My great grandmother was born in a Jewish settlement in Ukraine. I discovered that back in March while working on a family tree project. I found out my maternal great grandmother Margaretha Schellenberg Sawatsky had spent part of her childhood in the Judenplan.
Judenplan? What was that? I found some information online and wrote an initial blog post but I wanted to know more. Jeremy Wiebe who works for the Mennonite magazine Preservings read my post about my great grandmother and sent some books my way that provided new insights about the Judenplan.
It seems in the 1850s both Jews and Mennonites in Ukraine were experiencing a land crisis. Their populations were growing and in the case of the Mennonites the crown lands offered them as an enticement to leave Prussia and move to Ukraine were no longer adequate. This left many Mennonites landless and if you were landless you just didn’t have much social status or influence.
To solve the Jewish problem of landlessness the Russian government decided to start a new Jewish settlement the Mennonites would refer to as the Judenplan on ten square kilometres of rich fertile land about a hundred miles west of the main Mennonite colony at the time.
However most of the Jewish families that moved there were craftspeople and business people and knew little about farming. To solve this problem the Russian government decided they needed to install mentor or model farmers in each Jewish village and figured the Mennonites who they described as “outstanding models of virtue and industry” would be perfect for the job.
Johann Cornies a Mennonite leader endorsed the plan because he viewed it as a solution for the overcrowding on Mennonite land. Ads were placed in newspapers offering Mennonites who moved to the Judenplan not only good land, but tax breaks and the right to have their own schools.
One of the people who moved there was a school teacher and farmer named Jacob Epp who kept a detailed diary that provides us with most of what we know about life in the Judenplan. Epp probably represented many of the Mennonites when he wrote he had a ‘deep personal aversion’ to living in a mixed religious community.
However for Jacob who had always only been able to rent land, the thought of owning his own property motivated him to move despite his misgivings. Something similar was no doubt the motivation of my own great great grandfather Johann Schellenberg when he too decided to move to the Judenplan.
Eventually six villages each with ten to twenty Mennonite families and twice as many Jewish families were established in the Judeplan. Essayist Harvey Dyck estimates there may have been as many as 800 Mennonites living in the Judenplan at one time.
The two groups kept their distance from one another and that wasn’t because of a language barrier since the Jewish Yiddish language and Mennonite Low German were similar enough to make communication possible. Still the Mennonites and Jews maintained their own schools, dress, religious beliefs and other social systems. Fraternization was discouraged and apparently there is no record of a single friendship or romantic liaison between a Jew and a Mennonite in the Judenplan.
The Jewish settlers who for the most part weren’t farmers ended up continuing on with their previous trades of tailoring, blacksmithing, shoemaking, tin smithing, trading wool and grain, lending money, making and selling liquor and inn keeping. They didn’t always have much time left for agriculture and so some ended up renting their land to Mennonites or local Ukrainians. The Mennonites apparently took advantage of the many convenient services the Jewish businesses had to offer.
Since the Mennonite and Jewish fields and pastures were intermingled however they needed to cooperate in farming enterprises. The Jewish farmers bristled at having Mennonites as their tutors and the Mennonites in turn complained about the weeds in the Jewish fields and how the cattle from the Ukrainian renters of Jewish property roamed around and trampled their grain.
Sometimes these resentments led to out and out conflict. In the 1870s the Mennonites sent a delegation to Odessa to lodge complaints about their Jewish neighbours who they said were being unreasonable in their demands concerning shared pasture and field land. Finally in the 1880s the Russian government tired of the ongoing resentments between the Jews and Mennonites separated their plow and pastureland.
Apparently most Mennonites who lived in the Judenplan were there only because they hadn’t been successful at their professions or farming in the Mennonite colonies. It seems the Judenplan was a bit of a ‘dumping ground’ if you will for Mennonites who were poor and lacked personal confidence. Perhaps because of their own inadequacies they blamed their Jewish neighbours for trying to cause trouble and get rid of them.
Eventually a lack of land for Mennonites became a problem in the Judenplan too. As the children of the Mennonite settlers married and had families of their own where were they to live and farm? By that time a movement had started where the Mennonite colonies were purchasing land from wealthy Russian gentry and creating new villages. One such land purchase of some 10,000 acres was called Baratov and Jacob Epp whose diary provides us with most of our knowledge of the Judenplan, left and moved to the village of Gnadenthal in the Baratov as did my maternal great great grandparents.
The Russian government’s Judenplan experiment generally seems to have been less than a success although some rather biased reports by both Mennonites and historians would refute that evaluation. The Mennonites were never able to influence the Jewish people to become successful peasant farmers and the experience further convinced the Mennonites that multi-ethnic or multi-religious communities weren’t a good idea.
I am glad my family tree pandemic project led me to learn about the Judenplan something I’d never heard of before. I just wish I had known about it when I visited Ukraine. I would have loved to have seen the site of the Judenplan village where my great grandmother lived.
The information in this post comes from an essay by Harvey Dyck called Landlessness in the Old Colony: The Judenplan Experiment 1850-1880 in the book Mennonites in Russia edited by a former professor of mine John Friesen.