Die deutschen Kolonien in Suedrussland

Book review by Dr. Roland M. Wagner, Ph.D.

Keller, Konrad. Die Deutschen Kolonien in Suedrussland. Nurenberg, Germany: Historischer Forschungsverein der Deutschen aus Russland, 2000.

In the preface to Fr. Konrad Keller's first volume on the German Catholic colonies in South Russia, which appeared in Odessa in 1905, he expressed this simple wish: "So go out, dear little book, into the wide world! … tell of many a thing from bygone days…" When Fr. Keller wrote these modest words, little did he realize that one century later his books would continue to speak to the descendants of the Germans from Russia, who are now widely dispersed across the seas in several different countries. Last year, on the 75th anniversary of Fr. Keller's death, his books were released once again in a new German edition by the Historischer Forschungsverein der Deutschen aus Russland. This is but the latest incarnation, and surely it will not be the last.

In Fr. Keller's first volume he sketches the background history and geography of South Russia, and presents a table showing all the German colonies, the year in which each was founded, the acreage owned and size of population. Detailed histories are also provided of Kleinliebenthal, Josephstal, Marienthal, and Franzfeld. His primary source was the administrative archives in Odessa of the Welfare Committee for the Foreign Colonists, especially the records of 1849. In the second volume, which appeared in 1914, he presents detailed lists of the founding families for the Catholic Beresan colonies, drawn from the 1840 census records. He also consulted various local parish archives which provided him with comparable records for Rastadt from 1811 and for München from 1818.

The appearance of Fr. Keller's two volumes was timely indeed. As Anton Bosch points out in his preface to the new German edition, it coincided with several events that marked major turning points for the German-Russians. The 100th anniversary of the founding of the German colonies in South Russia was celebrated in 1909-1910, as well as the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913. These events took place shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, at a time when the Germans in Russia were increasingly being marginalized, subjected to harsh attacks in the Duma, and demands for demonstrations of their loyalty. Fr. Keller's study effectively commemorated the important role the German colonists had played for over a century in Tsarist Russia. Appearing in their own mother tongue, it was also a fitting validation of their ethnic heritage. It became quite popular in the colonies, soon found in almost every German-Russian household, where it was affectionately known simply as "der Keller," or "das Kellerbuch."

The appearance of these volumes was also timely in that it coincided with a massive wave of emigration from the Beresan colonies to Canada, the USA, and Latin America, which had begun in the 1880s and continued unabated until the onset of the First World War. Fr. Keller's books enabled the emigrants to take a tiny piece of the homeland with them, preserving the names of their ancestors and the stories of their accomplishments in the Old Country as they departed to face equally great challenges in a new environment.

Fr. Keller's volumes again played an important role in commemorating the heritage of the German-Russians in the Dakotas during the 1920s. At that time many of the first generation immigrants were reaching older age, they were reflecting back on their origins, and a second generation had emerged that was curious about its heritage. Everyone's attention was also riveted to the Old Country by the reports of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Civil War, and the horrors suffered by their relatives who had remained behind, news of which appeared in almost every issue of the German language newspapers. At this juncture it was timely that a partial edition of Fr. Keller's work appeared in 1921, published by the Nord-Dakota Herold in Dickinson. The newspaper initially ran a series of articles from October 14 to December 23, each featuring the history of a Beresan colony. The final installment announced that the series would be reprinted in book form, under the title of die Deutsche Kolonien in Südrussland, hauptsächlich im Gouvernement Cherson. In addition to the featured articles, the book included the 1840 census data showing the founding families of the Beresan villages, a comprehensive list of all the German colonies in Russia, the names and colonies of origin of the first-generation immigrants in the Dickinson area, as well as anecdotes about the Revolution and the suffering of the colonists under the Bolsheviks. Although Fr. Keller was not credited as the source, a cursory comparison of the content shows that much of the book was a pastiche of his second volume.

The ensuing 50 years were a difficult time for the preservation of German-Russian ethnic identity in the USA and Canada. The descendants of the immigrants bore a dual stigma, being of German ancestry during two world wars, as well as the pervasive suspicion against Soviet Russia. During these years the emphasis was on assimilation, blending into the mainstream, and losing one's accent. Fr. Keller's works languished in near oblivion, copies became increasingly scarce and the subject of rumor and speculation.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Fr. Keller's volumes had become almost equally scarce. During the Second World War they briefly proved to be useful while the Wehrmacht occupied the Ukraine. The German Occupation Adminstration (Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle) ordered that lists of the families in the Beresan colonies be prepared, showing each family's place of origin in Germany. John Philipps, who experienced these events first-hand, noted, "to aid us in this [task], we used Konrad Keller's book, 'The German Colonies in South Russia.'" Most copies of the books were lost during the chaos, the mass evacuation of the German villages, and the widespread destruction of the war years.

By a fortunate coincidence in 1966, Anthony Becker in Canada and Fr. George P. Aberle in Dickinson each managed to locate one of the two volumes, after many years of searching. Recognizing the importance and the rarity of their finds, they met and exchanged copies, thereby preserving a complete set for posterity. Becker's English translation of the volumes appeared in 1968 and 1973. German scholars, including the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen in Stuttgart as well as university libraries throughout the world, sought out copies of Becker's English edition in order to meet their own research needs.

This latest resurrection of Fr. Keller's books in the new German edition, released last year by the Historischer Forschungsverein der Deutschen aus Russland in Nürnberg will hopefully ensure that new generations of Spät-Aussiedler in Germany will enjoy the same access to the story of their heritage that their American cousins have enjoyed through Becker's translation.

Fr. Keller's works have resurfaced at various points over the past century, each time at a crucial juncture when the Germans from Russia were undergoing a transition and they felt the need to pause and reflect back on their origins. Doubtless these remarkable volumes will continue to play a similar role in the future. Surely Fr. Keller would have been amazed at the enduring interest in his "dear little book[s]" that he released into the wide world nearly one century ago, to "greet all the Beresan people, near and far, and tell them about their grandparents and forefathers."

Content and Comparisons

The new German edition combines both of the original volumes in a handsome hard-cover format, using modern typscript rather than the original Gothic (Sütterlin), which has become difficult to read for today's generations. The content of the English and German editions is basically identical, with the major exception being that the latter reprints Keller's original 20 page photo section which was not included in Becker's translation. The photos include overviews of the villages of Karslruhe, Speier, Sulz, Landau, Rastadt, and Katharinental, their churches, the Zentralschule, and various parish priests and prominent officials. The German edition also includes a 7-page preface by the editor, Anton Bosch, and several footnotes about various families adding information from "other sources" (most likely from Karl Stumpp). Neither edition includes an index to surnames.

The availability of this German edition made it possible to do side-by-side comparisons of sample paragraphs to compare the accuracy of the English translation. In general it held up well, quite faithful to the original. Dr. Joseph Height, a former professor of German and a renowned author on the German-Russians, also attested to the quality of Becker's translation.

As is always the case, however, some errors inevitably creep into long, detailed lists of information. The editor of the German edition states that the authentic spellings of the place and family names were preserved from the original edition. Comparisons between the German and the English editions revealed several inconsistencies. An asterisk denotes the presumed correct entry.

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