If you’re like me, you’ve already filled up your calendar with events and expeditions for the summer. Make room for one more: 2pm Sunday afternoon, June 9, Rebecca Bender will booktalk her recent work, Still, at the Wild Rose Bar & Cafe, Ashley.
Why not make it a day in McIntosh County, on the eastern front of German-Russian Country? There will be time before or after the booktalk to make pilgrimage to the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery, just north of town, where you can connect with the pioneering folk who are the subject of Rebecca’s book.
I’d say, get into the Wild Rose in time for its excellent Sunday buffet, then take in the booktalk, and then caravan out to the cemetery. If we’re lucky, the meadowlarks and the kingbirds will sing to the sun for us.
Rebecca Bender is a daughter of the Jewish homesteading colony in McIntosh County--of which not a soul remains in residence, physically. Many folks thereabouts will tell you the Jews really didn’t know how to farm, they were not suited to the country, and so they cleared out pretty quickly.
Which is poppycock. Fact is, most homesteaders, of any faith or culture, stayed only a little while until being bought out by neighbors. Those who left, some of them had failed as farmers, but most of them left because they had succeeded--had proved up and profited, then sold out on a rising settlement land market and moved on to do what they really wanted to do in life.
This appears to be exactly what happened with the Jews of McIntosh County, with the added impetus that certain ceremonies of the faith required the participation of a requisite number of male adherents, making it hard to maintain community on the sparsely populated plains.
Rebecca’s folks hailed from Hoffnungstal, also known as Zebricov, by way of Odessa. There in the outposts of Russian Empire the Jews suffered not only institutional oppression but also horrific violence, pogroms that ripped through the community, killing thousands. And yet, in the words of the Jewish Am Olan movement for survival and resilience,
In the waves of life under heaven
Many more will be erased
But us, a grieving nation
Will live forever
And God’s light will shine for eternity.
The next station for that light eternal would be McIntosh County, where Jewish immigrant homesteaders clustered and took up farming in the first decade of the twentieth century. They forged good relationships with their German-Russian neighbors, relationships borne of mutual assistance and ordinary commerce. In time Rebecca’s folk, having done well, bought a store in Eureka, South Dakota, and did well there also, for themselves and for the community.
Kenneth Bender became a war hero fighting the Nazis--you have to read his memories of leading his men to battle with dogtags bearing the H insignia for Hebrew, knowing such would mark them for summary execution if captured.
And you want to meet his daughter Rebecca, an attorney who has led the way in preservation of the cemetery and commemoration of the Jewish pioneers. Her book, Still--she will explain the title to you--is published by North Dakota State University Press.