CHICAGO — In the years after Jefferson Park's 1889 annexation into the city, the neighborhood became a hub for a small but proud immigrant group: German settlers who had spent more than 100 years living in Russia.
Called "Volga Germans" for the riverbed in southeastern Russia where Catherine the Great invited them to settle in the 1760s, the migrants were free to speak their own language and practice their religion — often Lutheran or Mennonite.
But once the Russian government started drafting them into the empire's army in the late 1800s, many made for the United States — specifically, the growing Northwest Side of Chicago — according to Frank Suerth, a board member of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society.
"They settled in a lot of odd places, and we don't know why exactly they chose to live in Jefferson Park — but like with any immigrant story, they sent letters back and said 'Hey, this is a great place, come on over.'"
But assimilating into the area wasn't always easy, according Daniel Pogorzelski, the historical society's vice president:
This Russian aspect of their heritage often lead to difficulties for the Volga Germans living in the United States at a time when the country was gripped by the “Red Scare” that broke out with Lenin’s Communist revolution. Jerry Amen, president of the Northern Illinois Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia recounts the prejudice his family experienced because of their Russian-German background. When looking for work on the railroad during the Great Railroad Strike of 1922, his great-grandfather George Amen like many other Germans from Russia would hide their heritage and regularly pass themselves off as Poles so that they wouldn't be denied jobs as subversive 'Bolsheviks.’
Edens United Church of Christ, 5051 W. Gunnison St., in 1914, shortly after it was built [Northwest Chicago Historical Society]
The unique Ruso-German enclave and its descendants have left an indelible impact on the area, founding still-thriving churches like Edens United Church of Christ, 5051 W. Gunnison St., and the Redeemer of Calvary United Methodist Church, 5001 W. Gunnison St.
They joined a pair of tenement buildings at the intersection of Higgins Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue, often referred to as the "Russian Hotel" for the workers they hosted. Those structures have since been demolished.
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