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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How the Willems Family Got to Russua

 How The Willems Family Got to Russia

     “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.  In 1906, she moved with her parents to Waldheim, Saskatchewan.  There she was joined in holy wedlock to Jacob C. Willems on February 6, 1909.  This union was blessed with 7 sons and 8 daughters, of which 1 son and 1 daughter preceded her in death.  In 1919, she, together with her family moved to Reedley, California, and has since resided in this community.”                                                                                         Obituary 1963

            Grandma Willems was born in Russia and spent the first ten years of her life there.  I learned that when I was a little girl.  Yet even though I loved hearing stories about “the olden days,” I never thought to ask about her childhood or the long trip that took her and her family to Canada, nor did I ever wonder about her having a heavy German accent and German maiden name when her place of birth was Russia.  She was my grandma.  These were simply facts about her.  When I was around her I simply enjoyed her concrete presence.  She lived in her adult world, and I lived in my child-world, a mental barrier we both respected.

Grown-ups moved around a lot, and people took their native languages as well as their children with them.  My mom and dad had both been born in Canada, yet their first language was German, not English.  So it didn’t really seem strange that there should be German people living in Russia who continued to speak German while living there.  I did wonder, though, about whether our family was German or Dutch.  When I was a little girl during WWII, Dad said we were Dutch.  I liked that idea, imagined myself as a little Dutch girl wearing wooden shoes, a long full skirt with a tight bodice and a white cap with wings on the side.  That didn’t square, however, with the fact that Grandma and Grandpa spoke German, not Dutch.  When I asked my mom about this, she said that we were really German and that the reason my dad said the Willems family was Dutch was because of the war.  The Germans were Nazis, the enemy.  Dad did not want to be identified with them.  It must have been well after the war when Mom told me this, probably after Dad began to refer to himself as German during the 1950’s when Germany began to be rehabilitated in the public image.  I reluctantly gave up my Dutch-girl fantasies and began to see myself as German. 

This sense of being “German” stayed with me into my early 20’s when I happened to read a book of Mennonite history.  My husband Ben and I were attending a General Conference Mennonite church in Monroe, Washington, where we then living.  We had become good friends with the pastor, and one evening after dinner at his home we went into the library where I noticed a multi-volume set of books titled Mennonite Encyclopedia.   I was amazed.  I never knew there was such a thing.  I looked through it, read some of the entries, then looked under the name “Willems.”   Yes, there it was.  My family name was in the encyclopedia!  I wanted to know more, and Reverend Kopper, seeing my interest, offered to loan me a one-volume book on Mennonite history that was also in his library. 


That book was The Story of the Mennonites by C. Henry Smith*.   Reading it, I found, to my surprise, that the Mennonite people reached all the way back to the earliest years of the Protestant Reformation in Europe—to Switzerland in the early 1520’s and the reformers called “Anabaptists” because of their rejection of infant baptism. Smith describes these people as the “radical wing” of the Reformation, radical because they insisted upon things we now take for granted as obviously right—individual freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state.  This radical position came from their reading of the Bible.  What they saw in the New Testament was not a state church, but a church that was voluntary, a “free, independent religious organization” composed of adults baptized after a deliberate decision to take on the difficult demands of Christian discipleship, a radical discipleship that took literally the command to love one’s enemies, to refuse to return evil for evil.  That command prevented them from “taking up the sword.”   They refused to take up the sword in the service of the state, they even refused to defend their own lives, or the lives of those they loved—beliefs that were swiftly put to the test.

The first adult rebaptism took place in 1525.  In 1529, an imperial edict ordered “all Anabaptists, men and women, in all the states of the empire be destroyed with fire and sword.”  The Anabaptists were “broken on the rack, thrown into rivers and lakes, burned at the stake, beheaded and buried alive” by Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist governing authorities.  Fifteen hundred of these terrible deaths eventually found their way into The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs’ Mirror, the Mennonite martyrology** compiled in 1660 by Thieleman J. van Braght.  That number is now considered very conservative. Persecution effectively eliminated the Anabaptist movement in much of Europe. Those who survived lived as fugitives seeking refuge wherever they could find it—in relatively tolerant cities like Strasbourg and the estates of nobles who wanted the skills and labor of these hard working, frugal people.  Taking advantage of every toe-hold they could find, these people of radical faith managed to maintain an embattled presence in areas of Switzerland and the lands along the Rhine, in particular, Alsace, the Palatine and the Netherlands.  

 It was in the Netherlands that the scattered movement found Menno Simons, a Dutch priest who became convinced that the Anabaptist position was right and left the Catholic Church in 1536 to begin a work of gathering and giving leadership to the scattered and struggling Anabaptists of Holland and northern Germany.  An effective debater, diligent traveler and voluminous writer, his name quickly became identified with peaceful Anabaptists everywhere.
            The Willems family descends from Dutch Mennonites who found refuge in the Vistula River delta in what is now Poland.  Artisans and farmers, these Netherlanders knew how to turn swampland into productive farms, skills that made them valuable to those who owned and ruled those lands.  Granted protection because of their economic worth, they were allowed to maintain their distinctive beliefs, but were forbidden to take converts or marry into the local population.  Here in the delta, after initial severe hardship in which it is estimated that up to 80% of the first generation of settlers died of swamp fever, they prospered and increased, developing their own distinctive Plautdietsch dialect, carrying into the twentieth century the same family names they brought with them from the Netherlands.  For two hundred years, Dutch was the language of Vistula Mennonite literacy and worship.  Dutch was gradually replaced by German in the eighteenth century when the people of the Vistula delta came under Prussian rule.  Plautdietsch, however, remained the language of home and daily life.

Prosperity and increased population also brought problems.  The presence of large settlements of people who were exempt from military service, yet remained separate and different from those around them, bred resentment among the local population.  Pressure was put on governing authorities, and laws were enacted forbidding Mennonites to acquire more land.  Families could no longer provide farms for all their children, and a landless class developed within the Mennonite community.

Then in 1786, an agent of Catherine the Great of Russia, seeking German settlers for land just north of the Black Sea that had recently been taken from Turkey, approached the Mennonites with enticing offers of free land, exemption from military service, the privilege of self-regulation and financial help in the resettlement process.  In the following half-century about half the Vistula Mennonite population migrated to the steppes of what is now Ukraine.  Here again, in this new land, which the Russian authorities referred to as “New Russia,” after initial severe hardship, they again prospered and increased, building a veritable Mennonite “kingdom” of people originating in Holland, with Dutch names, who had become part of German language culture at the end of the 200-year sojourn in the Vistula delta.  Plautdietsch, however, remained the beloved language of home and daily life.

The Mennonites charter of privileges not only granted them religious tolerance and exemption from military service, it also allowed them to be a separate, largely self-governing people with their own distinctive culture.  Then in the 1850s the reigning czar, Alexander II, began a program of “Russification.”  Pressure was put on Mennonites and other minority groups to assimilate with the Russian population.  New laws seemed to threaten their military exemption as well as control of their schools and communities.  The Mennonites of south Russia began to look for a new land.  They found it in the prairies of North America.  A new migration began.  In the period between 1873 and 1884, 18,000 Mennonites, about half the population of the Russian colonies, left for the virgin prairies of the United States and Canada, taking their Turkey Red wheat and knowledge of dry land farming with them.  There they again, after initial hardship, prospered and increased.  Grandpa Willems’ family was part of that migration, arriving on the ship Nederland from Antwerp at the port in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 25th of  July, 1875***.  The Zimmermanns, Grandma’s family, would not take that long journey until 1903.

Over half the population, however, stayed in Russia.  The czarist government, alarmed by the mass exodus of valuable farmers decided to allow the Mennonites to substitute forestry service and hospital work for active military service.  Although, the government insisted that Russian was to be the language of instruction in Mennonite schools, for the most part the Mennonites were allowed to continue governing the internal affairs of their colonies.  The colonies prospered.  New secondary schools and hospitals were established.  Mennonite entrepreneurs built large wheat mills and farm implement factories.
 That veritable Golden Age of Mennonite culture ended abruptly, drastically in 1914 when Russia entered WWI.  All of Russia suffered terribly in the years that following.  War with Germany was followed by civil war that brought anarchy and violence, disease and famine.  In the Ukraine, the Red and White armies fought back and forth across the land.  Soldiers confiscated food and livestock.  Outlaws roamed the countryside attacking farms and villages, raping, torturing, maiming, killing.  Resented for their wealth, suspect because of their German language and separatist culture, Mennonites became special targets, easy targets in the prevailing lawlessness, a situation that intensified with the victory of the Bolsheviks.
In the summer of 1920, Mennonites in North America and the Netherlands concerned about the situation in Russia sent a commission to investigate.  What they found was massive hunger and a land devastated by disease.  Drought had struck the war-ravaged lands, and Russia was in the grip of massive famine, one in which millions of Russians would starve to death before it ended in 1924.  Mennonites around the world organized to get food into the Ukraine, organized soup kitchens, distributed food and clothing, shipped in tractors to replace horses slaughtered for food, provided seed for replanting once the drought ended.
The end of the famine eased the Mennonites’ plight.  They were no longer starving, but it did not end their troubles.  Seen as “kulaks” by the Soviets, their farms were confiscated, the churches and schools were seized, the preachers and teachers arrested.  Mennonite life in Russia was doomed.  All who could escaped—escaped with the help Mennonites all over the world.  Mennonite leaders negotiated with the Soviets to allow people to leave Russia.  They negotiated with government leaders in North and South America to accept the refugees.  Churches raised money to pay for trains and ships to carry the desperate people thousands of miles to the places that were to become their new homes. 
Canada accepted 21,000 refugees, Paraguay 3,000.  The majority of Mennonites in Russia, however, were not able to escape before the Soviets clamped down and refused any further emigration.  The Mennonites who remained in Russia effectively disappeared behind the Soviet wall until the end of WWII when about 35,000 Mennonites followed the German army out of the Ukraine.  Most of them did not make it to safety.  Many died along the way.  Others were captured and sent back.  Approximately 12,000 did make it to Germany and the refugee camps set up by Dutch and North American Mennonite.  Half of the refugees were resettled in the Chaco of Paraguay and Uruguay, the other half in Canada.
       Helena Zimmermann, my Grandma Willems, was born in 1893.  If her parents had not decided to emigrate to North America in 1903, she would have been 21 when Russia entered WWI in 1914.  She would have experienced the famine and terror that descended on the Mennonite colonies.  I and all my Willems aunts, uncles and cousins, sisters and children exist because Grandma’s parents made that fateful decision and acted on it. 

*C. Henry Smith.  The Story of the Mennonites, 4th ed., revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn.  Newton, KS: Mennonite Publication Office, 1957 (original copyright 1941).  Direct quotes from pages 45, 13, 163.

            **One of the most famous of the early Dutch martyrs was Dirk Willems.  To learn his story and see a copy of the original woodblock engraving that illustrates it click on the following web address:

            ***Passenger list given in Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need: A Scrapbook about Mennonite Immigrants from Russia 1870-1885, compiled and edited by Clarence Hiebert..  Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1974 (private printing), p. 246.

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Copyright: Loretta Willems, 2012