Sunday, September 1, 2019

a Mennonite relative's story: Wilhelm (Bill) Jacob Siemens (Apr 15, 1896 - Mar 21, 1983)



Wilhelm was my great-uncle, a brother of my grandmother Agatha Siemens Martens.  His daughter, Lydia Siemens Beaulieu, transcribed  her father's story from his old-style German script. I, Elma Martens Schemenauer, translated it from Lydia's modern German into English. The photo shows him working as a medic during World War I. 

I, W. (Wilhelm) Jacob Siemens, was born in 1896 just before my parents (Jacob Siemens and Aganetha Bergman Siemens) wanted to move from south Russia to Orenburg.



In Orenburg Number 9 (Dolinovka), I went through the village school. By the time I was through, our elders had already built a high school in Pretoria Number 14, where it did not suit my father to let me go because we had a busy farming operation. In his view he had too few boys and too much work in harvest time. So even though my mother was very much in favor that I should go, I spent the year 1911 out of school.

     For 1912 my father and several other fathers had laid claim to a Russian professor. He was with us in the house as teacher, having 19 students, I and my brother among them. We wanted to continue this for 1913 also, but because other villages far away had laid claim to him in the summer, and because this was about 15 miles away, it was too troublesome for my father. So we passed another year. We had to work very hard, always shipping grain to the station, if not for ourselves, then for others.



In 1914, at harvest time, the Great War broke out. I had to go to the Turkish Front for three years as a male nurse. In the third year I got a paper saying that a medal was on its way, and that the second award notice would come about two months later.



Soon after, we became aware that the country was very unsettled. Shortly thereafter, one day, I asked my leading head doctor what was actually wrong. Then I was told, probably revolution. A short time later we knew it was revolution, but they didn't let us go yet. It took about two months before we were completely free to go home. Then we had to stay a full week longer because only one train came each day. There weren't enough tracks for more than one train. After a week of being laid up, a Cossack troop took us along, but only on the roof of their train. That was myself with five others; we were six nurses in all.

    The whole train was full of soldiers on the roofs, and so we drove off into the cold night. Because I had only dressy boots on, a couple of my toes were already frozen early in the night and I didn't know anymore what I should do.

    All at once we saw a fire some distance ahead of the train. When we got there, we saw that a little bridge was burning, a bridge we had to cross. So then we stood there, it may have been about two hours. I and my comrades all climbed off the train. One of them took off my boots, and I warmed my feet at an almost burned-up beam. Then one of my comrades opened his suitcase and took out a couple of very expensive, soft hand towels, and wrapped them around my legs and feet. Then I tore up one of my hand towels to tie these towels on, and I tied my boots onto my suitcase. And so we drove on through the night.

    Next evening we got to Batum. Then I put on my boots again, after they had cleaned my feet and put a plaster on. But here thousands had to wait in the big barracks, and so we also. The day before we had arrived, a ship had gone down because of a storm. So for a couple of days no ship had sailed, and so we also had to wait in the barracks overnight.

    Then we young nurses grasped what it meant. Revolution, no doctor, no general, no higher officer cared about us. Everyone was for himself alone, and so (when the ships began to go) we had to see that we got on. With a lot of difficulty, we finally arrived home on the twelfth day. We had to face a lot of terrible "wolves" along the way. But we six Mennonite nurses, through God's care, all came home, and I found everyone at home alive and well.



As I was enjoying being home with my siblings and parents, after a couple of months, they mobilized us again. I and a great number of others had to go right to our large city (where the front was then) between the Whites and the Reds (that was what the two sides were called then).


The Reds had taken control of the government in 1917. They were the revolutionaries. The Whites were against the Revolution. They were trying to overthrow the government.

--Elma S.


    Then our side took the city, and drove the enemy back even farther. But I and several other Mennonites didn't go along. We stayed in the city, and after about two days we were home again. Clearly my father didn't understand this well, and he was very uneasy.

    The next Sunday I drove to the village of Dejevka to visit. There we were a whole group of young people after Vesper (afternoon

lunch) in the shade of big trees singing and playing nice spiritual songs. We were just singing and playing the song: "How lovely to be a child of God, rejoice with us,  it always resounds forth again," and so forth. Then a girl called, "The whole village is being inspected. There are a lot of mounted troops in the village."

    Then a girl said to me, "Run to the hayloft." I climbed up but there was only a high heap of chaff. I quickly laid myself right beside it, and the girl poked only once into the stack, and it covered me so deeply. I lay there maybe an hour and a half and almost suffocated. They also looked at it, two men, but then they went away right away.



The next week the fathers in our village, and also in two neighboring villages, agreed that they would drive us all into the city, and that we should report for duty.

    So my father drove to the city with a lead wagon full of young men. When we got there, my father was so uneasy that he would rather not be seen by the officials. So I had to go all alone and talk it over, and the officials said I should go back quickly into the barracks where I was before, and never try anything like that anymore. Otherwise they would put me against the wall and give me the bullet. He (the official) was  not nervous just at that time. Otherwise he would have done it right then. He was perhaps by nature not such a bad man? God protected.

     Now I (Wilhelm Siemens) am leaving out a section.



I came home again somewhat later. And then, when they saw that the Whites were totally driven out, we were almost peaceful at home for a couple of months. Then all at once the Reds mobilized men again, and I had to come before the Doctor Commission once again. They let me go that time. I wasn't well enough. The morning before, my mother had said to me, "I've told God everything, and you'll be allowed to go free." And so it was. After that they didn't summon me anymore.

    In 1919 I got married. In 1920 three villages hired me on to take all the production from the three villages to the city, and to buy wares and groceries in exchange. In 1921 came the famine. Then I was always home with my wife and one child, except when I went from time to time to help out other sick people. In the spring, when we wanted to do some seeding soon, I lost my last horse. Then in the spring I cleaned up a piece of land where corn had been sown in previous years. I sowed that with wheat, which yielded 22 pud (about 16 bushels), and I had to hand over 11 pud of that (to the government).



In 1922 after Christmas, our whole settlement , actually our whole Wolost (district), hired me to fetch horses from Siberia for a lot of people. They sold their last horses at home and gave me the money, and I drove to Siberia with it. For most people I brought back two horses for the price of one, nice well fed horses. I had 12 or 13 men to help me, since we had to drive home with sleds from Slavgorod, Siberia to Orenburg. (See map, page 179.) The return trip with horses took us 42 days and nights. We came home with 201 horses (we had lost two).


Dad said that wolves got two of their horses.

--Lydia B.


     I wasn't actually expecting the kind of homecoming I received. But the old fathers, also the old mothers of the village kissed and hugged me with genuine love. It isn't good to describe. Here is a little memory of what my beloved wife said to me at that time, once we were alone. She said, "Yes, one can see you are worth a great deal to the whole village. They love you above all the people." Then she said, "Now I'll give you wash water, and you wash your mouth off. And then I want to receive a couple of kisses yet." It was also that way then.

    Yes, after the heartfelt kisses from my beloved wife and child, the conversation began. I wanted to know what my dear wife thought about food, since the cow we had was almost dry and already gave only two cups of milk a day. I asked my wife, "What do you think, then, will happen in the future?"

    She said, "I'll take the milk for Jascha (baby Jacob, born 1920), to cook something. And we have one horse, and then we'll have a nice garden, and so we'll come through.

    I looked at my dear wife a little while and said, "I'm already so very hungry for a nice soup made with milk. And if all goes well, tomorrow I'll hitch Tarntas up to the one-horse carriage, and we'll drive to Kovoysas, to a Russian friend. He'll give me a good family cow for a horse. We won't go undernourished."

    "Ha! Ha!" laughed my wife with joy and said, "I would never have dreamed you would trade that beautiful horse for a cow." (And since then, whenever we spoke of that horse, we always called him Ha! Ha!)



I said, "Yes, I'm almost crying. But if you're going to be hungry in the summer, then I'm going to be really  crying." So we did it that way, and we had milk as much as we wanted. And we could eat in a normal way that whole summer. God was always at the wheels. Several times He let us come almost to the end, and then His wise counsel was always there again.



So we lived a few more years, until 1926. Then all of a sudden "emigration" was the word. We applied  and went before doctors, especially eye doctors. The first eye doctor diagnosed trachoma in my wife and our second and third sons (Abram and Woldemar). The doctor disinfected my wife's and sons' eyes almost out of their heads. Then we had to drive about 35 miles home from the Russian village. The smallest son, not yet a year old, screamed the whole way as we drove home, from pain.


There was probably nothing wrong with their eyes. The Russian doctor probably did it out of spite because they were emigrating. At least that's the way my father told us this story.

--Lydia B.


    Next morning when we woke up, I had a nearly blind wife and two children who, up to that time, had had eyes like eagles. I myself had somewhat weak eyes, but he didn't disinfect me at all--and it was actually because of my eyes that I drove to the doctor.

    The next day we had a lot of visitors. The people were all curious. But when they saw my wife's "beautiful" eyes and those of the children--and not mine--then we were almost all agreed in the village, never again to drive to the  doctor.

    When Doctor Drurie came from Canada and examined us, my wife's eyes were still far from healed. But she came through well. There was nothing of trachoma in my family.



In 1926 at the end of summer, we emigrated to Canada. Everything went well until we reached Quebec City. Then there was a delay. Our three boys got chicken pox, and so my dear wife had to stay there with the children.

    I could go on, they said, and so I traveled to Herbert, Saskatchewan, Canada. I had a sister there, Mrs. Jacob Enns, and she welcomed me heartily. But I didn't enjoy myself too much because I was terribly lonesome for my nice family.


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Evangeline (Wiens) Lundgren's review of CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS

The village of Elbow, Saskatchewan was where Evangeline Lundgren taught grade 2 in 1961-63. (She was Miss Wiens then.) Here's her excellent review of my novel CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS.

This book is an enjoyable read. I was kept guessing as Tina struggled through her complicated relationship with Frank, the love of her life, and as she wrestled with her spiritual communion with the God of her Mennonite faith. How would she justify her marriage to Frank, a man who didn't share her deeply held religious beliefs and who had difficulty fitting in with her pious Mennonite church family? How would the death of her child affect her marriage and her relationship with God? How would she react when a former boyfriend comes back into her life? Would her marriage, already straining under the weight of her disagreements with Frank, survive? Her journey takes her through a range of deep emotions and encounters some unexpected twists and turns along the way.


My own Mennonite heritage made it easy for me to identify with the characters in the book and their way of life in rural Saskatchewan in the 1940's. The story is set in a fictional prairie town which closely resembles the author's hometown of Elbow, Saskatchewan. Since I taught school at Elbow in the early 1960's I recognized several familiar surnames used in the story and the references to the Scandanavian Lutherans who live there was noteworthy to me.


The Mennonite Timeline at the end of the book which outlines the history of Mennonites beginning in the 1500's and continuing to the present day was of great interest to me. Our ancestors sojourned through different areas of Europe seeking a land where they could freely live within their Pacifist beliefs. Military exemption was of utmost importance but this became an irritant to the political rulers where they lived. So, when in 1786 Empress Catherine of Russia extended an invitation for them to settle in her newly acquired land in the southern area of Russia, many Mennonites relocated there. Along with fertile farm land they were offered freedom from military service and control of their own churches and schools. However, the "golden years" in Russia ended with the Communist Revolution of 1917. Today, Mennonites are scattered throughout the world with significant numbers in Canada and the U.S.A.


If you're interested in CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS, ask for it in a store or library.  Or order online:

​​-Chapters Indigo

-Borealis Press