Germans from Russia Symposium

North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
July, 1990

My German-Russian Heritage

R. Reuben Drefs
Toledo, Ohio

     I am Reuben Drefs, born north of Demont, South Dakota. We have here in Fargo German-Russian Heritage symposium and in Lincoln, Nebraska, the other Germans from Russia group. The people in South Dakota seem to get lost between these two areas. So, today I am wearing my SoDak emblem to remind people that at one time there were more Germans from Russia in South Dakota than anywhere else.

     I became interested in research of my heritage about 1978. My sister Ruth had put together some family history and family stories. I looked at that and noticed an obituary of our grandfather. It said he was born in Alt Arcis, Bessarabia. I had no idea where that was. Then a few years later, I did become even more interested. I am the youngest of the Drefs line of those who immigrated to South Dakota. I am also a Lutheran minister in specialized chaplainry work. I have learned through my studies that the youngest child sometimes unconsciously carries the mantle for the family. Maybe that has happened to me. I have become much more involved than any of my family in German Russian research. There are many Germans from Russia living in southeastern South Dakota, but not many come to a convention. I am still talking to them about that. My sister was thinking about coming, but she didn't quite make it. She did go to Germany with me.

     To continue my story, as I became interested in my family story and, by the way, my family roots go back to Neu Arcis, not Alt Arcis. All the Drefs settled in Neu Arcis. As many of you may know, many of the colonies in Bessarabia were settled in 1815-16. A part of those who had settled in Alt Arcis started a new colony in 1824. Most of those, who had come from Poland, moved to Neu Arcis. So I began searching for records. And, as may have happened with you, in 1984 when the Church of Latter-Day Saints filmed those Bessarabian records from Leipzig, East Germany, much information became available. I found about 100 marriage records of Drefs in Neu Arcis. As time went on I became more interested, and even my wife, who is sitting back there, became involved. So, in 1986 we took a trip to Germany with our teen-age kids. By chance we were able to make connections with Christian Fiess, director of the Bessarabian Haus. He said something to his secretary, "Well, there are Drefs living not far from here." It still didn't click in my mind what he was talking about. It never had occurred to me that there were relatives in Germany. Nothing had ever been handed down to me from my family, that there were other relatives living in Europe. So Christian Giess made a telephone call and gave us directions to the home of Emil Timm north of Heidelberg, and Emil drove us a short distance to visit Gerhard Drefs. That started the Drefs American-Germany connection. The following year, 1987, I returned for the Neu Arcis colony reunion. Some of you may know that the descendants of the Bessarabian colonies in Germany have a reunion every year, every two years, or three years, depending on the colony. So I returned for eight days and stayed with Gerhard Drefs and his family. I was just starting to relearn my German. It was difficult, my German, but I was there and heard about the reunion they were planning for 1990, the 50th year anniversary since the deportation of the people by Hitler in 1940. In the meantime, I had met some other relatives and one of them was from another colony. This relative was from the colony of Hirtenheim. So I was invited to attend that reunion, also. So we went to two different reunions, that of Neu Arcis and Hirtenheim, Bessarabia.

     When I was doing my research on the LDS films I was missing some records. I was not certain whether all the church books had been filmed. So I decided, why not go to Leipzig, East Germany, and find out. Fortunately, my cousin Herbert Dregs took time off and drove us to Leipzig. These are the two things I want to talk about today, the reunions and the trip to Leipzig. I want to show the films of the city and archives in Leipzig.

      Here are pictures of some buildings across the street from the archive. You can see the buildings are made of this dark black and blue colored material, and the city stinks with pollution, and the whole area south of Leipzig also is very polluted. This huge building is where the Bessarabian church books are kept. Another building off to the side. This picture is on the inside. This one is on the second floor. Here on the second floor they were doing some remodeling. This one is the hallway just outside the research room. Here is the room where the church books are brought to the people doing research. It's not large; maybe 12 to 14 people can sit here. They have a few microfilm readers that don't look like the modern state of the art. But they are not needed, because one can study books. We found the people and the director very helpful. I was surprised that the church books were in such good shape. We could read very clearly all of the books we saw. Some of those letters and numbers that I said I had difficulty with on the films I could distinguish in the books. It was a crucial date, because the five rather than the eight meant that the child was born before the couple was married. (Laughter from audience.) But we were very pleased. The books were in good shape. I saw some books from other villages, and they too looked in similar good shape. Now I asked whether there were Bessarabian records that had not been copied and I was told that all the books have been copied by the Church of Latter- Day Saints. Now, I know that Mike has said that some were not copied, but I was told that all had been copied. In Leipzig they also have church records from the eastern areas, from Pomerania, Posen, West Prussia, and East Prussia. They said they were publishing a book in January that will list all the records they have.

     I might take a question at this time. Question: Did you have difficulty getting permission into the archive? Answer: No, I was granted permission even before the political changes of last
year. I was granted permission the year before, but could not go at that time. It was also no problem getting from West Germany to East Germany. It was just like going from USA to Canada. We zipped right through. My travel agent said I needed a visa, and I spent the $40 to get one, but that was no longer necessary.

     Question: Did you have difficulty with the language? Answer: Well, we stayed with a Heth family. Mother was born a Drefs, south of Leipzig, in the small village of Luckenau. There they speak a Sachsen dialect. We had a terrible time understanding that dialect. I was six years old when they stopped speaking German back home. It was entirely discontinued by the time I was ten. Now, one day when we sat down for dinner with a couple, (the woman was of Bessarabian descent and her husband was born Swabian from Germany, but not Bessarabian), I could understand every word she said." [Editor's comment: I also could distinguish the difference between the non-Bessarabian Swabish her husband spoke and the Bessarabian Swabish.] It amazed me that that language came back to my brain from so long ago. But the Sachsen dialect, that was very difficult for us.

     Now, one of the things that I have not heard very much from others, but which is a marvelous experience, is discovering one's relatives in Germany. I believe from my experience that if you have Bessarabian roots that you probably have relatives in Germany today, either in East or West Germany. As an example, I wanted to show three slides of Germany cousins of mine. Now, here are slides of the reunion at Hirtenheim. There were about 140 people at this reunion. You know from your German that a hirt is a shepherd. So this reunion built around the theme of "The Lord is our Shepherd." In the evening of the first day, an auctioneer got up and began to have an auction. One of the first items to be sold was this fleece of a sheep. They had some fun with this. Here is some dancing in the evening.

     Now we are up to the Neu Arcis reunion. This man is Edwin Kelm. He has organized many of the trips the German Bessarabians are taking back to Bessarabia to see their former homes. He usually comes to the reunion and gives greetings from the larger Bessarabian organization. This is a picture of the theme of the fifty-year history since leaving Bessarabia. The woman standing here is the wife of Emil Timm. I told you Emil Timm is the man who took us to our cousins the first time we went to Germany. He is the chairperson of the committee that organizes the reunion of Neu Arcis. She is his wife and gets to do a lot of the work, because she is his wife. [Laughter] So they gave her flowers. Now, an unfortunate thing happened. A near tragedy happened. There were 60 people from East Germany who came to the Neu Arcis reunion, many of them for the first time (now that they can leave and come to the reunion.) So they had arranged a special tour to the Bessarabian Haus, the museum of Bessarabia. It was perhaps an hour-and-half drive from Laudenbach, where the reunion was being held, to Stuttgart, where the museum is. They had invited us to go on that tour, too. I declined because I wanted to go there individually and have {the} opportunity to ask some research questions. When we returned later in the week, everyone was talking about the accident that had happened to that tour bus. Emil Timm would have been killed had he remained in his seat, because the bus hit a truck with steel beams that came right into his vacated seat. He had gone to the back of the bus to talk with someone else about a minute before the accident. His wife had her leg smashed and she has had three operations on that leg since the accident.

     Here are slides of a painting on the wall depicting life in Bessarabia. Now, this large hall was divided into half. The first day the wall was down and we had only half the space until four o'clock. Emil told me, "Wait until four o'clock. There is going to be a surprise." They pulled this wall up and exposed this other area. Here are paintings of each season and a simulated fair in Bessarabia. Now, here are the pictures of people selling different food items at the fair. Now here are the pictures of the gifts that were being used for a raffle. Women were walking around with baskets. One could buy a ticket and the ticket had a number that later was used to win one of these gifts. Here the people sat at tables and could order food or drink. It was all catered in and everything was held right there. I never did hear of the number that attended. I would guess over 200 people.

     Let me pause for a minute and ask if anyone has any questions regarding the reunions. Question from Mike Miller: The people at the reunion, were they older people, and do you think the reunions will continue in the future? I know in West Germany: The reunions have been more active than the Wolga Germans, and that's because they have lived there longer. Answer: The leaders seem to indicate that they are discouraged. It's a lot of work to organize the reunion and many people say they are not interested in coming anymore. But when they have the reunion, the people come and there is good attendance. I have made an interpretation that the reunions will continue because there is a force that drives them to continue to get together.

     But I find these reunions very different from our conventions here. The reunions are more like the family reunions we have, where people want to get together and visit. And that's really all they want to do. They are not very interested in research. I was asked to make a presentation that talked about doing research not only on Bessarabia records, but also doing research on church records from Poland. So many of our families lived in Poland before going on to Bessarabia and other areas. I wanted to emphasize that, and to emphasize the importance of connecting with North American cousins. Most of that was not heard, because the microphone system was poor; and people were visiting and not wanting to listen to speakers.

    Question: Did you speak to people who have gone back to Bessarabia, and whether they are invited to their homes? Answer: Yes, I heard of their experiences. If you have a chance to read the Bessarabian paper, Mitteilungsblatt, there have been many people writing about their return trips to their former homes. You need to read German, of course, to read these.

    Question: Are they disappointed when they return? Answer: I have heard both. My cousin Herbert was not allowed back into his former home that he left at age 12. He was very disappointed. The Russian woman said no. But others have reported very emotional reunions with their former classmates and school friends. They are invited in and eat cheese and sausage and drink wine and have a very emotional time of it.

    Question: Some have said they will not continue the reunions because not as many people are interested. Answer: The leaders said they were somewhat disappointed. One reason may be that the younger people in their thirties and forties were far in the minority, and there were hardly any there below thirty. More people were in their fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and older.

    Question: This area is now Moldavia? Answer: Yes, it's Moldavia now. These are slides now of people having gone back to Neu Arcis, Bessarabia. Sometimes there are sarcastic comments made by the Germans as to how the homes have been changed: "That roof has been replaced and you can see that was not done by a German." These slides do not have a reference as to what we are looking at. What we see will be houses and some other areas which will be very obvious as to what it is. In another workshop I will show slides that are definitely labeled as to what the slide item is. Here we have a cemetery, not kept up, but I suppose it's better than some areas where the cemeteries were bulldozed away in Russia. I believe that is the school in Neu Arcis. I can stop here unless there are more questions.

     Question: When do people go over there? Answer: Usually in the spring, summer, or fall. Well, that's about all of the slides.

     Question: Did the armies come through that area during World War II? Answer: I'm not sure but maybe Konstantine can answer that. Other commentator: The German army went through in 1940 and the area was under German occupation through 1941, 1942, and 1943. They marched right in along with the Romanian army.

     Mike Miller: Remember that 1990 is a very important year for the Bessarabian colonies. For example, the colony of Krasna is having its reunion in the fall. I expect there will be 800 to 1000 people present. They are so well organized. That's because they all live close to each other nearby Koblenz. In 1992, they want to know where the convention will be here in North Dakota. They want to fill a plane and come to our convention. They want to come to Krasna, North Dakota. Because they are organized, they want to restore the cemetery west of Strassburg. There is a monument there which is very important to our people. There are also young people in their group. They have a great camaraderie. This is something that more people should do. We need to develop more contacts with the groups in Germany. What Mr. Drefs has done will help, but we need to have more people make contact with their village in Germany. You should order that paper, Mitteilbungsblatt, and you can read when the reunions are being held. Otherwise you are lost. Look at what happened with Mr. Weiss. He came over here and, without any previous contact, found his relatives here in just a few days.

     I just remembered something I meant to say about Leipzig. I asked how people could come to Leipzig to do research as a group. I was told they could take as many as twenty people in their facility. I do think it is better than viewing the films. You can see so much better than on the films. [Editorial comment: Some people who are not close to a Church of Latter-Day Saints may find it easier to go to Leipzig and do the research in one week rather than study microfilm for months, and it does take that long.]

     Question: If a lot of people look at those books, how much longer will they allow those books to be handled? Answer: I don't know about that, but right now they said to my German cousin, "All you have to do is give us a telephone call a few days before you want to come, so we can get the books ready; and you can come."

     Comment by Mr. Konstantine Mayer of West Germany, translated by presenter Drefs: (He says that) The whole area and city of Leipzig was bombed and destroyed in the war. This whole area has been rebuilt since World War II.


     I am Reuben Drefs from Delmont, South Dakota. My grandfather and great-grandmother immigrated from Neu Arcis, Bessarabia to Nebraska and then to South Dakota, already in 1876. It is actually 110 years. There we discovered our Drefs cousins. Nothing had ever been said to me by my family that we had other relatives in Germany, as I grew up. I am the last of my generation in the Drefs line in South Dakota. I have been to Germany three times.

     What I want to do in this workshop is three main things. Tell you about the trip to Leipzig in East Germany where the Bessarabian church records are housed; to tell you of the reunions of two different Bessarabian colonies held in Germany. The third thing I want to share with you is a fairly long interview of a German-Russian woman who has returned to Germany from the Soviet Union within the last year. If we have time, I might play a tape given to me by a different woman also just returned from the Soviet Union. This tape is in German and in Russian with some music of both the folk music type and music used at their worship services.

     I will start now wit some slides of my trip to Leipzig, East Germany. These are of the archives at Leipzig. The people at the archives are very helpful in working with you in researching the church books. One can now travel form West Germany to East Germany as easily as from the USA to Canada. The directors of the archive told my cousin, a West Germany citizen from near Hamburg, that all he needed to do was to call a day ahead of time and he or others could come and do research anytime. Some of you perhaps don't live near a church of Latter-Day Saints. You might consider some day of taking a trip to Leipzig and researching your village, if you are from Bessarabian descent. The books are all in good shape and much easier to read than off microfilm. In places, the microfilm is faint and hardly readable. The books themselves don't have this problem. Everything can be easily read. (Comment by Mrs. Drefs: "I am passing around pictures of the archive.")

     Question: do you have other records or didn't they tell you that? Answer: They said they had records of the eastern areas, Posen, West Prussia, East Prussia, Pomerania, and other areas. They said they were publishing a book in January 1991,which will list all the records they have.

     Slides of Leipzig: Shows some of the buildings around the archive giving flavor of the city. Many of the buildings are dark looking, greenish-black color. These are pictures inside the archive hallways, the second floor, and third floor leading into the Bessarabian area. There was an inner room in which we did the research. That area holds about 12-15 people. They have additional space so that a group of perhaps 20 people could go over together as a research group.

     Here are some slides of my German cousins which I wanted to show, to indicate I actually did meet cousins who are from the same family origin as I am: This is Gothilf Drefs who was a very wealthy farmer in Neu Arcis, and who lost a great deal when they were deported in 1940. Here is another group of relatives that I met at the Hirtenheim reunion, and the meeting was so quick that I did not even get their names and addresses. These slides show that you can make contacts with your German cousins, if you are of Bessarabian descent.

     Here are slides of the village of Hirtenheim: This village is not well known because it was a daughter colony. This is my cousin Herbert Drefs who was chairing that particular reunion. In the evening they had an auction. As you may know from your German that a Hirt is a shepherd. The theme of "The Lord is my Shepherd" was tied into this reunion. In this slide they were now auctioning off the fleece of a sheep. They had a great deal of fun with this. In the first auction they did an interesting thing. Women walked around and took the bids of the people in baskets. If you made a bid you placed it in the basket. Then, if someone bid higher, yours was lost in the basket. An interesting fund raiser. They didn't do this with the rest of the auction, as that became too expensive. Here people are mingling and dancing in the evening. The room was too small. They expected only about 80 people but 140 showed up, many of them had not preregistered, but decided just to come for the first day and return to their won homes after the first day.

     Now, this reunion of Neu Arcis, Bessarabia: They do it a little differently. Hirtenheim started their reunion about 4:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, and it concluded Sunday afternoon. Neu Arcis began theirs at ten a.m. on Saturday, and the first day ran until nearly midnight. Then they went to the next day until about two on Sunday afternoon, when everyone went home. Now, at Hirtenheim they went to a local church on Sunday morning, so people were spread apart. There seemed to be very little chance to visit, and people were not together in a large group the second day. In the Neu Arcis reunion, they never left the large hall. The church service was held right in the hall, so there were some differences. The organization at Neu Arcis seemed smoother; and that's, perhaps, because at Hirtenheim, a new chair was just taking over the first time.

     Now this is a picture of Edwin Kelm, the director of the overall Bessarabian organization. He always comes to the Neu Arcis reunion to give greetings from the larger organization. He told me, he had lived in Canada for a while and then returned to West Germany. Here on the far left of this slide is Emil Timm, the organizer of the Neu Arcis reunion in Germany. His wife is on the far right. She was receiving flowers; because when her husband takes such a job, much of it is done by the wife, right? They were honoring her for her effort. Now this line here on the slide an upper wall. From ten a.m. until four p.m. this wall was down. At four o'clock Emil said, there will be a surprise. They pulled the wall up and doubled the area of the reunion. On the back wall then, they had paintings depicting the seasons and the symbols for each season in Bessarabia. In the back area, they had a Fair set-up depicting life in Bessarabia. The Fair itself was made up of small tables in which various food items could be purchased for a few pfennig and were sold both by young and mature women. This booth shows the teen-age daughters of my cousin Gerhard Drefs of Hemsbach, Germany.

     This slide shows pictures of prizes that were part of a raffle: A woman walked around selling chances that were coordinated with a number on the prize. Later the chances were given to those who had purchased a ticket. Here are the long rows of table as they had purchased ticket. Here people could visit when there was no formal programming going on. People ate their meals here with food catered in and, of course, there was always beer and other drinks.

     Now here are pictures taken of the village of Neu Arcis, Bessarabia as it was in 1988. These slides, unfortunately, do not have any reference text. I received the slides from Emil Timm, but was not given any notes as to what item was on each slide. Many of the houses have deteriorated of have been rebuilt. Some of the original homes are still standing in good shape. Here the cemetery {is} in disarray, perhaps better than other places in Russia where the cemeteries have simply been bulldozed away. This slide is showing the school at Neu Arcis.

     These slides show a bridge, and school, again. These slides are from the village of Hirtenheim: These are labeled, but perhaps the names of the homes will not mean a great deal to you. Here is one that has had its roof removed and renovated with the rest of the house being original. Unfortunately, this picture shows the Jacob Drefs house, my cousin Herbert's home, into which he was not allowed entrance by the Russian woman. In most cases, they have been able to enter and have a good time with the present owners. This picture is one to which Germans comment, "That roof had been redone by a Russian or Ukrainian. The way the roof is off center would never be done by a German." The comment here on this slide is that the Germans put the tapestry on the floor, and the Russians put the tapestry on the wall. But it does seem pretty there on the wall. These slides are all of Hirtenheim, Bessarabia. There is an old well. Here is a road leading out of town. These slides will be kept by German-Russian Heritage Symposium who have a copy. That is probably a school. Here are slides of the trip to Bessarabia, I think in Bulgaria. The tour bus across the street from the hotel in which they were staying. This is Kischinew, Capitol City of Bessarabia.

     I interviewed three Germans from Russia, just returned to West Germany within the last year. One was Roman Catholic and two were Evangelical. One was near the Iranian border and other two from that part of Russia, which I can never pronounce, Kazakhstan. I will go over the one interview. Before we do that I will play a short section of tape that has Russian music. The one woman I interviewed near Bloomberg, West Germany, told of a man who had been persecuted and tortured in the Russian mental hospitals for his faith. The story went that he had escaped and had written this into a book. However, as the interview went on, she said the material is on tape and she wanted to give it to me. There are two cassettes. One is in Russian and there follows a German translation. The other one is entirely in Russian with no translation. I have to have it translated. One of my cousins in Germany listened to the German translation and said it tells about the testing of their faith. The threats of persecution in Russia did not deter them. Some of the music sounds like a revival or a bible camp atmosphere worship context. (Music is played here). Music sounds beautiful, but we cannot understand it.

     Now the interview done at Hemsbach, Germany: The interview tells of the life of a German family from Neu Glückstal in the Ukraine, very close to Bessarabia. She told of having returned to Germany for nursery school education and hearing on the radio that the German people in the Ukraine were fleeing with the German army in 1944. She told of being reunited with her family in West Prussia, and then fleeing again in 1945,and finally of being shipped to the north country in Russia where she had to work in the forests. She was so weak that, at 23, she looked like 60. She was given an opportunity to work in an office, because of her education for nursery school; and this helped her survive. The woman goes on telling what happened to them during the fifties, sixties, and seventies. The interview will be published in Heritage Review at a later date.

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