06 July 2016

The Origin of the Project

It's a question that nearly everyone researching their Germans from Russia heritage has at one point or another.  Where exactly were my ancestral villages located?

For Dennis Bender, the origin of the Germans from Russia Settlement Locations project stemmed from simply from wanting to know exactly where places like Tarutino, Kassel and Johannenstal were situated today.

"Shortly after my mother passed away in November 2007, I got very involved in duplicating and organizing the 100+ years of family photos that she left behind. After that, I decided to try my hand at doing a family tree in MyHeritage program. Since that program and others like it only recognize today’s geographical locations, I became quite determined."

Some family tree programs tied in with the big online maps such as Google Maps and MapQuest will allow alternate names to be given to locations, but without knowing the current name or the having the GPS coordinates of an ancestral village, its easy to get stuck. Bender's goal was to create a short cross reference list of locations that included GPS coordinates.

"In February 2011, I stumbled upon the website Find a Grave and decided to pay tribute to my family’s ancestors for all to see," Bender said. But there were only a handful of cemetery locations in Ukraine and Moldova. Many locations he had on his cross reference guide weren't even available on Find a Grave. They simply didn't exist. Undeterred, he contacted the administrators of Find a Grave and asked them to add the town names he needed. They were agreeable, but they said they could only add four requests at a time to their database.

Patiently and persistently, Bender requested four new locations at a time until he got the 51 locations he required for his family memorials. He set up and pinpointed the cemetery for the newly added village, added the GPS coordinates, photos, descriptions and added memorials for each of his relatives. Freely sharing his work, other Find a Grave volunteers as well as his own family members asked for his help finding even more ancestral villages, and Bender obliged.

Bender gives a lot of credit to, Elaine (Becker) Morrison for her assistance and encouragement when he started his research. Morrison became and continues to be Bender's mentor and confidant.

"When I tried to remember my beginning interest in Germans from Russia activities," Morrison said, "I immediately thought of our late friend Herb Poppke. Herb loved to share his knowledge of South Russia and present Ukraine that included his large collection of maps, past and present. As I thought of his influence, I remembered a song of several years ago:
It only takes a spark
To get a fire going
And soon all those around
can warm up in its glowing
"My first effort for GRHS was to serve as the cemetery coordinator," said Morrison. "Years later, my efforts in recording our family history likely served as the spark that ‘warmed up’ my cousin's son: Dennis Bender. He did not know of my interest in cemeteries, but he found his own niche by working with Find A Grave and The Germans from Russia Heritage Society. May the fires continue to glow!”"

Sparking interest was certainly what Bender did. His work, which he updated often and freely circulated in PDF format, garnered attention, including publication in the newsletter of Germans from Russia Oregon and Washington Chapter of GRHS and in the GRHS quarterly journal, Heritage Review.

Sandy Schilling Payne was an early recipient of Bender's list through their contact on Find a Grave. "What was really interesting about it," she noted, "was that there really wasn't anything else like it."

She said there was, this very simple and straightforward list of ancestral villages from a handful of colony groups, which were by no means complete, along with their GPS coordinates and their current names. It wasn't just focused on one particular area or set of colonists.

"The GPS coordinates were pure gold," she said. "For me, I don't even care what the current name is. As long as I have those coordinates, I can place on a map where my ancestors were born, lived and died. It doesn't matter to me what it's called, if anything is still standing, or if its just a field of sunflowers."

When Payne, who is on the editorial board of the GRHS Heritage Review, was proofreading articles for the March 2016, she saw that Bender's latest list would be included in the issue. "I wondered what it would look like if all the villages were on a map, color coordinated by group. How many would there be? Where would they be? What would that look like? What story would that tell?"

Payne contacted Bender and asked if she could create a Google map with his data to be included in the issue. He was in agreement just as long as it would be free for all to use. Free access to information is very important to him. "Genealogical information and related material left on the shelf is of little or no value," he said, reciting his motto. She concurred and assured him the map would always be free.

With the first iteration of the Germans from Russia Settlement Location map done and published along with Bender's list in the March 2016 issue of Heritage Review, Payne handed over full edit access of the map to Bender to add villages whenever he found their locations.  She knew it would grow over time, but she had no idea how much, or how quickly.

"In retrospect, I feel a little like an instigator, like I poked the bear," she said.

Between February and June 2016, Bender had grown the list and map from 103 villages to over 1000 villages. "I didn't even know there were over 1000 Germans from Russia villages!" Payne said.  The overwhelming response of the publication and the map once again sparked Bender.  And, no, he isn't finished yet.

"I would like to extend a special thank you to Elaine Becker Morrison and Sandy Schilling Payne for their contributions and guidance. Without their talents, none of what you're viewing here today may have ever materialized."

The project continues to be a work in progress.