Hundreds have gathered in Nebraska for a convention with a puzzling name: the 45th Annual Convention of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.
The group has a rich heritage that began a little more than 250 years ago when Catherine the Great sought to make improvements to Russia through immigration, specifically the immigration of people from her homeland of Germany.
Catherine gave two invitations, and according to Society of Germans from Russia President Bob Wagner of Lincoln, the second one worked. It offered freedom of religion, freedom to use the German language, and freedom from being conscripted into the Russian Army in perpetuity.
“All of the sudden, free from military service in perpetuity was changed to, well the redefined perpetuity as 100 years, and so they began conscripting Germans into the Russian Army,” Wagner says. “My grandfather was in the Russian Army, during the Japanese-Russian War.”
Such changes in history prompted families to reconsider. Some returned to Germany. Some sought a future in America.
Wagner’s grandparents left for the United States in 1907, when his father was a baby. They landed in Boston, but left for Nebraska where his grandfather’s sister had settled in Hastings. His grandfather was 25; his grandmother 18.
Germans from Russia settled in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado for the most part though they found homes in many other states as well. Homesteading attracted many to Nebraska, as well as work on the railroads and even in the beet fields of western Nebraska.
They sought in America what their forebears had some in Russia: freedom and opportunity.
Wagner says the group meeting in Lincoln this week is close-knit. In fact, he says he meets new relatives at every convention.
“I met some Wagners from Oklahoma and I know we’re related,” Wagner says. “I was introduced to them by a 6th cousin once removed from Oregon.”
The Germans from Russia Museum and Library is headquartered in Lincoln.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1 min.]