Signup for news and special offers!

Broken Promises, Bold Dreams - Introduction

Broken Promises, Bold Dreams

By Dennis Gaub

©2013 Dennis Gaub


The immigrant experiences of my grandparents and great-grandparents, maternal and paternal, and all Germans from Russia, inspired this work of fiction.

Both sets of ancestors hailed from the fertile plains of the Black Sea region of South Russia, near Odessa. There, they farmed, followed their Lutheran faith, married, raised children for at least four, possibly five generations. They had been drawn to this historic region by the 1762 and 1763 manifestos of Catherine the Great, the German-born empress of Greater Russia.

Catherine, attempting to get reliable farmers and craftsmen to help settle Russia’s vast eastern frontier, offered them inducements in the form of seven provisions that comprised the 1763 Manifesto. Among them were promises to German settlers of freedom to practice their religion, exemption from taxation and performance of “ordinary or extra ordinary services,” and freedom from military services.

Over time, the promises were broken, notably the waiver of military service. That first affected the so-called Brethren, a grouping of Hutterite and Mennonite Protestants, who were forbidden by their religious beliefs to serve in any military force. Starting in the late 1800s, they began migrating to western Canada and the western United States. Today, the Hutterites, with their colony structure, their traditional garb, their continued use of the German language and the produce and poultry they bring to farmers’ markets, are a noticeable and important part of the landscape in Montana, where I’ve lived almost all my life.

Two other groups of German-Russians, the Lutherans and the Catholics, began to feel the burden of Russian oppression as well. My maternal grandfather, John Neiffer (1889-1969), for example, was conscripted into the pre-revolution Russian army. Fortunately, he was not ground into the mill of World War I, which claimed millions of Russian lies and left millions more horrifically wounded.

In September 1911, John Neiffer married Eva Shock. I do not know the precise location of the ceremony; Mr. Neiffer apparently was from the German-Russian colony of Neudorf while Eva Neiffer may lived in their nearby settlement of Gluckstal. Complicating matters for anyone trying to research their German-Russian roots, either in the Black Sea region or in the Volga River region, the full effects of the November 1917 Revolution in Russia made themselves known in the 1920s and 1930s. Repression by Josef Stalin against the so-called “kulaks,” a Russian name for a prosperous farmer, often barely a generation removed from serfdom, was brutal. And German-Russians who hadn’t migrated (a group that likely includes some of my ancestors) were not spared the terror of Stalin’s brutality. Tens of thousands of German-Russians had their well-kept farms confiscated, their churches turned into grain elevators, while they were expelled to Siberia and other parts of the Asiatic Soviet Union – if they weren’t summarily executed. Even checking present-day maps to find place names provides little help – the Communists, in their drive to eradicate all traces of foreign influence, renamed German town names as Russian ones.

My great-grandmother, Caroline Frey Schock, could not have been expected to be so prescient as to envision the horrors that would descend on Russia. Yet, family accounts say she was concerned enough, by 1914, about the prospect of war involving Russia that her thoughts turned to the safety of her five sons, all of fighting age or soon to reach that time in their lives.

So Caroline, the family matriarch, and John and Eva Neiffer began making preparations to leave Russia. Others in the 10-person immigrant group were my great-uncles, Christian, then 19; Jacob, 15; August, 11; Edward, 10; Lydia, 6; John Schock, 3; and my aunt, Lydia, the infant daughter of John and Eva Neiffer. Lydia, then about 1-1/2 years old, was their first-born of nine children born between 1912 and 1931. My mother, the second-youngest, was born in 1928; she is the sole survivor of her siblings.

The Schock/Neiffer group departed Odessa by ship sometime in mid-spring 1914. They reached the British port of Liverpool in time for the May 12, 1914 sailing of the SS Teutonic, once the fastest liner in the Atlantic but by then relegated mostly to giving immigrants steerage class passage to America. The Teutonic had started in the White Star Line, which in April 1912 had suffered the loss of the Titanic. But, by this time, the Teutonic was operated by White Star’s sister company, the Dominion line, and served Canadian ports.

Thus, instead of going through Ellis Island, my ancestors set foot in the New World at the port of Quebec. Their 12-day Atlantic crossing finished on May 28, 1914. And, in an historical irony, that was exactly one month before Serbian nationalists assassinated Austrian Crown Prince Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, setting in motion forces that would unleash World War I on August 1, 1914.

Having reached Quebec, and details are unclear, the Schocks and the Neiffers either entered the U.S. and headed west or traveled towards western Canada. If the latter is true, I surmise they made it to Saskatchewan and then crossed the border into North Dakota.

Caroline Schock died at age 50 in 1919. By that time, her family had become dry land homesteaders in Eastern Montana. By 1940, they had purchased an irrigated farm in the Yellowstone Valley south of Glendive, where they raised livestock and grew sugar beets and grain. And it was into that setting I was born, at the Northern Pacific Railroad hospital in Glendive, on July 14, 1951.

My first hint of how powerful my family history could be came in the summer of 1964. By then, my grandfather – who had become a widower when Eva died in 1956 and who had remarried – had retired and was living in his home in Glendive. I had turned 13 that summer, and I remember a visit to my grandfather’s house where it seemed his coffee table was covered with commemorative issues of magazines now long gone, at least in their photo journalism format – Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, perhaps Colliers.

All these magazines published special editions around August 1, 1914, to mark the outbreak of World War I. And that’s when I first became fully aware of my grandfather’s pre-war service in the Russian army as well as hints of his brothers and other relatives who chose not to or were unable to migrate from Russia in time and so likely joined the millions of Stalin’s victims.

But, a happier side exists, too. My mother, Mathilda, met and married another second-generation descendant of Germans from Russia’s Black Sea region, William Gaub. Their marriage produced six children, 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. None of us has become famous or wealthy but several have earned college degrees, a couple of us have added postgraduate degrees, and we all have gotten the chance to live our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ bold dreams. For that, I thank them.


Subscribe to Imagine when .... stories from our colorful past

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson