Chapter 9: The Zimmermanns 1903-1905

Note: This is the second part of the Zimmermann history. The story begins in Chapter 8: Russia 1866-1903.  It can be read by clicking on that title in the list of Chapters in the sidebar on the right or bottom of the page.

“In the year 1903 [Heinrich H. Zimmermann] emigrated to America with his family where they settled near Winkler in Manitoba.                                                                   HHZ Obituary, Zionsbote 12 Sep 1934

“Toasted zwieback have a very long shelf life. When properly toasted, they do not turn rancid nor do they become moldy. Consequently, they make excellent travel rations. Immigrant and refugee diaries are full of references to travel baskets filled with toasted buns” (54).                                                                                                                                                                   Mennonite Foods and Folkways from Russia[i]

Family records state that the Zimmermann family “left Russia, 28 July 1903 and arrived Halifax in August 1903.”   The mass migration of Mennonites from Russia to North America was over when they made the long trip. Mennonite immigrants no longer traveled as part of a group taking advantage of group rates and accommodations negotiated by the more worldly wise members of the community.   Migration now took greater individual initiative.

However, though Mennonite migration to North America had slowed to a trickle, migration from Central Europe had increased, and migration from the land that is now Ukraine became standardized and efficient. Individual migrants could now obtain package deals that would take them from the Ukraine all the way to the German ports of Hamburg or Bremen where they would board the ship that was to take them across the Atlantic. The Zimmermanns could well have been the only Mennonites on the train that took them to their ship, but they would not have been the only immigrants from the Dnieper River region. Ukrainian immigration into the Canadian prairies was heavy. Below is historian Gerald Friesen’s description of a scene the Zimmermann’s may well have witnessed and in part experienced:

As families of Ukrainians left their villages in Galicia or Bukowina, a dance or parade and a church blessing would mark their departure. A cart ride would take them to the city and the railway. As they passed through Germany in fourth-class train carriages, buttons or ribbons affixed to their coats to distinguish their shipping line, they found hawkers on the station platforms selling sandwiches and drinks. When they arrived at Hamburg, they learned that entire streets of lodging-houses were ready to provide shelter in exchange for their scarce cash. Bags roped shut, children clutched firmly by hand, the families endured the line-ups for medical inspection, vaccination certificates, baggage fumigation, and steamship places, and then, finally, they were shepherded up the gangway to the ship.”

Steerage passengers in ships carrying immigrants before 1890 slept in large lower-deck dormitories with bunks lining the walls and long tables down the center. By the time the Zimmermanns made that trip, however, there were “compartments for single men and women as well as family cabins.” There were also separate dining and public rooms. However, toilets and washing areas still tended to be minimal—“primitive” and “unsavory.” Food was usually adequate, though plain and not particularly appetizing. In general, steerage class on the ships out of northern European ports was tolerable even though cramped, smelly, and crowded.”

Travel by first and second class was a completely different experience: “restaurants offered linen and silver on the tables, as well as painted ceilings and mahogany paneling; [passengers] listened to string orchestras in the lounges; their staterooms, each equipped with a steward, featured carpet on the floor, double beds, easy chairs, and discreet lighting; but, of course, such accommodation was available only to a limited number of wealthy travelers, few of whom were likely to be emigrants.”[ii]

I have not been able to find the name of the ship that carried the Zimmermann’s from Europe to Canada; however, there is a tiny glimpse of it in my Aunt Rosie’s memory of her mother telling her about a ballroom where she peeked at the people dancing—a ballroom with dancing couples sounds like a regular passenger liner, one with first-class accommodations. Grandma’s family did not travel first-class, I’m sure, but evidently they were not stuck somewhere deep in the hold. Her memory of watching the dancers is evidence that she had freedom to move around and explore.

My grandmother was ten years old when she and her family made that trip, old enough to get out on her own and follow her curiosity, see what was going on in the other parts of the ship. She probably elicited no comment as she moved among the fine people on the upper decks. She would not have looked like a foreign urchin to be shooed back down into steerage. Young girls in photos of Mennonites in South Russia taken in the 1890s and 1900s look no different from those in photographs taken in North America during that same period—dresses are prints and plaids with various decorative trimming, hair pulled back into braids, heads uncovered. And in a school photo I inherited from my father that was taken in Manitoba in 1904, my grandmother looks very similar. Wearing a white cardigan sweater over a grey dress, she looks neat and clean, nicely dressed. The Mennonites in Russia had not just become aware of ideas circulating in the larger European world, they knew how the people who read those books and newspapers dressed. Russian Mennonites were no longer peasants. They had begun to move into the European middle-class.

 Canada: Arrival

 “Arrival was exciting for everyone. Passengers pushed forward to the rails to catch the first sight of land, cheered as the port came into view, rushed to collect their belongings and children, to put on their best clothes, or to have a last wash or shave as the horns and whistles sounded to announce arrival at the dock. What followed was bedlam: the noise, the confusion, the strangeness of the place and the language or the accent, the difficulty ascertaining where to go and what to do; hawkers’ cries, children’s talk, officials’ orders, baggage handlers’ oaths; medical inspection followed by immigration review followed by money changing, food purchases, a search for baggage, and, finally release from the immigration sheds and into the streets. If one was fortunate, one purchased without undue strain a ticket on a ‘colonist car’ to western Canada, … If fortune smiled, the family’s belongings would remain intact. Inevitably, however, some people lost items of value.”[iii]

Halifax, Nova Scotia was Canada’s port of immigrant entry—its Ellis Island. According to family records this was where the Zimmermanns arrived as well. But Halifax, though eagerly anticipated while on shipboard, was just a way station. They still had half a continent to traverse. Ahead was a long, long train trip, one that felt almost endless to most who took it.

From Halifax, immigrants to Canada’s prairies traveled west through New Brunswick headed for Quebec and the St. Lawrence River corridor to Montreal and Ottawa. Leaving Ottawa they headed inland through the sparsely populated boreal forest of the Canadian Shield north of the Great Lakes, “the bush,” as Canadians refer to it, skirting Lake Superior above Thunder Bay, Ontario, before heading west and a bit north through the wilderness to Winnipeg, Manitoba, a journey of about 1,600 miles. Here again, Gerald Friesen:

“The colonist cars became little communities in themselves. The wooden seats could be made up into berths … At the end of [the] car was a tiny kitchen for the preparation of simple meals. Armed with ‘yards of tickets’ and a few supplies, the immigrants embarked upon the rough and, even for romantics, seemingly endless train journey through the trees and lakes of the Shield. The ride was interrupted by quick sorties to railside stores in the northern Ontario bush and by long waits on sidings for priority trains to roar through. Inevitably, talk turned to the future and to inquiries about ‘what it was like ’” (254).

Arriving in Winnipeg, the Zimmermanns were almost at their destination. The town of Winkler was just 60 miles south on a rail spur that connected it to the Canadian Pacific Railway, and in Winkler they were again in Mennonite land, among people who still spoke Plautdietsch even though they had been in Canada almost 30 years. The West Reserve, as it was called, was a block settlement of Russian Mennonites who arrived in Canada in 1874-875, many of whom were from the Fuerstenland Colony, the colony where Sergeyevka, the Zimmerman’s old home, was located. In 1903, the Mennonite community around Winkler was well established, but it was still a recognizably Low German Mennonite world. They would have seen Mennonites in the streets and in the stores. They would have had no trouble talking with most of the people around them. In Winkler there was also a Mennonite Brethren Church. It was this, the MB congregation, that was the likely magnet that guided their journey from Russia, gave them a concrete destination as they made their travel arrangements and bought their tickets. Here were people who would welcome them, help them find a place to live, introduce them to Canada, their new home.

 Winkler, Manitoba: The Death of Maria

 My Aunt Rosie says that when the Zimmermann family first arrived in Winkler they stayed with a family named Hiebert.[iv]   I have no idea how long that stay lasted.   However, the letter Heinrich Zimmermann wrote to the Zionsbote, definitely gives the impression the family was living in their own place in the months leading up to Maria’s death. Whether they lived in town or on a farm, the letter gives no hint. Nor does it give any indication of how the family lived, their means of financial support. Did HHZ get carpentry work of some kind, perhaps? He had worked in a factory in Russia. He was not a farmer. Did the church help them financially, I wonder? One thing though is very clear—Maria’s tuberculosis got worse in Canada, and her illness and eventual death dominated the house in which the family lived. Below is the story of Maria’s last days as told by her husband, Heinrich, in his letter to the Mennonite Brethren newspaper, the Zionsbote, that he wrote soon after her death.

 Zionsbote 17 May 1905

Maria Dyck Zimmermann

Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905)

“In the last years we started thinking about going to America, but there were many hindrances, so that it didn’t seem at all possible. [We] asked the Lord and made plans, that if God wanted to make it so, we would understand that it was his will, and He brought everything to pass that it came about and he led us here and through all of the difficulties. So we cannot understand it except as the will of God. But yet I now ask God, why so? –For when we arrived here, my dear wife soon became ill.

 “It was like a fever, and it did not leave her. When we saw that the illness became more severe, we sought the help of a doctor, but it seemed as if none of that would help. In the previous year, she thought she would leave us here and go home, [but] that didn’t work out. She often said [she would go] if we all could go at the same time. So she lay around the entire time that we were here but could take care of everything with the help of the dear children until the end of September 1904, then she couldn’t get up any more, but she lay down thinking that she would soon be able to go home. God made her willing to let us go and then she wanted to go home, but the dear Lord thought differently.

 “At that time there was a Conference here and several of the guests visited us; may God reward them for it. Then my dear wife kept looking to the future, how much longer she would have to stay here [in this world]; until Christmas that was too long, by then she would be over there. She often said: I have been sick for so long, surely the dear Lord will not leave me here long.

 “But Christmas came and went and her longing was not fulfilled. When Elder Brother David Dyck had been here once, when I wasn’t at home, he said that that could last until spring. Then she was completely discouraged, but the Lord helped us, he knows how to deal with his children. So she lay there until the beginning of February, until then she was still able to get up to go to the bathroom, if I helped her, but then that no longer worked, she was suddenly too weak, she couldn’t move her legs anymore; then I carried her as well as I could. That probably wasn’t always very nice for her, but she was very content, she was so happy that the dear brothers and sisters had taken such good care of us, that she always consoled me that they would take good care of me, too, when she was gone and it is so, may God reward each one, for it is written: “All that you have done for the least of these, that you have done for me.”

 “Two weeks before her end, it seemed as if things might get better; she could sit in a rocking chair, we could even rock her, and when we sat there in the evenings and talked about how the Lord had led and guided us and that we would perhaps still be able to stay together and settle somewhere, then she became cheerful, that she also wanted to stay here, but it wasn’t long until the illness increased, her breath became shorter and shorter, her pains ever greater and her desire ever stronger to go home, so that she preferred us to talk about heavenly things or to sing beautiful songs to her. In particular she liked the song 690 in the Glaubensstimme and Brother Warkentin often had to sing it to her.

 “She had an especially hard time of it the last night. Brother Dyck was here when the illness was so bad that she sweated profusely and her breathing so difficult that she asked us again and again to sing and to pray. Once she asked Brother Dyck to pray over her, for so it was written, and the dear brother did it, we prayed together. At 4 o’clock Brother Dyck went home and I sat with her, but the trouble did not leave her. At 6 o’clock I woke the children and we tended to her, but I kept wiping the sweat from her. When I was tending her, she asked me to wash her and to make up the bed. When I had washed her, I lay her on a bench in order to make the bed and when I had laid her down she said: “So, now give me some water.” I did it. When she had drunk, she made a bit of a face and died. She stayed lying there as she was, she didn’t even straighten out her legs. It was Thursday, the 6th of April.

 “We held her funeral on Sunday in the meeting house, so that everyone could attend. And many guests had come. Yes, dear brothers and sisters, only one who has experienced the same thing can truly sympathize, people said that to me when my wife was still alive and I have to agree. It goes very deep, when the Lord reaches so deep, but those are thoughts of love, that’s what we read in his word, and yet it hurts so much. My wish is that the Lord may take care of me and console me. May all be heartily greeted by me with Psalm 116. Please, pray for us. My wife asked that greetings be sent to all the brothers and sisters in Serjegevka, and also those who have moved away from there, with the song from Zionslieder Number 45: ‘On the Beautiful Golden Beach’. I ask Uncle Kornelius Fehr to give these lines to my sister to read and to send me news.

H.H. Zimmermann. My address is: Winkler, Manitoba, Canada*                        *(Translated by Linda S. Pickle, 2 January 1997)


 The death of Maria Dyck Zimmermann left five children without a mother, five young children. Grandma, the oldest, was only twelve years old; her sister Anna just eleven; Henry, the oldest boy, was nine; Marie, the youngest sister, would not turn six until the following June; Jacob, the baby, was only three years old, would turn four on May 21. Grandma’s childhood pretty much ended with her mother’s illness and death. All the children would have done what they could to help, but as the oldest girl she was the one who had the primary responsibility for the work her mother could not do.

 In the care of the church

 “She was so happy that the dear brothers and sisters had taken such good care of us, that she always consoled me that they would take good care of me, too, when she was gone and it is so.”

 Maria’s consoling words that the “dear brothers and sisters” would continue to take care of Heinrich after she was gone proved true. One year after Maria’s death Heinrich married my grandfather’s mother, Elisabeth Boldt Willems, who was part of the Brotherfield congregation near Waldheim, Saskatchewan, a marriage my family says was arranged by the church.   Heinrich became one of the preachers (Prediger) in that congregation as well as one of the ordained preachers of the South Reedley (later Dinuba) MB church after his and Elisabeth’s move to California in 1926.

Maria’s death was the last in the string of deaths among Heinrich’s loved ones. Maria bore ten children during the 14 years of their marriage, all of whom were born in Russia. Five of those children died in Russia: all five of those who made it to Canada lived to marry and have children of their own. Heinrich did not have to bury any more children. His own death did not come until August 29, 1934. Elisabeth Boldt Willems Zimmerman, the wife the church found for him wrote his Zionsbote obituary.


[i] Norma Jost Voth. Mennonite Foods and Folkways from Russia, vol.1. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1990.

[ii] Gerald Friesen. The Canadian Prairies: A History (University of Toronto Press, 1984), pp 252-254.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] The Hiebert’s daughter lived next door to my aunt Rosella Willems Noble when she lived on Maple Street in Selma, California.

Copyright: Loretta Willems, August 1, 2015

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