Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Height, Joseph S. Homesteaders on the Steppe: Cultural History of the Evangelical-Lutheran Colonies in the Region of Odessa, 1804-1945. Bismarck, North Dakota: Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1973.
After Paradise on the Steppe had been out for awhile, many asked Dr. Height to gather similar information about some of the key protestant colonies. (Seventy-seven percent of the Germans living in South Russia were protestants of various kinds.) This book was the result, mostly but not entirely about the Lutheran colonies. Because conditions were similar for all the German people who went to Russia, a few portions of the first book were reprinted in the second. Height describes the journey down the Danube and the life of the villages, treating fashion, wedding customs, games and entertainments, songs, and the growth in quality of the agriculture. The names of the original settlers are great fun to pore through.
A striking inclusion is the report of a sophisticated German, J.G. Kohl--a sort of German Alexis de Tocqueville* -- who visited Lustdorf in 1838, just 30 years after its founding, and wrote a romanticized version of what he saw. Lustdorf was a special project of the Duc de Richelieu, the governor of Odessa, so was among the best developed of the colonies at this time. Kohl commented on the homes and food of the settlers, the geography of the area, the energy of the German women, relations with Russian neighbors--and the love life of his host's daughter Babele (not a very GR name). Dr. Height also found that State Councilor E. von Hahn, a president of the Colonists' Welfare Committee, had urged mayors and schoolmasters to write historical records of their villages. These first-hand accounts, six of which are included, are a real treasure.
Even in a general book like this, there may be things of great personal value to the person of German-Russian descent. On the town plat of Alexanderhilf, I found my mother's family name, Zweigle, several times. My foster grandmother Kathryn Eisemann Berg Fischer Keller, as she approached her one hundredth birthday, told me that she recalled running across the street to her grandparents' home in the village of Hoffnungstal (Cherson). I learned from this book that Hoffnungstal was a separatist village that was granted religious freedom by a special ukase or order of Czar Alexander II. In the lower left hand corner of the town plat, there are the homes of families named Eisemann, across the street from each other.
In the final chapters, Height tells of the dissolution of the colonies under communism.
* Alexis de Tocqueville was a French historian and political philosopher who visited the United States in 1831-1832. He is closely studied even today because of his incisive comments on political and social institutions.