Volga German immigrants first arrived in the Jefferson Park area of northwest Chicago in 1894. They came from Stahl am Karaman. Beginning in 1903, other groups followed from Schwed, Enders, and Rosenheim. The settlement of Volga Germans in the Jefferson Park neighborhood overlapped into the neighborhood to the east called Mayfair.
The central business district of Jefferson Park along Lawrence and Milwaukee Avenues was the hub of the Volga German community for years. Over time, descendants of the original immigrants moved to the outlying suburbs of Maywood and Melrose Park.
According to Sallet, there were about 450 Volga German families living in the area of Jefferson-Mayfair in 1930, most of whom were from the Wiesenseite.
VOLGA GERMAN CONGREGATIONS
Our Lady of Victory (Roman Catholic)
St. John Lutheran ("Block's Church")
St. John Lutheran (II)
Home Away from Home:
The Volga Germans of Jefferson Park
JEFFERSON PARK HISTORICAL SOCIETY NEWSLETTER
JANUARY 2009 - NUMBER IX
Chicago has long been a magnet for peoples from all over the world coming here to have their chance at making a better life for themselves and their families. While Jefferson Park is indeed the "Gateway to Chicago", it has not been one of the traditional areas where people first settled after their arrival from their native land until more recent times. These "neighborhoods of initial settlement", closer to the city center and the plentiful jobs in their industrial environs, gave rise to the famous ethnic enclaves like Greektown, Little Italy, Polish Downtown and Maxwell Street that are so deeply embedded in the social and historical fabric of the city. There is however, a notable exception to this general state of affairs which makes Jefferson Park unique in the Chicagoland area: The Volga Germans.
Fear not reader, this is not a typo. There are indeed Germans in Russia, even today, and there once were many more. Spread out in a number of clusters throughout the Russian Empire from Volhynia to the Black Sea, there were estimated to be 1.8 million Germans in Russia according to the 1897 Russian census. They were first brought in by Catherine the Great to tame the vast expanses of underpopulated lands in Russia from 1762 onwards. Bringing with them sophisticated agricultural techniques and free of the feudal obligations of the local Russian who still served their lords as serfs, these German living in the Russian Empire prospered.
One of these clusters of German settlement was along the Volga River, which from the time settlement began in 1764 eventually flourished into over 100 colonies between Saratov and Kamyshin. These people came to be known as the "Volga Germans" (Nyemtsy Povolzhe), most of whose origins were in southwestern Germany.
This rustic idyll was not to last. The privileges used to lure in German settlers into the less than welcoming Russian environment such as self-government, exemption from the military, as well as the right to cultivate their language and culture were curtailed and rescinded under the reigns of Czars Alexander II and III towards the end of the 19th century. Moreover, policies encouraging “Russification” which were aimed at depriving all the peoples of the Empire of their native culture by insisting that they only speak Russian and pressuring them to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith began to be enacted. All of this was going on in the background while the Russian state was heading towards harder times that would eventually lead to its collapse.
In the face of such pressures, it’s small wonder that folks would start to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Over 100,000 Germans from Russia immigrated to the United States alone at this time. Many of them headed for Chicago, which would become the largest urban Volga German establishment in America, with well over 1000 families finding a new home here. The beginnings were small enough, with the first colonists coming to Chicago directly from Enders, Russia in 1891, where they found employment at a farm near Dunning working for a German-American association. Here is where we go from the history of the Old World and enter the New World as most of Chicago’s Volga Germans did - in Jefferson Park.
According to research done by members of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, the first known Volga Germans in Jefferson Park came to the area in 1894. It would be another two decades however before the flood of Volga Germans hit the Jefferson Park area, typical of other groups emigrating to the Americas from Eastern Europe. Most of these "Jefferson Parkers" as they are often referred to, came from the area of Volga German settlement called "Weisenseite". The Chicago Genealogist in its Fall 1998 issue writes that
"Their previous home had been on the eastern steppes of Russia near the provincial cities of Saratov and Engels along the Volga and Bolshoi-Karaman Rivers… the majority of them came from the villages of Schwed, Krasnojar, Enders, Stahl, Reinwald, Rosenheim, Katherinenstadt, Paulskoye and Nieder-Monjou Russia. All of these villages were in close proximity to one another in Russia and the people were either friends, relatives, or acquaintances. They came to Jefferson Park through word-of-mouth, by letters sent home telling of jobs and because other Volga Germans, already in the neighborhood, spoke the same dialect of German."
Purportedly a colonist from Schwedt in Russia who came to Chicago in 1903 had made a big impression on his countrymen when he came back home a short 4 years later with a savings of 4,000 dollars! No surprise that within the next few years 150 families from Schwedt would leave the Russian steppe to trek to Chicago.
The Volga Germans established themselves in a number of spots in different areas of Chicagoland. Other locales settled by these Russian Germans included Humboldt Park, the area around Roosevelt and Pulaski Avenue, as well as the Chicago suburbs of Riverdale, Dolton, Calumet City, Lansing and Thornton. Offshoots off of the Jefferson Park settlement would also spring up in nearby Bellwood and Maywood from Jefferson Park where people left the bustle of the city for more suburban surroundings.
However, Jefferson Park stood out by virtue of its size among all the other enclaves of Volga Germans. By the time the 1930’s rolled around we find that 450 Volga German families, now lived in the vicinity of Jefferson Park and nearby Mayfair. The environs of Jefferson Park thus not surprisingly were a prominent center of the cultural life of Volga Germans from all over Chicagoland. The neighborhood’s importance was even reflected in the fact that post number 1 for "The United Order of Wolga (not a typo) Germans" was located nowhere else but in our very own Jefferson Park.
While most Volga Germans settling in Jefferson Park were Protestant Lutherans, a number of churches served the community: Our Lady of Victory for Roman Catholics, while others in the neighborhood would attend Eden’s Church, Calvary Methodist, two distinct Lutheran churches named St. John as well as the nearby Jefferson Park Congregational Church. Additionally many Volga Germans would attend meetings of the "Bruderschaft" a nondenominational religious brotherhood which held spirited prayer meetings three times a week where attendees would burst into song brimming "with beautiful harmonies" as one person recounted.
The combination of strictness and piety that members of the Bruderschaft practiced drew attention to them and resulted in their turning up in many recollections of Volga German life in Jefferson Park. Most poignant perhaps are David Aul’s recollections he shared with the Russian German newsletter of the Northern Illinois AHSGR:
"The women would wear black shawls, the men would have no ties. That was a sin. Theater or anything like that was a no-no. They would 'admonish' on that.
In 1932,33 they had a convention, the Bruderschaft over in Jeff. Groups coming in from Flint Michigan, Sheboygan and Racine Wisconsin, Riverdale Illinois. They had musicians called the "Michigan Blowers". They were a Brass Band. The kids were just crazy over that band. By hook or crook we wanted to sit on their lap. They knew there was no room in Calvary Church, it was going to be packed. The kids had to go home. They had a speaker. Escaped what was going on in Russia, he made a circuit around the cities over the United States. He was telling of the atrocities. Lots of crying. They knelt down on their hands and knees and prayed. And it was like a bunch of Bumble Bees. Everybody had an individual prayer. It was the most moving thing. I never forgot it. It left an impression. They were that pious."
Volga German rites and traditions were once common sights in Jefferson Park. During the Christmas holiday Belzenickel (St. Nicholas) and Christkindl (The Christ child) would visit Volga German homes bringing gifts for good children while plenty of halvah (a Turkish dessert popular in Eastern Europe) was sure to be on every table. Wakes and funerals, many of which passed through the recently gone John V. May funeral home, were replete with antique customs brought over from the Old World. Weddings, always an occasion for a festive gathering, would gather after the ceremony at Cadola’s Hall on the corner of Lavergne and Lawrence. Lydia De Graff Jesse recalled how
"The food was prepared by the mothers who were invited to the wedding and everybody brought their great big roaster along. The women would prepare the potatoes the night before - they just peeled potatoes till they came out of you know, whatever. And the next morning they go together and put all of this together with the meat. Somebody had a truck - they put all this food on the truck and took it over to Kinness’ Bakery, just down the street. And they baked all of the broda in the bakery ovens. When it was done they would bring it back to Cadola’s Hall and the wedding carried on."
One of the distinguishing traits of the "Jefferson Parkers" from other Volga Germans was the fact that the late date of their arrival from Russia had exposed them to a more intense "Russification" than those who’d arrived in the United States earlier. This meant was that they had faced intense pressure to assimilate and give up their native culture and become Russian, one of the reasons for their trek to the New World. Those arriving in Jefferson Park in the first two decades of the twentieth century had been taught Russian in school, and evading the dreaded twenty-year draft of those chosen to serve in the army of the Russian Empire was reason enough for many to leave.
This Russian aspect of their heritage often lead to difficulties for the Volga Germans living in the United States at a time when the country was gripped by the "Red Scare" that broke out with Lenin’s Communist revolution. Jerry Amen, president of the Northern Illinois Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia recounts the prejudice his family experienced because of their Russian-German background. When looking for work on the railroad during the Great Railroad Strike of 1922, his great grandfather George Amen like many other Germans from Russia would hide their heritage and regularly pass themselves off as Poles so that they wouldn't be denied jobs as subversive 'Bolsheviks'.
One of Jefferson Park’s most hallowed pieces of neighborhood lore owes its existence to transient Volga Germans who came here for some hard work to make a quick buck with plans to go back home and live like a king. The "Russian Hotel" near the intersection of Higgins and Milwaukee consisted of two tenement buildings with room for about 10-12 apartments where these newly arrived immigrants would live, while saving up money they were going to bring back with them to the old country. Located just opposite the park which lent its name to Jefferson Park at 5440 W. Higgins, these two structures are still fondly remembered spinning yarns about old times in these parts of the Northwest Side. The "Russian Hotel", like many other buildings chosen by folks looking to save as much money as they could to bring back with them was known as a place with less than four star accommodations. In fact the older building located in the front of the lot had no running water at all!
The legacy of Jefferson Park’s Volga German heritage is still visible in the neighborhood’s landscape today, whether it’s at Eden’s church much of whose congregation is still made up of Russian Germans or in structures like the old Bruderschaft building opposite Beaubien school. For Chicago’s Volga German community, the importance of the memories of life in Jefferson Park are an important part in the tale of how they acclimated themselves in this new land and became American. Whereas Gottlieb’s famous store might now long be closed, one need only open up the pages of any Northern Illinois Russian German newsletter to reminisce about the one of a kind taste that you could only find at his Jeff Park store with "Gotchie’s Killer" sausage.
We would like to give our thanks to the Northern Illinois Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia, which lent their helping hand in crafting this article, particularly Keith Weigel, Jerry Amen and Maggie Hein. We’d also like to thank Mr. George Valko for the pictures and resources he has shared with our society. This piece would not have been possible without the meticulous research done by Mr. George Valko in his three-volume E-Book on the History of the Volga Germans that goes in-depth on the Volga German saga from the Russian Steppe to Jefferson Park and beyond.
Nadig, Brian. "History Groups Discuss Surge of Germans from Russia Here." Press Newspaper (10 June 2009)