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 26, 2013

Memories of Russia

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. 

            Both my Aunt Rosie and Aunt Mary 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 stone or 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.


 ____:  “What other things 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.” 

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. Zimmermann

  And then her mother was sick.  And she was the oldest girl. She had to do a lot of work.”                                                                                              Mary Willems Davis
            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.  That is a 50% mortality rate.

Below is a list of the names and dates of birth/death that was among the information Aunt Mary gave me.  Those with an asterisk beside their name had their name “reused,” given to the next baby of the same sex born after their death as was common among the Mennonites of South Russia.  You will also notice that there are only eight names here; only three children who died are included on the list.  The other two births were likely infants who died soon after birth.  

The Children of Heinrich and Maria Dyck Zimmermann

Marie*             born January 6, 1892               --died March 17, 1899
            Helena            born February 5, 1893
            Anna               born April 25, 1894
            Henry              born December 4, 1895
            Katherine*      born February 22, 1897           —died January 29, 1899
            Marie               born June 25, 1899
            Jacob*             born June 25, 1899                  —died February 11, 1900
            Jacob               born May 21, 1901
The family suffered two deaths early in 1899—Katherine on January 29 and Marie on March 17.   Two births are listed for June 25, 1899.  Evidently, Marie, Grandma’s youngest sister was born a twin.  This is the first instance of twins I’ve heard of in my family.