As a child I was warned by my mother that if I was naughty the Mennonites in their black clothing and horse drawn wagons would take me away. I would watch them pass our farm daily from our window and the threat seemed real enough. In uncovering old photos of my paternal great grandmother, Augusta Brinkmann, sitting sadly, dressed in black and holding her bible, they certainly seem like God fearing and pious people. My mother recently told me that my paternal grandfather, Samuel Frank Kuhn, claimed to be Mennonite. I remember him with few possessions but his bible, double barreled shotgun and fiddle seemed ever present.
After I got out of jail, I volunteered as a Labourer Teacher working alongside and teaching english to Mexican labourers on farms in southwestern Ontario with Frontier College. On these farms I lived for many months with Mennonites who would travel from Mexico to Canada once a year to help in the harvest alongside the Mexican labourers. The Mennonites I worked and lived with spoke Plattdeutsch, the same german dialect my grandfather Samuel Frank Kuhn spoke, but I did not know of my Vistula German roots at the time so the significance of this relationship was lost to me. What struck me most about the Mennonites was what hard drinkers they were when we celebrated the end of the harvest.
In researching the traditions of my Vistula German ancestors I came across this passage from the nearby village of Marianowo chronicles:
“An ‘Olle’ was always considered when some lengthy farm work came to an end. To have
made a Olle, therefore meant that the work was finished and the farmer could now consider it as something that had happened in the past that he no longer needed to think about. It was not necessary that every time such work was completed that there had to be bottle of liquor on the table, or that it had to be followed by a few hours of rest; it was sufficient when work was finished that the farmer told his family with satisfied expression, ‘Wi häbe dä Olle mukt!’ (‘We have made the Olle’).”
I distinctly recall that when the brussel sprout harvest was finally complete – we even worked through many a night to get in the harvest eating pizza on the harvester – the Mennonites hosted an Olle and I recall seeing a Mennonite woman in an old style bonnet guzzling back a bottle of whisky.
Another tradition in the Old Country was for the young men of the village to build a blockade on the road leading to the City of Pultusk when a bride and groom visited in their buggies to register their wedding. The young men would demand payment to take down the barrier which the bride and groom were obliged to pay. With their loot in hand the young men would then visit the village tavern.
My earliest known paternal ancestors in Poland populated two small villages: Nowa Wies and Lacha located where the Narew and Bug Rivers are joined, about fifty kilometers from the capital Warsaw. They (or their descendants) later seemed to have moved further south closer to Warsaw occupying Augustowek, Pustelnik and other nearby villages.
We know that they were brought into the area by Polish landlords to reclaim the notorious floodplains of the Vistula River. When they first settled the area and where they came from I am not yet sure. The earliest documents seem to suggest they migrated during the 1790s when Prussia, Austria and Russia carved up Poland in the Partitions.
My third great uncle, Frydryk Weiss, is on record as being the first teacher of Nowa Wies in 1846. Typical of a German colony at the time was for the school to double as a church and the teacher as a lay priest also known as “Cantor.”
If Frydryk did double as the village Cantor, then Christmas would have been very busy. This is from the Marianowo village chronicle, a larger village, located nearby:
“Christmas time is probably the best place to begin describing the religious customs and traditions in Marianowo. When the farmers had finished their autumn farm work it certainly did not mean that they could now rest and be lazy. There were still many things to do before winter fully set in, although this work was not as urgent as the work in the summer. But when Christmas time began to approach, one could sense a restlessness amongst the people. Granted, it was a happy restlessness, but still stressful. The women were anxious to make some new wool socks, or perhaps to acquire a new piece of clothing for each of member of their family before Christmas. The men, on the other hand, were busy looking after the livestock and filling the cracks between the logs of the house’s and barn’s walls with moss. The potato cellar also needed to be covered to the roof with raked leaves or straw, so that the frost could not creep through the walls. It was also common to thresh a significant portion of the rye before Christmas, and so one could frequently hear the sound of the flail being swung in the barns by strong men. The butchering started in the last days before the celebration. Almost every day one could hear the squeal of pigs being led to slaughter on the various farms. Much of the meat was later made into sausage.
Grützwurst was particularly loved in this area, but it had to be made of real buckwheat grits and with quite a lot of meat in it. It is possible that slaughtering was actually delayed until shortly before Christmas, so that the Grützwurst could be had fresh at the celebration table. The day before the celebration, the cake, which was only to be had three times per year, namely, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, was baked. Beginning noon of the twenty fourth of December, Christmas music filled every household. Now only the living quarters had to be cleaned, the Christmas tree decorated and by evening, young and old wished only to leave in time for the Christmas Eve celebration. If, however, the farmers and their family members, had lived a relatively relaxed life in the weeks before Christmas, the school teachers, or better said the cantors of the Narew area, found this to be the toughest part of the year to get through. Preparations for the Christmas Eve service had to be started five to six weeks in advance. It was customary here that every child that attended school should recite a verse under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. For this purpose, the cantors selected Christmas story verses or other relevant Bible passages, or a Christmas song such as “Ihr Kinderlein kommet”, “Am Weinachtsbaum Die Lichter Brennen”, or Silent Night, for others to sing between the children’s verse recitals. And if a cantor had eighty students, as was the average case in Marianowo, then he had to work hard to ensure that the Christmas Eve Celebration satisfied the congregation. Added to this were the mothers who would bring their little offspring, who often could not even speak properly, but had learned a few words of a song verse, and then also wanted to recite the little speech they had learned. But the cantors spared no effort for that evening and were patient, letting the farmers have their fill, knowing that their salary depended on the success of this celebration. If a farmer had enjoyed the Christmas Eve celebration, when it came to giving provisions for the cantor, he did not even put the bag of rye on the scale, but made it so full that it was beyond the capacity of the scale. And if the farmer’s wife happened to pass by and add a special word of praise about the cantor, it could happen that the farmer might grab his shovel and add a few more pounds of grain. So the cantor had every reason to exert himself a little more during the Christmas season because he could increase his income considerably by doing so.”
Samuel Frank Kuhn was the real deal in the sense that the villages of Nowa Wies and Lacha where his grandparents were from were typical Vistula German colonies; the population were Lutheran and the villages were laid out in the typical fashion of the culturally “Dutch” colonists with a village blacksmith, carpenter, a school house that also hosted religious gatherings, and a Jewish run tavern that probably also acted as a village store. We know that Samuel Frank Kuhn spoke a variety of languages – my mom says that he spoke seven. Typically, Vistula German colonists spoke their unique Plattdeutsch (a low German dialect) along with at least a smattering of Russian, Polish and Yiddish. Being able to speak these languages was a necessity because the farms hired Polish labourers, many shops (watch makers, bakers and tailors) in the larger nearby villages were owned by Jews and official business was conducted in Russian.
We even know the name of the local tavern in Nowa Wies in 1809. It was called the “Zydcy Inn” and owned by Leysor Idzilkowicz.
We have numerous birth, death and marriage records attesting to Kuhn, Guildenstern and Weiss ancestors occupying the villages of Nowa Wies and nearby Lacha. To get an idea about the size of the population of Nowa Wies we are told that in 1841 there were no more than 46 colonists. The religious administrative centre for the area was the City of Pultusk (with a Jewish population that often outnumbered Poles and Vistula Germans). Across the Narew River, and only seven kilometres from Lacha, was the garrison town of Serock which housed a strategically important fortress built by Napoleon who stayed in the village.
“Who Possesses Warsaw, Modlin and Serock is the ruler of the entire Poland”
In doing my research I am corresponding with others who are encountering the same problems in dealing with a multiplicity of documents in various official languages, name spelling variations, towns with the same names and a political history of incredible disruption and turmoil. Friedhelm Mielke, whose ancestors came from the same area, wrote to me stating “doing research in that area has been challenging due to the wars causing towns and cities to change their names every time someone else took control. I remember my dad saying that as a kid he would check the school’s flagpole to see which country was in charge then.”
The village of Nowa Wies was founded in 1781 and it is plausible that my ancestors were part of the first wave of colonists who came from the Poznan area downstream the Vistula River (then East Prussia). The researcher, Albert Breyer notes that Nowa Wies (Neudorf) was a “Niedrunger” village which means that the original colonists brought in to drain the swamps were of Dutch origin. However, other sources claim that the colonists were of German Pommeranian descent. If it is true that Samuel Frank Kuhn identified himself or his culture as Mennonite, then maybe he meant his family were historically Niedrunger (Dutch) and as the village absorbed (around 1806) the subsequent Pommern settlers from Germany, the old school Mennonite colonists adopted the Lutheran faith out of necessity. We know from historical legal records that Mennonites were treated harshly by the authorities and practising their religion was even banned in some cases.
Regardless, my ancestors living in Nowa Wies witnessed unspeakable atrocities and slaughters first seeing the Poles defeat the Austrians at the nearby Battle of Pultusk in 1806. A Lacha village chronicle written by Edward Abrams who as a boy fled the Soviet advance during WWII writes:
“…a further story was also told to me, of how my grandmother heard from her grandmother how those poor frozen Frenchmen passed through Poland from Russia back to France. The Frenchmen the story dealt with were no doubt Napoleon’s defeated army retreating from Russia in 1812/13. The conclusion then could be made that since we were already in Poland in 1812 we could indeed have come to Poland during the reign of Catherine the Great 1762-1796.”
Then around 1863 nearby Serock was the center of a failed bloody uprising against Czar Nicholas I led by Polish landowners. The fear of retaliation by the victorious Imperial Russian authorities prompted the German colonists of Lacha and Nowa Wies to publicly proclaim their deep (my Polish friend uses the word “obsequious”) loyalty to the Czar. I came across this document (below) generously translated by my Polish friend, Maciej Łopaciński, currently living in the area:
“Pledge of loyalty to the Czar after the uprising – my idea is that after the uprising – during military terror, hunting for partisans, demolition of manors and villages, it was a letter saying “we always were on winner’s side – please treat us and our village gently”.
At least two of my ancestors put their signature to this document, Jan Kuhn my third Great Grandfather and Michael Fisher, the then Mayor of Nowa Wies.
I have read that it was after this uprising that onerous mandatory conscription in the Imperial Russian Army was imposed as a form of control against males and hereafter the Russian language was mandatory in schools and official documents. Heinrich Weiss and Wilhelm Brinkmann, my ancestors who settled in Kenora and brought over my great aunt Emma Kuhn and housed my grandfather and grandmother, Samuel Frank Kuhn and Gertrude Klara Thiel, originally fled Poland to avoid conscription in 1892. Stories exist about Cossack patrols that kept Polish nationalist gatherings in check through the use of the sabre and cavalry charge.
When the First World War unfolded with Germany and Russia at war my ancestors (the “Germans”) were ordered to abandon their homes near the front lines for the duration of the conflict by Czar Nicholas II and wait out the war as refugees in the interior of Russia. John Guderian writing a village chronicle of the neighbouring village of Marianowo writes about this time in exile:
“After two days travel by horse cart the whole convoy was loaded on freight cars, and those inside were off to Russia. In Zarizin, later called Stalingrad, a number of wagons were unloaded and the passengers were housed in the city and in the surrounding villages. The rest were unloaded in Wolsk, a city on the right bank of the Volga and we spent a few days in the waiting room of the large railway station. One morning, a number of one‐horse sleighs pulled up, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the men wrapped up in furs were German. They came from five villages on the left bank of the Volga to help accommodate their German sisters and their children. One farmer by the name of Klein, came to my mother and asked how large her family was. As she listed her children he said in his Schwabish accent, ‘That’s the right family for me.’ In a short time, the sparse luggage was loaded and the sleigh ride was under way. It can and must be said that the Germans from the Narew area were treated and taken care of by the Volga Germans with the greatest hospitality. In the summer of 1915, the men were allowed to come from Siberia to be with their families. And since the Russian government paid some support, and the local farmers provided opportunity for work, no one suffered any hardship
during the full three years that we spent there. However, the pain of having lost one’s property was great and some of the many who found their final resting place on the Volga might have lived longer had they not been torn from their peaceful existence.”
My grandfather, Samuel Frank Kuhn, served in the Czar’s Imperial Army, while his brother served in the opposing German Imperial Army during this conflict.
I’m not sure if my ancestors who occupied Nowa Wies, Lacha, Augustowek or Pustelnik returned to their homes after the war, but if they did then soon after the end of the First World War they would have yet again witnessed the front lines of yet another bloody conflict; this time of the Bolshevik invasion and defeat at the hands of the Poles in what is termed “The Miracle of the Vistula.” Here a newly independent and vastly outnumbered Polish Army defeated the invading Bolshevik forces.
Of course, nothing needs to be said about the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact where Stalin and Hitler agreed to yet another partition of Poland or the Second World War and the death camps and the tragic Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings of ’43 and ’44.
I remember giving my grandfather, Samuel Frank Kuhn, a picture book about German history as a gift. I was about thirteen and as he looked the book over a photo of Adolf Hitler appeared. At seeing that image my grandfather violently flung the book against the wall. I can still hear his angry voice with his thick German accent.
When I was working with the Mennonites I remember our harvester broke down and I got into a conversation with the driver. At some point I mentioned Adolf Hitler and the driver had no idea who he was. I remember thinking what a wonderful thing not to know who Hitler was.
Happy New Year!