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Manitoba History No. 89

No. 89

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Manitoba History: Review: Gerhard Wiebe, translated by Helen Janzen, Causes and History of the Emigration of the Mennonites from Russia to America

by Henry C. Klassen
University of Calgary

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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The migration of the Bergthal Colony Mennonites from South Russia to Manitoba during the 1870s is an important part of the story of the beginnings of Mennonite settlement in this province. Gerhard Wiebe’s book. published in German in 1900 by the Nordwesten and now available in English for the first time, provides one view of this happening. Wiebe, a Mennonite born in South Russia and one of the leading bishops of the Bergthal Church, helped to persuade his people to emigrate and remained a guiding spirit in the group long after it reached Manitoba. As is to be expected. the approach he takes in his book is that of a man deeply involved in every aspect of the migration and of the settlement process in the country of his adoption. Moreover, as is fitting for a bishop. he remembers the ways in which God has made his presence felt.

In one sense the interest of his narrative lies in the candid description of his experiences. There were many anxious moments for him as he worked tirelessly to obtain an assurance from the Russian authorities that the Bergthal Mennonites could avoid military service and control their schools and later, once it became clear that this assurance would not be given, as he turned his attention to emigration as the only alternative. In the company of other bishops, the men with whom he usually acted he made a trip to Odessa to discuss with General von Todleben, the Tsar’s aide, the matter of safeguarding the schools. He went to Yalta and took part in a meeting with General Hase and General Kotzebue in the Tsar’s palace, at which the views of the Tsar on the question of military service were discussed. It was not long before the Tsar sent for him and unsuccessfully tried to cut him off from his brethren by offering him and his children anything they desired. Wiebe devoted a good deal of his time and energy to planning the move of the Bergthal community to Canada, and in the last stages of the preparations he brought his work in Russia to inappropriate conclusion by securing through General von Todleben the final permission of the Tsar to emigrate. The captain of the ship, on which over one hundred Mennonite families crossed the Atlantic, called upon Wiebe to assemble his people to pray when a bad storm blew up. It comes as no surprise to the reader that Wiebe, in recalling this event. reports that “we did what we could and threw ourselves on our knees and implored God in heaven for mercy for us and our poor children. God in heaven looked down on his defenceless children and saved the ship and the captain in this night.”

His experiences clearly left him with a deep consciousness of the love. power and wisdom of God. They also left him with an awareness of the lack of unity among the Mennonites in Russia and in Manitoba. Although he had an acute sense of his own unworthiness. which often became an obsession, he knew that he was endowed with a good mind. He listened carefully to the opinions of others, was extremely shrewd in his dealings with the Russian authorities, and was most trustworthy in the carrying out of his responsibilities. A man with little formal education. he bemoaned his failings as a writer. Yet he went at the task of writing this book. which had been laid upon him by his friends in the church, with much determination. hoping that what he had to say would serve to enlighten his fellow Mennonites as to their religious beliefs, their cultural heritage. and the freedoms which they enjoyed in Canada thanks to the generosity of Queen Victoria and the Canadian government.

Undoubtedly students of the history of ethnic minorities will be grateful to Helen Janzen for her translation and to the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society and Derksen Printers for making the work available.

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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