Last Updated: 27 Feb 2001
Sharing Stories About Our German-Russians
|Note from JAR-H: Each story gives us a different look at our German-Russians who settled in areas all around the world. If you have a story you'd care to share please contact me at :|
Search for Great Uncle Hans
by Roland Wagner
|A few years ago while we were vacationing in Canada I decided to
renew the old familial quest for great-uncle Hans. Quite by accident I spotted
an old map of Saskatchewan in a local museum, and noticed that there were
some settlements in the southwestern corner of the province that bore
unmistakably familiar names: Rastadt, and Liebenthal, near today's Fox Valley.
We drove there on a hunch, checked the local church cemetery records, and
sure enough, we found him buried in an unmarked grave. An old-timer named
Jack Obritsch (originally Obrigewitsch, from Rastadt) happened to enter the
R.M. building while we were there. He said he recalled Hans Wagner from his
youth. Basically old Hans Wagner never married, didn't drink, lived in a
claim shack there by himself, passed his time herding and farming. In his
spare time he caught gophers and sewed their little skins into Dudelsacks
(complete with tiny feet!), and attached a miniature reed pipe, on which
he would play ridiculously high-pitched bagpipe tunes for the local kids.
Jack recalled fondly how he was given one of those weird Dudelsacks. Concerning
going to church and other such social activities, Hans had little interest.
He just shrugged his shoulders and said, "kei Frosch, die hoppft nit fort"
(an old Ger-Rus expression, meaning the church isn't a frog, it won't hop
away -- i.e., he'd go when he was damned well ready). Was great-uncle Hans
a role model? I don't know. Jack (who looked in his 90s at the time) remembered
him fondly as one of those rare characters who gave him much pleasure to
reflect back upon as he reminisced in his old age. Such tales of old bachelors
who lacked the money, the social contacts, or perhaps the social skills to
ever get married were not uncommon among the German-Russian immigrants on
the Midwestern prairies. I've always been strangely fascinated by old Hans,
maybe because down deep I wonder if I would have been as content as he was
under those circumstances, reaching a level of acceptance with virtually
nothing. When I did fieldwork with the Navajo Indians in Arizona I met many
old-timers who had that same placid acceptance of their place, which often
wasn't more than a hogan in the middle of the desert. In his own simple way,
I guess I'd have to call him a role model. I'm not sure they make people
like that any more.
ADDITIONAL Note from Roland Wagner: Old gr.-uncle Hans was certainly not an isolated case, there were a couple other examples in the grandfolks' generation of siblings who left the farm in their teens, took up ranching and herding for a living, and grew into leathery old bachelors who passed their days swapping yarns and snorting "schnoose" (tobacco). One, I recall, was great-uncle Ambrose, born in Neu-Karlsruhe (Nikolaiev district), came over with his parents as a young boy. He wore a dashing red neck-scarf, told us about his adventures as a bronc-rider in rodeos, and also shared stories about the tough life the family left behind in Russia. He spoke in a lilting accent, spiced with dialect terms, punctuated every few minutes by a splop of tobacco into the coffee-can that he carried with him everywhere. I get the impression that some of these old fellows never knew any other lifestyle. They left home at a young age in Russia and in the American Midwest, worked as field hands, and never really managed to scrape together enough to marry and support a family. Besides his great story telling skills, Ambrose also managed somewhere along the line to learn how to write German in a beautiful, nearly calligraphic Fraktur script. Besides all those stout, church-going German-Russian married farmers with a dozen kids that most of us have in our family trees, there also must have been a large sub-culture of tobacco spittin' leathery old bachelors who just kind of quietly slipped through life into their twilight years without leaving much of a trace. Those were some of the most interesting characters to me. ...And then there was grandfather's brother-in-law, Hieronimus (a.k.a. "Harry") from Karlsruhe, like Ambrose in many ways, except he attended church and didn't wear a red neck-scarf...