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, May 3, 2013

Leaving Russia: Zimmermanns 1903

“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.”                                                                                                                                                                                           Obituary 1963

Grandma was ten years old when her family made the long trip that took them from their home in South Russia to Canada where they hoped to make a new home.  The family records I received from Aunt Mary state that the Zimmermans “left Russia, 28 July 1903 and arrived Halifax in August 1903.    I would love to know the name of that ship and its port of departure but thus far, my search attempts have been unsuccessful.  The Zimmermann’s, unlike the Willems and Boldt families, were not part of the 1873-1885 mass migration of Mennonites from Russia to North America.  They were likely the only Mennonites on their ship.  Its passenger list is not among those collected in Mennonite archives.  I have tried Google,, etc., but thus far have found no Heinrich Zimmermann born even close to1866, his year of birth. 

We do, however, have a small glimpse of the ship that carried the Zimmerman family across the Atlantic.  Aunt Rosie remembers Grandma 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.  I’m almost positive that Grandma’s family did not travel first-class, 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.  I would love to know what she looked like as she explored that ship.    

 Zwieback: TheTrusty Travel Companions”

“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.”
                             Norma Jost Voth,  Mennonite Foods and Folkways from Russia, vol.1[i]
Like the earlier generation of Mennonite emigrants from Russia, Grandma’s family may well have carried large wicker hampers of zwieback to eat on their long trip to North America.  However, Grandma and her family probably looked much less “Russian,” than the immigrants who traveled during the mass migration of the 1870s.  Pencil drawings in an illustrated newspaper article about the Russian Mennonites arriving in Kansas dated March 20, 1875, show a people who look very Russian, very foreign.  Women wear full, dark, ankle-length skirts with white or black aprons.  White kerchiefs pulled low on their foreheads are tied behind their heads, hiding all their hair.  Men wear great-coats, high Russian boots with blousy pant legs tucked into them and flat Russian caps or high, straight-sided Astrakan hats.   Photos taken in South Russia in the 1890s and 1900s look very different.   There are no short skirts and distinctive white kerchiefs; no blousy pants tucked into big Russian boots.  Though many women still wear aprons, skirts are long, down to the ground.   Their hair is visible now, at times completely uncovered, at others loosely covered with a shawl or topped with a hat, some of which look very fashionable.  Men’s pant legs are narrow and straight, hang down to the tops of their shoes.  Some men still wear flat Russian caps, but other hats are no different from those worn in North American cities of the time.   The young girls in those photos look like 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.  

Grandma probably looked much like other girls her age on the ship.  Her parents, however, may well have looked more like immigrants—her father perhaps wearing a flat Russian cap, her mother wearing an apron over a long dark dress, a shawl over her head.  They would have looked European, I think, but not nearly as “foreign”—as “Russian”—as the Mennonites who emigrated during the mass migration a quarter of a century earlier.


“They smelled trouble so they moved to Canada.”                                                               

     “The end of the Crimean War in 1856 marked the start of a dynamic age of sweeping economic and social changes in New Russia that continued until 1914.  In 1861 serfdom was abolished, removing one of the main obstacles to change.  High birth rates and internal migration led to a rapid increase in population throughout the area. The steppe grasslands, where cattle and sheep had grazed, were now ploughed up for grain growing and new villages sprang up.  Rail and steamship lines were developed to knit together the region, linking it to imperial centers in the north and to export markets in the south.  Furthermore, rich seams of coal and iron ore running east-west along hilly ridges through the centre of the region enabled New Russia to play a leading role in Russia’s industrialization.

     As the prairie soil was turned, rails laid down, mines dug, and foundries built, new hamlets, railway towns, river and sea ports, and mining, manufacturing and administrative cities came to dot the landscape.  By the end of the century, this development, coupled with fundamental administrative, social, and educational changes, made New Russia into one of the most rapidly modernizing regions of the Empire.  Change, however, was also cyclical, uneven, even wrenching, and brought in its wake much instability and tension.”
            (Harvey L. Dyck, A Mennonite in Russia: The Diaries of Jacob D. Epp 1851-1800)[ii]  
To pick up and move thousands of miles from one country to another is a huge undertaking.  It is not only very expensive, it takes enormous initiative to leave all that is known and familiar for a place that is unknown, never seen.  When the homeland is beautiful and loved, the reasons for leaving have to be very strong before people will leave it. 

The Mennonite colonies in South Russia had gone through great change in the quarter century between 1875 and 1903.  Photographs taken around the turn of the century show beautiful brick schools and churches, hospitals, a psychiatric institution, a nice looking orphanage—big buildings, the brick work elaborate.  There are also photos of  large factories and mills.  Industrialization had come to South Russia, and Mennonites were in the forefront of that development.  They built huge mills to grind the wheat they grew on their farms into flour; they developed and built farm machinery that they shipped and sold throughout the wheat growing regions.  They read newspapers and books printed outside their colonies; they knew what was going on in Russia and the larger world, and they aggressively looked after the interests of the Russian Mennonite world.  The Mennonite colonies in the 1890s—1900s were very prosperous, but that very prosperity brought problems.

WWI and the Russian Revolution were still many years away when the Zimmerman’s decided to leave Russia and move to North America.  However, the trouble Aunt Mary says they “smelled” was very real.  James Urry in his recent book, Mennonite Politics and Peoplehood : Europe-Russia-Canada 1525 to 1980, explains that “trouble”:

“Steadily the Mennonite commonwealth began to take the shape of what would be spoken of as ‘a state within a state.’  This self-perception of a separate Mennonite political order within the Russian state was shared—but with an increasingly negative sense—by conservative sections of Russian society and contributed to the sustained political attacks on Mennonites and other colonists from the late 1880s onwards.

“The new crises in Mennonite identity and its place in Russia’s society were fuelled by developments in Russian nationalism and pan-Slavism, which had begun  before the reactionary regime of Alexander III but which received official support during his reign and that of his successor.  Conservative forces had been increasingly concerned with the negative influence of non-Russian, non-Slavic, and non-Orthodox elements in the Empire’s affairs, and such concerns also generated increased anti-Semitism against the Empire’s Jewish populations.  Russian subjects of apparent German descent were singled out for attack in the Russian journals and press.  This was related to the rise of Germany and Austro-Hungary as potential enemy states on Russia’s western borders from the late 1870s onward.  ‘German’ constituted a rather general category that included Baltic Germans, who often held influential positions in the Empire’s government, and descendants of foreign colonists such as Mennonites.  From the late 1880s onwards, articles attacking ‘Germans’ in Russia as a threat to the security of state and society began to appear in the leading conservative Russian press.  Their authors pointed to the failure of the colonists to integrate into Russian society and accused the government of favouring them through the granting of special rights and privileges.  Wild accusations of disloyalty were made that insinuated that although they were Russian subjects, the colonists secretly pledged allegiance to the German Kaiser and Reich….
            “Mennonites featured strongly in many of these attacks.”[iii]

The Zimmerman’s left Russia in 1903.  Eleven years later, in 1914, the series of events began that destroyed the Mennonite world in South Russia.  War with Germany was followed by the Communist Revolution and the reign of Stalin.  The Mennonites of Russia suffered terribly in those years.  Famine and mass starvation followed war.   Crops and animals were destroyed, people tortured and killed.  Then, in the 1930s came the deliberate dispersal of the Mennonite who had survived.  Families were deported to Siberia and Central Asia; leaders were arrested and never seen again.  If the Zimmerman’s had not “smelled trouble”—if they had stayed Russia—they, too, would have been caught up in those terrible times.

[i] Norma Jost Voth.  Mennonite Foods and Folkways, 2 vols. Good Books, 1990 & 1991, p. 54. 
            [ii] Harvey L. Dyck.  A Mennonite in Russia: The Diaries of Jacob D. Epp 1851-1880, translated and edited with Introduction and Analysis by Harvey L. Dyck.  University of Toronto Press, pp. 7-8.
[iii] James Urry.   Mennonite Politics and Peoplehood : Europe-Russia-Canada 1525 to 1980.
University of Manitoba Press, 2006, p. 106.