Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Vossler, Ronald J. Dakota Kraut. North Dakota University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003.
Of all the personal stories Germans from Russia writers have written to try to bring out what it means to be of their ethnic group, few have succeeded as well as Ron Vossler, who teaches English at the University of North Dakota. In this book, he pulls together 31 of his essays which have been published in various venues across a twenty-year career of writing about unserea Leute, our people.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first, "Prairie Heimat," he reflects on his life growing up in Wishek, North Dakota, a "town kid" raised by relatives who remembered what it meant to live in one or another of the Glueckstal villages in South Russia or who were but one generation removed from that experience. He recalls the work of helping cultivate a large potato garden, butchering chickens, carrying newspapers, and selling cream and eggs to buy groceries. He reflects: On the sight of the grain elevator and its high windows from which he thought God kept an eye on him. On singing Christmas carols and the great heart of the woman who tried to get everyone singing in the crisp cold for old people they hardly knew. On the intense physical labor involved when he and other boys from town were hired to pick the ubiquitous rocks from the field and haul bales to the farmyard. On listening to endless sermons, singing the Sorrow Songs, and waiting out long, impromptu prayers as he knelt on the hard wooden floor of his family’s evangelical church. On the Sunday afternoon maistub, visiting, as relatives recounted who was related to whom and how for hours at a time, then did it all over again the next week. On the skills of "Ottomatic," the bus driver who took his team to games, and the highly competitive atmosphere of the games in the largely German-Russian small towns of south central North Dakota.
In the essays in part II, "Forgotten Homelands," Vossler takes his readers to Russia as he visits the villages from which his ancestors sprung before emigrating to America. His counterparts, relatives his age, who should have greeted him, do not live there, of course. Vossler knows the history of the communists’ destruction of the people of the Ukraine and their way of life. Ill-begotten policies sent trainloads of prosperous farmers to uncertain lives, often death, in Siberia and forbade people to have food, destroying millions, and dispiriting the rest. He found some who had returned living in container villages, clusters of units smaller than manufactured homes, trying to make their lives work again. He also visited the Alsace region of France, where he socialized with people who felt so familiar, though he had never seen them before, and sang "Gott ist die Liebe" in the same dialect he had known on the prairies of North Dakota.
In Part III, "Memory Land," Vossler is a middle-aged adult, long gone from Wishek, a scholar and university teacher, who, nevertheless, longs for a deeper understanding of his roots. He recounts a number of trips to Wishek, mostly to attend funerals, bandying with a large troupe of cousins, some of whom also left and have returned, and some of whom stayed and continued to farm the land in the area. He visits the now-vacant homes where once he was so welcomed as a child, and he even climbs to the top of the elevator and looks through thd old eye of God, out across the town and the undulating prairie.
Throughout the essays, Vossler seeks to get into the skin of the
people called the Germans from Russia. What made them tick? What
made them unique? How can he communicate what he feels to a new
generation and to non-German-Russians? He tries to do this, in part,
with the use of language. Throughout, he sprinkles dialect words
and phrases, then translates them, evoking feelings he could not
bring up otherwise. This reviewer, German-Russian but not from the
Wishek area, understood almost all of them, so their use must have
been widespread. One quotation, very funny and original to the speakers,
was a cheer that Ashley, North Dakota fans blasted at his Wishek
team. I will repeat it here for the enjoyment of German-Russian
readers: "Blutwurst, Leverwurst, Schwatamaga, Speck" "Wishek
Hoch-schule, Wek, Wek, Wek" (A loose translation: Bloodsausage,
Liver-sausage, Headcheese, Fat. Wishek High School, Away, Away,