Watermelons and Thistles

Growing up German from Russia in America

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Book Review Watermelons and Thistles

By Eric J Schmaltz

Based out of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the North Star Chapter of Minnesota, Germans from Russia in the recent release of its second anthology, Watermelons and Thistles: Growing Up German from Russia in America again deserves the special distinction as one of the most active and prolific chapters in the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) and even in the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR).  In 2013, the North Star Chapter's editorial board produced it's first anthology of stories from descendants of ethnic German immigrants from Russia to North America, Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers. -Growing Up German from Russia in America, which proved popular among readers.  

This second anthology released in 2018 was intended to coincide with and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the chapter's founding.  Indeed, the decision to coumarate it's 1978 inception in this manner also rightly should remind GRHS members of some of the initial drive at the time devoted to preserving and promoting the group's heritage and history.  Beyond the North Star Chapter's creation, the year 1978 als proved significant because the still young GRHS collaborated with North Dakota State University Libraries in Fargo (NDSU) in establishing the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC) under the direction of bibliographer Michael M. Miller.  Since that time, these bodies in ethnic network have often participated in numerous joint projects and ventures to keep the cultural traditions alive. 

An impressive collection of twenty-four contributors, most of them children or grandchildren of German-Russian immigrants, supplied the North Star Chapter editors with an array of detailed and rich memories and perspectives.  The book also contains black and white illustrations and photographs to complement the short stories though which readers can thumb in any order they wish and at their own pace.  Organizing the compendium into several chapters which stories presented in pot-lock style... no first or last in line, "the editors lay bare-in the forward the core inspiration behind the collective undertaking, stating that they have "included names and places so they do not go lost, do not remain undiscovered, do not go looking from a home, do not remain under a bushel basket where no one else can see them.  Instead readers can say, Aha! or Yes! or That's the way it was, or Did people really live like that? (xiv)

The mid to late twentieth century timeframe is becoming now a promising field of investigation into the German Russian experience. On that note, several years ago, German-Russian writer  Debra Marquardt noted in an interview with Prairie Public Broadcasting in Fargo that German-

Russian immigrants and the older generations traditionally had been forward-looking, wishing to move beyond past disappointments and burdens in hopes of improving their and their children's lot, while today their descendants, at least in North America, living in a world of relative affluence, tend to wax nostalgic abut a long lost and perhaps even a times ideal, past.  For Marquardt, the group's salvation or immortality as much might be centered on a shared, collective memory that we take care to preserve, but also one that is more realistic and can balance our understandings of the pas, present, and future.  In other words, the group remnant's task beyond the twenty-first century might be to keep the German-Russian saga alive, but in process it will also need to simplify and sort out the narrative for future generations, including among those outside of the ethnic group, especially as we move across ever greater expanses of space and time.  It is here that Watermelons and Thistles takes its rightful place to help with heritage preservation.  Personal, family and group memories and stories continue to evolve, and there has arisen a growing human need today to find roots in an increasingly confusing and fast-paced world.  In this case, to gain some historical perspective and meaning, we need to examine, reflect upon, and perhaps ground ourselves in the chain of experiences and memories of the second, third even forth generation descendants of the original immigrants who faced trails and tribulations.

At the volume's conclusion, quite fascinating short biographies of the contributors offer us a further glimpse into the divergent accomplishments and fates of the immigrant group's descendants now dispersed across Canada, the United States, and beyond, yet who discern themselves even now as bound together by a common inheritance of culture, geography, and language.  Many descendants of Germans from Russia today find themselves at a crucial transition or crossroads in the broader world history, with most of the contributors (encompassing up to three cohort groups or generations) coming of age during the middle decades of the twentieth century, roughly the period from the 1930s to the 1970s.  Memories of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War still retain a strong hold over contemporary North American societies, but these impressionable and transformative events have now taken place more than a half to three-quarters of a century ago and will soon be fading fast from the public mind, thereby-running the risk of being forgotten or at least obscured if not preserved in time. 

The book has so far received strong, positive reviews, as evidenced by sales at its presentation at the 2018 GRHS international convention hosted in Pierre, South Dakota.  In view of its public embrace, and since not all GRHS members could attend the Pierre event, plans are underway to publish selected excerpts of the book in upcoming Heritage Review issues.


Original article found in Heritage Review, Vol. 48 No. 3 September 2018 …………a publication of Germans from Russia Heritage Society