When I married Kevin back in 1990, I had limited knowledge of his ancestry. What he was told was “Dad was 100% Norwegian and Mom was 50% Russian and 50% German”. His mom’s maiden name is Heckel, so that seemed plausible on the surface. He was told that his maternal grandmother, Caraline, traveled thousands of miles when she was young from Russia to North Dakota. That is true, but it would later be revealed that it was also true for the ancestors of her husband, Freidrich “Fred” Heckel, whose father was also born in Russia and emigrated to North Dakota. Carrie was born in Kassel, as was Fred’s father, Theobald. Coincidence? Yeah, probably not.
I did wonder, “Why were German people living in Russia?”
When I started doing this as a bonafide hobby, Victoria asked me to make sure I included her father’s side in my research. Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely turn down a request made by my daughter. After all, her dad’s side is her legacy as well, and documenting them might be important to any future grandchildren I might have. I asked her dad to bring over all the stuff he had and he complied.
He brought one document I hadn’t seen, which he acquired after we divorced from his now late aunt. She was pretty darn good at recording her mother’s genealogy. Her information was impeccably accurate, and included photos and details. Using Ancestry.com, it didn’t take me very much time to get the Heckel and Pleinis families back to the late 1890s and early 1900s, and the census records provided good information when they emigrated from Russia to the United States. That’s when I realized–I mean it was truly an a-ha moment–that neither of those surnames were Russian. Apparently, I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
Kevin knew less information than I did, so asking him for more details was a non-issue. He knew what he was told. So I called my dad. My parents are history buffs, so I figured I’d start there. Unfortunately, Dad couldn’t help me, but suggested I pull out an old map and Google. He also suggested I get in touch with a Russian studies professor at one of the universities, which I didn’t do. I didn’t know anyone else in my circle who had a similar circumstance in their past. So this was a search that I had to make on my own. To be honest, I wasn’t confident in my ability to research because this was only a few months after I started working on my own ancestry.
To my surprise and delight, the Google search bore fruit almost immediately. Pulling up the old maps was a great idea. Several months later, I saw my family during the holidays and discovered that my cousin majored in German studies in college before joining the Army. I think it’s weird that Tom would major in such an obscure degree path, but he was stationed in Germany for a tour or two, and his mother was of German descent, so maybe not so strange after all. He later told me that he feels a pull toward Germany that he just can’t ignore and loves everything about German history and culture. Anyway, Tom gave Kevin’s people a name: Volga Germans.
You can read the link on the history of their “invitation” to leave Germany or Prussia as it was called to migrate along the Volga River. I have the ability to look at this from a vantage point of looking back without any skin in the game, but I’m not sure it was as successful an execution as it was in theory. These Germans did not speak Russian as their first language (if they spoke it at all); they established German Lutheran churches, and they basically moved their German culture to their new home. Their culture was kept alive for more than 125 years–intact. They named their children German names, and they named their towns the same names as their familiar homes in Germany. For example, there are places in Germany named Kessel and Hesse; the towns where his people lived in the Ukraine were Kessel and Hesse. When I’m researching sometimes I have to take a break and clear my head so I can stay focused. It’s something I have to do when researching my Buhlers as well. Germans are confusing!
It then became my goal to get them back to Germany. I think I might have been able to trace his Heckel line back to a Gottfried Heckel. When I get my peeps done to the point where they’re settled until the 1950 census is published (2022), I’ll probably devote most of my time to Kevin’s peeps. If I’ve got the right people, Gottfried and his family were in the early waves of migration to the Ukraine. (Does anyone else picture Gilbert Gottfried here like me?)
The link explains their arrival in Russia and their exit, but it wasn’t until I listened to this podcast that the story became personal. The story in the podcast takes his family to Canada; Kevin’s people stayed in North Dakota before heading west to Montana. I’ve since found some of his grandmother’s siblings and their descendants in North and South Dakota as well as Montana. These people were hearty stock. I mean REALLY hearty. Caraline “Carrie” Pleinis Heckel was one of 8 children (and a twin); they left Russia in 1911 when she was four. Her father, Martin, died in 1913 as he walked home in a North Dakota blizzard and froze to death. Carrie’s mother, Margaretha, remarried in 1916 to a man who had also been born in the Gluekstal region of the Ukraine. They had a blended family (he was a widower with 5 children), and when it was all said and done, Margaretha and Bernhard had 13 children between them.
There is quite a bit of information out there to those who want to learn more about the Volga Germans. The ones who stayed in Russia were later persecuted and told to go home; they were forbidden to speak in German in public or in their homes. They wound up in German concentration camps post World War I. Their fate was predictably tragic during World War II. If Kevin and his cousins were aware of this today, they would be thankful that their people saw the writing on the wall and got out before World War I.
I’m proud for Victoria to know that her paternal ancestors were such determined and intrepid people. She should be proud too!