Discovering My Roots
My father, Gerhard Nikolai Janzen, immigrated into Canada in 1927 landing in St. John, New Brunswick on January 2 having spent Christmas crossing the Atlantic on a CPR boat called the S.S. Montcalm. He traveled to Winnipeg and thence to Gretna, a small town in southern Manitoba where a Mennonite High School had recently opened. Its prime objective was to turn out teachers for the schools in the new Mennonite settlements in Manitoba. Gerhard managed to learn the English language and pass the exams for Grade XI within one year, promptly moving on to the Normal School in Manitou, Manitoba the following year.
Gerhard was born in Russia in 1905 in an area now known as the Ukraine, of German Mennonite farmers who lived a comfortable life along the Molotchna River in a village called Lindenau. As the second youngest of twelve he and his nearest brother, Isaac, were given special treatment which meant little hard labour and extra schooling. Gerhard had passed the high school preparation courses and educational training to become a teacher in Russian and German. By good fortune he already had one year of teaching experience under his belt.
But when the Communists took over, teachers were forced to teach their Dogma. Gerhard feared the loss of freedom to teach what teachers believe students should be taught. In the meantime a letter arrived inviting Mennonites to come to Canada. Applicants who might become teachers were encouraged to apply. Gerhard did. The CPR even provided the incentive of a free loan on the cost of passage if the immigrant would agree to go west. Interestingly even the medical examiner of applicants was a CPR doctor (slight conflict of interest?).
Once in Manitou, Gerhard looked for summer work. He wrote to Mr. J.J. Epp who also had recently immigrated into Canada and who had in fact been his teacher many years ago in Russia. Eventually Gerhard did get work on his farm preparing for the harvest season. Mr. Epp had two daughters, Katie and Bertha, and one son, Jake, in that order. Gerhard and Bertha fell in love and married.
On April 18, 2006, I drove down to Manitou on a quest. I wanted to find that farm. I wanted to find out if my grandfather, Mr. Epp, had actually owned that farm as stated in the Family Genealogical “Bible” called “The House of Heinrich - The Story of Heinrich Epp (1811-1863) Rosenort, Molotschna and his Descendents” compiled and edited by Anna Epp Ens and published in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1980. It was my recollection that on a certain summer day around 1940, a strange Englishman came by to visit grandpa. He acted like an owner specifically dropping in to collect money. But what credence is there in the memory of a curious eight year old listening to a one sided conversation in a language grandpa could not use?
I thought the Municipality office might be of some help. Luckily both a man and a woman were present in the office. He said he knew every corner of every section in this area and was sure he could find the owners of all properties for the last hundred years. I said grandpa’s farm was on the right hand side of a road leading north out of Manitou which had two hills, the first passing the Cemetery where my great grandmother, Katharina Epp, 1853 -1937, was buried. They first produced a book containing every name of those buried in the Cemetery. And yes, my great grandmother was listed. They then scanned another map and with me went through the ownership of every possible farm on the east side of the road. No Epp name appeared. An Ewert name did appear as owner of a farm across the road and this was consistent with my memory that there was a second cousin with name of Ewert near to my grandparents’ farm.
“Why don’t we go over to the farm and see if it feels right? I’ll show the way.”
No sooner said than done. He led in his half-ton pickup. It was #244 going north of Manitou. There was the Cemetery as I remembered it and the two hills. The first farm on the right was similar to my memory of the location. I thanked him and waved him on.
The long driveway was familiar. The house on the right was a newer bungalow. The trees on the south side were not the tall pines I remembered. The small machine shed directly facing me was of newer construction. On the left was a level pad on the ground that could have been the footing for an old house.
I introduced myself to the charming mother comfortably dealing with a swarm of kids milling about on the floor. She invited me to look around on the yard and feel at home. She pointed to a depression on the left side of the yard where an old well might have been next to a level pad for an old house.
I walked over and took some pictures. I stood on the spot where I thought I was conceived. It felt right. This is where it all began. I could feel it in my bones.
Behind the willow hedge were the rolling fields my mother had told us about. Here she had brought Gerhard lunch in the field while he stooked. Here they had sat in the stubble in the summer heat and rested during a noonday break. It felt right.
I had found my roots.
My parents were married July 26, 1931. A tent was arranged to house the event. My mother told Winona, my sister, that Gerhard did not sleep with her the first night. All the men slept outside in the tent and the women in the house.
But Gerhard did sleep with my mother before he left for his teaching duties in northern Manitoba since I was born some nine months later, namely May 23, 1932.
My next quest was to find the location of Gerhard’s first school. It is family legend that I was born in Manitou but that my mother took the train with me in her arms some time after that, arriving “at the edge of civilization” in Arborg, Manitoba. However, hunt as we might we were never able to find the exact location of that the old school house.
On one such outing with sister Betty and her husband Dick we bumped into a retired postmistress quite by accident who was old enough to have served mail to my father’s address but she couldn’t remember which school Gerhard was attached to or what the name of the school district might have been. However, at the drug store we were told that the Geography and History teacher in the Arborg High School might be of some help since the history of the area was his hobby. A phone number put me in contact with him. He said politely I needed to know the name of the school district before he could be of any help. He suggested I go to the Manitoba Archives in Winnipeg.
A visit to this excellent institution was greatly helpful. It just so happened that someone had written a thesis on this very topic. Starting with the name Gerhard Janzen we were able to determine absolutely that the school district was Rosenburg. I was shown how to use the film files and found the biannual reports that every teacher had to submit with the list of students in attendance in every school in Manitoba. This document signed by a trustee ensured the school would receive the government subsidy for the teacher’s salary.
I requested photocopies of the school attendance starting with 1931 since it was my impression that Gerhard had started teaching immediately after marrying Bertha. However, a request to the Manitoba Teachers’ Society to look up the full teaching experience of Gerhard N. Janzen revealed that Gerhard had begun in Rosenburg on September 2, 1929! In fact there was a short stint of six months at a school called Rosenhoff in Morris, Manitoba from January 8, 1929 to June 30, 1929. This we had never heard of before!
Thus in 1927 Gerhard completed grade XI in Gretna. In 1928 he attended Normal School in Manitou, and in 1929 he was a full time teacher in the Manitoba system.
I marvel today at the accelerated pace of Gerhard’s education in Canada. And he never had the German accent many immigrants of German descent carried and could not shake.
On April 21, 2006, I
drove out to Arborg. I was determined to
find Rosenburg. Once in town I found the
old train station neatly restored. The plaque
said since the train didn’t
come into Arborg anymore, the building was
turned around 180 degrees and converted into
a library. It was open every day of the week
except Friday. April 21st was a Friday. Slightly
frustrated I turned to the sidewalk to check
out some older pedestrians.
“You know we three always laughed. We would get the giggles and the teacher would strap us. Every day we would get strapped. It was for nothing but laughing in class.”
No reply from the listener.
“One day we put a thumb tack on her chair just to get even. And she sat on it.” Still no response from the listener.
“My two friends burst out laughing. I put my face in my hands and ducked down on my desk. I tried not to laugh. Boy did they ever get a licking.”
The listener stood impassively. He may have heard the story before.
After a quiet minute I asked boldly, “Would either of you gentlemen know where Rosenburg might be?”
“Of course. I went to school there,” replied the storyteller.
“Really. My father was a teacher in Rosenburg. Could you show me how to get to where the school house was?”
“It’s still there. Just go out of town this way. The road will turn north. There’s the Arborg Christian Fellowship building on the left. Go out about 10 miles and you will see it on the right hand side.”
“Thank you. Did you have a male teacher by any chance?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What was his name?”
He thought for a millisecond. “Janzen,” he exclaimed.
“Wonderful. That’s my name. My father had a car. Do you remember my Dad’s car?”
“A coupe,” he burst out immediately.
“You’re right again. My Dad had a Ford Model T coupe. It was his first car. He bought it a few hours before my mother and I arrived in 1932.”
He stood smiling and agreeing. Walter enjoyed the attention.
“Did Mr. Janzen strap you?”
“No, he did not. We liked him very much.”
“Would you like to come with me to find the school?”
“No. I have work to do.”
“How old are you?”
“I’ll be 80 years old May 4,” he replied.
“Are you still working at 80 years of age?”
“Gardening. I have to get my garden in.”
“At least I should take your picture. Could you please give me your name?”
“Walter. Walter Chomokovski.”
“Great Walter. I’ll write it down. How do you spell your name?”
An attractive younger lady hovered nearby.
“Are you Walter’s daughter?” I asked innocently.
“NO. I’m his wife.”
“Sorry. You sure look good,” I
said. She smiled. I did not ask her her age.
I turned right and soon encountered a dilapidated and abandoned home site. In front of this house was an old cemetery marker with German and Ukrainian names. One was Meier. Indeed, one of the attendance sheets I had at home was signed by Otto Meier as trustee.
A 4x4 truck came storming up. I hailed the young driver and asked him whether he knew where the Rosenburg school was. He knew and told me to follow him. We turned around and back tracked a couple of miles. A left into a side road and there it was, on the corner hidden from the highway by a dense grove of poplars.
I was alone to explore the old school. The name plate above the door had been removed but what still remained was “Built In 1917”. Gerhard was by no means the first teacher in Rosenburg. The wood building was well built and still structurally sound. I walked in carefully to find partitions to convert the abode to a home: huge “living” room, bedroom, kitchen and storage entrance. There were no blackboards or school desks characteristic of a school space. There also was a cellar which I didn’t care to enter. But the close set row of seven windows was typical of a school house. Also outside, still barely holding their own, were the two signatures of a school yard: the His and Hers biffys. I didn’t venture too closely worrying that they might be occupied.
I had found my roots. Here undoubtedly my father and mother had proudly carried me even before I was one year old over 73 years ago. It did seem like the end of civilization even today as my mother was wont to say. But the windows of the schoolhouse looked friendly and welcoming, accepting quietly their assignment: to preserve the long history of dedicated teachers in a northern outpost of Manitoba.
It was quiet.
Back home I did find the names of the children of the Chomokovski family: John, Steve, Peter, and Annie in 1931 and 1932. Walter’s name shows up in 1933 and 1934.
After five years in Rosenburg, Gerhard moved to a school closer to Winnipeg. My mother must have been pleased.