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"Unsera Leute"

Feb. 15, 1999

Grand Forks N.D.

Dear classmates and friends,

Almost all of us who graduated from Eureka High School had at least one thing in common – our ethnic background. The Haupts, the Bauers, the Schicks, the Schocks, the Opps, the Neuharths, we were all descendents of the Germans from Russia. I grew up surrounded by many aunts, uncles and cousins, all as German as myself. My parents spoke German every day. We ate German food, danced German dances, even had German church into the early 1970s. Still there was so much I never knew about the people and the places from which I came.

Now there’s an excellent one-hour documentary that tells the story of our people. Called "Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie," it aired last week on North Dakota Prairie Public Television. My friend Ron Vossler, a Wishek native and a professor at UND, wrote the script. It tells of a people whose history is both complex and contradictory. The Germans from Russia were restless wanderers yet they had deep roots to home. They were intensely practical people yet they sought eternity. They tried to forget their sometimes painful history but they always remembered.

Have you ever heard that saying, "Think globally, act locally"? As this film points out, the Germans from Russia turned that concept upside down. They might act globally, for instance by moving from one continent to another, but they thought locally, also seeking to settle down with the friends and relatives from home.

Our ancestors left Germany in two major migrations because of famine, war and social unrest. Russia had promised them free land, local self government and freedom from military service if they would settle the lands along the Volga River and Black Sea. But by the late 1800s the Russian leaders had forgotten those promises. At the same time the Germans in Russia began to hear of free land in the Americas and another major migration began. The move to America was hard, but the fate of the Germans who stayed in Russia was far worse. Millions perished from starvation under Stalin. Almost all the rest were relocated to Siberia and other remote areas.

Since the break up of the USSR, some have returned to the Russian villages our ancestors left 100 years ago. Others have gone home to Germany. The pictures of those Russian villages, from a distance so like the many little towns of North Dakota and South Dakota, are familiar but sad, too. The churches that were once the center and pride of each community are now in shambles, their steeples knocked down years ago by the communists.

The film also tells the story of the Germans once they came to America, their hardships, their triumphs, their culture. There are stories of tragedy, stories of triumph – even stories about how to make strudles and the often misunderstood tradition of folk healing called "brauche." At its heart this is often a sad story about leaving and loss. In a news release, Vossler said the research and traveling he had done for this film made him feel "that in some small sense I’d reshaped some of the suffering of ‘unsera leute’ &ldots;"

The story of "unsera leute" – our people – is as dramatic, as powerful, as any story in history. It’s one we should share with our families and especially with our children. We shouldn’t assume that those younger than us know the same things we know about the Germans from Russia, or about our family histories either.

This was brought home to me two summers ago when the Wolff branch of my family had a reunion in Eureka. Just for fun my daughter and I made a coloring book for the kids that told the story of how the Wolff family had come to America. After she read the book, the wife of one of my distant cousins asked me: "Is this true?" I assured her it was. Her children are the sixth generation of the Wolffs in America and they have a right to know their story. It’s a real page turner.

"Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie" is also available on videotape. Visit the website at www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/gerrus/grvideo.html to order one.

Your friend, Paulette