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GERMANS FROM RUSSIA HERITAGE SOCIETY: Celebrating 50 Years of Preserving History

Posted by Annie Bennett, Co-Editor 3/10/2020 3:22:47 PM

In 1970, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) was established in Bismarck to preserve the history of the Germans from Russia who started immigrating to the United States and Canada to escape a variety of difficult problems in their homeland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many settled in North Dakota and, today, their descendants still reside in communities across the state.

“The GRHS functions as a non-profit, non-denominational, non-political organization, incorporated under the laws of the State of North Dakota,” says Rachel Schmidt, GRHS office manager. “Its aims are educational and social. Its purpose is to bring together people who are interested in discovering the common history unique to Germanic-Russian ethnics and to preserve the many elements of their rich heritage.”

Schmidt says collecting written materials is also an important component of the work done by the GRHS to preserve the group’s rich history. “The Society collects, lists and catalogues published materials and personal documents that tell of the European migrations and exodus to the United States and Canada and also of the pioneer life on the plains.”

The Migration of Germans from Russia

The 17th and 18th centuries in Germany were very difficult and millions of Germans were discouraged. “Religious persecution, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the Napoleonic Wars (1804-1815) had almost completely devastated parts of Germany,” says Schmidt. “The economic conditions were such that its people were plagued by hunger, diseases and abject poverty.”

She adds parts of Germany were also overpopulated and land for farming and jobs with which to make a living were hard to find. “By the providence of God, many Germans believed Russia was opening her vast empire to struggling peoples at just the right time,” says Schmidt.

Two invitations called Germans, as well as others, to Russia. The first manifesto was published in 1763, by Tsarina Catherine the Great, a German princess who had married Tsar Peter III. The invitation brought many Germans to the Volga area between 1763-1768. The second manifesto, by Tsar Alexander I in 1804, brought many Germans to the Black Sea area between 1804-1842.

Schmidt says the manifestoes were published for many reasons, but the most important were to colonize the vast, empty parts of Russia; to bring in people who could serve as good examples in agriculture and in other specialized occupations and trades; and to use the Germans (and others) as a buffer zone between Russia and their enemy, Turkey. “While encouraging Germans to migrate to Russia, the manifestoes of 1763 and 1804 made many important promises,” says Schmidt. “Some of them, in a simplified form, included freedom of religion, certain tax exemptions, some free land and cash grants, exemption from military service, the right to use their own language and to build their own villages, schools and churches.”

For approximately 150 years, many Germans in Russia enjoyed the privileges stated in the manifestoes. “Although the living conditions were very harsh at first, some of those Germans grew to be prosperous farmers and business people,” says Schmidt. “Gradually, however, some Russians became jealous of the  

The Russian government also began a program of “Russification,” making Russians out of Germans, and many of Russia’s previous promises were broken. “Persecutions began in the late 1800s and became more intense when the Bolsheviks and Communists came into power in 1917, and immigration became all but impossible by the outbreak of World War I. Many Germans sold what they had and found ways to leave Russia; however, millions were killed, and thousands were sent to Siberia to work in labor camps under harsh conditions.”

“America and other parts of the world were also publishing their invitations and manifestoes,” Schmidt continues. “The German people heard about these invitations and thousands migrated to South America, Canada and, especially, to the United States. They came mostly to places like Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Here they began life’s struggles all over again under harsh, prairie conditions. You can hardly believe what they endured.”

Dr. Eric Schmaltz, editor of the GRHS “Heritage Review,” notes, “In the 1920 U.S. census, nearly 120,000 Germans from Russia resided in the United States, with almost 24,000 of them in North Dakota alone, more than any other state at the time. That figure in North Dakota amounts to roughly 20 percent of all Germans from Russia in the nation by 1920.”

Today, he adds, an estimated 30 percent of North Dakotans can claim at least some German-Russian heritage.

The GRHS Formation

“The organization presently known as the GRHS had its roots in the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR), which is now headquartered at Lincoln, Neb.,” says Schmidt. “Preliminary meetings to organize a chapter of AHSGR in North Dakota were held in the summer of 1970 involving Judge Ray R. Friederich, Rev. Wm. H. Simpfenderfer, Arthur Leno, LaVern Neff, and members of the executive committee of AHSGR.”

“In the autumn of 1970, Friederich sent an invitation to all known members of the AHSGR who lived in North Dakota to come to an organizational caucus for the purpose of ‘initiating steps to organize a statewide group which would foster and promote the compilation and preservation of the German people who migrated from Russia to the United States and particularly North Dakota,’” says Schmidt.

The caucus was held on Oct. 10, 1970, at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Bismarck in conjunction with the annual meeting of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “An oral invitation was also issued at this meeting, for the benefit of those who had not received a written invitation, to attend the caucus,” Schmidt notes. 

Originally the group’s name was the North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia, however, it was later changed to GRHS to encourage membership outside of North Dakota.

Growth Over 50 Years

Since its inception, the research materials collected by the GRHS have grown from one family history to more than 11,000 volumes in the current library. The GRHS membership also boasts 1,800 people. “The organization has an internet presence at www.grhs.org,” says Schmidt. “Technology is now used every day in our normal operations.”

The organization has worked hard to preserve and promote the history of the Germans from Russia over the last 50 years. “GRHS has tried to keep our unique ethnic history alive through our conventions, chapter meetings and our vast library of preserved records,” says Schmidt.

To honor the success of the organization over the past 50 years, GRHS has planned special events to celebrate this milestone. “We will be having an open house on Wednesday, July 22, featuring the unveiling of the Dr. Joseph S. Height genealogical collection,” Schmidt notes.

Height, a distinguished German linguist, is best known in the GRHS community for the three books he wrote on the history of Germans from Russia. Height’s paternal Russian-born grandfather migrated from Russia and settled with his family in the Towner area. “He had a large collection of materials from which he compiled these books. His daughter has donated this collection to be permanently housed at GRHS,” says Schmidt.

The GRHS 50th annual conference will be held July 22-25 at the Ramkota Hotel and GRHS Headquarters in Bismarck. Attendees can expect to learn about the past, present and future of libraries, research libraries and genealogy, as well as DNA specifics on the Black Sea German groups.

The public is encouraged to attend. “The conference will be a lot of fun,” says Curtis Mertz, GRHS president. “Because it is our 50th anniversary, we will do things differently than past conferences.”

Registration will open around April 1 at www.grhs.org and the GRHS Headquarters in Bismarck.

Chapters of GRHS

The first GRHS chapter was the Dakota Pioneer Chapter in Bismarck-Mandan, organized March 18, 1972. Currently North Dakota has four chapters, located in Dickinson, Bismarck, Jamestown, and Grand Forks. “The purpose of the chapters is to gather local individuals seeking knowledge on the Germans from Russia history and folklore,” says Schmidt.

She says there are 22 different chapters of the GRHS and each chapter has the same purpose. There are two branches in California, one in Minnesota, four in North Dakota, one in Oregon, four in South Dakota, one in Texas, one in Washington, and eight regional interest groups.

The Future

“The generations born during and shortly after the Great Depression and World War II are fast receding in time,” says Schmaltz of the importance of preserving history for the future. “Significantly, in the early 21st century we are now reaching the point when a more comprehensive and self-conscious historical reflection of everyday events surrounding the integration and assimilation of German from Russian immigrants and their posterity into American society can take place. Personal, family and collective group memories and stories have continued to evolve, and there is an increasing need to examine the second-, third- and even fourth-generation descendants of the original pioneers. Conducting oral history interviews will partly assist us in that ongoing effort.”

 “This preservation mission also should seek to cultivate especially the younger generations’ interests, as they embody the future,” he continues. “Since youth are instinctively drawn to visual power, an effective approach to capture their imaginations will be to collect and showcase, alongside the compelling stories, the group’s surviving material culture and artifacts.”

Schmaltz says a core of dedicated scholars, students, enthusiasts, and fellow travelers can serve to keep alive vital parts of a resilient group memory, identity and practices. “Special collections at academic institutions like the North Dakota State University Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, with assistance from traditional heritage societies like the GRHS, will likely assume even more responsibilities and possess greater resources and capabilities for outreach efforts to help us preserve and promote the heritage over the long duration.”

Memberships

GRHS memberships provide access to an extensive collection of research materials and data including records retrieved from archives in the former Russian empire, translations of archive documents and letters and notices from North American German-language newspapers, indexes to existing records and microfilms, family and village compilations prepared by volunteers, and photos of German-Russian villages.

Memberships also include access to a designated chapter, four issues per year of the GRHS magazine “Heritage Review,” reduced prices at the GRHS bookstore, full access to the GRHS library, and annual GRHS convention registration.

Schmidt says the Germans from Russia immigrants had a significant impact on North Dakota. “Our strong work ethic is still evident through our farming practices, as well as our strong religious beliefs, which are evident through our churches and cemeteries, especially our hand-crafted iron crosses.”

To learn more about the GRHS call 701-223-6167 or visit www.grhs.org.

 

 

Immigrant Memories

Germans from Russia immigrants continue to make an impact on North Dakota today. Immigrants moved to North Dakota for a better life and started families of their own, with many descendants still residing in communities throughout the state. Because of dedicated and curious family members, along with the GRHS, the stories of these immigrants live on through family members and preserved documents.

The Seiferts

Philip Seifert was born in 1882 in Emmental, Bender, Bessarabia, Russia. He and his parents, Martin and Margaret (Braun), immigrated from Russia to the United States. They arrived at Ellis Island in November 1903 and signed Naturalization papers on Dec. 22, 1903. They homesteaded in Haynes in Adams County and farmed.

Belgan Schafer was born in Krasna, Akkermann, Bessarabia, Russia and also immigrated with her family and settled in Strasburg. (Despite detailed records, Belgan’s name has nine different spelling variations.)

Phillip and Belgan met and so began their family’s history. “The first time our dad met our mother, his parents brought him over to the Schafer’s by buggy with the intention of finding a wife. This young girl was in the middle of stomping gumbo with straw water and horse manure to make bricks. Her dress was held high enough not to get dirty, but high enough for dad to see those pretty legs. Well, he liked what he saw, so their parents planned a wedding,” wrote Martin Seifert, Phillip and Belgan’s 13th child, in 1988, before his death in 2011.

Phillip and Belgan were married on June 30, 1906, in Strasburg and moved to Haynes. Martin remembers, “The first winter they, the folks, lived in a cave. In the spring, they started to build their sod house. They had the walls pretty well up when one night the wild horses (there were many at the time) came through and wrecked everything.”

Both Belgan and Phillip homesteaded land. Belgan’s 160-acre homestead became final in October 1908, and was signed by Theodore Roosevelt. Phillip’s 80-acre homestead became final in September 1913, and was signed by Woodrow Wilson.

The Seiferts had a total of 17 children, 12 that lived, between 1907 and 1931, and 56 grandchildren. Their 14th child, George Andrew, was born on July 8, 1924. George moved to Bismarck and married Alice (Mosbrucker) on June 29, 1948, and started a family. They had eight children and, in 1970, started Seifert Electric in Bismarck. Although George passed away in March 2015, his legacy lives on with Seifert Electric and his eight children, 23 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren, the majority of whom live in Bismarck.

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