Derksen-Siemens to present story of the Germans from Russia at Northwestern

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Derksen-Siemens to present story of the Germans from Russia at Northwestern

September 29, 2009

Dr. Ruth Derksen-Siemens, a first-generation Canadian of Russian Mennonite descent born in Vancouver, Canada, will present a story of the Germans from Russia at Northwestern Oklahoma State University on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. in Herod Hall Auditorium. This presentation is hosted by the Department of Social Sciences as part of its annual Cultural Heritage Series.

“Remember Us: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag to the Great Plains (1930-1937): A Family’s Story,” is free and open to the public.

Northwestern’s Department of Social Sciences presents guest lecturer Dr. Ruth Derksen-Siemens with “Remember Us: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag to the Great Plains (1930-1937): A Family’s Story,” on Oct. 8, at 7 p.m., in Herod Hall Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.  

Derksen-Siemens will discuss the odyssey of one Russian Mennonite family, the Regehrs, whose 463 letters from Stalin’s gulag made their way to a tiny prairie town in Canada between 1930 and 1937. These stories are first-hand, eye-witness accounts during this time.

A short documentary film, “Through the Red Gate,” based on her gulag letters book will follow the presentation.

She teaches rhetoric and writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her doctorate at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom investigated this body of gulag letters, the largest international collection of its kind ever to be authenticated. She also is compiling similar letters sent to German-speaking families in Nebraska and Kansas during the same period.

The story of the Regehr family letters compels Oklahomans and others to ask whether more such letters remain hidden and forgotten in attics and basements across the prairies. As a father pleaded for his family imprisoned in Stalin’s gulag, “Remember us as we remember you.” Though heart-wrenching, the gulag accounts also are filled with hope and endurance, calling on everyone to prevent such things from ever happening again.

Dr. Eric J. Schmaltz, assistant professor of history, will present an overview of the German’s history and migratory patterns from Russia, specifically the group’s arrival in Oklahoma after the 1880s. Schmaltz also is heavily involved with the National Germans from Russia organization since his family descends from that ethnic group. He had read Derksen-Siemen's book, then began talking with her.

“Dr. Schmaltz was able to bring her to Northwestern for which we are eternally grateful,” said Dr. Kay Decker, Department of Social Sciences chair. “Dr. Siemens's book and film help tell a story of political exile, religious persecution, and family grief, which resulted from the Russian government's treatment of the Germans who had become successful farmers on the Russian Steppes.”

Decker said unlike other ethnic groups, the Germans from Russia have not received much attention from historians in Oklahoma. Members of the Department of Social Sciences at Northwestern feel strongly that it is important to recognize the contributions to this contemporary way of life and hard working contingent of farmers who helped "break the sod" of the Great Plains.

For more information on the event, contact Schmaltz at  or 580-327-8526.

To receive more information about Derksen-Siemens, visit  She also will have her book “Remember Us” for sale at the event.

This presentation is part of Northwestern’s Cultural Heritage Lecture Series. In the spring the Department of Social Sciences will present its American Presidency lecture series and sponsor the lecture: “American Presidents: Presidents of the Heartland – Eisenhower and Truman,” on March 24.