RUPERT – Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great promised land and freedom from military conscription if Germans moved to the country and created a Russian bread basket.
Of German descent, Catherine knew what her people were capable of and, shortly after extending the invitation, Germans poured into the country around 1763. There they prospered and recreated their own German villages. Fast forward to 1871, and Catherine’s grandson, Alexander, again invited Germans to relocate to Russia, but this time there was a catch. The Germans had to be married and come with a trade. As the Germans prospered, native Russians, who worked for the Germans, seethed at the differences in wealth.
Rumblings of discontent among the poor native Russians pressured the government to order German Russians to sell part of their land. It also required that German Russians’ sons serve seven years in the Army. That didn’t set real well with the Germans, and especially for Johann Schorzman, who at the age of 22, left the village of Johannestal, Russia for the United States. He came with family members who ended up in Ohio and later in South Dakota where locals gladly accepted the wealthy Germans into the community.
Eventually the Dakotas filled up with Germans, and their children looked elsewhere to homestead. Among those was Johann’s son David Schorzman, who with his wife Christena Neuharth, headed to Minidoka County.
The couple’s grandson Gary Schorzman will detail his ancestors’ migration to the United States during a meeting called “A Chronological History of Germans from Russia: from Catherine the Great to Rupert, Idaho” during a seminar scheduled at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Rupert Trinity Lutheran Church on 8th Street.
“They didn’t have miserable lives, but they had hardships. Those families still kept their faith in God,” he said.
Schorzman has spent more than 20 years researching his family and compiling eight books detailing the lives of each of the German Russian Schorzman family members who came stateside. It’s a story that was kept fairly quiet among David and Christena’s descendents for fear that word would travel back to Russia compromising the safety of Russian Schorzman family members who lived under the constant threat of Stalin’s brutality.
While the American Schorzmans lived peacefully in the United States for decades, Stalin stole the Russian Schorzman’s land often sending them to work in Siberia. Other cousins died of hunger or were murdered by Stalin’s thugs after opposing the government.
While David and Christena lived in freedom, they did struggle. They arrived north of Rupert with $14,000 but, by 1920 David only had $1.50 left.
“David was flat broke. The jack rabbits ate him out, and what the jack rabbits didn’t eat, the drought got the last of,” Schorzman said.
To support themselves, the family worked in the fields thinning beats.
“My grandmother always said ‘no matter how hard it was; we always stuck together. My husband always said ‘the sun will shine on our doorstep again,’ and it always did,” Gary Schorzman said.
Six years after leaving Kimama, the family purchased 38 acres where Schorzman now lives.
“David raised Red Clover and got the highest prices. They got a windfall. Grandpa bought a Studebaker Commander Car, tore the old house down and built a new house. Grandma got new teeth, glasses and a dress,” he said.
Schorzman became interested in his family history at the age of 15 when he started interviewing family members. That interest was further spurred after he came across a 188-page family history book. At that point, he realized how little he and his family knew about Johann Schorzman. That started a 20-year quest involving two trips to Russia and endless hours of interviewing and videotaping relatives. He also gathered pictures of his family that came from distant cousins throughout the country.
After decades of research he compiled the eight books that are on display at various museums everywhere from the Dakotas to California to Minidoka County.
It all proved a labor of love for Schorzman who believes he was guided by a Heavenly hand in finding the information. Pictures of his grandparents adorn his living room.
“These people are with me all the time. It’s been a pretty big deal in my life. My mother had the philosophy that her ancestors were with her all the time. From the time I can remember anything, my mother said ‘there was one of your ancestors on your shoulder watching you,’” Schorzman said.
Thanks to all his research, Schorzman feels like he knows his ancestors quite well.
“They’ve all come to life for me. You get to know who they were. When you go through the records - now you know their names, who they’re married to, find their birth date, what time of day they were born. You find when they were baptized and find their godparents - you might as well be there,” he said, and added, “You find out who all their brothers and sisters are, find out how they died and the tragedy of it. You go over and over it again, until you pull out every piece of the puzzle. When you’ve got all those pieces together- which I did after 18 years with these books - I had to start adding pictures to the text. That’s when it all came together. That’s when I realized how monumental it was,” he said.
Schorzman says it’s vital to know your ancestry.
“I’ve always thought, ‘if you want to know where you’re going, you’d better know where you came from.’ I’ve always believed that,” he said.