“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. In 1906, she moved with her parents to Waldheim, Saskatchewan. There she was joined in holy wedlock to Jacob C. Willems on February 6, 1909. This union was blessed with 7 sons and 8 daughters, of which 1 son and 1 daughter preceded her in death. In 1919, she, together with her family moved to Reedley, California, and has since resided in this community.” (Obituary, 1963)
Over half the population, however, stayed in Russia. The czarist government, alarmed by the mass exodus of valuable farmers decided to allow the Mennonites to substitute forestry service and hospital work for active military service. Although, the government insisted that Russian was to be the language of instruction in Mennonite schools, for the most part the Mennonites were allowed to continue governing the internal affairs of their colonies. The colonies prospered. New secondary schools and hospitals were established. Mennonite entrepreneurs built large wheat mills and farm implement factories.
That veritable Golden Age of Mennonite culture ended abruptly, drastically in 1914 when Russia entered WWI. All of Russia suffered terribly in the years that following. War with Germany was followed by civil war that brought anarchy and violence, disease and famine. In the Ukraine, the Red and White armies fought back and forth across the land. Soldiers confiscated food and livestock. Outlaws roamed the countryside attacking farms and villages, raping, torturing, maiming, killing. Resented for their wealth, suspect because of their German language and separatist culture, Mennonites became special targets, easy targets in the prevailing lawlessness, a situation that intensified with the victory of the Bolsheviks.
In the summer of 1920, Mennonites in North America and the Netherlands concerned about the situation in Russia sent a commission to investigate. What they found was massive hunger and a land devastated by disease. Drought had struck the war-ravaged lands, and Russia was in the grip of massive famine, one in which millions of Russians would starve to death before it ended in 1924. Mennonites around the world organized to get food into the Ukraine, organized soup kitchens, distributed food and clothing, shipped in tractors to replace horses slaughtered for food, provided seed for replanting once the drought ended.
The end of the famine eased the Mennonites’ plight. They were no longer starving, but it did not end their troubles. Seen as “kulaks” by the Soviets, their farms were confiscated, the churches and schools were seized, the preachers and teachers arrested. Mennonite life in Russia was doomed. All who could escaped—escaped with the help Mennonites all over the world. Mennonite leaders negotiated with the Soviets to allow people to leave Russia. They negotiated with government leaders in North and South America to accept the refugees. Churches raised money to pay for trains and ships to carry the desperate people thousands of miles to the places that were to become their new homes.
Canada accepted 21,000 refugees, Paraguay 3,000. The majority of Mennonites in Russia, however, were not able to escape before the Soviets clamped down and refused any further emigration. The Mennonites who remained in Russia effectively disappeared behind the Soviet wall until the end of WWII when about 35,000 Mennonites followed the German army out of the Ukraine. Most of them did not make it to safety. Many died along the way. Others were captured and sent back. Approximately 12,000 did make it to Germany and the refugee camps set up by Dutch and North American Mennonite. Half of the refugees were resettled in the Chaco of Paraguay and Uruguay, the other half in Canada.
Helena Zimmermann, my Grandma Willems, was born in 1893. If her parents had not decided to emigrate to North America in 1903, she would have been 21 when Russia entered WWI in 1914. She would have experienced the famine and terror that descended on the Mennonite colonies. I and all my Willems aunts, uncles and cousins, sisters and children exist because Grandma’s parents made that fateful decision and acted on it.