Dakota Datebook

Germans to Russia

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

In 1941, the Black Sea port of Odessa had been surrounded by German troops for several weeks when, on this day in history, the city was evacuated by its Russian troops.

The region surrounding Odessa figures heavily in our state’s history; in the early 1900s, thousands of German Russians immigrated to the U.S., with large numbers settling in North Dakota.

It all began with German-born Catherine the Great, who married the future Tzar of Russia, Peter the Third, when she was 16. When she became the Empress of Russia in 1762, she issued a manifesto to her native Germany offering free land, financial help and freedom from military service if they would come to Russia to develop the land.

Crop failures in Germany, as well as lack of living space and high taxes caused hundreds of thousands of Germans to answer the call.

For many, the journey to Russia was not only difficult but disastrous. Much of the journey took place on overcrowded boats navigating dangerous rivers. Hot steamy days often caused prime conditions for disease, and passengers became so ill, they were quarantined for weeks at a time.

Friedrich Schwarz kept a diary of his journey with his wife and nine children in 1817. His entries describe storms, constant passport checks, extreme heat, rain, insects, hunger, treacherous river rapids and, above all, disease. Beginning on September 6th, Friedrich’s journal tells the story:

“The bodies of my sons Leonhard and Albrecht are completely swollen. Also Margarete’s body is beginning to swell. Josef is becoming thinner day by day, and Johann is also sick in bed… We left the island today and were supposed to go into quarantine (on the ship). But when we arrived, there was not enough room for us, and we had to remain on the shore of the Danube.”

A day later he wrote, “Again we had to remain here. We can scarcely obtain any food for our money, and there is no medicine at all. I have nothing but river water to help quench the thirst of my many sick people.” His September 12th entry reads, “This morning at 8 o’clock my dear son Leonhard fell so peacefully asleep in the Lord, we were long in doubt that he was really dead. This evening, brother Jakob’s daughter Friederike died just as peacefully… my dear Mararete is deathly sick, and Katharina is unable to be on her feet.” On the 16th, his journal reads, “At 4 p.m. my dear son Josef fell peacefully asleep in the Lord.”

The following day, Friedrich was forced to bring his family’s clothes and bedding onto the ship for fumigation. For two days they sat on the riverbank with nothing to cover them. He wrote, “…we froze terribly while we were undressed.”

A month later, they finally reached the end of their 133-day journey. “Jackob and I drove to Odessa to have a look at the far-famed city. But our expectations were greatly deceived when we saw the many desolate places, the numerous huts of earth, the poor houses and particularly the knee-deep mud. We stayed overnight, but since we were not clothed in large sheepskin coats in the manner of the natives, we had to sleep on a cold hard table.”

By the end of the 1800s, the Germans had created thriving colonies, but now Russia and Germany were enemies, Catherine the Great was dead, and the lives of Germans living in Russia were increasingly threatened. When Germans were forced to enter the military to fight their native country, a new mass migration began – this time to the United States. Stay tuned tomorrow as we take a look at what happened to those Germans from Russia who decided to stay behind despite the mounting dangers.

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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