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September 2014


From Siberia to Sussex

Arthur Sawall and his mother, Bertha, standing in front of their apartment building in Tomsk, Siberia, in the former Soviet Union in 1967.

Arthur Sawall and his mother, Bertha, standing in front of their apartment building in Tomsk, Siberia, in the former Soviet Union in 1967. Photo by:

Amazing journey brings Art Sawall to Lake Country

"You can understand hardship better when you grow up in a three room house with no central heat in minus 35 degree Celsius temperatures and a communal outhouse," said Art Sawall who is working to redevelop a 10-acre site in the Village of Sussex. "It also teaches you to appreciate the finer things in life."

Sawall, 54, was born in Siberia, Russia, and overcame the hardships of a soviet labor camp. He later immigrated to the United States, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and founded a company that created and sold computer software for electrical engineers.

After selling the company, Sawall expanded his entrepreneurial horizons.

He now has real estate and restaurant investments, and next month, he will present his plans for redeveloping the abandoned cannery company site to the Sussex Village Plan Commission.

The $20 million dollar project, which includes apartment buildings and retail shops on the corner of Main Street and Waukesha Avenue, is a long way from Tomsk, Russia, a 408-year-old city with a population of about a half million people located in southeastern Siberia.

But, Sawall says his Russian childhood has contributed to his adult success.

"I understand cultures. I can speak three languages. I understand different ways people live," he said.

Sawall, his wife Karin, and their three teenage children, live in Brookfield.

German heritage

One of his favorite enterprises is La Coppa, the artisan Italian Gelato Cafe on Bay Shore Road in Glendale that he owns with two Italian brothers who are Gelato masters.

"It was pure accident," he said of the business enterprise.

"My kids are I was sitting at a gelato cafe in Germany having spaghetti gelato. It was delicious, and we realized there was nothing like it in the United States. They talked me into it," he explained.

Sawall's parents were Volga Germans, descendents of German immigrants who in the 18th century were encouraged by Empress Catherine the Great to move to Russia and farm in the Volga River valley. The immigrants were allowed to maintain their language, culture and religions, and were granted other rights by the Empress.

However, hundreds of years later, when war broke out between Germany and Russia in World War II, the soviet government feared the Volga Germans as potential Nazi collaborators and forcibly transported to them labor camps.

Sawall's father, Waldemar, was 17 when he was captured and sent to Siberia where he later met his wife Bertha. Two of his brothers escaped and eventually migrated to Milwaukee.

Life in Russia

Sawall described his family as "prisoners of peace." Although they were not confined to their home, they were living under Soviet rule and they were not allowed to travel.

Sawall fondly remembers growing up in Russia in the 1960s during the height of the Soviet-American Cold War although his living conditions, by American standards, bordered on primitive.

"As a kid you don't realize what you don't have," he said.

"I can remember thecommunal bath house that we used go to and take baths about every two weeks," he said.

While winters could be long, cold and harsh, summers temperatures were moderate to warm and the days were long.

Sawall and his boyhood buddies had to make up games of their own while playing outside since state TV programming was limited to a few hours.

The international tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States went unnoticed among Sawall and his friends.

Sawall said schools in the Soviet Union did not conduct the nuclear attack air raid drills that were popular in some American schools in the 1950s and '60s.

Second grade students in Russia, he said, were required to study a foreign language.

Sawall said after he arrived in the United States in the late 1960s, he discovered Soviet schools were more advanced.

"The second grade students in Siberia would be doing the equivalent of fourth grade work in the United States." he said.

Sawall said his closely knit family had a higher standard of living than many of their neighbors because his father did not drink.

"Most of the men drank heavily and spent money on vodka. But, my father saved money," he explained.

In addition to being frugal, Sawall's father was also industrious and ambitious.

He built a coop to raise chickens and rabbits and planted potatoes. There were very few vegetables because the growing season was so short

Sawall said his father has maintained his German work ethic even at age 84. Today, Sawall and his father live in the same neighborhood.

"If its snows and I am not at his house by 4 a.m., he has already shoveled his drive," Sawall noted.

The Sawalls left Russia and moved to the Milwaukee in 1967.

"We were one of the first families to leave Russia legally," he explained.

In an effort to improve relations with the United States, the Soviet Union agreed not to block the reuniting of some Soviet-American families.

Business in the U.S.

Sawall's uncles in Milwaukee had worked for nine years to get the family reunited in the United States.

"It was miracle, there is just no other way to describe it," he explained.

Sawall graduated from James Madison High School in 1976 and attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee because "it was the only college I could afford."

He majored in electrical engineer because "it was the highest paid job for a college graduate and there were hardly any unemployed electrical engineers."

After graduation, he went to work for Square D, now Schneider Electric. While working in Germany, he not only met his wife, but he also noticed that the Germans had perfected a soft ware system designed especially for electrical engineers. Four years later he started a small company that specialized in the software.

After selling the company, Sawall discovered the Mammoth Springs Cannery Company in Sussex while talking to a real estate agent about another property that Sawall had spotted on Craig's List. The agent told Sawall that the Craig's List property had been sold, but the cannery site was available.

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