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Germans gather in Hays

10/27/2013

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

Two hundred and fifty years after 27,000 Germans immigrated to Russia for a better life, many of their descendants gathered in Whiskey Creek this weekend to celebrate their Volga-German heritage.

The Hays Sunflower Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia hosted the 27th annual Kansas Round-Up of Chapters on Friday and Saturday.

Ninety people attended the event, said Kevin Rupp, president of the Sunflower Chapter. The annual gathering within the state is for those who cannot attend the international AHSGR convention, he said.

Rupp said the number of Kansas chapters has fallen from six to three through the years, and aging has reduced membership. The AHSGR wants to recruit younger members to keep the area's colorful history alive, he said.

"It's a way of learning what our grandparents did," Rupp said. "My great-grandparents came over from Russia in 1876, and my grandmother on my dad's side came over in 1909. It's a way to rekindle their traditions, their history, their language, their cooking and to share it, hopefully, with the younger generation so this does not die out."

The conference included several educational presentations, Rupp said. This year's round-up was significant because it was the 250th anniversary of Russian Empress Catherine the Great inviting Germans to live in Russia, he said.

Cheryl Glassman, co-founder of Hays Community Theatre, dressed as Catherine to recite the manifesto that invited Germans to immigrate to Russia. The 18th-century ruler wanted them to settle the barren areas of her country, Glassman said.

Glassman said she was approached by the group to perform, and she researched extensively to learn more about Catherine and her reign.

The opportunity to speak to the attendees suited her passion for learning about history, Glassman said.

"This is great because the people sitting in this room descended from the Volga-German area of Russia where Catherine actually allowed them to come in and settle," Glassman said.

Rupp said many of the Russian Germans left for America and settled in Kansas after Catherine's successor revoked their rights.

There was a demonstration of the schottische and other ethnic dances popular in Ellis County. The various dialects in the area also were explored.

Volga-German church architecture, life in Soviet-forced labor camps and a Volga-German family's experience in Argentina were other programs. Attendees also sang traditional Volga-German songs.

Pete Felten, the artist who built many of the sculptures in the area, gave the group a tour Friday of his statues in the area and his studio. Two Felten sculptures of an immigrant family sit outside the AHSGR headquarters in Lincoln, Neb., and St. Fidelis Catholic Church in Victoria.

There is an idea to keep the round-up in Hays next year and host it the same weekend as Oktoberfest, Rupp said.

More information about the group can be found at www.sunflowerchapterofahsgr.net.