From Germany to Russia

Jacob (born about 1843, died about 1917) and Barbara (Martz) Hirsch, Casper’s parents, were German-Russians.  A German-Russian is a person of German blood who went to Russia when the movement started in the early 1800s. 

Born a princess in Germany, Catherine the Great converted to Orthodoxy and married the heir to the Russian throne.  She engineered her husband’s removal from the throne and took power as Queen.  During her reign Catherine the Great shepherded the German farmers to Russia as she had noted they were excellent farmers and could produce great crops.  The Germans were enticed by promises of the right to settle in segregated colonies, 180 acres of free land and necessary tax-free loans to establish themselves with buildings and crops.  In Russia they would have the acreage needed to produce many crops and raise herds of livestock.  Religious freedom and the right to build their own churches and schools were also to be granted the Germans.  They were to be exempt from military service. 

Because of the Napoleonic Wars, many families along the provinces of Baden and Wuertenberg in Germany were anxious to move to the new lands.  They believed in the promises Catherine the Great made.  The Germans in the Black Sea area were initially provided with 671,000 dessjatine of the land by the Crown (1 dessjatine = 2.7 acres).  By the year 1914, the Germans owned 4,209,000 dessjatine or 458,811,520 acres.  The land productivity had increased hundredfold.  They had created the Bread Basket of Europe. 

In 1819, Odessa, Russia was made a free port, a status it retained until 1859.  It became home to an extremely diverse population of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Romanians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Armenians, Italians, Frenchmen, Germans and traders representing many other nationalities.  Odessa was the most important trade port in the USSR in the export of all types of produce, especially wheat.

The German families had their own villages and kept to themselves.  They didn’t neighbor with the Russians.  The Germans kept their own language, customs and religion and very seldom ever married into the Russian society.  So, although they were expected to teach and educate the Russians, each group kept to themselves, which is not what the original rulers had intended.  The Germans started their own colonies and had their own government, schools and churches.  There were many such colonies of Germans in Russia.  The Russian rulers became upset that only 4 percent of the population controlled over 50 percent of the land.  This lead to the Communist Revolution and in many cases the removal and destruction of the affluent German families. 


Settling in Russia 

The first movement of Germans from the Rhine Palatinate, Baden, Wuertenberg, and the French Alsace took place in 1804 and continued into the 1830s.  Gathering at Ulm where the Danube becomes navigable, many boarded barges called Ulmer Schachtel to be transported down the tortuous waterway to the Black Sea and eventually their desired destination, Odessa.  Many perished en route.  Others went as far as Vienna (Wein) where they formed caravans to lead them across the Carpathian Mountains to the Russian border where they were met by the Russian army and transported to Odessa.  Still others made their way to Frankfurt on the Main River to join caravans that crossed the land via Erfurt, Leipzig, Dresden and Breslau through Polish Galician and to the boarder town, Radiziwilow from which they were transported via Tiraspol to Odessa. 

It is not certain which route our Hirsch ancestors took to reach Russia but they told of the long ride by wagon and how the men would be drinking; even some of the ladies, and it was up to the children to take care of each other. 

Emigrants left Germany in large groups of 50-100 families in wagons drawn by horses.  The trip could be eighteen weeks or more before they reached the Russian border.  Here they were met by Russian soldiers who would then take them to their destination where they received their land and provisions.

The Hirsch family settled in Rastadt, Russia.  The village of Rastadt was established in the spring of 1810 in the Chichekleja river valley,boarding ship about ten miles north of the Beresan district.  The contractor, Hermann of Odessa, brought materials for building the Crown houses and the founding of the colony was started.  Every family received 100 rubles of money to buy the necessary implements and 35 rubles for a cow.  Until the Crown houses were finished, the colonists lived in tents or reed huts which proved to be rather unhealthy for the settlers.

The first settlers in Rastadt found an open steepe, without a single building, although at one time the Slavic people inhabited the area.  The small Tschishekleja river, a tributary of the Bug, ran along this two mile long colony.   

Groups of three families received 3 pair of oxen, 1 plow and 1 harrow.  Instead of the daily money allowance, the colonists received flour, fat and salt. 

Agnes Hirsch Thorson, daughter of Casper’s brother Johannes (aka John C.), recounted how her family emigrated to Russia some time in 1911, settling in Rastadt where they lived in a two roomed hut made of mud and rocks.  There were no floors, just the bare earth.  The furnishings in the hut included a table with two benches.  Straw ticks were spread on the floor to sleep.  A stove made by hand of mud and rocks was at one end of the kitchen.  It measured about 3’ x 4’.  On top were two black kettles which were used for cooking.  Everything was boiled; no frying was done.  Agnes doesn’t ever remember eating meat.  The food was made from the flour from the grain which her family threshed.  Agnes’ father would bring home the wheat heads he had picked up in the fields.  Agnes and her two brothers Mike and George helped thresh the grain from the heads.  Her father would place the heads of wheat on the dirt floor and the children would jump on them to pound the grain out.  Her father would then pick up the straw and twist it into bunches to be used as fuel in the stove.  The grain was sifted from the dirt, washed and later ground into flour which was used for bread, noodles, etc.

Of the 96 founding families of Rastadt, 43 came from the Palatinate, 32 from Baden and 21 from Alsace.  By the first of January 1811, there were 100 families and 11 single people, a total of 244 males and 225 females.  The community owned 95 horses, 353 horned cattle, 108 wagons, 527 loads of hay, 60 tschetwert wheat and 24 tschetwert oats.  In 1817, there were only 93 families numbering 470 people.  This astonishing decrease for the seven year period was caused by a typhoid epidemic that broke out in October of 1811 and exacted the lives of over 150 people. 


Life in Russia

The climate in the summertime was not at all healthy and many people contracted fevers.  The people were of strong stature, medium height with wide shoulders, but were rather pale.  They were somewhat somber by nature, but very kind.  The language they spoke was more that of Baden than of the Palatinate.  This is to be expected as most of the settlers came from the Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany.

In July 1919, as the Rastadt settlers awaited a bumper crop, the Russian neighbors stormed the village.  The people of Rastadt fled in a panic after trying for three days, until their ammunition ran out, to hold on to their land.  No one was safe from the Bolshevik brigands.  They shot and killed, with no regard to gender or age.  As men lay dying in the streets, the women were forced to dance with the drunken Russians.  The church was totally destroyed at this time.  After the revolt in Rastadt and surrounding villages many Germans were sent to Siberia.

Part of our family ended up in Siberia.  Siberia was known for its extreme cold climate in the north.  Russia would send its criminals to this area.  Rose Hirsch, Casper’s sister, was sent to Siberia by the communist after the Kaiser fell for believing in God.  Agnes believes that she died in Siberia.

In 1994, it was estimated that there were still 2,000,000 Germans living in Siberia.  The Ukraine accepted into their country approximately 400,000 Germans who could trace their roots back to that area of Russia. 


Coming to America

In June 1871, Czar Alexander II revoked the German’s rights and privileges granted them by Catherine the Great and her grandson Alexander I, making the colonists subject to military service and creating a shock wave of distrust and resentment that swept through the German villages.  Many colonists also deplored the loss of traditional self-government and particularly resented the increasing pressure to Russianize the village schools and to take over their administration.  As far as the Catholic and Evangelical colonists were concerned, it would appear that most of the emigrants left Russia to find in America the promise of “free land for a free people.”

The Dania Casper and Marianna Hirsch and their 3 month old daughter Regine came to the United States via Ellis Island on April 16, 1892, from Hamburg, Germany on The Dania.  Casper was 27 years old and the first person in his family to move to America.  He was responsible for bringing over several family members in subsequent years.

Agnes Hirsch Thorson, daughter of Casper’s brother Johannes (aka John C.), recounted her trip to America when she was 9 years old.  Her family boarded the ship in June 1911 and was at sea for one entire month before they landed at Ellis Island where she saw the Statue of Liberty.  Her mother, two siblings and she were seasick for sometime.  While at sea for only 3 days, Agnes remembers one of the port holes breaking and water rushing in.  The sailors came running to place a big cork in the port hole to stop the water flow. 

Agnes and her family lived with Casper and Marianna Hirsch on their farm in Hirschville, ND for four years.  Agnes doesn’t recall ever seeing milk, eggs or garden produce until she came to America.  She recounts the night they arrived in North Dakota:

It was midnight in June.  The train had stopped just long enough for us to get off; no one was around the depot.  Mom had a featherbed with her and we slept on the sidewalk by the depot.  It was dark.  It was a strange country.  We were scared kids. Of course our parents were with us but I think they were nervous too.  My uncle Casper came from his farm the next morning to pick us up.  Then we were on our way to his farm about ten miles north of Taylor. 

Agnes said she wouldn’t trade her life in North Dakota for the whole Russian Empire.  Her pride in and devotion to the United States of America were shared by all our ancestors.

Native born Germans in US