Stories Across Time and Space: Ancestral Journeys
Connecting with Kin
Connecting with a woman I’ve never met, but with whom I share great-grandparents feels ethereal. Our Klassen grandfathers were brothers. Both of our fathers carried the same names. Our life journeys have been quantum leaps apart, but we carry common blood—and wisdom. Exploring that together is an unexpected, and unfathomable, treasure. She will assemble more family for a gathering later this month in Germany. Together, we will unearth our common heritage—stories across time and space.
For decades, the manner in which we carry and apply the wisdom of our ancestors has fascinated me. Connecting with their experiences and understanding how they shaped my identity was the impetus behind my “coming-of-age-at-60” quest written about in Crash Landing. It’s central to my graduate studies. My thesis revolves around how the experiences of my ancestors before arriving in Canada influenced how they adapted to the lands they shared and formed relationships with their neighbours—human and non-human. The wisdom derived from those times can inform intercultural and ecological relationships today.
Klassen Family Photo
A late 1925 Klassen family photo taken in what is now Ukraine, shows our great-grandparents surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Our grandfathers were young men in the prime of their life. It was taken just before my grandparents emigrated, the only one of my grandfather’s immediate family to do so. Klassens had lived in the same village in the Molotschna colony of South Russia since the early to mid 1800s. Typical of most German-speaking Russian Mennonites, they enjoyed strong family bonds, embedded themselves in ancestral history, and professed loyalty as Russian citizens.
Much had changed by the time that photo was taken. Russia had withdrawn from WWI, the autocratic Tsarist regime had been overthrown and replaced by anarchy, and the fractured country had undergone years of brutal civil war, economic collapse, epidemic, and famine. Ironically, by the mid 1920s, things were beginning to look up. Still, it was not a hospitable place, especially for ethnic Germans, which included Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics. Maligned since the late 1800s, they had come under intense pressure. Tens of thousands of Mennonites wanted out but in 1920, only 20,000 had won authorization to emigrate.
After the Photo
The placid family facade belies the tortuous, complicated, and heart-wrenching decisions underway that would set my second-cousin and me on different paths. Why did my grandfather choose to emigrate? Did the others choose to stay or were their requests denied? Although my grandfather died from TB two years after making a new home in Canada, he got here with his wife, who gave birth to their son, my father, two months after arriving.
The Klassens who remained endured years of hardship I will never understand, including dispossession of land, execution of males, extreme poverty, and ultimately exile to Kazakhstan. Upon dissolution of the USSR in 1991, like other ethnic Germans, many Klassens emigrated to Germany to start again.
A chance opportunity to present a talk entitled, Reclaiming Identity: Carrying Ancestral Wisdom Across Time and Place, at the IABA conference at the University of Warsaw July 5-8, 2023, opened other possibilities. Recognizing that Germany borders Poland, I couldn’t pass up the prospect of finding kin I knew were there. Powerful forces, seen and unseen, worked together to make this happen. Through herculean efforts, dizzying serendipity, and many people contributing what seemed like disparate threads, we have connected. My cousin only arrived in Germany in 2003 and speaks very little English. My German fluency needs a lot of practice, but we understand each other. Even more thrilling is that my niece, who lives in Germany and is completely bilingual, is sharing this experience with me. She’s helping with the translation but more important to me is her engagement in this family reunion like no other.
Dad yearned to know more about his paternal family and always wished he had retained his birth name. He visited cousins in Germany in 1994 but then lost contact. Picking that up again, and expanding on it, is an honor to him, as well as the rest of my family. While these connections are more valuable from a personal, rather than academic perspective at this point, I plan to expand my ancestral and cultural research during PhD studies.
My relationships with maternal kin are rich and plentiful, as are those connected with my paternal grandmother. Extended Klassen kin in Ontario, descendants of my great-grandfather Klassen’s siblings, have been invaluable in leading to this connection. Now, I feel like the ugly duckling who has found the rest of her family. How have we carried our stories across time and space?
Happy Father’s Day Dad!