Praise for Parallels in ‘Handing Down the Names’
Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 15:10
As The Spectrum’s theater reporter, I have seen a ton of plays, musicals and other onstage shenanigans since I signed on a year ago. I’ve previewed and reviewed many productions, but a play I recently saw really resonated me—Theatre NDSU’s “Handing Down the Names.”
This play follows a family of Germans from Russia and the various hardships they endured in their lifetimes, ranging from familial separation, death of children and wartime experiences. In a nutshell, this was show was fantastic.
This is because it was based on real experiences, and, living in an area that was the final destination for many Germans from Russia, audience members could connect to it. I did.
My great-grandmother Barbara Gette was born in 1908 in the village of Semenovka near Saratov in Russia. Her parents, Andrew Gette and Elizabeth Koenig, had six children together, five of which were born in Russia.
In 1913, my great-great-grandfather left for America from the port of Hamburg with his brother. He left behind his pregnant wife and four children under 10 years old. I have no doubt in my mind that the plan Andrew Gette had was to save enough money and send for his family as soon as he could, presumably within a year or two. It didn’t quite happen like that.
Instead, the Gette family was separated for eleven years with an immense expanse of ocean and earth between them. War hit Russia in 1917, and Semenovka was literally caught in the crossfire.
The Gettes were a rather affluent family in their region of Russia, owning the oil and flourmills and some large tracts of farmland. They maintained winter and summer homes and kept servants.
By 1918 the Gettes were living in a shack, subsisting on potatoes and the trash that my great-grandmother’s brother John stole from the concentration camp he escaped from.
During this time, a widespread famine coincided with the war, and Anne and Catherine, my great-grandmother’s oldest sisters, died in the spring of 1918. They gave their meager amounts of food to their younger sisters Barbara and Betty so they would not starve to death as well.
Meanwhile, in America, Andrew Gette had saved the money for boat tickets for his family, and sent it to his wife. It never reached her. He had saved three thousand dollars.
He started saving again, and finally sent the tickets, which reached his wife through a family friend. Following John’s escape from the concentration camp, Elizabeth and her surviving children escaped their war-torn village on a night in 1922.
Here the family story gets a little foggy. I believe they lived at a seaside town in Latvia for two years before boarding the S.S. Estonia in September 1924. The voyage was very rough, but they arrived safely at Ellis Island. However, they were detained for a few days for reasons unknown.
It was at a train station in Thief River Falls that the family was reunited with Andrew again. Now just imagine that reunion. Just imagine not seeing your father or your husband for over 11 years, and with so much having happened in the time between: war, famine, the death of children, the loss of one’s home and journeying thousands of miles to an entirely new land.
I know all of this because I have researched my family tree. I’ve interviewed countless relatives about our ancestors’ lives in Russia, and the stories that have been told are incredible. You can’t make up a story like the one the Gettes lived. Truth is truly stranger than fiction.
The hardship, the struggles, the sheer uncertainty of what lay ahead for them—it was all paralleled in “Handing Down the Names.” I’ve always held a strong appreciation for my Gette ancestors but after seeing this show play out such raw realisms experienced by the Germans from Russia, I even more so salute the strength of my Gette ancestors, and I commend Theatre NDSU for choosing this play for its centennial season.