Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Volga Germans--still on the road after all these years

Immigration is always in the news. Borders open and then close--mostly for economic and political reasons, only occasionally for humanitarian. Ethnic minorities clash with nationals whose families arrived maybe 300-400 years ago. Somalis in Finland have to learn Swedish, the 2nd language of Finland due to the Swedish control of centuries, and returning Finns from Russia don't speak either Finnish or Swedish. It happens in all countries in all ages. In our typically self-centered way, Americans believe we are either the best or the worst at assimilating and resettling new peoples within our borders.

Several centuries ago, Catherine the Great of Russia (a German) invited Germans to resettle in Russia with their skills and thrift. Much like the European who immigrated to the United States around the same time, these Germans took their language, religion, customs and culture to Russia for a fresh start. They became known as the Volga Germans. They flourished economically and culturally, maintaining their German ways, until Stalin became worried about their loyalties to Germany (where they had never lived), and gave them 24 hours to relocate in Kazakhstan, USSR. In less than month one million were deported like animals and dumped in a strange country. They lost their possessions, and many lost their lives in forced labor camps. Most were Protestants, many were Lutherans, but a large number were Mennonites.

After the reunification of Germany in the 1990s, ethnic Germans were given the right to return to Germany, and so many Kazakhtan Volga Germans resettled in Germany. The older people who returned in the 70s still spoke high German, but recent arrivals speak "low German," or the younger Germans only know Russian. Some have now reversed this decision and returned to their "homeland" in Kazakhstan (where they are the second largest minority) rather than be outsiders in Germany who speak the language with difficulty, or don't want to learn it. The Wycliffe Bible Translators has a ministry to the ethnic Volga Germans in their own low German dialect, keeping with their mission of creating the Good News in the "heart language" of the people.

Meanwhile, in the 19th century, many Volga Germans moved to middle west and western United States to work in farming, particularly the sugar beet industry. In the 1970s before the memories and traditions of these scattered Germans whose ancestors had wandered all over Europe and Russia were lost, oral histories were recorded and are available at the Colorado State University archives in Ft. Collins. I've been reading through a few of the accounts by older members of this group (born in the late 1800s), and after you establish the rhythm of the stories, you come away with fresh appreciation for immigrant groups in the United States, who gave up everything (often very little) to start a new life (also with very little).

MAR data as of 2006 on Kazakh Volga Germans

FEEFHS stories Family Histories of Survivors of Stalin's Labor Camps


Anonymous said...

Nice blog on Volga Germans, Norma. I'm glad you are so interested in cultures and exploring ethnic histories.
My mother was a Volga German who migrated to Windsor, Colorado with a family of 5. She was about 5 years old. But the Russians put the family (Lesser/ Seibel), against their will, on a ship to Argentina where there is also a large Volga German settlement. The family had a "sponsor" in Wellington, Colorado who helped them get to Windsor eventually. The sponsor's name was Lesser. We are distantly related to Adolph Lesser If you have time check out the 'Dutch Hop" music which was so prominent on the radio in Northern Colorado when I was a kid. In Fort Collins, Colorado where I grew up there were old German men who gathered at the center of town and to talk and spoke German. I always thought it was interesting to listen to them.
I think this is probably enough, if you are still there, about these people.
Thank you for your inquisitiveness and leadership on this blog about my people. Chuck

Norma said...

Yes, I had come across the Dutch Hop groups while researching this topic--they stopped using the word German around WWI, so I supposed it's like Pennsylvania Dutch, which is Pennsylvania Deutsch and still confuses people. I remember you played the guitar--must have been those Dutch Hop roots plus a swing through South America. Volga Germans got discrimination from all sides--for being from Russia during the Cold War and for speaking a German dialect during WWI and WWII.