Carol Just, who grew up on a farm in Berlin, N.D., comes from a line of Germans from Russia. Her grandparents arrived in this country in 1884.
Although Just left her prairie home at 17, moving to Minnesota to pursue a career, her cultural identity has remained a big part of her life.
In 1978, she became a charter member of the North Star Chapter of Germans From Russia. Through the years, she’s been privy to many tales of the immigrant experience.
“When you’re a historian, you can’t stand to see something die. I wanted to keep it alive,” said Just, who has a degree in history.
It led her to initiate a book that the North Star Chapter published just over a year ago titled, “Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers: Growing Up German From Russia in America.” It contains 35 essays and poems from chapter members, all of which speak to some aspect of their German-Russian background.
Just, of St. Louis Park, pulled together a team of editors that included four other women who belong to the chapter. Every Wednesday morning for several months, they gathered around her dining room table.
The group acted in much the same way as a quilting circle. Although they all reviewed every submission and made collective decisions about the book’s editorial direction, the co-editors divvied up the load.
It was hard work, but they were sustained by strong coffee, custard-filled Küchen, German for “cake” (it’s also the state dessert of South Dakota), plenty of laughter and a shared devotion to the project.
Just, the lead editor, says the book is the first anthology of its kind. It’s about “emigration, adaptation to a new world and embracing the best of all worlds,” and it spans many generations, she said.
Though the focus is on Germans from Russia, the book tells a larger story that resonates with other immigrant groups that had “one foot in the old country and another in the New World,” Just said.
Since it came out just over a year ago, the book continues to sell and has even generated interest in Germany. Several of the essays are being translated into German for inclusion in an almanac to be published overseas later this year.
Also, some of the “Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers” editors and writers will speak about the book process at the Germans from Russia Heritage Society’s International Convention in Bismarck, N.D., in July.
Stitching together themes
The editorial team members began by putting out a call for submissions to the North Star membership. They asked for essays on everything from immigration to religion, capping the length at four typed pages.
“Our goal for this whole process was to capture the stories of everyday folks who don’t even know they have a story to tell,” Just said. “If you ask the right questions and listen, even people who think they have nothing to say can remember things in vivid detail.”
The colorful stories touch on everything from a family’s first TV set to nickel candy bars to manual labor. These tales were “sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always truthful and humble,” Just said. “We felt a real responsibility to keep their voice and honor their experiences during the editing process.”
Occasionally, the women turned to other chapter members for tech support or the correct spelling of certain German and Russian words, Just said.
Sharon Chmielarz, who lives in Brooklyn Park, said she was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the entries.
As they sifted through submissions, various themes began to “announce themselves,” dealing with the land, homesickness, family and more, she said.
Once they got some working chapter titles down on paper, Chmielarz tried to “spiff them up.” She also contributed poems and essays to the book.
The book lays out the path of Germans from Russia.
Many Germans relocated to Russia at the invitation of Czarina Catherine the Great and later her grandson, Czar Alexander I, the book explains. That took place in the Volga River region in 1763 and on the Black Sea in 1802. “They offered an enticing deal to our German ancestors, who were looking for more land and peace,” the book states.
In the 1870s, conditions in Russia changed for the worse for the German immigrants. German colonists left in large numbers. Many chose to start anew in America, as President Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act of 1862, “opening vast spaces of virgin soil to homesteaders.”
In America, Germans from Russia often homesteaded in large groups, Just said. That went on for several generations. However, when the Great Depression hit, many people left the rural areas to find work in an urban center. A whole chapter centers on “townies.”
Likewise, following World War II, many men who had been drafted into the military took advantage of the G.I. Bill, which opened up opportunities in the urban areas, according to Just. They took on a variety of professions but “their hearts were still on the prairie where they grew up,” she said.
As things progressed, “so many of us were urban pioneers,” said Just. Some people write about going home years later, either to the prairie or to ancestral villages, she added.
Revisiting old memories
Often, the co-editors discussed their own memories. The co-editors, except Just, all penned pieces for the book.
Cynthia Miller, who lives in Mendota Heights, said that only her great-grandparents remembered Russia, yet “I grew up so immersed in the culture that I thought everyone in the country ate the kind of food I did. I heard almost as much German growing up as I did English. I realize now what a unique situation this was,” she said.
All but Chmielarz, a “townie,” recall “picking rocks” as children. It’s the subject of the story, “Picking Rock,” by Merv Rennich.
The practice has to do with the fact that out on the prairie, the winter frost pushes rocks above ground, said Bernelda (“Bernie”) Kallenberger Becker, a co-editor who lives in St. Louis Park. “When a farmer goes out to plow the fields, it wrecks the plowshares,” she said.
So, families would load up something called a “stone boat” with rocks big and small, which they then piled up somewhere in the middle of a field, she said.
Also, in contemplating the prairie, images of hollyhocks and grasshoppers took on special meaning.
Hollyhocks, a northern hibiscus plant that originated overseas, were commonplace on the Dakota prairie. “Every grandmother had rows and rows,” said Just. The plant became a symbol of hope.
On the farm, “my mom did the cooking, mending, laundry. The work was never-ending. But she got such joy out of her beautiful garden and flowers,” Just said.
By contrast, grasshoppers seemed an apt metaphor for the challenges that come with working the land. “Millions of grasshoppers would appear like a black cloud in the sky and descend on the fields of wheat, oats, barley, rye or corn and simply strip them,” Just said. “They knew no bias. Flowers and gardens also fell prey.”
Another co-editor, Nancy Gertner, a St. Louis Park resident, said she has tried and failed to grow hollyhocks. Also, it struck her, when, toward the end of the editing process, she stumbled upon a grasshopper perched on her gladiolas.
Some of the book’s photos relate to her in a deep way, as well. She used a couple of images from a cousin in Germany. In one photo, a horse and a garden gate appear familiar, as if they were closer to home. The snapshots “gave me a sense going ‘full circle,’ from Europe to North America, and back to Europe again,” she said.
For more information about the book, go to www.northstarchapter.org.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.