Collectivization in the Soviet Union: German Letters to America, 1927-1932

Book review by Patsy Ramberg, Copyright 2013

Stangl, Janice Huber. Collectivization in the Soviet Union: German Letters to America, 1927-1932, Glueckstal Colonies Research Association in cooperation with the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2012.

My grandfather, John Graf, Jr, often sat in his Streeter ND home and read the Dakota Free Press, a black cloud of smoke rising behind the paper as he smoked his imported Turkish tobacco.

I was only a preschooler then, but I knew what he was reading was a German language paper telling him about what was going on in far away Russia where he was born. I couldn’t even read English yet, but I wondered what stories he was learning of.

All these years later, Jan Stangl’s book of translated letters lets me in on the news from Neudorf, Marienberg, and other Gluckstal colonies. With the help of Alex Herzog, Homer Rudolph, Jim Gessele, and many others, these translated letters show us snippets of town life, births, weddings, deaths, and most importantly, the coming of the mass arrests, exile, and/or executions of our relatives who stayed behind when our grandparents, or ourselves, came to America.

Most of these letters were written by Jakob Ahl and published primarilyinDer Saats-Anzeiger (The State Gazette), in Rugby, ND; but also in Dakota Rundschau (Dakota Review), in Eureka. SD; and Dakota Freie Presse (Dakota Free Press), Aberdeen SD.

These were the years of collectivization in Russia, when, supposedly, everything would be owned in common. Ahl seems to have a pragmatic yet sympathetic reaction to this new order.

Sometimes he sees it as an experiment that has to have time to prove or disprove itself; sometimes he sees the poverty it has brought upon the people and pleads for help from American relatives. He is hampered in what he can say by the censorship that prevails, but he does manage to get his licks in against the governments policies. He was arrested once, but the court found him not guilty and he was allowed to go home. He says his detention wasn’t so bad.

Stangl’s thought of censorship seems slightly off center. Ahl used metaphors, she says, to conceal the hard political and economic times the families were experiencing in order to get the message through the censors. To me the metaphors seemed very obvious, yet, they were passed through the censorship. A small complaint indeed for the wonderful stories the letters tell.

He also rails against church goers who often fail in their Christian duty, especially those in America who will not help their poor relatives in Russia. He often lists the money Americans have sent, from one dollar to sizable sums. He is also bewildered that parents aren’t baptizing their children. When they die, the are buried with “little ceremony.”

He also doesn’t understand the Baptists, the 7 Dayers, and other sects. The Russian government liked this fragmentizing of the churches; it formed smaller allegiances which were easier to break up. Why Gluckstalers would leave the Lutheran church in favor of other sects bewildered Ahl.

Of course, I read the book for any hint of my relatives that stayed behind. As usual, I found little. Most of the Graf’s immigrated, my grandfather’s whole family came over in the 1870s, but here and there was a tad of information.

Konrad and Karoline Graf greeted Theobald and Johann Graf, who lived near Jamestown (Streeter) and inquired as to if they got their letter because these Graf brothers have not responded.

A five year old child of Johann Jakob Graf died in April, 1928. Bells rang at the Reformed Church.
Frederick Graf and Ludwig Schmidt of Streeter each sent a dollar.

Ahl cautions against sending cash, it is often stolen, and never to send money orders because there is no way they can be redeemed.

One piece of information which may or may not be family history regards a Georg Helm of Neudorf. Mention is made of a son, Michael, who came to America. My aunt married a Michael Helm; I can’t be sure, but it appears that Georg was his father. Michael was a businessman in Streeter.

It seems that Georg was a kulak and was “sent away” twice, the second time to disappear completely.

Also, in the books on Gluckstahl, two Graf brothers are listed as being arrested and convicted, but no date is given for their execution.

What a terrible time.

Perhaps as you read through the book’s pages, you will find hints and stories about your own families.

Thanks, Jan Stangl and your helpers for bringing us this insight into the German colonies in the early 1900s.

These letters make me more grateful than ever that my great- grandparents immigrated. We escaped just by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin, before the houses were blown down forever.

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