Tucked away in a residential area of Lincoln is a small building housing records that shed light on the history of a significant portion of Nebraskans.
They came to Nebraska from Russia, but they weren’t Russians.
They were Germans.
Many left after the Japanese-Russian War in 1906 and could see more war coming.
“They did not want their son in the Russian Army and could see the rebellion was coming, the (Russian) Revolution was coming and you could kind of envision that and so, they were very fortunate in getting out,” Sherry Pawelko, Executive Director of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) tells Nebraska Radio Network.
Pawelko overseas the documents, artifacts, and exhibits that tell the story of Germans from Russia at the AHSGR International Headquarters located at 631 D Street in Lincoln.
Catherine the Great invited her fellow Germans to move along with her to Russia with the promise they could speak German, establish their own churches and schools, avoid taxes if they worked the land for 30 years, and would never have to join the Russian army.
Catherine’s descendants broke many of those promises in an effort to unite Russia.
As times changed, the Germans in Russia grew nervous and sought opportunity in America.
Some didn’t make it.
Pawelko says her personal research at the headquarters research library shattered her misconceptions about her family’s idyllic history. She came upon the infamous “Letters from Hell”, letters from Russia to America after Germans had been dispatched to labor camps following the Russian Revolution.
“And one of the letter talks about, in the letter it talks about a Loos family and that was my maiden name was Loos,” Pawelko says. “And it talks about this family, who in the 1920s, had been sent to jail and they all died in jail of starvation and the only reason they were in jail was the fact that they were German.”
Such research is important, because few of the Germans from Russia who made their way to Nebraska spoke much about their past.
AHSGR Historical Society volunteer Norma Somerheiser reflects upon what might have been when Russian oppression grew worse as World War II approached.
“I was born in 1934,” Somerheiser tells Nebraska Radio Network. “Had I been born in Walter, Russia in ’34, I probably wouldn’t be alive now, because I would have been seven-years-old when we were rounded up and sent to those forced labor camps.”
Germans from Russia who came to America left from 104 villages and though immigration to the United States began in earnest after the start of the 20th Century, groups began making their way here in the late 19th Century.
It is estimated that the families settling in Lincoln came from 19 colonies, mostly from the Northern Volga region near Saratov. Immigrants from Rohrbach and Worms settled in Sutton in 1873. A number of Mennonite colonies, known as the Molochna colonies, in southern Ukraine, north of the Sea of Azov, moved to Nebraska. Mennonites founded a number of Nebraska towns, including Henderson in 1874.
Somerheiser says that first generation couldn’t have envisioned the life their descendants now live in Nebraska as well as Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas; throughout the United States.
That first generation settled here with the promise of land; and work on the railroads in Lincoln and the sugar beet fields in western Nebraska.
“We started with that, got a good foundation, valued our church and our education, and I think that’s what’s carried us on,” Somerheiser says.
Germans from Russia came here from the Volga River, the Black Sea, Crimea, and Ukraine.
Events in Ukraine now only highlight the harsh history Somerheiser relates when speaking to groups about their past.
“You know, it’s really difficult to talk about and people kind of shy away from wanting to hear it, too,” Somerheiser says. “But, it’s what happened and when you look at what’s going on in the world now, has anything ever changed?”
AUDIO: Brent Martin report [3:30]