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History and Identity

Random Thoughts on My Ukrainian Heritage

by GARY LEUPP

My great-grandmother Theresa Dobler emigrated to the U.S. with her parents Christian and Dorothea from Ukraine in 1884 when she was 14. (In 1897 she married my great-grandfather Paul Leupp, whose parents were both immigrants from northern Switzerland.)

Her father had been born in Ukraine in 1838, her mother (in Odessa) in1844. So I suppose I am—by definition—in some small part a “Ukrainian-American” by ancestry.

(I thought about this family link when reading about the incident on May 2 in Odessa, in which 39 “pro-Russian separatists” were incinerated in the House of Trade Unions by neo-fascists or beaten to death as they sought escape. Western reports suggested that the whole thing was “murky” and that maybe the protesters had somehow set fire to the building with their own Molotov cocktails. That reporting was a new low, exceeding even the disinformation surrounding the invasion of Iraq. The key principle of self-censorship in the mainstream media involving Ukraine is: Don’t mention the neo-fascist role! Or if you mention “fascism,” depict it as Russian exaggeration and PROPAGANDA!)

Theresa and her parents were not “ethnic Ukrainians”—not that that’s an easily defined category. The gene-pool in that region being highly complex. The Doblers were Germans, from Württemberg, from the region around Stuttgart. They were among the tens of thousands of south German peasants who wound up in what we now call Ukraine as a result of the Russian-Ottoman wars of the early 1800s.

The Danube valley region (referred to at the time as “Bessarabia”) had been wrested from the Turks in 1814 and the tsar Nicholas I and his successors invited German and Polish peasants to cultivate the land.

I suspect that Theresa, Christian and Dorothea were actually of Swiss extraction (like the Leupps, whose origins in the northern Swiss canton of Schaffhausen I have traced to the early 1600s). A lot of Swiss people with surnames like Dobler and Handel migrated to the Palatinate in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century, including Anabaptists fleeing persecution. This would make the Doblers Swiss-German-Ukrainians.

Not to confuse you further, but Christian’s father Peter was born in 1803 in what is now Serbia (but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), also cultivating what had once been Ottoman land. My ancestors on that side were textbook examples of what Oscar Handlin called “the uprooted.” Peter was the one who made the move to Bessarabia.

Anyway, Theresa (whom I met just once, shortly before her death in 1963, when she was 97 and I was 7) had been born in what is now called Teplitsa in Ukraine. It was a German colony named after the city of Teplitz in what is now the Czech republic.

Why the name? Teplitz had been the site of the signing of an important mutual defense agreement between the Austria, Prussia and Russia at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The German settlers in Ukraine named their community after that town as an assertion of nationalist sentiment, even in exile. The name remains, even though the Germans are gone, or have been absorbed into the complex local gene pool.

Theresa’s passport and U.S. census documents make no mention of Ukraine. She and her parents were listed as coming from “Bessarabia, Russia” or sometimes from Odessa (which was perhaps the port of embarkation).  At that time Ukraine was a principality of the Russian Empire, as it had been since 1654.

I have always been aware of my own complex ethnicity: Norwegian, Swedish, Swiss, German-Ukrainian, Scots-Irish and English.

Oh come on, you say, that’s not so complex! You’re white, for god sakes! So why any need to go into details?

Why? Because these are all different peoples, and everyone deserves respect. One should give attention to historical details and avoid simplistic thinking. Recent events in Ukraine demonstrate how people looking strikingly similar can feel themselves quite different from one another and have real reasons to insist on a degree of autonomy.

My mother’s father was a Swedish immigrant whom (my mother once told me) thought he had “married down” by wedding a Norwegian. (You know about the historical relationship between Norwegians and Swedes!) Oh you don’t?

Never mind. It’s not important. My grandmother Ella and grandfather Sven spoke closely related, mutually comprehensible languages and shared a common Lutheranism. There is such a thing as “Scandinavian culture” and in those days, in Minnesota, it was natural for Nordic people to intermarry. But even among them, there were perceived distinctions—the Swedes representing the higher level of culture.

And of course (thinking about my father’s mother’s Norwegian-English-Scots Irish background), the Irish have a sense of self that distinguishes them from the English, and vice-versa. Ethnic identity is based upon a lot of things. In this country we tend to think in terms of skin color as the main ethnic marker. But in some places, religion and/or language are equally important shapers of identity and division.

I imagine that Theresa Dobler and her parents had a strong sense of German identity. They spoke German at home all their lives, in Teplitz, then Colorado, and the Dakotas. Theresa’s father Christian bonded with my great-great grandfather Andreas Leupp, a Swiss theologian, and as a skilled carpenter built him what remains Colorado’s oldest Lutheran church. Andreas preached in a series of Lutheran churches throughout the Midwest and Colorado during a long career.

(Christian by the way was gored by a bull in Boulder in 1923, killed at age 85. He was wearing a red jacket, chopping wood in his backyard. But I digress.)

You might ask: why would Andreas Leupp, a Basel-trained Swiss Reformed Calvinist minister find employment in the New World, in a Lutheran church? (After all, for people who notice such things, the Swiss Reformed Church and the Lutheran church have significantly different theologies.)

I figure it basically had to do with language. Germans and German-speaking Swiss were avid churchgoers; the church was the center of their social lives, where they met marriage partners. They wanted their liturgy in German; they wanted the gospel in Luther’s translation; they wanted fiery sermons auf Deutsch. 

The congregations were much less interested in whether one believed in transubstantiation or consubstantiation in the Eucharist than one’s ability to preach the gospel in their ancestral tongue.

I have reason to believe my great-great-grandfather Andreas never really mastered English. It was not necessarily required in his environment. And I know that my grandfather (his grandson, Arthur Andreas Leupp), who owned a hardware store in a tiny town in North Dakota, routinely spoke German with customers.

In my youth I never brought up this inconvenient fact when listening to relatives inveighing against bilingual (mainly English-Spanish) education. I should have said: Don’t you realize that some our own ancestors lived in a German-language bubble all their lives—because you could do that in North Dakota? And you realize, of course, that Benjamin Franklin famously wondered whether Germans could ever successfully assimilate into U.S. society, due to their foreign language and habits? Give immigrants a break…

On my mom’s side, as I mentioned, Swedish was always spoken at home. My grandmother was born on a farm in Minnesota but had a thick Scandinavian brogue all her life, and always pronounced my mother’s name (Ruth) as “Root.”

Back to my dad’s side—the Swiss, German-Ukrainian, Scots-Irish and English side (which also includes some Norwegian). The only traces of the Bessarabian (Ukrainian) heritage in the family I can recall would be the family traditions of eating borsht, beef stroganoff, and Fleishkuekle. (If you are unfamiliar with the latter, I notice Wikipedia describes it as a type of meat pie traditional among “Volga Germans from Russia” and part of the “cuisine of North Dakota”).

I personally have no sense of “Ukrainian” identity. But when debating recent events in that country and encountering someone who wants to insert identity into their argument (“My parents came from Lithuania!”) as though that has anything to do with the discussion, I’m not above saying (shamelessly, opportunistically): “Well, hey, I myself am of Ukrainian heritage!”

Which is—for the above-mentioned reasons— totally true, is it not? Not that it allows me any special right to speak or grants me any special insight. There are all kinds of people of “Ukrainian heritage,” including the significant Russian, Tatar, Jewish, Polish and Hungarian minorities (whom are being disparaged in some official Kiev propaganda as “subhumans”). The DNA of people living in what now constitutes Ukraine includes contributions from Celts, Goths, Khazars (a Turkic people), the Mongols of the Golden Horde and many others.

And the whole region east of the Dnieper, the region described in the western media as “controlled by pro-Russian separatists” was in fact only incorporated into Ukraine in the twentieth century. The Russian language has been prevalent there for centuries.

Anyone positing the existence of a “pure” Ukrainian “race” requiring defense against outside inferiors is obviously attacking science and history. Mein Kampf is not a good model for ethnological thinking. Stephan Bandera is not a hero. Anyone demanding that there be just one official language in Ukraine is attacking millions of people at a fundamental level of identity, telling them they don’t belong.

The Doblers left Ukraine in 1884 because the tsar had reneged on the original promise to German settlers that they would be exempt from military conscription. They came to the U.S. seeking “freedom.”

Now the U.S. is firmly allied to a regime in Ukraine that includes in the most crucial positions people who oppose the mixing of “races” and even advocate—with shocking openness, met with shocking mainstream media indifference—the elimination of communities they call “vermin” and “filth.”

A regime whose first legislative action last February was to repeal the law protecting minority linguistic rights.

I think Ukraine-born Theresa and her Ukraine-born parents Christian and Dorothea would be sickened about the putsch in Kiev in February and the assault it represents on ethnic minorities in Ukraine (a country that did not exist until the Bolshevik Revolution).

And perhaps sickened by the response of the first (half) African-American president, who shows no understanding of the history or issues but lets his State Department’s reckless eagerness to expand NATO—in order to transform the Black Sea into a NATO lake—blind him to everything else.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu