21 December 2016

Some Final Thoughts on 2016

Let me begin by saying I had no idea what I was getting into.

When I asked Dennis Bender last February if I could put his village coordinates into a Google map because I wanted to know what it would look like, I didn't know where this project would go. I was just very curious how many villages there were, and what stories a map like that would tell.

You see, I grew up in a small town in New Mexico in the southwestern part of the United States. If there were any other Germans from Russia around, no one ever said so or made a point of it. My only exposure to German culture was a yearly trip up to South Dakota, to the small towns where my parents were born and their families still lived.

They were Germans. They spoke German. They ate German. My paternal grandfather did math in German like his parents taught him before there were enough kids to justify opening a country school. His parents came from the village of Glückstal in the Odessa area near the Black Sea. My grandmother's family came from Kassel in the same area. My maternal grandmother was the last of my direct lines to come to America in 1913 from Ukraine, Mom said. From Straßburg, Ukarine to Strasburg, North Dakota. Her dad’s family was from the same town, although his father and grandfather left Russia for the United States earlier than the rest, in the 1880s.

It didn’t matter, though, because we were all Americans now, by naturalization or by birth. Just to drive the point home, every year on the Fourth of July, Mom would wish everyone Happy Birthday. Something I still do today.

Because I never knew any other Russian-Germans growing up, I thought being one was pretty special. Unique. There must not be very many of us, I thought. And it was hard to explain the German and Russian thing in the 1970s and 1980s because I didn't fully understand it myself, and because Russia was the Soviet Union since before I was born. Understanding how that figured in came much later.
Finding my ancestral villages on a modern map meant a lot to me. It positioned my ancestors and myself not only geographically but also historically. It quite literally grounded me and gave me context for the past, present and future. Like looking at old family photos, the faces in them become more familiar over time and a part of every day life. Looking at the villages of where my grandmother, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived and ultimately left makes them familiar, too. More real, especially when I look at them not on an old, ornate or hand-drawn map, but on the map I use to direct me to the dentist office because I always forget which turn to take.

And now that I've seen the map that we've created with over 2,600 ethnic German villages settled in Russia, each depicted by a pin on a Google map, I have to admit...I don't feel so special anymore.
There actually were...and are...a lot of us.

I am, however, in awe of the part of history in which my ancestors participated. I am humbled to be a result of their choices and the resulting mass immigration and colonization of not only one country but two: Russia and the United States. Russia needed immigrants to inhabit and farm the land on the edge of its Empire, which Catherine the Great's manifesto in July 1763 made possible. One hundred years later, the United States needed immigrants to inhabit and farm the land in its newly acquired public lands made available by the Homestead Act, which took effect in January 1863.

On June 21st of this year, this blog went live. It was to serve as a home for the project that Dennis had started years ago and that I joined him on in February. We started the map with 103 villages located by latitude and longitude. By June, there were 1,001 villages located. As as of today, there are 2,672 villages located, with nearly 40,000 views combined of all 21 of our maps. It has become clear that a lot of other Germans from Russia were looking for the locations of their ancestral villages, too.

I hope you're able to find your villages on our maps now or in the very near future, and I hope you share them with your families over the holidays. Show the younger generations on their new tablets and smartphones where their great-great-grandparents came from on Google maps. Make it familiar and a part of their every day lives, like those old family photos. Technology allows them to take their family history with them wherever they go.

Even though I didn't know what I was getting myself into back in February, I'm very glad I jumped in with both feet and that Dennis welcomed me. Your feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and for that Dennis and I both thank you. We know a village name and location is a very small part of the genealogy research we all do, but we also know how important it is to know where your cradle stood.
And the stories I was looking for in the map back in February? Aside from the general surprise that there were so many villages, each of us has a story of someone who lived in those villages, died there, maybe was forced to leave and maybe made it back at some point. Maybe not. Beyond that for me, the story it tells is that we are not alone. We never were.

Happy New Year to all. We'll see you again in 2017.

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