Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thoughts on Immigrants (1)

Annie's mother, and both of my parents were descendants of ethnic Germans that had immigrated to Russia in the late 1700s to early 1800s. They had moved to southern Russia in response to and invitation by Catherine the Great of Russia, who was also a German princess.

Catherine's army had dislodged the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and chased everyone of Turkish heritage out of the area. Catherine hoped to bring in many industrious Germans, and hoped that they would make this area their home and would intermarry with the native Russians that were still in the area. Or so is my understanding. Many villages and towns were deserted, and after the offer was made, many land agents went to Germany and told the trusting Germans that there were houses waiting to be moved in to. This might have been true for some of the earliest arrivals, but not for either my mother's family, or my dad's family.

Mom's family had floated down the Danube from Ulm, Germany to Odessa, Russia in a large barge (Ulmmer schactel) for about 2500 km. A very long float trip. These barges were often over crowded and disease, mostly cholera would rip through the population. When Mom's family disembarked they were put in wagons, along with their few possessions and some lumber from the barge (it was a one way trip, and they took it apart for the lumber and the nails), and hauled out into the steppe and dumped on the site of their new home.

These people were not farmers or builders for the most part. Much like the Saints in the Salt Lake valley, they arrived somewhat late for planting crops and I don't think they had much in the way of livestock or draft animals. For the most part they built sod houses and tried to get ready for the Russian winter.

I don't know much about Dad's family. They settled off of the steppe, up in the Caucasus mountains. Life was very had at first as well, but in the end they built stone houses and had wonderful gardens, orchards, vineyards and livestock of all types.

Annie's mom's family were Mennonite and moved to Russia from Germany as a congregation. When they moved to Kansas, they again moved as a congregation, making sure that no one was left behind.

All of these German families lived in Russia for several generations. Their ancestors had moved from Germany to Russia because life didn't look too good in Germany in the late 1700's. Germany had a hundred little states. Wars were common, opportunity was not. All three of these families were strongly against war and fighting and one of the strongest motivations was that if they went to Russia, their sons would not have to serve in the Russian Army.

So they went, and for several generations things went pretty well. Catherine died of course (1796) and eventually the promises that she made were set aside and taxes were levied and young men were called up at first for duty in the many forests, and eventually into the military. Our families were troubled by these changes and I am sure there was fierce and emotional debate on what to do about the deteriorating situation.

I don't know much about the specifics of the debate, but Mom's family, and the Mennonites left around 1875 and made their way west. Dad's family held on longer, hoping against hope, I imagine that things would get better.

We have a lot of family histories about the people that came. I always wondered about the people that stayed in Russia. There is a Mennonite history book either here or at Annie's mom's house that tells about those that stayed. It wasn't very nice. They ended up having to endure the Russian revolution, and the almost constant raiding of the Red and the White Armies. The reds of course were communistic, and the whites backed the Romanov's. They descended on those little villages filled with pacifistic farmers and artisans, shot anyone who opposed them, and most of the educated people that were community leaders. They stole all of the food, shot and ate the farm animals and then left after extracting a pledge of loyalty. The battle lines went back and forth so on Monday you might pledge your fealty to the Red army while literally having a gun at your head, and Wednesday you might have the exact same experience while pledging undying (you hoped) loyalty to the Whites. Winter, meanwhile took no prisoners and the Germans died like flies in the frost. But, to be fair, the Russian peasants also died like flies. I think about 24 million people died, mostly of starvation in the revolution and consolidation of power when Stalin took over from Lenin.

Early on I wondered how people could be so dumb as to stay and just hope for the best. As I got a little older I realized that it isn't that simple, and in a community like that it also isn't about the person. Annie's Mennonites sold all that they had and sent scouts to Kansas to purchase land and plant crops. Everyone in that congregation came. But that was 1875 or so, and you could still sell property. All of my ancestors came as extended families, but the ones that came earlier found it easier to leave, and also found opportunities in America more abundant than did those that left in 1905. So what do you do if you would like to go, but your family wants to stay? Maybe your parents are in poor health, or just won't leave home.... maybe your babies are sick. Possibly you just can't raise the money. Maybe you have heard horror stories of families being separated by quarantine and decide that, fine, let them come, we will die together and meet together in Heaven.

I don't actually know anymore now than I did then about the ones that stayed. I have thought about it a lot, but still don't know. My Grandpa's uncle went back to Russia because he was just very homesick and was caught up in the war and died of starvation. The Guitar Boy is named after him. Some of my Dad's extended family were separated by a quarantine. The mom was held back, the dad and kids came to America. They started farming and saved up enough money so that the dad and youngest son (who had been a baby when they parted) went back to Russia. The rest of the kids stayed on the farm and worked. The family in Russia got caught in the war and the mom and dad starved. The little boy was sent to Siberia after WWII and died there at about the age of 40.

Well, it is time for bed. This story doesn't really have a conclusion, at least not one that I am aware of tonight.

Maybe C.S Lewis said it best. In 'The Magician's Nephew', after Digory and Polly have traveled to Charn and are contemplating the bell on the table set with food, and surrounded by royal looking people that look like they have been turned to stone. A sign by the bell said: Make your choice, Adventurous Stranger, strike the bell and bide the danger, or wonder till it drives you mad, what would have happened if you had.

Sleep well.


AnnieOfBlueGables said...

Amazing Read, Sailor. You are a wonderful writer. I am glad for that history to be written and consolidated after you read a dozen books or so to extract that amount out. Thank you. We need to know where we came from to appreciate what we have today.
love you,

Mike said...

Love the stories!! I have been thinking of writing a few from childhood.

pixiestylist said...

i like how you understand history. i don't understand it like that, but its SO INTERESTING when you put it this way!