Tucked quietly near the intersection of Sixth and D streets in Lincoln’s South Bottoms Historic District is a place full of surprises about the city’s history and a group of people who came to inhabit the neighborhood over 100 years ago.
The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia hosts a small museum that documents and commemorates the lives of German-Russians, a group of ethnic German farmers who immigrated to the Americas – largely the Great Plains – after a multi-generational stay in Russia, said Jonathan Rowe, editorial and publications coordinator for the organization.
So the organization endeavors to not only document the lives of those in the past, Rowe said, but keep track of genealogies for their descendants. There is a research library at the museum full of family histories, and they employ an archivist to help people search, he said.
And the organization’s work has recently been thrust into the spotlight for tragic reasons, he said, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked conversation about the region’s geopolitics and history. But in many ways, Rowe said, German-Russians share a history of oppression with the Ukranians, and some German Russians were even settled in what is modern day Ukraine.
The organization released a statement standing with Ukraine, Rowe said, and sees its role in this moment as an educational one.
“Our job is to educate,” he said. “We’re a museum.”
The museum traces the heritage of the Germans from Russia and documents their journeys. They left Germany to farm for Czarina Catherine the Great on the fertile plains of Russia in 1763. The Germans were promised good land and a chance to build a life, an offer he said they were happy to take from a monarch who was ethnically German, even though she ruled Russia.
For about 100 years, Rowe said, the settlers lived happily and peacefully as Russians with German heritage, and were allowed to speak their language and maintain their distinct customs. But, a few successors after Catherine, he said, everything changed, when the original agreement was rescinded and the settlers were forced to leave.
“They start taking their rations and forcing them to work in the military and lots of other things,” he said.
Conditions deteriorated to the point of cannibalism to stave off starvation, Rowe said. A few of the desperate community members went to search for suitable land, which they ultimately found in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, the Dakotas and other places across the Americas, with some even settling in South America.
“It was happening during the time of the Nebraska-Iowa land grab,” he said, “and (the U.S. Government) basically said, ‘If you know how to farm, come.’”
And so they did — in droves, Rowe said, setting across the Midwest and creating communities with distinct, untouched culture, just as they had in Russia before. One particular hotspot became the South Bottoms neighborhood, which housed a sizable community of these families after they immigrated. Over 20,000 individuals settled in Lincoln alone, he said. The communities were close knit, he said, and the groups saw themselves as a collective working together, even in the new world.
Held together by shared culture, religion and food – the “bierock” is a German-Russian stuffed roll that eventually morphed into the Runzas Nebraskans know and love today – these immigrants maintained a strong presence in Lincoln, all of Nebraska and the entire Midwest, Rowe said, and many of their descendants are still in the area today.
And those descendants donate to the society, attend the museum and maintain a distinct sense of community in the area, Office Coordinator Claire Liddle said. Liddle said she manages the facilities, acts as a museum guide, maintains the bookstore and runs some of the finances for the museum and historical society.
Many visitors don’t know much about the subject before visiting the museum, Liddle said, but it’s a welcoming place that allows visitors to learn a little bit about local history. In the summer, she said, the museum hosts outdoor exhibits such as a blacksmith’s shop and a general store accurate to what they would have been like in historic settlements.
Liddle, who has been working with the organization since 2021, and said she’s enjoyed getting to know the very dedicated people involved.
“They’re very proud of their history, and they just want everyone to know about it,” she said. “So I think you get a lot of passionate people here that just want to share it with everyone.”