Stories of the Germans from Russia
Dr. Anthony Richter
The Germans from Russia -Preserving a Heritage
Speaker, Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention,
Pierre, South Dakota
July 8, 1994
Transcription by Deanna Toepke
Introduction: Dr. Richter was born in Germany and
raised in the Chicago area. He got his Ph. D. from the Northwestern
University at Evanston, Illinois. Professor Richter moved with his
wife to South Dakota in 1971, and he's been a professor at SDSU since
1971. Let's give him a warm welcome.
AR: Thank you, Mr. Schatz. It's an honor for me
to be here with you today, and I thank Mrs. Groß for having
invited me. I'm a little worried that you people already know everything
that I have to say. It's sort pf like bringing bricks to Hebron,
but Mrs. Schatz assures me that if it's a refresher course, it's
alright, too. I did bring some slides with me to accompany parts
of I my presentation, if some of you would like to move your chairs
so you can see the screen better, that would be okay. The cord doesn't
quite reach, so I'll be stepping down here.
The largest ethnic group in South Dakota and North Dakota, as well
as the sixteen other states, is the German, making up over forty
percent of South Dakota's population since 1910. I used the United
States census since 1910 to produce the first slide here, and it
shows you what the largest ancestor group was in each of the counties
of South Dakota. The dark blue are Germans from Germany, and the
yellow are Germans from Russia. Light blue, Norwegian.
Now here's North Dakota. Dark blue, Germany, and the brownish are
the Germans from Russia. And, 1930, I just checked here to see,
that here, practically, the state is still the same as in 1910.
Immigration to South Dakota really ended with, approximately, the
First World War. So, 1930 has not changed too much, again, brownish,
the Germans from Russia.
And then, just for the fun of it, I used the census of 1980, because
that was the, first time when people could put down what they considered
to be their ethnic group. And so, the largest single ancestor group
in South Dakota is the German and German in all these blue counties
here. The most prevalent of the non-English languages in South Dakota
is still German, according to the latest U.S. census, with over
17,000 people using German in their homes.
German immigration to the Dakotas began in 1870s, with the legislature
of Dakota Territory established a bureau of immigration whose duty
it was to attract perspective settlers to Dakota Territory. And
one thing they did was to issue posters, publish posters, such as
this one, and pamphlets in the German language, specifically to
get Germans to South Dakota. They hired two men, one of them was
German-speaking, one of them was Norwegian-speaking, who went to
New York, in order to get people to come here, essentially from
And, I know that you people know German, so I think you can read
this poster, but just in case there's anyone who can't, "Süd-Dakota,
die reichste Kornkammer der Welt,” South Dakota, the richest
corn chamber, or bread basket of the world. "ein Land voll
Sonnenschein, gesundes Klima, glückliche Menschen", a
land full of sunshine, healthy climate, and happy people.”
Seine fruchtbaren Felder, blühenden Städte und wachsende
Industrien laden Euch ein und bieten Euch goldene Gelegenheiten
zur Existenz". Now, you have to remember, this is 1871, when
they're saying, "It's fruitful, its fertile fields, blooming
cities, and growing industries invite you and offer you golden opportunities
The German groups which have best preserved their heritage in South
Dakota are the Germans from Russia. They were among the first permanent
settlers to accept the invitation to the territory, arriving the
spring of 1873, these are the descendants of Germans who settled
in Russia from 1763 to 1859, and preserved their German identity
and in their colonies in southern Russia, where they established
German- speaking schools, churches, and local administrations. They
had been invited to settle in Russia by Catherine the Great, and
110 years later, they were invited to settle in the Midwest.
This is a bit dark, I brought it along, because on top it says,
“An die Mennoniten” so it's directed to the Mennonites
by the Burlington Missouri Railroad, specifically, directly, in
German, by this railroad company, to invite Mennonites from Russia.
While most immigrants from Germany itself spread through most of
the state, and felt no group identity , the Germans from Russia
were very cohesive, and settled primarily in Hutchinson, McPherson
and Campbell counties, where over sixty , percent of the people
are German-speaking. This slide shows where the Germans from Russia
settled, of course you’ll recognize this from Hutchinson county
on the bottom, and then around to the Eureka area, up north there.
Here, they formed large language islands, and German is still used
in the areas around Eureka and Freeman, for example. I'll just turn
off the projector real quick.
I've been in Eureka twice. The last time I was there, I was invited
to give a talk there. And as I walked from my car along the sidewalk,
I met three men who were standing on the sidewalk, speaking German
to each other. My heart pounded with joy as I heard that, because
German is, as you know, still used there. And, understandably so,
of course, and then I talked in Freeman once, and a lady came up
to me after my talk; she and I conversed in German, and so you people
have preserved the language for, what, two hundred years, and I
think that it is so admirable that you have done that.
Among those who are using German in the homes are the Hutterites,
die Hutterischen Brüder, a group of Germans from Russia who
have best preserved their heritage. They left Russia between 1874
and 1877, and came to South Dakota, and formed the largest true
communal group in the world. They have retained several unique characteristics
which distinguish them from the majority culture, such as common
ownership of all property, and views of the universe, human nature,
and the outside world, which have remained largely unchanged over
the past 450 years, despite persecution, and social and political
pressures. They have also retained the dress customs and manners
of the life of their ancestors.
They accept the fact that their religious beliefs and the way of
life have to set them apart from the rest of the world. In addition
to the principle of communal living, which they consider a demand
of Christianity, they have firmly held to the principle of non-violence,
believing that they are not to serve in the war or take revenge.
But the Russian government, 1871, decreed abolition of the exception
from military conscription, they left Russia in the 1870s, but as
pacifists, they suffered in the United States as well.
During the First World War, unsympathetic neighbors raided the
sheep and cattle herds of the Hutterites, because they refused to
buy bonds to support the war. Two young Hutterites from the Freeman
area received fifteen year sentences, because they maintained that
their religious beliefs prevented them from putting on army uniforms.
What may be the most grievous example of mistreatment of conscientious
objectors, in the United States happened to four men from Hutchinson
county .These four Hutterites refused to put on a uniform and were
sentenced to twenty years in Alcatraz.
In November, 1918, they were transferred to Ft. Leavenworth, where
they received such brutal treatment, and two of them died. The body
of one of the men was sent home to his wife, dressed in the uniform
he had refused to wear.
And our history is so young, when I spoke about this matter in
Freeman once, a man got up, an elderly gentleman, and said, "I
was there." I asked exactly what he meant by that, and tears
flowed down his face. He said, "I was there when she opened
up the coffin." He was a small boy. Only four years earlier,
the Hutterites had left Russia, because they were persecuted for
being German, and for being unwilling to serve in the military .For
the same reasons, they began to leave the United States in 1918,
and move to Canada. Seven colonies returned to South Dakota by 1950.
Non-violence and common ownership of goods are the basic principles
of the Hutterite way of life to the present day. The community is
paramount. People work together, eat together, walk together, sing
together. Not the individual, but the common good is important.
The good of the group governs life.
There's also a strict regiment of communal education. The Hutterite
goal is self- surrender, not self-development, and this is very
different from the emphasis on individualism, in the majority of
American culture. In place of self-fulfillment, there is self-denial,
and humility and submissiveness are seen as positive. Responsibility
for religious training and other activities of young people belongs
to the colony's German teacher. German is used in church services,
and in their everyday speech, Hutterites use a dialect similar to
that spoken in certain parts of Austria, with some language patterns
and words which are no longer used in either Germany or Austria.
The anthropologists, John Hostetler and Gertrude Huntington, have
pointed out that Hutterites view the world through the thought patterns
of the German language. For them, the word of God is contained in
the German language, and since the word of God is believed to be
eternal, the language forms and styles of thinking convey symbolic
High German is used for sacred and ceremonial occasions, with sermons
still from 17th Century texts. A preacher said that their faith
can be expressed more deeply, sharply, and fully in the German language.
Instead of the Latin alphabet used in contemporary Germany, Hutterites
still prefer to use the old gothic type, identifying it as German,
while calling the other English.
Holy writ is to remain unchanged and perfect. Children are taught
how to read and write German, and German school precedes and follows
English school daily, and also meets on Saturdays. Hymns have been
passed down from religious leaders in the 16th Century, and the
Liturgical Calendar has also been preserved.
In its Hutterite population, South Dakota has an example of an
ethnic group which has preserved a unique heritage. I remember visiting
a Hutterite colony once near Brookings, where I'm from, and a little
girl was standing there, long hair, blue eyes. I spoke to her in
German. I said, "Wann geht's du ins Bett?" or something
like that, and she was so surprised that I, who wasn't one of them,
would know their language, because, of course, their language is
who they are. She probably thought that only pertains to them, and
being a little girl, not knowing that there are about 80-some-million
Germans in Europe, who also know the language.
The farming methods, not only of Hutterites, but of other Germans
from Russia, were especially well-suited to South Dakota, since
these people were used to the climate and soil conditions of semi-arid
lands. I know we haven't had semi-arid weather lately, and when
I drove in from Brookings this afternoon, it rained, heavily, from
Brookings to here, and then a little bit of precipitation all the
way. But, this is what South Dakota is supposed to be, semi-arid,
and the Germans from Russia were the only ethnic group that came
from that kind of condition. Settlers from other areas who came
from humid regions were shocked by the flat, vast, treeless prairie.
But the Russian-Germans, coming from Russia, were used to the conditions,
and felt right at home. We do have a document that shows a German
from Germany visiting a German from Russia settlement, coming across
the flat, treeless prairie, no doubt monotonous to him, came to
the settlement, which was along a riverbank, so there were some
hills and some trees, and he commented upon this fact to the Germans
from Russia. And the Germans from Russia said, "Ya, it took
me a long time to get used to that, but it's okay." So you
see, it's not necessarily so that we all like hills and we all like
trees, it's all what you're used to.
Okay, I'll turn on the projector again for a little bit.
This shows, by darkness, which counties had the most German-speaking
people, and the darkest ones, again, are Hutchinson, and Campbell
counties, where over sixty percent of the people are of German ancestry.
On the treeless prairie, away from the rivers, Germans from Russia
built houses, in the style they had had in Russia, and which is
suitable to the climate and to the conditions here, in the Midwest.
Both the German colonists who migrated to the Black Sea area, and
the Russian-Germans who came to South Dakota came upon lands without
timber. In both regions, they met this challenge by building houses
made from earth, either of sun baked bricks, stones, or clay, or
of layers of clay. Clay, made by mixing earth and water, was poured
into forms, and bricks were made by drying these in the sun for
a few weeks. This shows some of the forms in which the bricks were
These earthen houses were warm in the winter, cool in the summer,
and remarkably durable. Some have lasted over a hundred years.
Similar to the farms in certain areas of Germany, house and barn
are joined, and the occupants of the house could walk from the living
room to the adjoining stable. So here you have a house-barn combination,
the two buildings with a broken roofline, and you have to be knowledgeable,
because the wooden siding was added later, so it doesn't look so
special now, but behind the wooden siding are these sun dried bricks.
In the middle of the house was an oven of Russian origin, which
was capable of heating the entire building, and visitors from other
ethnic groups were surprised that this house was so warm in the
winter. Hot air was channeled back and forth through the thick brick
wall on the other side of the kitchen, so that heat was conducted
to the whole house. People could sit along the bench here and warm
their backs in the evening, this would be in the living room here.
In the summer, this small building in the yard, already you heard
the summer kitchen mentioned. Summer kitchen, which of course, is
the Sommerküche. It's a large shed now, but, you'd
have to imagine standing separately outdoors, it was used for cooking
Another style was the stone house, and I think you'll have to agree
that this not only fits suitably in our conditions here, but it's
very aesthetically beautiful as well. Walls were built of rocks
and clay was used as mortar. The walls are about two feet thick
and plastered with clay. The walls of their houses in southern Russia,
had also been stuccoed and white-washed, quite like this one.
The third type of architecture was the rammed earth style. Grass
and straw and small stones were added to the earth mixed with water
and the resulting clay mixture was poured or forked into wooden
forms. Each layer was about a foot or two feet high. You can see
horizontal lines run across the building here, where the earth would
be allowed to dry and a layer would be poured, and then stuccoed
with limestone, a mixture made from local limestone.
Behind the tree we see an ante-chamber which was common in Russia,
it essentially kept out cold drafts in the winter, and afforded
protection against insects and dust in the summer. The man on the
right is the one whose farm it is now, and he was the grandson of
the people who built this house, who came from Russia in the 1870s.
And the house was lived in until 1955, and I think, with renovation,
could have been lived in much longer. And the deep, recessed windows
let in the sun in the winter, but kept it out in the summer. And
these distinctive thick walled houses of the Russian-Germans were
well-adapted to life on the Great Plains. Some have been preserved.
Of major importance to America's agriculture is the wheat that
the Germans from Russia brought with them, Turkey Red hard wheat,
which became the basis of America's wheat farming all the way from
Texas to Montana. And, became the basis of America's wheat farming.
In 1974, the United States Postal Service printed a stamp, that
you see here, but nowhere does it show the word German, and you
have to already be aware of that fact before you would identify
what's going on here. On the bottom it says, "Kansas hard winter
wheat, 1874-1974." Well, it's the Germans from Russia who brought
it with them in 1874, and that's what's commemorated here. The Postmaster
General at the time was, himself, a German from Russia, his name
Most Germans from Russia were farmers and they came here to work
the land. They came here to stay permanently, buy the land to live
on, and from, the land. They accepted the prairie as it is. They
are connected to the land, and they're confident that the land will
sustain them. Ethnic differences and attitudes toward farming have
continued up to the present. In a recent study, in a book published
only two years ago, Professor Sonja Salomon, an anthropologist,
at the University of Illinois, found that there are distinct farm-management
styles, which she calls "German" and "Yankee."
Her thesis is that German and Yankee farmers have cultural systems
that are based on fundamentally different meanings attached to land.
The German, or "Yeoman" type, is characterized by high
priority of keeping the farm in the family, relying on family labor,
and avoiding debt. While Yankees, these are the people with, British-Protestant
ancestry, or essential Non-Germans, treated farming as a business
and land as a commodity .Her studies indicate that Germans are very
persistent and resilient farmers. Instead of focusing on short-run
financial returns, German farmers have a lasting attachment to the
land. This makes plain why ethnic Germans now make up more than
half of the Midwestern farm population. Salomon found that Yankees
declined, as a proportion of owners, while German owners increased.
Salomon's study shows that Ger4tan and Yankee farmers practiced
distinctive land acquisition, management of succession strategies.
Although her study was done in Illinois, its findings also pertain
to other Midwestern states, including South Dakota. Ethnic groups
are present in the same areas today, where they originally settled,
and farming is particularly suited to preserving ethnic identities.
The dominance of ethnic Germans in the Midwestern farming population
is shown by the fact that their percentage ranges from a low of
49% in Missouri, to a high of 65% in Wisconsin. INI South Dakota,
some 58 % of farmers are of German descent.
Solomon states that German farmers are obsessed with land, that's
a quotation. "German farmers are obsessed with land."
And that the highest priority is to own and work a farm, protecting
the land, protecting the family are seen as the same thing. And
passing on the land enables the children to repeat the process.
Love for the land and farming are the reasons for continuity. Solomon
comes to the conclusion that, quote, "If Midwestern German
farm families possess even some of the Yeoman characteristics, that
produce the persistent farms that gradually invade and succeed in
Yankee territory , then an increasing proportion of medium sized
family farms can be expected to become German owned and operated.”
The primary course to preserving the value system, heritage, and
language of an ethnic group, are their religious organizations.
One of the Lutheran synod which attracted Germans from Russia, was
the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Iowa, also known as the German
Iowa synod. And this worked almost exclusively among Germans from
Russia. I've got a couple of slides for that, too.
This shows you the parishes of the Iowa synod. And, again, as you
can see, right away, it's primarily where Germans from Russia settled.
Its pastors, teachers, and money were first sent from Germany to
Iowa, and from there to surrounding states. German Lutherans all
believed that in the area of religion, only the language of Luther
should be used.
Every family brought, with them from the homeland, tIi1eir beloved
prayer books, and Bibles. In most Lutheran homes, a German Haussegen,
house blessing, hung on the wall, which reminded family members
of their spiritual obligations. This one says, "Ich und mein
Haus wollen dem Herrn dienen." "I and my house want to
serve the Lord.”
German Catholics made wrought iron crosses of immense beauty, with
which to mark the graves of the people they loved. These wrought
iron grave crosses are a distinctive feature of German-Russian heritage.
They are a folk art which can be found in numerous cemeteries in
North and South Dakota, especially those of the Black Sea Germans
who brought this tradition with, them, from the Catholic areas of
southern Germany. These crosses are striking evidence of our setters,
determination to mark the graves of family members with something
artistic, even though in the early years of settling, they had little
material, with which to work. This is beautiful and the sign attracted
me, too. It gives the name and then it says, "Geboren in Deutschland,
gestorben in America."
In areas where German settlements were sufficiently concentrated,
the Dakotas had German language publications, and this slide shows
you what towns had German language papers for two years or more.
Again, it's the Germans from Russia, who settled so cohesively,
and displayed a strong feeling of belonging together based on shared
culture, religion, and experiences who settled areas almost to the
exclusion of other ethnic groups that enabled German language newspapers
to spring up, as you can see reflected here. At one time or another,
there were a total of twenty-five German language publications in
South Dakota and thirty-nine in North Dakota.
The Dakota Freie Presse was considered to be the organ
of all German-Russians. It was started in Yankton, South Dakota,
in 1874, only ten years after the first English language paper.
It later moved to Aberdeen, and then to New Ulm, Minnesota, and
lasted until 1955. By 1905, it could boast of having more subscriptions
than any English language paper in the state. Politicians referred
to it as the bible of the Germans from Russia, and throughout its
whole life, its mission was to serve their interests, no matter
where they lived, be it in the United States, Canada, Argentina,
or Russia. It provided them with a feeling of community and common
identity, when the German language newspaper, Odessa, on the Black
Sea, stopped publication, Dakota Freie Presse was mailed to Southern
Russia. A sense of belonging to a large family was especially sustained
by the many letters from abroad published in the paper.
Sally Roesch Wagner in her collection of stories, Daughters
of Dakota, points out that many of the women among the Germans
from Russia never learned to speak English, and they didn't need
to. And I'm sitting at a table now where people still know how to
speak German and do speak German. Could I just see a show of hands;
how many of you still speak German? Well, isn't this--oh my gosh,
it's practically the whole room! Now, isn't this fantastic? This
is what your heritage is all about, and I want you people to send
me your children to SDSU to continue the study of the language.
Well, Sally Roesch Wagner writes that the women of Eureka, for
example, were able to shop, worship, and visit with friends without
ever leaving their native language, and I'm told that is still the
case today in many homes in Eureka, and last time I was in Aberdeen,
I went into a K-Mart, and then two men came in and spoke German
to one another. I am told by Mrs. Schutz this is not uncommon, etc.
Of course, as the U .S. Census points out, 17,000 people still use
it in their homes. How many of you still use it in your homes? Not
just that you know it, but you use it in your daily lives. Now,
this is good. Maybe twenty, twenty-five people easily. Great.
I have this slide in Eureka. How German can you get? And it really
struck me, because, obviously, one sees so many German last names,
because 45% of South Dakota's population are German, and so, you
could just open up a paper, and see all sorts of last names that
are German. But the first name, these parents named their son Gottlieb,
as a first name, and this was the first time I was in Eureka and
the second time I happened to meet Gottlieb Ottenbacher once, and
that was a thrill! And of course, I noticed, parts of the heritage
in Russian "How German can you get?" You see Leberwurst,
Blutwurst und Schwartenmagen and all that good German sausage. Now
there is some baby growing up in South Dakota, listening to Grandmother
sing: "Backe, backe Kuchen, Bäcker hat gerufen".
And our Germans from Russia have preserved many elements of their
heritage and have become a vital part of our Dakota mosaic. Thank
you very much.
Thank you very much Dr. Richter. We did indeed learn a lot about
our heritage from you.