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 northern Europe.
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 spiritual meaning.
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 made.
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 and baking.
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 was Klaasen.
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.