The Book of Mormon teaches that when the waters of the Great Flood receded, the American continent "became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord; wherefore the Lord would have that all men should serve him who dwell upon the face thereof." (Ether 13:2). And an ancient-American General blessed it to be "A chosen land, and the land of liberty." (Alma 46:13-18). Today, those prophesies and blessings have been fulfilled, and no other nation in the history of the world can boast the great freedoms which we enjoy today.
My ancestors came to America for religious reasons. On my mother's side of my family, the first of my ancestors who came to America did so to realize the Puritan dream of establishing a "City on a Hill." Others came to America to establish Zion first in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, then in the mountain valleys of Utah. Their sacrifice was great, and many suffered as they strove to find the freedom to worship God as they saw fit.
And on my father's side of my family, my ancestors came to America because they refused to carry arms and shed the blood of their brothers. They were Mennonites and had been driven from country to country in Europe until they found home in the Midwest.
In honor of my Mennonite heritage and the great nation in which we live which affords us so many freedoms and blessings of liberty, I am posting a History paper I wrote years ago about my ancestors, the sister of my great-great Grandfather Peter Pankratz, her husband, and their family.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mennonite history, here is a brief synopsis: During the Reformation, several men in Switzerland decided their infant baptisms were invalid because they did not have the option to choose for themselves. They were rebaptised, and thus the Anabaptist movement was born.
Among all the sects which emerged in Reformation Europe, the Anabaptists were the most radical. They actively proselytized their neighbors, and many rejected the authority of their secular leaders. As a result, the Anabaptists suffered severe persecution. Among the most radical of the Anabaptists were those living in the city of Munster, Germany. There, one Anabaptist leader claimed to be the prophet Enoch and Munster the city of Zion. They drove all non-believers from the city, but their neighbors retaliated and slaughtered the Munster Anabaptists.
After Munster, the Anabaptist movement needed leadership when a former Catholic priest, Menno Simons took the lead of the largest group of Anabaptists. He preached the need for the separation of Church and State, the importance of Faith and Works to gain salvation, and pacifism. The were known as the Mennonites.
The Mennonites gathered in communities and supported one another physically and spiritually. And because they were pacifists, they were driven from place to place. Finally, they were allowed to live in Prussia in the early Seventeenth Century. After one hundred years and prosperity in Prussia, the Prussian government demanded that the Mennonites give their sons to serve in the military.
Cathrine the Great of Russia, hearing of the Mennoites' prosperity in Prussia, invited them to come to the Ukraine and Crimea, which Russia had just acquired in the Crimean War.
Now, here is the paper:
Here, They Found Home
Early on the morning of May 1, 1875, Abraham Hiebert and his wife Helena awakened their five children and bid farewell to the home they held dear. Eva, their oldest, was only ten years old, and her young mind must have strained to understand why they had to abandon all they had owned for a distant land in the west.1 Alexanderwohl2 was the only home any of them had known. The village was recognized throughout Russia for its industrious inhabitants and superior agricultural output.3 Through hard work, many of the villagers, including the Hieberts, had become economically comfortable,4 but money was not on their minds that morning: here, Abraham and Helena fell in love and were married; here, Helena gave birth to their seven children; here, they buried two sons.5 The Hieberts were leaving their home and a myriad of memories.
Loading the last of their things into their wagon, they looked over their house and land for the last time. Abraham helped his wife and their six-week-old daughter into the wagon with the rest
of their children. Soon, they would be on the plains of Kansas with the family of Helena’s brother, Peter Pankratz;6 soon, they would have a new home. "Thus," recorded Abraham, "[they] surmounted the hill of Alexanderwohl with the rising of the sun, the state of [their] feelings at the last view of [their] long inhabited village . . . known only to God."7 The time to leave had come. A new day was dawning.
The choice to leave must have been heartrending for Abraham and Helena. It is difficult to understand why the Hieberts would choose to leave their home, but such episodes were not uncommon in the late nineteenth century Ukraine. Abraham, Helena, and their children were among thousands of Mennonites who emigrated from South Russia to the United States and Canada.8 Their reason for leaving was clear: Mennonites were devout pacifists, and in 1871, Czar Alexander II of Russia ordered all men within the boundaries of his empire to submit themselves to military service. However, he opened a ten-year window of emigration for anyone opposed.9 The decree outraged the nearly forty-five thousand Mennonites, and after several failed attempts to dissuade the Russian government, the only solution was emigration.10 Nevertheless, only eighteen thousand succeeded in fleeing.
While the reasons for emigration are evident, the fact that only one-third of the Mennonites migrated presents unanswered questions. Why did the majority of Mennonites remain in Russia, and why didn’t the Hieberts stay? The answer is simple. Although the Czar initially demanded that all men defend Russia and attempted to block the Mennonite emigration, the Mennonites were adamant in demanding exemption from combat. Therefore, the Russian government, unwilling to lose the hardworking pacifists, did all in its power to calm the fears of the Mennonites and to stop their migration through a series of concessions and roadblocks. Alexander’s attempts at reconciliation satisfied many of the Mennonites, while his roadblocks discouraged others from leaving. Russia’s actions were effective. The majority of Mennonites stayed. Yet, despite the government’s efforts, several thousand pacifists refused to tarry in Russia. Consequently, only the most determined Mennonites, including the Hieberts, emigrated to North America while the rest remained in their homeland.
Favors and Failures
The relationship between Russia and the Mennonites began in the late eighteenth century. Years before the conscription crisis, the Czarina Catherine, having heard of the Mennonite’s prosperity in Prussia, had offered them fertile lands on the southern steppes of Russia and freedom from persecution.11 Her offer—no Mennonite would be required to bear arms—was to have been everlasting. This assurance resulted in an immigration to south Russia lasting several decades.12 However, eighty-five years after Catherine’s promise, the announcement of a broken contract, lamented one young Mennonite, "[boomed] like lightening out of a clear sky."13
Despite Russia’s double dealing, the Mennonites refused to despair before they had done all they could do. Four delegations petitioned St. Petersburg to extend Catherine’s exemption, but the Czar would not revoke his resolution. All who lived on Russian soil would participate in the defense of its borders. However, to deter an exodus, authorities promised the pacifists that they would be given noncombatant assignments. 14 This did not satisfy the Mennonites. The Herald of Truth, a Mennonite periodical, declared that "[making] the instruments, and [preparing] the clothing . . . other men use in the shedding of human blood" was no different than killing.15 Devastated, the Mennonites decided to emigrate.16
But the Czar was not willing to lose such prosperous pacifists. Therefore, when Mennonites requested passports, they were refused.17 Nevertheless, Alexander resisted further estrangement from his Mennonite subjects. In an attempt to pacify them, the Czar sent General von Todtleben on a special mission to the Mennonite villages.
Anticipation must have filled the Hieberts’ hearts with the news that von Todtleben hoped to appease them. Perhaps they would not be forced to leave. When the general reached Alexanderwohl, the Hieberts and the village received him in the meetinghouse. However, von Todtleben quickly snuffed out Abraham and Helena’s spark of hope. He did not extend exemption, only adaptations: all Mennonites choosing to remain in Russia would not bear arms, but they would be assigned civil service as drivers, hospital orderlies, and foresters.18 Moreover, the general eclipsed the idea of emigration with a dark description of America.19 After a final plea for permanence, von Todtleben requested a prompt response and departed for another village. Abraham and Helena must have wept, but they were not alone. Neither they nor their neighbors accepted the adjustments.20 The sun was setting on their life in Alexanderwohl.
Nevertheless, Alexanderwohl was the exception. Dissensions followed von Todtleben from town to town.21 Emigration had lost its appeal. The first to accept the general’s offer were wealthy Mennonites unwilling to sacrifice their possessions.22 Had the rich bolted from Russia, they would have suffered staggering losses. Farms would have sold for only thirty percent of their value.23 Hesitant to forfeit their wealth, the Czar’s proposal convinced the wealthy of "[his] interest in their welfare."24 Other groups followed. Liberal thinkers, including a Mennonite missionary, claimed it would "yet be possible to worship God in spirit and in truth" despite civil service requirements.25 However, a third group, hoping to sell their property without suffering a loss, used the compromise to buy time before emigrating.26 Their hesitation provided an opportunity for the Russians to place several roadblocks in their paths.27
However, those from Alexanderwohl did not delay. Nine months prior to General von Todtleben’s visit they had requested authorization to leave, but no permission would be granted until the Czar had exhausted his options. Nevertheless, after von Todtleben’s failed attempt to discourage emigration from Alexanderwohl, the villagers asked that he help acquire their passports. He consented. On July 22, 1874, seven-hundred-eighty-six Mennonites forsook Alexanderwohl and fled, 28 but the Hieberts stayed. Perhaps they hoped to follow after several months, but Helena later realized she was pregnant.29 Pregnancy and delicate health postponed preparations to flee from Russia until March of 1875, but after the birth of little Helena, they petitioned the government and received their emigration papers.30 Alexander’s first roadblock was little more than a speed bump.
Other dawdlers were not as lucky. Government officials effected more laws hindering further migration. One, issued in 1874, paralyzed many of the pacifists economically. All Mennonite land owners were issued deeds, and for three years, the sale of estates to non-Mennonites was banned. For example, the Lord Mayor in Altonau31 declared all land sales made prior to the decree illegal. Farms previously sold were returned, forcing many families to postpone emigration.32 A contemporary edict withheld passports from all military aged men and boys.33 Soon thereafter, the Russians compelled Mennonite young men to harvest timber and plant trees while their parents built barracks.34 These roadblocks impeded the Mennonite exodus. Thousands more would have emigrated had obtaining permission to leave been easier.35
However, emigration was not impossible; the obstacles placed in the path of the Russian Mennonites simply became an excuse to stay home. Despite all the controversy and problems created by the government, the Czar’s window remained open several years for dissatisfied pacifists to leave. Moreover, the law detaining draft eligible teens did not prevent families in Russia from leaving. Ship lists from 1874 to 1885 reveal that dozens of young men dodged the draft by retreating to North America.36 Therefore, emigration was imperative only for those who vehemently opposed the Czar’s edicts of the 1870s, as did Abraham and Helena Hiebert.
Thus Abraham, Helena, and their children set their backs to Alexanderwohl, never to return. The night of oppression had fallen, and no lantern of compromise shimmered sufficiently to keep them in Russia’s shadows, nor could any obstacle obstruct their path. They sought freedom, freedom their homeland did not have. Yes, the Hieberts could have stayed with the thousands of others, but not in good conscience. Nothing in Alexander II’s power could placate or dissuade them from emigrating as it did other Mennonites. On July 24, 1875, Abraham, Helena and their family arrived in Kansas. Two weeks later they obtained land,37 and no Czar would be able to force them off it. Here, their children would fall in love and be married; here, their grandchildren would be born; here, they would be buried. The Hieberts had found a new home and future memories.
In dazzling irony, the sun had risen in the west and illuminated the Kansas plains.
Endnotes1. Abraham Hiebert, "Dieses Buch Gehoeret Abraham Hiebert Aus Alexanderwohl," trans. Rufus Abraham Hiebert, [photocopy] Holdings of Vernon Marion Pankratz, Tooele, Utah, 6.2. The village of Alexanderwohl was one of many in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna. Alexanderwohl was in what is now the Ukraine and was approximately sixty kilometers north of the Sea of Azov and eighty kilometers northwest of the port city of Berdjansk. Ben Boese, "Die Andre Kant," [photocopy] Holdings of Vernon Marion Pankratz, Tooele, Utah, 9.3. David C. Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl (North Newton, Kans.: Mennonite Press, Inc., 1974), 15.4. A detailed list of possessions and their worth is found in Hiebert, "Dieses Buch Gehoeret," 5-6.5. Hiebert, "Dieses Buch Gehoeret," 3.6. Peter Pankratz is my great-great grandfather.7. Hiebert, "Dieses Buch Gehoeret," 6-7.8. Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need; A Scrapbook About Mennonite Immigrants From Russia, 1870-1885, ed. Clarence Hiebert (Newton, Kans.: Faith and Life Press, 1974), v.9. C. B. Schmidt, "Reminiscences of Foreign Immigration Work for Kansas," Brothers in Deed, 451.10. C. Henry Smith, The Coming of the Russian Mennonites (Berne, Ind.: Mennonite Book Concern, 1927). For further information on the Mennonite situation in Russia, The Coming of the Russian Mennonites is recommended; in it, Smith addresses the conditions of the Mennonite exodus in general terms. The author is also explicit in enumerating all of the reasons the Mennonites chose to leave Russia, military service being the dominant factor. Moreover, his work The Story of the Mennonites (Newton, Kans.: Mennonite Publication Office, 1957) is an encompassing history of the Mennonites as a people.
Several other authors have discussed the emigrations from South Russia in the late nineteenth century and the subsequent settling of the Mennonites in the American Mid-west and Canada. David C. Wedel, in The Story of Alexanderwohl, focuses the lens of the departure to narrate the settling and history of New Alexanderwohl, Kansas; the first two chapters of the work are centered on the emigration of an individual village from the Ukraine.
Presently, Royden Loewen is studying the social history of the Mennonites who settled in North America; his work is concentrated primarily on the Mennonite pioneers after they had crossed the Atlantic and became established in Canada and the United States. His books Hidden Worlds (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 2001) and From the Inside Out (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1999) should be consulted for letters, senate debates, and other items pertaining to the emigration—Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need. The collection is an excellent resource of primary sources for any historian, professional or otherwise, interested in the Mennonite movement from 1870 to 1885.
Additionally, a study of Russian history during the late nineteenth century may also prove useful in understanding the Mennonite exodus. Two books discussing the life and times of Alexander II are Tsar-liberator: Alexander II of Russia, 1818-1881 (Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1983) by N. G. Pereira, and Tsar of Freedom: the Life and Reign of Alexander II (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968) by Stephen Graham.11. Smith, The Coming of the Russian Mennonites, 16-17.12. Ibid., 22-27.13. Peter A. Wiebe, "Father’s Diary," trans. David Wiebe, [photocopy] Holdings of Vernon Marion Pankratz, Tooele, Utah, 18.14. Smith, The Coming of the Russian Mennonites, 45-47.15. "The Emigration from Russia," The Herald of Truth, September 1876, Brothers in Deed, 305.16. Benjamin Ratzlaff, Jr., "Obituary of Bishop Benjamin Ratzlaff," The Herald of Truth, January 1875, Brothers in Deed, 212.17. Eugene Schuyler, "To Hamilton Fish (No. 168), 30 March 1872," Brothers in Deed, 11.18. Smith, The Coming of the Russian Mennonites, 95.19. Rev. H.R. Voth, quoted in The Coming of the Russian Mennonites, 94.20. Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 29. Although the majority of those from Alexanderwohl left for North America, some did stay behind.21. Peter Wienss, letter to The Herald of Truth, 22 March 1874, Brothers in Deed, 156.22. Unknown newspaper, Brothers in Deed, 316.23. "News from Russia," The Herald of Truth, January 1874, Brothers in Deed, 98.24. Schmidt, Brothers in Deed, 452.25. "Missionary" Dirks, "letter from Pankaten, Sumatra, 18 July 1872," Brothers in Deed, 158.26. Unknown newspaper, Brothers in Deed, 316.27. "The Disciples of Mennon Simonis," Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 20 March 1875, Brothers in Deed, 226.28. Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 29.29. Hiebert, "Dieses Buch Gehoeret," 3. When the first wave of Alexanderwohl migrants left, Helena was approximately ten days pregnant.30. Ibid., 4.31. Altonau was a town approximately thirty-six miles southwest of Alexanderwohl; Boese, "Die Andre Kant," 8.32. Abm. Goerz, "Extract from a Letter from Russia," The Herald of Truth, February 1874, Brothers in Deed, 115.33. Wienss, Brothers in Deed, 156.34. "My Buggy Ride," McPherson Republican, 1 May 1884, Brothers in Deed, 419.35. "Our Brethren in the Faith," Brothers in Deed, 307.36. Brothers in Deed, 151-152; 157-162; 167-178; 186-191; 199-200; 207-210; 237; 242-251; 258; 262; 287-297; 302; 320-323; 342; 347-352;359-362; 383; 391; 395; 403; 411; 423; 426; 429; 434; 442; 447.37. Hiebert, "Dieses Buch Gehoeret," 9.