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Papelpu’s Odyssey


When Alexander Papelpu obtained his homestead patent in Stark County on June 26, 1914 his future looked bright and promising. Having received his citizenship only six months before, he now decided it was time to return to his home country of Russia. Here he would take care of some business affairs and wed his sweetheart who awaited him there. They would then return to his homestead. But his return would be an epic journey of war, deprivation and diplomacy.

Only four days prior to the happy couple’s departure for the United States, Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia began drafting an army, and Alexander was conscripted to serve. Having lost his naturalization record on the trip over, he had no proof that he was an American citizen and therefore found himself in the Russian army. His young bride, who had been wrestled from her husband’s side after a three-day honeymoon, was forced to continue the journey to her new home alone.

On September 24, the Russian Third Army began the siege of the fortress city of Przemysl on the River San. Lacking sufficient artillery, the commander ordered a full-scale assault on the fortress. For three days the Russians attacked and accomplished nothing at the cost of 40,000 casualties. Alexander was one of five thousand soldiers left behind to cover the Russian withdrawal and was captured by the German Army.

As a German prisoner he watched as his fellow comrades died of starvation and exhaustion from forced labor. His fortune changed when he was taken to an Austrian prison camp where he fared much better. With better food and more humane treatment he managed to survive another seventeen months working for the local farmers and businessmen. As the months went by, his young bride Julia lobbied tirelessly to obtain his freedom based on his American citizenship. Through the efforts of Patrick Norton, North Dakota’s Congressman from Hettinger, they were finally able to petition for his release through diplomatic wire-pulling. In March of 1917, Alexander was granted safe passage to Switzerland and from there he made his way to France, arriving just as the United States declared war on Germany.

Alexander Papelpu returned to his farm fourteen miles south of Dickinson. On this date in 1917 he was enjoying a reunion with his young bride, who for almost three years feared that she would never see her husband again. Theirs was an odyssey unlike many who came from their home country, but for them it would remain a vivid realization of their freedom in America.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


“Dickinson Man Three Years Prisoner of War Finally Home Again”, The Bismarck Tribune August 6, 1917 Page 8.