Shout Out to My Incredible Grandmother on her Birthday
by Liz Jansen
These days I’m ensconced in editing and revising Crash Landing, which explains my sporadic posts. In case you missed it, CL’s the story of how the experiences of our ancestors shape us. It includes a motorcycle crash and a triumphant return to riding, tracing my ancestors’ migrations after they came to Canada. Between, I’ve researched my roots and come to see their lives, and mine, through different eyes.
My grandmother and namesake, was born on this day in 1901, and I wanted to introduce you to her early life. You’ll get to know my grandparents much better in the book.
Elizabeth Friesen, affectionately called Liese (lee-za) entered the world with a shock of red hair, a harbinger of the fiery temperament that got her through her long life. She dealt with the prevailing superstition that her red hair, and mine, was a sign of the devil by calling it a different color. She kept the hue into her nineties.
The Friesens lived in a German Mennonite colony in Russia, north of Kazakhstan. When her ancestors arrived from Prussia in the 1830’s under an agreement with Catherine the Great, all available land was taken. The Friesens were relegated to the landless class. Liese’s dad was a postman and the family lived with other landless on small lots on the outskirts of villages. They couldn’t vote on civic affairs. Mennonite business and property owners looked down on them, treating them as second-class citizens.
Liese was the eighth of eleven children, although three died before she was born. When she was seven, they, along with other landless moved 1,000km/600miles southwest across country to the Terek colony near the Caspian Sea, where land had become available, in other words, seized from another group. She graduated from sixth grade to digging irrigation ditches to provide water for the crops.
The surrounding Nogais, a Turkish ethnic group, disputed the boundaries, robbed their farms, and took their horses. More than once Liese fended off Tatars raiders from a home invasion. She learned to speak Turkish.
The settlers persisted because they had nowhere else to go. Eventually, the land began to thrive and they felt at home. Colonists negotiated a fragile truce with Russian authorities following escalating robberies, plundering, and murders. Until World War I started.
They were Russian citizens but had maintained their German ethnicity and language for 100 years, not a good thing when Germany was the enemy. The Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War compounded their fragile existence. Finally, in early 1918, when she was 17, they knew they’d have to leave or face annihilation.
In February they caught wind of 1,000 Chechnyans marching towards them, seeking revenge for an attack on them. The whole colony of German Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics had to evacuate within two hours. Liese always thanked God for sending heavy fog to cover their escape. A two-mile wagon train of people, livestock, and machinery, with militia escort, inched along. Deep mud made roads almost impassable in places. Looking back, they could see smoke billowing from buildings the marauders had torched.
They waited in terror for repairs to a vital bridge before they could cross it. After several weeks they’d made it to Kaliningrad but because of the civil war, the Red (Bolshevik) Army would not let them continue. They ended up camped there for 18 months before being loaded onto a cattle train and traveling west for two days to the Molochna, another Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Her mother was sick with typhus and died two days after they arrived.
The family stayed here, living in a cottage at her uncle’s place. Liese met and married Johann (John) Klassen who would become my grandfather. The Klassens were successful farmers and for a brief time, she was no longer landless. She survived civil war and years of famine, and gave birth to two daughters Elizabeth and Anna. Both died of typhus in 1925, shortly before she and Johann emigrated.
After being detained in England for four months for treatment of Johann’s eye infection, they disembarked onto Canadian soil at St. John, New Brunswick on February 14, 1926. She was seven-months pregnant with the child who would become my father, they were free, and the future looked promising. Tragedy was not finished with her, but for the time they were hopeful.
Today I celebrate this amazing woman who embodied empowerment, resilience, and courage.
Happy Birthday, Oma!