Life and Times of a Renaissance Mennonite Teacher: Cornelius A. Klassen; (1883 – 1919) and Beyond


Much of the personal material relating to my grandfather, Cornelius Abraham Klassen (1883-1919) was taken from his diary which he kept from September 1904 to September 1908 and January 1913 through December 1914. His younger brother Gerhard (1887-1910) also kept a partial diary from August 1906 through February 1909. In 1908 he also wrote a 9-page historical piece entitled “A Review of My Past” which was used here.

The historical account of the family is extended through Cornelius’ marriage to my grandmother, Margaret Funk (1888–1981). After Cornelius died from typhus in 1919, she married Johann Henry Friesen (1875-1934) in 1922 with whom she came to the United States in 1929.

The diaries were translated from German by Olga Funk, sister-in-law to Margaret, of Reedley, California and typed by Adeline Friesen Klassen, my brother Victor’s late wife from San Jose, California. Many German script letters found in my father’s collection (George Cornelius Klassen , 1911-2002) were translated by a friend Al Berg of Reedley, California.

My Uncle Nick Friesen of Reedley was of tremendous assistance in providing the more recent historical data recorded here. My Aunt Louise Klassen Matson (1914-2001) also published a book entitled, Louise; Her Flight to Freedom from Russia, as told to Margaret Anderson (Wheaton, IL, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1977) which covers this later period.

The appendices will include his poetry and my “Genealogical Jottings” related to Abraham Johann Klassen’s siblings.

Our Dutch and Prussian Origins

The Dutch Origins

The Mennonites trace their origins to the so-called Swiss Brethren who formed their first congregation on January 21,1525. Persecution by the State church scattered the Swiss Brethren. Menno Simons (1496-1561), a Dutch Catholic priest joined parts of the Anabaptist movement in 1536 and gathered the scattered and disaffected Anabaptists of Holland and northern Germany into congregations that were soon called by his name. Like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, these Anabaptists were unhappy with the Roman Catholic Church. But unlike these more well-known reformers, these groups, who were to be called Mennonites that supported believer’s baptism and nonresistance among other theological tenets, clearly segregated themselves to a simple life of love and the simple truth of the Gospel. Menno Simons’ real contribution to religious life may have been to encourage these theological concepts within the context of the strong political state church environment in Holland. The state church evolved from after the initial positives that came out of the Reformation brought about by Luther and Calvin. Menno Simon’s task was a much more difficult one than that of the acknowledged leaders of the Reformation. He attempted to effect separation from the Dutch state church.

During the entire 16th century, the Mennonites were subjected to bitter persecution by the Dutch leaders Charles V and his son Philip. In fact, it is said that no other group in all Europe can claim as many martyrs to the cause of their religious freedom as do the Mennonites. As a result of persistent persecution throughout the century, many of the Mennonite refugees found their way to other more tolerant lands.

It should be noted that Menno Simons was from Witmarsum in the northern Friesland section of Holland. Among the new "Mennonites" the social religious interchange between the more conservative “Flemish” group located mostly in the southern areas of Holland and the less conservative “Frisians” who were found in the more northern Hoorn and Alkmaar areas of the country. The Classen’s were Flemish in Dutch origin, having originally come from the Flanders region south of Holland. Later in Russia it was said that the disputes between the Frisian and Flemish elements proved to be a serious detriment to spiritual life in the colonies. Our Friesen and Funk relatives were names found among the Frisian churches in Holland. These factional differences had almost disappeared in Holland but, unfortunately, were shown many times in their transplanted settings, even in the U.S.!

The Prussian Settlement Until 1788

As early as the middle of the 16th century, Mennonite refugees from Holland found their way to the deltas of the Vistula and Nogat Rivers in Polish Western Prussia, upon the invitation of ecclesiastical as well as lay noblemen, who were desirous of industrious farmers to rescue their swampy and unfruitful lowland estates. It was even more inviting for the Mennonites to make this move when you consider that in the late Middle Ages many other individuals from Holland and the western parts of Germany had settled in this Prussian area and were the first non-Slavonic colonists. Because Danzig was a Hanseatic League town in a 13th century trading confederacy on the Baltic and North Seas, it had many contacts with the Netherlands. The Dutch was even the language used in some of the churches there, so it must have seemed a logical decision to settle there. Of course, the Mennonites were certainly experts in the art of reclaiming swamp lands by means of dikes and canals in Holland! And the 16th century Prussia fervently wanted growth and knew it was economically behind Western Europe.

In the second half of the 17th century the Classen’s, as the Dutch would spell it, made the trek to Prussia. The first refugees settled near Danzig, on the marshland to the east and south of the city. Later Mennonite immigrants established themselves in the lowlands along the Vistula River and in the delta framed by the aforementioned rivers which flow into the Baltic Sea. They lived in compact groups isolated from their Polish neighbors by a distinct language, separate schools, and their own religion. Obviously, this perpetuated their own distinctiveness.

Mennonites were first allowed to settle along the banks of the Vistula by the Polish King Sigismund Augustus as early as 1553. Most early families doubtless lived on isolated farms in Prussia. Their dwelling houses, barns and sheds were joined under one roof, and built on elevated ground, protected either by a dirt embankment or located on a dike above the water level of the river.

When the Mennonites first went eastward from Holland during the period of the Protestant Revolt, they were regarded as heretics by both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities in the lands in which they settled. They were often subjected to abuse for both, always tenaciously clinging to their religious beliefs. Initially they were denied citizenship and the right to acquire property. They were prohibited by the guilds from following most trade careers. They were allowed to settle only on land that was considered worthless, either because it was swampy or because it was entirely covered by water. To them was left the onerous task of reclaiming land that had been lost to cultivation when the Teutonic knights, who instituted a system of flood control in the early modern period, had lost control over the region.

The Mennonite experiences in Holland in lowland agriculture gave them the fortitude to survive in West Prussia. They were used to farming land below sea level. They knew how to build dikes and dig drainage ditches and erect windmills. But their farming activities exacted a heavy toll on them. At least 80 percent of them died of marsh fever while clearing and draining the land. And their hard work did not bring immediate results. It took them decades to bring the waters of the Vistula and Nogat Rivers under control, and even so, they were never completely successful.

In the course of time, the Mennonites made the lowlands into one of the most productive agricultural areas of Prussia and Poland. Their accomplishments were extolled by King Sigismund who said that "with great exertion and expense they made the area fertile and productive, for they turned scrubland into arable land, and drained ground that was water-logged and mud-covered by constructing pumps and erecting dikes against the floods of the Vistula River.

Our “Flemish” Klassen ancestors in Prussia were considered the more conservative in their church practices and were found largely in the country churches. The Funk and the Friesen relatives were associated with the more liberal “Frisian” churches of the Orlofferfeld and Thiesendorf congregations in Prussia. An interchange between these Mennonite groups was not common until many families moved from the country churches into the cities where the sharp distinction between the “Flemish” and “Frisians” tended to be removed.

Unfortunately, these peaceful and nonresistant Mennonites chose a very strategic military terrain in which to settle. The area they occupied was a natural military corridor for the armies moving west to east and north to south. During the 2 centuries of life there, it was often overrun by soldiers of the Prussian, Polish, Russian, Swedish and French armies, many of which took produce and livestock from them. The Mennonite farmers along the Vistula River and delta were also increasingly hampered by economic and religious restrictions when the area came under the jurisdiction of the Prussian government in 1772.

During this time the west Prussian Mennonites had kept to their Dutch cultural and linguistic ways. Most of them spoke a Low German dialect Plautdietsch that evolved while they lived in Prussia. While living there their written and other formal expressions shifted from Dutch to German, but their everyday speech became Plautdietsch. No other Mennonite group around the world shared this background, so that their unique dialect came to be one of their distinctives in their sojourns through Russia and then in the United States. Specifically, it was only after the partition of Poland in 1772 with its Prussian influence that the German language and the identification with German culture became part of the Mennonite way of life. Many who were to leave for Russia only a few years hence had only recently begun to speak German. Apparently the Classsen surname was also changed to a more German-sounding “Klassen” during this time!

The reign of Frederick the Great from 1740 to 1786 became the turning point in the history of the Prussian Mennonites. It was during this period that different regions in the country came under one political rule. Frederick did grant them religious freedom. In 1772 the Mennonites expressed their loyalty to their new king by presenting him with a gift of the products of their farms. This gift was evidently meant to be something more than a mere token of appreciation At the same time the king was handed a petition in which the churches asked for a confirmation of the liberties they enjoyed, they asked for the special privilege of being exempted from military service. Ultimately, in 1780 he did grant the Mennonites a special charter in which they were guaranteed complete religious liberty with the condition that they support a military academy! Many Prussian Mennonites accepted this compromise and thereafter continued to support the military academy for almost 100 years!

In 1789 a new king, Frederick William II, issued a special decree “Edict Concerning the Future of Mennonitism” which guaranteed freedom of conscience in regard to military service, but restricted sharply the opportunity to purchase land. The edict also required the Mennonite landowners to pay the regular church tax required of members of the state (Lutheran) church. Thus began an 80-year struggle by the west Prussian Mennonites to maintain their practice of nonresistance. In 1801 the edict of 1789 was further sharpened to make the purchase of any further land virtually impossible.

When the French armies laid siege to Danzig in 1804, the civil authorities within the city ordered that its environs be cleared of all structures. This meant that the Mennonite homes that had been painstakingly constructed over the years were wiped out. The Mennonites were permitted to buy land and attain citizenship, but were paying dearly for their nonresistant beliefs. The Lutheran and Catholic churches also obtained money from them to assure their release from military service. It was certainly becoming evident that both church and state were determined to stop the further spread of the Mennonites!

Now the climate was right for these German-speaking peoples to consider the Russian Czarina Catherine the Great's Manifesto of July 1763 inviting the “Germans” to help colonize her newly won lands acquired from the Ottoman Empire, even while the Germanic rulers under whom some of their freedoms had been threatened were now being replaced by more tolerant Polish kings. Ultimately, the Mennonites felt that Russia would be a much more hospitable location!

The Beginning of the Russian Sojourn

Catherine the Great and the Invitation

During the 18th century Russia had become a modern European power. Since the time of Peter the Great (1672-1725) the Russian leaders had conducted various strategic wars resulting in the conquest of vast blocks of land. This was especially so in southern Russia, where the boundaries were advanced by imposing control over its inhabitants, particularly the Cossacks, as well as by taking over additional lands from the Ottoman Turks.

Although now under the purview of Russia, this part of southern Russia was basically a frontier region historically governed by four eastern powers: the Ottoman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commomwealth, the Crimean Tartar Khanate and the grand duchy of Moscow. Ukrainian nationalism only began to flourish later in the 1840s. The Russian response then was to ban the use of the Ukrainian language in the schools. But clearly the Mennonites cast their future lot with Russia and the kind invitation of the Czarina in this introductory context which we will see may have plagued them in this section of the country in a later time of activism of extreme Ukrainian nationalism during the revolutionary times!

The Russian Czarina was of German descent and ascended the throne in 1762. She became interested in settling her unoccupied agricultural lands of which she had millions of acres along the Black and Caspian Seas. Although a somewhat unprincipled and savagely cruel woman herself, she was shrewd and farsighted as a ruler and did much for the political and economic development of her vast empire. Some of this area she had recently won from the Sultan of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. She needed industrious and thrifty farmers to farm these marshlands which had been largely unoccupied by nomadic Tartar tribes and Ukrainian peasants known as the Cossacks.. From the Russian perspective, these peasants and serfs were not entirely satisfactory as settlers, so she turned elsewhere for more suitable prospective colonists.

In the July 1763 Manifesto (most often referred to as the "Privilegium") she promised the most liberal terms to any colonist who might wish to relocate to her newly won lands along the Volga River. In the years immediately following the 1763 Privilegium, thousands of industrious German and German-related families (but not the Prussian Mennonites) entered Russia. Their backgrounds were disparate and they came from a wide range of German states--Baden, Wuertemberg, the Palatinate, West Prussia, Danzig and German communities in Poland and Galicia. They belonged to many Christian denominations--most were Lutheran but there were also Catholics and other German reformed church bodies. Including the Mennonites, there may have been nearly 500,000 potential German colonists from these Prussian and German lands. They were from the middle and lower strata of society and had been good farmers and skilled craftsmen. Some of early attempts at colonization were successful. But with the appointment 1774 of Prince Potemkin in 1774 who was a successful general in the Turkish wars and one of Catherine's favorites as governor general of South Russia, a more vigorous and successful colonization policy emerged.

The Movement of the Mennonites

Among the various projects sponsored by the Governor General during this period was a special invitation in 1786 to the Mennonites in Prussia though George Von Trappe, a Russian colonization agent of German extraction. This special invitation to the Mennonites was prompted by the fact that Catherine had wrested all this additional territory from Turkey bordering the Sea of Azov. Much of this new land became Crown land upon which she wished to settle industrious farmers whose well-kept fields would serve as models for the nomadic Tartar tribes in the area. Perhaps Catherine had heard of the Mennonites and their work of reclamation in the swamps of the lower Vistula from her generals who had spent several winters in eastern Prussia during the Seven Years' War. At any rate, the liberal inducements offered through her special representative at Danzig, George von Trappe, encouraged the Mennonites from Prussia to migrate to her Crown lands in South Russia.

When the von Trappe arrived in the Prussian lower Vistula River delta in the fall of 1786, it could not have been more timely, as an estimated 10,000 Mennonites were at a crisis point in their relationship with government authorities. In the two and a half centuries that they lived there, the Mennonites had enjoyed considerable freedom. But now their privileges were being reviewed. The Prussian government ultimately upheld their exemption from military service, but their freedom to purchase additional land without government interference was lost and they feared that the right to acquire land for their rapidly growing population would continue to be restricted. At the suggestion of von Trappe, the Prussian Mennonite churches decided to send 2 representatives, Jakob Hoeppner (1748-1826) and Johann Bartsch, at Russian expense, to spy out the "promised land".

As we have seen, most of the Mennonites from the Prussian region had come out of an early sixteenth century religious reformation movement that swept Holland. Many were now Anabaptists who baptized adults on the basis of mature faith and pacifists who refused active participation in the military. In the beginning of their sojourn from Holland they were severely persecuted for these nonconforming religious beliefs and were forced to seek refuge in territories that would guarantee their freedoms. This is one of the reasons why large numbers of Mennonites had moved and settled in Danzig region in the first place. Now the Russian government offered these special conditions and privileges: free land of 175 acres (65 dessiatines) to each family; tax exemption from certain taxes for 10 years; free transportation from Prussia to their new homes; a loan of 500 Rubles ($250) to each family; support for each family until the first harvest; material help in the construction of their homesteads; freedom of worship; and permanent exemption from military service with varying degrees of cultural and political autonomy. They were to have complete control over their own churches and schools with a liberal autonomy in self-government within the settlement. But religious evangelism among the native Russians was forbidden!

Great interest was aroused throughout the Vistula River area churches in the emigration movement when their representatives to Russia returned. Although the Prussian government was beginning to hamper the future growth of land for the Mennonites, they were not quite willing to lose these prosperous and industrious farmers. Passports were granted grudgingly to those who owned property; consequently, the early group of emigrants came mostly from the poorer classes. The first group of over 200 families migrated in the winter of 1788 along the 1,000 mile route along the Vistula River, to the Russian border village of Grodno, and then proceeded to the desolate steppes of southern Russia. At Grodno the Russian government gave them 50 Rubles for horses and wagons and 10 Rubles for traveling expenses! The first Mennonite group settled in the province of Ekaterinsolav on the lower Dnieper River in Ukraine, establishing a colony that became known as the Chortitza Colony which was the name of the Chortitza Island located there. In ancient times, Vikings from the north traveled this route south along the Dnieper to trade with the Greeks and other Mediterranean cultures on the Black Sea. After passing the dangerous rapids they would stop on the island to give thanks for their safe passage. Their God was called "Hortz" in the ancient tongue, hence the name Chortitza--literally meaning "thanks be to God" or even "Godlike".

The Chortitza “Mother” Colony (sometime referred to the Old Colony) consisted of 89,000 acres along the west bank of the Dneiper River where 19 Mennonite villages were established. After staying over the winter of 1788 in Chortitza, some of them moved south to later settle in the Molotschna “Mother” Colony named after the 130 mile long Molotschna ("Milk") River that flows into the Sea of Azov. (The River was so named because the silt made it cloudy or dirty.)

Meanwhile in 1796 Czarina Catherine the Great died and was succeeded by her son, Prince Paul. There was hope by the remaining Prussian Mennonites that the privileges granted to these initial immigrants to the Chortitza Colony would be maintained. Again they received assurances from the new Russian Prince Paul. At the same time the religious liberties and economic privileges originally granted by the King of Prussia were being curtailed. In the summer of 1803 this then led to a greater interest by the Mennonites in their ability to also farm the fertile, treeless plain, in the province of Taurida, south of Chortitza which became known as the Molotschna Colony.

The members of the Classen families generally settled in Chortitza. Those who settled in the Molotschna Colony used the surname "Klassen". I recognized, however, that our families were part of the Mennonite Brethren denomination (founded in 1860); therefore, I might suggest our ancestors would be more strongly identified with the more southern Molotschna Colony where we find Cornelius' family in the 1880's.

About 450 Mennonite families and a number of young unmarried men were given permission to leave Prussia by 1800 and by 1835 about 1,000 families had settled in 72 individual settlements in both Colonies. The migration into Russia from Prussia lasted well into the 1850's. Cornelius future wife’s (Grete) grandmother (Loewen) and her other grandfather and grandmother (Funk and Derksen) were born in the Chortitza Colony in the 1820’s and 1830’s, respectfully, which would mean that their parents had already left Prussia in this early time period.

Cornelius’ father, Abraham Johann Klassen, was still listed as having been born in East Prussia in the 1850’s, so obviously his parents did not immigrate to Russia until after those years. Our family ancestors on the Leppke side also became associated with the initial Chortitza Colony. The Duerksen and Isaak families, as were the Klassens, were more closely allied with the Molotschna Colony.

Molotschna Colony

As noted, the second settlement, the Molotschna Colony was established in 1803, about 100 miles to the southeast along the Molotschna River in the Taurida Province of the Ukraine. Molotschna was a treeless steppe inhabited by a few Russian peasants who tilled the soil with wooden plows and harvested the crops with flail and sickle. In those early years, occasionally they were overrun by the Tartars who lived to the south and who resented the intrusion of these German settlers, much as the American Indians resented the American frontiersman. The Tartars continued to live there and developed a fondness for the Mennonite horses, which sometimes disappeared from their barns at night!

During the first year, 342 families migrated from Prussia to 18 villages founded along the Molotschna. Five years later 99 more family units came. Another 215 families arrived in 1820 and by 1840 about 750 families had located in this, one of the two “Mother” Colonies. By 1840 the special inducements by the Russian government that had been offered to immigrants to settle in these regions had ceased! In the course of time, the Molotschna Colony became prosperous and eventually became a sizeable Colony of nearly 20,000 individuals.

In spite of the fact that the Molotschna Colony had an inadequate rainfall and was completely treeless, most of the emigrees from Prussia chose this region rather than the older Chortitza Colony. Clearly now not only the impoverished people from Prussia were coming, but a goodly number of wealthy farmers and capitalists were coming to develop the land. According to contemporary accounts, many of them sold their Prussian possessions for goodly sums. And according to the existing records, about 20 percent of them were now refusing the Russian financial assistance offered to them initially to settle in Russia.

Each settler’s 175 acres of free land could not be sold or mortgaged to outsiders. Also part of the agreement was to allow the Mennonites complete religious toleration, exemption from military and certain civil services, wide liberty in establishing their own schools in their own language, and such political and economic institutions as might be most suitable to their own needs. In effect, it allowed their villages to become cultural “islands” set apart from the larger Russian community. While religious toleration was fully granted, proselytizing among members of the orthodox state church was forbidden.

Since the colonists were invited in as model farmers, the model farm of 175 acres could not be divided by inheritance but had to remain intact. In fact, by the mid-19th century this restriction became very troublesome because it prevented the dividing of the farms and produced a large class of up and coming landless Mennonites. Ultimately, there were some 40 daughter settlements (about which more will be said later) that broke off from the original Mother Colonies Chortitza and Molotschna that strung from the Crimea to the Caucasus and along the Volga River and into Central Asia and Siberia. Ultimately, by 1910 the Mennonites of Russia were located in some 400 villages.

The initial 60 Mennonite villages in the Molotschna Colony were not very large. They usually consisted of 20 to 40 full farms, again of 175 acres each. The land was divided for practical use at first into a number of long, narrow strips distributed among the farmers so that all would share equally the good and bad land wherever there was difference in its fertility. Women had no right to the common land. The full estates could not be divided in their ownership, but had to pass by inheritance as a whole to the nearest male heir upon the death of the owner. The title for the land in the Mother Colonies always rested with the head of the family.

The Molotschna settlers named many of their villages after their Prussian villages. Over a period of time they planted trees throughout the Colony which are still evident today in the majestic hedgerows around every farm. The villages were all laid out in a formal grid with wide streets and ditches on either side and were uniformly patterned after those in Prussia. While their northern Mennonite neighbors in the Chortitza Colony lived next to relatively friendly Russians, the fledgling Molotschna Colony had to deal with the warlike Tartars in the early years who were not happy to have their pasturelands taken from them!

The Immediate Impact of the Migration

Students of Mennonite history are not quite agreed as to the exact number of Mennonites who came from Prussia to Russia during these early years of the 1800's. As has been stated earlier, an estimated 10,000 Mennonites may have come from Prussia then. By the 1860’s or early 1870’s the Mother Colonies’ population may have increased to 35,000 or 45,000 with the additional immigrants from Prussia. From 1874 until 1884 we have the dramatic diminution of the Colony population with the emigration of 18,000 Mennonites to America and Canada about which more will be said later in a later section. This included the emigration of our immediate families--the Leppkes who left in 1875 and the Duerksens who left in 1884.

We do not know the exact year when the Klassens left Prussia for the Molotschna Colony in Russia. We do know that the Mennonite colonists continued to migrate from Prussia throughout the first half of the 19th century. During these years Russia had fared badly against Great Britain and others in the Crimean War of the mid-1850’s. With Russia in a weakened political position, the Russians were inclined to agree with the Prussian government viewpoint which asserted that the Russians could be at least adequate protectors of the Germans, even in a weakened Russian empire!

It must be remembered that Mennonites were not the only Germans in Russia at this time. There were nearly 500,000 German colonists--Lutherans, Catholics, and other German Reformed bodies, living mostly in south Russia and the Volga region. These groups were all enjoying the privileges of complete local autonomy with respect to their cultural traditions, as was also granted to the Mennonites.

These pioneer years naturally brought the hardships of frontier life. But gradually, the efficient and careful exploitation of the rich agricultural lands in south Russia, as well as the emergence of helping factories often growing out of cottage industries, brought a great deal of wealth to the settlers. Economic growth brought with it some of the problems of normal capitalism. This included the obvious exploitation of a landless class of Russian peasants who worked for these Mennonite landowners. We will see the results of this a bit later in this story.

As I have alluded to, the Russian Mennonites enjoyed great prosperity. Most of the government privileges aided the Mennonites economically. The government Committee of Guardians for Foreign Colonists even wanted to make the German communities the showcases for instructing the country’s other minorities. In the field of education, the Russian Mennonites privately supported a vast educational complex beginning on the elementary level, including two teacher colleges and an 8-year business college. They had their own hospitals, a mental institution, a school for deaf mutes, and orphanage, and a deaconess home.

With some exceptions during this pre-World War I period, this was a golden age of peace and prosperity for the Mennonites in their "new" home in Russia. The Privilegium allowed them to have their own political institutions. The Mennonites had their own village assemblies, their own elected mayors (Schulze) and had district assemblies with district head mayors (Oberschulze). But the system had some questionable features. Only the landowners could vote. The powers of the Schulze were broad but imprecise and were mixed with executive and judicial functions. However, the Mennonites did not gain much experience in the broader national politics. They operated in a semi-feudal system, living mostly as a special class of state “peasants.” As such, they thought in terms of trying to win favors and protection from the Czars as personal patrons, rather than in terms of constitutional or legal rights.

At one time it was thought that there may have been 120,000 Mennonites in Russia living in these villages. Many were the farmers who planted the endless hedgerows of trees on barren steppes which we saw when we traveled there in 2000. These hedgerows were all part of a special project led by the noted Russian/ Mennonite agriculturist Johann Cornies who promoted the fact that the farmers needed to enrich the soil, trap winter moisture and prevent any additional erosion. Each villager was responsible for putting in a quantity of these seedlings each year. By 1850 the Mennonite farmers had planted over a million trees, transforming the barren south Russian landscape!

Farming became more productive and diverse in those days as well. With the Molotschna area marked by a continental climate with severe winters and dry summers, storms could produce fierce blizzards in the winter. Even a small area of the steppe land that had been ploughed would suffer from dust storms which would appear in late summer. The raising of sheep, the planting of wheat, rye, barley , oats, sunflowers, and the raising of silkworms involving the planting of mulberry trees all became part of the rural landscape of the Molotschna Colony. As we will note later, even fruit orchards were part of the Abraham Klassen farm in the Kleefeld village in the Molotschna. (We noted that fields of sunflowers still cover the land once tilled by Mennonites, and its seed oil remains the primary choice for cooking today in Ukraine.)

The Mennonites developed winter wheat and later brought it to the United States where the “red” winter wheat became the staple of the Midwest's breadbasket economy. Many villages had mills to grind grain, and in time the Mennonites gained a Europe-wide reputation for their milling excellence. Prosperous farmers bought additional land outside of the colonies, establishing hundreds of private estates up to 100,000 acres. It is interesting to note that by 1915 more than 3 million acres in Russia were in Mennonite hands.

The earliest Mennonites brought with them the combined house-barn architectural style from Prussia. They grouped themselves into traditional small farm villages from 20 to 30 families each. The houses, barns, and stables were all under one roof. The gable-end roof facing the street was located on both sides of a long wide street, soon lined with shade or fruit trees. Needless to say, the first buildings were made of mud or adobe walls with thatched roofs. Stretching out and away from the village in every direction over the original treeless steppes were the arable farm lands, the common pastures where the village cattle were herded, or the sheep flocks were kept, until such time as the common land might be turned into grain fields as was done at the Abraham Klassen farm.

The spiritual development of the colonists during the first half of the 19th century hardly kept pace with their economic growth. The first settlers from Prussia brought with them ecclesiastical divisions (Flemish and Frisian divisions) that harked back to their times in Holland. For example, the acceptance of one group of Mennonites by the Mennonite Brethren after 1860 was only possible through rebaptism! Also the close affiliation of the church with the village authorities in administering local government brought with it all sorts of “church-state” problems. As in the state churches in the pre-Reformation days, church membership was likely to be confused with rights of citizenship. Church membership was therefore the essential to influential village life. Everybody joined church at a certain age.

But the Mennonite lifestyle also emerged in some unusual “worldly” ways. They traveled and studied abroad as we shall see in the Klassen family. Commerce was often carried on in European capitals. The Mennonites were no longer the "stille im lande." They were to become a significant minority voice in the Russian society. For example, we shall see that two Mennonites were even members of the Duma, Russia's national parliament, and Czars brought foreign dignitaries to see the Mennonites as an example of progress and diligence.

Our Specific Religious Heritage

In 1860 a small group within the Mennonite community in Russia underwent a religious awakening and demanded a stricter discipline for church members. Initially, it was the preaching of a German preacher Eduard Wuest (1818-1859) who had great impact on their religious thinking. He was a fiery minister from Wurttemberg, Germany, who was serving as the pastor at a German Lutheran Church south of the Molotschna Colony near Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. Many of the Molotscha Mennonites were influenced by his religious ideas. He also attracted the disenfranchised and landless, as well as some of the village leaders, who saw in his strong personal quest for salvation hope for moral improvement among the Mennonite community.

In addition, a Baptist pioneer from Germany, J. G. Oncken, visited the Mennonite Brethren in Russia repeatedly and influenced them. Our grandfather, Cornelius Klassen, refers to him a number of times in his diary. In a somewhat ironic fashion, the Baptists who originated in Holland and England, partly under the influence of the early Anabaptists (and Mennonites), now were to play a special role in the “spiritual founding” of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia!

On January 6, 1860, 18 Mennonites from the Flemish and pietistic Frisian Dutch background signed their names to a document that announced that as "Mennonite Brethren" they intended to leave the mother Mennonite church in the village of Elisabethtal in the Molotschna Colony. They were combative about it too. In their secession document they declared the rest of the Mennonite community as religiously decadent. The Mennonite Brethren were deeply concerned with the purity of the believers' church, insisting it could not include the entire cultural Mennonite community. They refused to associate with "lovers of money, drunkards and blasphemers" and asserted that fellowship with the "carnally-minded" at the communion table was contrary to the Scripture. Sacraments such as baptism was to be "ministered upon a true living [adult] faith" by immersion. The other Mennonites practiced non-immersion. Their life of discipleship became associated with a rigorously prescribed ethics. There certainly was a tendency toward religious legalism that might have encouraged some to feel that they were better than members of the general Mennonite church. All of this occurred within a Mennonite community in Russia that was already isolated ethnically by the general nature of their German Mennonite settlements.

As has been shown, the Mennonite Brethren created another layer of nonconformity within the German Mennonites who were already culturally and religiously distinctive in their new Russian culture. Obviously, the emergence of the Mennonite Brethren provided some uncomfortable social separations among this religious German Mennonite community. Our Klassen ancestors were members of this movement. The general Mennonite church authorities fought the movement for a good reason. The Mennonites had been granted their early civil and religious privileges by the Russian authorities as an organic body. It was felt by some that the Mennonite Brethren, who might be recognized as intimately part of the wider Mennonite body, might not be able to continue to participate in these government-sanctioned Mennonite privileges. However, even the Mennonite Brethren recognized this somewhat by carefully disassociating themselves from their Baptist influences by still maintaining their “Mennonite” title in their church denominational name. Many of Mennonite leaders on both sides worked carefully to bring healing to this potential religious rift among the German Mennonite villages.

It was in the 1870’s and 1880’s that some of the Mennonite Brethren became part of a mass exodus to North America mentioned earlier. It happened that there were rumors that the German Mennonites might lose their military exemption from service. It was also noted that the German language might not be allowed in their schools anymore. And, of course, members of the newly founded

Mennonite Brethren may have felt that that they would find a better setting for their religious pietism. Our Duerksen and Leppke ancestors were part of this exodus of 18,000 individuals who came to America and were stereotyped by many as being more religiously evangelical than many of those who stayed and remained in Russia.

Emigration to America

The political realities were that as a result of the poor showing of the Russian Army in the Crimean War, Czar Alexander II wanted to investigate universal conscription. The blow to the Mennonite colonists fell in 1870 when the Russian government indicated that the day of special privileges may end. The German colonists were to be governed by St. Petersburg instead of a local jurisdiction located in Odessa. The Russian language was also to be introduced as a subject of study in all the schools and all the German Mennonite schools were to be supervised directly by the imperial education authorities. Worst of all, as indicated earlier, there was a fear that military exemption was to be abolished, or so they thought. The colonists were to be given 10 years in which to accommodate themselves to the new threatened order.

The Mennonites felt that the promise made by Czarina Catherine the Great had been granted in perpetuity. The Russian authorities assured protesting Mennonite delegations on the issue of military service that they would not likely be granted a complete exemption, but might be assigned to some sort of non-combatant service in forestry or industrial work not connected with the War Department in times of peace and hospital service in times of war.

In the meantime, as the hope of securing favorable consideration from the government faded, the sentiment for emigration to a foreign land increased, particularly among the less wealthy Mennonite colonists who had more to gain by immigrating.

The American government did not seem vitally interested in the proposed migration either. In the fall of 1873 President Ulysses Grant indicated that he could not guarantee military exemption from military service, but he expressed the opinion that it was not likely that anyone in the United States would ever be called upon to serve in the army contrary to his religious convictions. The President, however, was favorable disposed toward the emigration movement, and recommended favorable land legislation in his message to Congress. But the separate legislation in the form of a petition, recognizing the need to provide railroad and public lands to the Russian Mennonites, failed when introduced by Congress in the spring of 1874.

Events were unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic. Bernhard Warkentin, a Molotschna Colony Mennonite, was among a dozen Mennonite representatives who went to New York for a personal investigative tour of the western states and Manitoba, Canada. His enthusiastic reports were widely circulated throughout the Molotschna Colony. The settlement opportunities in North America became widely known. In addition, new railroads across the vast stretches of the virgin prairies in North America had opened up large blocks of good land in Manitoba and in states such as Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

With the enactment of the Russian military conscription law of 1874, it was rumored among the Russian officials that most of the Mennonite community would plan to leave. When it became apparent that the Czar was about to lose many of the country’s best farmers, his emissary, Count Eduard von Totleben, himself a German Lutheran and a Russian hero of the Crimean War, was sent to visit the Mennonites to discourage the would-be emigrants from leaving. He was also to present to the Mennonites a more definitive promise on alternative war service that would enable Mennonites to work in ethnic segregated units. He emphasized less the health and sanitation services and focused more on forestry service. The Mennonites were encouraged by the emphasis on forestry camps, feeling that their youth could function better in more isolated surroundings away from the influence of the Russian military. Furthermore, he assured them that the Mennonites would not be called into active service in the event of war! He assisted them in drafting a petition in this regard and a year later this promise was enacted into law. Over the next half-dozen years the Mennonites and the government worked out those details with the first forestry camps opening in 1881 under church-related direction.

It is interesting to note the extent to which the local Mennonite efforts were made to discourage the Russsian Mennonites from leaving. A Leonard Sudermann noted that:

“America was a country interesting for the adventurer, an asylum for convicts. How could one live in peace under his vine and fig tree amid such people, to say nothing of the native savages? Such a life might be possible for those who had their pockets full of revolvers; but for a nonresistant people it would be impossible to found homes amid such surroundings”

This change of heart by the Russian government came too late for many that were contemplating leaving based on the initial government announcement. In 1875 a German-born agent for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, C.B. Schmidt, toured the Molotschna Colony on behalf of railway land in Kansas. Under threat of being reported to authorities by Mennonites who opposed the emigration, he traveled from village to village extolling the virtues of America. Our Leppke and Duerksen ancestors may have even succumbed to these offerings and journeyed to Kansas in 1875 and 1884, respectfully.

More specifically, Heinrich (1827-1900) and Justina Derksen Leppke (1828-1908) left their home at Gerhardsthal to the north of the Chortitza Colony in June 1875. Heinrich had moved the 50 miles from from Nieder Chortitza village near the Dnieper River where his father Johann had settled when he came from Prussia. The Heinrich Leppke's and their 8 children (Isaac, 20; Justina, 18; Johann, 16; Abraham, 14; Elizabeth, 10; Anna, 8; Peter, 6;and Jacob, 4) found passage on the SS BOLIVA, departing from Glasgow, Scotland, arriving at Ellis Island on July 1, 1875. Around July 7 they arrived in Peabody, Kansas near where they settled. Peter was our mother Leah's father and the grandfather that I knew. But that is another story.

What followed was a mass migration to America. As we know, of the approximately 55,000 Mennonites in the Colonies during this time, 18,000 emigrated to the United States and Canada between 1874 and 1879. About 60 percent of them settled in the midwestern United States while the remaining group migrated to Manitoba. The migration to would have financially difficult for these Russian Mennonites if it were not for the North Americans raising over $100,000 for the trip and their initial expenses.

This group represented about one-third of all the Russian Mennonites. About one half of them left the Molotschna Colony, involving one out of five families there. But the Klassens were among the two-thirds of that Colony’s population that stayed in Russia. While this movement to leave has been mainly attributed to the threatened government changes in the Privilegium under Czarina Catherine the Great concerning their nonresistance stance, there was no doubt that other economic issues, such as unavailability of land to extended family members who were denied expansion opportunities for growth, played a decisive role in many families leaving. It was clear that both Mother Colonies and the many large private estates outside of these settlements had accumulated wealth far above that of their Russian neighbors, so many of the Mennonites that went to America and Canada were landless and could be considered virtual paupers.

Our Duerksen relatives left a bit later in 1884, arriving in New York on August 16, 1884, aboard the SS LESSING coming from Hamburg, Germany. The Duerksen family (Gerhard, 36 and Katherine Fast Duerksen, 38) and their 7 children (Katherine, 15; Franz, 13; Gerhard, 9; Sara, 7; Helene, 4; John, 3; and Elizabeth, 6 months) went to Kansas. Franz or Frank was Bev's grandfather.

By 1885 there were 25,000 Mennonite residents left in the Colonies. The departure of all of these more conservative Mennonites obviously made more land available and opened the way for general expansion by the remaining Mennonites which included the Klassen family.

It is interesting to note 25 years later, the Mennonite population in the Colonies was back up over 100,000. For perspective, the upcoming 1917 Revolution would be noted as the Mennonite holocaust, as approximately 35,000 Mennonites perished in what was then the Soviet Union. Another 20,000 left the Soviet Union during the brutal turmoil of the 1920's, as we shall see in this Klassen family scenario. In 1944, 5,000 German/Russians fled to the West behind the retreating with the German Wehrmacht. Ultimately, 23,000 of the German/Russian refugees were later expatriated and shipped back to the Soviet Union in boxcars and then languished in Siberian labor camps until the 1960's. During Glasnost in the 1980's and 1990's thousands fled to Germany from where many of their ancestors had originally come centuries earlier! Today, for example, there are an estimated 5,000 "Mennonites" scattered throughout Russian and Ukrainian locations and the former Soviet republics.

Alternative Service

The German Mennonites were obviously concerned about the Mennonite exodus to North America that had been largely provoked by the threat of compulsory military service. The government proposed alternative service would place young Mennonite men under the Department of Forestry in the Ministry of Agriculture and Crown Lands. The Mennonite church was given the authority to run the program in exchange for underwriting the major expenses through Mennonite poll and property taxes. This proved to be a heavy financial burden for the Mennonite community.

The church-supported alternative service was set into law in 1875 and was effected 5 years later with 6, then 8, and just before World War I, 11 forestry camps, and one mobile unit on the south coast of the Crimea to combat phylloxera (grapevine louse). The usual complement of about 1,000 men was chosen by lot to serve 4 years with some exemptions for teachers and those with family responsibilities. Later, the terms of service were reduced to 3 years. After several months of work in the forestry service, some men would join the regular army rather than work as "slaves", as they referred to such work, but church leaders tried to play down this element. Apparently it was not always clear to the men how forestry work was relevant to pacifism! In any case, the church had to pay 200,000 Rubles annually to the government to support an average of 1,000 young men in such state service.

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) the Mennonites showed their patriotism by contributing money and horses to the Russian cause. The initial Russian idea of Mennonite young men serving in medical service in Red Cross units as an alternative form of service was not acceptable to all church leaders. The leaders believed the young men would be too closely allied with the military. Also, it forced them to live separately from their group rather than remain as units as they would do in forestry service where they could support one another.

How Mennonite men should serve during war continued to be an issue in the Colonies. The forestry camps were supported until World War I. The young men lived in barracks in complete isolation from the Russians. Only the forest ranger and his representative in charge of the forestry work done by the Mennonites were Russian. The influence of this life together on Mennonite young men far away from their home villages assured them of little influence from the outside environment. However, during the early years of World War I, Mennonites were again encouraged to begin serving in medical units to aid the wounded and to support Russian soldiers' families. When the World War I began, finally more than 12,000 men were mobilized. Most of the younger men served as sanitary or hospital workers in the Red Cross and the older men served as workers and guards in national forests. About 5,000 to 6,000 Mennonites served as medical servicemen during W.W. I. Some of the Klassen boys were to face all of these noncombatant service options when the war began which will be described later. The oldest Klassen brother, Abraham, Jr., entered forestry service in 1902.

The Beginnings

The Abraham Johann Klassen home located in Kleefeld

The tradition among the German Mennonite families was for the father to use his forename as the middle name of his firstborn son. One can assume that in the future I may be looking for a “Johann Klassen” to trace our roots further back into Russian and Prussian history. (You can note from the “Genealogical Jottings” in the Appendix that the name “Abraham” was used both as a forename and a middle name for the firstborn son and as a middle name for at least two of the other boys. The next son, Cornelius Abraham reflected our direct ancestral line as my grandfather.

Our genealogical underpinnings will go beyond this account. We have photos that underscore some of the identifications. There are also census records for the Molotschna Colony and villages that are being translated and indexed from various Ukrainian archives as this is being written. I have been able to verify the Klassen roots back to Abraham Johann Klassen, born in East Prussia in August 9, 1850, (or possibly 1855 according to the records of a relative), and his wife Cornelia A. Toews Klassen, born in Tiegerweide, Molotschna Colony, June 20, 1860.

The Abraham Johann Klassen family consisted of 10 children. The first three girls--Cornelia Klassen (Mrs. Peter Johann Willms) named after her mother born about 1877; Elizabeth (Liese) Klassen (Mrs. Peter Peter Wiens) born February 26, 1879; and the mentally retarded Mary (Mariechen) born December 1878?.

The first boy was named after his father--Abraham Abraham Klassen, born March 17, 1881; then the focus of our attention, Cornelius Abraham Klassen, born May 6, 1883; Johann Abraham Klassen, born July 1, 1884; Gerhard Klassen, born in 1887; Jacob Klassen, born about 1888; Peter, born about 1890; and Anna Klassen (Mrs. Bernhard Doerksen and later Mrs. Kaverena), born about 1896. Our roots are with the Cornelius Abraham Klassen family whose diary will provide the background to much of what is recalled here.

Although the family is thoroughly identified as having its historical roots in the village of Kleefeld which was founded in 1854, there is a reference in the newly accessed Odessa school records of the oldest brother, Abraham Abraham Klassen began elementary school around 1887 from the village of Tiegerweide, 3 to 4 miles north of Kleefeld, and completed his schooling in Kleefeld in 1895. Yet Cornelius, his younger brother and my grandfather, was born in Kleefeld in 1883. His school records only show the Kleefeld location which brings into question the timing of the family move from Tiegerweide to Kleefeld. Another historian will have to untangle this 1880 location conundrum!

Tiegerweide was founded by the 24 Flemish German Mennonite settlers from West Prussia, Danzig, and Marienburg regions in 1822. These initial settlers were poor, having an average of only 300 Rubles capital. The government grant to these average nearly 860 Rubles per family. Tiegerweide experienced some of the same economic difficulties as other pioneer villages in the Molotschna Colony, but ultimately the village became quite affluent. In 1835, at the time of the Molotschna Census they had a population of 211 and in 1857 it had 181 folks living there. A Johann Klassen was listed as an Oberschulze (a prominent Mennonite administrative official) for the entire Molotschna Colony from Tiegerweide, but we have not been able to connect any of his roots to Abraham Johann Klassen, my great grandfather. Often the oldest son of a parent would carry the middle name of his father, or Johann in this case. But we cannot prove the connection yet.

One needs to recall during these early years in Russia that the divisions between the Mennonite Flemish, the founders of Tiegerweide, and the Frisians were always strictly maintained. Even the Mennonite social life ran separate courses. There was, for example, as a rule no intermarriage between the two groups. Eventually those labels were dropped in Russia, even though these divisions were part of the Mennonite ethnic culture for many centuries during their previous sojourns in Holland and Prussia!

An Abraham [Johann] Klassen was listed as a landowner of 33 acres in Tiegerweide in 1873. And we should also note that his future wife, Cornelia Toews, had been born in Tiegerweide in 1860. We can assume that the Abraham Johann Klassen family may have moved to a larger farm later in Kleefeld to accommodate a growing family some time in the late 1880’s or early 1890’s. Today Tiegerweide is known in the Ukraine as the village of Mostovoye.

The village of Kleefeld, where the entire family spent all of their years, was settled in 1854 by 40 Mennonite families. The site was located in the western part of the Molotschna Colony on the left bank of the Juschanlee River. It was one of the last villages to be established in the Molotschna Colony! It had 8,300 acres of rich farmland that was divided among the original 40 families. Like most of the other villages, Kleefeld had 2 rows of houses with footpaths on each side with a Dutch windmill situated on a slight hill that could be seen from a great distance. On each side of the street were 20 large farmsteads and just as many smaller farmsteads. The Juschanlee River flowed lazily past the entire upper end of the village, providing an inviting lure for summer bathing!

In 1908 the population of Kleefeld was 590. Kleefeld did not have its own church building, so its residents went to church in other villages, especially Alexanderkrone. The Klassens may have traveled to other villages for worship. A contemporary of the Klassens described Kleefeld families as well known for their musical talent. We can see this in Cornelius and Gerhard's activities as choir directors at the various places they were teaching.

The photos (figure 5) of the Abraham Klassen home indicate that it was built of the more durable kiln-fired brick with tile roofs. This photo showed that it had a large barn for some type of dairy operation. The farm house was probably built after the time of the nationally known Mennonite agriculturist, Johann Cornies (1798-1848). He lived on a 9,000 acre estate along the Juschanlee River, two miles west of what was to become the village of Kleefeld in 1854. We know that for all of the Molotschna colonies, Cornies' grandiose plans were used to regulate village and building styles in the Molotschna Colony. Perhaps they also were used in Kleefeld.

In 1911 Kleefeld had a population of 666. A plat of Kleefeld plotted by Gerhard Dyck in 2002, as he remembered it when he lived there, is illustrated in Gerhard Harder's From Kleefeld With Love, p. 22-23, showing a "Frau Klassen" residence. This might be the Abraham Klassen home remembered by someone after 1922 when Abraham died, but I do not think so. As a widow, she probably lived with her daughter, Anna, and son-in-law, Bernhard Duerksen who was a teacher in Kleefeld. The Duerksen plat was also located by Gerhard Dyck.1

A 1922 plat drawn by William Schroeder and Sara Helene Harder in the Molotschna Historical Atlas by Helmut Harder has a “Klassen” residence identified next to a tree plantation and the Juschanlee River. I think this may be my great-grandfather Abraham Klassen’s residence, although not identified with his forename. I think the lack of complete identification may have come from that fact that he died in 1922 and may have not been around when the aforementioned tried to remember and draw the plat where everybody lived in Kleefeld. We have several photos of the farm house as described below.

Klassen family farmed grain crops, corn, and had apple orchards on his farm in Kleefeld. It should be noted that wheat farming was a leading industry in this part of Russia because of the nearby good markets accessed by the Black Sea. During the harvest time in 1910, there was a family description of Anna, Cornelius' youngest sibling at about age 14, working on a threshing "machine.” She either stood or sat on a center platform to make sure that the horses walked round and round to keep the threshing "machine" going. The harvest period extended from St. Nicholas Day in early May to October 1.

There is a Klassen home photo showing a group of young people on their way to a picnic and May Festival. May 6th was also Cornelius' birthday, as well as the birthday of Czar Nicholas II, so there may have been other motives for the celebratory, decorated wagon (Figure 6). This photo appears in Walter Quiring and Helen Bartel's In the Fullness of Time; 150 Years of Mennonite Sojourn in Russia,, p. 95 and as an unidentified photo in John Harder's From Kleefeld with Love, p.20. We also have included in this story another photo of the farm house from our family photo album.

We should note that Kleefeld grew to 88 dwellings with 750 inhabitants in 1922, the year that the typhus epidemic supposedly struck down the elder Abraham Klassen and another son, Peter. Just to give perspective on the size of the village, by this year there were 34 full farms (175 acres size) and 15 small farms (105 acres) in Kleefeld.

The Area Economy

Johann Cornies, the noted Mennonite/Russian agriculturists and social reformer, began the practice of summer fallow with a 3-crop rotation, which most farmers followed well into the 1900’s. He brought in better breeding stock for sheep, cattle and horses. He promoted the damming of streams to develop pond water thus improving pastureland. As we have noted, he initiated a tree planting program requiring each village farm to plant hedgerow of trees. For example, within 6 years of starting this policy, over 5 million trees were planted in the Molotschna Colony. This also brought about tree plantations which gave the Colony a distinctly prosperous and pastoral appearance!

We know that by 1880 the land area ploughed by a typical farmer was about 120 acres. About one half of the ploughed land was sown with wheat for export and the other half with barley, rye, and oats for local consumption. Over the many years of raising wheat, the “red” hard winter wheat brought higher prices and gained quick gained ascendancy over the more traditional soft spring wheat that the Mennonites had originally grown there. Traditionally, by 1886 a typical Molotschna farmer earned about 1047 Rubles a year from grain sales after expenses of perhaps 1500 Rubles.

A traditional Mennonite farm might have from 2 to 4 seasonal workers, each earning between 80 to 100 Rubles. The annual salary for the household maids was perhaps half this amount. A typical Molotschna farm kept 5 milk cows and eight horses five for ploughing, 2 for harrowing and one for transportation. The Molotschna settlers brought large numbers of East Frisian cattle with them from West Prussia. Through crossbreeding a popular new breed of cattle was developed named the "Red German" cow with prospered greatly in that part of Russia. The farms flourished. We even have records of the orchards of the area producing such excellent fruit that won prizes at the Halbstadt, Molotschna Colony fair in 1909!

Certainly the opening of the seaport of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov in 1830 gave the Molotschna Colony incredible access to the world grain markets which actually revolutionized their agricultural production. The Molotschna farmers were able to sell all the grain they could produce into the world grain markets. Ultimately, the “red” winter wheat became the main crop as the grain was exported to England and other European countries. As we will see, farming by the Mennonites became a highly specialized commercial enterprise in the villages of south Russia!

While the villages were not totally communal in their organization, they frequently undertook municipal enterprises for the common good. Some villages had a common granary stored where they stored grain for the lean years, and for the benefit of the poor. Occasionally also they even held tracts of land for later distribution as the population grew. Both the Mother Colonies maintained steady economic growth, and in the course of time, converted the these vast treeless steppes into flourishing fields, orchards and pastures filled with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. By 1870 the Chortitza and Molotschna Colonies, as well as many of the large private estates outside of the settlements, had accumulated wealth far above that of their Russian neighbors.

Even the most prosperous settlements were not without their economic problems, however. Up to 1840 there seemed to be no dearth of tillable land. In the beginning years of the settlement of both colonies, they were given more land than they actually could cultivate. But by 1870 a large part of the population in both Chortitza and Molotschna Colonies owned no land because of the original government agreement that each piece of inherited land could not be divided upon the death of the land owner. So other members of the family had to secure land elsewhere, work as farm laborers, or take up others lines of work. This antagonism became so well-defined between the land owners and the landless in the early 1860’s that some of their landless leaders petitioned the government for relief. They had demanded the distribution of the some of the common land of the Colonies, as well as a division of the larger estates into smaller ones and the purchase by each Colony of new lands to benefit their landless people.

After considerable opposition on the part of the landed interest, and with the usual procrastination on of the Russian authorities, a measure of relief was finally granted by the government. They recommended that the large estates be divided into half and even quarter estates of 88 and 44 acres, respectively. Then the surplus of common land would be divided into smaller estates. The broad roads leading from one village to another were to be made narrower making more land available. The income and the acreage increases from all of these changes would be invested on behalf of the landless Mennonites. These measures brought some relief, but as we have seen, but as we have seen, it was not enough to relieve the pressure that lead to the mass emigration to North America in the 1870’s and 1880’s.

Local Government

Each village became a governing unit for the control of schools and roads; for the appointment of municipal leaders, fire overseers and village clerks; apportioning the arable farm lots and distributing surplus lands. As we know, at the head of each village was a Schulze, elected by the land owners and who had jurisdiction of petty misdemeanors. Local regulations on all these questions were passed in a village meeting composed of land holders only. Those without real estate had no voice in local government.

A group of villages, at first including the entire Colony, was composed of a district called a Gebiet and a district superintendent called an Oberschulze with the power of punishment, the right to hold court, and regulate such other matters of local government as concerned the villages in common. Each Colony kept its own records, made its own fire regulations, provided for an insurance fund, took care of its own delinquents, as well as “disabled”, and even made its own laws of inheritance. In fact, the Mennonites with all their special exemptions and privileges almost constituted a democratic state within a larger autocratic state, enjoying local autonomy far above the native Russian villagers. As one can easily see, they were hardly recognized as Russian citizens at all in their isolation from the rest of them. Some of the Russians even went so far as to say that Mennonites’ political allegiance belonged to Prussia from where they had emigrated a half century earlier and not to the Czar.

One might say that the Mennonites approached being a “theocracy” in their form of government! Although in no way organically connected with the control of civil affairs, the elders of the church exercised great influence over matters of government, especially in the case of schools. This practice necessitated frequent meetings of the elders. Other laymen had no voice in these meetings. This type of arrangement was not always a success. It was not easy to carry out the Mennonite advocacy for nonresistance and opposition to the use of force, while still policing their own village life with the needed discipline to create stable social life!

Not every village even had a church meetinghouse. For example, there appears to be none in the Kleefeld village where the Abraham Klassen. Also the preachers were often village teachers without any theological training. Cornelius Klassen often served as minister in the various villages where he taught and lived.

By the 1850's this “reworked” south Russia had become one of Russia's most economically advanced regions. And the German Mennonites found that the practice of hiring Russian servants for harvesting and other farm work and maids to help with the household duties had become a tremendous help to them economically. The land values had also increased exponentially since 1808. By the 1860's a good farm might sell for 6,000 Rubles.

The Educational Component

If one looked at the manner of how the Mennonite schools were impacting on the colonies, one must presume they were the extremely important to preserving the German culture in a Russian society. Although they were required to teach Russian , the German Mennonite teachers allowed a much slower acculturation into the fabric of Russian society. Each village was free to establish such schools as it pleased in the early years of settlement, or none at all if it so desired. Compulsory public school attendance was not yet required in Russia or anywhere else in Europe at that time.

By the 1840's and 1850's the Mennonite village schools had model school houses developed under the leadership of the previously mentioned the renowned Johann Cornies. He fostered among the German Mennonites compulsory attendance, the licensing of competent teachers, uniform textbooks, and well-planned courses of study. Sometime later, teachers' conferences were organized, as we shall see in Cornelius' teaching activities. By 1870 ephemeral supervision was replaced by more accountability through regular organized school boards. As it turned out, the Mennonite schools were often much better than the schools of their Russian neighbors!

In 1881 the government’s Ministry of Education assumed ultimate control of all schools with power to set curricula in the colonies’ schools, establish teacher qualifications and appoint Russians rather than ethnic Mennonites teachers. Soon the Ministry decreed that, except for religion, all subjects were to be taught in Russian. Yet in practice the change was not fully adhered to, as we shall see later in Cornelius Klassen’s classroom.

One can only speculate why Cornelius and his brother made the choice to become teachers, coming from a Klassen family that had 10 children and a number of farmer brothers with its attendant wealthy agricultural lifestyle, supported by a number of Russian helpers and maids! A full-time worker on the farm was paid 90 to 95 Rubles per month during the high season which went from the middle of February through May. An individual woman’s work might garner 50 to 60 Rubles per month during the same peak season.

On August 14, 1897 Cornelius completed his elementary school certificate which was received from the Molotschna Mennonite School Board from the village school at Kleefeld, probably completing his coursework in May at the age of 13. His teacher who signed the certificate was Isaak Regehr (Figure 7). These data were located in the Odessa Archives. The Russians apparently saved everything!

Generally a Mennonite child attended an elementary school up to the age of 14. The teachers presented their subject matter in bilingual courses, the German and Russian. Approximately half of the time in elementary school was spent in instruction using the Russian language and the other half was in the German language around the turn of the century. The general subjects such as language, arithmetic, and science were taught in the Russian language, while the German language and literature and religion were taught in German. For whatever reason, 16 year-old Cornelius saw the challenge beyond farming and enrolled in an unidentified secondary school from which he probably completed his course in May 1901. In September he enrolled in the prestigious Pedagogical Training Program at the Halbstadt Zentralschule, located about 25 to 30 miles north of Kleefeld.

Originally, the Zentralschule was started as an occupational school, designed to train future teachers and secretaries in public offices, etc. Later this developed into a general liberal arts school which many of the sons and daughters of the settlers attending, even if they remained as farmers. Obviously this practice raised the educational and cultural standards most of the Mennonite villages!

Cornelius graduated from the Pedagogical Program at the Halbstadt Zentralschule in May 1904 (Figure 8). He began his teaching career on September 1904 in the village of Tokultschak in the Crimea.

Now as early as 1860, Crimea had been the object of land seekers from the Molotschna Colony. It clearly was a pioneer Mennonite area where some land was leased and where approximately 700 Mennonite families lived on land which some of them bought quite cheaply. During this time we have no diary for Cornelius, but we can look at Cornelius’ brother Gerhard’s autobiographical account in his paper “Review of My Past” to gain some insights into their life in Crimea during this time period. It too reflects many of Gerhard’s early teaching experiences there.

Although Gerhard was about 4 ½ years younger than Cornelius, his written account can be used to “mirror” his older brother’s educational background and their similar career paths at the Halbstadt Zentralschule which also included his completion of the 2-year Pedagogical Program. Gerhard noted in his account how much he enjoyed his studies at the Kleefeld village school. Upon completion of his elementary school experiences at 13 years of age, his father and mother, Abraham and Cornelia Toews Klassen, paid his room and board to attend the Ohrloff/Tiege Central School, the closest of the three secondary schools available to German Mennonite kids in the area. It was located less than 10 miles away. The older Cornelius Klassen may have also attended the Ohrloff/Tiege Central School before he went off to Halbstadt for his Pedagogical training.. It had a fine tradition with two of its former principals being the son and grandson of the already mentioned Mennonite agricultural expert, Johann Cornies. It might be noted here that the village of Kleefeld was located next to the prestigious Cornies Estate2.

In the early 1800’s Johann Cornies , the agriculturist, instituted a series of educational reforms that revolutionized the school system in the Molotschna Colony. He implemented a policy that replaced most of the old schools with new and modern facilities. Although each village continued to hire its own teachers, they had to be approved by the Agricultural Society led by Cornies. The Molotschna Colony was divided into 6 districts, with 2 representative teachers elected for each who served as inspectors and reported to Cornies! He also implemented a system of teachers' conferences and cross attendance at each other's examinations. Although the period of direct oversight of Johann Cornies for education was only 5 years, he made significant improvements with the universal village standards that were established.

When Gerhard was ready to attend the Ohrloff/Tiege Central School, he reported that they were "full up". So as a 13-year old, he stayed home during the 1900/01 year, attempting to take classes from a private tutor so that he could enter at the second or "sophomore" level the following year. But he admitted that he was "unsuccessful" in doing much studying while he spent time at home. Although there is no documentation for this, his older brother Cornelius may have also stayed home a year after elementary school to perhaps help on the farm. We deduce this from the fact that he graduated from Halbstadt at a bit older age than his peers.

The next year Gerhard matriculated at the second of the "elite" secondary schools by attending the Halbstadt Zentralschule. His autobiographical account reflected his spiritual battles and his desire to serve Christ faithfully during these years. He discussed his concerns with one of his teachers, Wilhelm Neufeld, whose photo and biography appears in the P.M. Friesen's History. He graduated from the 3-year Basic Secondary Level program in 1904 at the age of 16/17. During his final year he decided to become a teacher (like his older brother), so enrolled in the 2-year Pedagogical Course at Halbstadt Zentralschule where he successfully qualified in 1906 as a teacher. As we know, his older brother Cornelius had completed the same Pedagogical Program two years earlier in 1904 at the age of 21.

Along with their Pedagogical Training, they both received instruction in the Russian language. Obviously, the German language would still be the primary language used by the school children in the school and homes. So it clearly was the responsibility of the schools to teach their students to learn Russian as would be required by Russian law. Any prospective teacher had to pass a State Teachers' Exam. This is an Exam in which four of the parts were in Russian, as it would be for any prospective Russian teacher. Of course, the German Mennonite teachers brought to their Exam knowledge of the subject matter in German, but would have to be able to do well in the Russian language in the Exam and be able to teach it in the village schools—certainly an intellectually rigorous feat when teaching responsibly from the Russian government’s viewpoint.

During Gerhard's last year in the Halbstadt Pedagogical Course in 1906, he traveled quite a distance to the Black Sea port of Yevpatoria to take this final qualifying State Exam for the teaching certificate. On that trip he may have even visited his brother Cornelius who was in his 2nd year of teaching in the Crimea at Tokultschak which would have been on the route to Yevpatoria. As it turns out, Gerhard failed the Exam, but still accepted for a teaching position in the Crimea on the Tellentschi Estate the following year, 1906/07. Along with his friend, he would take the "Inspector's Exam" again in Yalta in the Crimea on September l906, after having already taught in his initial position at Tellentschi Estate for 2 weeks! We are assuming that he passed it this time!

During this time period, we know that the German Mennonite colonies had about 400 village schools, intermediate educational institutions, and other schools on various estates. There were approximately 500 teachers, including teachers who did private tutoring in the family homes. About 50 percent of the teachers were trained and had received their Pedagogical degree, as Cornelius and Gerhard had, at one of the two pedagogical institutions available to the Mennonites, Chortitza or Halbstadt Zentralschules.

A 1914 account from a resident in Kleefeld noted that the two teachers there made 800 Rubles and 600 Rubles, respectively. In other sources, we noted that he average schoolteacher in the colonies made about 600 Rubles a year. It was noted that a full-time harvest worker (from the middle of February to May) made 90 to 95 rubles. On the other hand, one might want to compare this to amount, such as was known, then, when a successful Mennonite mill owner donated 40,000 Rubles to a village for a Mennonite mental institution! You can see where the teachers’ salaries ranked among the wealthy entrepreneurs among the German Mennonite communities!

Launching his Teaching Career--The Crimean Teaching Pilgrimage, 1904 to 1907

After Cornelius' graduated from the Pedagogical Program at the Halbstadt Teachers' Zentralschule in the spring of 1904, he found a teaching position in the northwestern Crimea Peninsula in one of the Mennonite villages purchased by the original Molotschna Colony named Tokultschak (Figure 9). The village was already a Russian village, but became one of two Mennonite Hutterite villages renamed Johannesruh in honor of Johnann Cornies. Cornelius always referred to it by its Russian designation Tokultschak, which may have even indicated a declining German Hutterite influence when he began teaching there in 1904.

Mennonites began to settle in Crimea after the Crimean War (1854-56). During the Crimean War the superior Mennonite wagons and horses were greatly admired by the Russians, as were the doctors and hospital wards set up in the mother Molotschna Colony. Mennonite food supplies were of superior quality and enterprising young Mennonite men such as Johann Cornies had traded in Crimea.

The Mennonite settlements in Crimea were different from those of the more northern German Mennonite villages in that the land purchases were made privately, not by the Mother Colonies, as was the case elsewhere. Settlements like this were established on both rented and purchased land. Since these settlements were not concentrated in one area, there were no religious Mennonite districts associated with the community. Instead they were incorporated into regional and administrative districts which often included Russian, Tartar and other non-Mennonite German settlements. There were also several large villages such as Karassan and Spat that are mentioned prominently in the journals of Cornelius and Gerhard. Most of the German Mennonite villages in the Crimea were small with perhaps 4 to 5 farmyards. There were numerous private estates. Johannersuh or Tokultschak, as Cornelius called it, was established in the 1860's with 12 farmyards of 270 acres each. The village became known for its gardens and tree-lined streets.

During this time the noted Mennonite Brethren historian, Peter Martinovich Friesen (1849-1914), lived in the Crimea at Sevastopol, a city Cornelius visited during a number of times. While P.M. Friesen lived there it was a time of religious and political turmoil. Russia Orthodoxy was the dominant religion and was closely protected by the Czars. Likewise, the government policies granted special rights and privileges to designated groups like the German Mennonites while others suffered because of poverty and lack of power. Russian peasants, religious dissidents and Jews were among those who suffered greatly.

Although German Mennonite colonists were theoretically a “protected” group that received special privileges, P.M. Friesen often spoke up and even risked his life for the weak and oppressed of other groups. In a major confrontation in Sevastopol, he defended the Jews at a time when violence broke out and received the commendation of the Jewish community for such bravery. Undoubtedly, Cornelius was aware of this very public incident of Mennonite bravery, since he was teaching 75 miles away in the Crimea during this time.

Soon after the 21 year old Cornelius began his first teaching job in September 1904, he returned to his parents' home in Kleefeld for a hearing to determine whether he would have to serve in the required alternative military service. As we shall see, Cornelius and his 5 brothers all had to deal with this potential interruption to their career plans. Fortunately, we find that Cornelius was given an exemption because he was a teacher.

To provide a social perspective on this time from a military standpoint, the Czars were involved in some dicey operations. They had been in the Japanese-Russo War which the Russians ultimately lost in 1905. Following a long string of military defeats in this war, one Russian stubbornly declared that "the Japanese will not enter the Kremlin, but the Russians will". Obviously, the war was not popular in the Russian Empire. The populace demanded an account from its representatives for the unprecedented defeat and heavy casualties. People looked for a scapegoat upon whom the blame for defeat could be placed. Unfortunately, the Russian Jews were superficially castigated and persecuted during this time for their part in the losses! Cornelius commented several times about this negative attitude in the Russian community, once when he studied Russian in Kiev during the summer of 1906 and then again in 1907 when he taught in the more northern Naumenko Colony in 1907.

Other disorders and demonstrations were spreading throughout the country. In the closing months of 1904 and January 22, 1905, there occurred the tragic incident known as the Red Sunday. A priest named Father Gabon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present a petition to the Czar. The troops opened fire and many were killed and wounded. This massacre shocked the world. The Social Democratic Party issued a manifesto calling Czar Nicholas II and the grand duke "the scum of the earth". They went on with slogans such as "down with the monarchic government" and " we will establish our own government--the Revolution and the Constituent Assembly of the People's Representatives", after which a general strike was declared! As a result of this small revolution in 1905, a very limited representative government did emerge. The Czar promised in an Oct. 17, 1905 manifesto that there would be freedom of the press, speech, conscience and the election of a national assembly, the Duma.

Since the status of the Mennonite privileges now again appeared to be a bit more uncertain, the Mennonite leaders focused on communicating with the Duma, especially in maintaining the Mennonite cultural and educational rights initially promised by the Czarist government. As we know, the first Duma was convened in the spring of 1906 which censured the government and, of course, ultimately led to its demise. Sensing the decline of revolutionary fervor among the people, the Czar appointed the reactionary Prime Minister Peter Stolypin. Again the familiar pattern of executions and arrests followed. So many people were hanged that the noose was dubbed "Stolypin's necktie." Of course, the radical Social Democrats, following the future line of soon-to-be familiar Karl Marx rejected the Manifesto of the Czar. You can see the paving of what will become the future Revolution occurring in 1916/17of the privileged and wealthy versus the working class!

As a freshly minted 21-year old Halbstadt grad of 1904, Cornelius expressed some loneliness in his new environs in Crimea. He lamented that his "advisor and friend" with whom he boarded was leaving in midyear. His oldest 23-year old bachelor brother, Abraham, worked on his father's farm of apple orchards, wheat and corn with his other brothers at home in Kleefeld. Abraham also visited Cornelius during the elementary school Christmas-break when they took a trip together to Lustigal in the Crimea to visit an Uncle G. Loewen (obviously the Aunt would be sister to his father, Abraham Johann Klassen, or his mother Cornelia Toews Klassen). He and his brother then went as tourists to Simferopol in southern Crimea.3

He comments on the “restlessness of the workers in the big cities” in his diary about what has become known as Red Sunday. Those demonstrations to which we referred earlier led to a riot in St. Petersburg on January 22, 1905 when Czarist troops opened fire and killed many. The Social Democratic Party called the Czar and the grand duke the “scum of the earth” and called for the end of monarchic government and called for a general strike throughout the country. Of course, this was many years before the Revolution!

In January he became the church choir director in Tokultschak and enjoyed singing with his school children at the spring festival. One of the more difficult activities for the teachers in the German Mennonite schools was to keep up their required proficiency in the Russian language. So in the spring of 1905 Cornelius successfully took the Russian exams in the north at Tokmak and the following summer went to Kiev for 2 months to receive additional tutoring in Russian by some folks associated with the university there.

As he always did in his bachelor years when the school year was completed in May, he returned by train to his parents' home, 200 miles north in Kleefeld . He usually recounted the good times he had with his brothers at home along with church activities such as leading the church choir and teaching in Sunday School. One presumed that it may have been in the Rückenau Mennonite Brethren Church, the main meeting place for the Mennonite Brethren in the Molotschna Colony. In fact, his brother Gerhard was baptized in the lake at Rückenau in June 1905, before he returned to Halbstadt for his 5th year of teacher preparation.

Cornelius began his second year of teaching in 1905/6 again at Tokultschak with 32 students from 7 to 14 years of age (more than the 18-20 pupils the school had the last 10 years). He mentioned that some of his students were even Russian Orthodox students (which made learning of Russian much easier for them!). He continued his involvement with choirs in places such as the Danilovka and Schoental (both several hours away!). Schoental was the Mennonite Brethren denominational center in Crimea in 1905 during Cornelius' teaching career in the Crimea. By November he noted that it would be nice if the choir would start to function again. He was not happy with his church in Tokultschak, even though they were had prayer meetings at his place and taught Sunday School!

He noted that the news from the government in 1905, to which we have already referred, was very discouraging! But he attended a teachers' conference in Kadagay, Crimea, a teachers' committee meeting in Spat, Crimea, where he tried to have the teachers "show more solidarity and respectability". They even held a teachers' union meeting at his place! He opined that "one laments that the school accomplishes so little, that the young folks [are] getting from bad to worse…" He took a spring-break trip to Montanai and Yevpatoria on the Black Sea for the mineral springs and mud baths. On another note, he even played the home organ while in Tschokmack-->

His 55-year old Dad paid him a visit for several days when the choir sang at a consecration festival at Schoental and both were together for Christmas in Kleefeld again. He cited how happy he was that God called him into the teaching profession! He mentioned that he wanted to be with his brother when Gerhard first came down to be interviewed for a teaching position in a nearby Crimean village while he was still in his last year at Halbstadt. As we know, ultimately Gerhard took his first teaching position in August 1906 in a north central Crimean village at the Tellentschi Estate. This was located approximately 40 miles away from where Cornelius was teaching in Tokultschak.

With the Russian exams for teaching taking place at the end of his second year (1905/06), Cornelius decided to brush up on his Russian language skills and receive tutoring from university students in Kiev. He returned to Kleefeld before leaving for Russian language study in Kiev with Aron A. Toews who was a teacher from Kleefeld (and father of the former president of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg), from 1903 to 1906. After their summer in Kiev, the 23 year old Cornelius returned for his third year of teaching with 20 pupils, again to the village of Tolkultschak, while his brother Gerhard began his first year of teaching on the Tellentschi Estate. He had just graduated from the Pedagogical Course at the Halbstadt Zentraschule (Figure 10).

Gerhard mentioned that he and his brother Cornelius planned to attend a teachers' conference together in nearby Lustigal in Crimea, but was unable to reach Cornelius. Again, he stayed at his Uncle G. Loewen's place, and provided this rare reference to a Klassen family relative somewhere in the heart of Crimea about whom we know nothing! As we know, Gerhard had also taken the teachers' exam after having signed on at Tellentschi. He went with friends in late August to September 18, 1906, going by boat to Yalta. Later Gerhard became very much involved with the nearby Karassan Mennonite Brethren Church. He became their choir director in October of that year which speaks well of his talents and his immediate interest and involvement in church musical activities.

Both Cornelius and his brother Gerhard continue to conscientiously try to improve themselves as teachers. One weekend in September 1906 Cornelius went to Pascha-Tschokmak (Hochfeld) southeast of Tokultschak where he was critiqued as a teacher. He received a favorable commendation. In October Cornelius prepared to take the Private Tutor's Exam. This would confer upon him the right of private instruction. This might have also had some influence on how he spent his 1906/07 school year. He noted that by May 1907 he had "another resolve for which God has to say 'Amen' first" and said that "the future looks a little dark, but God will help further". Apparently, he was waiting for some word from Moscow educational officials about whether he had passed the Exam for which he was putting in 1 1/2 to 2 hours of self-study a day!

As was his custom, he returned to Kleefeld for Christmas. He then returned to Tolkultschak with his brothers (probably Abraham, 25, Johann, 22, and Gerhard, 19) to where Gerhard had begun teaching in Tellentschi. He recalled what a pleasant time they all had together. During the year (1907) we learn that Cornelius spoke at a church funeral services for a Russian friend and conducted the service in Russian! We also found that he learned to play the mandolin, evidence of his own musical talent. By 1918 there were 3,500 German Mennonites living in Crimea and enjoying the good life!

This was the time when the local Russian school officials were suspending the right of the Halbstadt teacher training school to conduct its own exams and requiring them to be taken at the state level. The local districts (volosts) were naturally unhappy about paying 100 thousand Rubles a year for school support without a voice in their disbursement or the choosing of their teachers. In fact, a special committee in the Halbstadt area contacted the Mennonite Duma representative Hermann A. Bergmann in May 1907 requesting that the villages keep the right to select their own teacher, keep the right to call district conferences, and provide teacher certification.

At the end of the 1906/07 school year he again returned to Kleefeld where he joined Gerhard in leading the children's services at the Rückenau M.B. Church and continued to be involved with singing and teaching of children in the church. During this period he also began serving as lay minister wherever he found himself in the German Mennonite villages. Giving the Sunday morning sermon was not uncommon among school teachers!

The Rewarding Transition Years, 1907 - 1912

These are years in which there was very little recorded in the diaries of either Cornelius or his younger brother, Gerhard. Perhaps because of the success that this 24-year old bachelor had with the Moscow-based Private Tutors Exam, Cornelius moved after three years in the Crimea and began tutoring and teaching far to the north in the village of Barvenkovo (Figure 11). It was located 350 miles northeast of Crimea in the Naumenko Colony. The village of Barvenkovo was a railway town with a population of about 15,000 when went to live there. The entire Colony itself had about 700 Mennonite families in an area that is about 75 miles south of the present day Kharkov. An adjoining village in the Naumenko Colony was Vassilyevka where our father was born. Cornelius tutored and taught in Barvenkovo from 1907 to 1909 and in Vassilyevka from 1909 to 1912.

The Naumenko Colony had been founded around 1890 on 14,356 acres 17 years earlier. It was in the northern government district of Kharkov and Isjum, and developed as a daughter colony of the Molotschna and Chortitza Colonies. It was privately purchased and leased for the development of these three villages-- Barvenkovo, Petrovka, and Vassilyevka which, by the way, were all noted in historical notes as having good school buildings!

The Naumenko Colony was certainly a long distance from Kleefeld in the Molotschna Colony to which Cornelius and his brother Gerhard always returned every Christmas and summer vacation during their bachelor days. But the move to the Naumenko Colony did dramatically separate him from his beloved brother! Today the general area is no longer recognizable as it is near the industrial Donetsk region which is noted for its large metal and mining industries of the Ukraine. The area was industrialized during the Communist period.

On the national scene the eventual ineffectiveness of the parliamentary Duma did not mean the Mennonites were immune to the debate among the workers and the Czarist-backed legislature. Russia's autocratic political structure was beginning to shift and with this shift came again the inevitable review of the historic Mennonite rights granted by the Czarist government. Changes to the 1906 Constitution were being made. Some were highly favorable to basic religious rights. For example, the Constitutional changes with reference to religious freedoms made it legal for the “cloistered” German Mennonites to associate with Russian Baptists and even to evangelize groups such as the Orthodox Russians!

Most of the elected political parties in the Second Duma (February to June 1907) were even united in their opposition to the privileges of the Orthodox Church and demanded the complete separation of the Orthodox Church and state, as well as the removal of the state schools from Orthodox Church control. But in the Third Duma (1907 to 1912) legislators took strong exception toward any exemptions from military service like the Mennonites had for religious reasons. Gerhard showed some uneasiness about this military service issue while teaching in Crimea. In November 1908 he went north to Tokmak to check on his status with the draft lottery which we may recall was then supervised by the Mennonite Church. Teachers, however, were given exemption.

In 1907 Cornelius began his 4th year of tutoring and teaching in Barvenkovo in a somewhat melancholy mood. As we have already noted, he made mention of the fact that there was some bias against Jews in this village in which many Russians lived among the Germans. He also wished he had a "Jonathan" to be his friend, but distracted himself by learning playing the mandolin and, I suspect, dreaming about how he might find a wife in his 24th year!

He picked right up in terms of his religious involvement and led the children's Sunday School in his first Sunday there. He met many of his German Mennonite friends the next Sunday in the nearby Petrovka village church which had the postal address of Barvenkovo. In 1902 it was a well-attended church of 180 members and 416 “adherents”. Ultimately, he was pleased with his school class for the year. No mention was made of his tutoring activities, although he is pictured at this time with adults and children in a “school-type” photo which may have been the students he tutored. He then virtually dropped out of sight for our purposes, with no diary entries until the end of school. However, he noted that "he didn't want to have anything to do with cleaning the school next year." All teachers are alike!

At the end of the 1907/08 school year he took a rather extensive railway trip with his father and his brother Gerhard on the new Kharkov-Mariupol Railway. They went to Slawjansk, Konstantinovka, Mariupol near the Sea of Azov, and then back north again to Tomak and Kotlyarevka in the Memrik Colony to attend a choir directors’ conference and hear some singers from his Molotschna Colony. They were visiting from Waldheim village. Before Cornelius returned home for his summer in Kleefeld, he attended a 2-day math training seminar in Wiesenfeld and attended a 6-week training course from the School Registrar in Tokmak. As always during the summer, both he and Gerhard plunged into the singing and teaching ministries at the church in Kleefeld. They even took a 50-mile hike in the Molotschna from Kleefeld to Waldheim, then to Grossweide, and back again to Kleefeld. When he left to return to the Naumenko Colony for his 5th year of teaching, the church choir from Kleefeld, which he had been directing for some weeks, came to his "window at midnight" to sing their good-byes to him! I suspected that emotional times like this caused him to comment in his diary that he had "a longing for Molotschna when confronted with another school year".

His brother had just completed his 3rd year of teaching in the Crimea, which turned out to be his last! During the school year he toyed with the idea of going to a foreign seminary, but did not have the financial support to support such a move. In perspective, Gerhard's diary always reflected a hunger for the deep religious issues, which found fruition in such training. Cornelius finally helped him with the finances. At the end of summer, they both went to Berdyansk where Gerhard arranged for his foreign passport to go to Hamburg, Germany to enroll in the Hamburg Baptist Theological Seminary. Since the Mennonites had no advanced theological schools or even Bible institutes during this time period, the Mennonite Brethren young men like Gerhard found it palatable to enroll in such a Baptist Seminary from which others in Mennonite leadership had graduated. These Mennonite Brethren contacts with Baptist seminaries such abroad resulted in the denominational Mennonite Brethren becoming pioneers among their German Mennonite peers in aggressive evangelism, missions, Sunday school work, and church publication enterprises.

Little did Gerhard know that while at the Seminary, he had become afflicted with a fatal illness (typhus?) that he had already noticed before he left for Germany in August 1909. He withdrew in the spring of 1910 because of this illness and returned to Kleefeld where he did some tutoring there during in the summer. Unfortunately, he died on August 10, 19l0, at 23 years of age (Figure 12).

At the photo of the entire family at his bier, Cornelius and his new 22-year old bride, Margaretha (Grete) Funk from Friedensfeld were pictured. The Friedensfeld village in the Borozenko Colony, was located about 200 miles south of the Naumenko Colony where Cornelius had just completed his 6th year of teaching in the village of Barvenkovo. Since we have no diary of this period, we picked up bits of reminiscences in notes and some oral history to gather information how he met his wife-to-be and how he married in May 1910.

It seems that Rev. Abraham H. Unruh (1878-196l), his pastor and prominent Mennonite Brethren minister, historian, and schoolteacher, was located in Barvenkovo. He was well aware that his 26-year old bachelor parishioner was certainly looking for a mate! A photo shows that Cornelius was tall, dark, and handsome (Figure 13)! Rev. Unruh's brother, Rev. Heinrich Unruh (1868-1912) was a noted missionary from Russia to India for 9 years and was ministering in Mennonite villages while on furlough. While he was holding meetings in Friedensfeld in 1909, he stayed with Margaretha's (Grete) father and mother, Peter Peter Funk and Elizabeth Penner Funk and the family of 2 boys and 2 girls: Grete, 2l; Johann, 20; Jacob, 19; and Katherine, 16. Earlier Mrs. Funk, who had been widowed, also married a widow Peter Funk at 36, after already bearing 10 children! Rev. Heinrich Unruh and his wife were staying at the Funk home because his wife was a native of Friedensfeld, Anna Peters, a Funk relative.

While staying in their home, Rev. Heinrich Unruh requested photos of Grete and indicated to her married half-sister, Anna Friesen, 31, that this was an attempt to match the bachelor teacher in his brother's church in Barvenkovo with Grete. As the world turns, Grete’s father tells her that he had received a letter from a "strange place” which Rev. Unruh had brought from Barvenkovo. Later she personally indicates that she was chagrined to find out for the first time that her photo ended up with this "teacher in Barvenkovo making 700 Rubles a month" who was now going to be her suitor!

Cornelius used his Easter break in 1909 to travel the about 200 miles southwest to Kleefeld to attend his brother Johann Klassen’s wedding. Then he planned to go up northwest about 150 miles to visit Grete in Friedensfeld! Their first meeting gets a bit garbled in the telling to me, but there was to be a pre-arranged meeting that was supposed take place between Grete's half-sister's husband, Peter Peters and Cornelius Klassen, whom Peter Peters knew. But Cornelius never showed up at the appointed place. As an alternative Grete's half sister, Anna (Mrs. Johann Friesen) and other family members, planned to intercept Cornelius somewhere near the Dnieper River (perhaps at Nikopol), but they did know for whom to look. In turn, Cornelius was looking for a "man from Miropol," which is still the Russian name for the Friedensfeld area today. Obviously, he was looking for someone he was told he would know. But he did not know Johann Friesen, Grete's brother-in-law. Little did he know that twelve years later Friesen would cross their familial path in another sad wedding context, but we will leave that discovery until later in the text!

Well Cornelius finally made connections after a harrowing search and hooked up with Grete at the Easter Good Friday service at Friedensfeld. The surly comment in my hearing by Grete is that they could never be alone together! Many of the young people in their village were interested in who this 27-year old school teacher was. Others in the village knew him from his Halbstadt training school days and others had been his students.

Cornelius did say that he liked the fact that she was in a talented and well-known Mennonite Brethren church choir, but that he really could use someone to help clean the school for him! On the following day, which was Easter 1909, he gave her a ring and it was announced in church (Figure 14). The comments from the locals were "who is he?" Well they got better acquainted along the way and the 22-year old Grete was married in Friedensfeld to the 27-year old Cornelius on May 10, 1910, by his pastor from Barvenkovo, Rev. Abraham H. Unruh, the initiator of all of this (Figures 15 and 16)!

It is interesting to note that Rev. Abraham H. Unruh, who was married to Anna Friesen, was a relative to Grete’s ultimate second husband, Johann! And Johann Friesen’s father, Heinrich Friesen, was a nephew of the well-known Mennonite historian, P.M. Friesen. Certainly, there were many Friedensfeld connections between the Funks and Johann Friesen. And Johann Friesen, Grete’s suitor after Cornelius’ fateful death in 1919, was her school teacher in Friedensfeld, who would later become his wife after all of the events were yet to transpire!

During this time Cornelius Klassen was one of about 500 teachers in the Mennonite village schools of all categories, many of whom also did private tutoring as Cornelius did. It was estimated that they were teaching approximately 15,000 Mennonite children attending these schools. We know that Cornelius was teaching in his 6th year, 1909/1910, in Vassilyevka. Obviously, he married in May after his school year. But the ambience would be different the following year, joined now by his new bride!

Grete's Heritage

The Friedensfeld Mennonite Brethren Church, with which Margaret Funk's family was intimately involved, began somewhat differently than the basic development of the German Mennonite Mother Colonies. It sprang out of the evangelistic fervor of the conservative Kleine Germeinde Mennonites in the Molotschna Colony. The Kleine Gemeinde might have appeared to us as the "fundamentalists" of the day among the more traditional Mennonite Brethren "evangelicals". Several Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites had purchased 5,400 acres to develop the Friedensfeld settlement in the Colony in 1867. Their strong "fundamentalist" beliefs caused a great deal of consternation among the other Mennonite settlers and the Mennonite Brethren that the Funks supported. But the Kleine Gemeinde group left this geographical area for North America en masse. This then allowed continued settlement of the area by more like-minded Mennonite Brethren from the Molotschna Colony and a more positive religious growth pattern for the church there. More importantly, the Friedensfeld church was described often as one in which the membership served as a natural bridge between the descendants of the Molotschna and nearby Chortitza Mother Colonies.

Grete's great-grandfather, Franz Peter Funk, came to this part of Russia with his father, Peter Johann, from Prussia. Franz Peter's son, Peter Franz Funk, was born in 1838 in Russia at Neu-Osterwick in the northern Chortitza Colony and died in Friedensfeld at 72 years of age on June 7, 1910, a month after Grete's marriage. I presume Cornelius and Grete may have been there for the funeral.

The Friedensfeld Mennonite Brethren Church grew to 100 members in 1885. We are presuming it was Grete’s father or grandfather who was a deacon in the church around the turn of the century and a delegate from Friedensfeld at the Mennonite Brethren Annual Conference held in the village of Tiege, Sagradovka Colony, 4 days after Grete's wedding! He was elected as one of the auditors for the Conference and Education accounts at this Conference. Grete's grandfather, Peter Franz Funk would have been in his 50's and her father, Peter Peter Funk was in his 30's (Figures l7 through 23). Many of the Funk relatives lived and died in Friedensfeld. This then was the environment that Grete left when she left the village of Friedensfeld in 1910 for Barvenkovo and Vassilyevka in the Naumenko Colony which was over 100 miles away (Figure 24).

Two years later the Funk family left Friedensfeld to try their hand at farming in the virgin territory of Siberia! The village of Friedensfeld was having some economic difficulties during these times, so many left for other places but, according to P.M. Friesen the noted Mennonite historian, they still had some very spacious facilities in their Mennonite Brethren church and in the local school in case of further boom times. Apparently those times never came.

The New Arrival!

Although there were no diary accounts of this period, we know that Cornelius and Grete Klassen returned to Vassilyevka to begin in his 7th year of teaching in 1910/11. We do know that a baby boy named Gerhard Cornelius, our father, was born in there, 13 months after their marriage on June 8 (Julian calendar) and was celebrated 13 days later on June 21, 1911, as recorded by the Gregorian calendar used in the western world! He weighed 12 pounds with a head circumference of 35 centimeters, a marker not used in western society!

One can only imagine that the death of Cornelius' beloved 23-year old brother Gerhard 8 months earlier may have had something to do with naming of Gerhard Cornelius, or George, as we came to know our Dad (Figures 25 and 26). The middle name obviously came from his proud father! One might remember that Cornelius' mother was named Cornelia, a name that was passed on in the naming of a number of relatives, including a bit later in the Cornelius Klassen family.

IIt would be appropriate to mention here that my nondirected search for the village of Vassilyevka in our trip to Ukraine in 2000 proved unproductive. I visited four places named Vassilyevka with some variations in the spelling. One was Wassiljewka that is the transliterated spelling of a major city in the Ukraine that my family had marked as Dad's birthplace on a framed German map "Die deutschen Mennoniten Kolonien in Russland" that I have. This was also the generic spelling that was used in my Dad's obituary in 2002 and is a major city today in Ukraine. Obviously, this is not the village in which he was born. One village I visited was Vasil'kivske, directly east of Zaporozshye north toward Kirova (old name Lagoozi). Another town was Vasil'kivka, a town reached through Pis'menne and another village named Vassiljewka (phonetic spelling not on current Ukraine map), slightly southeast of the above Vasil'kivka and northwest of Vasil'kivske, turning east on M2 at Varvarivka. As it turns out, with more study of other documentation, I now know that the German village site that I might have been searching for was about 60 miles south of all these places located in what was then known as the Naumenko Colony. Since this area is a highly industrialized area of Russia today, I presume nothing remains of the site of the village.

The Changing Scene

Movement from the Mother Colonies

When Catherine the Great gave the Mennonites the land to develop in the Ukrainian area north of the Black Sea, there were no provisions for any additional land expansion for subsequent generations. The government law prohibited the subdivision of farms. With ever increasing population growth, not too dissimilar to what we see in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania today, the pressures of large families to expand their farming base became increasingly difficult. In the two Mother Mennonite Colonies two different trends evolved. The Chortitza Colony, near the urban setting of Ekaterinoslaw (the current Dnepropetrovsk) and near where the Funks lived and where our ancestors the Leppkes originated, allowed "displaced" farmers to find employment as craftsmen or industrial workers in the area. In the Molotschna Colony where the Klassens and the family’s other ancestors, the Isaaks originated, the area was much more rural. Since it was located further south near the Black Sea, it had the climate that might have been more like the San Joaquin Valley of California with fruit orchards and grain crops. Except during the occasional droughts, the Mennonite farmers did very well financially as agricultural entrepreneurs. At the Abraham J. Klassen family farm in the Kleefeld village in the Molotschna Colony, it might have been a lot easier with such a land squeeze to have had two of the boys, Cornelius and Gerhard, leave the farm and do something else. Yet we know that teaching certainly would not have been more remunerative!

With the population surplus, there was increasing agitation among the Mennonites to expand. Initially in both Chortitza and Molotschna Colonies, each family was given 175 acres of land. These farms were not to be subdivided. As we have seen as a result of this Czarist policy, a large proportion of the Mennonites had become landless because of the population increase. This led to tension within the settlements that was resolved by establishing daughter colonies, because the German Mennonite population had certainly outgrown their original land allotments. The concept of daughter colonies began to evolve in the 1870's and continued to the turn of the century. The two Mother Colonies were made responsible for the settlement of their landless villagers. A poll tax was instituted and areas in the villages were set aside for rent to raise capital to purchase land for the daughter colonies.

Starting in 1872 they began to purchase large tracts of empty land. Sometimes these new daughter settlements were located on lands purchased by the older colonies as municipal enterprises. At other times, they were founded on land rented from wealthy noblemen. The Russian authorities recommended that these large estates where necessary might be divided into half and even quarter estates to expand the needed settlements. This relief, however, together with the establishing of daughter colonies and the well-known immigration to America of a third of the entire Colony population in the 1870’s, allowed the Mennonite farmers to continue to be relatively prosperous landowners in the villages of the Mennonite colonies.

We know that between 1869 and 1894 nearly 2,000 families exited out of Chortitza and Molotschna Colonies. As a result of this aggressive policy of establishing daughter colonies, the Mennonites really did not have many dispossessed people. They were able to settle on these new lands. Cornelius and Gerhard taught in such colonies in the Crimea. Frequently, wealthy Mennonites purchased large estates of their own not connected with any of the village settlements. This type of inducement may have been reason that Grete Funk's parents moved from Friedensfeld and went to Siberia in 1912 to farm new land.

Cornelius always taught in the daughter colonies in Crimea and Naumenko and, as we shall see later, in Kantemirovka, the latter villages located in the northeastern reaches of what is now the Ukraine. He knew what it was like to be in these somewhat out-of-the way villages which were not integral parts of the Mother Colonies.

For the German Mennonites, the development of the daughter colonies dovetailed with the government plan to develop their virgin territories in the last agricultural frontier, Siberia. In 1896 there was a decree by the Russian government which allowed the people to select settlement lands and hold them for two years before taking up permanent residence on the land. The mass settlement in Siberia finally began after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 with the opening of Siberia to homesteaders in 1907 by Czar Nicholas. Each family was allotted 37 acres (15 dessiatines).

Obviously, for the Mennonite colonies, this opportunity for the settlement of Siberia came at a most opportune time. It not only provided an outlet for the increasing number of landless, but the lands were available at low prices which encouraged wealthy Mennonite farmers to invest in some of these large land holdings. In Siberia the majority of the emigrants settled in two major areas on the Siberian Kulunda steppe between 1907 and 1910, a site approximately 350 miles south of a smaller grouping of Mennonite villages around the Omsk area on the Trans Siberian Railroad. The latter location is where the Funks and Klassens ultimately settled.

We will find the interplay among our relatives in this context as Grete's family moved to Siberia from the Friedensfeld village in February 1912. Some Funk relatives also joined her parents, 52-year old Peter Peter Funk and his 61-year old wife Elizabeth Penner Willems Funk and their family to make this move. Grete's half sister, Anna Willems Friesen, 34, and her husband Johann Friesen had already made this move a year earlier in 1911 with their 5 children. Johann will become the focus of Grete's subsequent second marriage in 1922, but we are again getting ahead of our story!

With the resumption of Cornelius' diary in January 1913, much correspondence goes back and forth with Grete's folks as they settled into their Siberian "adventure". For his 9th year of teaching Cornelius began a new teaching assignment in Kantemirovka, located about 180 miles northeast of Vassilyevka. It can be found on current map just outside the Ukrainian border near the present-day Russian town of Lugansk. Apparently, there was a thriving German Mennonite village among the Russian populace about which we do not have a lot of background data. Cornelius noted that the Mennonites and their cultural distinctives were not well-known, but he and the family seemed to fit in well with the Mennonite Brethren families who lived and worshiped at the M.B. Church there. The village was quite some distance from the main German Mennonite Mother Colonies of Molotschna and Chortitza. It was approximately 300 miles northeast of the village of Kleefeld in the Molotschna Colony where his folks and brothers and sisters still lived and to which he returned, accompanied now by Grete and Gerhard (George) during the Christmas holidays.

Cornelius reveled in the fact that his one-year and a half-year-old son, George, could say several words! The diary also showed that Cornelius was clearly busy in other types of leadership positions in the village. Almost every Sunday he delivered "one" of the messages at the Sunday morning church worship service at which he was also the choir director. He often led the German Mennonite Saturday evening prayer meetings until they were discontinued in March 1913 because of poor attendance. He was also the homeopathic "doctor", giving people medicines and recommending treatments for all sorts of ailments. And he was the dentist that worked on village residents' teeth.

Cornelius commented in his diary about the turmoil in the Balkans which would inevitably lead to World War I. Its historical background is found in the submerged peoples in the Balkan area who had strong nationalistic aspirations. The Slavic peoples in the area were ruled by the Austrian Germans and Hungarians. Going back to the 19th century, the geography of the Balkans made it of supreme strategic importance in power politics. Since the days of Peter the Great, the dominant policy of Russia had been to obtain warm-water ports for many of her harbors which were frozen in the winter. The logical place for Russia to secure a good exit to the outside world was in the south via the Black Sea. It was the policy of Russia, therefore, to weaken and even dismember Turkey so that they could obtain the Straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. The British sea powers did not relish these Russian attempts to develop their sea might, so they even supported the corrupt rule of the Turkish sultans. Cornelius mentioned the discontent among the various submerged “allies”, such as found in Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria, which ultimately conquered Turkey during these years. He bemoaned the fact that local leaders did not take a stand on these issues. His source for his information was always the German language Friedenstimme which he read regularly.

On May 6, 1913 Cornelius mused about his 30th birthday and wondered what the next 30 years would bring. Little did he know that he had only 6 years left in this life! At the end of the school year, Cornelius would do what the he did over the next 4 summers—take the family to Siberia to visit his in-laws, the Funks. They may have gone for the first time in the summer of 1912 after the Funks had moved there earlier in that year.

When the Klassens arrived for their summer in Issyl Kul, Siberia on May 11, 1913, they announced to the Funks that they would some day permanently move there! In the summer of 1914 they began building their Siberian home in the Mennonite village of Wiesenfeld on the land Cornelius purchased several years earlier. It was located about 35 miles north of the Trans Siberian Railroad near where the Funks lived on their Ljubimovka estate. But we are getting ahead of our story.

After the summer of 1913 in Siberia, Cornelius, Grete and 2-year old George returned hundreds of miles to the south to begin Cornelius’ 10th year of teaching in Kantemirovka, about 165 miles northeast of the Naumenko Colony where he had taught the previous year. In fact, the settlement is still identified as a community on current maps, just outside of the eastern corner of Ukraine in what is now Russia.

We will see here that, in addition to his teaching, he still involved himself in many other village commitments besides his teaching-- preaching, leading the choir, and making his homeopathic medicine rounds, plus doing some dentistry on the side! He was committed to all of these village activities until 1917, an ominous year in Russia which will be described in more detail later.

A Close-up View of Life in Kantemirovka, Siberia and Kleefeld

In the years immediately prior to the 1914 start of World War I, the German Mennonites witnessed unprecedented prosperity in their villages. The Mennonites moved increasingly into professional fields, while official recognition of the Mennonites was symbolized by the fact that Mennonites had representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma. Those Mennonites who remained in Russia like the Klassens felt somewhat vindicated with their life in Russia after so many others had immigrated decades earlier to North America. Times during this period never seemed better, or so they thought!

And the Russification of the schools and state service pressures of the last 3 decades had been successfully accommodated by the German Mennonites. The German Mennonite minority status was protected by Russian law and the Czars remained the guardian of those historic privileges. Within the community the number of landless Mennonites never again reached mid-19th century proportions, thanks to a well-regulated and systematic settlement program within the Russian Empire. The traditional German Mennonite pattern of village life remained intact. The villager remained protected from outside influences by an effective network of institutions, beginning with the village school which Cornelius represented so well. And there was no danger of succumbing to assimilation pressures in Russian society!

Because Cornelius kept his diary on a daily basis for two complete years, January 1913 to December 1914, we have a much clearer insight into the pulse beat of village life and the dynamics of their personal family life for this period. For example, he yearned for foreign travel after his close friend and wife had returned from the Tyrolean Alps! You can almost see the travel "lust in his bones" in the manner in which he used the railways to go so many places in the region--Siberia, Kleefeld, Crimea, Kiev, Millerovo and other spots to visit friends and relatives, all at considerable distances. And the fact that he was willing to teach in communities that were a bit away from the Mother colonies showed a more adventuresome spirit, yet also a practical side of him. After all, he had gone to Barvenkovo, Vassilyevka and Kantemirovka after apparently qualifying for some tutoring opportunities in those beginning years that were available in these villages.

He was proud of the fact that as a 30-year old, his and Grete's parents were still living—the Klassens in village of Kleefeld, Molotschna Colony and the Peter Funks, now at the Funk Chutor at Ljubimovka near Issyl Kul in Siberia. As we have noted, while a bachelor and now as a married man, he always spent his Christmas vacation with his parents and siblings in Kleefeld and the summers with the Funk in-laws and family in Siberia (Figures 27 through 31).

Although Cornelius never mentioned the studies that he would have to embrace in order to give the Sunday morning or evening sermons at the local Kantemirovka Mennonite Brethren Church, one would have to commend him for teaching school all week and then immerse himself in the spiritual life of the church. And as has been mentioned, leading the choir and attending choir practice every Thursday night. He often led the Saturday night prayer meetings when held, and then delivered one of the sermons on Sunday morning! After the usual two Sunday morning sermons, there was coffee and an afternoon session with the children which he often led. The evenings entailed another sermon. He always listed the Scripture references that he used in his sermons during these diary years, as well as the other speakers' sermons. In his travels to other Mennonite villages, he often seemed to already know individuals in the church. Often he would be asked to deliver the sermon when traveling.

As has been noted, he subscribed to the Friedenstimme, the German language newspaper published in Halbstadt during this period. In 1914 the newspaper had 6,000 subscribers. His reading of the newspaper appeared to be essential to him for he always wanted to keep up with world events. For example, he noted that he had read that the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted to push back the Slav expansion which, of course, the Russians supported. And the Serbs carried on with active propaganda among the Slavs living in the Russian Empire to undermine the Germans. As we all know, this period of activity was a witch's cauldron of international discord and ultimately led to World War I. Cornelius and the other German Mennonites religiously supported the Russian positions taken by the Czars in this time period! His patriotism for the Russian cause always remained high. On February 1913 the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty was celebrated in his village school. They sang the national hymn and prepared a number of flags "to prove we are good subjects."

You had to relish the environmental area in which the family lived. Cornelius took his class climbing in nearby mountains. He noted the snows and cold weather and the variety in temperatures. Certainly this was a much more invigorating climate than the more Mediterranean climes of Crimea and the Molotschna Colony.

His diary reflected the shipments of apples that were sent from the home farm in Kleefeld and butter that was shipped from the Funks in Siberia to their home in Kantemirovka. In turn, Cornelius would sell the butter in the village. Cornelius did have a cow, but presumably the butter was better from Siberia, hundreds of miles away.

Although their move to Siberia would not take place for another 4 years, Grete was already shopping for furniture for their "new" home! The diary also reflected her lonesomeness for her parents and siblings who were, of course, hundreds of miles to the north in Siberia. There was some related tension between them on this issue.

In 1913, as soon as school was out in May, Cornelius and the family made their 1,000 mile, four-day railroad trip to the Funk Estate at Ljubimovka, Siberia. Cornelius picked up right where he left off in Kantemirovka by preaching at a number of church services in the German villages of Friedensruh and Waldheim over the next few weeks. They were located near Issyl Kul on the Trans Siberian Railroad.

Some of Cornelius and Grete’s plans and actions must have pleased the Funks when he told his father-in-law that for the last 1 1/2 years he and Grete had been making plans to join them in Siberia. Apparently, during the Funk's move to Siberia in 1912, Cornelius' father-in-law acquired the land in the Wiesenfeld area which was 30 miles north of the Funk Chutor. His father-in-law leased the land to him for 75 Rubles, but the Funks farmed it until Cornelius could come for the summer break to begin building a home on the lot. The Russian proviso for that settlement required that there be a building on the lot. He finally paid 1,500 Rubles for 2 lots to seal the sale. Cornelius ultimately purchased 2 lots and paid 1,500 Rubles and hired some Russians to help him with building what now would be a planned for future summer residence. An Oct. 1913 note references the debt hanging over his head on the land. He was considering whether he should sell land. The home was still not finished when they returned in the following summer!

The Siberian Funk Chutor was always filled with relatives and good fellowship. A sad event occurred in June 1913 when Grete’s 76-year old grandmother, Sara Derksen Funk, had to leave the area to live with her son Cornelius in the Barnaul Colony (Slavgorod) in the village of Alexandrokwa, a 100 miles south of where they were in western Siberia. Grete realized that she may never see her grandmother again, as was the case, as she died soon after on November 11! Her husband, and Grete’s grandfather Peter Franz Funk, had preceded her in death just after Grete and Cornelius’ marriage in Friedensfeld in 1910.

Cornelius and Grete left Siberia in July 1913 to pay a 2-week visit to Cornelius' folks and siblings at Kleefeld and enjoyed a Thanksgiving Festival at nearby Tiege. In August Cornelius began his 10th year of teaching with 28 pupils (later to grow to 31) in his second year at Kantemirovka. He bemoaned the fact that 3 of the Mennonite children could only speak German, and NOT Russian. He called them "spoiled Germans"!

Cornelius made a quick trip to Kleefeld and Rückenau in September 1913 and returned by way of Barvenkovo, his former residence as a bachelor. One notes the regularity with which railroad travel is part of his life, particularly on the recently finished route going down the east side of the Molotschna Colony. Of course, he had to get “official” permission from a Mr. Herman Dick, his "School Board Chairman", to travel away from the school when it was in session!

Although just pregnant in 1913 with Louise, and busy with a 2-year old George, I am sure Grete dearly missed the opportunity to attend the double wedding of her sister and brother 1,000 miles away! Joined by all the Siberian Funk relatives, Katherine “Tina” Funk and Abe Froese from Spat in the Molotschna Colony, were married along with Johann Funk and Susie Thiessen, on November 28, 1913 by Elder Jacob Hiebert at the Funk Chutor in Ljubimovka in Siberia. According to the diary, Cornelius Klassens sent them a congratulatory card and telegram.

It was rewarding to see Cornelius' excitement at the news of the Christian conversion of his two brothers Abraham, 32, and Jacob, 25, and his sister Anna, 17, through the ministry of Elder Heinrich Koop from the nearby village of Alexanderkrone. During the winter of 1913 it was reported that almost “all” the young people in Kleefeld were converted to Christ! There were services every evening, and during the day nearby pastors visited and encouraged the newly-converted. Later Cornelius, the pregnant Grete, and George took the newly constructed railway to Molotschna to enjoy the Christmas holidays with Cornelius’ parents and family with the verbal anticipation of a bright 1914. Little did they know that the Russian involvement in World War I was to change so many of the bright hopes they had for the year.

Cornelius was delighted to begin the New Year with electric lights in his classroom. His “discouragement” came when he was informed that his father, Abraham, 63, was in the hospital in the nearby village of Muntau with an eye injury and that an ox on his farm in Siberia had disappeared! We know that health care was considerably better in the Molotschna Colony than in adjoining Russian villages. In the Colony there were three hospitals. Usually the district had a building for the physician. Although the majority of the doctors were Mennonite, some 40 percent were Germans originally from the Baltic provinces. The doctors would be engaged for a certain annual salary and for this they had to serve the entire district. On 5 days a week they would see patients in the forenoon in his office. In the afternoon they could be asked to make house visitations. The transportation had to be supplied by those requesting the service. It was understood that the doctors had to visit only the patients who were seriously ill and could not come to the office. The services were free of charge and doctors would not accept money even if offered. Sometimes they accepted gifts such as sausage, fresh fruit or vegetables. And, as we have seen, all of this was “supplemented” by those who are willing to be homeopathic “doctors”!

During this time period Cornelius referenced a Russian student he was tutoring, so that he might qualify for the public Gymnasium (High School). Providing tutoring was what he had taken a State test after he left his Crimean teaching assignment. Presumably, he was still earning additional Rubles from tutoring.

As an aside, Cornelius noted that he was reading the 10-volume set of Klaus Kramer's The Man and the Earth, the 6-volume set of Ullstein's History of the World, Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, and The Count of Monte Christo, an eclectic group of works. With this kind of schedule, he did decline after a session or two to provide meteorological observances for a local district office for additional pay! It was touching to note that he took the time for his family by teaching his son George, nearly 3 years of age, a poem, "Whom I Love".

During the summer of 1914 Cornelius, Grete, and George, returned to Siberia where Cornelius aggressively began building their Wiesenfeld home, as required by the initial Russian settlement land agreement. He hired Russian laborers to do much of the construction, while he managed the farm operations which involved growing wheat. He noted that the "work was progressing slowly." He continued to be asked to preach in the German villages of Friedensruh and Waldheim, as well as being involved with the choir in the village of Waldheim, near Issyl Kul.

At the end of the summer of 1914, they took the long 3 and 1/2 day railroad trip back to Kantemirovka where they were met by friends who ferried them to their home in an automobile. The villages were not bereft of some of the "modern" creature comforts! However, little did Cornelius and Grete know (now 8 months pregnant with Liese (Louise), that their happy domestic world would be jarred by the sensational news of the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his pregnant wife in Austria on June 28,1914. This became the acknowledged beginning of World War I! The news was carried in the July 2nd Friedenstimme that Cornelius read. As Cornelius said,

“A memorable day is July 19,1914, since on this day war was declared by Germany against Russia. That message came so unexpectedly that the Russians could hardly perceive it.”

He could not have recognized that this was the beginning of the end of their tidy German Mennonite world that could never be insulated from these earthshaking events.

The Initial Impact of World War I

The Mennonite Reaction

As we have indicated, the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo, Bosnia, who were heirs to the Austrian throne on July 2, 1914, created the spark that led to World War I. From the Russian perspective, the deed was favorably inspired by the Greater Serbia (Slav) propaganda. The Austrians told the German Kaiser, "the crime against us is the direct consequence of the agitation carried on by the Russian and Slavic interest to shatter the Austro-Hungarian Empire." Clearly, the Russian bear was in the gun sights of the German nationalists!

Initially, the Mennonites reacted patriotically to the news of July 14th when Germany broke diplomatic relations with Russia and declared war. The Friedenstimme called for immediate German Mennonite participation in Red Cross work. Mennonite public opinion recognized that this might be the time for the Russian Czarist government to change the traditional pacifist occupation of having Mennonites serve in the forestry service. Perhaps they could serve the “fatherland” as medics (Sanitatsdienst) and orderlies.

When Russia finally declared war on Germany in August, the Mennonites moved quickly to declare their allegiance to their Russian “fatherland”! Nearly 14,000 Mennonite men were ultimately mobilized as reservists during the war, but now only half of them went into the forestry service—a pacifist service that had been managed by the church for the government since 1881. In September Cornelius' brothers left the farm in the village of Kleefeld to begin serving in their war time capacities--Abraham, 33, and Johann, 30, who was married, both were assigned to medical service units; and Jacob, 26, was assigned as a forestry watchman near Minsk.

Most Mennonite men in forestry and medical service returned to their homes and farms 3 years later when the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917. One can imagine how Cornelius’ parents were managing the farm in Kleefeld with all of their sons gone! At this point, Cornelius noted he was exempted from service because he was a teacher. He was thankful that he had the advantage of being teacher, unlike his brothers who were spending their time in some "rough places" while in this type of service!

In view of the vast distances that separated the various German Mennonite settlements, their response to the war was amazingly consistent. Local groups were organized without directives from any central church-related office or committee. Obviously, all of these actions resulted in nonresistant service opportunities which were somewhat spontaneous. As we have seen, some were medical orderlies, a few hundred Mennonites built roads, and the majority served in forestry camps. Service in the medical corps was often well behind the front, although occasionally involved being near battlefields, so there were injuries and deaths, as well as contacting diseases such as typhus.

In the crosshairs of all this war footing came the birth of Liese (Louise) in Kantemirovka on August 29, 1914 at 9 l/2 pounds, while Cornelius was in his 11th year of teaching. Certainly this burgeoning family, including 3-year old George, was facing an uncertain future brought about by these ominous international events.

The Mennonites were assisting the Russian war effort wherever they could. They were assisting soldiers' families by threshing their wheat and plowing their fields. Hundreds of Mennonites worked as medical orderlies on Red Cross trains bringing the wounded from the front lines. In November, nearly 3 months after Louise was born, Grete spent several long days treating 70 wounded Russian soldiers that had been brought to the Kantemirovka hospital. During this time, the Czar even passed through Kantemirovka with heavy security to visit the troops. Cornelius observed that no one was allowed near the railroad station!

It was during the November 1914 time period that Cornelius noted that the use of the German language in the Colonies was frowned upon. Soon after, he corresponded with his parents in Kleefeld in Russian. One might presume that this was not enthusiastically received by the Abraham Klassen family in Kleefeld.

Cornelius noted that a church elder in the Chortitza Colony had been arrested for assembling a church council without getting the proper permissions from the police and sent to Siberia—the first reference in his notes about “prisons” in that part of the Russian Empire. After all, Siberia was the home of his in-laws and was to be his future home! Cornelius criticized the elder for being negligent for not getting the proper paperwork done during this time of war. One can assume that the Russians would be suspicious of any assembly without proper permits because unknown groups, particularly in German, might be plotting against the Russian war effort.

It must have been comforting to Cornelius to have his brother Peter nearby during all of this war hysteria. Peter had taken a job as a bookkeeper in Millerovo, about 25 miles away, about the time his other 3 brothers had left for their noncombatant service. Perhaps there was some "military" reason for Peter to be in this position. I observed that he was in uniform in a photo of 1910 at the funeral of his brother Gerhard. At the time Peter would have been about 20 years of age. He was now 24 and single and had just completed a visit with Cornelius in November 1914.

Millerovo was an important urban railway center in the Don area of Russia and had a number of flour mills run by Mennonites. By 1919 Millerovo had a Mennonite population of over 300. Obviously, we are beginning to see that the Abraham Klassen boys may not have had farm work as their first love!

All during this time, prominent Mennonites were calling for continued patriotic action and pointing out that many Mennonites had died in their "faithful fulfillment of duty to [the] Czar, to the homeland, [and] to the people". One of the leaders of the Mennonite church spent most of October 1914 visiting virtually every church in the Molotschna Colony and several churches in the Crimea recruiting young Mennonite volunteers. A quote from a 1914 issue of the Friedenstimme summed up this fervor with a Biblical perspective:

Comrades come! [You] fathers in the congregations send! Mothers love beyond the narrow confines of your family with your always affectionate heart! Fathers and Mothers bless your sons who come in order to fulfill Jesus "words … I was sick and you visited me.

Joined by his brother Peter from Millerowo, Cornelius and his family again spent their Christmas of 1914 in the village of Kleefeld. It must have been quite a reunion of sorts, since the boys had been away in service during this wartime. Cornelius noted all 13 kin were there. In trying our best to collate the immediate family, one might start with this list of 13: the parents, (1) Abraham, 64; (2) Cornelia Toews Klassen, 54; and children, (3) Cornelia Klassen (Mrs. Peter Willms, 37; (4) Elizabeth Klassen (Mrs. Peter Wiens, 35; (5) Mary , 36, retarded; (6) Abraham, 33; (7) Johann, 30; (8) Jacob, 26; (9) Peter, 24; (10) Anna, 18. With the Klassen sibling spouses the list would add up to 13 without counting Cornelius, 31 (11); Grete, 26; (12) Peter Willms, 45; (13) Peter Wiens, 45; and (14) Mrs. Johann (Lena) Klassen. Of course, Gerhard died earlier in 1910.

The family discussions about world affairs were briefly recounted. Cornelius felt that "we have to wait whether the 1915 would be the year when the German Mennonites would have to immigrate.” He indicated that he believed that the “circumstances will yet change.” Unfortunately, little did he anticipate the tremendous political and social changes that were now to overtake the German Mennonites' sojourn in Russia.

The German Stigma

Regardless of how patriotic the German Mennonites felt, they could not get around the fact that they were German-speaking immigrants from Prussia, and Russia was at war with Germany! This was an anomalous situation. The Mennonites became the objects of an inevitable hate campaign by the Russian press. Although they had been in Russia for 125 years at the invitation of the Czars, it had not changed the fact that the Russian press was clearly anti-German in this war setting! In another 1914 Friedenstimme article the editor pled with the Mennonite public to understand this perceived hatred toward them:

What political connection do we have with Germany? How do the actions of Berlin and Vienna concern us? We have never betrayed the fatherland, especially Russia that has given us so many benefits. We were called to Russia to cultivate the steppes and we have done that. This has accrued to our benefit, but also to our neighbors, the Russians and other groups… These suspicions that we are an element of danger or potential danger hurt deeply. Every intelligent person who is acquainted with us knows they have no basis in fact.

Cornelius read in the newspaper that the Germans who become Russian subjects after 1870 had 2 years to dispose of their land; others would have only 6 months! He also complained that his other German religious periodical subscription to Der Bote had been canceled, probably because of the Russian decree that prohibited the use of the German language in either public assemblies or in the press. He presumed that he would lose his subscription to the Friedenstimme. Indeed, soon after the anti-German sentiments did ultimately silence the Mennonite German language press in Russia!

An imperial decree proposed the expropriation of German-held land and the eastward deportation of the German colonists on February 1915. It is little wonder that all the 1914 declarations of fidelity and loyalty to the Russian Czar by the German Mennonites would now fall by the wayside. And, as we shall see, all of this would ultimately take place under the leadership of a Provisional Government in 1917! This would, of course, lead to the penultimate October Revolution bringing the Communists to power. We should note, however, that the Siberian settlements were momentarily spared the upcoming carnage of the Revolution and civil war that was devastating the Mother Colony of Molotschna where Cornelius' parents lived.

Obviously, the German World War I experience was raising serious doubts about the longevity of the continued peaceful life of the Mennonite colonists living in Russia. At an Orloff Mennonite Congress there was a lively debate concerning Mennonite "equality with other citizens of the empire." In the course of these discussions it was noted that "a glaring picture emerged of how our national awareness is steadily suppressed and our loyalty questioned." The assembly resolved to inform the Provisional Government of the repeated violations against German Mennonite minority rights. The Mennonites requested the repeal of the 1915 land liquidation laws. After all, they still felt they had a legitimate role to play in the new Russia. Certainly the events of the subsequent years disproved that!

The Days of Hope and Despair

The story line for Cornelius and Grete is not recounted for us in any additional diary accounts. We know that Cornelius continued to teach in Kantemirovka through the 1915/16 and 1916/17 school years, his 12th and 13th years of teaching (Figures 32 and 33)! During this time Grete gave birth to Abraham on June 21, 1916 who, unfortunately, died 9 months later on March 7th (Figures 34 and 35). According to Louise’s book, he died from scarlet fever and whopping cough. A photo of George, Louise, and Abraham must have been taken near the time of his death in 1917 (Figure 36). One can imagine the sadness that came to the Cornelius Klassen family with this loss! Finally after his 13th school year was over in May 1917, Cornelius decided to leave the teaching profession, and move from Kantemirovka and make his long promised move to western Siberia to begin farming with Grete’s family.

In retrospect, it is interesting to note how many years it took for Cornelius and Grete to finally make that move. In fact, it was 5 years after the Funks first moved there in 1912 and 2 years after they had told the Funks that they would be joining them in Siberia! But among these new beginnings were the devastating impact of the World War I conflict involving Russia and Germany and the social unrest among the populace that we know will ultimately lead to the Bolshevik 1917 Russian Revolution and chaos.

The Bolshevik Revolution

During this time about 120,000 German Mennonites were living in Russia, 75,000 of them living in the Ukraine area and the others in Siberia and other eastern regions. Historians will generally agree that the German Mennonites felt their historic allegiance to the Czars and the Russian government was really in the hands of a somewhat irresponsible "clique of nobles." For example, the Imperial Court was controlled by an unusual cast of characters! Most notorious of these advisers was Rasputin. This evil person, reputed to be a monk, was able to control government policy at times through his influence over the Czarina. The reigning Czar Nicholas II also showed little capacity for guiding his country. He had weakened the new legislative body, the Duma. Growing Russian industries had created a rebellious and restless working class because of low wages and intolerable working conditions. Strikes took place more and more frequently, and in July 1914 serious labor troubles broke out. The peasants were also dissatisfied and, in their opinion, land reform was needed to break up the large estates so that agricultural products could be distributed more equitably. And several political parties had developed in opposition to the existing regime.

Of the parties, the most important political party was the Social Democratic Party. It espoused Marxian Socialism and worked not only for the overthrow of the Czar's government but also for the destruction of capitalist society of which the German Mennonites were surely a part. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, were advocating forcible change tactics because they believed the socialist state would never be achieved through seeking parliamentary majorities. To gain this end, the Bolsheviks bored from within, filling the workers with discontent against their "bourgeoisie" employers. Lenin's goal was to rule by the working class, or in a phrase borrowed from Karl Marx, to provide for the "the dictatorship of the proletariat." When this was achieved, the capitalist class would be eliminated and all industry would be taken over by the workers. And it was believed that the best time to accomplish a workers' revolution was during wartime!

Obviously, World War I pitilessly exposed the inefficiency of the Czarist government. For example, the Russians did not have an adequate supply of munitions. The railroads, which Cornelius used a great deal, were inadequate under a war footing to supply their materiel needs. As early as 1915 it became apparent that the Czar's regime was nearing disaster, but a request from the Duma for more power to significantly improve the conditions on the battlefield and at home were met with by a brusque refusal from the Czar.

On March 3, 1917, a strike occurred in a factory in Petrograd. On March 11 the Czar ordered the members of the Duma to go home and the strikers to go back to work. Ultimately, these orders precipitated the revolution! The Duma refused to disband; the strikers held mass meetings in defiance of the government; and the army openly sided with the workers. At this point the so-called revolution had been peaceful. The Duma hoped to achieve a political revolution, not an economic revolution. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd were determined that there should be a thorough-going change in keeping with the teachings of Marx!

The Provisional Government

On March 14, 1917 a Provisional Government headed up by Prince Lvov was named by the impotent Duma. The following day the Czar Nicholas I officially abdicated the throne in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who refused to accept the throne. Finally, the Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky assumed leadership. His government was considered much more progressive than his predecessor, but he clearly was not radical enough for the Bolsheviks! The Bolsheviks were determined that there should be a much more thoroughgoing change in government in keeping with the teachings of Marx. The interesting backdrop to these initial Bolshevik changes was that the warring German government supported them. But Kerensky hated the Germans!

As we have seen, the German Mennonites fought an uphill battle for the Czarist's recognition of their patriotism which was always based on what they thought were their historic privileges that had been given them by the Czars. They believed that the previous Czar's support and recognition of that unique role would be upheld in their current relationship with the peasant Russian society. But now they no longer had much political advocacy. We can see how the negative German stigma attached to the Mennonites was playing out among the Russians peasants during World War I and during these traumatic governmental changes. And the Provisional Government did not like the Germans. However, with all these negative connotations, the Provisional Government still promised broad freedoms to Russia's minorities and that certainly gave the Mennonites some confidence, albeit an ultimate fatalistic hope!

In reality the February Revolution of 1917 had little immediate influence on the Mennonites, since the government was still concentrating on phasing down its war effort. Fortunately, many of the Mennonite men in forestry and medical service were returning home to their villages. As we have seen, 60 percent of the German Mennonites lived in south Ukraine. Clearly they had been impacted much more by some of these governmental changes and the War than those living, for example, in Siberia. But all of the 120,000 German Mennonites were totally unprepared for the impact that this new political radicalism would ultimately have on them when it culminated in the Communist October Revolution of 1917! But more on this later.

One has to keep in mind that the Cornelius Klassen family and Grete's parents and siblings were thousands of miles from Petrograd and Moscow. It was generally felt, at this early stage of government transition, that they were far better off being far away from these centers of political unrest. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Cornelius' parents in the Molotschna Colony. The governmental unrest was to become a significant part of their everyday life. While the Provisional Government of Kerensky marked time, the Soviets in Petrograd extended their organization throughout the Russian Empire. The new local Soviet Councils of workers and soldiers who had opposed the Czar were now being organized. Assisted in part by funds from Germany, the Communists created effective nationwide propaganda under such “endearing” slogans as "Peace, Land and Bread"!

The 1917 Revolution

With the help of the German government, the Communists ultimately spirited Lenin out of Switzerland to the Russia. On April 1917 Lenin declared to the Russian press that the war was an imperialist conflict between bourgeois interests and that the Provisional Government under Kerensky had to go. Its place was taken by the “republic” of Soviet workers! After much maneuvering behind the scenes and several false starts, the Soviet Communists carried out the fatal coup d'etat under the infamous October Revolution in Petrograd, or St. Petersburg as we now know it. The Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace and arrested members of the Provisional Government on October 25th, except for Kerensky who escaped. With the Provisional Government overthrown and Kerensky driven from power, a Central Executive Committee of the Soviets assumed control.

Lenin had accomplished an amazing feat. With a Communist Party estimated to be only 30,000 members, he had gained control of a country of more than l50 million people, using audacity, splendid organization and astute propaganda to conquer all of the Russian Empire. The beginning growth of Communism began with the Revolution on October 1917 to the middle of 1918 when Lenin officially took the political power. From July 1918 to 1921, we then saw the flowering of the Communist Party based on such idealistic goals as: (1) the “dictatorship” of the proletariat; (2) the nationalization of the land and banks; (3) compulsory labor; (5) free education for all; and (6) the permanent establishment of absolute Communism in society!

The fledgling Communist government sought to assert its authority from the very outset, particularly in the Ukraine. Red army units, intent on forestalling an independent Ukraine, moved south as soon as the new government no longer needed them for revolutionary purposes in the cities, to suppress any possible Ukrainian nationalism which was always latent in that part of south Russia. Their arrival in the Molotschna Colony in February 1918 brought with it a reign of a terror that ultimately became politically tied to the remnant of World War I German occupation troops who were allowed by the Communists to enter the Ukraine to “help them control” any nationalistic Ukrainian aspirations!

In the meantime, Lenin recognized the success of the Revolution and wanted a quick end to the World War I. He pursued his theoretical peace with the Germans through the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. This Treaty exacted enormous concessions from the Russian Empire. Many called it a “shameful peace”. Lenin agreed to the German occupation of the Baltic States, parts of Belorussia, and all of the Ukraine! In effect, the Germans arrived in the Ukraine area in mid-April 1918 to unofficially pacify the area for the Russians who were always fearful of losing this area to Ukrainian nationalism.

And what did the German Mennonites do? They welcomed their German-speaking brethren! Obviously, the Mennonites in the Mother Colonies of the Ukraine now made themselves into a very vulnerable minority among the Russian citizenry! The German Mennonites hated the instability of their new government described above, but now they had to relate to the German occupation troops who spoke their language and presented themselves as" liberators"! For example, it was recorded that at the Lichtenau village railroad station in the Molotshna Colony which we visited in 2000, the German soldiers were treated by the Mennonites to German traditional foods-- zwieback and schinkenfleisch (smoked ham)!

The German occupation troops even actively recruited among the Mennonite villages, urging the young men to join their practice drills, but did not require them to carry rifles. As agreed upon under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans retreated in November 1918 and many of the troops deposited their weapons with villagers in the Mother Colonies for use in defending themselves against local bandits! However, the most significant observation made by their Russian neighbors was that the Mennonites had been seen as supporters of their German cultural brothers! It demonstrated to them that, although the Mennonites espoused loyalty to their country, their actions betrayed them just at the time when the new Soviet government was beginning to take hold in the land. One would like to know what Cornelius' folks and siblings lived through in the midst of all of this in the Molotschna Colony. We do know they survived!

Further Anarchy Among the Mother Colonies

The stage was now set for 3 years of terror and suffering among both German Mennonites and the general population of Ukraine. It was almost unequalled among civilized people in modern history. Deprived of protection from the central government, the Mennonite villages became vulnerable to the civil war between the Communist revolutionaries calling known as the Reds and the Whites who were fighting against the purposes of the Revolution. As the conflict progressed, more and more of the decisive battles were fought on the German Mennonite Colony lands. The Mennonite villages even formed protective units of self-defense groups (Selbstschutz) to fend off the raids of the Reds, after the withdrawal of the Whites from many of the Mennonite villages. And these Selbstschutz groups often began as spontaneous movements to protect German Mennonite lives and property during this period of violent anarchy.

Again we must remember that during the German occupiers often trained these units so that they could fight the bandits or other revolutionaries! The civil war between the Reds and the Whites was exacerbated by the activities of the roving bandit Nestor Ivanovich Makhno, born near the Molotschna Colony. Makhno was a Russian peasant revolutionary who headed up an independent partisan group whose fury was directed against all landowners and certainly against the German occupation troops. He managed to win the support from many of the Russian peasantry who reacted to the favoritism shown by the Mennonites to these “conquering” German troops. Still sensing his own personal causes as not attainable, Makhno ultimately allied himself with the Red Army in 1919. The two groups now moved against the poorly armed and overextended front maintained by the Mennonite self-defense units, the Selbstschutz. The Mennonites in this area were essentially now at war with the Red Army!

What had begun as a police action ended in the eyes of the Communist government, as rebellious fighting against the Red Army, now had the impact of the German Mennonites fighting against the very government that would govern them until their demise in Russia! Makhno's commando raids of 5,000 to 8,000 men struck panic among the Colonies from March through July 1919. His band of men sought vengeance upon all German colonists with unprecedented terror in the villages in and around Kleefeld.

In the end it was the Mennonite militaristic response to civil chaos that mattered to many outsiders. They found themselves in a state of total anarchy in which they met violence with violence, truly not a pacifist position! The decision to compromise invariably led to all types of excesses. Once the Selbstschutz became the aggressor and shot and killed, the need for preventative action steadily increased, since it provided the bandits with another pretext for action and revenge. From Makhno's standpoint, Mennonite colonists had murdered his men, and his private army struck back when in a position to do so. From the standpoint of the new Communist government, this helped them gain control of south Russia which had obviously shattered the peace witness that the Mennonites that had claimed for the past century!

In December 1919 the Red Army gained control of the area that included the village of Kleefeld in the Molotschna Colony. The Communists succeeded in controlling the area too, so Makhno's roving bandits were no longer needed by them. Makhno escaped to Romania in 192l, and then to Danzig and Berlin and finally to Paris where he died in 1934. With the end of the Makhno banditry, the Mennonite villagers could rest for awhile in comparative "Communist" peace!

The Siberian Adventure

One can imagine that in 1917 the Cornelius Klassen family was thoroughly enjoying their new life together in the friendly environs near Issyl Kul, located on a section of the Trans Siberian Railroad completed in the 1880’s. Siberia had been one of the richest unexplored regions of Russia. Its vast area was the size of France. It provided a vigorous environment for a new start in life for Cornelius, 34, and Grete, 29, who were now farmers with a growing family--George, 6, and Louise, 3. We do not know what happened to the home that Cornelius was having built during the summers of 1913 and 1914 at Weisenfeld, 30 miles north of the Funk Chutor (Estate). But we do know that the Cornelius Klassen family finally moved to Siberia after school was out in May 1917 into the home of Grete's sister and brother-in-law, the Abe Froese's. They rented the home, located about 200 yards from Grete’s folks at the Funk Chutor at Ljubimovka. The Chutor was cited as being "within walking distance" of the Trans Siberian Railroad Station. The Chutor was a large residence located on approximately 400-500 acres.

The adjustments to farm life did not come easy to Cornelius, although he had been working on the Funk farms each summer since 1912. By mid-April the wheat was planted, in May the barley and oats were seeded, and harvest was in late August or early September. By October snow was on the ground. But Louise has reported in her book that her dad missed teaching after being involved in the hectic nature of the Siberian farm routine!

As we know, the Funks had moved to Siberia in February 1912 from Friedensfeld in the Chortitza Mother Colony area. This move had included Grete’s father Peter Peter Funk, 56, and his second wife (after he had been widowed in 1882) Elizabeth (Penner) Willems Funk, 65 (who had also been widowed in 1884). A sad note occurred in 1913 when Grete’s 77-year old grandmother, Sara Derksen Funk, had to be moved to the Barnaul Colony (Slavograd), 100 miles to the south of where the family of Funks and Klassens lived, to live with her son, Cornelius Funk, in Alexandrovka in Siberia.

As we had mentioned earlier, on November 28, 1913 Grete’s brother and sister, John Funk and Susie Thiesen, and Abe Froese and Katherine Funk were married in a double ceremony at the Funk Chutor, a year and 9 months after the Funk family had moved to Siberia. And again as we alluded to earlier, at that time of the school year, both Cornelius and Grete were unable to leave Kantemirovka to attend!

By the end of 1913, the remaining Funk family was living near the Chutor-- John Funk 28, and his wife Susie; Jacob Funk, 26, and his wife Maria (Friesen) originally from Sparrau in the Molotschna Colony; and Grete’s sister Katherine (Tina), 24, and her husband Abe Froese from Spat in the Crimea. In September 1914, John and Susie Funk had a son Peter with whom George’s sister, Louise, cites in her book as having been her favorite playmate4.

You can imagine the grand family times the Cornelius and Grete had with the Funks each summer and now in 1917 enjoyed together permanently (Figure 37). It must have felt nice enjoying warm familial fellowship, when thousands of miles away there were troubled war scenes in the Molotschna Colony around the Kleefeld area where Cornelius' parents and siblings lived!

Everyday observations with happy and sad events in around Ljubimovka were recorded in Louise’s book. One must also remember that the book reflects her childhood memories of this period of her life from ages 3 to 14 years of age, 1917 to 1928. In Siberia, the girls usually went to school for 5 years and the boys for 7. Obviously, many of her experiences were in this school context.

Cornelius and Grete had the joy of being able to use the name of Cornelius' mother with the birth of their second daughter, Cornelia, on July 26, 19l8, at Ljubimovka. With the birth of “Nellie” the family was complete. My guess is that the overall feeling of these tight-knit Klassen and Funk family units might have been, "Let the Russian Revolution be damned!" and enjoy the extended family support given to all of them at times like these.

From the Siberian perspective, the German Mennonites felt they might be far enough away from the immediate impact of all of ominous political and war happenings that were now plaguing their Mother Colony residents in the Ukraine. In fact, some Mennonites hoped that there might be a possibility of an independent Siberia with a protected German province! Obviously, it was a very naïve perspective when one considers how the Germans were being viewed by the Russian peasants from the war perspective.

Before Cornelius and Grete moved to Siberia in 1917, it has been cited that Grete was to have said, "You are a teacher. You said you would never become a farmer." He replied, "Soon there will be much trouble in the Ukraine. We should move [to Siberia] now before it is too late." This observation was certainly proven to be correct in the near term, but ultimately, an irrelevancy as the broader trends of government changed Russian society everywhere, not just in south Russia! In fact, little did the German Mennonites or even the Russian population know that the entire family of Czar Nicholas II had already been secretly executed by the Bolsheviks in July 1918 at Ekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk), only 500 miles west of where the Funks and the Klassens lived! Indeed, the Revolution was soon to be upon them.

The End of the Trail

One July 1919 morning eight-year old George joined his father in delivering grain to a distant feed mill. When they arrived many farmers were in line, so they decided to bed themselves down for the night on their wagon. The next morning they unloaded the grain and returned in the rain to Ljubimovka. When they returned home, George's clothes were removed and Grete examined him for lice. Cornelius was too tired so he readied himself for bed without the checks. He became ill during the night and the next morning had a fever that led to his death from typhus which was soon to reach epidemic proportions in Russia! He died at 36 years of age on July 27, 1919, the end of our grandfather’s life we have traced through these diaries and ancillary documents.

Louise noted that six uncles rode with the body to the cemetery. I am presuming they were: Grete's brothers and brother-in-law who were living in Siberia (John and Jacob Funk and Abe Froese) and Cornelius' brothers who may have made the l,000 mile railroad journey from the village of Kleefeld. According to Louise, an escaped Austrian prisoner of war, who had worked for Cornelius and Grete, built the coffin with a glass window, which was hermetically sealed as a precaution to prevent the spread of typhus. He was lowered into a water-filled grave and buried.

This typhus epidemic added to the already difficult social scene for the settlers. It is estimated that there were over 1,000 victims among the Mennonite settlements during the winter of 1919/20. Back in the Molotschna Colony, Cornelius' family also suffered inestimably from this same dread disease. His older sister, Elizabeth Klassen Wiens, born in February 26, 1879, had a daughter Marie (Miche) who in the 1970's was an elderly lady (born Oct. 7, 1917) and wrote to my Dad that "5 big men [in the Abraham Klassen family] died in a short time." Cornelius' youngest brother, Peter, the accountant in Millerovo, died in 1922 at about 32 years of age. Cornelius’ father, Abraham John (born August 9, 1850) is thought to have died from typhus in Kleefeld in his 70’s then. His son Jacob (born about 1888), the unmarried farmer from Kleefeld, died from typhus in the 1924, as well as his brother Abraham (born March 17, 1881), the oldest brother and namesake of his father, died in the same year at 43 years of age. His wife also died during those epidemic years. Miche wrote, “grandmother could not be consoled!"

Also, as if Grete Klassen had not experienced enough personal grief with the death of her husband in 1919, her father Peter Peter Funk, 61, was briefly incarcerated in 1921. We know that he was treated cruelly for 37 days, because of some unknown governmental infraction! In general, however, the Siberian settlements were still being spared of the more severe carnage from the Revolution and the civil war that devastated the Mother Colonies. Now it was also true that the German Mennonites in western Siberia were much more scattered and obviously a minority in their Russian milieu, as opposed to the large clustered German Mennonite villages that provided a focus for more targeted hate by the Russian peasantry. But we always must remind ourselves many of the German Mennonites strongly identified with the departed German occupation troops in that part of the Ukraine. The Mennonite Siberian settlers certainly did not form a Selbstshutz to protect themselves from the government marauders--a position, that in more ways than is apparent, was the curse of their brothers in the Mother Colonies!

But there were some other types of physical hardships that made farming tough sledding in Siberia. The Mennonites could not use their old patterns of land management that obviously was more attuned to a temperate climate. The growing season for vegetables was very short, with long winters and short summers. The tillage techniques and the use of different farm equipment all slowed what at first looked to be a very attractive opportunity for many Mennonite farmers to expand their horizons when offered the opportunity to settle in Siberia. In fact, a Mennonite settlement in Siberia that was only a 100 miles south of the Funk Chutor had a total crop failure in the Russia Great Famine of the winter of 1921-1922. One of the Mennonite reporters noted that "there was poverty defying description; adults and children clothed in tattered rags; people using straw for beds; and many colonists with no horses or cows." It was during this period that the American Mennonite Relief aid (Mennonite Central Committee) was effective in helping many of these villages survive!

New Beginnings

Before these agonizing times, we should note that the origin of the Mennonite settlements in Siberia first came about when the government offered these lands for settlement in the 1907-1910 period. The first land offered was the virgin farmlands of the Kulundian Steppes in southwest Siberia. This offer was looked upon by the Mennonites as the opportunity for developing daughter colony settlements which we have discussed. We know that this was certainly an attractive land offer to many of landless Mennonites, again caused by the pressures of the population explosion among the Mennonite settlers in the Mother Colonies. The government even had additional incentives to settle there: low railway fares to the area, tax exemptions, a government subsidy of 160 Rubles, the availability of some farming inventory on credit, and a 3-year exemption from state service. And no Russian was allowed to buy homes or land in any of these small German Mennonite settlements.

It was later that the government made the land in the Omsk area available for purchase by the German Mennonites. This then was the incentive that drew the Johann (John) H. Friesen family from Friedensfeld to Siberia in 1911, a year before the Funks had gotten there. John H. Friesen, a 36-year old former schoolteacher from Friedensfeld, had been married to Grete's half sister Anna Willems Friesen since January 4, 1900. Their family consisted of Elizabeth or Liese, 11; Henry 10; John 5; and Abram, 3. Anna and Nick were born later in Siberia in 1911 and 1913, respectfully. And again, we shall see how this family of relatives would ultimately be part of our story shortly.

In 1922 the John H. Friesen family settled in Alexanderkrone, about 20 miles east of Ljubimovka where the Funk Chutor was located. Like Cornelius Klassen did at a later period of time, John Friesen too left his teaching position in Friedensfeld in 1911 and bought a 250-acre farm on credit for 10,000 Gold Rubles (equivalent of $5,000). According to a contemporary account by his son, Nick Friesen, in 3 years the farm was so productive that he paid to debt off. By 1919 it was valued at 60,000 Rubles (or the equivalent of $30,000).

By this time, there were now over 100 Mennonite villages populated by settlers who had voluntarily moved to Siberia to farm this virgin land. By the mid 1920's there were about 3,500 Mennonites in the Omsk area near where our Klassen, Funk, and Friesen relatives lived and worked. There were 29 villages and estates, some of which were over 100,000 acres. In general, the German Mennonites who lived in this part of western Siberia had come with money and lived well. And they were able to do well economically because they had easy access to the markets right on the Trans Siberian Railroad. The Funk Chutor in Ljubimovka was described in the book Louise as an area that had its orchards and groves of birch trees, in addition to the more familiar fields of grains and oats, barley and potatoes.

In this wealthy and peaceful setting, tragedy struck the Friesen family when Grete's favorite half sister, Anna, died from a stroke on May 2, 1922, at 44 years of age. It is said that she made her sister promise that she would marry her husband, John H. Friesen, if anything would happen to her! So 1 1/2 months later on June 15, Grete, 33, married John Friesen, 47 (Figure 38). And as we have said before, John Friesen had once even been Grete's schoolteacher back in Friedensfeld. So at least she knew him for many years!

The marriage ceremony was performed by a Rev. Hiebert, using the text from Psalm 32:8, "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you." The wedding took place at the Funk Chutor in Ljubimovka. The childlike memory of a 7-year old Louise Klassen is shown in her book when she says that the wedding appeared to be a somber affair since so many people were crying. She had wondered whether they were crying about her dad's funeral that occurred 3 years earlier! After the ceremony, coffee and zwieback were served to all the guests. And the 3 Klassen children--George, 10, Louise, 7, and Nellie, 3--joined the Friesen "cousins" and became brothers and sisters! Reluctantly, it was noted, the Klassen children left their home the next day with their mother and moved to the Friesen home in Alexanderkrone , a distance of about 15 or 20 miles or a 1/2-hour trip by car from Ljubimovka, and began a new family unit together (Figures 39 through 41).

The book Louise noted that this newly married couple had to share their bedroom with Nick Friesen, the youngest of the family; Louise and Nellie moved into Anna Friesen's bedroom and also the bedroom of Liese Friesen, the oldest daughter who had moved out and married Henry Toews. The three boys-- Henry, John, and Abe Friesen-- rearranged their bedroom so that George and their cousin Henry Loewen, who came to live with them in 1926, could now move in. It was a house full that had to "transform" their cousin relationships into stepbrothers and stepsisters (Figure 42)!

As a teenager, our father George went to high school (Zentralschule) in nearby Margenau, located about 5 miles north of Alexanderkrone near the Trans Siberian Railroad. There had only been an elementary school in Alexanderkrone, but no high schools. Our father noted that he never was a good student because of his poor eyesight, but did complete the equivalent of his second year of high school.

Nick Friesen related that our father and he always had to cut the kindling and firewood from the birch trees nearby. He also related the good times they had fellowshipping around good music. Henry Loewen said that they had their own orchestra-- Henry on the violin, Abe on the mandolin, John and our father on the guitar, and Nick on the Russian balalaika! When visiting the relatives in Ljubimovka, the family orchestra was joined by Grete's older half brothers--Cornelius Willems, playing the harp that he had made, Henry on the violin and Grete's brother, Jacob Funk, playing the violin. What a musical scene Figure 43).

The Gathering Storm

The dark clouds and purposes of the Revolution were now beginning to reach Siberia! Because of Communist government regulations in 1920, John Friesen was able to sow only half of his fields, and in addition, had to put up with severe drought conditions. In Moscow the Soviet government was strengthening its political position by issuing decrees, one of which was to tax the food. In addition, the granaries were emptied as required to share with the peasantry which had the impact of nearly starving the various village populations.

John Friesen had to slaughter purebred milk cows before calving and he said, "throw the unborn calves on the manure pile." His fine Shropshire ewes were slaughtered shortly before their lambing time, and the "unborn lambs were thrown out for the crows." He continued that "altogether in our district, about 700 milk cows were butchered and several thousand sheep." He recounted that "a large shipment of vegetables and potatoes which subsequently froze during transport, was taken from the farms to the cities. Then raw hides were demanded from everything from cats to cows! The farmer delivered bristles, hair, horns, etc. The misery went so far, that our workhorses were slaughtered. The ‘unfit to work’ and sick horses were butchered first."

The confrontation between the Mennonites and the new Soviet state was heating up. The Communists had finally won the Civil War and were ready to introduce their New Economic Policy (NEP) that went into force in 1921 and was to last until 1928. The irony of this New Economic Policy was that some German Mennonites felt a burst of hope that things were getting better under with such an equitable sharing program with others! In addition, some of the transportation facilities were improved. But all of this turned out to be a false hope!

Soon the government officials were confiscating wagons, horses, and other property that were no longer permissible to have. And this was dramatically complicated by the Great Famine of 1921/1922 which caused more than 5 to 6 million deaths in the country! Obviously, many German Mennonite farmers died in the famine. John Friesen commented on the general ambience of all of this by noting that the government was beginning to realize that they were contributing to the famine through its poor economic policies and that certain changes needed to be made in their projected “ideal” socialism.

It was interesting to note that in August 1921, the new All-Russia Famine Relief Committee signed an agreement with the American Relief Administration (ARA) headed by the future American President Herbert Hoover. This agreement empowered the ARA to set up feeding programs in the country. Church organizations and aid agencies such as the MCC were invited to participate.

In 1923 the government announced that all religious influences were to be removed from the schools. A new perspective on this was shown in some recent research in the Russian archives that the initial animus against religion might have been more directed at the Russian Orthodox Church because of its strong alliance to old Czarist regime. What is interesting to note here that the Mennonites were even admired by some of the Bolshevik hierarchy for their farming ability and they were even willing to make substantial concessions to support them! The Soviet agricultural ministry even tried to defend the Mennonites from attacks by the more radical Bolshevik loyalists.

The Bolsheviks were also aware of the financial and technical support that the foreign MCC, the new Mennonite relief organization with the Russian focus in mind, might provide outside funds and support, if the Mennonites were left alone to prosper in this new government society. Certainly some of their economic positions might have appeared to be somewhat reassuring to the leadership of the Mennonite community. Obviously, their atheistic religious position was enormously threatening to them. Certainly, the socialist positive views of the German Mennonites were dwarfed by the general direction that the Communists had to take to revolutionize their society!

The Communists announced that the government would begin grain and livestock requisitions and receive a produce tax payable in kind. The economic struggles began to intensify. There were crop failures because of the mismanagement of all these foodstuffs. In the southern Molotschna Colony where village of Kleefeld was, the turmoil was particularly devastating. One wonders how the remaining Klassen family members survived in this swirling anarchy and how they coped! We know that it was certainly much worse in these Mother Colonies than it was in Siberia. We do know from the book Louise that Grete and her new husband, John Friesen, visited the Molotschna Colony in 1924 on their "belated honeymoon" and were shocked by the situation in which they found all their relatives (Figures 44 and 45).

The Backdrop for these Emerging Stages of Communism

Across the country the Communist officials attempted to apply “undiluted” Communist principles to the Russian economy during the years of 1918 to 1921. Banks, railroads, and shipping were nationalized, the money economy was restricted, and private property was to be abolished. And, as we have seen, there was strong opposition to this type of program among a large part of the citizenry. For example, the Russian citizens wanted cash and resented having to surrender their surplus grain to the government. In the face of such opposition the Russian economic system was ultimately threatened with collapse. So Lenin finally decided to make a strategic retreat and inaugurated a more liberal NEP that permitted a return to some of the more traditional capitalist practices that did remain in effect for a short time. However, local government officials sometimes made their own interpretation as to what might be purely socialist and what might be a capitalist concession in their local community.

The introduction of the NEP in 1921 was Lenin's last work. In May 1922 a stroke stopped him, even though he rallied and managed to carry on for awhile, a second stroke on March 1923 shattered his health, and he died in January 1924. The death of Lenin brought with it the vital question of his successor. Leon Trotsky was the best known Communist after Lenin and was naturally expected to step into his shoes. But in 1924, the hardliner, Joseph Stalin, quietly placed his supporters in key posts in the government and assumed the powerful chairmanship of the Politburo, the executive body of 10 members of the Communist Party. (In 1940 Josef Stalin had little trouble in removing his rival Trotsky by having him murdered by "an unknown assailant" while he was living in exile in Mexico!)

Before Lenin’s death, some of the Siberian farmers started to rebuild their devastated estates under what they were told was the new freedom under the NEP. But the food tax was replaced by a "value tax". John Friesen's estate, now consisting of 67 acres, 3 horses and 3 cows, recovered rapidly despite the high taxes that he had to pay. It grew in 3 years to over 200 acres, 14 horses, one Fordson tractor, 9 milk cows, and various young cattle. The family did all the work, but now a percentage of the crops had to be given to the peasants. It was clear that as "kulaks"(a terms for owners), they would be discriminated in such as system. And they were. All family members over 18 years of age were even deprived of voting rights. They were the "exploiters and enemies of the government!"

Life Goes On

The 3,500 German Mennonites in the western Siberian region near Omsk tried to survive economically, with the stresses of the Great Famine of the winter of 1921-1922 and the government intrusion in their daily lives. And we remember that many of these German Mennonite Siberian settlers had originally come here with considerable financial resources. But as “kulaks” in a socialized society, they were clearly being marginalized! Many of the German Mennonites, particularly in the south, had already been ruined economically by the Revolution, and the civil war that existed between the Whites and the Reds with its accompanying ruthless banditry.

Now there was much more serious discussion of possible emigration among the Mennonites, particularly in the devastated areas of the south Russian Mother Colonies. And there were even sanctioned efforts on by some of the Mennonite leaders to claim before government officials that their heritage was really more Dutch than German, since their founding came about under Menno Simons, a converted Dutch priest from Holland! They felt that reminding the government officials that as Mennonite followers, they had been citizens of Holland, not Germany, and that this fact should have spared them from the German stigma and the special favors granted them by the Czars when they were invited as Germans from Prussia! It also was an attempt to neatly differentiate themselves from the thousands of Volga Germans and other German groups who were living in Russia and who were also suffering under these stigmas!

As we have seen, the North American MCC provided some help to the Mother Colonies during this time of reconstruction in the villages that had either been pillaged or destroyed in the resultant civil war. P.C. Hiebert (1860-1963), was the first chairman of the MCC serving for 33 years.5 He had come to Russia in 1922 to determine what these Russian Mennonite needs were. He found that that the colonies desperately needed agricultural machinery and seed for their grain. The German Mennonites gradually committed themselves to the government reconstruction with no long-range economic guarantees, even though the new socialistic government still had not clearly defined its future agricultural policy..

As we have seen, although the discussions in the Mother Colonies about emigration had now become more vocal, some Mennonites were being even allowed to legally immigrate, primarily to Canada. This encouraged many others to try, but fail! It was obvious that the entire emigration effort would require a great deal of financial resources on the government's part. Inflation was also wiping out all personal savings during this period of instability. Only by selling one's personal belongings, implements, livestock, and farm buildings could the people hope to even garner enough funds for the journey to North America or Canada. And, technically, the land could not be sold since it belonged to the government! Clearly, this hindered the traditional manner in which one would perceive a typical farm auction sale could take place.

Obviously, there was general poverty and widespread distrust of most of these new Russian economic policies. It was apparent to most of the German Mennonites that may have to seek individual emigration. Obviously, the government would not easily consider a general group exodus. After 1923 only individuals were even given any hope of trying to emigrate.

The Search for a New Home

Only one thing was left to make any type of emigration possible, the individual consent of the bureaucrats in the Russian government. And the Soviet authorities were not willing to lose some of their best farmers, and perhaps not too anxious to let the world know that some of their most peaceful and industrious citizens were eager to leave the glorious possibilities of the new Soviet paradise! Most of the potential emigrants tried to obtain papers to go to Canada, because the Canadian Pacific Railway had negotiated extensive credit with those who would be unable to pay for their transportation. But health issues, such as the fact that the Canadian government refused to accept any immigrant with trachoma (an eye infection which many of them had), prevented many of them from even being considered.

As could be expected, the Russians were always slow in granting the necessary passports to prospective immigrants to Canada. When granted, the German Mennonites were often routed from Moscow through Riga, Latvia. A contingent of about 3,000 immigrants left Russia in the summer of 1923. They came from one of the Mother Colonies and consisted of mostly farm owners of large estates, ministers, and victims of the civil war, banditry and the famine. Also every application made to the Russian officials for an exit permit had to be accompanied with 200 Rubles. If the potential émigré was denied, there was no refund, but they were permitted to reapply if they wanted and pay another fee of 200 Rubles!

As has been mentioned, the government’s New Economic Policy was greeted by some German Mennonites as the beginning of better economic policies. For this reason the opportunity to emigrate slowed around 1923 and was passed up by many of the German Mennonites. Some fellow Mennonites still criticized the very idea of leaving the motherland! But when some emigrants received their passports and actually began leaving the country, the news spread like wildfire among all the Mennonite settlements. By 1928, 22,000 German Mennonites did immigrate to Canada. However, this was only a short window of opportunity, as the new Russian government soon closed its borders.

Now we look at the ambience of the Friesen/Klassen Siberian household in Siberia and their reaction to all of these national happenings. John Friesens’ sons and along with his stepson George, or our father at l6/17 years of age, were clearly the “big-time” farmers in Alexanderkrone with about 500 acres. John Friesen was known widely in the area for his farming practices as well as his administrative abilities. He had obtained his Fordson tractor through the MCC to improve his farming methods. But these unsettling national events were beginning to intrude. His oldest son, Henry, 27, had been dismissed from the military (forestry service?). He indicated that the rationale for his dismissal was that he was a “the son of a kulak and no longer a Russian citizen." A few days later a Russian official called at the Friesen home and wanted to talk to John Friesen alone to verify the responses that his son Henry had given to the Russian officials about the farm they had owned!

On February 1927 a government decree was issued concerning farm machines. All farmers with less than 5 hired hands were deprived of their right to own or use a tractor. The tractors were to be handed over to the government, or their cooperatives had to be enlarged by admitting destitute farm workers to their membership!

It was interesting to note that before Lenin died, he had been forced to give up on his experiment of pure socialism that began with the National Economic Policy. But after his death, Stalin determined that this compromise with capitalism had to be swept away as soon as possible. He was ready to introduce a program of economic reform called the First Five Year Plan of 1928. This would not only destroy the last vestiges of capitalism in Russia but also would industrialize the country almost overnight! His Five-Year Plan called for the: (1) collectivization of 55 million acres of land into huge government collective farms; (2) removal of illiteracy; and (3) increase of industrial products by 136 percent, of agricultural output by 55 percent, of oil and coal by 100 percent, and of power by 300 percent.

It obviously ushered in the total collectivization of all agricultural life! Bigger villages had to organize collective farms and smaller ones had to join for the same purpose. The government was aware that many farmers would object to the procedure as John Friesen did. But the farmers were made to be “willing” to join the collectivization effort by being taxed beyond what they could pay! Obviously, the collective farm (or the kolkhoz to which this socialist experiment was referred) would bring an end to the concept of German Mennonite agricultural village life. Since the units of land were owned by the “kulaks” or middle class farmers, they would no longer be tolerated under this new Five Year Plan. And the German Mennonites were to be identified with the 3 to 5 percent of the Russian population who were now called “kulaks” and who were the “exploiters of their fellow villagers and other hired hands”! They were now the “enemies of the people.”

Yet by 1928 less than 2 percent of the private holdings were collectivized. But in the next 15 months, over 50 percent of the private farms underwent this process and were collectivized. The poor peasant was promised the farm inventory and livestock of the more prosperous farmer or” kulak”. The German Mennonite colonists in Siberia were now faced with this "second revolution" with little hope of being able to cope economically or psychologically with the demise of their rural farming domain!

John Friesen had had enough of these threats! In 1928 he made trips on the Trans Siberian Railroad to Moscow in March and then in June to attempt to obtain immigration papers for Canada, as some other German Mennonites had done. He spoke of endless lines of people waiting in Moscow to see the contacts in the Minister of Interior’s office. There were makeshift huts and unbelievably crowded apartments that failed to accommodate the great number of German Mennonites who had sold everything they owned to get to Moscow in the hopes of securing passage to Canada. They also had meager food rations while they waited for days to have their petitions negotiated or denied.

We now know that the 13,000 German Mennonites who were waiting in Moscow to leave Russia in 1929 were even declared “vagrants”. Even so, we have records to indicate that 14,000 made it to Germany! However, many of them were dispersed by force, either to Siberia or sent home. The MCC even raised about $100,000 for the official resettlement of the German Mennonites to countries in South America, Mexico, Canada. A few went to the United States.

In June 1928 local officials in Omsk told him that the family immigration papers were now available in Moscow! To give perspective to these false hopes for the Friesen/Klassen household, John Friesen had been told about 5,000 Mennonites who had been given permission to leave for Canada. When he went to Moscow to check on this and meet with passport officials, the scene turned ugly when John pounded the table when the Russian official told him "no", he disgustingly said, "we will leave this country anyhow!" The official asked "How?" John told him, "Comrade, that is none of your business!" Obviously, John Friesen had now committed himself to leave in the most expedient way possible!

The process to leave was put into place when he returned from Moscow on the Trans Siberian Railroad train to his family home in Alexanderkrone. He told his family that they would be taking the Trans Siberian Railroad to Blagoveshchensk in eastern Siberia on the Amur River across from China, under the guise of starting up a new farming settlement in eastern Siberia. He shared these plans only with his family and close Funk relatives. He held an auction in that spring of 1928 and sold most of his property in a public sale to the locals. He sold his cows, sheep, horses, household furnishings and farm machinery. He was fortunate to accomplish these sales, since the government forbade such sales shortly thereafter.

A 13-year old Louise Klassen remembered saying goodbye to her pet cows, sheep, and horses! All the children went to live with their grandparents, the Peter P. Funks in Ljubimovka for several weeks and stayed there under the pretense that they were getting ready to go west to Moscow. During this time the secret police (GPU) were arresting many “kulaks” in the vicinity. We even understand that John Friesen made one last trip to Omsk (40 miles away) to attempt for one last time to obtain a legal passport for the family!

Now the family was ready and prepared for their long sojourn. Mattresses had to be filled with newly carded wool for the long Trans Siberian railroad trip. An enormous amount of zweibachs had to be baked and toasted and tea packed for meals en route. Louise noted that Grete got sick about this time and relatives prayed for her recovery. John Friesen took a gun for his protection that he had purchased when he sold a big shipment of grain in Omsk. Obviously, owning a gun was somewhat atypical for a German Mennonite! The last item to be packed carefully was a Kroger clock from southern Russia, now a family heirloom. Someone had told John Friesen that he could use it in exchange for a cow when he arrived in Canada!

Louise remembered that her stepfather reminded them that "if people should ask where they were now going while on the train, tell them we are going to farm in East Russia to farm”. It was there near the soil-rich land of the Amur River that other groups of German Mennonite farmers had settled. It was known that this free virgin land, rich soil, and previous travel-expense enticements had encouraged many other Russians to farm that land after the Bolshevist Revolution in 1916. It was also believed by these settlers that the full impact of Communism would not be as evident in the far reaches of the Siberian east, thousand of miles away from Moscow. What John Friesen felt he could do was to farm here if they had to, but their ultimate plans were to make every effort to escape to China.

Before the family left Alexanderkrone, John Friesen attended a cooperative union agriculture meeting and heard about a young Mennonite, John Bergmann, who might be able to guide the family across the frozen Amur River during the severe winter weather in eastern Siberia. Obviously, the River alternately thawed and froze in the winter which made it a somewhat treacherous navigation site. John Bergmann and his brother Henry were experienced guides whom we will meet up with later when the Friesen family arrived in Blagoveshchensk. The Bergmanns had also suffered under the new government regime. They had owned the Bergmann and Company Mill in Slavgorod, over 100 miles south of the Omsk and Issyl Kul area. They had continued to process oil there when the government tried to secure control over the mill. Ultimately, they were unable to obtain railroad shipping privileges, so they marketed the oil on their own, only to find that, without official permission, they could not retrieve the funds that they had banked. When the Russians confiscated their property, they traveled to the Siberian east and began their black-market treks to the Orient and fashioned themselves as guides to China!

The Far Eastern Trek

On July 1928 the Friesen family—John, 53, and Grete, 40, and John’s 6 children: Elizabeth, 28, and her husband Henry Toews and their 2 children, Betty and John; Henry, 27; John, Jr., 22; Abram, 20; Anna, 17; and Nick, 15; plus the 3 Klassen stepchildren—George, 17; Louise, 14; and Nellie, 10 and a first cousin Henry Loewen, 23 (son of John’s sister Helen whose roots had been in Friedensfeld where the Friesens and Funks once lived before moving to Siberia). They all left by train on the Trans Siberian Railroad from Alexanderkrone for Blagoveshchensk! One can imagine the heartache that Grete’s parents and family, the Funks, must have felt at that moment. Grete would never see her parents again. Her father, Peter Peter Funk, 68 years of age, was in declining health. Using 2 canes, it is suspected that he may have had the inherited ataxia, Machado Joseph Disease, which has surfaced in our family generation after generation. He died the following year on October 2, 1929 in western Siberia. Grete’s mother, Elizabeth Penner Willems Funk was 76 and finally left Siberia with her daughter for Germany and at some later date, died there around 1935 at the age of 83 in the home of her daughter, Agnes Willems. Others also had to say their good-byes to all the Funk siblings and cousins. Grete’s brother John, for example, was an administrator in the Mennonite Colony (Oberschulze?) who told them that “he did not anticipate that life would be too difficult under Communist control!” He was to change his mind soon as we shall see later!

The 5,000-mile trip took 11 days. In her book Louise reported on various conversations that her stepfather had with others who were attempting to start life anew in eastern Siberia. He had some discussions with other men on the train who were interested in having him open a retail store in Blagoveshchensk for sheepskin-lined, Cossack-styled coats that would be manufactured in Omsk! They arrived on July 1928 in the heat of summer where bad floods had heavily damaged the Blagoveshchensk area. John Friesen scouted around for a farm where he might disguise his ultimate intentions. Obviously, he was also gathering helpful information for their escape route to China.

Eventually John Friesen secured some rental space for a store after a secret trip to the sheep country, to open the Toews and Company clothing store (named after his son-in-law Henry). The oldest boys worked in the store during the day. Obviously, this provided a livelihood for the entire family while they all waited for winter and its promise of travel across the frozen Amur River.

The Strange Story of the Baptist Church in Blagoveshchensk

After their arrival, the Friesen/Klassen family worshiped Sundays at the local Russian Baptist Church. They were surprised that religious restrictions were not being enforced as they had been in their home village of Alexanderkrone. Peter Wiens was the pastor of the church. His father, Jacob Wiens, was born in the Molotschna Colony in 1874 and brought up in a Mennonite Brethren home not too far from the village of Kleefeld. Jacob Wiens was an evangelist associated sometimes with the Mennonite Brethren and Baptist churches in Siberia. As an active official in the Baptist church, he attended a Baptist World Alliance meeting in Philadelphia in 1911 and decided to stay in North America with his wife and children joining him the following year. Until 1919 he was pastor of Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada and some Baptist churches, such as the First German Baptist Church of Wasco, California in 1917. He became a Canadian citizen, before returning to eastern Siberia with his family in June 1912 to work as a missionary for the Baptist denomination.

Peter Wiens, who was now an American citizen, stayed in America and enrolled at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky where he was a student until 1922. In 1926 he returned to the same eastern Siberian region where his dad lived in Blagoveshchensk. In 1927 he married a Russian woman who had been born into a Christian family there. Peter Wiens’ father, however, returned to Canada in April 1928 to pastor other Mennonite Brethren and Baptist churches until his death at 69 in 1944.

In the meantime, Peter Wiens' first son, Georgi, was born on August 1928, a month after the Klassen/Friesen entourage had arrived in Blagoveshchensk. Ultimately, Georgi P. Vins [Wiens], secretary of the Russian Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and a leading religious dissident who was imprisoned during the Soviet Union era, was released by the Soviet government in 1979 through the special efforts of President Jimmy Carter. The American government agreed to release 2 Russian spies for Vins and 4 other Russian dissidents--a strange story indeed tied to western roots!

The Waiting Time in Blagoveshchensk

During the winter months of 1928, the Friesen/Klassen group waited in Blagoveshchensk, a city of 30,000, for the Amur River to freeze over. The older Friesen boys worked at the Toews and Company clothing store. The younger set including our father, George and his step-brother Nick, plus the girls, often went to the banks of the Amur River to catch a view the lights of the Chinese town of Sachaljan , a short distance from their apartment where they were residing. They said that they often watched the Chinese residents going about their daily chores on the opposite side of the River.

The local customers at the store recounted how the Russians discouraged escape attempts to the Chinese side. They were told that, although the Russians preferred arresting an escapee, there were times that those who resisted arrest were shot. The next day the victim's name might be posted on a prominent bulletin board in town, just to be a warning to others. With winter approaching John Friesen secretly arranged to purchase 4 horses and 4 sleds and contacted John Bergmann with whom he had made those preliminary arrangements back in western Siberia. He was to become their guide for their contemplated escape across the frozen Amur River. And he was used to crossing the River to buy contraband items and then selling the items at a profit on the Russian side of the River!

In the meantime, Grete's brother and sister-in-law, John and Susie Funk, with their two children had decided to leave western Siberia and arrived in the city of Blagoveshchensk while the Friesen/Klassen group was there! Of course, we recall that he was the one who had indicated that life in Ljubimovka might get better. Apparently, it had not! The day after the group had left, the authorities wanted to arrest Grete's ailing father, Peter Peter Funk, for some violation even though John Funk was a village official. Indeed Grete's brother went on to indicate that a Communist leader had told the village council that he had chaired that they would have to pay double the grain tax because of their hesitant behavior in accepting the Communist land edicts! That was enough for him and he and his wife and children also made the long trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway trip to Blagoveschensk and met up with Friesen/Klassen family and kin.

In her book Louise noted several efforts by the locals to spy on them because they appeared to be a "suspicious" German family among the Russians. Fortunately, their plans to escape remained undetected! The moving portrayal of the secrecy and the adventure of the final day when they left for their trip across the Amur River are vividly described in Louise's first-hand account in her book Louise and are not detailed here.

The Escape to China

The oldest boys were urged to make the crossing as soon as the Amur River was frozen and passable and then report back. The news came back to the family that the some of the Friesen boys had gone ahead and arrived safely in the large city of Harbin, China, a long distance from the Blagoveschensk crossing point. Avoiding the border guards, their surreptitious guide John Bergman took the Friesen/Klassen group and the John Funk family to find an appropriate crossing point over the ice-clogged, mile and a half wide Amur River. One of the Friesen boys, Abe who had a crippled leg (and unknowingly was to remain behind in Harbin, China, because of his physical condition) sat at the rear of one of the sleighs and scanned the horizon. There in a tree he spotted a soldier with a machine gun, but fortunately their sleighs remained undetected!

After their fear-filled crossing, they recuperated emotionally for 3 days in an unsanitary mud inn on the other side of the River in Sachaljan, China. When they left Sachaljan it was 20 below zero (centigrade). They were able to crowd on a rented bus with newly purchased residence permits for the 3-day trip to Tsitsihar, China over a twisting road and a jolting ride which took them across the Lower Kingman mountain range in what was then known as Manchurian China. Their guide John Bergmann had warned them that bandits roamed the area and to follow instructions if stopped. They arrived in Tsitsihar on Christmas Eve 1928. After another 310 miles they arrived by train in the major international city of Harbin, a city of nearly 700,000, on Christmas Day 1928. John Friesen still had to locate his sons who had arrived earlier! While walking the streets of the large city, he passed a farm implements dealership, stopped and looked though the window. Inside the men were working, when John Friesen suddenly spotted his own sons, John and Henry!

Another remarkable incident happened when John Friesen found his old friend Dr. Johann J. Isaak, an ophthalmologist from Omsk, who was now practicing in Harbin. Dr. Isaak's background was interesting. During the civil war in Russia before the Revolution, Dr. Isaak had been drafted by the White army as a physician to the men in the army. When the White army sustained setbacks at the hands of the Red army, Dr. Isaak secretly sent his wife and family to eastern Siberia. In 1923 he was reunited with his family and settled in Harbin where he set up a private medical practice. His practice attracted the wealthier segment of the Chinese population as well as many foreign diplomats stationed in Harbin. It was certainly noted that Dr. Isaak was extremely influential in making some of the initial contacts with the Canadian and U.S. Consular offices for John Friesen's efforts to obtain passports.

Since the Friesen/Klassen family had arrived in the middle of winter, they were able to rent a summer 2-bedroom cottage on a small island on the Sungari River at Harbin. The older children even found jobs in this international city during their 9-month residence in Harbin. When the word got around among the German Mennonites that their escape from Russia had been successful, others tried the same thing over the frozen Amur River to Harbin. Many of them made contacts with the Friesen/Klassen family.

John Friesen and Dr. Isaak contacted the Canadian Consul as to whether they would be allowed to settle in Canada. They flatly refused. Canada did not allow "Chinese" immigrants! Next they approached the American Consul who displayed some interest. They were told by the American consular officials that they needed to choose one of the group who would be capable of expressing himself well enough to present defendable reasons for leaving Russia and adequate reasons why they wanted to settle in the United States. Most of the Mennonites that were beginning to gather in Harbin were farmers with little formal education. Dr. Isaak asked John Friesen to write the document that we have in its English translation. He enumerated the reasons why they had fled Russia and why they wished to immigrate to the United States, some of which I have incorporated in this document. He stressed the fact that the majority of the German Mennonites were frugal, industrious farmers who would be a credit to the nation. The document was sent to Riga, Latvia, the immigration-processing center for Eastern Europe (Figure 46).

In the United States two Mennonites, P.C. Hiebert and M.B. Fast, who were the representatives of MCC during the 1921-22 Russian famine, initiated some contacts in America on behalf of these Harbin refugees in 1929. Kansas Congressman Homer Horch arranged for these gentlemen to meet with President Herbert Hoover to plead the cause of the nearly 300 stateless Harbin Mennonites. The President reacted favorably, but referred the delegation to the Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, with an indication that something should be worked out. The agreement that the Secretary made was that the delegation had to adhere to the strict Congressionally-mandated exclusionary immigration policies that were put into place during the depths of this American Depression.

He noted that any German Mennonite immigration from Harbin had to be handled with extremely low political visibility! It was ordered that only 12 to 15 "farmers" were to be allowed to use German passports to buy individual steamship passage on a month-to-month basis. They also had to pay their own way and guarantee that persons could physically take care of themselves when they got to America. It was another way of making sure that no disabilities were allowed among the immigrants. With this final negotiation stance approved, the doors for future Harbin refugees were opened to go to the United States in 1929 and continued well into the early 1930's. The MCC assisted about 200 of these Harbin refugees to settle in the United States and helped 373 immigrate to Paraguay and 180 to Brazil.

America in Their Sights

Since John Friesen was central to the leadership of this effort, his group was chosen as the first contingent to be allowed to leave. At this point John Friesen and James Isaak, brother of Dr. Isaak, were asked to go to the United States and appeal to the Mennonite Brethren there to provide loans for many of the Mennonites who would not have the funds to leave. So John Friesen and James Isaak went to America, arriving in San Francisco sometime in June 1929. They were able to make contact with the Mennonite Brethren Emigration Committee with whom arrangements for loans were made for the other German Mennonites stranded in Harbin. John Friesen and James Isaak arrived in Reedley, California on a 1926 Chandler that Friesen bought in San Francisco! He then looked up a retired missionary, Mrs. Frank (Franz) Wiens, whom Friesen remembered as the wife of a German Mennonite missionary from Russia to India when he was in Russia. The manner in which she was located is told in Louise's book.

Under the agreement negotiated by the MCC representatives, subsequent refugee groups were to land in San Francisco where the designated Mennonite representatives would make arrangements to have local San Joaquin Valley Mennonites and friends in California to meet, feed, and take care of them.

On August 24, 1929, the rest of the Friesen/Klassen group became the first group from Harbin to begin their trip to the U.S. and join their dad and leader, John Friesen, who had gone ahead to America. The joy of this thought was tempered by the fact that Abe Friesen, John's 21-year old crippled son, would not be able to accompany them because of the strict immigration physical requirements. Obviously, there was tremendous sorrow and strong emotions about this that resulted in the family’s continued effort to support him in Harbin and later in his 1931move to Germany after the Friesen/Klassen group arrived in America.

The Friesen/Klassen group was ready to leave. They boarded a train in Harbin that took them through the Manchurian part of China to Pusan, Korea, a seaport city on the southeast tip of Korea. From Pusan they traveled by boat to Shiminoseki, Japan, and then by train to Kobe, Japan where they spent the night (Figure 47). The next morning, August 7, 1929, the 12 Mennonites in the Friesen/Klassen group (including cousin Henry Loewen) boarded the ocean liner, the Tenyo Maru, as the first German Mennonite group of "alien passengers" who were “not to be noticed” as the official U.S. policy had stated (Figure 48). There were also 15 other “Chinese” immigrants on the ship of nondescript passengers bound for San Francisco via Yokohama, Japan and Honolulu, Hawaii (Figures 48 through 51). It was a 37-day voyage when they arrived in San Francisco on September l3, 1929 at 10:10 am (Figures 52 and 53).

As an aside, Mennonite historians have failed to recognize John Friesen's early efforts on behalf of all Mennonites in Harbin. In fact, the "Harbin" article in the Mennonite Encyclopedia completely ignores his seminal work on behalf of all the Mennonite refugees. The Encyclopedia even suggests incorrectly that the emigration of the Mennonite refugees to the U.S. began in 1930!

The local San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 1929, page 14, column 6, referred to the steamer docking at pier 36. It had a total of 352 passengers and 1,966 bales of raw silk of which more than half was to be taken to New York by the Panama Pacific liner Virginia—all extraneous to the mission of this story!

Plaintively, Louise made the comment in her book that they must have been quite a sight upon arrival--"girls and women in long drab dresses; boys with short cropped heads…a handful of baggage, and heirloom clock [a Kroger clock from Rosenthal in the Chortitza Colony], and hearts full of both hope and apprehension."

They went through Customs on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay before they could be reunited with their husband and father at the dock. We should also note that Grete's brother, John, his wife Susie, and their two children, were to arrive 14 days later on the next steamer to leave the Far East, the Korea Maru.

The Friesen/ Klassen trek to Reedley and the next chapter in the life of Grete and her family are collated in Louise's book. Although life again revolved around the Mennonite Brethren Church in Reedley, subsequent events brought some of the group into new connections on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in Patterson, California and the Swedish Covenant Church for our father and mother, George Klassen and his new wife, Leah Leppke. Grete and her two daughters, Louise and Nellie and her husband, Rodney Larsen, ultimately settled in Turlock, 17 miles away. Grete and Nellie and her husband associated with the Evangelical Free Church there. Louise later associated with the Evangelical (formerly Swedish) Covenant Church and became a missionary under that denomination in an orphanage in Alaska, and then married Jules Matson. Louise died June 27, 2001 and our father died April 1, 2002 at 90 and 1/2/years of age and our mother, whose family story will be told in another document, died at 91 years of age on June 27, 1999.

John Friesen, Grete's husband, died at the age of 59 on October 11, 1934. Grete, or Margaret as we knew her, brought this pilgrimage described here to an end in the context of our Klassen roots when she died on July 21, 1981 in Turlock, California, at the age of 93. The journey of this noble woman and Cornelius, as documented here for the first time, had now come to a long and pleasing end! And the lives of one-third of the 110,000 Russian Mennonites, who did not leave Russia, perished during the upcoming dark and foreboding days of the U.S.S.R.!

Appendix A: Sources Consulted

Block, John. Escape; Siberia to California. (1995)

Dueck, Abe J. Moving Beyond Secession; Defining Russian Mennonite Brethren Mission and Identity, 1872-1922. (Hillsboro, KS, Kindred Productions, 1997)

Friesen, Abraham, ed. P.M. Friesen and his History; Understanding Mennonite Brethren Beginnings. (Fresno, CA, Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1979)

Friesen, P.M. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia , 1789-1910. Translated from German (Fresno, CA, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978)

Friesen, Rudy P. Into the Past; Buildings of the Mennonite Commonwealth. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Christian Press, 1996)

Friesen, Rudy P. and Edith Friesen. Building on the Past; Mennonite Architecture, Landscape and Settlements in Russia/Ukraine. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Raduga Publications, 2004)

Gislason, Leona Wiebe. Rückenau; The History of a Village in the Molotschna Mennonite Settlement of South Russia. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Windflower Communications, 1979)

Harder, John A., ed. From Kleefeld with Love. (Kitchener, Ontario, Pandora Press, 2003)

Harms, Wilmer A. The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia; the Saga of Anna K. (Hillsboro, KS, Hearth Publishing, 1998)

Hiebert, Peter C. and Orie Miller. Feeding the Hungry; Russia Famine, 1919-1925. (Scottdale, PA, Mennonite Central Committee, 1929)

Huebert, Helmut T. Events and People; Events in Russian Mennonite History and the People That Made them Happen. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Springfield Publishers, 1999)

Huebert, Helmut T. Molotschna Historical Atlas. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Springfield Publishers, 2003)

Isaak, Henry P. Our Life Story and Escape; From Russia to China to Japan and to America. (Fresno, CA, Central Valley Printing Co., 1976)

Lohrenz, Gerhard. Heritage Remembered; a Pictorial Survey of Mennonites in Prussia and Russia. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, CMBC Publications, 1987)

Martin, Terry. The Russian Mennonite Encounter with the Soviet State. (Conrad Grebel College, Bechtel Lectures in Anabaptist Studies, 2001)

Matson, Louise Klassen. Louise; Her Flight to Freedom from Russia, as told to Margaret Anderson. (Wheaton, IL, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1977)

Mennonite Encyclopedia. (Hillsboro, KS; Newton, KS; Scottdale, PA, 1955) 4 vols.

Neufeld, Herb H. Jacob’s Journey; Escape from Communist Russia. (New York, Vantage Press, 2000)

Quiring, Walter and Helen Bartel, eds. In the Fullness of Time; 150 Years of Mennonite Sojourn in Russia. 3rd ed. (Kitchener, Ontario, 1974)

Schroeder, William and Helmut T. Huebert. Mennonite Historical Atlas. 2nd ed. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Springfield Publishers, 1996)

Smith, C. Henry. The Coming of the Russian Mennonites, 1927. In the Mennonite Weekly Review, March 14, 1974 to May 22, 1975

Smith, C. Henry. The Story of the Mennonites. (Newton, KS, Mennonite Publication Office, 1950)

Sylvester, Katharine Rogalsky. From Despair to Deliverance. (Enumclaw, WA, Wine Press, 1999)

Thielmann, John H. Escape to Freedom. (Sunnyvale, CA, Patson’s Press, 1995)

Toews, J.B. JB; The Autobiography of a Twentieth Century Mennonite Pilgrim. (Fresno, CA, Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1995)

Toews, John B. “The calm before the storm; Mennonite Brethren in Russia (1900-1914),” Direction, 31:74-95, Spring 2002

Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites (Newton, KS, Faith and Life Press, 1981)

Toews, John B. Lost Fatherland; The Story of the Mennonite Emigration From Soviet Russia, 1921-1927 (Scottdale, PA, Herald Press, 1967)

Wallbank, T. Walter and Alastair Taylor. Civilization, Past and Present (Chicago, Scott Foresman & Co., 1949)

Wardin, Albert W., Jr. “Jacob J. Wiens: Mission champion in freedom and repression,” Journal of Church and State, 28:495-514, Autumn 1986

Willms, H.F. At the Gates of Moscow (Yarrow, British Columbia, Columbia Press, 1964)

Appendix B: Translated German and Russian Poetry, by Cornelius A. Klassen

Cornelius Klassen wrote most of this poetry when he was around 20 years of age while at the Pedagogical Institute at Halbstadt Zentralshule. He was to take his first teaching position in the Crimea after his graduation from the Institute in 1904. The poetry was in mainly in German, with some Russian, and was penned to the introduction of his diary which spanned Sept 1904 to September, 24, 1908, and January 1913 to December 1914. Obviously, the translation will not do just justice to the intended rhyming and meter of the poetry, but an attempt is made here to match the lines in the original manuscript with the English meaning.

April Children of the Years 1903 and 1904

Note: This is how I decided to compose these verses. By nature I was a loner, so I withdrew from others to study classical literature. Here I found much that suited my circumstances and I felt there was a vein of dignity in me. I set about on the slippery field of poetry writing and began to make up rhymes.

It seems as if the names Goethe and Schiller demand respect. Why should not a spirit like Schiller be in the cloak of a Klassen? Now if this were reversed, namely that in Schiller there was a spirit of a Klassen, then the very smart people (I have heard they call them philosophers) would say, “Well, that fits together like a golden ring in a pig’s snout. Be that as it may. If it were reversed, so much the better for me. So in a leather-like husk lies a golden kernel. If my accomplishments be unappreciated I will not dispute that. If this were reversed, as stated previously, just so much the better for me. If my accomplishments go unappreciated, that is lot sometimes of great personalities.

In the following rhymes there is a tragic feeling the reader will perceive and therefore should graciously make allowances for this. I call this collection “Fragments of a Great Confession,” for much will not be evident here. If you, my reader, find nothing in all these verses that is worthy of thanks, at least give me credit for what I have withheld:

April 1904


We departed calmly and silently.

We had to say goodbye.

And did not know why.

And wherever I roam

It haunts me, calmly and silently

That we had to say goodbye

And did not know why.

It is a sorrow that one must depart from those you love the most.

The Lonely One

April 1904

In all the treacherous world turmoil,

One does not have any true joy;

Therefore I search for my heaven

In deep silence and lonesomeness.

My Consolation

1. In a secluded glade

Beside a babbling brook

I sat for an hour

Musing on my troubles.

2. The last rays of the sun,

So golden and so beautiful

Rested on the hills

And painted the evening sky.

3. Even the green meadow

Was splashed with golden hues

And a small breath of air moved the grasses


Cool and indifferently.

4. This tranquil scene

Calmed my troubled heart,

And gave me comfort

For my deep sorrow.

5. I did not linger too long

But rose with vim and vigor.

For I had left my sorrow

And peace came to my soul.

6. So I returned

Full of joy to my home,

And since that moment

The feeling of peacefulness sprouts.

7. And now, when this happiness flees

Away without reason

I return again to

Mother Nature for comfort.

8. And she has given me

The best medicine,

Comfort, peace, joy,

And life as though born anew.


The godly desire of my heart nags me day and night; in activity or musings it plagues me.

And this continues in dark of night as in light of day. I see many sorrows, and there is no peace in sight.

My happy spirit is forever gone, and the light of joy will not be found in me.

A seeker without rest, I am always on the way, looking for peace of heart and mind that I cannot find.

Whoever gives in to loneliness will soon be alone indeed. Other live and others love, but leave him to his agony.

Winter in February

One more time he blusters, and tries unashamedly to prevent Spring’s arrival.

But he has no lasting hold, and his efforts are not to be taken seriously.

Soon a gentle Spring breeze arrives, and he is chased away by flowers and blossoming trees.

So, Springtime do not delay long. Come take away the blanket of snow and ice.

Then February is naked, and must quickly hide.


Life’s shining moments are friends who do not flatter us, but whose genuine acclamation lifts our spirits.

The Censor (Free Fantasies)

1. Deep silence reigns in a small room in the glow of lamp light. The poets sit each one with ready pen and wrinkled brow. They begin to write frantically. Only the ticking clock breaks the reigning silence. And only the pens complain when a letter must be corrected.

2. .Suddenly the writing stops. The poems are read. Pleasure and life, peace and contentment are only found in loving. If you do not love a sweet maiden, you will find no happiness. Therefore, young man, find love. Treat her with tenderness and she will surely bring you happiness. Though the maiden excites you, what is love without wine? Nothing could be worse. Therefore, my kinsman, we will pursue love and wine. Ever sipping either lips or wineglasses.

3. Again silence in the small room, and the poets nap. Suddenly a censor comes in, to be an uninvited critic. He takes the poems and reads by the light of the lamp, and begins writing, “Stupid jackass, old codger, that is what you were and are. For the story of love and wine, fifty lashes are not enough.” Censor wants to disappear after this—rascal of rascals. He is afraid!

4. But the anger about this event will bring its reward. Gracious muse, usually gentle and fairy-like, now shows the fury of the bottle. The poets sit, still asleep, but the muse must protect them. The critic decides to humiliate the poet. He boxed his ears, once, twice, three times, so that he will know his power. But the muse is unperturbed, and engages him in a fight. “Have mercy,” cries the critic. The muse continues to beat him blue. Finally it is enough. The muse comes to his senses as the critic flees, breathless, a poor wretch.

5. The other poets fall at his feet, thankful for his work. The poet is persuaded to take his pen and write. “Take note of the lesson, petty-minded critics. Honor the literary; endeavors. Insult the poet, and he will demand compensation. Remember this, fault-finder, at all times—penance is bitter.” The poet bows his head and makes a gift of his poetry. Others vanish, and poet is alone in his small chamber, contented with his poetry.

To Someone I Know

German maiden, with rosy cheeks, let me find, in your blue eyes, solace and comfort to succor me. End my sorrow and my longing. When I first saw your golden hair, it was your voice that enthralled me. Oh, why must I hold back. But one thing she has given me—the joy of meeting her. But also she brought me only sorrow. Sorrow in my life.


1. On a lonesome trail in the darkened woods a bloody body of a dead man lay. A shameless murderer, he looks for money and then flees in the dark forest. The winds come up, blustery and strong. Is no one following the criminal?

2. Fleeing and driven by the howling wind, with fleet foot he finds a thicket. It seems he hears ghostly music from the tree tops, frightening him. The storm increases in fury and around him.

3. The restless fugitive leans on an oak tree and hears a gruesome admonition, “You scum of mankind, retribution is near. You will die for this murderous deed!” Scarce had he heard these words, and the forest groans menacingly.

4. So the fugitive stumbles away in a trace, and flaming fire sears his heart. He draws his dagger—no one is near—and with one blow he falls in the snow. This is the result of the howling wind. The fugitive lies unnoticed in the forest. In my heart I have a gnawing pain, as though my breast will burst. Wherever I go, wherever I lodge, it will not leave me. It disturbs me when I am with my love, as though I long for healing. And when I look deep in her eyes I want to run away. I flee to the deep forest where I can be alone. And when I arrive I can only stand and weep.


Out of sorrows can come joy. Joys can come from sorrows. Was there no respite from both? Did not sorrow follow joy? Did nothing warm a man’s heart? In life, after tears, there is often laughter. Tears are also on the vine, but in spite of tears, they give up pleasureable, golden wine.

A Tragic Comedy of Adventure

1. Solemn silence, by being, my emotions must be ready. I am seated deep in thought, for I shall bring forth verses. But it is not done by compulsion, but by relaxation. Solemn stillness in the small room, but I am light-hearted.

2. Now he awakens the poet, takes his pen and writes, “Drunk with rapture, but without love,” he quickly becomes despondent. When I came home Sunday, it was only an annoyance. I understand, unfortunate one, as looking through a window—absent as it were. (I found this very disturbing.) Mademoiselle, sweet and kind, and one damsel (not so tiny). Both had played the spy and had hoodwinked me.

3. “Miss Fine (?),” asks Klassen, “where can the key be?” He does not know where the key-ring once used is now. “I understand it unlocks the Schoolmaster’s room. He uses a screwdriver, as the mother of Miss Fine advised. Finally the screws release, and Miss Fine is very happy. They are happy in the small room. They both unashamedly read the story the Schoolmaster is writing. (Invader, be careful.) and they also find letters about tender love and sweet-talk. Now they frolic merrily and sing. Had I wings I would be there too. When the song is ended, they leave, locking the door properly. (I have enjoyed it a lot.)

4. Yes, I was disappointed. I reached home and wrote a different rhyme. “Lovely maiden, do not be shy. Flee loneliness, and do not pout. Be ready at all times to show respect. My hear is overflowing, so dear kitten, do not go too far. Good manners, well-controlled, and luscious lips create warmest feelings. All sorrow is gone—only the poem remains. O how dull it sounds, but it is good.


It seems as if I carry in my heart the whole kingdom of heaven. O deepest sorrow, O greatest joy, how much you are alike.


Wander alone in your pathway, calm your heart and do not despair. You will see much and feel much, of which no one tells you. Leave to others the dust of the street. Keep your spirits high, and clear. Let it mirror the sunshine on the vast ocean.


1. I love the day with its brightness.

I love life with all its noise.

The Springtime with its seedlings,

and the lovely nightingale.

2. The day of blessings is gone.

My charming May is past.

And midnight, after delightful rain

Has silenced the song that seemed so new.

The soul longs for the flow of morning,

My weary soul errs day and night, but fierce storms do not mirror my failings.

The Two Debtors

One debtor met another in a tavern. He heaped fire and brimstone on him and he returned in kind, instead of slipping away quietly. They left, as debtors do, and finally John angrily called out, “Karl, if you do not repay me at once, I will find another way to deal with you. I will give you one more chance, as I did today. Pay up, or not—it is up to you.”

The threat seemed ominous, so Karl quickly pulled out his wallet, and asked, “Now tell me what you have already done today? Have you by chance killed someone?” “No”, said John. “I will tell you what happened. Earlier in the tavern I met another rogue, and we had an altercation. (He was a bit giddy) and I finally landed a blow on him. I must have been giddy too!

Morning in Spring

(By a babbling brook, Russia, 1904)

Heavenly blue skies, daydreaming in the green meadow, so calming to the spirit. The profound silence penetrates my being, and I have found a priceless treasure in undiscovered peace. O for such a peace, great Creator, I thank you always.

This I Cherish

(Written in the Fall 1904 when he began his first year of teaching in Tokultschak, Crimea)

1. A small room, with white curtains, a happy couple with a cheerful outlook only having money for the necessities of life. This is a picture I like.

2. If the two of them had their eyes only on the comfort of home, and in their household, there is always order. That is a picture I cherish.

3. If as parents they maintain their unity, and keep their children from going astray, then they are ready to conquer the world. This is a goal that pleases me.

The First Venture

Lovely is the sound of the piano—the teacher is nearby. But there is no sound coming from the instrument.

Lovely it is, mother in the room nearby. It is also silent, so she slips to the door, and she quickly opens it. Having pity she becomes aware of his hopelessness.

He blushes to his ears, and cries out “This is terrible, now all is lost.” However, he caresses her cheeks. “In contrast, my loved one now all is found.”

Those Foreign Languages

(From Youth)

The German man has troubles. He gladly accepts foreign words, saying them in German accents. He impo= defi= dego= niert. He iso= gratin= defi= liert. He da= zi= dik, and also =firt. He defi= inspi= exer= iert. He bomba= degra= exello= diert. He bug=zen=fri and ami=miert. And you, bedeviled ier – rei may take your ornamentations—the languages’s alliterations and education’s parade. O Goethe, if you had lived at this time when people twist the languages, and broken fragments permeate, you would have raised your fist at them. Man errs as long as he lives.


Carry courageously your burden

And practice laughter diligently,

Even though you haven’t much of happiness

The world will not give it to you.


You must always, as mother did, remind yourself that you are of this world, and though its sound benumbs the senses, it is a floating feeling.


What love can desire, love can give freely,

When love leaves something to be desired it will gladly be borne. All the failings, all

the errors, love knows how to disregard them. It bears with pious demeanor all the

sorrows and debts of earth. And towards the loved one love can cover up every flaw.

Yes, to freely forgive love hurries to forget the wrongdoing.

What can bear it better than the human heart? Who can tell if it be happiness or sorrow?

Many have passed on in joy, and suddenly.

But when the heart is heavy, death is not so easy.

One becomes old and gray with hidden sorrows.

The heart must keep on beating come what may.


It is so dreary on a winter day when the sun is not shining. But there is no sorrow so great that time cannot heal, no sorrow that lives forever.

Children’s Voices

February 1906

When I hear children’s voices ring, I see the colorful crowd running gaily about. I think of my own childhood. No clouds were in the sky, no sorrows bore down on me. But now, in these troubled times, my; childhood seems a dream. A dream in which no cares beset us, for there was much of good in our life. And now I longingly think of that paradise of long ago.


O, do not think you are so important in the great plan of the world that if you fail, it will fall apart. The world has seen its best be lost, and no one foretold it. Whatever may distress you, O heart, do not be discouraged. The golden day will come and drive away the gloom of night.


I am here in a strange land, quite alone, and though people are friendly, I need my home. And though I grasp a flowerette, and planted it—a rose bush. Love—ah love is needed. Why must my tears flow? My youth has matured quickly. Now I am alone in the morass of the world. What good is pomp and sunshine? I need love—just love.

The blossoms caught by an icy wind died overnight. This erring child, in loneliness, has gone down to ruin and died. He sought diligently for happiness, but has remained somber and sad. Zeal has escaped him. Love—ah love.


I have looked into your eyes,

I have “tested” your heart earnestly,

I sought a heart full of love

And found it in you, only.

I did not seek riches and fame.

Nor did I seek glitter and gems.

I sought for a heart full of love

And found it in you alone.

Whoever has loved cannot forget.

Who does forget has never loved.

Who has loved, and still forgets

Has forgotten how to love.

So you can forget too,--

Yes, I can forget too,--

Can forget that you forgot

But I cannot forget you.


It is sorrow that one must depart from those you love the most.

Appendix C: Genealogical Jottings

Perhaps the first Klassen may have been Johann Klassen. This may be verified at some later date. The reason one makes this judgment is that it was the custom in the German Mennonite community to give the father's forename to a son. Abraham Johann Klassen represents the first in our ancestry to appear on our genealogical chart.

Abraham Johann Klassen, b. August 9, 1850, in East Prussia

d. 1922? typhus epidemic, Kleefeld, Molotschna Colony, Russia

  • Married, Cornelia A. Toews , b. June 20, 1860, in Tiegerweide, Molotschna Colony

d. 1936? Gnadenheim, Molotschna Colony, Russia

  • 6 sons, 4 daughters and 26 grandchildren

  • Relatives:

In-law: (1) G. Loewen (referred to as "Uncle" in Gerhard's diary, 8/26/06)…possibly Abraham or Cornelia Klassen's brother-in-law; possibly married to Helena (Klassen or Toews); she had 4 brothers and one sister; she also had one son who was living in 1969 who was married to a Lena, and would have had the surname Loewen; they had four other children who were deceased in 1969; (2) Cornelia's sister: Anna Toews Enns who had a daughter "Nellie" or Cornelia whose married name was "Nellie" Isaak; (3) Possible brother of Cornelia: "O. Toews referred to in Cornelius' diary, 6/9/1913 and 12/23/1914 and a reference to an Aunt Toews who lived in Waldheim (Molotschna Colony), 11/17/13; also a Peter Toews and wife from Waldheim (3/20/1913), a teacher “brother” as Peter Toews listed in Waldheim in Huebert’s Historical Atlas, p. 42); (4) Another possible brother of Cornelia: K. Toews who takes Grete and Cornelius back to the R.R. station, 7/28/1913; (5) A brother of Cornelia named Abram Toews had a daughter named Cornelia (Nellie) 7/28/1913… Cornelius refers to his brother-in-law who was named A.Toews who lived in Tiege in the Molotschna and died from appendicitis; married to Olga Penner Toews??? (7/28/1913) (11/2/1913) (11/17-18,1913)…on his side this would have to be a husband of one of his 3 sisters--Cornelia Willems, Leise Wiens, or Anna Doerksen, to whom this cannot be documented; (6)Kornelius K.Toews mentioned as being in Tiege, 7/28/1913; 7/29/1913, “drove Cornelius to the station”; also listed on the 1914 Huebert map, listed as the person that represents the Tiege village council on 1911 village issues….he also built a brick factory in Tiege in 1908; (7) After his 1910 marrriage to Grete Funk, he greets an Aunt Peters (Peter Peters?) 5/23/13

  • According to tax records of the 13 Molotschna villages in 1873, Abraham may have lived in Tiegerweide, 4 1/2 miles north of Kleefeld, before he bought in farm place in Kleefeld

  • The family lived in Kleefeld…had apple orchards, wheat, and corn fields

  • He was a farmer but wanted his boys to get a good education

  • Had a threshing machine…daughter, Anna, kept the horses going around and around

  • Cornelia begged her son-in-law Bernhard Doerksen (No. 10 Anna's husband) not to leave them for Canada because Abraham and Cornelia could not emigrate with their mentally retarded daughter Marichen

  • Have photo of wagon and home of "Abram Klassen" at Kleefeld in Walter Quiring's In the Fullness of Time (I963)…there was a diary operation in the barn in the background. The young people are on their way to a picnic and May Festival…May 6 was Cornelius' birthday; Ascension Day; and the birthday of Czar Nicholas II.

  • Selected references to sending letters to his "parents", "mama" or "papa" are in Cornelius' Diary: 10/13/05; 1/15/13; 1/29/13; 2/2/13; 3/9/13 "sell the mill for a store"?; 3/10/13; 3/12/13; 4/23/13; 11/27/13

Progeny of Abraham Johann Klassen and Cornelia A. Toews Klassen

(6 sons and 4 daughters)

No.1--Cornelia (Nellie) Klassen, b.1877?

d. 1920's? (Have photo at her death in her 40’s)

  • There is a listing of a Cornelia, 8 yrs.of age with a father's name of Abraham in the 1883/4 School Register, from Mariental (eastern Molotschna Colony)…doubt this is a reference to her

  • Married, Peter Johann Willms, b. April 26, 1869; listed in the Molotschna School Records, 1884 to 1894

  • A saintly woman who led the ladies choir…also a prayer warrior

  • The family lived in Kleefeld

  • In 1933, while in their 50's, her family lived in the Caucasus (anonymous female letter writer to Dad, 9/27/33) with their entire family and the Peter Wiens, Jr. (Elizabeth Klassen) family

  • Referenced in Cornelius' Diary: 2/8/13; possible reference , but more probably Grete's half brother who was also named Peter Willems who lived in Bogdanoski, 2/21/1914

  • 4 children:

(l) Abe: b. 1907 (3 years old in 1910)…perhaps named after his grandfather…possibly the

first born…lived with his grandfather and grandmother, Abraham Johann and Cornelia Klassen for a while... he played with our father on the Kleefeld farm when our father accompanied his parents while visiting there…lived in Astrachan on the Volga River near the Caspian Sea… wounded in W.W.II…spent 18 years in Siberia, probably in a concentration camp…(have 1960’s photos of him and a separate photo of his daughter)

(2) Peter Jr.: there is a photo of him in the Harder letters, p. 41 and p. 96 as a Kleefeld mixed choir member in May 1925 and a Kleefeld male choir member around l926… while in Kleefeld his farm was liquidated by the Soviets in 1930 and in 1931 his house was converted into a pig barn, as noted in the Harder letters, p. 115, 118, 120, and 159… in 1933 his family was living in the Caucasus, which may have included his Dad Peter Willems… they lived with the Peter Wiens, Jr. family (Elizabeth Klassen Wiens)… also lived in Pavlodar near Omsk… the Harder letters on p. 185 indicated that he disappeared during W.W.II.

(3) Willie: b. Dec. 3, 1909… lived in the Crimea…also lived in Kleefeld and there is a photo of him as a Kleefeld male choir member around 1926 on p. 41; married Bertha Metzger whose original roots were in "Liberia"(?) according to a letter written to Dad, 9/27/33…she lived near his Aunt Liese Klassen Wiens…he was a translator with the German Army…left his wife in the USSR and married his cousin, Gretal Epp (b. Sept. 5, 1926) who was in a Mennonite refugee camp in Gronau, Germany, around 1949 (have photo of the couple)…they had two children: Lucy (b. May 17, 1950) and Victor (b. April 4, 1952)…(have a 1972 photo of Victor at 15 yrs. of age with his mother)…the daughter married Miche's son (Elizabeth Wiens' daughter (see below, 2nd cousins!)…the notation in the Harder letters, p.185, that he disappeared in W.W.II cannot be correct, or it is a different Willie Willms!...our relative moved to Australia where he died.

(4) Cornelia (Nellie): b. Jul. 20, 1912

No. 2 or No. 3 Elizabeth (Liese) Klassen, b. February 26, 1879

d. 1946 or 1949 "a very hard death" in Alexandertal, Molotschna Colony

  • Married on April 22, 1907 to Peter Peter Wiens who was born Nov. 14, 1869… listed in the Molotschna School Records, 1884-1894 …died in Kleefeld of consumption (tuberculosis), Sept. 21, 1922

  • Referenced in Cornelius' Diary: perhaps 3/9/13; 4/11/13; 7/9/13

  • 4 children:

(1) Liese: b. June 10,1908 [John Harder and Gerhard Dyck list the birth date as June 10, 1908] …mentioned in the Harder letters in Kleefeld in 1927 on p.,56, p.57, and p. 99 as the 1st person on the right… was married to Heinrich Wilhelm Unrau [Unrovou] in November 1928…lived in Dgetagorneckeu Kustansk?, Kazakhstan or about 100-200 miles from Tashkent (now in Uzbekistan)…in 1944 Gerhard Dyck met Liese Wiens Unrau near Loge, Poland with her 3 young daughters , ages 8 to 14…during this trek in Germany, Liese was separated from her daughters…they were believed to have been taken in by a Polish family…1989 she lived near Miche's son in Alma Ata, Russia (now in Kazakhstan)…spent time with cousin Lena Peters in Germany during World War II until forcibly returned to Russia (see notes under John Klassen)… she lost 3 female children during this World War II time, Anni, b. 1933; Henriette, b. 1936; and Helga, b. 1940… in 1956 it was noted that she had a late interest in religion…also noted that she was using her maiden name in the 1956 correspondence…(have a 1968 photo of her with her brother Peter and his wife Alice Wertmiller)…in 1979 she still had not found her children…she did not want to go to Germany when her sister who left Russia in 1987

(2) Maria (Miche): b. Oct. 7, 1912 (writes that she was 77 in 1989) [John Harder lists her birth date as July 20, 1912]… lived in Kleefeld…have photo of her in the Harder letters, p. 82 , 89 in 1929 with the Kleefeld mixed church choirs, and p. 99 in front back of her sister Liese… married to Jakob Klein, a divorced man…in 1933 they lived 10 miles from "Frank and Anna Toews"…in 1941 suffered with her boys born in 1934 and 1939; husband died in 1942…in 1956 a resident of Kyemanaumen (?)…have photo of Miche with two young sons; they are Waldemar[Voldya], a teacher, who married Maya and had 2 children and Heinrich a machinist, who was born in 1972 and later had 3 children)… one of the sons married Willie Willems' daughter, a 2nd cousin!…Miche married a Russian….lived in Moscow…late in life became a Christian…Miche writes about "Grandpa Abraham Johann Klassen and family" 70 years after his death…she must have been no more than 10 years of age with the memories of her grandfather since he may have died around 1922 from typhus…in 1974 she was living with her sister Liese Weins Unruh…inference from one of her letters that she did not live among the Germans…in July 1987 moved to Nurnberg, Germany where her daughter-in-law's parents lived…she lived with her son and wife and her 3 sisters and brother who lived in the area… her other son was a teacher of math and physics in Alma Ata, Russia, in 1987, having graduated from the university there…lived near her sister Liese…she died in Nurnberg, Germany.

(3) Peter: b. Jan. 17, 1910 (13 days earlier than the current calendar)… married to Alice Wertmiller (b. 1917)and her daughter Mina or Minnie, b 1940…lived in Kleefeld…photos of him in the Harder letters in 1926 and 1929 in the Kleefeld male choir and the mixed church choir on p. 41 and p. 99, 1st person from the left…in 1933 they lived in the Caucasus as did the Willems' family (letter written to Dad, 9/27/33)…he had deserted from the Russian military according to the anonymous female letter writer to Dad from Russia, 9/27/33…had 4 children together: Elrisa, 1947; Reinhold, 1950, Paul, 1953; Victor, 1956…(have a photo of the entire family which Gerhard Dyck sent) …in 1956 he had not had any communication with his sisters for 20 to 25 years until that year!…in 1974 he was 65 years of age…the Harder letters on p. 185 indicate that he died in Kazakhstan

(4) Anna: b. Aug. 17, 1918 (Julian calendar)…pictured on page 65 of the book “From Kleefeld with Love” standing in her school picture, the sixth person from the left with a tilted head…referenced as having finished school in 1933 (15?) by the female letter writer from Russia, 9/27/33, in a letter to Dad…married a Reinhold…had 2 daughters…in 1974 she was 56 working for 70 rubles per month…she was sent to place, l00-200 miles from Tashkent, in Kazakhstan

No. 2 or No. 3 Mariechen b. Dec. 1878?

d. 1930?

  • "small and mentally retarded and very deaf"; presumably had Down’s syndrome

  • Referenced in Cornelius Diary: 2/2/13; 3/9/13; 4/11/13; 12/3/14 "birthday"?

No. 4 Abraham Abraham b. March 17, 188l

d. 1924 "died from typhus epidemic"

  • First boy who was named after his father , as tradition often dictated

  • Listed in the Molotschna School Records, 1892-1896 (certificate, Sept. 11, 1895), as having gone to elementary school (1888? to 1895); he apparently entered school while living in Tiegerweide, 4 1/2 miles north of Kleefeld; the family must have lived in Tiegerweide before 1890 and then moved to the Kleefeld farm

  • "was sickly and lived at home in Kleefeld"; referenced as being in bed for 4 months in Cornelius' diary of March 10, 1913

  • Referenced the conversion to Christ at 32 years of age with younger brother Jacob, December 7, 1913

  • Married about 1922/23 for 1 year and 2 months to a former friend's widow who had 5 children; she too died in the typhus epidemic years

  • "Had visited his younger brother Jacob who also died from typhus; he got sick and died from typhus also [in 1924]"

  • Referenced in Cornelius Diary: 11/19/05; 3/10/13; 9/26/13

No. 5 Cornelius Abraham b. May 6, 1883

d. July 27, 1919

  • DIARY COVERING THE PERIOD: September 1904 - September 24, 1908

January l, 1913 – December 31,1914

  • Our grandfather's activities are covered in the attached account and briefly noted here representing his 13 years of teaching (and some preaching). His boyhood was spent in Kleefeld; listed in the Molotschna School Records, 1882-1896 (certificate, August 14, 1897) as having gone to elementary school, 1890? to 1897); his teacher training in Halbstadt Zentralschule, 1899?-1904); his first teaching position in Tokultschak Crimea, 1904-1907; and the northeastern part of Ukrainian Russia: Barvenkovo , 1907-1909; and Vassilyevka 1909-1912, which were villages in the Naumenko Colony; and Kantemirovka ,1912-1917. He became a farmer and joined his father-in-law, Peter Funk, and family, at Ljubimovka (Funk Chutor) in western Siberia near Issyl Kul in the summer of 1917. He died from the typhus two years later in 1919.

No. 6 Johann Abraham b. July 1, 1884

d. 1937…Arrested and shot in prison because he was an "enemy of the

government"; therefore his children were not allowed a decent education or have a decent job

  • (Possibly have a photo of him while in uniform when he was called into a medical service unit during WW I, September 1914)

  • Cornelius & Grete went to his wedding in 1909 during Cornelius' Easter break from school

  • Married to Lena… married at the time of younger brother Gerhard's funeral in Aug. 1910… stayed with his 5 children after Lena died… he sold his home in Ladekopp and moved to Gnadenheim where he met and married Aganetha (Neta) Martens Klassen (who wrote a letter to my father on Dec. 2, 1956)…Aganetha died in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in March 1963 at 69 years of age.

  • Lived in Ladekopp in the Molotschna Colony… was a carpenter who made beautiful furniture and was also a farmer

  • Had 10 children (6 - 1st marriage to Maria/Helene/Lena? Bestvater in 1910 in Ladekopp, Molotschna Colony…she died in childbirth with Jacob in 1922; 4 - 2nd marriage to Aganetha (Neta) Martens Klassen (1894-1963) in March 1923 in Ladekopp):

  1. Helena (Lena) Peters: b. Feb. 1911; married Bernard Peters in 1930…he was a teacher in Petershagen near the restored church we saw in 2000…he disappeared and presumably died in a concentration camp… Lena remarried a German POW who had been in Russian jail with her father, John… her family (mother, Mrs. John (Lena?) Klassen, her sisters Anna and Tina, brother Henry, and cousin Miche (Elizabeth Klassen Wiens' daughter and perhaps others) escaped to Germany during World War II… her mother Lena, and her cousin Miche Wiens were captured in the Russian occupied section of East Germany because they "talked too much" and were returned to Russia; her sister Anna and brother Heinrich escaped to the American zone in Berlin…Heinrich finally made it to Vancouver, British, Columbia (see below)…Lena Peters had 2 sons (Eduard (1933-1952) and Hugo(1936- )…(have 1944 photo of Lena with her 2 sons, as well as other photos of her husband and dogs taken during the Communist period)…others have said she had 2 daughters (Anna and Lea)…her son Hugo [Peters] Preu was born in Furstenwerder in the Molotschna Colony, …the Preu surname was undoubtedly used as a non-German surname when he became associated with the diplomatic corps during the Communist period… he had visited other eastern European communist countries and taught at Moscow State University…lived in Moscow until 1992…he moved to Germany and served as a scientist until 1998…he is suffering from Parkinson's ...his wife Nina and 15 year old daughter lived in Dusseldorf in 2003…I tried and failed to locate Hugo at Moscow State University when I visited there in 1970…his mother said that it was indeed fortunate that I had not located him, since he did not want contacts with western sources…in 1956 his mother Lena lived in Alma Ata…(have a 1970 photo of Lena when living there)…she died in 1979 from Alzheimer's disease

  1. Hans (Johann): b. in 1913…(have photo showing him and his wife Rosa with 4 children)…he and his wife Rosa had 6 children…worked as a veterinarian on the collective farms in the Molotschna Colony…died in 1985 (Anna Novak cites 1980)

  1. Abram: b. in 1917…married Helene Peters in 1938…worked as a tractor mechanic on the collective farms…died while in the Army in 1941or l942

  1. Gerhard: b. in 1919…when his father was arrested, he was released from Teachers' College…married Maria lived in Rotenburg, Germany...they had left Russia for Germany in 1992…have 3 sons: Victor still in Russia, Alexander, and Anatolie…Alexander and Anatolie worked in a Rotenburg mine in 1993… Anatolie and his wife Ludmila have 2 sons, 18 and 22 years of age (2003)…Gerhard died either in 1995 or 1996 in Germany

  1. Jacob: b. in Sept. 1921…lived in Tchelabinsk (Stelabimisk?) in the Ural Mts. area…had 3 sons… came to the Montreal Olympics while in his 60's (?)….died in 1985

  1. Heinrich: b. in Sept. 1922 "on the day his Uncle (Peter) Wiens died"… his mother Maria Bestvater died 10 days after his childbirth…his wife Annie Klassen lives in Clearbrook, British Columbia as do her sons Henry, Paul and daughter Erna Schram…the Schram's son Arnold and wife Marylin live in Toronto with their 2 daughters, Roslin and Nichol….Heinrich died in l987

  1. Peter: b. March 1924 in Gnadenheim, Molotschna Colony…had bought a farm from individuals that left Russia for Canada…lived in Tashkent, Kazakstan…resettled in Germany in June 1993 with his second wife Elisabeth and 2 daughters Klara and Anna…Klara died in 1998…Klara's son Waldemar is 17 years of age (2003) and takes care of his grandparents in Rotenburg, Germany…Anna's son and daughter are studying in Hamburg…Peter was 79 years old in 2003.

  1. Anna Nowak: b. May 9, 1926… married to Zdislaus Victor Nowak who had become a prisoner of war in 1940 at 18 years of age…when Hitler occupied Poland in Sept 1939 he "recruited these young people to send them to Germany to work on the farms and in the factories"…during this time Anna fled the Russians from Poland, where she was attending Teachers College…she married Victor Novak Feb. 9, 1946 in Bavaria, German…(have many photos of these early years)…they were able to get to the American zone in Germany and then to Kitchener, Ontario in 1948…Nowak's had 3 children: Goldine, Cornelia, and Edwin…Goldine born in 1947 married Jim Pankratz in 1969; Cornelia born April 20, 1948 who married Edward Peters in 1970; and Edwin born in 1954 and married to Karen Thiessen in 1976… Goldine and Jim have 2 children: Carmen born in 1972 in Calcutta, India, who married Jason Braun and living in Winnipeg…they had 2 daughters: Simon and Emma…Goldine's other daughter is Rachel born in 1973 in Hamilton, Ontario, who married Sam Ward in 1998…Goldine Pankratz, R.N. (my 2nd cousin) worked in Palm Village in Reedley, California where she helped take care of my Dad, George Klassen, before he passed at 90 years of age in 2002!

  1. Cornelia (Nellie) Kehli: b. August 14, 1928 at Gnadenheim…immigrated to Canada on March 15, 1973…in 1978 married a widower who died in June 1992 in Kitchener, Ontario…"has many of the old letters" as indicated by Anna Novak in a letter 7/4/03

  1. Katherine (Tina): b. July 1934…married to Victor Zinn in 1959…lived in Dushanbe, Tadzhikistan…went to Germany in World War II (See above)…the family returned to Germany in Dec. 1988 with their son Edwin and wife Valentina and baby son, daughter Lydia and husband Waldemar and Nelly, 5; Alex, 4; and son Arthur, 16 who is now married (2003)…all live in Rotenburg, Germany

  • Referenced in Cornelius' Diary: 10/17/13; 11/12/13? 4/22/14; 9/3/14?; 10/31/14; 12/4/14?; 12/30/14 reference to his wife Lena?

No. 7 Gerhard, b. 1887

d. August 20, 1910…23 years of age

  • DIARY COVERING THE PERIOD, August 20, 1906 - February 27, 1909

  • AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ACCOUNT, "A Review of My Past," August 30, 1908

  • A teaching colleague of Cornelius, both having taught in the Crimea for one overlapping year--Cornelius from 1904 - 1907 and Gerhard from 1906 - 1909

  • Gerhard resigned from teaching in 1909 to attend the Baptist Seminary in Hamburg, Germany; had to return in his first year to Kleefeld because of continuing poor health

  • As one might expect from two Crimean teachers, Cornelius had a very close relationship with Gerhard; when Cornelius married Margaret Funk in 1910, the year of Gerhard's death, their first child was named after him—my father.

No, 8 Jacob b. 1888?

d. 1924 in a typhus epidemic

  • Not married at the time of Gerhard's funeral in 1910

  • Along with his brother Abraham, he was converted to Christ in December 1913 at about the age of 25

  • He was finally sent to Minsk as a watchman in a forest unit, in lieu of military service; earlier he had served with the ambulance corps in the field of battle in 1914; he was sick for awhile in service and his brother Abraham visited him there; married after his service

  • Referenced in Cornelius' Diary: 7/9/13; 12/7/13; 12/27/13; 4/14/14; 4/25/14; 8/17/14; 9/3/14; 12/4/14

No. 9 Peter b. 1890?

d. l922 in the typhus epidemic (have a photo of him in the coffin at about 32 yrs.

of age)

  • Studied in Germany as Gerhard did… came home to Kleefeld for summer vacations; never married

  • Was in “uniform” at the time of Gerhard's funeral in 1910

  • (Have a photo of him around 1915 when he was about 25 yrs. of age with his sister, Anna Klassen Doerksen who was about 19 yrs. of age)

  • Was a bookkeeper in Millerowo in the Don territory while Cornelius was teaching nearby in the village of Kantemirovka in the northeastern part of the Ukraine

  • Also worked in Barvenkovo where Cornelius also taught from 1907-1909

  • Referenced in Cornelius' Diary: 10/7/13; 4/12/14; 10/2/14; 12/4/14; 12/5/14; 12/29/14

No. 10 Anna b. 1896

d. 1979 in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan

  • Estimate of the birth date from an 1898 photo where Anna pictured with her oldest sister’s (Elizabeth) child, standing with Abraham and Cornelia Klassen…they were about the same age

  • Born after Cornelia's and Abraham's 25th wedding anniversary… as a girl, helped in the threshing of wheat at her father's farm in Kleefeld

  • Lived in Kleefeld according to the Harder letters… she married Bernhard Doerksen, a teacher; his photo with his class is on p. 93 of the Harder letters… Doerksen was active in Kleefeld affairs and its local school as was noted in the Harder letters, p. 95 and p. 140… he was arrested most likely in 1937 and never heard from again

  • The Harder letters, p. 60, show that in 1927 she was active in a sewing Gnadenthaler sewing circle… after Doerksen was taken away she married a second time to a Mr. Kaverena, a vetenarian

  • Took care of her mother, Cornelia, and the retarded daughter, Mariechen… she and Bernhard lived with her mom and dad who, of course, were getting elderly and having concerns about taking care of Mariechen… Anna and her husband had planned to emigrate to Canada, but Cornelia begged them to stay in Russia to help take care of Mariechen!

  • The Bernard Doerksens had 2 sons: Ernst (wife Eva) and Adof(wife Anna)… Adolf is pictured as a student in 1930 under his dad in the Harder letters, p. 186

  • In 1974 she was near 80 years of age… lived in Alma-Ata after the World War II…visited by Uncle Nick Friesen on his 1992 trip to Alma-Ata., Kazakhstan

  • Referenced in Cornelius' Diary: 2/2/13; 12/5/13 references "her conversion to Christ"

1 As we found in 2000, the village of Kleefeld is no longer in existence, having been partially torched by fire by the retreating German Wehrmacht army during World War II

2 In 2000 we visited the Cornies Estate which was a showplace in south Russia during the Czarist times.

3 The author visited there in 2000.

4 Both Bev and I have socialized with him here in the East in the 1990’s!

5 I consulted with him in Hillsboro, Kansas in 1953 to work on my peace statement for the draft while at Tabor College.