The German Capital of Kansas has this week lived up to its title, as hundreds of descendants of Germans from Russia from across the country are in Hays to celebrate and learn more about their heritage.
“We love coming to Hays. There’s fun things to do and there’s so much German-Russian culture here that it makes you feel at home no matter where you’re from,” said Sherry Pawelko, executive director of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.
AHSGR is conducting its 49th annual convention in Hays, with many of the activities happening in the Fort Hays State University Memorial Union. But convention-goers also have toured a variety of sites around the area and learned recipes at St. Joseph Catholic Church parish school. The convention concludes today.
The 2007 convention also was in Hays. Next year’s 50th convention will be in Lincoln, Neb., the society’s home city.
The theme for the convention is “The Storm,” with information focused on life in the Russian colonies during the Russian Revolution of 1917, whose events gave rise to the Soviet Union.
The years after the revolution were dire times for the Germans who did not leave, Pawelko said.
“People could see on the horizon there was something coming in the early 1900s. They could tell there was unrest coming down the road,” she said.
Many of the Germans were forced to serve the Russian military during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
“They didn’t want that. They had been promised they would be free of that and they wouldn’t have to serve. So they started looking for other places to go,” Pawelko said.
So in addition to a first wave of Germans from Russia immigrating to the western hemisphere in the 1870s — which is when many of the Ellis County Volga German families arrived — there was another wave in the early 20th century until about 1921, she said.
“Then essentially the doors were closed,” Pawelko said.
“Life changed. It wasn’t the way it had been earlier,” she said.
Famines hit the Volga region in 1921 and again in the 1930s.
When Joseph Stalin came to power in 1941, he believed the Germans who had established colonies in Russia would side with the Nazis. They were rounded up and put on cattle cars, sent to work camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan.
While the Russian labor camps didn’t have gas chambers or ovens used to execute people as the Jewish concentration camps in Nazi Germany, they were just as dire, Pawelko said.
“They worked them to death. They weren’t properly fed, not properly clothed,” she said.
The camps lasted until the mid-1950s, and the Germans were not allowed to return to their villages.
Carolyn Shelhamer, Abilene, Texas, said her family was one who avoided the labor camps.
“My family is so lucky. We got out before the Lenin and Stalin regimes. We were really, really fortunate,” she said.
Her great-great grandparents settled in Rush County, where they joined one of their sons who had already immigrated. They are buried in Bison, and their grave was the first place she visited when she arrived for the convention.
Wednesday morning, she joined several others in a cooking class led by Roxane Dorzweiler, owner of Das Essen Hutte, demonstrating the making of Volga German Christmas cookies.
Those family histories are one reason Heather Robben joined the Hays-based Sunflower Chapter of AHSGR. She was born and raised in Texas, but her families are from the Victoria and Walker areas. She now practices optometry in WaKeeney and Hays.
“The weekend I graduated from college, I moved here. I love the history of this area,” she said at Wednesday’s cookie-making session.