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

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 sincerely believed
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 structure.

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 tents.

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 in 1825
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 in 1833.

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, respectively.

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 his wife.

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

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 in German.

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

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.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller