Annette Stier commented on the smell of old paper as she pulled out the sepia photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings.
“You put this stuff in the basement and just kind of forget about it,” she said. “I don’t know if any of this is useful, but we wanted to bring it in and share it.”
“No, this is amazing,” UNL graduate student Mike Dick said.
Annette was sitting in an office in the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 631 D St., with her husband, Jim, giving an oral history to Dick and UNL undergraduate Erika Eynetich about the immigration of family descendants. It was Jim’s family history that they were helping UNL students document at the Oct. 18 History Harvest. Jim’s father, Alexander, was a very young child when his family immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1911.
Among the papers and photographs the Stiers had was a handwritten manifest from a ship that brought immigrants to the United States. Alexander’s honorable discharge papers from the United States military following World War II contrasted with a black and white family photo, where Alexander is shown in the bright white dressings of a new baby.
“We still keep that on our piano at home, because it’s important to remember where you came from,” Annette said.
That’s a summation of the mission of the History Harvest, which is taught as a class each year and incorporates an event or events similar to this where students spend time taking oral histories of people and digitally archiving any items that are brought in.
The Oct. 18 History Harvest was a great success, said Gerald Steinacher, associate professor of history, who is teaching the seven-student History Harvest class this semester. The students spent the first half of the fall semester planning and preparing for the event. They will spend the second half compiling and cataloging the artifacts and oral history interviews and uploading them into the digital archive at http://www.historyharvest.unl.edu/.
Steinacher said the value of the class for students is immeasurable because of the wide variety of skills they learn over the semester.
“I never had an opportunity to take a such a class,” he said. “For a student, this is a really great way to learn.”
About 200 artifacts were documented from 25 groups of people during the event. Sherry Loos Pawelko, director of the society, was pleased at the turnout and the items that were shared. She said she can’t wait to see everything after it’s added to the website.
“We love the idea of partnering with the university and getting the word out about our organization,” she said. “It was a thrill to see so many people come through and see them reconnecting with each other.”
The students were in awe of some of the objects they were handing, but they were even more inspired by the stories told about them. One such object was a church bulletin marking the church’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1942. The document was written in German, which surprised the students because it was during World War II.
“I’m sure that was a rare occurrence because the U.S. was fighting Germany and I don’t think the German language was being used as much,” student Matthew Mickelson said.
The History Harvest project was started in 2010 by professors Will Thomas and Patrick Jones. Its goals are to teach students about digital archiving and to raise visibility and public conversation about history and its meaning, as well as provide a new foundation of publicly available material for historical study, K-12 instruction, and lifelong learning.