Last week I received an email from an acquaintance in Winkler asking me if I had copies of my Klassen grandparents’ obituaries and the obituaries of my Klassen uncles and aunts. All but one of them, and my mother, have passed on by now.
Like many other people, my interest in history and family genealogy has only taken root in recent years. My immediate response to the request was that I had never seen any of the requested obituaries and had no idea where they might be found. So I replied to the email from Winkler with regret that I could not be helpful. This email was copied to my siblings and five cousins, inquiring whether they had any of the requested information.
The next morning there was a response from my cousin Helen in St. Catherines, Ontario. She said it seemed to her that my mother had compiled a booklet of Klassen family tree information some years ago. And she was right. I remembered being given a copy of the book. I also remembered experiencing minimal interest in this significant work my mother had undertaken.
So now that I recalled the existence of this book, the next step was to recall where I had stored it. My wife came to the rescue, quickly pulling it out of the history section in our basement bookshelf. In fact, there were two copies. One is mine and the other belongs to my son, who evidently has not quite reached the age at which these matters become particularly interesting. What do they say? “Like father – like son.”
That evening I sat down with the book and read, with considerable interest, the obituaries of my Klassen grandparents, whom I had never met because they passed on to their eternal home before I was born. Grandpa Abram F. Klassen came to Canada from Bergthal in Russia via the SS Sardinia as a seven-year-old boy in 1875. Grandma Helena (Wiebe) Klassen came as a one-year-old girl on the same boat. Their families settled in the Grunthal area. After they eventually met and married, my grandparents moved to the Horndean area in the West Reserve. They farmed, raised 10 of their 12 children, progressed in their faith and, by today’s standards, died at relatively early ages. I was fascinated to get this glimpse into the lives of these people whose blood flows in my veins but whom I have never known.
My parents, my grandparents and most of my uncles and aunts can no longer tell me stories about their life experiences. Now more than ever, I wish I could have those conversations with them. Why is it that so many of us only develop our interest in our personal history when it’s too late to satisfy that interest through conversations with family members? How can I help my children, my grandchildren and the youth of our constituency develop an interest in things historical while their family information is still readily accessible? And maybe most importantly, what can I do to preserve the stories that will help future generations to better understand the decisions, actions and values that have brought us to where we are today.
The mission of Mennonite Heritage Village is “to preserve and exhibit, for present and future generations, the experience and the story of the Russian Mennonites and their contributions to Manitoba.” Much of what we do here is aimed at people like me who, on their own, realize too late the value of their history. As the stories recede farther and farther into the past, our work becomes that much more challenging and also that much more important. We must continue to develop new and engaging methods of telling these significant stories.