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‘People on the Move’

By Staff | Sep 20, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT Dr. Eric Schmaltz shows a map of German settlements along Russia's Volga River and Black Sea.

The new German Russian Heritage building at Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum opened its doors for the first of a three-part lecture series Sunday, as professor of history Eric Schmaltz presented “A People on the Move.”

The series, entitled “Exploring the American Dream in Central North Dakota” is funded by Humanities North Dakota.

Sunday’s free lecture outlined the story of “Volk auf dem weg,” hardworking people who fled Germany for Russia, attracted by the promise of land and freedom from political turmoil and military conscription. Their years in Russia would later be marked by more political turmoil and economic problems and inspire a new search for a peaceful home where their families could prosper.

Schmaltz, who chairs the social sciences department at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, OK, peppered his presentation with references to his own German Russian roots, which took hold in America for his family in Emmons County, North Dakota.

Smiling, Schmaltz told the audience, “I was born in Minot. I haven’t been back since 1978, so when I flew in yesterday, I drove through town having flashbacks.”

Photos of Schmaltz’s great grandfather, John Schmaltz, and his wife and children illustrated how Germans from Russia’s Black Sea region settled in southern North Dakota and supported their large families by farming or establishing businesses in the prairie towns.

“I know there are some other Schmaltzes up here; they may be a different branch, but if you walk back far enough, we’re related in Germany or Ukraine,” Schmaltz noted as he pointed out his great-grandfather’s Catholic family posing in front of the family meat market in Strasburg, North Dakota. John Schmaltz would eventually have 16 children, some of whom continued the business with their own families until 2006.

Like many settlers in North Dakota, the family was originally from Odessa on the Black Sea.

“My mother’s father’s side they were German Lutherans,” Schmaltz said. “They were from Bessarabia, and they settled in McClean County, around Coleharbor and Garrison, not far from Washburn. They had 12 kids.”

Maps in the presentation illustrated settlement patterns by the German people who had left colonies near Russia’s Volga River and the Black Sea for the plains of the United States beginning in 1870. Schmaltz said the wave of immigration peaked around the turn of the 20th century.

Schmaltz described most German Russian settlers as “Lutherans, Catholics, and then some Mennonites and Reformed Baptists.”

“Black Sea Germans, Bessarabians, Mennonites mostly settled on the Northern Plains, mostly in the Dakotas and some Canadian provinces the Dakotas, Montana; you might get a few in other locations as well, but we’re mostly the Northern Plains,” Schmaltz noted.

“The Volga Germans tended to settle in the Central and Southern Plains. That includes primarily Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and a few went into Oklahoma. Later, some Black Sea and Volga Germans migrated to California.”

Schmaltz also showed “The German Russian Triangle,” a map of North Dakota with scattered dots representing settlements by Lutheran and Catholic Germans from Russia. The dots concentrate in the center of the state, forming a rough triangle.

“We’re at the northern tip of that Pierce County,” Schmaltz said of the triangle. “It’s mostly in the central and west-central part of the state. A little bit extends into the central part of South Dakota.”

“Maybe up to one third of the population of this state today can claim some German Russian background a high percentage,” Schmaltz indicated.

Like other immigrants to the US in the early 20th century, German Russians found prosperity came with risks, and at times, struggles.

“Tod, Leiden, Brot,” read a German saying Schmaltz showed to the audience. “Death, suffering and bread. The first generation gets death; the second gets suffering, or want; the third gets the bread.”

Challenges brought on by economic events and two world wars caused German Russians to acclimate to their new home quietly, and quickly.

“Even today, a lot of people still don’t know much about the group. We’re kind of low-key,” Schmaltz said of Americans descendants of Germans from Russia. “We’re kind of passive-aggressive; maybe it’s a survival strategy.”

Germans from Russia found themselves having to deal with what Schmaltz called a “double standard” in the 20th century.

Because of their Russian garb, Germans from Russia arriving in the United States faced derision from some Americans. Schmaltz showed cartoon illustrations of Eastern Europeans taken from Harper’s Weekly.

“Then, you throw in a couple more things,” Schmaltz noted, showing drawings of a German pickelhaube, or pointed helmet next to a Nazi swastika. “We had a lot of virulent anti-German sentiment under President Woodrow Wilson in 1917-1918. There were a lot of violations of civil liberties. They started shutting down German language publications; they stopped speaking German in church. That was the death knell of the German language (in American life).”

“Then,” Schmaltz added, showing a photo of Josef Stalin, “We’ve got the Soviet Union; that’s the homeland we left.”

The Russian connection had remained for many of the new Americans who had relatives living in the Soviet Union.

“They’d get letters from family after World War I about the civil war in Russia and its turbulent events in the early 20th century, saying, ‘Gosh, I should have gone with you folks in 1904.'”

Schmaltz said his great grandfather had continued to write to his mother in Russia “until she starved to death in the early 1920s famine; his siblings (who had stayed behind) were later killed by Bolsheviks.”

American life changed the children of German Russian settlers much as it had other children of immigrants, however.

The fear of military conscription that caused Black Sea and Volga Germans to flee to the US faded with subsequent generations.

Schmaltz showed a photo of his grandfather’s family taken in 1944; three sons wear United States Army uniforms and one wears a uniform from the US Navy.

The new Americans found truth in an old German saying: “Work makes life sweet.”

Schmaltz shared how his mother’s family made a baseball diamond in their farmyard and formed a team from all the children; how food drew communities together and eventually, even outsiders living in the Midwest took a liking to watermelon pickles, knoephla soup, and bierocks.

“Kuchen is the Official State Dessert of South Dakota,” Schmaltz said.

Schmaltz mentioned famous Americans with German Russian roots: Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today “He actually attended one of our Germans from Russia conventions;” former US Senator Tom Daschle and entertainers Lawrence Welk; Angie Dickinson; John Denver; Chris Isaak and Randy Meisner of the Eagles. Former Yankees player Johnny Hopp is also a descendant of Volga Germans.

Schmaltz praised the advent of genealogical and family history websites now available, although he noted some families lack interest in preserving their histories. Schmaltz urged those interested in contributing to the story of German Russians in America to contact universities and other organizations collecting artifacts.

He also recommended documenting stories passed down by ancestors.

“You guys are part of the story, especially those family oral traditions write them down. Hopefully, somebody will carry that on or give it to a special collection,” Schmaltz said.

“We’re at the point where we’re at the third, fourth or fifth generation of descendants, and that’s part of the story, too.”

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