Forbidden for 50 years we are writing to our relatives in America Letters from Mathäus Günthner

Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer

Chautauqua Centennial, July 1, 1993,
University of North Dakota- Lake Region, Devil’s Lake

Letters from Mathäus Günthner

As I spend a pleasant June afternoon in one of America's favorite small cities, Devils Lake, I wonder about the lives of our families, relatives, and friends living in such places as Siberia, Russia.

"To Russia, from N.D., with love..." was the headline of an article that appeared in The Forum on Valentine's Day in February. Mathäus Günthner living in the heart of what used to be the former Soviet Union anxiously waits and reads for letters from his relatives on the plains of Dakota. Perhaps today Mathäus and his family are reviewing correspondence from Sherrie Guenthner of Hazen or Loretta Huber Busch of Rugby.

Until 1991 the Guenthners and the Hubers in North Dakota did not know they had relatives in Russia. Bob Lind writes in The Forum, "Mathäus Günthner is a former teacher who is struggling to survive in his country's ruined economy in a city east of Moscow. Sherrie Guenthner does child care in her home in Hazen and does housekeeping. Mathäus' grandfather was a brother of Sherrie's great-grandfather.” Sherrie lives on a thriving western North Dakota farm homesteaded by German-Russian immigrants from the steppes of Russia. Mathäus Günthner's ancestors once lived in these same villages in south Russia. Sherrie's ancestors decided to seek a new homeland in America. Her cousin, the parents of Mathäus Günthners's father decided to stay in Russia. They suffered the tragic fate of thousands of our German-Russian people who were sent to Siberia.

"Mathäus' letters told of a grim life. Mathäus, now 77, and his wife, 69, live in a city of 500,000 people. Food is in short supply. Occasionally they can buy meat. Fruit and vegetables, when they're available, are expensive. About the only food that's plentiful is sauerkraut, and Mathäus says they're getting tired of it. "

"He has stood in line from 4 a.m. until 4 p.m. to get food supplies sent from the United States. They can buy used clothing, but new clothing is not available. Mathäus says the city is contaminated by radioactivity .He has a telephone, but it's expensive and the rate continually climbs, so he may have to discontinue it."

Mathäus and his wife are of the Lutheran faith. They meet with other Lutheran families in homes. There are few, if, any churches. They hope and pray for a better life for their children and the thousands of ethnic Germans who will remain in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the former Soviet Union.

Sherrie Guenthner is deeply moved by the letters she receives. Mathäus writes, "We are happy that we have so many relatives in North Dakota. Many evenings we sit together and look at your pictures. We love you. We would love to see you. We would have so much to talk about. Too bad that we did not find you in such a long time. It took us over 50 years. You are very lucky your great-grandfather came to America or else you would be slaves like we are."

Sherrie's great-grandfather came to North Dakota 100 years ago in 1893. Since the early 1930's there has been no communication between his family in America and those left behind in Russia.

"When my Uncle Jakob and his family stayed with our parents in 1906 he asked them to travel to the United States with them. For two weeks Uncle Jakob and Aunt Katherine asked my parents if they would like to undertake the trip to a distant foreign country. Father did not want to and so we stayed in Russia,” Mathäus wrote.

Unfortunately, the decision to stay in Russia resulted in much hardship such as being forced to work in labor camps. “We were the most repressed people. I am one of the few who still lives. I had to empty this bitter cup to the last drop," writes Mathäus.

Sherrie Gunthner said it was wonderful to have found these relatives. “I would always think about those that stayed back and I always wondered if they were still alive. Mathäus wrote that he cried and cried when he got my letter because he was so happy to find family again.”

Those of us who have been so closely involved with our letters from Russia have found this to be the most rewarding and touching experience. Perhaps no greater reward in life can be than to know one has reunited families after 50 years.

The German-Russians in the former Soviet Union learned about the heritage of the Germans from Russia in North Dakota through an article that appeared in the German-language newspaper, Neues Leben, which is widely read by German throughout the CIS.

We have been helping families track down their relatives who immigrated to North Dakota and throughout the United States and Canada between 1870 and 1920.

Letters from Paul Krüger

In addition to the Günthners Paul Krüger of Piketnoje, Siberia wrote asking for help in tracing his relatives. We were able to find several of the Krueger relatives and discovered Paul’s uncle Otto Krueger was a United States Congressman from North Dakota in the 1950’s. The Kruegers lived near Fessenden, North Dakota.

Congressman Otto Krueger served three terms in the United States House of Representatives form 1952 to 1958. His brother served a term in a slave labor camp in the Siberia.

Bernhardt Krüger was only 13 when he watched his 19-year-old brother, Otto Krueger, leave in 1910 for America. Bernhardt and his sister, Martha, decided to stay in Russia. The other eight children of Gottlieb and Helene Krüger all went to America, settling in Wells County, North Dakota.

In the Grand Forks Herald article of September 29, 1991, Lance Nixon writes, “In 1944, when Otto was thinking of running for state office in North Dakota Bernhardt Krüger, at about age 47, was working in a labor camp in central Asia beside his son. Their crime was being German at a time when Germany and Russia were at war.”

It is only now, as reforms are sweeping the former Soviet Union, that the descendants of the Krueger brothers and sisters who immigrated to the United States: Karl, Adoline, Maria, Emma, Julius, Leopold, Gustav, and Otto are learning what happened to the family members who stayed in Russia.

Paul Krüger has been writing to his relatives and to me sketching with letters what happened to his family in the Soviet Union. Paul writes, “Before the collectivism our family also had a small farm in Reinfeld, 2 or 3 horses, a few cows, sheep, and poultry. In 1933 we all had to go to the Kolkhoz or collective farm. In 1942 all Germans had to go to a so-called Trud Army (properly said concentration camp). I was sent to a camp where I was building a train until June 1946 and was closely watched. My father came here later, but because he had a heart ailment he was dismissed in 1944. My brother Karl was in camp where he worked in the coal mine until 1945. My mother was working during the war on a colochos.”

Lena Dyck wrote to tell how her parents would have liked to immigrate to America or Canada. She writes, “1929 to 1930 was a difficult time for us. Stalin gained power after Lenin’s death. There were terrible conditions, people were deported, everything was left behind. Whoever had a good economical farm was evacuated. We were also on this list although my sister could not go; dad was also sick, no mercy. At night during a cold winter about 1930 were put on cattle trains destined for the far cold north deep into the woods. I with other children was allowed to go back, but where to? I earned my living with strangers, was not allowed to attend school as an enemy.

But there were good people who were helpful. I was allowed to visit a hospital where I learned to be a nurse. Then again in 1937 and 1938 there was much terror. Among the Germans (in America) there are also some who have experienced the war. From 1943 to 1945 I was in Poland and Germany. Yet, we were caught and taken back to the Soviet paradise. We came to the Ural region. It was a cruel time during which we would hide our ancestry; we even were afraid to speak German. Even now we are afraid, our future is not bright and uncertain. Although there is glastnost in the country, the democracy taught, no churches, and no German customs. People are packing their suitcases yet where to go? Not all can go to Germany. If America would take us in my husband and my only daughter would go.”

Paul Krüger, Mathäus, Günthner, and Lena Dyck have become our friends. They continue to write and tell their story of life in the former Soviet Union. They hope for a better life for their children and grandchildren. They wonder about lives of their relatives in North Dakota and America.

This is the story of our letters from Russia. Forbidden for 50 years we are writing to our relatives in America.

Let me extend an invitation to visit us at North Dakota State University. The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the NDSU libraries is one of the major resource collection in America. Join the Germans from Russia Heritage Society with headquarters in Bismarck to help us preserve this rich ethnic heritage in North Dakota.

My sincere appreciation to the Chautauqua Centennial Committee for the opportunity to share these touching words with each of you. May this historic Chautauqua weekend provide lasting memories for the Devils Lake community.

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