Transcribed by Michael A. O’Neill in November 2014
Transcribers note: This transcription of Emma’s book was created using Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, which will result in capitalization errors; misspellings of proper names; and odd usage of prepositions or common words. Originals can be found at the location(s) listed on Worldcat, as well as in the Seattle Genealogical Society‘s library.
In spite of their high hopes, it must have been with the definite feeling of disappointment that the first German people arrived along the Volga. For almost a year they had been moving eastward, first by water from Germany to Kronstadt, and then by land across the plains of Russia. Throughout the entire journey they had been comforting themselves with the thought of the “paradise” that had been so enthusiastically described by the Russian commissioners. But now that they had reached their destination they could not help but look about them with fear and loneliness. It would be difficult to imagine a landscape more different from the one that they had left behind. Instead of the vine-covered slopes of the Rhineland, the towering pines of the Danube, and the narrow, medieval streets of Frankfurt, they were surrounded by the endless steppes and fearful solitude of eastern Russia. The loneliness of the first immigrants who reached the colony of Dobrinka on June 29, 1764 must have been particularly great, since they knew that they were now in an alien land separated by thousands of miles from their German relatives.
However, before the year was over, three other colonies had been established along the Volga. Eleven villages were organized in 1765; twenty the following year, and sixty-eight in 1767; so that eventually 104 settlements consisting of 27,000 German people were located along the Volga. Some of these colonies, such as Straub and Warenburg, were placed under the control of private commissioners, but Norka, which was founded on August 15, 1767 was a Crown Colony and ruled directly by Catherine the Great.
The history of Norka is rather distinctive in several ways. It is one of the few colonies that retained the Russian name that it received when it was founded. With three or four exceptions, all the other colonies were soon called after the first “Vorsteher” or mayor of the town. For that reason we hear of such German villages as Huck, Straub, Messer, Dinkel, etc. Norka was also the largest of the 104 original colonies. It had a population of 957 people consisting of 251 families, whereas the average size of the other villages at the time of their founding was around 250.
Out of the 251 families who established the colony of Norka, we know that the Millers, Giebelhauses, Yosts, and Glanzes were direct ancestors of ours. However, during the next 120 years, so many intermarriages took place between the people of the village that the colony soon became a closely knit ethnic group whose blood and interests, habit and speech became more and more alike as time went on. Even here in the United States, six of the nine Miller children married members of Norka families whose names were: Fink, Schnell, Albert, Repp, Sauer and Reisbeck. Marriages between cousins were also common. In some cases, the parents even encourage this to happen because they wanted their property and wealth to stay within the family. If the situation had continued indefinitely, it would probably have had disastrous effects upon the general health of the village.
During the early years, many hardships had to be faced by the original inhabitants of the Volga colonists. Since Norka was a Crown Colony, a few log houses consisting of two rooms were already built. These homes were called “Kron Häuser,” and until 1890 several of them were still standing in the village. Other families had to construct partially underground huts with windows in the roof to let in some light. These “semlinken” were large enough to accommodate three or four families, and were a little like the sod houses that were built in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas during the period immediately after the Civil War.
In addition to the housing difficulties, there was also scarcity of food, bad water, few doctors, and periodic attacks from savage Mongolian tribes of the steppes. Then in August 1774, the notorious outlaw Pugachev with his robber band entered the village of Norka and carried off several citizens, including a Johann Wilhelm Stärkel. These prisoners were later forced to help the robbers in their battle with the czarina’s soldiers. The destruction and devastation wrought by the band were so terrible, that for an entire century, children were frightened with the threat that Pugachev would get them unless they behaved.
During these early years, many of the German colonists attempted to return to their native homes, but only a few managed to escape. The rest were forcibly brought back by the Cossacks. Nevertheless, as time went on, the people gradually became accustomed to their life along the Volga. More substantial wooden homes were eventually constructed, and the German colonies gradually began to assume the form which they had when their grandparents left Russia.
In the year 1880, Norka was divided into three sections: the Oberdorf, Mitteldorf and Unterdorf. The pastor, the schoolteacher and the wealthier inhabitants of the village—such as the Schleunings, Schlitts and Vöglers—lived in the central part of town, while the poor people congregated on the outskirts. Throughout the entire history of the village, there was always a certain amount of rivalry between these three sections. The boys of each district played together in gangs, and it took a lot of courage for the Unterdorf crowd to enter the Oberdorf and vice versa. A boy was also subjected to a great deal of kidding, and sometimes even beatings, if he tried to take out a girl from one of the other two districts. The most serious incident along this line took place around 1881. A boy from the Mitteldorf began to go with the prettiest girl in the Unterdorf. Another boy was also in love with this girl, and he organized a gang to attack the “foreigner.” In the resulting fracas, the Mitteldorf boy was killed, and the others were brought to trial for their part in the affair.
As the map on page 16 shows, Norka extended in an Eastern-Western direction. It was 3½ werst wide but there were only five blocks (or nine streets) running from north to south. Each square block had room for four households, which included a home, several barns, and an open court surrounded by a high fence. Very few houses had any grass or flowers around them. Water was far too precious to be spent in this way, since every drop had to be carried by hand from the wells.
The large village church was built between 8th and 9th Streets, and was surrounded by beautiful shrubbery and trees. Across the road on 7th Street was located the parsonage, the bell tower, the old cemetery, and the lovely fruit garden of the minister. Further west on the same street was the Mitteldorf School and the home of the teacher. The Giebelhaus family, to which our grandmother belonged, lived on 1st Street near the center of the village, while the original Miller home was on 5th Street just across from the Unterdorf School. In later years, grandfather moved to 9th Street just two blocks from the church, and it was in this house that mother and Aunt Katy were born.
The few stores which the village contained were located in the yards of the wealthier people. There were also about fifteen blacksmiths whose shops were placed in the “Graben” or cultures north and south of town. Then there were the cobblers, the cabinetmakers, saddle makers, wagon makers, and the men who constructed iron plows. (In later years, threshing machines or “Putz Machinen” were bought in Huck or Dönnhof.) The village also contained four windmills, seven oil mills, two steam mills, about four leather shops, and the government saloon called the “Kavac” in which a picture of the czar hung.
In addition to the buildings already mentioned, there was also the “Kreis Amt” or County Courthouse, the fire station in which several horses and the necessary hoses and carts were kept, and the city jail which was called the “Kalmucken Haus” since the first offenders to inhabit the building were Kalmucks.
The original cemetery was located in the Unterdorf on First Street, but as time went on, and the village extended further east, houses were built over these original graves. Mrs. Conrad Repp once told me that children in her day would sometimes find bones of early inhabitants who hadn’t been moved to the newer cemeteries. The third cemetery was near the minister’s home, but after it was full, everyone was taken behind the church. It is here that our great-grandparents lie buried.
On either side of the latest cemetery where the threshing floors of the inhabitants of the village, as well as a few private granaries. Every family possessed one of these threshing floors, because all male citizens were entitled to an equal share of land, even though a man might be a cobbler or blacksmith in his spare time. The only exception to this rule were the few families who rented their land to somebody else, or those whose ancestors had not helped to found Norka in 1767. In the latter case, a newcomer could only receive land by giving up his rights in the village that his own ancestor had helped to found. This was done, for example, by the Weidenkeller family, who had settled originally in the colony of Straub, but had later exchange their birthright for some Norka land.
In back of the church they were also about eight municipal granaries called “Magaziens.” In the fall of the year, each family had to contribute a certain amount of produce to these granaries so that there would be food on hand in time of distress. If a family did run short of wheat during the winter months, it was possible for the father to borrow some, but he was later expected to pay it back when he harvested grain. In order to prevent any possible theft, each of the buildings was closely guarded by a watchman.
During the 19th century the Russian Mir System was followed in the German colonies. All the farming land of the village was divided by lot every 10 years among the male inhabitants, each of whom received an equal share called a “dusch.” In the early days, land was very plentiful, but as time went on and the population of the village increased, these equal shares became smaller and smaller. The situation in Norka was slightly remedied in 1859 when the village acquired some land east of the Volga on the so-called Weisenseite. A town meeting was called and it was decided that anyone who left the mother colony would be assisted financially, and would not have to pay any taxes for 10 years. Then in 1873, immigration for North and South America began, and for the next 40 years it continued to drain away part of the population. None of these first immigrants received any money for their share of the village land, but around the year 1910, when the idea of private property became more common, the village decided that the right to a “dusch” could be sold.
The principal crops along the lower Volga or wheat, rye, barley, oats, hay and sunflowers. The wheatfields of Norka lay north of town, and furnished the chief export crop of the village. Rye was used almost entirely by the poor people of the community, and the sunflowers were treasured both for their oil, and for the seeds which were sociably chewed whenever friends came together.
Directly east of Norka lay the Karymisch Steppes that were particularly important for their hay. This land was community property, and its products were shared equally by everyone. The mowing of this land was one of the biggest celebrations in the village. Early in the morning of the appointed day, most of the inhabitants drove out towards the Karamysch, leaving the heads of the various families behind. These men then drew lots for the different sections of the field, and dispatched gayly-clothed horsemen who raced toward the river with the pieces of paper designating the areas for the different families.
The most important hills lay west of town, and were covered with forests of beautiful ash, birch, pine and linden trees. In the early days, wild strawberries, blackberries, cherries, pears, etc. could also be found here. Norka’s two most important streams arose from springs in these western hills. The Norka Fluss, in the northern part of town, was used as drinking water for the livestock, but the larger one, which was called the Elle Born, flowed south of 9th Street. Part of this water was used to irrigate the privately owned fruit and vegetable gardens that lay along the banks. In these gardens, one could find potatoes, cabbage, squash, watermelon, dill, carrots, beets, gooseberries, cucumbers, and cherry and apple trees. The rest of the water was carried to the villages and pipes, and at stated intervals wells were dug, so that all the inhabitants could have drinking water.
The highest mountains in the neighborhood were called the Galge Löcker and lay northwest of town. Also in the west were two canyons called the Pfaffe Graben and the Streit Graben. The former place was used for adult immersion by the Baptists and Adventists, while the latter canyon was the scene of a boundary line dispute between Norka and one of its neighbors.
Norka itself lay about 25 miles west of the river town of Schilling, and 50 miles southwest of Saratov. To the south were the smaller colonies of Huck and Neu Messer, which were served by the Norka pastor. About 25 miles further west lay the colony of Frank which was also a county seat. Throughout their entire history Norka and Frank were to remain two of the greatest rivals among the German colonies, and as a result, innumerable stories are still told which reveal this underlying, good-natured friction.
Although all of these villages were connected by very poor wagon roads, the most difficult journey was the one to Saratov. This was due not only to the greater length of the trip, but also because the traveler had to pass through the dreaded Kosakenwald or Cossack’s Forest about halfway between Norka and the capital city. The trees of the forest were so dense that only a narrow wagon road wound between them, and from the very start, the woods became the haunt of robber bands. Some of the most gruesome stories that were told in the colonies on winter evenings dealt with events that had occurred here. In case a robbery did take place, there was very little that the traveler could do about it, since the only town that lay between Norka and Saratov was a little Russian village, and an inn called the Gasthof, where the travelers could get something to eat on their homeward way.
The most highly respected person in all Norka was the minister. Whenever any citizens passed him on the street, they always had to take off their hats in a very obsequious manner. Since the schoolteacher acted as an assistant pastor, he was also regarded as a person of great importance. In his classrooms, religion and education were closely intermingled, because the chief textbooks were the “Biblische Geschichte” (or Bible Stories), the catechism, the Bible, and the Volga Gesangbuch. After 1890, a law was passed making the introduction of the Russian language compulsory, and from that time on the Mitteldorf School had two German teachers and two Russian teachers.
During the latter part of the 18th century, the outstanding pastor in Norka was Rev. Cataneo, who was born in the Engadine District of Switzerland. He arrived in Norka in 1784 and immediately proved of invaluable aid to the people of his congregation. One of his first tasks was to import different kinds of pear and apple seedlings, which he planted in his parsonage garden. He also introduced the practice of inoculation against smallpox, and his fame as a doctor became so widespread that even the Khirghiz nomads heard of him, and made their way to his door when they needed medical attention. It is said that during his lifetime, he successfully performed 16 amputations and 27 cancer operations. In addition, his stern patriarchal watchfulness did much to elevate the morals and lives of his people. Whenever a couple came to him to ask for divorce, he would listen quietly to both sides, and then, since both husband and wife were usually to blame, he would lift a stick which he kept handy for this very purpose, and proceed to give them both a beating. As a result, it is not surprising to hear that during his ministry, divorces in Norka were practically nonexistent. It was also under his direction that in 1792 Norka purchased the first pipe organ to be placed in any of the German villages.
The second important minister, Reverend Christoph Heinrich Bonwetsch, came to Norka in 1845. He had been trained in a Mission School in Basle, Switzerland, and did a great deal to arouse interest in foreign missions among the Volga Germans. A further service was performed by the establishment of the “Friedensbote Kalender,” which was published annually in the German colonies and contained a great deal of valuable information of the historical nature. According to some old-timers, Reverend Bonwetsch was never very popular with the poor people in Norka. It was customary at this time for the pastor to be paid partly with money, but also in farm products, such as wheat, rye, barley, hay, potatoes, wood, etc., and it seems that in even the poorest years, Bonwetsch insisted upon receiving his entire pledged salary. Since the pastor lived in comparative luxury, with many servants, horses and carriages, he acquired the reputation of being rather miserly and grasping.
There was one boy, however, in whom Reverend Bonwetsch became very interested. This was Wilhelm Stärkel, who was so unusually gifted that the pastor gave him the necessary money to attend the Basler Missionhaus from which he himself had come. Rev. Stärkel studied there between the years 1861 to 1864, and then came to the United States, where he had a small church at Wefeld, near Burlington, Michigan. After returning to Russia, he became pastor of the church at Eckheim, but in 1878 accepted a call to come to Norka where he remained for nearly 35 years.
Since Rev. Stärkel was a “son of the people,” and had come from a rather poor family, he seems to have had more sympathy with the financial difficulties of his parishioners. In addition, he was one of the very first Volga German boys to enter the ministry, and for that reason all of the other Stärkels took great pride in claiming relationship with him. Throughout his entire life, he remained a very popular pastor, and in his later years, he even became the Probst (or Superintendent) of the Protestant colonies on the Bergseite. It was Rev. Stärkel, by the way, who christened my mother and Aunt Katy, and who signed the paper which gave grandfather permission to leave Russia in 1887. He is also remembered because of the trip which he once took to the Holy Land, and for the sympathetic interest which he always showed for the pietistic Brotherhood Movement.
Towards the end of his life, Rev. Stärkel became practically blind, and it was necessary for him to acquire an assistant, who was named Reverend Ludwig. This young man has come down in history because of his dislike of the stuffy air in the Volga German homes. All of the colonists had double windows on their houses, and in addition taped the outside of the frames in order to keep out every whiff of cold winter air. Reverend Ludwig insisted that one of the glass panes in each of his windows be opened so that the room could be aired out every day. The story of this act immediately spread through the village, and many of the inhabitants walked past the house in order to see for themselves if something so preposterous had actually been done.
In addition to the pastor and the teachers of its three schools, Norka had two county officials called the “Obervorsteher” and the “Kreis Schreiber” (Chairman and county secretary). There were also several town officials, such as the “Vorsteher,” the “Schreiber,” the “Strasjnick” (town marshall), and the “sotnick” (peace officer) who was responsible for the ministration of public whippings when corporal punishment was still used. All of these men were of German descent, although some of them had been educated in neighboring villages.
Other officials, such as the “Kirche Vorsteher” (deacons) were elected in a general business meeting. In addition, there were four “Waldschutzer” who guarded the forests; two cow herds; two herdsmen each for the calves, oxen and pigs; one herdsman for the young horses; and about ten herdsmen for the sheep. None of these men came home at night, except the cow herds and the swine herds. The rest stayed out on the fields in rough shelters. The meadow land to which the horses and cattle were driven was community property, and lay northeast of town.
Mention should also be made of the night watchman who walked up and down the streets swinging a wooden stick with a metal clapper on top in order to prove that he was awake and on his job. During the day, a second watchman would deliver any letters that happened to come in. It was also his duty to notify every family whenever a town meeting took place.
As far as the daily life of the people was concerned, all of them possessed the cooperative attitude of a typical frontier community. Whenever a baby was born, the friends and relatives would bring gifts of food to the mother who lay in the “Kindbett.” If a new home had to be built, the neighbors would help to raise the log posts for the frame and fill the sides with lime and stone. If a fire broke out, the inhabitants of the village came running from all parts of town in order to assist in putting it out. And whenever a dam was constructed, a new well dug, or streets and bridges repaired, all of the men took time off to help perform the task.
A marriage ceremony was also the occasion for important social activities. No matter how well acquainted a boy and girl might be, a certain set procedure had to be followed. The godfather of the boy would always call upon the girl’s parents and ask for her hand. The parents invariably refused to give their consent, but after a great deal of coaxing, were persuaded to change their minds. The pastor was then notified of the approaching wedding, and announced the banns on three successive Sundays. The girl was expected to bring a dowry with her consisting of the household furnishings, such as a table, bed linen, and pillows; her own clothing; and sometimes a certain amount of money or a cow. After the wedding, the bride was little more than a servant in her husband’s household. Most of the sons brought their wives home with them, and the mother-in-law had complete authority over the girls.
At Christmas time a woman covered with a sheet would bring gifts to the children, and on New Year’s evening, the boys would go from house to house shooting their guns in celebration of the coming year. Other important holidays were Easter, Pentecost, and “Kerb” (Thanksgiving), when a dance was given in celebration of the fall harvest.
During the winter months there was little work to be done in the fields, and both the young and the old people of the village often came together in the evenings. On these occasions the latest gossip was repeated, community and church affairs were discussed, ghost stories were told, and endless jokes were repeated. One of the best-known was of the time the young man from Norka who fell in love with a girl from the village of Frank. In accordance with custom he brought his “Braut” (fiancée) to his parent’s home “auf Beschau” for their inspection. After the noon meal was over, the boy’s mother proceeded to sweep the kitchen floor, but when she reached the chair on which the girl was sitting, the “Braut” very elegantly lifted her feet from the floor, instead of getting up and moving the chair. Upon seeing this, the horrified Norka mother cried in despair, “Bo, Bo, do bist verlorn! Sie hebt ja die Baan in die Höh!” (Son, son you’re lost. She’s lifting her legs in the air!)
Perhaps in retaliation from the story, there is another one about a Norka girl who is looking for a husband. In this particular case she was so nearsighted that nobody in the village wanted to marry her. But finally, the godfathers of young men decided to investigate and see if this were really true. In the meantime the girl’s family had been warned that the wooers were coming, and they decided upon a plot to mislead the men. A sewing needle was carefully placed on the floor near a certain piece of furniture, and the girl was told that after the visitors arrived, she should stoop over and announced loudly, “O mother, look! Here’s a needle!” To the family’s great satisfaction, everything went according to schedule. The wooers arrived, the girl found the needle, and one of the men was heard to whisper to the other, “Did you see that? She can’t be so nearsighted after all.” The time now came for refreshments to be served. But at that point all of the well laid plans were hopelessly shattered. In plain sight of the men the girl suddenly exclaimed, “Just look! Here’s that black cat again.” And with one sweep of her hand she knocked down from the stove a dark brown milk crock.
Other favorite stories were of the cantankerous men who were always against every resolution that got introduced in the “Gemeinde Versammlung.” One evening a citizen of this type was unavoidably detained until after the business meeting had already started. He came rushing to the schoolhouse as fast as he could, flung open the door, and without even waiting to discover what was being discussed, shouted in a loud voice, “Dot’s net! Dot’s net!” (Don’t do it! Don’t do it!)
Another tale along the same line was of the time Vetter Hänjorg was asked in despair by the “Vorsteher” of the village, “just what would you like to have us do?” And in return he received the eliminating reply, “Eich will aach net, wie eich will.” (I don’t even like what I want.)
The stories of Till Eulenspiegel were also taken along to Russia by the Volga Germans. Whenever anyone had acted in a particularly stupid way he was told that he was as bad as Eulenspiegel, who had to sleep outside on the ground one night. The next morning as Till stretched his weary bones, he noticed a feather on which he had lain, and he remarked philosophically “Ach Gott, how hard it is to spend the night on a single feather. But just think how much worse it would have been if I had slept on a bed of feathers!”
Then there was the boy who was at the home of an uncle one day, and was invited to join the family dinner. The boy politely answered, “No thanks,” but waited expectantly for a more pressing invitation. Unfortunately, none was forthcoming, but after a few moments of silence he managed to remedy the situation by asking a puzzled voice, “Uncle, just what was it that you said a few minutes ago?”
In addition to the jokes and the village gossip, the people of Norka also repeated many stories of supernatural events that occurred in their village. One of the most common tales of this type was of the woman who had an “evil eye” and who would put a charm upon babies so that they either got sick or would burst into tears as soon as this woman entered the room. A distant Norka cousin once told me that when one of her boys was a tiny baby he was unable to grow in a normal fashion, and that only his head kept getting bigger. A neighbor woman was soon suspected of having put a curse upon the child, because whenever he was carried past the street with this woman lived, he would clutch his mother’s throat in terror. In desperation, the young wife finally took the baby to a so-called “Braucher” named Kildau who claimed that he could counteract magic spells. The man undressed the child and passed his hands over its body, while he murmured indistinguishable verse of some kind. He then told our cousin to return three times, and at the end of that period, the baby had begun to eat and sleep in a normal fashion.
Another type of story is of the Hex who would put a curse upon the livestock so that the cows would not give any milk, and the horses couldn’t work. A woman by the name of Glanz had a particularly bad reputation in this respect, and in retaliation, a group of men once tried to kill her by shooting through her window at night. To their great regret, all of the bullets missed her, and she managed to live for several more years.
However, the most fantastic story of all is of the Hex who was suspected of being able to change her shape. One night a farmer found an unfamiliar bundle of straw out in his barn, and taking his whip, he beat the bundle unmercifully. The next morning’s neighbors enter the home of the witch, and found her lying on her bed covered with black and blue welts.
A woman of this type should not be confused with a “Braucher” who would cure either an animal or sick person by reciting a charm—preferably out of the “Seventh Book of Moses.” One of Grandfather Miller’s neighbors was a man named Kaiser whose cow was once severely injured. The man went to an old woman who knew these magic charms and described the cow to her. She told him to go home and stop worrying about it. And sure enough, at the end of the week, the animal’s festered wound was entirely healed.
An example of the type of verse that was used for burns or cuts is the following rhyme:
Maria ging einmal über das Land
Da fand sie ein Baum der war Schwarz gebrannt
Sie left darauf ihre schnee weisse Hand
im Namen des Vaters, des Sohnes und des heiligen Geistes.
Here in America one can still find Russian born men and women who will usually begin their conversation with the phrase “I don’t believe it myself, but…,” and then in all seriousness they will relate stories similar to the ones mentioned above.
In addition to listening to such stories, the young people of Norka would often walk singing through the village at night. On such occasions they usually repeated the folksongs which either been brought along from Germany or had sprung up voluntarily along the Volga. After the Brotherhood Movement gained momentum, many of the more pious inhabitants of the village began to frown upon all types of music except religious hymns, and the phrase “Gasse Lieder” was uttered with a feeling of disapproval. As a result, most of my Miller relatives were unable to give me the names of any type of song except those that were sung in church.
However, a few of the former “Buwwe” still know the more common melodies of their boyhood days. According to them, two of the old German songs that were never forgotten in Norka with the lovely “In einem Kühlem Grunde, da geht ein Mühlengrand,” and the song that begins with the lines “O Strassburg, O Strassburg, Eine wunder eine scheene Statt.”
Another ancient song which is less familiar in Germany today tells the story of a flirtatious wife refused to come home when her husband lay dying, but who hurried back as soon as the wooers appeared. The words of the first verse are:
Madam, Madam, nach Hause sollst du kommen
Denn dein Mann und der und der ist krank.
Ist er krank so last ihm krank
Legt ihn auf die Ofenbank;
Ich komm’ night und ich komm’ nicht
Und ich komm’ nicht nach Haus!”
An example of a song expressing the sorrows of a soldier’s life begins “Morgen Rot, Morgen Rot. Leuchtet uns zum frühen Tot.” And another one which tells of Napoleon’s disastrous march to Moscow contains the words “Ist denn das auch wirklich wahr, wie man hat vernommen. Dass Kaiser der Napoleon ist nach Russland kommen.”
Along with the balance in hymns that were taken to Russia, our Norka ancestors also retained the dialect that was spoken in their section of Germany. An example of how this dialect differed from the German which one learns in college can be seen in the little rhyme making fun of the Norka people, “Wenn eich deich sieh, da lächerts meich.” (Whenever I see you, I have to laugh.) The sentence would ordinarily be written “Wenn ich dich sehe, da muss ich lachen.” This use of the pronouns “eich,” “deich,” and “meich” instead of “ich,” “dich” and “mich” is one of the most distinctive features of the dialect spoken in Norka.
A few other rules that seem to have been followed are the substitution of the letter “o” for “u” in such German words as “Kuh,” “Schule,” “Du,” “Ruhe,” etc. In Norka these words were pronounced “Koh,” “Schol,” “Do,” “Rohe.” A second change is from “a” to “o” as when “hast” becomes “host” and “lasst” becomes “losst”. And a the third form is from “e” to “ie” as in “gieh” instead of the correct “geh.”
As the years went on, the Volga Germans continued to use many expressions that gradually disappeared in Germany proper. For example, the 18th-century pronoun “Ihr” continued to be used as a substitute for the modern German pronoun “Sie”; the word “Fruend” meant both “friend” and “relative”; a handkerchief was often called a “Schnupftuch”; and the word “grell” meant “quickly.” Even here in the United States, Volga German families called an aunt “Wes” and an uncle “Vetter” instead of using the current words “Tante” and “Onkel.”
These examples of arrested linguistic development have their counterpart in the social, educational and economic conditions. There were, of course, outstanding exceptions. Heinrich Ley of Dönhorf became the personal physician of a czar and died in 1882 as a member of the “Staatsrat” in St. Petersburg. Jacob Schreiner of Norka became an outstanding entomologist. Edward Huber, born in Messer 1814, translated Goethe’s Faust, and when the sensor confiscated the copies, Pushkin himself protested against the act. In later years we hear of Nikalaus Rothermel, a member of the Imperial duma, and of August Lonsinger, the novelist.
However, it must be confessed that the work of such men made little impression upon the lives of the average Volga German farmer. His own activities and interests were connected almost entirely with the simple social and agricultural life of his community. In the meantime, his very existence had been forgotten in Germany, and he himself was usually unable to tell from what village or city his ancestors had originally come. On the other hand, he had never intermarried with his Russian neighbors; he could rarely speak the Russian language; and he always thought of himself as belonging to a distinctly separate race of people. And it was in this kind of an isolated, self-centered environment—basically German but with Russian overtones—that our grandparents lived before the migration to America began.