Dakota Datebook

Germans Left Behind

Thursday, October 16, 2003

On yesterday’s program, we discussed the first mass migration of Germans as they poured into Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great. By the late 1800s, Catherine was dead, Germany and Russia had become enemies and German Russians were being drafted into the military to fight their German kinsman. This marked the beginning of the second mass migration of Germans – this time from Russia to the United States, with a very large number of them settling in central and southwestern North Dakota.

The choice to stay or go wasn’t an easy one. Germans had created thriving farms and businesses in separate communities that allowed them to retain their culture and language. Even as they became more and more threatened, many were reluctant to leave. By the 1920s, the ones who stayed behind were considered enemies of the state, and their lives became a living hell.

Michael Miller, a Germans from Russia bibliographer, has been communicating with a number of Germans who remained behind. In one letter, Lena Dyck wrote, “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 1,930 (of us) 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.”

Another who remained in Russia was Johann Schauer. In a 1993 letter to relatives, he wrote, “Until the beginning of the Second World War we lived in Neudorf, Odessa. I was drafted into the Red Russia Army. (I) was wounded…and was two years in a POW camp in Germany. After that they made me a (Russian) translator in the German Army, and I was always close to the front… then I became a soldier in the German Army and fought to the end of the war… I had to fight against the Russians in Russia.”

When Johann tried to find his parents after the war, they were no longer in Odessa. In 1944, they had been allowed to leave their farm but had to leave everything behind except what would fit into their horse-drawn wagon. They made it to Poland, but the following year, the Russians sent them to a Siberian slave-labor camp, the tragic fate of thousands of German Russians. Johann found them there, but he ended up getting arrested and jailed for five years for having served in the German army.

In 1988, Johann and his family were finally able to move to Germany, but ironically, they were unwelcome. Johann wrote, “From 1945 to 1988, we were always the German fascists (in Russia), but now in Germany? Here we are the Russians among the Germans. Many of our children (can’t) speak German, (because the) German language was not allowed in Russia after the war.”

For many years, Germans from Russian weren’t allowed to communicate with Americans, but as that ban has lifted, more and more German Russians are connecting with distant family members here in North Dakota.

In view of our continuing loss of population, it is tempting to imagine what would happen if our long-lost relatives began a third mass migration… sauerkraut, anyone? Kuchen? Knepfla?

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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