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.

COMMENTS are very welcome. You may reach me by clicking on the "view my complete profile".

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.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905)

Sometime around the year 1884, my great-grandfather Heinrich Zimmermann left the Kuban where he had been living with friends and returned to village of Sergeyevka, the village where he and his sister Anna had lived with their mother and step-father until their mother’s death three years previously.  Sergeyevka was in the Fuerstenland Colony.  Fuerstenland was one of the daughter colonies of Chortitza, the original place of Mennonite settlement in South Russia.  It was created in the 1860s to ease the problem of landlessness in the old colony, to provide farms for its surplus population.  But as it turned out, the colony had another valuable resource—access to the Dnieper River, the major shipping route between the Black Sea and Russia proper, necessary for the factories that made their appearance in the later part of the nineteenth century.  The Mennonite Historical Atlas[i] mentions a Niebuhr factory, which made farm machinery, as well as two flour mills, “one of which was in Sergeyevka,” but the flour mill was not the only industry in the village.  There was also a foundry.  It was because of the work available in the industries in the village that Heinrich Zimmermann moved to Sergeyevka, work that would allow him to support a wife and children.

Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905)

“[The Lord] gave me a wife, namely Maria Dyck from Rosenbach.  She was pious and lived in the fear of God, but was also unschooled and also was afraid of those who had learning.”                                                                            H H. Z (Zionsbote 7 May 1905)
“Her mother was a very good natured person, I know that.  She told me several times I looked a lot like her mother, because her mother had a high forehead.” 
                                                                                         Mary Willems Davis

Well, she said that her grandmother came from Prussia and she was a feisty thing.”
                                                                                         Rosella Willems Noble 

            I know very little about Grandma’s mother beyond the basic facts:  Her first name was Maria and her family name was Dyck.  She was born September 23, 1861 and died April 6, 1905 in Winkler, Manitoba.  She married Heinrich H. Zimmermann October 15, 1890.  She was 29 years old when she married, 4 ½ years older than her husband.  She was 30 years old when she bore her first child, 39 when her last child was born.  She gave birth to ten children in less than ten years and must have been sick with tuberculosis during at least some of her pregnancies.  Five of those children died, and she almost lost her second daughter, Helena, my grandmother.  She was 43 when tuberculosis killed her.
I know even less about Maria Dyck’s family.  Rosie and Mary remember Grandma saying that her grandmother came from Prussia, but family records give no names for her parents.  However, the Dinuba MB Church membership list, under the entry for Heinrich Zimmerman, states that Maria’s father’s name was Johan Dyck.  I have not yet been able to find the name of Maria’s “feisty” mother, though it may well have been either Maria or Helena since Mennonites in Russia usually gave the name of the mother to the first daughter and the name of the grandmother to the second daughter.  

What little else I know about Maria Dyck Zimmermann comes from the l905 letter to the Zionsbote written by her husband, Heinrich Zimmermann.  In that letter, Heinrich states that his wife was from Rosenbach. The map of Fuerstenland Colony in the Mennonite Historical Atlas shows a village named Rosenbach on the upper Rogachik River about 13 miles inland from the village of Sergeyevka.  Rosenbach was one of the six original villages in the colony, which was established between 1864 and 1870.  Maria’s family may have been one of the original families to settle there, but since she was born in 1861—a date that precedes the founding of the colony—she was probably born in the mother colony, Chortitza.  Heinrich also says that Maria was “pious” and “unschooled”.  Her lack of schooling and fear of learned people may well have been the result of poverty.  I would guess that her family was at the lower end of the economic and social ladder. 

The Factory

Mary:  “I think, really, they were quite well to do in Russia.  Her dad worked in a –what was it?  I thought maybe it was a foundry, but Jack seems to think it was construction.  I wouldn’t be surprised because he did that kind of work, making things.”    
HHZ’s letter does not mention what kind of factory he went to work for in Sergeyevka.  Mary remembers my dad saying that he thought that their grandfather Zimmerman worked in construction in Russia.  Construction work would fit with Mary’s and Rosie’s memories of their Grandpa Zimmerman working as a carpenter when he lived in Reedley.  They said he built fine cabinets and painted flowers on them.  However, Mary also thought it might have been a foundry where her grandfather Zimmerman worked in Russia, and I have found a reference to a foundry in Sergeyevka. 

An article on Herman Abram Neufeld (1860-1931) in the online Mennonite Encyclopedia states that Neufeld worked at a foundry in Sergeyevka from 1883 till 1890, at which time he became an itinerant MB minister eventually becoming “one of the outstanding leaders of the MB conference in Russia.”   That connection between the foundry and the Mennonite Brethren Church fits with a section of HHZ’s letter in which he tells of the events that led to his marriage to Maria and the conversion experience that resulted in their joining the Mennonite Brethren.


            “For several years then I wandered the paths of sin.  I also joined the Mennonite church at that time, but I was not dead.  The spirit of God always tormented me and wanted to convert me, but I did not have the power to overcome.  Then I was thinking of marriage.  That seemed very difficult, for I knew how things had gone at home. I knew no other council than to take refuge in the Lord, for he could help me, and he did, too, and gave me a wife, namely Maria Dyck from Rosenbach.  She was pious and lived in the fear of God, but was also unschooled and also was afraid of those who had learning and wouldn’t come along to meetings.  That was a great blow for me. Then the dear Lord took hold of my master Johann Martens to the extent that he could not be silent, had to [“abbitten”?] us, his workers, but I was hard and didn’t want to believe him.  That was in the morning.  By noon I was conquered by the strong man and I had no appetite.  My dear wife wouldn’t give up until I told her that Martens wanted to be saved and [I asked her] whether we didn’t also want to.  She said yes right away and so we began to pray, she at home and we in the factory.  There were other souls who began to cry out to God and the Lord and it was a joy for the dear brothers and sisters to help us and to pray for us.
            “In particular there was a Brother Jacob Janzen there, of whom I am still very fond.  It is too bad that he no longer writes.  He taught us a lot and prayed with us much and it pleased the Lord to make us poor sinners rich and he gave us peace and forgiveness and then we were baptized in the year 1892 and taken into the community of  the Lord. We lived through many blessed times, but also storms, and yet the Lord knew ways and means to keep us as his children.  We lived 11 years in faith in Serjegevka.”
~ ~ ~ ~
            Mennonite records show that HHZ was baptized twice—the first time on 29 May 1890 when he joined the Fuerstenland Mennonite church and the second time on 31 March 1892 when he and Maria joined the Mennonite Brethren.   This event in their lives set the family on the path that led up to the marriage between Helena Zimmerman and Jacob C. Willems, my grandparents, but that is a future story.  First I must get both the Zimmerman and Willems families to Canada, the place where Grandma and Grandpa would meet and start their married lives.

[i] Mennonite Historical Atlas, Fuerstenland Mennonite Settlement”:  “Fuerstenland was founded between 1864 and 1870 as a daughter colony of Chortitza. The land, south-west of a bend of the Dniepr River, was rented from the Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevitch, originally for one and a quarter, then gradually up to 14 rubles per dessiatine.  Each of the original six villages …had from 18 to 35 farms.  On or after 1874 a total of about 1,100 people emigrated to Manitoba, settling in the West Reserve.  In 1911 the Fuerstenland population was 1,800…“Besides the usual agriculture, industry in Fuerstenland included two flour mills, one of which was in Sergeyevka, and a Niebuhr factory in Olgafeld.”                            

Friday, April 12, 2013

Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934) Genealogy

            The letter my great-grandfather Heinrich H. Zimmerman wrote to the Zionbote (17 May 1905) was the beginning point for all the genealogical research into his family that I’ve done.  Given that letter, Tim Janzen at the 2006 Mennonite Genealogy Workshop at Tabor College, Hillsboro Kansas, was able to pull up a surprising amount of information.  The first thing he pounced on was the name of HHZ’s grandfather, Jacob Dever.  Dever is an alternate spelling of the Dutch name “de Veer” (De Fehr, Defehr, Devehr, Fehr).  It turns out one of Tim’s grandmothers was Margaretha De Fehr (b. 1873), and he thought our family lines were probably connected.  Tim then spotted the name, Anna, HHZ’s sister.  Since first-born daughters were named after their mothers, Tim said that we can be pretty sure that the first name of HHZ’s mother was also Anna. 

            So now we had another full name to use in our search Anna Dever/Defehr, daughter of Jacob Dever/Defehr, and Tim found her in the Molotschna School Records for 1853-55:  Anna, daughter of Jacob DeFehr,  Prangenau, age 11, who missed 23 days in the summer of 1853: 11 days in November 1854.

            HHZ’s obituary gives Prangenau as the name of the town in the Molotschna where HHZ’s family moved when he was 4 ½ .  And there he was, Jacob Devehr of Prangenau in the 1858 Census for the Molotschna Colony as well as in the 1864 List of Families Intending to Settle in the Kuban Colony! 

            I quickly jotted down the information Tim gave me while he turned his attention to the name Heinrich H. Zimmermann.  HHZ does not give the first names of his parents in the letter he wrote to the Zionsbote. However, given Mennonite naming practice, Tim said that it is almost certain that HHZ’s father’s first name was also Heinrich.  HHZ was the first and only son.  He would have been named after his father, an assumption confirmed by the use of “H” as his middle initial—(each child was given the father’s first initial as a middle initial).  Searching his various data-bases Tim made a hit in the Benjamin H. Unruh Immigration Records:  a Heinrich Zimmerman born in 1817 with a son Heinrich born in 1843.  The dates were right: the Heinrich born in 1843 would have been 23 in 1866, the year HHZ was born. 

            As I quickly jotted down the page numbers in the Unruh book of Immigration Records, Tim packed all his material and rushed off to another appointment, this one with his wife at a quilting shop.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

            To read the records Tim Janzen found, click on the Ancestry: H.H. Zimmermann “Page” in the column on the right.  Included are Mennonite Encyclopedia articles on the Dever/Defehr and Zimmermann names as well as the information in GRANDMA on the Dever/Defehr family which now, thanks to Tim, reaches back to early 1500s Netherlands.

©Loretta Willems, April 12, 2013

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).