December is my favorite time of year in Phoenix. It’s a moment to cherish, when locals bundle up in scarves and boots not because we have to, but because we can. It’s a season of tamales, chili-spiced hot cocoa, luminarias, strip mall light displays, and inflatable lawn ornaments that overcompensate for our lack of snow. While this may sound all wrong to people from other parts of the country and the world, to me it feels completely perfect. It feels like home.
Yet it hasn’t always been this way. For most of my family’s history, Christmas did not involve a giant tree made out of tumbleweeds. There weren’t any photo cards from Shutterfly, planes to catch, or rousing renditions of Feliz Navidad. Instead, there were accordions and harmonicas, butterballs and kugas, children’s performances in a village schoolhouse, and visits from the Christkind or Pelznickel. And when they looked outside, they didn’t see saguaro cactus or the San Francisco Peaks. There was only endless steppe and the long, winding Volga River.
Today, it’s hard to imagine such a life. But I yearn to, with an ache in the back of my heart. I want to reach out across 100 + years and 7000 miles, bend through the space-time continuum, and transport myself back to that village scene. This time of year, I wish we could reconnect with who we were. Who we are. Germans from Russia.
Hold on, you say. Germans from Russia?
It’s okay if you haven’t heard of us. Few have, unless they are from places where we settled or have a particular interest in studying the minority cultures of the Russian Empire. The name itself puzzles people, especially those who expect identities to be clear cut. During a discussion on our heritages, one teacher told me that I must have misunderstood my family stories. Pulling down a frayed world map to illustrate my mistake in front of the class, she explained that the Volga River was nowhere near Germany. When I tried to clarify that this was precisely the point, she dismissed me. “German from Russia? So you’re from Russia, then. Doesn’t that mean you’re . . . Russian?”
I was annoyed by her condescension but understood her ignorance. What was more disturbing was that Germans didn’t seem to know about us, either. When we looked for familiar recipes like kraut bierok in German cookbooks at Barnes & Noble, they were nowhere to be found. When we came across actual Germans from Germany (this was before the internet), and asked them to help us understand words that our grandparents had said, they responded as if we were speaking a rare dialect of Martian. That’s . . . not German, they said. Before slowly backing away.
It didn’t make sense to me. On the one hand, we had this rich family life and all of these traditions, but on the other, it was like we didn’t exist. Sometimes I wondered if we really were confused, if maybe some part of the story got lost somewhere. And yet, if that was the case, how did entire communities in Nebraska and elsewhere come to share in the same confusion? Where did the butterball soup come from? Why did my great grandpa have stories about hiding in haystacks when the “Roosians” came to his village? Why did my great grandma say things like Ach kedeyase and auskay mit? And why did they keep insisting that they were Germans from Russia – never just Germans or Russians?
Following the Breadcrumbs
I finally got some satisfaction at St. Olaf College, where I signed up for a Russian language class. My professor, who was Russian, asked us why we were taking the course. I braced for another rejection and said that I wanted to learn about my family. “Ahh, Volgadeutsch!” she exclaimed. I did a double-take. “You know them?” I asked, sure that I’d just heard what I wanted to hear. “Of course!” she said, as if I was asking if she’d heard of bread and butter. It wasn’t much, but it was everything. Somebody knew about us. We were real. And this validation opened up the possibility of discovering more.
For the next several years, my undergraduate work in Russian Area Studies and graduate work in Central & Eastern European studies gave me more context and buoyed my hopes that even more information would follow. Soon, through the wonders of the interwebs, it did. I found the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, groups on facebook and pinterest, videos on YouTube, and best of all, an honest to goodness Center for Volga German Studies at Concordia University.
On the Meadow Side
We managed to trace one line back to a barrel maker named Johannes Hergenroeder from Raubach, Isenburg, in what is today the German state of Rhineland-Palitanate. In 1767 he joined 180 or so others in moving to Russia and founding the colony of Kukkus near today’s cities of Saratov and Engels, a six hour drive from Kazakhstan. Another line, the Hartwigs, have been harder to trace, but we know they also came from Germany and settled in Warenburg, not too far from Kukkus on the meadow side of the Volga.
Both communities were Lutheran colonies comprised of refugees fleeing the bloodshed and hardship of the Seven Year’s War. Catherine the Great’s manifesto, which promised them land, freedom from conscription and taxes, and the right to practice their religion and keep their language, was incredibly appealing (so much so that around 30,000 answered her call). Here they farmed the plains, worked as crafters and traders, and more or less kept their German ways intact. For 130 years, they lived in their idyllic snow globes – part of the Russian Empire, but separate. Perhaps in this way, they were not so different from the Jewish shtetls – ethnic minorities who made contributions to their adopted land, but whose safety, security, and status could be revoked at any moment.
Slowly yet suddenly life on the steppe unraveled as famine, conscription, and revolution came to the Volga. Many felt they were living on the knife’s edge, poised between poverty on the one hand and abuse or death on the other as the empire plunged into war. I often wonder how the conversations unfolded, and at precisely what moment they made up their minds to emigrate. What we do know is that after harrowing sea voyages and detainment they found their way to “the bottoms” of Lincoln Nebraska, where they scraped together wages from beet-fielding, day labor, railroad work, and housekeeping.
Later my great great grandmother would scold my Grammie, telling her “you don’t know what real work is.” My mom’s mom works harder than any person I have ever known, so I can only imagine what this weary woman would think of me, a writer and world traveler. An intellectual. An urban apartment dweller with no land to my name. Married to someone who is not only the wrong kind of German (Catholic and urban, probably from a family that spoke “high German”) but Korean, too. Someone who has to read about Volga German culture online.
And yet, in many ways I am as Volga German as could be. I am can be stubborn, exacting, critical, and harsh. I resist expressing my emotions and bear the burden of communication norms where it is better to walk away than engage in awkward give and take or compromise. I still tend to believe illness is just an inconvenience, that anything short of a coma is the same as a paper cut. I inherited a “strong like wolf” work ethic and when it comes to projects and getting things done, I’m scarily indefatigable. I have a deep sense of duty to my family and was raised to show up, support, and pull my weight, even to an extreme. I am so frugal that in college I poured water on my cereal, and I still view buying clothes as a kind of luxury on par with staying in a penthouse suite. I detest shallowness and phoniness, but I long for real conversations with ordinary people. I want nothing more from relationships than time and presence, to sit and talk cozily over coffee and kuga, to reassure people that I will be for them, and to know they’ll be there for me.
Above all, I am resilient. Researchers have discovered that the experiences of our ancestors can actually change our DNA. Thanks to them, I am a survivor.
I come from a traditional people who cared not for big ideas, fancy things, or worldly success. All they wanted was to be left alone and pass on their way of life to their children. Emigration was undoubtedly the right call, because those who stayed suffered famine, internment, and ultimately, genocide. Either way they lost their land; at least by fleeing, they kept their lives. But as bad as things got, they must have mourned. They must have longed for the simplicity of life on the steppe. They must have struggled with the way their children and grandchildren assimilated. It must have hurt, that painful truth that in order to preserve their physical lives, they lost their cultural ones.
This time of year, I find myself reflecting on the people who make up my life, not only in the present but in a more holistic sense. The people who came before me, and those who came before them. The ones who brought bare branches into the house, who sang carols in the snow, and who didn’t write down recipes because they knew which dishes called for a little bit of this and a pinch of that. I want to look through the windows and see them in the glow of the fire, smiling as their children and grandchildren open gifts of small sweets and toys. I want to feel what they felt, to know for a moment what it would have been like to be them. To be us. To be me.
And if I could be the ghost of Christmas future, I would want to let them know that their sacrifices were worth it, and they would not be forgotten. That even if it isn’t quite right, and we clumsily stumble through, that we would keep their traditions alive. That at the very least, we’ll try. Because if there’s one thing we Volga Germans are good at, it’s persevering.
Ich vinche ein gept mirch gleick ville heishe vydeh geh*. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.
*The greeting is my attempt to write down what my Grammie recalls saying as a Christmas greeting when she was a small child. If anyone knows the correct spelling, please share!
Update: Thanks to The Center for Volga German Studies for suggesting this spelling:
Ich wünsche auch
Geb mir Gleich
Ist mich net zu lang stehen
Ich will a häisie weiter gegen