My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

The Zimmermanns

“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.”[1]                                                                                                                                                                    
            My grandmother, Helena (Lena) Zimmerman Willems, was born in a Mennonite village on the south/east 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 Fürstenland, a daughter colony of Chortitza, the first colony established by the Mennonites in the steppe land bordering the Black Sea.  Grandma spent the first ten years of her life in that village, and she remembered it after she left.  She remembered seeing people bathing naked in the river; she remembered being very sick—rheumatic fever, and being buried in the river sand to bring down her temperature.  When her daughters asked Grandma what this place looked like, she said it was beautiful.  Her parents didn’t want to leave south Russia, but they “smelled trouble,” and decided it was necessary.

            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.  I have known that basic information since what feels like forever, but exactly when and where Grandma’s mother died was hazy.  My dad told me that his mom’s mother was sick when the time came for the family to leave South Russia—so sick she knew she was going to die, and she told her family they must go without her.  They didn’t want to, but she insisted.  Reluctantly, they obeyed her wish.  She died shortly after they left.  Dad told me this story in the early 1990s.  He was almost eighty years old, crippled from a stroke, and the thought of that his Grandmother Maria Dyck Zimmerman being left behind to die haunted him. 

Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905)

            My dad’s dramatic story is not supported by family records:  1) The obituary written for Grandma’s funeral says that she arrived in Winkler, Manitoba, Canada in 1903 “with her parents.” 2)  The record of Zimmerman family births, deaths and emigration dates received from my dad’s sister Mary gives April 6, 1905 as Maria Dyck Zimmermann’s death date.

            Grandma’s mother, Maria Dyck Zimmermann, died almost two years after the family arrived in Canada.  She was not left behind in Russia.  She did not die alone.  She died surrounded by her family.  That story of her death is described in a letter written by her husband, H.H. Zimmermann, which I found in the archives of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.  It was written just a month after Maria Dyck Zimmermann’s death, and it is no less dramatic and compelling than the one that gripped my father’s imagination.  The letter was addressed to the readers of the Zionsbote, the Mennonite Brethren newspaper that circulated throughout the MB world—Canada, the United States, South Russia.  It was printed in the May 7, 1905 issue, written while H.H. Zimmerman’s grief was fresh, an out-pouring of his heart.  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.  I shall begin that story next week.

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