Saturday, September 4, 2010

From Prussia to Paraguay, part 2

From Prussia to Paraguay, part 2

In Russia…

The schools in Russia in the Mennonite colonies were held in German. Often a teacher was a craftsperson or herder, untrained but willing to fit teaching class around his occupation. In 1820 they started a secondary school in Orloff, with a teacher brought in from Prussia. More higher schools followed and those who wanted to pursue a further education attended universities in Switzerland, Germany and also in Russia.


Typically each village or group of villages formed an independent congregation. Each had slightly different traditions, but all believed in the fundamental Mennonite beliefs such as believer’s baptism (choosing by your own free will to be baptized, adult baptism), nonresistance (choosing not to join the military), and avoidance of oaths (“Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned.” James 5:12).

Pastors were untrained, lay-preachers, and chosen from within the congregation.


As nationalism grew in central Europe, the Russian government couldn’t justify the special status of the German colonists any longer. In 1870 they announced a plan to “Russificate” the colonists and end all special privileges by 1880. The Mennonites were worried about losing the right to stay out of the military, their German schools and their religious and cultural life as they knew it.

They sent delegates to Petersburg, but they failed to present the czar with their petition. A year later they tried again, but to no success.

Mennonites do not want to take part in any war making, so many of them started to look for immigration options. A delegation was sent to North America in 1873 to look for fertile land, and many started leaving Russia to start again in Manitoba, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

When the Russian government noticed that they could lose up to 40.000 of the country’s best farmers, they met with community leaders. The Russians exaggerated the difficulties that they would find in North America and offered an alternative national service, which would not be connected in any way to the military. That convinced some of the Mennonites to stay.

In 1880 the government offered the four-year forestry service plan for men of military age.

During the period of the “Great War”, the Mennonites were very prosperous and had a reputation for outstanding efficiency and were noted across Russia for their farming and organizational abilities. During World War I, 5000 Mennonite men served in both forestry and hospital units.

After the war, the conditions in Russia turned from bad to worse. Famine struck and an ex-guerilla leader turned army commander named Nestor Machno created fear in the hearts of the Mennonites.

Quote from Wiki: The image of Makhno as leader of the peasant uprising has been called "legendary" and a "colorful personality". However, in the view of the German and German Mennonite community in Ukraine, he was viewed as the instigator of "military ravages" against innocent farmers, an "inhuman monster" whose path is "literally drenched with blood.”

The Mennonites were looking for a new home. A larger migration of Mennonites from Russia occurred after World War I when in 1922-30 some 25,000 Mennonites went to Canada (21,000), Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay. Many applied to go to Canada, but could not pass the medical exams, usually because of trachoma. The reasons for this mass migration were the threat of complete disintegration of the religious, cultural, and economic way of life of the Mennonites. A much larger number would have escaped, had not the Second World War intervened. Those that remained in their home villages were subject to exile to Siberia and other remote regions east of the Urals. From 1929 to 1940, one in eight men were removed, usually under the pretext of political accusations, to labor camps from which few ever returned or were heard from again.

So, that is how my grandparents came to Paraguay.

My aunt, Dora Dueck, wrote a wonderful fictional novel called: Under the Still Standing Sun. It describes the start of our colony in the 1930. Here’s a link to read a review of this book.

After my parents married in the 60’s, they decided to pack up their baby daughter (my big sister, Daniela) and move to Manitoba, Canada. They lived there for a total of 11 years, in which Caroline, Me and Andrea were all born there. I went to grade school in Winnipeg and later in Calgary until I was 10. Then we moved back to Paraguay. That’s why I’m “Tri-lingual” (can you say it like that?) My first language is English, because I spoke only English until we moved here. Then I quickly learned German, because that is the main language in our schools and colony here. Then I learned Spanish in school, because it’s the language spoken in Paraguay.

I hope I didn’t bore you with my history. If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask. I’d like to post some recipes soon that our grandparents brought along from Russia. I hope you drop in again soon. Have a great weekend!

I went to the new Heritage park in town with my girls. This is one of the first trains in the Chaco. With trains similar to this one, my grandparents came to the Chaco and finished their trip from Russia to Fernheim, Paraguay on an oxcart.


  1. I've loved reading this. I've been so curious about how you came to be in Paraguay. And how surprising that you had to learn German. I took several years of German in high school and college but I'm afraid it's one of those languages that gets away from you quickly if you don't use it. I'm envious of your multi-language skills.
    this has not been boring at all.
    I'm so glad that I found you and am getting to know you.

  2. You can´t stop now. This was so great and informative! I linked to you today and hope many come here to read it.
    Your life was very similar to mine with the moving back and forth, except that I lived there (Canada) for a few years after being married.
    Anyway good job with this series!

  3. You have such wonderful posts! It's fun learning about Mennonites in other countries :) Now I really have to ask - do you speak Low German?

  4. Came over here from Betty's place! I'm very familiar with Mennonites - having grown up in Winnipeg after coming from Germany. We've lived many places, but for the last 38 yrs. have lived and are now retired (me, still working part-time) in Edmonton. Look forward to reading more about life in Chaco!

  5. Isn't it amazing how people, for whatever reason have emigrated to their parts of the world? My Papa (grandfather) was born and raised in Germany and came to the USA when he was 9 years old. His story was an amazing one. Perhaps someday I will tell it on Dackel Princess.

  6. History freak here and I loved reading about it! Thanks for sharing

  7. Hello again :)
    I don't speak low german but do understand it. My grandparents spoke perfect English so it wasn't a necessity for me to learn the language. Almost sorry I can't speak it a bit at least.

  8. How fascinating! Thank you for sharing this with us. I am familiar with the Mennonite community in our area (they are some of the only other farmers here)and I was aware that some people were in Paraguay, but I had no idea how that happened. I grew up bi-lingual, but if you don't use it, you lose it. I'm a shining example of that.

  9. from "Just another Rempel" -

    We are distant cousins! My folks were in the Molotschna settlement and my direct antecedents were part of the 1870s migration to Nebraska!

    Unfortunately the German language and commitment to Mennonite faith mostly faded from my line of the family by the 1940s. :-(

    I have learned that others who migrated later than my branch, to Mexico, have moved up into west Texas in the last generation, and many of them share my last name. I have yet to make a trip out there but I plan to soon.

    So great finding this blog!


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