They Came from Norka

"Happy the man who fondly thinks of his forebears, 
Who likes to tell the willing listener the tale 
Of their achievements and greatness, and is glad
To see himself a link in the beautiful chain."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1837)

What is it about looking at old family photos? Sometimes what you see is someone young who you only knew as old. Sometimes you recognize that the strong jaw, the doleful eyes, the distinctive nose on ancestors you never met are the same as what you see in the mirror or in the faces of your children. They have been gone a long time and yet some of their DNA courses through your veins. 
Henry Miller, Joel Miller, newlyweds A.R. and Esther Miller Epp, Lydia Miller, Dora Traudt Miller Photo from 1929
I have been wondering about the people in this photograph. The young couple standing in the middle are my grandparents. A.R. and Esther Miller Epp. This photograph was likely taken the day after their wedding in September 1929. They are surrounded by my grandmother's family. On the left is my great-grandfather, Henry P. Miller (born 11/06/1881) and on the far right is my great-grandmother, Dora Traudt Miller (born 01/05/1881). The other family members are Joel (born 10/29/14) and Lydia (born 09/15/10). 

The photo was taken in Nebraska, probably Auroa.  The family had a 150-acre farm near Stockham in the area. But neither Henry or Dora Miller were born in Nebraska. They were both born in the village of Norka, Russia. 

According to the Norka website,  "Norka Russia was founded on August 15, 1767 by colonists who predominantly originated from the area now comprised of the current State and cultural region of Hessen, Germany. These colonists were drawn to Russia by the Manifesto of Catherine II who wished to develop lands on the southeastern frontier of the Russian empire. The colony of Norka was located on the unsettled Steppe, not far from the west bank of the Volga River, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of the frontier town of Saratov. Norka grew from a fledgling settlement to become one of the largest and most prosperous German colonies in the Volga region."  There were other colonies settled in this broad area at the invitation of Catherine II, some of them by German-speaking Mennonites. Norka was not Mennonite. Most in Norka were of the Reformed faith. There was also some Brethren influence. Though located within Russian borders, Norka colonists retained their German language and culture. They were often called "Volga Germans". 

Henry was ten or eleven when his family immigrated to Nebraska in 1892. Why? Emigration from Norka to the United States had begun in the mid-1870s with the revoking of many of the privileges granted to the colony by the Manifesto of Catherine II and some of those first emigrants ended up in Nebraska. A famine in 1891-1892 may have been the motivation for the Miller family to come to America when they did. His family at that time included parents (Henry H. Miller and wife), a sister and two brothers. Additional children must have been born after their arrival. Siblings listed in his obituary include Mrs. John Miller (Maggie), John, Peter, William, and Jacob Miller. 

We also learn about his faith in his obituary. "Already in his younger years he felt the need of redemption from his sins. He went to the prayer meetings of the Brethern. Here he was shown the way and in remorse and repentance he turned to God and found forgiveness of his sins in the blood of the Lamb. In year 1903, on June 14 he with others was baptized on the confession of his faith and received into the membership of the Mennonite Brethren congregation at Eldorado, Nebraska, whose true member he remained to the end." 

Dora Traudt was just six months old when her father died and twelve when her mother died. Her brother Peter became her caretaker. 
With her brother and his family she immigrated in 1904 at age 23 from Norka to York, Nebraska. Within seven months she was married (10/23/04) to Henry Miller and the next year a dark-haired baby girl, Esther, was born on September 29, 1905. A son, Abraham was born August 1, 1908 and lived just six months. Little Esther had dearly loved her baby brother sneaking him out of his high chair to play with him and searching in vain for him in the spare bedroom behind the pillows after he was gone. 

Grandma was a Norka beauty.
It is easy to imagine that her mother, Dora,
looked very similar when she emigrated to America.
Photo of Esther and A.R. Epp with Harold taken in 1931.
We learn of Dora's faith from her obituary. "In the year of 1911 Rev. Frank Wiens was conducting evangelistic meetings and she found peace in the blood of Christ. On August 25, 1912, she was baptized and received into the Mennonite Brethren Church at Eldorado where she remained a faithful member." Esther remembered this baptism as the first she witnessed. 

Three years after their marriage the couple had purchased a farm five miles west of Stockham and two miles from their Miller parents. Initially there was no house but they lived with other family members for a time and eventually built a four-room house. They spoke Norka German in their home and High German at church. Church was five miles away and travel there was usually in a top buggy with a team of mules. A young Esther would stand between her parents during the trip to keep warm (sometimes she fell asleep standing there). The home was also two miles from school. Esther didn't start school until she was eight and had to learn English. 

Joel Miller with his wife, Effie and son Darrel
probably taken in the early 1940s.
The family moved to California sometime
between the deaths of Dora and Henry.
This marriage ended in divorce. 
Two more children joined the family. Lydia was born in 1910 and Joel was born in 1914. Soon Dora's health declined. In early 1916 they rented their farm and moved to Harvard. Ten-year-old Esther did the housework (with some help from her father) and cared for her young brother. 

Thinking warmer weather might help his wife, Henry purchased 80 unimproved acres near Lake Charles, Louisiana from an agent who visited Harvard. The family traveled to Louisiana by train in early 1917. Nearby were some experimental farms where they stayed initially. Someone (a rich man) asked Henry if he knew someone from the north who could work on his experimental farm to try to grow different crops generally grown farther north. Henry asked, "How will I do?" The man looked at his hands and said, "I think you will do." That winter was one of the coldest for that area and some people saw snow for the first time. Esther and Lydia attended the local school even showing up on a day that was too cold for the rest of the pupils. The church they attended was in English which was hard for Dora who wasn't used to speaking it. The damp weather did not help Dora who was not getting any better. Henry didn't like the way of farming and was homesick for his farm in Nebraska. When war was declared in the spring of 1918, they decided to move back to Nebraska. Their land sold on the last day they were there. They had purchased a car while in Louisiana so it was loaded onto the train with the family for their trip to Nebraska. 

In 1971 Esther, left, visited her brother Joel
in California. They had not seen each
other for 30 years
likely since their father's funeral

And so they returned to their little home near Stockham. Henry and Dora would remain here for the rest of their lives. They decided to remodel and expand their house. A basement was dug, a bathroom and two more rooms were added along with a radiator furnace and carbide lights. They returned to their beloved church in Eldorado where Henry would be installed as a deacon in 1930. 
Esther returned to the school and now Lydia joined her as well and eventually Joel would come too. When Esther completed Eighth Grade she came home to work. Dora's health was still not good and Henry needed the help. There were cows to milk, wheat to shock, stack and load and corn to husk. 

In 1923 a men's glee club from Tabor College presented a program at their church. Several participants were invited to the Miller home for supper before the program. "I am A.R. Epp from Buhler, Kansas" said a handsome young man as he shook Esther's hand. She married him in 1929. A.R. was a teacher and though his school was in Oklahoma they returned to Nebraska for the summer months. And so it was that both of their children were born at the Aurora hospital, Harold on August 4, 1930 and Mary Ann on August 2, 1932. Then A.R. accepted a position at the Eldorado School and so they were close for awhile. 

Lydia, 31, married Eli Cook August 16, 1942 after both of her parents
had passed away. Mary Ann Epp Kliewer is the girl in the middle. 
The Depression with its accompanying drought and dust storms reached Nebraska. Henry couldn't raise much feed and the cows had to feed on Russian thistles. Prices of grain dropped to 25 cents a bushel. Milk cows sold for $20 a head; pigs were killed and buried. The Aurora Bank closed. 

Mary Ann,2, and Harold,4, celebrating their birthdays in Nebraska.
In 1934 A.R. accepted a position of principal at Zoar Academy in Inman, Kansas. A.R. wrote about this time: "Harold and Mary Ann were very fondly loved by Grandpa and Grandma Miller and Aunt Lydia and Uncle Joel, so we spent much time in sweetest friendship at the their home. They reluctantly, but kindly agreed to our decision. Grandma, in tender love, pleaded that we tarry to celebrate our children's August birthdays with them. We consented, but did not realize it was the last time dear Grandma would serve ice cream and cake to her family and pray that none should be missing in heaven. We were in Kansas only a week when we received the call from Papa in Nebraska stating that Mamma was seriously ill. "Come at once!" he said. While getting ready, the second call came, "She has died, come for the funeral." Taking my father and sister Lizzie along, we went. Papa Miller approached us saying, "Es schmerzed aber so." ("It hurts so.") Mama had suffered excruciating pain from gallstones and passed away during surgery."  In her obituary Henry states, "She was to me a faithful Christian life's helpmate and to the children a most loving mother." 

Henry married Mary Buller 10/27/35

Dora had passed away at the age of 53. A year later Henry remarried. Mary Buller of Hillsboro, Kansas became his wife. They did not have a long marriage. On the evening of July 1, 1941 during harvest Henry was injured in a tractor accident. He died on July 4. His obituary notes, "While in the most excruciating pain he spoke of notifying the children. He remarked, 'Today I'm going home yet', 'Now I am almost through' and 'How is it here so beautiful.'  Through his departure the children have lost their most beloved father and grandfather, and the church one of their faithful members, and the community has lost a respected neighbor." He was 59 years old. 
  

What if they hadn't come?

Meanwhile back in Norka all was not well.  Famines in 1921-1924 and 1932-1933 (created by Soviet policies) resulted in destitution and loss of life. Under communist rule farms and property were confiscated and farmers were forced to work on collective farms. Churches were closed and pastors exiled.  During the World Wars the German language and culture of Norka was offensive to the Russians. After Hitler's betrayal of a pact and invasion of Russia, opinion of the Volga Germans plummeted. They were accused of spying and sabotage (unlikely in the remote village) and in 1941 around 460,000 ethnic Germans from the Volga region and other parts of Russia (including some serving in the military) were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan. In Norka villagers were given as little as four hours notice to pack one suitcase. Homes with furniture were abandoned. Livestock were left in their pens. At the train station 50-60 people were loaded into each freight or cattle car for a grueling journey (which for some lasted months) to a hostile land ill-prepared to receive them. They were never allowed to return.


Henry and Dora Miller may have had extended family members and friends who endured this this travesty. But their children and grandchildren did not.







Sources:
Norka website by Steve Schreiber This is an amazing website full of great information about Norka. Definitely worth taking the time to explore. 
My Life Story by A.R. Epp
Dora Traudt Miller obituary
Henry P. Miller obituary (2 - one translated from German by Katharina Epp) 
My Life Story by Esther Miller Epp (unfinished and unpublished)














 


 

 

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