Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflections from Minnesota rooted in Ukraine February 25, 2022

I pulled stories from a family history book for a family history trivia contest at a 2017 Helbling reunion. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2017)

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.

A stone building in southern Wisconsin, used for illustration only. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

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.

“Threshing on the home place, rural St. Anthony, North Dakota,” a painting by my father-in-law. Thomas Helbling. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

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.

Artwork created by Gracie for a 2018 student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2018)

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


13 Responses to “Reflections from Minnesota rooted in Ukraine”

  1. Valerie Says:

    This is very interesting to learn about your family Audrey. Thanks for sharing…
    I was in the Ukraine three times, on three different mission trips. I know people there and am praying for them, and all others in harms way. And for peace…

    • Valerie, I just learned something new about you today, that you’ve done multiple mission trips to Ukraine. I was just listening to KTIS and the DJ mentioned that now, more than ever, Ukrainians are open to hearing the Gospel.

  2. Colleen Gengler Says:

    I can relate to Randy’s heritage and your interest in Ukraine. My great grandparents were German but lived in Bohemia. In about 1870 they emigrated to the area around Crimea in Ukraine following other relatives already there. When Putin took that earlier, we did not have to look it up on the map! The family only stayed about 15 years before coming to the U.S. My great grandfather did not want his sons serving in Russian army as he had to do. Although they did not stay for generations as Randy’s family did, I still have tried to learn what their time there was like. I feel so badly for the Ukrainian people. Once again they are caught in the middle.

  3. Norma Says:

    My father-in-law was born in Frank Russia, and came to the U.S. some time in the late 1800’s when he was a very young boy. Word of mouth says that he lost a brother on the ship. John Schmidt’s family came here for the same reasons that Randy’s ancestors did. I have some ancestry info somewhere in a box in a closet. The church I attend also supports a church somewhere in Ukraine.

  4. Audrey,
    Craig’s exhibit ended today and I want to thank you for all the support you give the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center and our community. Today someone brought us the article from the LeSueur paper. Thank you so much! It is an awesome article. I am a follower of your blog and find it so much fun.
    You are amazing,
    Maureen Gunderson
    President Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center

    • Maureen, thank you for your kind words. I am happy to support your arts and heritage center and the community of Montgomery. I applaud all of you for the excellent work you do in keeping your heritage strong, for the exceptional exhibits at your arts and heritage center, and for all other efforts to make Montgomery such an inviting/outstanding/wonderful/interesting community.

  5. Love this – genealogy, immigration, history, life stories, etc. I would like to delve more into my family history (what part of Germany, Norway, and Danish/ Jewish side from Amsterdam). We recently watched a movie and certain parts were tough to watch about the famine in Ukraine during Stalin’s reign – called Mr. Jones – true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. Thanks so much for sharing. Sending prayers for peace – our world really does not need one more thing. Take Care

  6. Wow, that is an interesting story about your families history. I agree such needless heartache. No logic in it at all

  7. […] My husband’s connection to Ukraine, where his ancestors resettled from Germany to then Russia (current-day Ukraine), deepens my sorrow. His forefathers once farmed the land around Odessa before journeying to America in 1893 and a new life in North Dakota. […]

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