Copyright © 2001. 2013
® Canada Copyright Registration  No. 490341
to William J. Milner, March 8, 2001.


Why Did They Leave?

Compiled by Jack Milner

  • Some military reason:  war;  displacement because of war;  draft ?
  • Climate or possible physical danger ?
  • Political oppression ?
  • Religious persecution or oppression ?
  • A friend or relative emigrated and encouraged them to follow ?
  • A promise of improved economic situations ?

The stories of migration to the east are tales of wars, famine, hardship and survival. When our ancestors initially migrated to Russia, they entered a realm where they would be swept up in powerful historical and social forces over which they had no control. Polish/Russian/Volhynian history can only be described as unsettled and these conditions certainly encouraged our German-Russian ancestors to emigrate from Volhynia and elsewhere in Russia.

  • About 98 per cent of the old Volhynia gubernia is in present-day Ukraine.

  • In the 19th century, Poland and Ukraine came under the Russian Empire, and were not independent countries as they are today.

  • Between the First World War and WW I I, Western Volhynia came under Poland, Eastern Volhynia came under the Soviet Union.

Volhynia and the Partitioning of Poland

Volhynia had been a feudal province with a Polish aristocracy and Ukrainian serfs, ruled by Poland until the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned by the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian empires.  Prussia, Russia, and Austria had already annexed parts of Poland in 1772 and 1793. During the third partition in 1795, Poland's last remaining territory was occupied by the three partitioning powers, which resulted in the disappearance of Poland from the European map.

In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, Russia formally incorporated the greater part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and allowed some semi-autonomy with little interference. There were several uprisings and rebellions over the next 50 years, but it was the one in 1863 that finally caused Russia to clamp down on the Poles. Beginning in 1867, they enforced the use of the Russian language as that of education and government.

After the partitions of Poland, Volhynia was a gubernia, or province, of the Russian Empire until 1921, when the western part of Volhynia once again became part of Poland. In 1945 the entire area of the Volhynia Gubernia was absorbed into the Soviet Union, but the gubernia system was no longer used and the Volhynia name was used to identify a smaller region, called an oblast, in the western part of the old gubernia. Most of what was the Volhynia Gubernia is now in Ukraine, with a small part of northern Volhynia in Belarus. Major cities and towns in and around Volhynia include Zhitomir (the former capital), Rovno, Lutsk, Kovel, Berdichev, and Novograd-Volinsk.

German Migration to Volhynia

Catherine the Great died in 1796 after the third partition of Poland. Though there were a few Germans scattered about in Volhynia at that time, there was no organized migration until c.1816. In the early 1830s, another migration took place as a result of a Polish rebellion in Russian Poland when large numbers of German cloth makers arrived.

By 1860, there were only about 5,000 Germans in 35 small villages. Then, with the abolition of serfdom by Tsar Alexander I I in 1861 and the failed Polish Insurrection of 1863, Germans began to flood into this area because more land became available to them. It was the shortage of land in their old homes that drove most of the Germans into this region. Since the landlords in Volhynia no longer had serfs bound to the land, they were looking for qualified farmers to develop and farm their properties. By selling and leasing land to the German farmers, they profited and many new German villages were developed. The only priveliges extended to these new colonists were those which could be provided by the local nobility.

The story of Catherine the Great and her invitation applies only to what are known as Volga River Germans who settled much further to the east in Russia. The migration into Volhynia occurred about sixty five to seventy years after Catherine's death and these Germans migrated there, without extended privileges, primarily due to the availability of land for farming.

By 1871, there were over 28,000 Germans living in Volhynia and by the turn of the century, over 200,000. Most of them had come from Poland with a minority from Wuerttemberg, Pomerania, East Prussia, Silesia, and Galicia. Neither Catherine nor her successors had created any special rules, invitations, or other incentives for Germans moving to Volhynia.


Dates in Russian History

  • 1874 Introduction of universal military service.
  • 1874 Colonists subject to army service.
  • 1893 German colonies receive Russian names.

After the privileges which the original settlers enjoyed were revoked, and the German colonies were placed under Russian administration, the German names of the villages were also translated into Russian. Thus, every village now had two names; an official Russian one, and the old German one, which the people continued to use.

In the 1890's and the first decade of the 1900's, Russia was a country seething with discontent and impatience for meaningful land reforms. During this period the Russian government had continually changed land laws, especially in the Gubernia of Volhynia. These laws, in various ways, attempted to limit the purchase of property by German-Russians. The anarchistic Bolshevik movement was gaining momentum and creating further unrest. A corrupt bureaucracy also led to serious agrarian revolts, food protests and political assassinations. Through the years 1911-1914, a new wave of worker unrest ended with the outbreak of the First World War.

Many German colonists of military age served in the Russian Army on the Turkish Front during WW I.

We know that Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914 and the Russians became more openly hostile to the German colonists within Russia. The first government confiscations of German owned land in Volhynia started on February 2, 1915. Of 200,000 Volhynian Germans, 100,000 lost their land.

1915 saw disaster strike the Russian army, which from June to September was forced to retreat up to three hundred miles back into Russia, abandoning Russian occupied Poland. Ethnic Germans living in these border areas were Russian Citizens, but for years had been subjected to political, bureaucratic and military thinking against them. In June 1915 all the German families were ordered out of the area and deported, mostly to Siberia, presumably because they were considered as enemy aliens in a war zone and perceived to be a threat to the future security of Russia. They were not allowed to return to their homes until after the Czarist government collapsed in 1917.

When the Czarist government collapsed, the Bolsheviks became the strongest political force in Russia, but felt they could not gain control of the whole country at the same time that Russia was battling with Germany. Germany was ceded large tracts of Russian land, including the Ukraine, under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918.

The Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

On the 3rd December 1917 a conference between a Russian delegation, headed by Leon Trotsky and German and Austrian representatives began at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky had the difficult task of trying to end Russian participation in the First World War without having to grant territory to the Central Powers. By employing delaying tactics Trotsky hoped that socialist revolutions would spread from Russia to Germany and Austria-Hungary before he had to sign the treaty.

After nine weeks of discussions without agreement, the German Army was ordered to resume its advance into Russia. On 3rd March 1918, with German troops moving towards Petrograd, Lenin ordered Trotsky to accept the German terms. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty resulted in the Russians surrendering the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic provinces, the Caucasus and Poland. Occupation by German troops was short lived however, and in November 1918, the armistice Treaty of Versailles forced German troop withdrawal.

Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920.

The frontiers between Poland and Soviet Russia had not been clearly defined after WW I and the Poles held control of most of the disputed territories in 1919. The war had been precipitated largely by the demand of Poland that its eastern border of 1772 be restored. Following a Polish attempt to take advantage of Russia's weakness with a major incursion into Ukraine in early 1920, border skirmishes then escalated into open hostilities between Poland and Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks mounted an April counter-offensive which was very successful. By mid-August, the Polish forces had retreated westward to the Polish capital of Warsaw. The Polish forces then achieved an unexpected and decisive victory during the Battle of Warsaw and began their advance eastward. The war ended with ceasefire in October 1920 and a formal peace treaty between Poland and Russia, the Peace Treaty of Riga, was signed on March 18, 1921. The treaty terms, which fixed the Russo-Polish border, did not satisfy the claims of the victorious Poles, but they awarded to Poland large parts of Belorussia and of Ukraine. The Peace Treaty of Riga lasted until WW I I  began in 1939.

It was just one of a series of conflagrations raging almost simultaneously. Since the borders in the area were tenuous, and in some cases non-existent, several countries came into territorial conflict. There were six concurrent wars on the borders of Poland from 1918 to 1922, between Poland and: Ukraine; Germany (over Poznan); Germany (over Silesia); Lithuania; Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Add to this the end of the First World War, the Russian Civil War, Allied Intervention in that war, and the Paris Peace Conference. With these events to consider, the reader can see just how confusing and unstable the European political situation was.

Between the wars Western Volhynia came under Poland and Eastern Volhynia came under the Soviet Union.

1932 Map - German Ethnic Minorities in Eastern Europe - Wikipedia

More Polish–Soviet War Details - Wikipedia

Western and Eastern Volhynia Maps

The Aftermath of War and Revolution in Russia



It was during the summer of 1917 that law and order collapsed. Out of every nook and cranny, crept the criminals, the fanatics, the degenerates and the mystics. Anyone who showed signs of leadership could attract numerous followers to his banner as long as there was opportunity to loot, rape, kill and avenge real or imagined insults. Most of the estates of landowners in Russia were pillaged and eventually destroyed.



By the early 1920's, groups of bandits and various armies had commandeered or stolen most of the livestock. Buildings and businesses had been destroyed and land confiscated. In late 1920, peasant soviets were set up and proceeded to set impossible quotas and levy excessive taxes. Often the remaining machinery or seed grain had to be sold to meet the taxes. Food was scarce and a drought in 1920 guaranteed there would be famine.

In Eastern Volhynia, traditionally a rich agricultural area, collectivization got started in 1929. This brought a similar transformation and a worsening way of life with no escape from the famine and hardships that swept across the Soviet Ukraine in the 1930's. The Russian government had stopped allowing people to emigrate in 1930.



Life in the German Villages around Shitomir


World War I I

In 1939 secret protocols in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact defined the territorial spheres of influence Germany and Russia would have after a successful invasion of Poland. Poland would be partitioned into three major areas. The Warthland area, bordering Germany would be annexed outright to the German Reich, and all non-German inhabitants expelled to the east. More than 77,000 square miles of eastern Polish lands, with a population of over thirteen million would become Russian territory. The central area would become a German protectorate, named the General Gouvernement, governed by a German civil authority. It called for the resettlement of ethnic Germans from the part of Poland that came under Soviet control.

As these ethnic Germans arrived in Germany, they were first registered and photographed, with all individuals over the age of 15 registered individually. Everyone was subject to a health and racial examination before qualifying for naturalization, resettlement and [military service in the German Army]. Many were resettled in the Wartheland area.

The Ribbentrop-Molotov non-agression pact ended on June 22, 1941 when Germany invaded Russia. However, during the period 1939 - 1945 more than 2.9 million individuals were processed by the German Einwanderungszentralstelle (EWZ) - (Immigration Central Office) to facilitate the resettlement of ethnic Germans from other parts of Europe


War, Flight and Displacement

The westward advance of Soviet troops in 1943 continued until Berlin surrendered on May 2, 1945.

The EWZ files show two distinct waves of people from Volhynia occurred: the Germans from western Volhynia at the start of the war and the Germans from eastern Volhynia at the end of 1943 when the Red Army pushed them out.

Flucht aus Polen:    [Translation]   "On 17 January 1945 we were ordered to leave the country immediately. We loaded all that we could into a horse drawn wagon and were then a total of 4 weeks on the run to the west. During the day we hid ourselves and at night we went. It was bitterly cold all the time."    Frieda (Friedel) Hanisch     [End Translation]



Some Found A Better Life Elswhwere


  The Family of Julius Nast and Emma Handke
Excerpts from Yellow Grass Our Prairie Community, (1980) page 491.
Written by daughter Lydia (Dreger)

Friends of Dad's, who had immigrated to Yellow Grass, invited us to come to Canada and even included money for transportation, but it was refused as he preferred to live with friends and family in the moderate climate of White Russia.

Suddenly WWI broke out in 1914! All residents of German descent, living in Rovno and district, were forced to flee within three days. Numerous communities formed a trek of horse teams and covered wagons as they started eastward. Much suffering and hardship ensued for our family in this trek to Orenburg, Siberia with hunger, the enforced sale of dad's team and wagon for 20% of its value and the illness and death of our two young brothers. In 1917, we were advised to return to our original home in Rovno, but soon learned the Russian Government would not allow those of German ancestry to reclaim their property. They were advised to go to Germany.

Dad decided to write to his friends in Yellow Grass, now pleading for funds to emigrate to Canada. Mrs. Flora Krieger, Fred Altwasser and Carl Krieger forwarded the sum of $1000.00 immediately for emigration expenses with an additional $40.00 for meals in Canada. It was now 1923. We boarded the Empress of France in Hamburg Germany and docked at Quebec City, taking the train to Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Fred Banman, a Yellow Grass elevator agent, met us with his car.

Reasons for leaving Russia :
  • Displacement because of war.

  • Political oppression.

  • A friend had emigrated and encouraged them to follow.

  • A promise of improved economic situations.

  • 1948

      The Family of Irma (Dobler) Hoeser
    Excerpts from Yellow Grass Our Prairie Community, (1980) pages 397.
    Written by Irma Hoeser

    Irma (Dobler) Hoeser was born the elder daughter of Jacob and Otillie Dobler near Odessa, Russia. The family went through many hardships during the depression and under Communism. Irma and her brother Bruno had to work in the fields at an early age. Her sister Nellie died at the age of two years from diphtheria and Mr. Dobler was taken away from his family and shot. In 1944, Mrs. Dobler, Irma and Bruno, with their possessions in a covered wagon, left Russia for Germany [sic]. From Germany they emigrated to Canada. They arrived in Canada on October 31, 1948. Irma was hired by Edward and Esther Altwasser and spent ten months with the family. She married Ewald Hoeser, son of Robert Hoeser and Henrietta Herman, in 1949.
    Reasons for leaving Russia:
  • Political oppression.

  • War and displacement because of war.

  • A promise of improved economic situations.

  • 2004

     Personal Glimpses

    During the summer of 2004 in St. Albert, Alberta, a converstion with Bruno Dobler revealed that the story in "Yellow Grass Our Prairie Community" did not unfold exactly as his sister Irma had written it. Bruno was one of the last people to flee the collective farm in Russia, while his mother and sister had departed sometime earlier. When his journey started, he did not know the whereabouts of his mother or sister. His story of flight and eventual re-union is remarkable, but will not be told here. He commented that other people who had fled Russia at the same time, later departed Germany, hoping to return to their former homes.

    "They were never heard from again."



  • The German Language was recorded as being spoken by 1,790,489 individuals during the first and the only census carried out in the Russian Imperial Empire. Tabulated population: 125,640,021.


    Additional Resources

    Russian Empire Census - Wikipedia

    Time Line of Volhynia History

    Gubernia Volhyn

    Ukraine Volhyn


    The Germans from Volhynia and Russian Poland


    "Why Did They Leave?" [2011] was written over the past ten years or so as I found information I thought relevant to Destination: Yellow Grass. It is not intended to be all inclusive historically and is designed to help myself and others understand the circumstances of our ancestors in Volhynia and the wonderful choice they made for their descendants when they left for a new and better life. Comments are welcome.


    Jack Milner




    Copyright © 2001. 2013
    ® Canada Copyright Registration  No. 490341
    to William J. Milner, March 8, 2001.
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