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Published April 13, 2012, 12:00 AM

Researchers visit Argentina for film

Documentary to focus on Germans from Russia in South America
FARGO – Michael Miller has researched Germans from Russia for more than four decades. But in the southern hemisphere, he still found some things about the people that impressed him.

FARGO – Michael Miller has researched Germans from Russia for more than four decades. But in the southern hemisphere, he still found some things about the people that impressed him.

Miller, director and bibliographer of the North Dakota State University Libraries’ Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, spent February in Brazil and Argentina, scouting locations and lining up interviews for a documentary on Germans from Russia who settled in South America more than a century ago.

He was accompanied by Bob Dambach, director of television at Prairie Public Broadcasting.

They visited people with various German-Russian ancestries, including Black Sea, Bessarabian, Volhynian, Mennonite and Volga Germans.

More than 1 million of Argentina’s roughly 42 million people are Volga Germans.

“So, it’s quite a distinct population,” Miller said.

Like the Black Sea Germans who left the southern Ukraine and settled in the Dakotas, the Volga Germans left Russia in the 1870s and 1880s mainly to avoid being forced into the Russian Army, Miller said.

In visiting with Volga Germans in Argentina, he learned that some immigrants thought they were going to the United States but ended up in a different America. Others arrived at Ellis Island but because of their diseases or illnesses were given the choice to return to Russia or go to South America, Miller said.

Many who arrived in Brazil soon left the forested topography for more open farmland in Argentina. In the province of Entre Rios, more than a quarter of the residents are descendants of Volga Germans, Miller said.

“They found a prairie land very similar to what you would see in North Dakota,” he said.

Miller said he was impressed by the level of agricultural production in Argentina, citing the fertilizer and malting plants, two growing seasons and impressive soybean crops.

“These German Russians are quite successful, I would have to say, in their field of agriculture down there,” he said.

Miller and Dambach sampled Volga German foods such as fried-dough grebble, meat-filled runza and, of course, kuchen.

They also viewed beautiful churches and cemeteries filled with wrought-iron crosses, not unlike those found in the Great Plains, where Germans from Russia settled from Texas to Saskatchewan.

“The other thing that impressed me was that they have kept the German language longer than here,” said Miller, who grew up in Strasburg, in a family that spoke both English and German. “They must have kept it in the family longer.”

Miller said he and Dambach also were impressed with the hospitality and how interested people were in their project. There’s talk of translating the documentary to Spanish and Portuguese if people there can raise the funds, Miller said.

Dambach said the people and landscapes impressed him most.

“The people we met in Brazil and Argentina were tremendously friendly, helpful and sincerely interested in their Germans from Russia heritage,” he said in an NDSU news release. “The mingling of three or four languages seemed to be no hindrance to communication.”

Miller and Dambach tentatively plan to return to southern Brazil in April 2013 and Argentina in October 2013 for filming and interviews.

Slated for completion in 2014, the documentary will be the eighth in Prairie Public Broadcasting’s award-winning series on Germans from Russia. The seventh installment will air in July, Miller said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528