roots in Russia and which are fresh to America, but one surmises that they flowed one to the other.

The jokes use irony, coincidence, surprise relationships, cultural disconnect, misunderstandings, and often quick thinking--many of the devices joke makers still use for humor. Most were told originally in dialect German; many grew out of the effort to assimilate a new language and culture after immigration. Since many of the jokes depend for their humor on twists of language, Vossler includes punch lines in German or explains briefly how it was that the joke was funny in German but is not in English.

Here's an example for you: "This happened on main street of a prairie town one Saturday night. One farmer asked another farmer how it went with him. The second fellow, who didn't always like people asking him how things were with him, had spent all week out in his fields thinking up the following reply, which he inflicted on his unwitting neighbor: ŒWie gehts? Ich schnauffa das ich nit verstecka, und ich fatze das ich nit verblatza. (How does it go with me? I breathe so I don't choke and fart so I don't explode, That's how it goes with me. Any more questions?)"

As a high school teacher of English, I included a unit on humor in my classwork. I still remember the look of disdain on a freshman's face when she said of one of my carefully-chosen selections (which was probably written before she was born), "Do you really think this is funny?" The reader not conversant with the ethnic group known as Germans from Russia, and maybe even some who think they know them well, may react in the same way at an encounter with these stories. Vossler clearly strove to rescue some of the mindset of a fading life context because many of the jokes give the feeling of being cultural artifacts--curiosities left over from another time and place. In addition, some Germans from Russia may take offense because they reflect contact with the grittier aspects of life. Many refer to bodily functions, and there are crude putdowns few would use today. Yet persons old enough to have lived when and where they were told will admit, if pressed, that they¹ve heard most of them before. The jokes lightened the lives of a resilient people who endured pioneering conditions, and it did not occur to them to appeal to twenty-first century sensitivities.

I would say this to German-Russian readers. Whether you want to laugh as your forebears laughed or whether you just want a sense of your cultural roots as regards their typical humor, this is well worth an evening's reading. If you feel that you must keep this book away from the kids for now, put it on a high shelf, but remind yourself that, in your grandfather¹s generation, they were widely repeated and few protected the kids from them.

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