Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia the Volga colonists were forced to give up their seed wheat. Then in the fall of 1920 and 1921, total crop failures occurred along the Volga, and one of the greatest famines in years set in. Approximately 170,000 men, women, and children died of starvation in the Volga German colonies alone.
Family and friends in the United States received letters from Russia describing the terrible conditions. As a result of these letters, relief societies were organized in many different states in which the Volga Germans had settled.
According to Emma Schwabenland Haynes in her college thesis written in 1929, the Volga Relief Society was organized in Portland, Oregon, on 11 August 1921 in the Zion Congregational Church. The group's purpose was to raise funds for relatives along the Volga River who at that time were suffering from one of the most disastrous famines in European history. At this meeting John Miller was chosen president and George Repp was to be its personal representative in Russia, working under the supervision of the American Relief Administration (ARA).
At the same time that this organization came into existence, similar gatherings were held by Volga Germans living in Fresno, California and in Lincoln, Nebraska. Before long money was contributed by communities in Colorado, Washington, Montana, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, and many other states in which the German-Russian people had settled. As a result of their efforts, more than one-million dollars was raised for their unfortunate compatriots in Russia.
Historians have described the relief work accomplished along the Volga River during the years 1921-1923 as the most outstanding act of charity ever performed by the Volga Germans now living in the United States.
The following excerpt is from A History of the Volga Relief Society by Emma Schwabenland Haynes:
Before meeting with the Volga Germans living in Portland, Oregon, Mr. Miller considered it advisable to get in touch with Herbert Hoover's organization and find out if it was possible to work through the American Relief Administration. As a result, the following night letter was sent on 8 August 1921:
European Relief Committee, 42 Broadway, New York City.
There are approximately fifteen hundred people in Portland that came from German colonies located in Russia near city of Saratov along Volga River. These people are anxious to help get food into that stricken district of Russia. They have received letters from relatives appealing for help. Will you be good enough to wire us how to proceed. That is, can we send money to you and designate that it is to be spent for food for a certain colony. Also have you any idea when relief work and food distribution will begin in Russia. There will be a mass meeting Thursday evening among our people and a regular relief committee organized for German speaking colonies in Russia. We would like very much have your reply by then giving us all information you can that may help in the organization. Have hopes extending work of this committee to other places where our people are located in California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. We figure that there are in the United States approximately hundred thousand people interested in these German speaking colonies along the Volga River and that good work can be done with proper help from reliable source like yourselves. Would it be possible for us to send an American citizen of our people into these colonies in Russia through your committee? That is, be indorsed by you or even sent by you as one of your workers so that he would have proper protection.
JOHN W. MILLER
Two days later, on 11 August 1921 about one hundred men who were interested in the project gathered in the Zion Congregational Church of Portland, and voted to organize a relief society. The officers elected were: John W. Miller, president; David Hilderman, vice-president; George Repp, secretary; and John H. Krieger, treasurer, although Mr. Krieger resigned in the next meeting and was replaced by Gottfried Geist. George Repp made the motion that the organization should be called the Volga Relief Society. It was also decided that all gatherings should open and close with prayer and that a second mass meeting was to take place on the following Thursday night.
The enthusiastic response of the Portland people to the news that an organization had been perfected was far greater than anyone could have believed possible. Throughout the following days the newly elected leaders were constantly being stopped by Volga German men and women who expressed their happiness in the creation of the society. In view of the seriousness of the crisis that existed in Russia, all religious and personal differences were forgotten, and people of all denominations and from all colonies showed a spirit of harmony and co-operation that was to remain truly remarkable. The future success of the Volga Relief Society can be explained to a great extent by the splendid loyalty of its members, which became an example for Volga Germans in many other communities of the States.
Mention should also be made of the wonderful help given by the pastors of the various churches. Rev. H. Hagelganz, Rev. George Zoeher, and Rev. John H. Hopp, who had Congregational denominations, Rev. Peter Yost of the Brethren Church, and Rev. Jacob Hergert, an Evangelical pastor, all attended the union meetings, and their unfailing encouragement, advice, and support were of inestimable value to the society. The hymn "Was kann es schbnres geben, und was kann seliger sein", which was always sung at the beginning of all meetings, truly expressed the spirit of the Portland people.
Emma Schwabenland Haynes, A History of the Volga Relief Society (Lincoln, NE: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 1982).
Bertrand M. Petenaude, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921. Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institution Press of Stanford University, 2002.