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A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789-1923

A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789-1923

David G. Rempel
with Cornelia Rempel Carlson
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789-1923
    Book Description:

    Rempel combines his first-hand account of life in Russian Mennonite settlements during the landmark period of 1900-1920, with a rich portrait of six generations of his ancestral family from the foundation of the first colony in 1789.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7721-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Maps and Genealogical Figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Background of This Book
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xxv-2)

    David G. Rempel’s posthumously published memoir/history of Mennonite life in southern Ukraine is a significant work grounded in close observation and distinguished scholarship. Set in the picturesque village and settlement of his birth on the banks of the Dnieper River near the Zaporizhzhian cataracts, where he spent the first quarter-century of his life, it spans the history of David Rempel’s extended family and community, from the first Mennonite immigration to tsarist Russia in the late eighteenth century until his emigration to Canada in the early 1920s. The work concentrates on the late tsarist and early Soviet period, which was a...

  7. CHAPTER ONE Two Russian Mennonite Families
    (pp. 3-12)

    I was born on 30 November 1899 in southern Russia (now Ukraine), in Nieder Khortitsa, a village in the Mennonite settlement of Khortitsa, often called the Old Colony. This enclave of eighteen villages, flanking the Dnieper River, was founded in the late eighteenth century by Mennonites escaping economic and political repression in their home region in and around Danzig. Over the following years the immigrants created a stable and highly prosperous agrarian culture, isolated to a significant degree from the Russian world surrounding them. However, as the nineteenth century ended, this Mennonite community underwent a series of transformations, similar in...

  8. PART ONE Father’s Ancestral Family:: The Rempels

    • CHAPTER TWO Cherkessy with Broken-Tipped Knives: The Rempel Clan
      (pp. 15-17)

      In Nieder Khortitsa the Rempel name, orRampel, as it was pronounced in Plautdietsch or Low German, which was the Mennonite mother tongue, was as common as Petersen in a Danish village or Jones and Smith in an American town. It was so common, and the choices of given names so small (Jaet or Jearad, Hendritj, Peta, Jasch, Jaun, Jehaun or Hauns, Welm, and Doaft were typical) that nicknames became identifying tags.¹ If, for example, a wife dominated family affairs, the husband was known as Susanna’s Rampel (Sauntje Rampel) or Greta’s Rampel (Jretje Rampel). Nicknames based on profession, trade, residence,...

    • CHAPTER THREE The First Three Generations of Rempels
      (pp. 18-24)

      Great, Great, Great Grandfather Gerhard sired two branches of the Rempel family that reunited a century later with the marriage of his great, great grandchildren, Gerhard and Maria Rempel (Figures 1 and 2*). This couple was my father and his first wife.

      According to family legend, this first Gerhard lived with Anna, his wife, and their son in a Mennonite community in or near the Free City of Danzig or perhaps in a village in the adjacent Vistula Delta. In the early to mid-1790s they began an overland trek via Riga towards a new home in southern Russia as part...

    • CHAPTER FOUR A ‘Better’ Class of Rempels: The Maternal Lineage
      (pp. 25-28)

      Although most of the Nieder Khortitsa Rempels had few aspirations beyond operating a successful farm, one branch of the family fancied itself as classy and certainly superior to the hoi polloi of their relations. Members of this branch of the Rempel clan (Figure 5) were Father’s distant cousins. As mentioned, one of these cousins – Maria – was destined to become Father’s first wife. Maria’s parents were Gerhard and Anganetha Rempel, who had built one of the most attractive farmsteads in the village. Yet despite the hint of superiority, we all maintained close ties. Even after Maria died, and Father...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Tribulations: My Paternal Grandparents
      (pp. 29-35)

      Grandfather Gerhard Rempel died a few weeks before my second birthday; thus I have no personal recollections of him, nor can I recall any relatives ever mentioning his name. Even stranger is the fact that my grandmother, although married to him for forty-six years, never mentioned him to me, even though I saw her almost every day until she died when I was fourteen. In fact, I never thought about this man until decades later, when I began this family history. Then, unavoidably, I found the family’s unspoken pact of silence puzzling.

      At this late time, I asked my brother...

    • CHAPTER SIX Father and His First Wife
      (pp. 36-42)

      My father rarely spoke of his childhood or teenage experiences, and I always surmised that he preferred to veil the memories of those times, and especially of his alcoholic father. The only occasions on which he discussed his early life occurred when I accompanied him to buy grain. After reviewing his notes on the amount and expected harvest date of wheat he had contracted that day, Father would stuff his notebook and stubby pencil into his breast pocket. Then, but only occasionally, he would talk of his past, perhaps opening up because my exasperation with these tedious treks reminded him...

  9. PART TWO Mother’s Ancestral Families:: The Höppners, Hildebrands, Kovenhovens, and Paulses

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Unjust Charges: The Fate of Jacob Höppner
      (pp. 45-49)

      With a magnanimous spirit fostered by decades of success, the Khortitsa colonists celebrated the settlement’s centennial in 1889 by erecting marble monuments over the graves of the two men who were instrumental in its founding: Johann Bartsch and Jacob Höppner.¹ The gesture must have seemed ironic and particularly poignant to the Bartsch and Höppner descendants, for the colonists’ gratitude contrasted sharply with the early settlers’ cruel and unjust treatment of these two dynamic men: the church shunned both, and the community forced Höppner’s imprisonment. The reasons the Mennonite settlers initially chose Bartsch and Höppner to negotiate for them, then later...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Mennonite Service and Supernatural Tales: The Hildebrands
      (pp. 50-57)

      The marriage of Jacob and Sara Höppner’s daughter Helena to Peter Hildebrand seems an unlikely alliance. She was seventeen, he more than twice her age. She was the daughter of the famous Mennonite deputy Höppner, he a recent convert to the faith. But he had one advantage in courting Helena: he was her father’s long-term friend and employee. Born and raised a Lutheran in Ladekop, a village near Danzig with a large Mennonite population, Peter had had extensive contacts with Mennonites, and began working for Jacob Höppner some time prior to 1786. The men’s closeness and mutual respect must have...

    • CHAPTER NINE Piety and Pain: Mother’s Paternal Ancestors
      (pp. 58-64)

      In 1832 Heinrich Pauls and Maria Kovenhoven joined in an ill-fated marriage that lasted until Heinrich’s death fifty years later. Both came from Rosental’s few Frisian families, and both were grandchildren of Kronsweide’s founding families who had arrived with the first migratory group – Franz and Anna Pauls and Filipp and Magdalena Kovenhoven (Figures 1, 11, and 12) – so their difficulties did not lie in incompatible backgrounds. Evidently the couple’s problems began even before the wedding. Maria was in love with a Lutheran man, but when her parents adamantly refused to consent to her marrying outside the faith, she...

    • CHAPTER TEN A Burdened Life: Grandfather Heinrich Pauls
      (pp. 65-74)

      Photographs of Grandfather Pauls show a man of serious mien, one burdened with heavy responsibilities, more involved in life’s disappointments than in its pleasures. One is a family picture, of Heinrich, his wife Maria, and their surviving ten children. It was taken around 1889 or 1890. The other is of him, alone, probably taken a few years earlier. In part, his demeanour must reflect the difficulties in caring for his mother during her final demented years. This responsibility, however, was only one painful aspect of the final two decades of my grandfather’s life. It combined with his disappointment in his...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Equanimity: Grandmother Pauls, 1901–1917
      (pp. 75-82)

      My grandmother Pauls’s years of widowhood were anything but reclusive or dependent. Normally, the Mennonite settlement’s Orphans Department (Waisenamt) assigned a Good Man (guter Mann) to advise widows with minor children on financial matters. Grandmother refused such help, asserting that she and the older children could successfully manage the farm as they had done throughout the years of her husband’s illness.¹ Only in 1905, when she negotiated the purchase and remodelling of a new home, did she relent and allow aguter Mann(her neighbour, Franz Enns) to briefly assist.

      Moving from the farm to her new house on the...

  10. PART THREE Boyhood

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Life at Home
      (pp. 85-101)

      My father and mother wed on 26 November 1891, and the new marriage radically changed the Rempel household. In the immediate sense this meant that Father’s three small children again enjoyed a mother’s love. In the longer view, it affiliated the Rempel clan with the Pauls-Hildebrand family, who had a deeper commitment to real or professed Mennonite beliefs, who were perceived to be of better social and economic standing, and who held broader cultural interests. Finally, the Pauls family’s knowledge of our Mennonite past and the reasons for migration to Russia fostered a keen sense of heritage in all the...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Father’s Occupations
      (pp. 102-111)

      For several decades Father maintained two businesses – buying and selling grain and running a general store. The grain trade was more lucrative than the store, but it was a seasonal business, occurring mostly between 1 June and 1 October (Pokrov)¹ or the middle of that month. During this time Father purchased wheat and barley from neighbouring Mennonite and peasant farmers, and resold it across the river in Alexandrovsk and Schönwiese. This essentially combined city was southern Russia’s most important inland port, as well as home to numerous banks and facilities for storing and milling grain. My father sold most...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN Apprehension Following the 1905 Revolution: Premonition of Chaos to Come
      (pp. 112-118)

      Bloody revolts broke out in 1905 following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. These were outbursts of the rage that had been seething among the peasants and the working class. After they were quieted, many Mennonites, and certainly much of Russia’s middle and upper class, remained concerned about the government’s long-term stability. Still, I suspect that few people could imagine how explosively that rage would erupt in another twelve years. Anyone with open eyes should have seen that the repressive measures the government used to restore order – for example, deploying Cossack troops against striking workers and rampaging peasants –...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Class Conflicts within the Khortitsa Settlement
      (pp. 119-134)

      At the time of the founding of Khortitsa, its settlers represented a fairly homogeneous socioeconomic group. In their home region around Danzig the heads of most families were small farmers, craftsmen, and skilled labourers. Records indicate that none of them were particularly affluent or powerful, nor any abjectly poor. Furthermore, since most families were granted the rights to an equivalent amount of land (sixty-five dessiatins, about 175 acres) in the new settlements, they virtually all started out on a relatively equal footing.¹ From the outset there were a few landless villagers, who occupied small cottage lots in the village. Over...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN Growing Interest in Education
      (pp. 135-148)

      Until nearly the end of the nineteenth century the education that the average Russian Mennonite student received was rudimentary. To be sure, it was superior to the offerings in the adjacent Ukrainian peasant villages and adequate to serve the needs of a future farmer or homemaker. Nevertheless, as the twentieth century neared, alternative careers to farming became important, and these required a broader grasp of languages, mathematics, history, literature, and/or technical skills. Over the next few decades Mennonites made large improvements in their educational system and created many new schools. This came about despite numerous obstacles presented by the government,...

  11. PART FOUR Fading Hopes:: War and Revolution

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Outbreak of War
      (pp. 151-159)

      In the summer of 1914 our family’s future looked bright. Grandmother Rempel had died the previous November, but her passing seemed as much relief as loss – her health had been failing rapidly during the previous year, and she had often expressed her desire for relief from life’s burdens. Otherwise, everyone in the extended family was healthy and in good spirits. The future of the eldest children seemed secure. Neta and her husband, Jacob Pankratz, lived in Arkadak and had avoided many of the difficulties that most homesteaders in the daughter colonies faced. Their eldest daughter, who had been frail...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Harassment and the Confiscation of Property
      (pp. 160-168)

      Our family lived in modest material comfort throughout the war. One issue did cause us great anxiety, however, as indeed it did every Russian Mennonite family: Would the government confiscate our property and/or exile us to the eastern territories? Even before the First World War some officials in both the government and the Orthodox church vocally opposed the colonists and their rich holdings. Then, as war broke out, the Russian ultra-nationalists gained further prominence, and as they did, colonist bashing became ever more virulent. By early autumn 1914, government corruption was obvious, as was its military unpreparedness. Certainly, tragic Russian...

    • CHAPTER NINETEEN Revolution and Reform: Challenges to the Old Guards
      (pp. 169-180)

      Most Russian Mennonites felt cautiously optimistic about their future as 1917 began. Rasputin’s murder the previous December had removed his malevolent influence over the royal family and its inner circle. In January the government ruled that we would not be subject to the expropriation decrees, so it seemed that our property rights were more secure. On 15 March the tsarist regime collapsed. The new Provisional Government quickly declared sweeping reforms in a Charter of Freedom. These measures included the abolition of the land liquidation decrees, removal of all limitations to Russian citizenship, and the enfranchisement of all men twenty years...

  12. PART FIVE From Dream to Nightmare:: Civil War and Makhnovite Terror (Makhnovshchina)

    • CHAPTER TWENTY The First Phase of the Civil War, January to March 1918
      (pp. 183-190)

      Three periods delineated Russia’s fratricidal civil war, at least as it affected the Mennonites in our area.¹ During the first phase, from January to March 1918, Bolsheviks made their first thrusts into our region. Ukrainian peasants, emboldened by the chaos and favourable decrees of the Bolsheviks, began seizing land. Thievery and banditry were commonplace. Although rapes and murders were rare, they did occur. Later even these crimes were common (as we see in subsequent chapters). Throughout the second period, German troops occupied the territory, giving Mennonites a false sense of security and hope for our future. Upon withdrawal of German...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Nominal Security under Foreign Occupation, April to November 1918
      (pp. 191-199)

      In late March and early April 1918, a few days after the advance guard of Germans routed Marusiia Nikoforova’s bandits, the main German occupation force, joined by a troop of Austro-Hungarians, seized Alexandrovsk. The entire Old Colony settlement experienced immense relief, and we were eager to feed and house these troops. That they spoke German no doubt added to the warmth of the reception, not least because the Russian government had proscribed that language during the war. Many villagers were thrilled at the idea that they might again buy farm implements and other goods unavailable during the war. The teachers...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO A Short Respite: Two Celebrations
      (pp. 200-207)

      In the tumult during the German occupation, our family managed to enjoy two joyous events. First, in June 1918 Mariechen married Heinrich Klassen, the son of a once-prosperous farmer, and few weeks later my Aunt Justina and Uncle Jacob Janzen celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary on the Wilhelmstal estate. Both events were striking portraits of life as it once had been.

      Mariechen’s impending marriage delighted everyone in the extended family, but especially Grandmother Pauls, Tante Sus, and the two bachelor uncles with whom Mariechen had boarded while attending high school in Rosental. She was almost twenty-four, an age tantamount to...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE The Civil War Deepens, November 1918 to September 1919
      (pp. 208-219)

      Defeat of the Central Powers on the Western Front led to the withdrawal of German troops from our area, as well. Their departure doomed the puppet Skoropadskii regime they had installed, and with its collapse, a power vacuum resulted. This, in turn, sucked each of the major factions of the civil war back into our settlement. During November and early December 1918 the fighting was mostly between the Whites (the counter-revolutionary forces led mostly by former tsarist officers and Cossacks) and the Yellows (led by the Ukrainian Socialist Petliura and so-called because of their yellow flag). Jumping into the melee...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Makhnovite Terror (Makhnovshchina): The Initial Stage, 21 September to 23 October 1919
      (pp. 220-226)

      In early September 1919, we hoped that order had returned permanently. The White Army’s rapid advances into the central guberniias of European Russia suggested that they might hold this ground. Father’s grain trade looked promising. By late August, the docks in Alexandrovsk were so loaded that he wondered where further shipments could be stored. The family’s educational prospects also appeared auspicious. Enrollment at Johann’s high school had increased substantially, attesting to its success. Jacob was now old enough to attend, and the location of the school in Nieder Khortitsa meant he could live at home. I went back to Khortitsa...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE The Height of the Makhnovite Terror: 23 October to 23 December 1919
      (pp. 227-232)

      Once the Makhnovites consolidated their forces on our side of the Dnieper river, their barbarity became boundless. Everyone in the region suffered, but the bandits unleashed their worst rampages on the Mennonites. On 26 October they killed more than 100 Mennonites in four villages and hamlets. My Uncle Heinrich Heinrichs (whose deceased wife had been my Aunt Anganetha Pauls) was among the first killed. The bandits stabbed or hacked most victims to death with sabres rather than fire shots that would warn other intended victims. The death toll in the Nikolaipol Settlement village of Eichenfeld was eighty-three or eighty-four. Eight...

      (pp. 233-240)

      No family in the Khortitsa Settlement, whether rich or poor, was immune to the horrors of the civil war. The most prosperous, however, were targets of one assault that the less-affluent among us were spared: kidnap for ransom. While the bandits readily saw they could squeeze nothing from our modest family, one abduction did threaten us when they demanded that Johann collect the ransom. Doing so imperiled his life.

      Johann’s saga began in September, when Makhno’s forces captured Alexandrovsk and its Mennonite suburb Schönwiese. Many of the wealthiest Mennonites in the settlement, particularly the owners of industrial and milling concerns,...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN Typhus: The Nightmare Legacy of the Makhnovite Terror, December 1919 to March 1920
      (pp. 241-251)

      Artillery fire, audible on 20 December 1919, presaged the Red Army’s assault on the White Army position in Alexandrovsk. Although we villagers were not eager for another Bolshevik occupation, we desperately hoped that advancing Red troops would at least force the Makhnovites out of the Khortitsa Settlement, because the bandits were infected with typhus. Transmitted solely by body lice from one person to another, epidemic typhus is an opportunistic disease which rages through populations living in the squalid conditions we endured under bandit control. Symptoms begin with chills, progress to fever, generalized pain and malaise, and in worst cases to...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT More Desperate Years: A Sketch
      (pp. 252-258)

      Our village, indeed the entire region, had barely recovered from the ravages of war, civil war, and epidemics when mass death again marched across southern Ukraine. This time it was famine and to an even greater extent than the carnage of the civil war, this scourge was indifferent to ethnicity, politics, language, or religion. It affected nearly everyone, high-born or low. Only a handful with political power could be certain of their next meal. My brother Johann described the horror:¹

      All rhetoric pales before the grim realities of the famine that ravaged the Ukraine in 1921–1922. I might torture...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 259-262)

    Few dates are so indelibly imprinted on my memory as 22 July 1923. It was the first day of my new settled life in Canada and the United States. That day marked the end of five years of social turmoil and family tragedy. That was the day my brother Jacob and I arrived in Rosthern, Saskatchewan. We were among the first group of Mennonites leaving Russia after the First World War, and virtually all of us were from the Khortitsa area, which during the civil war had suffered more than the other settlements.

    When the Canadian Pacific train that had...

  14. APPENDIX I Terms of Catherine the Great’s Recruiting Manifesto of 1785
    (pp. 263-263)
  15. APPENDIX II Mennonite Articles of Settlement in New Russia
    (pp. 264-265)
  16. APPENDIX III Special Privileges Granted to Höppner and Bartsch
    (pp. 266-266)
  17. APPENDIX IV Khortitsa Settlement Villages
    (pp. 267-267)
  18. APPENDIX V Nieder Khortitsa about 1917
    (pp. 268-271)
  19. APPENDIX VI Genealogy
    (pp. 272-296)
  20. Glossary
    (pp. 297-302)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 303-328)
  22. A Painter’s Recollection of Khortitsa, 1910
    (pp. 329-330)
  23. Index
    (pp. 331-356)