The Volga Germans, by Robert Klein, a Volga German Voyager

The following was written in 1977 by Robert Klein, and was provided by EllaWadewitz. Her mother, Katharine Niedens Wasemiller, was a student of RobertKlein's grandfather in Russia, This account gives a picture of life on theLower Volga in the early 1900's. Spelling is shown as it appears in theaccount, with the editor's comments in [square brackets] It illustrates thetravels of one Volga German.

"Catherine the Great of Russia recruited thousands of German colonists(Kolonisten) for the Lower Volga River Frontier to populate the area withdependable permanent settlers, and to bring stability to the lawless,undeveloped region. The rugged west side of the Volga was known as theBergside, and the east side of the river, lowland, was known as theWiesenside. In Russia, the Volga Germans lived in small villages and farmedtheir lands nearby. They would work their small parcels of land a week ortwo at a time, taking along the necessary food. Each community had a schooland a church. Usually a preacher would serve four villages. Mygrandfather, who was a schulmeister, would hold church services when thepreacher was absent. All of the villages had small general stores withitems such as tea, coffee, and general groceries, most of it in bulk. Asthe villages grew, the richer families would establish flour mills. Two ofthese well-to-do families who ran flour mill businesses were the Borrellsand the Schmidts. Industries were usually located on the outskirts of thelarger towns and cities.

"I was born in Astrakhan, at the south end of the Volga River, on 7 Jan1899. My mother's maiden name was Shuldteis [Schultheiss], and she was fromKraft. My father worked for the street car companies as supervisor inVladikavkas, Astrakhan, and Saratov. Saratov, on the Volga, had quite abeautiful park along the river. Vladikavkas was one of the nicest places.We lived in modern company quarters. The poorest place we lived was Omsk,Siberia. We only lived there a short while. The cities of Omsk and Tomskwere close together and both had very sandy soil. When eating soup, onecould feel the sand grating against the spoon at the bottom of the bowl, andthe water was very sandy. It was quite a long trip to Siberia. It tookeight days to travel from Vladikavas to Omsk. The trains usually had first,second, and third class. Third class had wooden benches and the peoplebrought their own bedding, so even the poor would sleep.

"Our last three years in Russia, we lived in Kamishin, where my fatherimported and sold wines in his store. I attended the City School (GorodskoiSchkola.) The winters were long and cold. Snow was on the streets allwinter, but one dressed for the weather, and walking was enjoyable. Theonly car in town was the Mayor's car, which was an old Packard Touring Car.That was something. One summer, while living in Kamishin, we rented anapple orchard in Sherbakovka. My father packed the apples we harvested andtook them to Tombov via railroad. Kamishin was the County Seat of theCounty by the same name in the State (Goobernia) or province of Saratov.

"I remember spending one Easter in Miller with my grandparents. Oneevening I boarded a boat in Kamishin, which was about fifty miles down theVolga from Miller. The name of the ship line I took was Koopetz (Merchant.)At night we docked at a pier in Zolotoi or Banovka with about three otherships. It was midnight, and the crews were off to the Church to have alltheir food blessed. They had eggs, Kulich (cake) the height of a threepound coffee can, and paska (a pyramid shaped mound of cottage cheese withraisins.) After the men returned, the ships would slowly follow each otherup the River. One heard singing and music from small accordians with bellsand balalaikas. Everyone was happy as we moved along in the peaceful night.In the morning, I was in my grandparent's village of Miller. Two shortwhistles, a row boat would call, and I, the little passenger, was rowed toshore. After a week or so of visiting, I was on my way back fromSherbakovka to Kamishin.

"There was always much river traffic on the Volga. There were about fivedifferent companies running ships north to Nishnei Novgorod and south toAstrakhan. The Koopetz (Merchant) Line usually named their ships aftercities. The Volski Line (faster boats) named their ships after writers andpoets. The Kavkaz and Mercuri Company named a ship after a battle field,Borodino, and another ship "1812." The Samolet Line had faster ships andless stops, because they carried mail. The Roos Company operated sternwheelers. All the ships were well built and arranged and improved with theyears--North to South, from Nishnei Novgorod to Astrakhan-- and back again.A round trip could take ten days to two weeks. A family friend who wascaptain of the ship Orinoco, treated me to a round trip when I was elevenyears old. it was most enjoyable. All sorts of berries were shippedsouthward on the Volga. Empty oil barges of the Standard Oil Company towedby big tug boats also traveled southward. Northbound ships had dried fish(woblie) on the lower deck. Lumber usually came down the Volga on severalbarges tied together. The well milled lumber would glisten in the sun,ready to grace any lumber yard. These barges had a little shed on the topto provide shelter for the deck hands. There were also barges on the riverstocked with crockery and kitchen and dinner ware. They would anchor at theriver bank and the villagers would board them to do their shoppiing. Forpassengers, there was always hot water, and tea was the usual drink. Abarge with a building as a waiting room was the pier for calling ships. Theships had electricity and the piers were lit with kerosene lamps. The lampshad mirror backings and gave out quite a bit of light at night.

"The Volga provided fish, water, and ice to the villages along its banks.Ice was cut in early spring to last all summer. The ice blocks were packedwith straw into a deep cellar below the utility house, which was usually inbehind the family house. All sorts of berries were preserved: includingwatermellons which were kept in barrels. The Russian watermellon was roundin shape like a cannon ball, and the cantaloupes were oblong shaped. Thispreservation insured the people of food through the winter. Severalfamilies would usually get together and butcher a pig and then all wouldhave sausage. In big ovens, they baked all sorts of bread and sweet bread(such as kershe and rivel kuche.) Berok, kraut, also called kraut runze(cabble & ground beef wrapped in sweet dough and baked), Pirok, made withcabbage and rice, was common at markets and fairs. In the cities, piroshkiwas featured. It was prepared like our french fries, fried fast insunflower seed oil.

"People, on the whole, were friendly and very hospitable. A commonsocial drink, usually offered in the home, was vodka withcherries--vishnevka. Another popular dring was Kwast, made from fermentedyeast and raisins.

"Here and there were Fairs-- where bazaar style--most anything could bebought: all kinds of clothing, caps, boots, (same in Krasni Jar) valenki(winter boots made from pressed wool), sheep skin coats with fur lining, andstock (horses and cattle.) The Fairs usually had a small one-ring circuswith clowns and wrestling. There were also merry-go-rounds. I remember onein the south in the Don River vicinity. There were many Germans who settledaround the Don River vicinity, and much stock was raised. Here and thereone saw groups of Kalmooks (Asiatic peoples.)

"I remember well the wedding of my Uncle Carl and Aunt Rosalie. It was abeautiful day in Miller, and there were greens all over the street, whichhad been swept clean from the school house to the Church, some two blocksaway. Pastor Schneider had come especially to Miller to officiate. Afterthe wedding, the relatives and friends gathered in the garden behind mygrandparent's house. There were long tables and benches set up, and theyreally had a feast. After a short time, Uncle Carl took his bride toAmerica. Soon afterward, we joined them in Havelock (Lincoln), Nebraska.In the late 1800's and early 1900's, many Volga Germans came to America tojoin their relatives.

"After a rough crossing, we landed in Baltimore, Maryland, in March of1913. A Black man approached me, and reaching out his hand, said in German"Guten morgen." In a few days, we arrived in Havelock, by way of Chicago,on Easter Sunday. there was a cyclone that Sunday that brought Omaha muchdamage. The next day (Monday) by father started to work at the BurlingtonRailroad shops. I started school, and later, I, too, worked for theBurlington. We lived in many placaes. My father moved to Chicago where hewas a custodian. When he retired in 1943, he moved to Fresno, California.After World War II, I went to Chicago and worked with the Harvester Company.Eventually, after stays in Chicage and Lincoln, I came to Fresno in 1951. Iestablished myself doing bookkeeping and preparing income tax returns,retiring in 25 years.

"Many of the Volga Germans settled in Illinois--in Chicago, the sectionof Jefferson Park and suburb of Maywood; Wisconsin--Milwaukee, Sheboygan,Fond du Lac; Nebraska--Lincoln, Grand Island, Scottsbluff, Bayard, Gering;and Colorado--Brush, Ft. Morgan, Ft. Collins, Greeley, and Denver.

"In Lincoln, Nebraska, the Volga Germans lived on the north side and thesouth side. All of the families were usually large. In the Spring, theywould board up their homes and go to the beet fields by the trainloads.They would return with their earnings in the Fall, and spend the winter inLincoln. Many of them settled in the beetfield country of Montana in thetowns of Laurel and Billings. Some went to Russell, Kansas; and others toEnid, Oklahoma. Many of them acquired trades. As the families grewsmaller, work in the beetfields became unprofitable. Many of the VolgaGermans came to California and settled in Fresno, Lodi, and Kerman; where alot of them took up farming.

"The large weddings with friends and relations were events that would beremembered for years in Lincoln. People from the north side settlement andthe south side would celebrate all week long. They would put up a tent andthere was dancing for young and old. Because they all were good cooks,there was a wonderful feast. In later years, they built their own WelfareHouse with a modern kitchen and dining room facilities.

"During the Nebraska State Fair, some churches on the north side haddining space at the Fair. The women featured noodle soup to raise money topay the church mortgages. Many students at the University of Nebraska werefrom Volga German families. Some of these people made careers as lawyers,doctors and in government service. They were industrious and so prospered."

Lower Volga Project
Of Interest
[Lower Volga Project] [Dobrinka] [Dubovka] [Dreispitz] [Galka] [Holstein] [Kraft] [Mueller] [Shcherbakovka] [Schwab] [Stephan] [Of Interest] [Obituaries]
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