Dave Driedger and Victor Penner
In June of 2011 my husband Dave Driedger and I traveled to Ukraine to find the birthplaces of our parents and grandparents. We hired an expert guide Victor Penner and sent him details about our family history. Greeting us in Zaporozhye, Victor expressed excitement to finally be meeting a descendant of the Enns family from Kowalicha. Johann Enns tombstone Victor Penner found
Ten years before he’d found two Enns tombstones in an overgrown orchard near Kowalicha where the Enns family had owned a large estate. He was looking forward to the day when some of their relatives would visit and he could show them their ancestors’ graves.
Dave Driedger and his mother Anne Enns Driedger
My mother-in-law Anna (Anne) Driedger was an Enns and we had discovered the Enns family connection to Kowalicha in the memoir of Isaac Unrau, my husband Dave’s great uncle. Isaac had handwritten a hundred- page story about his older sister Gertrude and her husband Heinrich Enns, my mother-in-law Anne’s parents and my husband Dave’s grandparents.
Margaretha Enns was upset in 1902 when she found out her second eldest son Heinrich was going to marry a twenty-one year old farmer’s daughter from Rudnerweide. The Enns family owned a large estate in the Kowalicha area near Schoenfeld, as well as another property in Roppovo, and Mrs. Enns had hoped Heinrich would marry a local girl of the same social and economic class who might consolidate and even expand the family land holdings.
Heinrich was doing alternative military service in a Mennonite run forestry camp near the Molotschna colony. His weekend passes did not afford him enough time to travel home to Kowalicha so a fellow forestry worker invited Heinrich to his home in the Molotschna village of Rudnerweide. It was there in church he saw the beautiful Gertrude Unrau for the first time and fell in love. Although a man of few words, he was an excellent writer and so began a correspondence with Gertrude, wooing her with his elegant prose and traveling to Rudnerweide as often as possible to see her. When Margaretha Enns got wind of the romance she threatened her son Heinrich. If he married Gertrude she wouldn’t attend the wedding. Despite this, when his three years of forestry service were over, twenty-six year old Heinrich announced he was going ahead with his wedding plans. Mrs. Enns relented and she was present for the ceremony on January 12, 1903 in Rudnerweide.
Quite a number of Heinrich’s relatives came to the wedding from the Schoenfeld area. The celebration took place in Gertrude’s parents’ barn. It had been decorated with greenery and flowers. The whole village was invited to the wedding and the guests were treated to a meal of borscht, zwiebach, cold beef with mustard, cooked ham, sausage and cookies. The young couple received many gifts.
Enns Family picture taken some time between 1906 and 1910- from left to right- Mother Margaretha Thiessen Enns, son Peter Enns and his wife Agatha Neufeld, daughter Aganetha Enns and her husband Cornelius Neufeld, son Heinrich Enns and his wife Gertrude (Unrau)(Dave’s grandparents) brother Johann Enns and his wife Mana (Toews) Father- Peter Enns- sitting in front is daughter Margaretha who will later marry Abe Dick. Missing from the family picture is daughter Helena who died in 1902 and son Jakob who died in 1906.
Heinrich and Gertrude moved to Kowalicha where Heinrich and his older brother Peter helped their father Peter run the Kowalicha estate till their Dad died in 1910. Heinrich’s two younger brothers died when they were just young men, Jakob in 1906 and Johann in 1912. Heinrich’s youngest sister Margaretha lived at home with her family till 1913 when she married Abe Dick and they went to live in Roppovo where the Enns family had more land, inherited from Mrs. Enns’ family the Thiessens. Heinrich’s older sister Aganetha and her husband Cornelius also lived at Roppovo.
Dave Driedger on the land his grandparents and great grandparents owned near Schoenfeld
The land on which the Enns estate stood, had been purchased by Heinrich’s grandfather Johann Peter Enns from a Russian nobleman named Kowalicha not long after the Crimean War. Heinrich’s grandfather who had originally hailed from the village of Rosenort; negotiated the purchase of 7548 acres along with two other investors Claas Thiessen and Peter Gerhard Neufeld. They divided the Kowalicha property into three farms.
Under Heinrich and Peter’s leadership the family business continued to prosper. There were many Russian laborers employed to do the work in the flourishing fields and orchards and look after the stable full of fine horses. A nanny cared for the children and three maids helped in the house and garden. A man-made lake in front of the house had rowboats for recreation and was stocked with good sized fish, which often graced the dinner table. Heinrich’s family owned a substantial amount of land in other places including a holding in Siberia that was rented to tenants and Heinrich bought a bright red German car, an Opel for 3000 rubles. He would drive through Schoenfeld in his special riding coat and goggles with his family ensconced beside him in the car and the village dogs racing behind the vehicle.
Heinrich and Gertrude were heart-broken when their first two daughters died, Margaretha, who was born in 1903, died at age four and Anna born in 1905 died as an infant. In the next seven years four healthy sons were born Peter in 1906, Heinrich (Henry) in 1909, Johann (John) in 1912 and Diedrich (Richard) in 1913. Gertrude’s family often came to visit from Rudnerweide since her older brother Dietrich Unrau was a teacher in nearby Schoenfeld and her sister Helena also lived in the area on an estate called Gajchur, having married Heinrich’s cousin Gerhard Enns whom she’d met at Gertrude and Heinrich’s wedding. Gertrude’s father, Peter was a lay minister so he routinely preached in the Schoenfeld church on these trips.
Her parents’ visits helped Gertrude cope with the death of her two daughters, the births of her sons and her antagonistic mother-in-law, who never quite reconciled herself to Heinrich and Gertrude’s marriage. The Unraus encouraged their daughter to treat the difficult Mrs. Enns with Christian charity. In his memoir Gertrude’s brother Isaac writes that he remembers on several occasions his parents took the train to Kowalicha to try to ‘smooth things over’ between Mrs. Enns and his sister.
Heinrich and Gertrude and their children also traveled to Rudnerweide fairly regularly to visit with the Unraus. These family gatherings were marked by visiting, gift giving, singing, family worship and fun, often including ball games. The years from 1910-1914 were ones of prosperity for the Mennonites in Ukraine, including the Enns and Unrau families.
In 1914 when World War I began, Heinrich was conscripted to do alternative military service along with other men from the Schoenfeld area. There was a parting worship service held in the church and the next day the husbands and fathers were loaded onto boxcars and taken off to their wartime assignments as their emotional and worried families waved good-bye.
Heinrich was stationed in Moscow serving on medical train #183 traveling to the front to pick up wounded soldiers and bringing them back to inland hospitals. The Mennonite workers on the hospital trains were highly regarded because they were well-educated, hard-working and showed sympathy and care for the wounded soldiers. Heinrich was soon given many added responsibilities including dispensing drugs and assisting with surgery. As the war escalated the medics were given almost no breaks in between trips and Heinrich had to clean up the train and get it ready for new batches of wounded while on route back to the battle front. Three of Gertrude’s brothers from Rudnerweide were also stationed in Moscow and when they could manage it, they would get together with Heinrich to share news from home.
Gertrude was left behind in Kowalicha and did her best to help run the Enns estate, which was very difficult since quite a number of their farm workers had joined the army and the government had confiscated many of their horses and vehicles. At one point Gertrude was in such despair over what to do with the farm, she took the train to Moscow to visit a surprised Heinrich and receive his advice and encouragement.
Heinrich, still an excellent writer, sent long letters home that everyone in the village clamored to read because they were so rich in descriptive detail. Heinrich wrote about the crowded conditions on the hospital trains and the lack of morale amongst the Russian soldiers, who were abandoning their posts and rebelling against the corruption and incompetence of wealthy officers. Gertrude had her own problems as roving bands of Russian peasants had begun to rob and terrorize estates in the Schoenfeld area. She was so relieved when Heinrich returned home.
After the brutal murder of the Balzer and Schroeder families not far from Kowalicha, Heinrich realized the wisdom of his Unrau parents- in- law, Peter and Anna who had been begging their children to come and join them in Rudnerweide where it was safer. They had a small house on their yard. Heinrich, Gertrude and their boys could live there. One of Heinrich’s obstacles to leaving was his mother. Mrs. Enns refused to abandon her grand home in Kowalicha and all her lovely belongings, but finally Heinrich simply put his mother on one of three wagons loaded with supplies and set off for Rudnerweide with his family. He took along some livestock, quite a number of horses and as many clothes and other possessions as possible. The trip was very dangerous and Heinrich and Gertrude and their children were tired and frightened when they finally arrived in Rudnerweide. Gertrude’s parents, the Unraus, were so relieved their prayers for the safety of their children and grandchildren had been heard, they hosted a special service of thanksgiving in their home, inviting relatives and friends to attend.
For a time it was relatively safe in Rudnerweide and in fact streams of refugees flocked to the more populated Molotschna colony villages from Schoenfeld where the bandits were now in control. But then word came that the same army of bandits who had been wreaking havoc in the Schoenfeld area were headed for Rudnerweide. Heinrich paced their tiny house on the Unrau yard, his face pale. He knew that some of the bandits were men who had worked for him previously in Kowalicha and were likely to recognize him. Heinrich and Gertrude hid and buried as many of their belongings as they could. Heinrich came up with the idea of boarding up the little house to make it look as if no one was living there. By the time the villagers on night watch March 1, 1919 sounded the alarm and spread the word that thousands of riders were approaching, Heinrich, Gertrude and their boys were hiding in the cellar of the little house. During the next week they remained there fearful and apprehensive while a large contingent of men occupied the Unrau house and yard, screaming and cursing orders at the Unraus who were expected to wait on them hand and foot. Gertrude’s mother had to cook for them. Gertrude’s father had died just a month before and so he was spared from witnessing what was happening to his loved ones. The bandits slept in the family beds never removing their boots and leaving armies of lice behind. They got drunk and dressed up in the Unraus’ nicer clothes, the ties and suits and fancy dresses saved for special occasions. They took the family’s horses, confiscated their wagons and shot at the Unrau men for sport. They did inhumane things to the Unrau women that Gertrude’s younger brother Isaac says in his memoir he cannot talk about. But they never went near the boarded up little house. Isaac says, “It was a miracle that no harm came to Gertrude and Heinrich and the boys. Our prayers were heard and created a kind of invisible fortress around that house, as if an angel stood at the door and turned the bandits away.”
Heinrich’s nerves were at a breaking point after this incident but Gertrude’s cheery optimism kept him going. During the next years two girls were born, Gertrude in 1920 and Anna (Anne) in 1923. Heinrich, jack- of –all- trades, did his utmost to try to care for his growing family. He built wagons and opened a mill to process sunflower seeds into cooking oil. He designed a machine that would take the hull off of grain. Farmers gave Heinrich a small portion of their crop in return for using the machine. When lightning struck his in-laws barn and stable and they burned to the ground, Heinrich’s two remaining horses perished, but he helped the family rebuild the barn as well as refashioned many of the melted steel implements so they could be used again. When Gertrude’s brother Johann married and needed to move into the little house on the Unrau yard where Heinrich and Gertrude had been living, Heinrich went from door to door in the village till he finally found a brick stable for his family of eight. Gertrude’s brothers helped him remodel it into living quarters.
It is while they were living in the stable that the famine began. It was not unusual to find two or three corpses a day of people who had starved to death on the streets of Rudnerweide. By selling most of the family treasures and keepsakes they had brought from Kowalicha, foraging for crow’s eggs and wild honey, and going hungry many times themselves, Gertrude and Heinrich were able to keep their children alive until food relief arrived from America to make things a little easier.
When they were forced to move out of the stable, Heinrich found an old house that a family had vacated and been unable to sell before they left Rudnerweide. Gertrude and Heinrich moved in, although Mrs. Enns, Heinrich’s mother decided to go and live with relatives in Gnadenfeld. After a time she died there. The abandoned house Heinrich found was at the edge of the village and there was space for a garden, so he and Gertrude worked hard planting corn, sunflowers, watermelons, potatoes and other small vegetables. Then the sad news came that Heinrich’s brother-in-law Abe Dick had been brutally murdered in the village of Blumenort where he and his family had taken refuge with relatives. Despite all their trials and sorrows, Gertrude’s brother Isaac remembers how Heinrich and Gertrude remained hopeful and were always patient and loving with their children.
In 1924 lists were drawn up for immigration to Canada. Although some of the Unrau family was on the first priority list to leave, Gertrude and Heinrich and their children were put on the second list. As they said good-bye to their Unrau relatives at the train station Gertrude and Heinrich were weeping openly. It was hard to see their family leave without them.
When Gertrude and Heinrich were told to travel to Gnadenfeld in August of 1925 to see a Dr. Drury, a Canadian physician who had been sent to Ukraine to provide medical clearance papers for prospective immigrants they knew their turn to immigrate must be imminent.
Along with Heinrich’s brother Peter’s family and his sister Margaret’s family and his sister Aganetha, Heinrich and Gertrude were able to leave for Canada in October of 1925 with their six children. They settled first in Ruthven, Ontario where they found employment on the Grant Fox Farm. They were given the second story of a large frame house on the 6th concession as living quarters. In 1926 the family began sharecropping for Mr. Sidney Leslie, but their very first crops of tobacco and tomatoes were ruined by excessive rains, so they moved on to another farm near Wheatley where their youngest daughter Agnes was born in 1927. Sadly here disease ruined their tobacco crop, so the older sons got jobs to help support the family. Gertrude’s brother Isaac helped them negotiate the purchase of a hundred acre farm in 1928 from a Mr. Poulter. The first tobacco crops were excellent, but when it was time to sell them, prices had dropped and so rather than sell in Canada at low prices, Heinrich was duped by a swindler into covering the costs for shipping the tobacco to England. Heinrich was never paid for this crop nor were his shipping expenses reimbursed.
By 1933 Heinrich was heartbroken. He was in debt and unable to support his family properly. He became quiet and withdrawn. Despite the fact he had loved driving in Ukraine he never got a Canadian drivers license and he never learned to speak English. In 1934 a heat wave stunted the growth of the potato crop Heinrich had planted. Excessive rains in 1935 destroyed Heinrich’s crops yet again but that was the least of his worries. Gertrude, his wife took ill becoming more and more mentally unbalanced so that finally she had to be admitted to a mental institution in London. She was there for many months until an X-ray revealed two badly decaying teeth that had infected her jaw and were causing her severe headaches. When those teeth were pulled and she received medication she slowly began to get better and eventually was able to come home. Her illness never recurred. Even after renegotiating his loan for the farm Heinrich could not meet his payments so he had to return his property to Mr. Poulter and went to work for a tobacco grower Mr. Frances Gregory.
By 1939 all four of Heinrich and Gertrude sons were married and starting families of their own and in 1941 and 1942 respectively Gertrude and Anne were married as well. After working on the Ross Bruner farm for a time Heinrich retired. He missed the farm and the routine of fieldwork. He took on a few building jobs for relatives to keep busy. Not long after, Heinrich suffered a severe stroke. It left him paralyzed on one side and impacted his speech and his coordination. He grew increasingly despondent and it was very difficult for Gertrude to care for him. The children helped Gertrude buy a house on Setterington Avenue in Leamington and Heinrich died there in 1950 with his family gathered around him. Gertrude lived another six years. In her obituary her family pays tribute to her loving heart and dedication to them. Her daughter Anne told me her mother despite her difficulties in life remained friendly, open and cheerful. She loved flowers and grew pansies and petunias in profusion around her Leamington home. Her window boxes were bright with red geraniums. A pastor who visited Gertrude just before her death, said she told him she was at peace and remarked on the many joys she had experienced in her life.
During our visit to Ukraine in June of 2011 our guide Victor was able to take us to the site of the former Enns estate in Kowalicha where Heinrich and Gertrude began their married life.
An abandoned collective pig farm on the site where the Enns estate once stood.
A sprawling collective pig farm had been built there subsequently, but it too had been abandoned and only a large flock of geese now called it home.
The man-made lake where the family went rowing and fishing, was still there, although contaminated with run off and debris from the pig farm.
In amongst a tangle of brush and trees we found the Enns tombstones, that our guide Victor had been so anxious for us to see. We were able to verify they had belonged to Heinrich’s two younger brothers Johann and Jakob. (Link to a story about our visit to see the Enns estate in Kowalicha and the tombstones)
Through a series of fortunate coincidences we were able to find the little house on the Unrau farmyard in Rudnerweide where Gertrude and Heinrich took refuge during the bandit occupation of March 1919. (Read a story about our visit to Rudnerweide here.)
At my mother-in-law Anne’s funeral in October of 2011, one of Isaac Unrau’s daughters told me her father finished writing the story of his sister and brother-in-law, Heinrich and Gertrude Enns, Anne’s parents, and my husband Dave’s grandparents, just before he died. Had it not been for his memoir we would never have found the Enns and Unrau properties in Ukraine nor would I have been able to write this history about my husband Dave’s Oma and Opa Enns. Uncle Isaac left Heinrich and Gertrude’s family a wonderful legacy–a story of faith, love and loyalty that is as fascinating as it is inspirational.
Only Heinrich and Gertrude’s youngest daughter Agnes Dick is still living but their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great, great-grandchildren number in the hundreds.
The information in this story is taken largely from Isaac Unrau’s memoir but also from information supplied by John Dick, Heinrich’s great nephew, and Gertrude Enns’ obituary in Der Bote.
I have published short stories about my husband Dave’s maternal grandparents Heinrich and Gertrude Enns before, but for the past weeks have been working hard to put together this more complete narrative of their life. I have written a condensed version of their family story for publication in a Ontario Mennonite historical magazine but wanted to post this longer, much more detailed, illustrated version of their story here. I am hoping people will read it and will be able to contribute additional information so I can keep editing and improving the story to make it more complete and accurate.
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