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, April 5, 2013

Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934): 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 Serjegevka.  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 Serjegevka in order to work there in the factory.”
                                                            H. H. Zimmermann letter (Zionsbote 7 May 1905)[i]

             H.H. Zimmermann’s father died when he was only four months old.  His mother was left a widow with two small children living on a piece of undeveloped land in a territory that has described as wild and dangerous, a place of exile.  The year was 1866.  The Kuban colony was barely started, still struggling.  The family in some kind of temporary housing when Heinrich’s father died.  Whether from accident or illness is unknown, but one thing is certain—the death of her husband left that young widow in a terrible fix.  It takes little imagination to feel the fear and despair she must have felt. 

The loss of Heinrich’s father was the overwhelming fact of his 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, in their own place or with relatives, is not mentioned in HHZ’s letter.  The years they lived in the Kuban are a blank. 

Then, when HHZ was five, which would have been 1871, “an Uncle Gade drove the small family to the village of Prangenau in the Molotschna where his grandfather,  Jakob Dever[ii], had a rented house and blacksmith’s shop[iii].  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 and sister Anna lived in his grandparent’s house. Then there was some kind of “break.”  His grandfather’s home was sold; Heinrich, his mother and sister Anna could no longer live there.  They moved to “Klippenfeld by Regehren”, (Molotschna Colony), where they moved “into the small bedroom.”   HHZ says that “it was pretty crowded.”  Whether the house was his grandparents’, or the house of another relative is not clear.  But I would guess that Jakob Dever sold the original place in order to retire, and that the widow and her two children accompanied her parents.  Heinrich would have been about nine in 1875, the year the move to Klippenfeld took place, the same year the Willems family left Russia for North America.

The family stayed only a very short time in the crowded Dever house in Klippenfeld.  About three months after the move his mother remarried, her new husband, an “Abraham Penner from Serjegevka.”  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” gives a sense that there was trouble in his mother’s marriage to Abraham Penner .  It also sounds like his mother’s health deteriorated, was part of that “bad time” and that her death came as a release, an end to Heinrich’s mother’s 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 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 went by the Mennonite settlement.  It 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 18 in 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.”

[i] Translated by Linda S. Pickle, 3 January 1997.
[ii] The name Dever is also spelled Devehr, De Fehr, Defehr,  Fehr.  HHZ addresses an “Uncle Kornelius Fehrat the end of his letter.  He would have been a male relative of his mother—a  brother or uncle perhaps.
[iii] The name of the village, Prangenau, comes from his obituary.  The information about the house and blacksmith shop was found in the 1864 List of Families Intending to Settle in the Kuban Colony, “as found in the records of the Guardianship Committee for Foreign Settlers in Southern Russia (fund 6, Inventory 5, File 278) in the Odessa Region State Archives, Odessa, Ukraine” (translated by Tim Janzen).