THREE packets of mail recently arrived some days apart. The first, from a cousin, held a copy of the note that Emmanuel Ries, my mother's older brother, had written on Feb. 14, 1921. Emmanuel had become lost in a snowstorm on his way home to the ranch that my grandfather, Alexander Ries, was managing near Yorkton, Saskatchewan.
``Ach Hilfe Gott dass ich Hinkomman mag,'' the note began. (Help, Lord, that I may return home.) It quoted the first lines of a popular verse from the Volga German hymnal: ``Wo tausend Yahr sind wie ein Tag ... '' (``Where a thousand years are as a day ...) and continued:
``Ich screibe dies in Dunkeln. Liebe Mutter bitte besuch mich and versprech mir Moege mich Pastor Dallmus in Gottes Namen beerdigen.'' (I write this in darkness. Dear Mother, please look for me and promise that Pastor Dallmus will bury me in God's name.)
Emmanuel was found on April 19, as Grandfather duly recorded in the family Bible, and he was buried in the Yorkton cemetery two days later. Emmanuel was 22 and the oldest son of eight children, most of them born in the German settlements near Saratov along Russia's Volga River.
The second unexpected packet was from Timothy J. Kloberdanz, a professor of sociology and anthropology at North Dakota State University. It contained a copy of a book written by Mr. Kloberdanz and his wife, Rosalinda, ``Thunder on the Steppe: Volga German Folklife in a Changing Russia,'' published by the American Society of Germans from Russia, Lincoln, Neb. The Kloberdanzes recorded their research from a trip to the region in 1991, just as the Moscow regime was starting to collapse. They observed the folkways, sayings, house floorplans, much of it the same as when the Germans came to Russia during the 1760s at the invitation of Catherine the Great. Kloberdanz had seen a mention of Yorkton in a column of mine and observed in a cover note: ``There are still many Volga German descendants in Yorkton, as well as in the neighboring town of Rhein.''
The third unbidden mailing contained ``The White Lamb,'' by Mela Meisner Lindsay, a fictionalized account of a Volga German woman, Evaliz, who came to America at the turn of this century. It describes the arrival of the first Germans to a Volga site so barren that caves were dug into hillsides to survive winter.
The historical events that drove the eventually prosperous German settlers from Russia at the turn of this century included the famines of the 1890s, conscription of the Germans, the return of jobless Cossacks after the Russo-Japanese war, and the disorderly tendencies about to break out in revolution.
Folksongs recorded the times: ``Kommt ihr Gebruder,'' the Volga Deutsch sang, ``Wir wollen ziehen!'' (Come brethren, we must depart!) And: ``O Russland, armes Russland, wie traurig steht's mit dir!'' (O Russia, poor Russia, How sad things are with you.) ``Die Schlechtigkeit im Lande, Regiert das ganze Reich.'' (The people's wickedness, Spoils the entire land.)
The three mailings, apparently serendipitous, gave a picture of a family's dispersion as part of a people's history. Most of grandfather's many brothers abandoned the Volga mill and grain business for Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States. Two remained, as university professors in Saratov.
Today the German and Russian governments want to relocate Russia's several million ethnic Germans back in the Volga region, whence Stalin had displaced them to Siberia. Germany, beleaguered by reunification, hardly wants another wave of immigrants. The governments intend to center a modern German community in the town of Krasny Kut, my mother's birthplace.
In the New World, the Germans from Russia moved from ethnic island to ethnic island across the Great Plains. Only fragments of their experiences are recorded. Our family talked little of its setbacks. A note from Emmanuel was said to have been put under the collar of his dog, which returned to the ranch alone. And now I have, in his handwriting, a copy of the note itself, from the uncle I did not know - with seven decades of a people's and a family's history that we could discuss.