YESTERDAY I PULLED A SPIRAL-BOUND family genealogy book from an upstairs closet. Compiled in 1993 by my sister-in-law Vivian, the book details the families of Alfred Helbling and Rosa Schaner Knoll Helbling. For someone like me who married into the Helbling family, it takes effort to understand the information therein, especially with second marriages (due to deaths) and stepchildren.
But I’m clear on one fact—the Helbling ancestors are considered “Germans from Russia.” As the family tree shows, the Helblings trace their roots back to Wingen, Alsace in the Rhine River Plain. Like many Germans, they left their homeland for Russia when Russian Czarina Catherine the Great (a former German princess) promised free farmland and more to immigrants. My husband Randy’s great great great great grandfather and his family were among the founding fathers of the Catholic colony of Speier in 1809. That’s in the southern area of current day Ukraine near the Black Sea port city of Odessa.
So now you understand why I pulled that family genealogy book from the closet. The unfolding invasion of Ukraine (including in Odessa) resonates with me in a way that is personal. This land, now under attack by the Russian military, was once home to the Helbling family. They arrived in this area with hopes and dreams.
As often happens in history, leadership and policies change. That prompted Randy’s great grandparents, Russian-born Valentine and Emina Helbling, to emigrate to the U.S. from Russia. They arrived in Mandan, North Dakota in May 1893. Accompanying them were their three sons, including 5-year-old Alfred, Randy’s grandpa.
I’m always amazed at the generational closeness of my husband to his family’s homeland. Mine is a generation farther removed (from Germany). In 1898, Valentine and Emina homesteaded a claim near St. Anthony south of Mandan. That young boy who traversed the ocean from Russia with his parents would also farm there as would Randy’s father, Tom. When Randy was seven, his family uprooted and moved to central Minnesota.
As I consider all of this family history, I wonder at the dreams and challenges. To leave your home country behind, understanding you would never return, takes fortitude. I can only imagine the fortitude Ukrainians must tap in to today as they face a Russian invasion.
Early in his marriage, Alfred Helbling faced an unspeakable loss—the tragic death of his first wife. Katherine, 27, apparently lost her balance, fell into a well and died while retrieving a container of milk stored inside.
Today people are dying in Ukraine, a country that suddenly doesn’t seem all that far away. An ocean and some 5,200 miles separate this land from Minnesota. But when I page through the spiral-bound genealogy of the Helbling family, I feel much closer. Closer in a way that causes me to feel emotional. Upset. Concerned. Worried about not only the future of Ukraine, but also of this world.
FYI: If you’re interested in learning more about “Germans from Russia,” click here to reach North Dakota State University’s “Germans from Russia Heritage Collection” website.
© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling