Three Courageous Women
Friesen, Kathy. "Three Courageous Women." Grand Island Independent, 17 March 2005.
The story of these three Mennonite Germans from Russia
stretches from their roots in the Low Countries of Belgium and the
Netherlands in the 1500s, through Polish Prussia in the 1600s and
1700s, until leaving for Russia in 1820, where they lived until
1874. Their migration took them
from the Molotschna Colony in Russia to Henderson, Neb., continuing
until Eva's death in 1937.
Today their heritage continues in the lives of Eva's 1,450 descendants,
Mennonite Germans from Russia, many of whom still live in Nebraska.
Eva Ratzlaff, born in Prussia in 1796, could trace her ancestry
back to the first Ratzlaff to arrive in Poland. He was a paid mercenary
fighting in Sweden's ongoing wars with Poland.
When he arrived in the Vistula Delta region of Poland about 1629,
Ratzlaff was so impressed with the simple, austere lives of the
Mennonites and their belief that war was wrong, that he drew his
sword from its sheath and thrust it into a hedge post declaring
that he would never again kill
or participate in war.
Eva Ratzlaff married in 1813, a widower with two small children,
ages 3 and 1. Eva and her husband, Peter Voth, lived in the village
of Przechowko in the Lower Vistula Delta of Polish Prussia. They
emigrated with four children from Przechowko in 1820-21, walking
1,000 miles to their new home in southern Russia.
As the people of Przechowko closed their gates for the last time,
they looked longingly over their shoulders at the homes they were
leaving behind. It was so hard to leave all that was familiar. But
walking down the sandy lane into the bright morning sunshine, they
they would find a better life in south Russia. Their belongings
were packed in wagons, some of which were covered by a wooden, house-like
A few wagons were pulled by oxen, but many carts were pulled by
hand. The strong, the young and the healthy walked; only the elderly
and the weak rode. The first group, leaving in 1819, traveled in
a caravan of 35 families.
The long journey soon became monotonous. Peter and Eva were accompanied
by their four children: Eva, 13; Heinrich, 11; Peter, 8, and Anna,
5. The children walked along playing simple games with their siblings,
herding the animals and imagining what their new home would be like
and when they would get there. Since nearly all of the Przechowko
families went together, there were cousins and other children with
whom to play.
At night the cow had to be milked, and supper had to be prepared.
The families slept on the ground, under their wagons or in their
While encamped south of Warsaw for a two-day rest, they met the
entourage of Czar Alexander, the czar of Russia. He inquired of
them where they were from and where they were going. Responding
to the information that they were en route to the Molotschna area
in south Russia, the czar responded, "I wish you well on your
journey. Greet your brethren, I have been there."
They continued their journey, resting at the original colony of
Chortitza for the winter. They resumed their trek in spring to settle
the Molotschna Colony about 100 miles southeast of Old Colony Chortitza
in south Russia, above the Sea of Azov, near the Black Sea. When
they built their village, they named it Alexanderwohl, meaning the
well wishes of the czar.
The settlers' crops at the end of the first season in Russia, 1821,
yielded only enough grain for seed. In 1822, grasshoppers came and
continued to cause extensive damage for seven years. Crops in 1823
and 1824 were a failure. An extremely long and severe winter storm
caused extensive damage to the livestock. For lack of feed, the
settlers even fed their animals the straw from the roofs of their
homes. An epidemic among the livestock in 1828 caused further losses.
Then the settlers faced several years of drought and a severe famine
The settlers' poor diet and harsh living conditions resulted in
a high rate of infant mortality. Peter and Eva, like others, experienced
the sadness of losing small children. After they immigrated to south
Russia, more children were born to them.
First there were two David's, both of whom died as infants, in
1822 and in 1823. Then Maria and Helena were born in 1826 and 1828,
Peter and Eva moved from Alexanderwohl to Landskrone in 1829, where
two more daughters were born, Catharina (the mother of Eva Abrahams)
in 1830 and Sarah in 1832.
Economic conditions in the village finally began to improve with
the introduction of four-year crop rotation, better weather and
improvements in cattle breeding. Just as life was improving after
10 years of near starvation on the steppes of Russia, Eva's husband
Peter died in 1835.
Three months later she married a younger man, Heinrich Schmidt,
who became the father to her children, even though he was only a
few years older than her stepson, Heinrich Voth. Four years later,
Eva and Heinrich had twin sons, named Heinrich and Jacob. Heinrich
died in infancy. Jacob grew to manhood and had 10 children with
In her retirement years, Eva (Ratzlaff) Voth Schmid emigrated again,
leaving south Russia in 1874 because religious privileges were withdrawn
for her people, the Mennonites. Eva was 78 years old when she left
her home in Russia, and lived five years in south-central Kansas
in her new country, the United States. She was buried in the Gruenfeld
(Greenfield) Cemetery close to the land she and her husband had
purchased in Marion County, Kan.
Catharina Voth, daughter of Eva Ratzlaff and Peter Voth, was born
in 1830 in Russia. She was only 5 years old when her father died.
She attended elementary school in an isolated Mennonite village
in Russia, learning her letters and numbers and reading her Bible
She married Johann Abrahams in 1850. As a wife and mother, Catharina
gave birth to 13 children. She was widowed just a few months before
her youngest child, Katherina, was born.
Uncommon as it was in the late 19th century for a widowed woman
to make such a difficult decision, Catharina sailed to America with
her mother, six minor children and other relatives in 1874. She
was able to pay $1,460 cash for her 200-acre farm near Henderson,
Neb. She reasoned that she could not run her husband's mill in their
village of Landskrone in the Molotschna Colony of south Russia;
in America, there would be a chance to buy land for her sons and
the hope of religious freedom.
Catharina endured the hardships of life in a sod house, a framed
structure with sod walls, a steep roof (probably shingled) and a
room at each end of the house. The house was about 20 by 28 feet.
She had built two open fireplaces and two Russian Mennonite brick
ovens for cooking and heating the house for her family of eight.
Quite likely, the animals were housed at one end of the house barn
and her family at the other end.
In 1879 she married Abraham Boese, a widower with six children.
With some children having left the home, they were still a family
of 11 living in the small sod house -- until a short time later,
when her husband built them a slightly larger frame home.
It was an incompatible marriage and the couple separated. She was
buried in the Bethesda Cemetery near Henderson and her husband was
buried near Bradshaw.
Eva Abrahams was born in Russia in 1854, the daughter of Catharina
Voth and Johann Abrahams. Like her parents, she attended the village
school in Alexanderwohl, learning her letters and numbers and reading
her Bible in German.
As a teen of 15, she emigrated with her mother, grandmother and
other relatives in their Mennonite group on the S.S. Teutonia. While
her grandmother and most of their relatives settled in Kansas, Eva
went to York County, Nebraska, with her mother, Catharina.
Eva Abrahams married a farmer, Peter J. Friesen, who became a minister
and elder, elected to serve his congregation, the Bethesda Mennonite
Church for 25 years.
Like her mother, Eva also gave birth to 13 children, two of whom
died in infancy. Her first-born child died in an epidemic of typhus
at 9 months old, two days after her youngest sister, 6, had also
died of the disease.
Peter built a very crude, small-frame house, where Eva cared for
her family and assisted in the farm work. She helped her husband
by reading Scriptures to him and reporting on articles she read
in the church newspapers. In 1904, Peter and his sons built a fine
frame home, which is still occupied today.
Like her mother, Eva (Abrahams) Friesen was widowed. She remained
on the farm for 12 more years raising her children and taking care
of the farm with the help of her sons.
In 1920, Eva moved to Henderson with three children. Rather than
sending her eldest daughter, Katie, born deaf, away to school, Eva
taught her a self-made sign language in their Platte Deutsch language,
in which to communicate with her family.
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Island Independent.