When Harvey Wollman sees reports of Ukrainians hiding in subway tunnels to escape Russian missile attacks, he understands what they are going through.
wolmanwho served as South Dakota’s Governors from June 24, 1978, to Jan. 1, 1979, has been in those underground locations. I have toured Ukraine, the homeland of his grandparents, about 15 years ago.
“That brings it kind of close to home,” Wollman said.
His grandfathers John Wollman and John Kleinsasser were both born Ukraine. They were of German ancestry, but their families were relocated to Ukraine in the 1800s.
Both came to South Dakota as infants and later met women who also shared their Ukrainian/German heritage. The couples lived in Spink County.
His ancestors were part of the Germans from Russia, lured there in 1763 by a promise of cultural autonomy and free land by Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great, who was originally from Germany. But a century later, Tsar Alexander III revoked many of their freedoms and ordered them to serve in the military. Many, including Wollman’s relatives, fled to North America.
They were Mennonites, part of the Anabaptist sect of Christianity who believe in adult baptism. The Mennoniteswho do not live in colonies, are linked to other Anabaptists including the Hutterites and Amish, who do.
Wollman was raised a Mennonite and was a member of the church until the local church closed. He and his wife Anna then joined a Presbyterian church in Huron.
About 15 years ago, the Wollmans went to Europe and visited Ukraine. They traced the steps of their ancestors, going to the towns where they lived during the three-week tour.
Some distant relatives were successful in business, putting up an ironworks factory and building an iron mine. They built a hospital for their workers, and while they were Mennonites, they built a Russian Orthodox church for the community as well.
wolman (seen above, left, watching his image being sculpted for South Dakota’s Trail of Governors in an image from inforum.com) said he invited his older brother Roger to accompany them on the tour, but he was unable to get away from his legal duties. After serving as chief justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, Roger Wolman was named to the federal bench, rising to the post of chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He is 87 and now holds senior status as a US circuit judge.
Harvey Wollman said the tour was fascinating from both a personal and historical perspective. They took a boat tour of the Dnieper River, which brought them to kyiv. The river was filled with dams, many towering over the river.
“It kind of reminded me of our Missouri River in a way,” Wollman said.
The Ukraine, called “Europe’s Breadbasket,” looks much like South Dakota, he said. It has wide, open spaces perfect for growing wheat, and the people are welcoming and friendly, Wollman said.
“It was a very, very rich agricultural area,” he said. “I just read yesterday the farmers are worried about planting their crops.”
While in Ukraine, they stayed in the same kind of nine-story buildings that were blasted by Russian attacks.
Wollman said in kyiv, he took the longest escalator ride of his life that revealed subway tunnels where Ukrainians are now seeking shelter. Seeing them on TV revived those memories.
“I can see why they can go there, because there are huge cavernous tunnels, or railroad right-of-ways,” he said. “If I was in kyiv and they were bombing, that’s where I would go.”
Ukraine’s painful history
Wollman heard “horror stories” of the deadly damage caused by collectivism, as farms were replaced with state-run collectives that failed, leaving people roaming the countryside in search of food. The disastrous policy was imposed by an earlier Russian despot, Joseph Stalin. An estimated 3.5 to 3.9 million Ukrainians starved to death during the “Holodomour,” or Great Famine, from 1932-33, and many were tortured, murdered or relocated from their homeland. There were numerous reports of cannibalism from people grown mad from hunger.
It was a reminder of the oppression that drove his relatives to the United States, Wollman said. Seeing Ukraine suffer once again is difficult to watch, he said.
While in Europe for their tour, one of seven times he has crossed the Atlantic, Wollman also visited the Black Sea, and visited And tall on the Crimea on the Sea, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in obvious physical decline and just two months from death, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Stalin discussed the post-WWII world on Feb. 4-11, 1945.
There is a famous photo of three leaders seated on a bench, and Wollman sat there six decades later. A lifelong student of history, it was a memorable part of the trip.
He said his brother-in-law Alan Peters of Fresno, Calif., has studied the region for years and has a wealth of information on Ukraine and its troubled history. For decades, Ukraine was not on the forefront of most people’s minds, but that has changed in recent weeks.
History has always been a part of Wollman’s life. The former teacher and politician is used to orating, and will provide a lengthy, informative and detailed story on numerous topics.
He still lives in the same farmhouse his family has owned for 110 years. He worked on the family farm, was the Doland High School senior class president in 1953, were he was a star debater, and won First Superior as a baritone soloist at the state music contest. He still sings, although a concert with an Aberdeen men’s chorus this year will be his farewell performance, Wollman said.
He met his wife Anne Geigel while both were members of the Huron College Choir. Wollman attended Bethel College in St. Paul for a year, before enrolling in Huron College in 1956, where he earned a degree in business administration in 1961.
His college days were interrupted, however, when he joined the Army and served from 1958-60. I have served in Germany in the 3rd Armored Division from 1959-60. He was close to Ukraine, but did not visit it then, since it was behind the Iron Curtain.
He met a famous fellow soldier a few times — Elvis Presley. Wollman said his “claim to fame” was typing up the orders to promote Elvis to sergeant. The famous rocker served the same duty as others, and didn’t seek special treatment, which Wollman admired.
The South Dakotan returned to the family farm, and from 1961-65, Wollman taught history and government at Doland High School, where he led the debate team to three state championships while also doing “very intense” graduate work at the University of South Dakota in 1965.
Wollman entered politics in 1968, winning the first of three terms in the state Senate, where he served as both minority and majority leader.
He was elected lieutenant governor in 1974 and served the shortest term of any South Dakota governor — slightly more than five months — in 1978.
Wollman and his wife, married for more than 63 years, have three children, Kristine, Michael and Daniel, and seven grandchildren.
Tom Lawrence has written for several newspapers and websites in South Dakota and other states and contributed to NPR, The London Telegraph, The Daily Beast and other media outlets.