Chapter 8: Russia: 1866-1903

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Mrs. Lena Zimmerman Willems was born in South Russia in the Firstenland in Syejowka on February 6, 1893, to Rev. and Mrs. H. H. Zimmerman, and departed this life at the age of 70 years, 5 months and 24 days in a Tulare, California hospital. … She came to Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, with her parents in 1903.[i]                                                                                                                                                                                My grandmother, Helena (Lena) Zimmerman Willems, was born in a Mennonite village on the southeast bank of the Dneiper River in what is now Ukraine, a land she knew as South Russia. The year was 1893; the name of the village was Sergeyevka, which was one of the villages in the Fuerstenland, a daughter colony of Chortitza, the first of the colonies established by the Mennonites in the steppe land bordering the Black Sea. Grandma’s father was Heinrich H. Zimmerman, a Mennonite Brethren preacher. Her mother was Maria Dyck Zimmerman, who died when my grandmother was a young girl.

Back in the 1990s, when I began to seriously pursue research into the family history, I asked my father what he knew about his mother’s parents. He said he didn’t know very much, but one thing he remembered was my grandmother telling him that her mother was sick when the time came for the family to leave Russia—so sick she knew she was going to die—and she told her family they must go without her. Dad said the family didn’t want to leave his grandmother, but she insisted. Reluctantly, they obeyed her wish. She died shortly after they left. Dad was in his eighties when he told me this story, crippled from a stroke, and the thought of his grandmother being left behind to die alone haunted him.

That tragic story was gripping and truly haunting. However, subsequent research did not support it. Maria Dyck Zimmermann did not die alone. Her death came 6 April 1905, in Winkler, Manitoba, not quite two years after her family left Russia. She died surrounded by her family and beloved church community. The story of her death is told in a letter written by her husband, Heinrich, that was published in the Zionsbote, the Mennonite Brethren newspaper which circulated throughout the MB world—Canada, the United States, South Russia. Printed in the May 7, 1905 issue, a month after Maria’s death, it was written while H.H. Zimmerman’s grief was fresh. It is a long letter (1500 words), and in it HHZ tells about more than Maria’s death. He tells the story of his life up through Maria’s last days and final release from suffering. The letter is an outpouring of Heinrich’s heart, and the story he tells is no less dramatic and compelling than the one that gripped my father’s imagination.

 The Zionsbote Letter

 I found this letter on my first foray into the Index to the Mennonite Brethren newspaper, the Zionsbote, which is archived at both Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, California and Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas as well as the John A. Toews Library at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. I can read enough German to be able to extract genealogical data from printed material, and when I pulled up this letter on the microfilm reader and read the opening words, “Am Kuban, Russland, bin ich geboren”“I was born in the Kuban, Russia,” I knew that I’d found a treasure. However, my German is not good enough to truly enter the world of the text. That awaited translation by a generous friend who is fluent in German and familiar with old Gothic print.[ii]   Reading that translation when it arrived was like stepping through a door into the past. Suddenly this great-grandfather who died before I was born was alive, speaking to me—a tender-hearted man who sounded very much like my father. I not only learned the basic facts of my great-grandfather’s life journey, I got a glimpse of my great-grandmother Maria as well, her struggle with illness and approaching death, her faith and personality.

That letter not only provided a glimpse into the heart of a man long dead, it provided names and dates that were not in existing family records—data that could be used for further research. What follows is the story that emerged out of both the letter and the research it enabled.

 Born on the Kuban”

 My great-grandfather Zimmermann begins his letter to the Zionsbote by stating that he was born on the Kuban, Russia. That simple statement opens into a whole, vast backstory that connects him to important events not only in the history of the Mennonites in the Russian Empire, but also a tragic history of a whole people, a history that I’d never heard until I began to research “Kuban.”

The Kuban is the region along the Kuban River which flows out of the Caucasus Mountains into the northeast coast of the Black Sea just south of the narrow straight between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The Mennonite settlement where Heinrich Zimmermann was born was on the steppe land just across the Kuban River from the town of Nevinnomyssk, which, when the Mennonites began to arrive in the early-1860s, was only a small settlement around a fort, a fort necessary because this land had long been a battleground in the Russian Empire’s 100 year effort to add the Caucasus region to its empire.

The Kuban River had long been a major frontier line between Russia and the original inhabitants of the Caucasus. Russia held the north bank. South was the region known then as Circassia, the home of a mountain people whose traditional lands covered the northwest side of the Caucasus Mountains and included the entire eastern shore of the Black Sea. The Circassians were not the only mountain people to stubbornly resist the Russian Empire’s land-grab, but they were among the most stubborn. Russia’s military leaders were determined to clear the mountains of as many of these troublesome people as possible. In the late 1850s, Tsar Alexander II approved a plan to resettle Circassians living in the Caucasus to the lowlands along the Kuban River. The military campaigns began in 1860 with orders to sweep the mountain villages and move the people down to the coast. “Columns of the displaced were marched either to the Kuban plains or toward the coast for transport to the Ottoman Empire, which had earlier made provisions for resettling Muslim co-religionists. … One after another, entire Circassian tribal groups were dispersed, resettled, or killed en masse.”[iii]

Historian Charles King, quoted above, says that “the scale of the emigration and the suffering experienced by refugees on the coast seem to have taken the Russians by surprise. Circassians arrived not only with families and the possessions but also with slaves, livestock, and other people and goods. Few provisions had been made for housing them or for safely transporting them either to the Kuban River or, if they desired, to Ottoman ports” (95). The result was misery, suffering and death. Refugees were squeezed onto Ottoman and Russian ships. “Even on the more stable vessels, overcrowding led to dehydration and produced outbreaks of disease. The bodies of the dead were thrown overboard and washed up on the beaches along the entire eastern stretch of the Black Sea. These ‘floating graveyards,’ as contemporary observers called them, would sail into Ottoman ports with only a remnant of their original human cargo alive” (98-99).

The total number of those who were displaced from the Caucusus between 1859 and the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 can only be estimated, but Charles King says that it “may be on the order of two million people, many of whom perished at some point along their journey northward to the plains or across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire” (96).

 Kuban Mennonite Settlement

 The Kuban [Mennonite] settlement was established in the early 1860s in the Northern Caucasus district of Russia, on the Kuban River. With the organization of the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1860, and because of the difficult time members of the new church were experiencing in the Chortitza and Molotschna colonies, Johann Claassen petitioned the government to allow establishment of a new colony. Official permission was granted in 1864.”                                                                 Mennonite Historical Atlas[iv]

Russia considered the Kuban and the entire Caucasus region essential to its interests. Replacing the original inhabitants of the land with people loyal to the Russian Empire was a primary “pacification” strategy.   Mennonites, non-violent farmers known as excellent agriculturalists, suited their purposes nicely. The opening up of the Kuban to settlement suited Mennonite needs as well. By 1860 over 60 percent of Molotschna and 50 percent of Chortitsa Mennonites were without land.[v] The Mennonite colonies were also troubled by religious dissent that resulted in the formation of what became the Mennonite Brethren Church. When leaders in the colonies learned that Russia had land just opening for settlement, they were quick to respond. Their request was granted, the Russian government allowing them 17,500 acres.

Wohldemfürst, the village where my great-grandfather Heinrich was born, began its life in 1862, two years before official surrender by Circassian leaders.   Heinrich was born in 1866—four years after the first Mennonite settlers arrived in the Kuban. His parents must have been among the original settlers, the Mennonite settlement still in its difficult infancy when they arrived and tried to establish a home. The following Mennonite Encyclopedia article on the Kuban, which was written in 1958, not only provides information about the Mennonite settlement, it also gives a glimpse of Mennonite perceptions of the original inhabitants of the Kuban.   They are simply “neighboring natives” with primitive farming methods. There is no evidence of any awareness that these native people had been forcibly relocated from their original home in the mountains onto the steppe land along the Kuban River. What this piece does reveal is the reason why Mennonite settlers were so valuable to the Russian government:

“The early settlement was confronted with serious difficulties. Only 67 of the 100 families for whom land had been granted settled there by 1866. In part the difficulties were internal…. there were also economic difficulties. From the neighboring natives (Tatar, Circassians) with their primitive methods, they could get no help in agriculture. They had to learn by trial and error; gradually cattle raising and fruit culture proved most successful. There was a ready market for the Mennonite bred Red cow; and horses were bought by the army.”

Mennonite stubbornness paid off, and the Kuban settlement began to prosper:

Fruit culture was brought to [a high] state of development. Well-developed nurseries distributed millions of improved strains of fruit trees, berries, and ornamental trees. Industry related to these occupations was also thriving: there were two factories which made farm implements, mills of various kinds, and stores. There was a cooperative for cheese making and grape growers (since 1890), a credit union, a grain storage elevator, and an association of consumers. …

“Intellectual and spiritual life were also maintained on a high level. Their schools, with eight-year courses (ages 7-15) and excellent teachers, were unique for their high standards even among the Mennonites. In addition there was a music club, which owned a hall, and a library club. …

“The settlement achieved great prosperity. The outstanding success of the Mennonites in the Kuban in the fields of pedagogy and agriculture was repeatedly given recognition by the Czarist government, even to the extent of granting titles of personal nobility, more than in any other Mennonite settlement.”[vi]

Heinrich Zimmermann’s parents, however, did not enjoy the prosperity the Kuban Mennonite settlement eventually achieved. They arrived when the land was untamed, the settlers ignorant of its demands. The Zimmermann family experience was one of death and defeat.

 I … lost my father early for I was only four months old.”

 Heinrich Zimmermann says that he was only four months old when his father died. He says that in the opening sentence of his letter. It is the second fact about his life that he gives. But that is the only thing he says about his father. No first name is given; no mention is made about Zimmermann grandparents or other relatives. The father is never mentioned again. He exists only as absence, a gaping void in the life of the little family he left behind.

Heinrich’s father’s death left his widow with two small children living in a land that has been described as wild and dangerous. Whether from accident or illness the death of the young husband and father left the young mother in a terrible fix. It takes little imagination to feel the fear and despair she must have felt. That loss was the overwhelming fact of Heinrich’s childhood and youth. It meant being dependent on relatives; it meant a life of being a burden, of being shuttled from one place to another. Reading what he wrote about his childhood one feels the sense of his knowing that others are thinking and saying to each other, “What’s to become of them? What are we going to do about them?”   Exactly where the widow and her children lived in the Kuban—their own house or with relatives—is not mentioned in HHZ’s letter. Those years are a blank.

 Early Years

 “When I was 5 years old we were driven by an Uncle Gade to the Molotshna to the home of my grandparents Jakob Dever. We were there at my grandparents’ about 4 ½ years, until there was a break. We had to leave my grandparents’ home because everything was being sold. We moved to Klippenfeld by Regehren into the small bedroom. It was pretty crowded. We had lived there about 3 months when my Momma married Abraham Penner from Sergejevka. Things went well for us for the first two years, but then the bad time began. After five years it pleased the dear Lord to fetch my mother home. She died in the clear consciousness that it was the Lord who called her. Now we were also free and we went to the Kuban to our friends. We stayed there three years. My sister Anna got married during that time to David Panretz and I went back to Sergeyevka in order to work there in the factory.”

 Heinrch says that when he was five, which would have been 1871, an Uncle Gade drove the small family to his Dever[vii] grandparents’ home in the Molotschna Colony. That was a long trip, about three days according to accounts in letters written by early settlers.   Traveling by wagon, the family had to head north about 250 miles to get around the Sea of Azov before heading west and traveling another 200 miles to the Molotchna .

For the next 4½ years, Heinrich, his mother[viii] and sister Anna lived in his grandparents’ house. Then, he says, there was some kind of “break.” Everything at his grandparents’ place was being sold. The small family was forced to move again, this time to “Klippenfeld by Regehren”, (Molotschna Colony), where Heinrich, his mother and sister moved “into the small bedroom.”   HHZ says that “it was pretty crowded.” Heinrich would have been about nine in 1875, the year the move to Klippenfeld took place.

The family stayed only a very short time in the crowded house in Klippenfeld. About three months after the move Heinrich’s mother remarried, her new husband, an “Abraham Penner from Sergeyevka.” The family moved again, from Molotschna to the village of Sergeyevka in the Fuerstenland Colony, a distance of about a hundred miles. For two years “things went well.” “But then the bad time began.” HHZ doesn’t give details about that bad time, but his comment later in his letter that he was apprehensive about seeking a wife because “I knew how things had gone at home” hints that there was trouble in his mother’s marriage to Abraham Penner. It also sounds like his mother’s health deteriorated and was part of that “bad time.” Her death came as a release, an end to her struggle and unhappiness. Her death also brought freedom for Heinrich and his sister Anna.

Anna and Heinrich did not hang around their stepfather’s home in Sergeyevka after their mother’s death. Although Heinrich was only about 15, and Anna probably not much older, they picked up and traveled over 400 miles back to their friends in the Kuban. They may not have traveled by wagon this time. The railroad came to the Kuban while they were living in the Molotchna. The line to Vladikavkaz in the Caucasus Mountains, which went by the Mennonite settlement, was finished in 1875. The year the brother and sister returned to the Kuban would have been 1881, and they may have had enough money from their mother’s estate to pay the rail fare.

According to Mennonite inheritance practice, enforceable by law, half of a married couple’s property belonged to the wife. When a married woman died, guardians were appointed to represent the interest of her children. Her husband was then required to draw up an inventory of the couple’s property in consultation with village and church officials. Half of the property was then distributed to her children. The Orphans’ Administration would have overseen all of these proceedings.   I doubt Heinrich’s mother had much of an estate, but it might have been enough to help Heinrich and Anna act on their new freedom.

Anna married a man named David Panretz soon after the return to the Kuban. Heinrich stayed in the Kuban three years. Soon after his sister’s marriage, he decided to go back to Sergeyevka “in order to work there in a factory.” The year he returned would have been 1884. Heinrich turned eighteen March of that year.

Heinrich’s letter makes no further mention of his sister Anna’s life in the Kuban. She may well have spent the rest of her life there. If she lived long enough, she would have seen the destruction of the “great prosperity” the settlement achieved before war and the Soviets destroyed it. HHZ’s last reference to his sister comes at the end of his letter to the Zionsbote. He concludes by saying, “I ask Uncle Kornelius Fehr to give these lines to my sister to read and to send me news.”

 Return to Sergeyevka

 Sometime around the year 1884, Heinrich Zimmermann left the Kuban where he had been living with friends and returned to the village of Sergeyevka in the Fuerstenland, the village where he and his sister Anna had lived with their mother and step-father until their mother’s death three years previously. Fuerstenland, a daughter colony of Chortitza, the original place of Mennonite settlement in South Russia, was created in the 1860s to ease the problem of landlessness in the old colony, to provide farms for its surplus population. But the colony had more than just critically important farmland. It had another valuable resource—access to the Dnieper River, the major shipping route between the Black Sea and Russia proper, critically important for the factories that made their appearance in the later part of the nineteenth century. The Mennonite Historical Atlas[ix] article on the Fuerstenland mentions a Niebuhr factory, which made farm machinery, as well as two flour mills, “one of which was in Sergeyevka.” It was because of the work available in the industries in the village that Heinrich Zimmermann moved to Sergeyevka, work that would allow him to support a wife and children.

 Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905)

 “[The Lord] gave me a wife, namely Maria Dyck from Rosenbach. She was pious and lived in the fear of God, but was also unschooled and also was afraid of those who had learning.”                                                                      H H. Z (Zionsbote 7 May 1905)

“Her mother was a very good natured person, I know that. She told me several times I looked a lot like her mother, because her mother had a high forehead.”                                                                                 Mary Willems Davis

I know very little about my Grandmother Willems’ mother beyond the basic facts: Her first name was Maria and her family name was Dyck. She was born September 23, 1861 and died April 6, 1905 in Winkler, Manitoba. She married Heinrich H. Zimmermann on October 15, 1890. She was 29 years old when she married, 4 ½ years older than her husband. She was 30 years old when she bore her first child, 39 when her last child was born. She gave birth to ten children in less than ten years and must have been sick with tuberculosis during at least some of her pregnancies. Five of those children died, and she almost lost her second daughter, Helena, my grandmother. She was 43 when tuberculosis killed her.

I know even less about Maria Dyck’s family. My aunts Rosie and Mary remember my grandmother saying that her mother came from Prussia, but family records give no names for Maria Dyck’s parents. However, the Dinuba Mennonite Brethren Church membership records, under the entry for Heinrich Zimmerman, states that Maria’s father’s name was Johan Dyck. I have not yet been able to find the name of Maria’s mother, though it may well have been either Maria or Helena since Mennonites in Russia usually gave the name of the mother to the first daughter and the name of the grandmother to the second daughter.

What little else I know about Maria Dyck Zimmermann comes from the l905 letter to the Zionsbote written by her husband, Heinrich Zimmermann. In that letter, Heinrich states that his wife was from Rosenbach. The map of Fuerstenland Colony in the Mennonite Historical Atlas shows a village named Rosenbach on the upper Rogachik River about 13 miles inland from the village of Sergeyevka. Rosenbach was one of the six original villages in the colony, which was established between 1864 and 1870. Maria’s family may have been one of the original families to settle there, but since she was born in 1861—a date that precedes the founding of the colony—she was probably born in the mother colony, Chortitza. Heinrich also says that Maria was “pious” and “unschooled”. Her lack of schooling and fear of learned people may well have been the result of poverty. I would guess that her family was at the lower end of the economic and social ladder.

 The Factory

 Mary: “I think, really, they were quite well to do in Russia. Her dad worked in a –what was it? I thought maybe it was a foundry, but Jack seems to think it was construction. I wouldn’t be surprised because he did that kind of work, making things.”

Heinrich’s letter does not mention what kind of factory he went to work for in Sergeyevka. Mary remembers my father saying that he thought that their grandfather Zimmerman worked in construction in Russia. Construction work would fit with Mary’s and Rosie’s memories of their Grandpa Zimmerman working as a carpenter when he lived in Reedley. They said he built fine cabinets and painted flowers on them, so he may have worked in a furniture factory.

However, Mary also thought it might have been a foundry where her grandfather Zimmerman worked in Russia, and I have found a reference to a foundry in Sergeyevka. An article on Herman Abram Neufeld (1860-1931) in the online Mennonite Encyclopedia states that Neufeld worked at a foundry in Sergeyevka from 1883 till 1890, at which time he became an itinerant MB minister eventually becoming “one of the outstanding leaders of the MB conference in Russia.”   That connection between the foundry and the Mennonite Brethren Church fits with a section of HHZ’s letter in which he tells of the events that led to his marriage to Maria and the conversion experience that resulted in their joining the Mennonite Brethren.


 “For several years then I wandered the paths of sin. I also joined the Mennonite church at that time, but I was not dead. The spirit of God always tormented me and wanted to convert me, but I did not have the power to overcome. Then I was thinking of marriage. That seemed very difficult, for I knew how things had gone at home. I knew no other council than to take refuge in the Lord, for he could help me, and he did, too, and gave me a wife, namely Maria Dyck from Rosenbach. She was pious and lived in the fear of God, but was also unschooled and also was afraid of those who had learning and wouldn’t come along to meetings. That was a great blow for me. Then the dear Lord took hold of my master Johann Martens to the extent that he could not be silent, had to [“abbitten”?] us, his workers, but I was hard and didn’t want to believe him. That was in the morning. By noon I was conquered by the strong man and I had no appetite. My dear wife wouldn’t give up until I told her that Martens wanted to be saved and [I asked her] whether we didn’t also want to. She said yes right away and so we began to pray, she at home and we in the factory. There were other souls who began to cry out to God and the Lord and it was a joy for the dear brothers and sisters to help us and to pray for us.

 “In particular there was a Brother Jacob Janzen there, of whom I am still very fond. It is too bad that he no longer writes. He taught us a lot and prayed with us much and it pleased the Lord to make us poor sinners rich and he gave us peace and forgiveness and then we were baptized in the year 1892 and taken into the community of the Lord. We lived through many blessed times, but also storms, and yet the Lord knew ways and means to keep us as his children. We lived 11 years in faith in Sergejevka.”

Mennonite records show that Heinrich was baptized twice—the first time on 29 May 1890[x] when he joined the Fuerstenland Mennonite church and the second time on 31 March 1892 when he and Maria joined the Mennonite Brethren. The Mennonite Brethren believed in baptism by immersion; the main body of Mennonites did not. The MBs insisted that baptism come after a conversion experience that was definite and precise, what has been termed ‘crisis conversion’. The established Mennonite church required a confession of faith before baptism, but its mode of baptism was by sprinkling. They also did not demand testimony of a specific moment in which the individual “broke through” to an emotional assurance of salvation[xi].

 Memories of Russia

 What do you remember Grandma saying about her early life?

Mary: “Well, the story about her being buried in the sand to get rid of her      rheumatic fever.”

Rosie: “She said it was awfully pretty…. I know she said they would go down to the river, and they were all bathing naked in the river—and I think it was men and women.”

Mary: “She would say how beautiful Russia looked, and they never thought of moving—they loved it there, but when this trouble arose, then they realized they better get out. … And then her mother was sick. And she was the oldest girl. She had to do a lot of work.”

My aunts Rosie and Mary both remember Grandma saying how beautiful it was in South Russia. I have seen copies of old photographs taken in the Mennonite colonies that show charming villages, rolling hills. A couple of photos show people picnicking in a pretty, rocky ravine sheltered by oak trees. But what most gives me a sense of the beauty of that land are the paintings of Chortitza by a Mennonite man, Henry Pauls, who was born in the Chortitza Colony in 1904 and lived there till he emigrated to Canada in 1923. One of those paintings is reproduced on the cover of James Urry’s book, None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889. The painting shows a large, two story white stucco church with a red tile roof set in a dense grove of deciduous trees. A tall white masonry fence defines the front of the church yard from the dirt roadway. The sky is blue and the colors vivid. Another painting reproduced in the book shows the huge, 700 year old Chortitza oak tree surrounded by flowers and a white picket fence, a white stucco house with a red tile roof and shutters at the window in the background. It is the addition of color that makes the difference, I think, but it is also the artist’s style. These are memory paintings, paintings of a much- loved place and time, an attempt to preserve a valued past that no longer exists.

Sergeyevka, Grandma’s village, was about 50 miles southwest of the Chortitza Colony. It, too, was on the Dnieper River, and the land around her village may well have looked much like it did around Chortitza with rolling hills and tree-filled ravines. The river where Grandma saw men and women bathing naked was either the Dnieper or the Rogachik, which entered the Dnieper at Sergeyevka. That confluence of rivers likely built up the sand in which Grandma was buried when she had rheumatic fever.

Birth, Illness, Death

 [We] experienced many difficult hours because of illness and death, for we had to bury five children in that time, of whom two were very ill; my [dear] wife was also very ill, she especially suffered in her lungs, but the very good doctor Johann Braun was there who gave her medicine and God added his blessing, so that she could live.”                                                                                                H H. Z (Zionsbote 7 May 1905)

South Russia may have been beautiful and well loved, but life there was also hard at times. Mary and Rosie both mention that Grandma’s mother was very sick with tuberculosis and that Grandma herself had rheumatic fever when she was a young girl. But those two illnesses were just a fraction of the “difficult hours” the family knew. Grandma’s father, Heinrich, in his 1905 letter to the Zionsbote, states that they had to bury five children in Russia. That is a fearsome toll. Heinrich says that he and Maria had a total of ten children, only five of whom survived.

 Leaving Russia

 “She would say how beautiful Russia looked, and they never thought of moving—they loved it there, but when this trouble arose, then they realized they better get out.”                                                                                           Mary Willems Davis

“Steadily the Mennonite commonwealth began to take the shape of what would be spoken of as ‘a state within a state.’ This self-perception of a separate Mennonite political order within the Russian state was shared—but with an increasingly negative sense—by conservative sections of Russian society and contributed to the sustained political attacks on Mennonites and other colonists from the late 1880s onwards.”         James Urry, Mennonite Politics and Peoplehood: Europe-Russia-Canada 1525 to 1980[xii]

To pick up and move thousands of miles from one country to another is a huge undertaking. It takes money, and it takes initiative, enormous initiative, to leave all that is known and familiar for a place that is unknown, never seen. When the homeland is beautiful and beloved, the reasons for leaving have to be very strong before people will leave it.

In 1903 the Mennonite colonies in South Russia looked very different than they did in 1875 when the Willems and Boldt families left for North America. Photographs taken around the turn of the century show beautiful brick schools and churches, hospitals, a psychiatric institution, a nice looking orphanage. These are big buildings, the brick work elaborate. There are also photos of large factories and mills.[xiii] Industrialization had come to South Russia, and Mennonites were in the forefront of that development. They built huge mills to grind the wheat they grew on their farms into flour; they developed and built farm machinery that they shipped and sold throughout the wheat growing regions. They read newspapers and books. They knew what was going on in Russia and the larger world, and they aggressively looked after the interests of the Russian Mennonite world. The Mennonite colonies in the 1890s—1900s were very prosperous, but that very prosperity brought problems.

The steppe land where Heinrich and Maria were born had undergone great change during the course of their lives. Rich seams of iron and coal had been discovered. This discovery, along with the region’s proximity to the Black Sea, lead to the development of heavy industry. Migration into the area from other regions of the Russian Empire combined with a high birth rate resulted in explosive population growth.   New towns were built, not just farming hamlets but manufacturing and administrative centers as well. The Zimmermann’s homeland had become “one of the most rapidly modernizing regions of the Russian Empire.” This rapid change brought new economic opportunities, but as James Urry notes, the increase in prosperity was “uneven, even wrenching, and brought in its wake much instability and tension.”[xiv]

In 1914, when Russia joined England and France in the war against Germany, the Mennonite colonies were in the midst of what Mennonites came to see as a golden time, a time of economic and cultural flourishing. However, all was not golden. The trouble that my aunt Mary Davis says that the Zimmermanns “smelled” was very real. Not only was Mennonite prosperity resented by people who did not share their charter of privileges, they were resented because they were a people who insisted on remaining separate from the surrounding society. And they were not only resented, they began to look like a threat to national security. Their beloved, stubbornly retained German language connected them to both Germany and the German language Austro-Hungarian Empire, countries that began to look more and more like potential enemy states, a darkening threat on Russia’s western border. Conservative newspapers began what became a sustained attack on German speaking people living in Russian territory, including the privileged and prosperous Mennonites, accusing them of disloyalty, insinuating that they “secretly pledged allegiance to the German Kaiser and Reich.”[xv]

The Zimmerman’s left Russia in 1903. Eleven years later the series of events began that destroyed the Mennonite world in South Russia. War with Germany was followed by the Communist Revolution and the reign of Stalin. The Mennonites of Russia suffered terribly in those years. Famine and mass starvation followed war.   Crops and animals were destroyed, people tortured and killed. Then, in the 1930s came the deliberate dispersal of the Mennonite who had survived. Families were deported to Siberia and Central Asia; leaders were arrested and never seen again. If the Zimmerman’s had not “smelled trouble”—if they had stayed Russia—they, too, would have been caught up in those terrible times.

Copyright: Loretta Willems, July 1, 2015


[i] Obituary written by the family and read at my grandmother’s funeral 1963 (my aunt Helen, the oldest daughter, is the likely author.

[ii] Linda Schelbitzki Pickle. Linda is the author of Contented Among Strangers: Rural German-Speaking Women and Their Families in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest (University of Illinois Press), 1996. This book includes Linda’s translations of journals and letters written by Mennonite women.

[iii] Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 95.

[iv] William Schroeder & Helmut Huebert. Mennonite Historical Atlas, 2nd ed. (Winnipeg: Springfield Publishers, 1996), p. 119.

[v] James Urry. None but Saints: The transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889 (Hyperion Press, Ldt., 1989), p. 1989.

[vi] Theodor Block, “Kuban Mennonite Settlement (Northern Caucasus, Russia).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, (1958). Retrieved 01 February 2009.

[vii] Dever is an alternate spelling of Defehr. A Jakob Defehr is listed among the signers of the December 30, 1863 letter to Russian officials regarding the Kuban settlement [see Alan Peters, “Brotherhood and Family: Implications of Kinship in Mennonite Brethren History,” P.M. Friesen and His History: Understanding Mennonite Brethren Beginnings, Abraham Friesen, ed. (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1979.] Jakob Defehr and his wife Aganetha are included on the 1864 List of Families Intending to Settle in the Kuban Colony found in the records of the Guardianship Committee for Foreign Settlers in Southern Russia. The entry also states that the couple have a “non-landowners house together with a blacksmith’s shop.” Their total assets were valued at 635 rubles (38 out of the 73 families had less, some nothing). Their names are not included, however, in the 1869 Kuban Census. There are no Zimmermann’s on the list. The young couple may have settled on the Defehr allotment.

[viii] Heinrich’s mother’s first name was likely Anna. Mennonite naming practice was to give the mother’s name to the first born daughter. The 1858 Census for the Molotschna Colony lists a Jacob Devehr of Prangenau, and the Molotschna School Records for 1853-1855 lists an Anna, daughter of Jacob DeFehr of Prangenau, age 11 who missed 23 days in the summer of 1854. This Anna DeFehr would have been born sometime during the year 1843. She would have been around 23 when Heinrich was born in 1866.

[ix] Mennonite Historical Atlas, Fuerstenland Mennonite Settlement”: “Fuerstenland was founded between 1864 and 1870 as a daughter colony of Chortitza. The land, south-west of a bend of the Dniepr River, was rented from the Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevitch, originally for one and a quarter, then gradually up to 14 rubles per dessiatine. Each of the original six villages …had from 18 to 35 farms. On or after 1874 a total of about 1,100 people emigrated to Manitoba, settling in the West Reserve. In 1911 the Fuerstenland population was 1,800…“Besides the usual agriculture, industry in Fuerstenland included two flour mills, one of which was in Sergeyevka, and a Niebuhr factory in Olgafeld.”                                   

[x] Fuerstenland Colony, South Russia. Baptism Register: 1885-1932.

[xi] See John B. Toews, Perilous Journey: The Mennonite Brethren in Russia 1860-1910 (Winnipeg MB Canada & Hillsboro, KS USA: Kindred Press, 1988), pp. 48-49; also Brunk, George R. III and S. F. Pannabecker.” Conversion.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 26 Apr 2015.

 [xii] James Urry, Mennonite Politics and Peoplehood: Europe-Russia-Canada 1525 to 1980, University of Manitoba Press, 2006, p. 106.

[xiii] Rudy P. Friesen, Building on the Past: Mennonite Architecture, Landscapes and Settlement in Russia/Ukraine. Raduga Publications, 1996.

[xiv] Harvey L. Dyck. A Mennonite in Russia: The Diaries of Jacob D. Epp 1851-1880, translated and edited with Introduction and Analysis by Harvey L. Dyck. University of Toronto Press, p. 7-8.

[xv]Conservative forces had been increasingly concerned with the negative influence of non-Russian, non-Slavic, and non-Orthodox elements in the Empire’s affairs, and such concerns also generated increased anti-Semitism against the Empire’s Jewish populations” Urry, p. 106.

5 thoughts on “Chapter 8: Russia: 1866-1903

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