Monday, November 30, 2009

Ancestors: Giving Thanks

Today I feel especially thankful for my ancestors. For the lives they lived, the examples that they set, and for the hardships that they endured. I've tried in various posts to 'liken' some of the recorded history that I've been able to read to my life - to make it more real. I've been reading 'They Seek A Country' by David V. Wiebe (pronounced get the idea I hope. ). It is a history of the Mennonites, which while not being strictly my ancestors, lived life's in close parallel to the Lutheran/Evangelicals in South Russia, and I think that they left their homelands for similar reasons and traveled along similar roads. I'm going to quote a few sections as the true experiences that are related here are so much more powerful and poignant than any imagining can be.

Anabaptist Hymn Der Ausbund, No. 31 (written in 1528 by Leonard Schiemer before his execution for his beliefs)

We wander in the forest dark
with dogs upon our track
and like the captive silent lamb
Men bring us prisoner back.
They point to us amid the throng
and with their taunts offend
And long to let the sharpened ax
On Heritics decend. (1)

I just can't imagine the memories that this must have brought to mind. It is hard to imagine this being sung in a church service. This was a long time back, and the Anabaptists during the time that this was written were in Holland. This is still before they were called Mennonites. Menno Simmons would leave the Catholic Church and join the Anabaptists and prove to be such a stabilizing influence and provide such comfort that they came to be called Mennists, and later Mennonites, in about 18 years.

The Bible salesman in 'O Brother Where Art Thou' utters a great truth as he beats Delmar and Everet with a good sized tree branch. He smacks Delmar and Everet looks up from his food and asks 'What's up Big Dan' and Big Dan says 'It's all about the money, boys' as he proceeds to beat them bloody. So often when you see people getting a beating in one way or another, it is all about the money.

So it was with the Prussian's and the Mennonites in the late 1500's and early 1600's, and then again with the Russians in the late 1700's. In Holland, the Mennonites were mostly farmers, and farmers that specialized in draining the low swampy land and turning it into productive farmland. As they move to Prussia, they moved onto lands belonging to rich land owners, and they were welcomed and made to feel at home. They were promised that they could have religious freedom, and not have to have their sons serve in the military.

The Mennonites responded by rolling up their collective sleeves and working hard for several generations. They drained large areas and put them under cultivation. They planted orchards, hedges, built homes and outbuildings. Often they were dairy farmers. In 1774 a census showed 80,000 acres in Mennonite hands.

Back to Wiebe:

"The native Prussians now became jealous of the thrifty Duch, who persisted in retaining their Low-German along with the required High-German. Both the State and the Church determined to stop the further expansion of these people. Towards the close of the eighteenth century (1700's) strict militatry and property laws were enacted. Military exemptions were withdrawn and heavy taxes imposed. Mennonites were forbidden to purchase land except from other Mennonites and they were not to propagate their faith aside from their own ranks. The Kaiser also decreed that children born out of mixed marriages could not be taken into the Mennonite ChurchFurthermore, the government collected fedes for the State Church along with other taxes from the Mennonites." (2)

About this time, Catherine the Great's (Empress of Russia) army was throwing the Ottoman Turks out of Southern Russia. Catherine was a German Princess and wanted to establish a hardworking, educated, loyal population in this area. She invited most of Germany to come and farm in the area, promising about 180 acres, 500 roubles to help estblish themselves, and 120 oak boards per family for building purposes. I don't know how much she promised actually, but that was the offer that found it's way to Prussia and tempted the Mennonites.

It wasn't that easy to leave. At first, only those with no land were allowed to go. It's always all about the money, and the land owners in Prussia didn't want their farms to empty out and go to weeds. The first contingent of emmigrants to leave Prussia for Russia consisted of 228 families. But somewhat like the handcart pioneers, these were the poorest and most unprepared of the population.

They left early in the year, before diplomatic permission had been given, without good leaders, without a doctor, and without a minister. They had bouts of disease and even starvation during their trip. Here is an old rhyme in Low-German that kind of tells the tale:

"Geprachet, gegeft un geborgt,
Genoamme un dan vada vaukofft;
So sen Foadiki, un Moutiki, entlich,
Fon Dietschlaund noam wille Russland geflocht.

Begged, given, borrowed, and taken,
Destitute, sick, hungry, and forsaken;
Thus father and mother fled from Prussia,
To the wild steppes of Southern Russia."
Free Translation (3)

Well, I've put off posting this because there is so much more to tell. But that can wait for another post. Sometime I think is would be a good idea to have our family reunion be a trek. We could walk along the old handcart pioneer trails in Wyoming, literally walking some miles in our ancestors shoes..... yeah, now you will think Lake Powell isn't so bad right?

(1) They Seek A Country' by David V. Wiebe pg. 19
(2) They Seek A Country' by David V. Wiebe pg. 20
(3) They Seek A Country' by David V. Wiebe pg. 23


Annie of Blue Gables said...

yeah, and your OLD wife will have to be left behind because her knee buckles every time she takes a step. But perhaps the fear instilled in what we were fleeing might just push on in spite of the kink in the muscle.
love you,

Sailor said...

I would never leave my DEAR wife and Best Friend. More on family separations in the next post.

pixiestylist said...

how awful! there is a REASON i was born here and now. geez. but like mom said.. the fear might be the push to help me through it. and so it probably was with many of those people. those poor amazing and strong people....