(Oldest son of Johannes D. Dyck, the 49er)
(Written by John R. Dyck and collated with some additions by Anna Isaac in A PILGRIM PEOPLE  pp. 16-30, 108-110.)
Johannes J. Dyck, my paternal grandfather, was born April 6, 1860 to Johannes D. and Helene Janzen Dyck in Fresenheim, Am Trakt, Russia. He was the oldest son of six children (four sisters and one brother), of which one sister and the brother died in infancy. He was the fist of three generations to be born in Russia and died on October 31, 1920.
On February 15, 1884 Johannes married Elizabeth Froese, the youngest of thirteen children (of whom only five daughters survived) of minister Cornelius and Maria Froese, Lysanderhoeh. Elizabeth was born on December 16, 1858 in Bayershorst, West Prussia. She emigrated to Russia with her parents in 1869 and died on October 12, 1908 in Lysanderhoeh.
Very little information seems to exist about either of them, their childhood, youth, or married life. In his diaries Johannes D. frequently refers to his son’s activities, but mostly in connection with marketing of grain, various purchases, the hiring of servants and work being done in connection with the farming operation. Thus, the little information that we do have, is gleaned from recordings of the previous and following generations, that is, my great-grandfather’s and my father’s writings, and the writings of my father’s sister, Elise, Mrs. John P. Isaac.
We do not know whether Johannes ever recorded events of his or their life. However, since my parents could take along only minimal baggage when they left Russia, it is possible that diaries and other records of his or Elizabeth’s were left with other members of the family. We do know that some material like this was left with my father’s cousin Anna Bergman. There are also memories, my own and those of my older sisters, as well as the „oral history“ via our parents which can help. Johannes and his sisters must have had an active social life with other young people of the villages. The above-mentioned records frequently report that the girls and Johannes were visiting one or the other of their relatives or friends, or had gone to choir practice. In the winter of 1881 there was so much ice on the streets that it was almost impossible to drive with horses. Great-Grandfather (Johannes D.) wrote that Johannes was skating daily and that he too, after twenty years of not skating, had done so again. On one occasion he wrote that he and Johannes attended the village council meet ing together.
In November 1881 plans were made for Johannes to go to Germany for Christmas. It was not until May 21, 1882, however, that the necessary documents and other things were ready. His sister Marie accompanied him. They returned on July 15, having bought a number of things which required an extra trip to Saratov, some forty miles away, to fetch them.
Those of us who have never experienced being uprooted in one country and moving to a totally strange land, cannot really feel with our ancestors who faced the many hardships and rigors that pioneers of necessity face. Bringing virgin soil that was not of the best quality under cultivation, coping with an unfamiliar and hostile climate, having very few medical facilities available, drought, grasshoppers, roaming nomads and hoards of beggars often tested them almost beyond endurance. It is evident from the diaries and letters that Johannes grew up in very modest not to say Spartan circumstances. During his childhood and youth he and his parents lived in a two-room section of the barn. By the time he and his wife Elizabeth (Froese) established their own home, however, the rigors of pioneering were less severe.
It was a happy day in 1884 when Elizabeth and Johannes were married, not only for the newly-weds but also for father and minister Cornelius Froese. Since Elizabeth was the last of the Froese girls to be married, it was custom for the new son-in-law to take over her father’s farm. Yet what was gain for one was loss for the other. In his diary Johannes D. laments „My God, how shall I get along without my son Johannes. Neither my wife nor I are well and Johannes is now gone for good.“ As happens frequently, Johannes, the son, learned the Russian language more quickly than his father, which was another concern for Johannes D. How was he going to communicate with the Russian servants? It seems that Johannes had done most of the hiring and managing of farm workers, for all practical purposes, seems to have been running the farm. Things did not work out too badly for great-grandfather though, especially after Leonhard Penner married Johannes‘ sister Kaethe and, in turn, took over her father’s (Johannes D.’s) farm, for the latter recorded in his diary that he was almost reconciled with the turn of events.
Johannes‘ wife died on January 18, 1888, leaving him a very lonesome man. The adjustment of living alone and then the decision to remarry, was a very difficult time not only for Johannes D. but also for Johannes and Elizabeth and the other children. In fact the children on both sides were opposed to the marriage, and although they later consented, Johannes Ds‘ relationship to his children seems never to have been the same as before. He had become engaged to Renate Wall Toews, the widow of David Toews, on September 15, and they were married on October 15, 1889.
Johannes and Elizabeth were blessed with ten children. The first child was a son, Johannes, born in 1885 and died in Canada in 1948 (my father). The second youngest, a daughter named Elise, later Mrs. John P. Isaac, recalls the sad events of 1894, the year of the diphtheria epidemic. In her little black book, „Vergissmeinnicht“ (forget-me-not) she recorded that four of her brothers and sisters died within the short time from September 6 to 14. They were Helene on September 6, age three years and eight months, and Elise on September 8, age five years and ten months. They were buried in one casket, on September 11. A week later, on September 18, there was another double burial: of Annchen, age eleven months, who died September 13, and Cornelius, age four years and seven months, who died September 14. Three others-Helene, Marie, and Jacob-had died as babies before this. So then Johannes, nine years old, was suddenly the only one left of eight children. Reflecting on this traumatic event Elise recorded in her „Vergissmeinnicht“ that for her dear parents it must have been a frightful experience. She goes on to say in her little black book that when she was born in 1896, and her sister Anna in 1899, „I am convinced that our dear mother must have embraced us with great love, much prayer, and many tears, and dedicated us to the loving Savior. How blessed to have this assurance. It often strengthened me in hard times.“
Johannes, then only nine, also remembered in later years in Canada that when his parents lost the four children, who had been their pride and joy, within the space of eight days, this had been one of the heaviest and most difficult experiences of their married life. It was little comfort to know that during the years 1892-94 many other parents lost their children also. Diphtheria and other epidemic diseases swept the little ones away because there was virtually no preventive or curative health care available.
Johannes Dyck, son of John D., the 49er, was a man of quiet nature, perhaps even withdrawn, but quite industrious and a very practical farmer. That he was a man of integrity and took a healthy interest in civic and church affairs seems obvious from the many references to his attending church services and meetings and serving the colony twelve years as Justice of the Peace. Yet the fact that his father was such a prominent figure may have caused Johannes to grow up in his shadow and influenced his early development and character.
So very much happened during the first twelve years of Johannes‘ and Elizabeth’s life together: taking over the farm, having eight children and losing seven of them, drought, grasshoppers, gophers, Russian thistles, too little water in the wells and too little food for animals and humans. .. Yet this seemed to be the lot of the first generation born in Russia. And then to hear his father (Johannes D.) often say how he regretted not having gone to America instead, surely did not help the struggle for survival. In fact it was as late as 1880 before the pioneers Am Trakt had any real assurance that their settlement would survive.
The rigors of this pioneering life led quite a number of people to return to West Prussia, find other places in Russia, or go to America. Among those who left was Johannes‘ uncle Cornelius (brother of the 49er) who went to Woodland, Washington with his wife and two sons in 1890. They lie buried there. It was also out of this milieu that Claas Epp emerged in the 1880s. Some 600 people, not all of them from Am Trakt, followed him to Asia where the Lord was to have prepared „a place of refuge“ for the elect in those last days. Three of Elizabeth’s sisters and families were also caught up in this movement. In 1897 Johannes and Elizabeth, accompanied by their son Johannes, went for a two month visit to these people. Leonhard Penner and his wife Kaethe came to Lysanderhoch for this period of time to care for the farming operations. Before leaving for Asia, however, Elizabeth bought numerous gifts to take along for relatives and friends.
In May of 1898 fire destroyed their farm; only the house could be saved with great difficulty. All other buildings, including feed, harnesses, some animals. . .everything was lost. It was thought that the fire had started because of a worker’s carelessness with his cigarette.
In the spring of 1901 they renovated the inside of the house. It was finished in the forenoon of the day before Ascension Day. As this happened to be a very hot day, with a strong wind, Johannes and the two painters lay down for an afternoon nap. Elise, then five years old, and two Russian maids, Anastasia and Cwenka, were in the garden. One of the maids went behind a hedge with the raked up debris and suddenly yelled at the top of her voice: FIRE! All three ran to the house as fast as they could. In that fire eleven farms in Lysanderhoeh and the neighboring village of Hohendorf burned to the ground, including also that of Johannes and Elizabeth Dyck. Only the summer kitchen and camel barn remained standing. Along with the loss of all the other buildings they also lost much wheat that had been in storage and actually sold, but not delivered, the day before. Now it was all gone. It was a severe blow.
Johannes borrowed the money to rebuild—but rebuild he did, at once! Little Elise remembers that 1908 was a happy year for her parents because after a good harvest they were able to repay the last debts on the buildings.
This happiness was short lived and overshadowed by the illness of Elizabeth. She had always been of small stature and a bit frail, but this year she seems to have worked exceptionally hard in house and garden, especially since her only son, Johannes, was about to be married. She wanted to have everything in best condition. Even when she was tired she would not spare herself. The thought that Johannes, who had become engaged in October, 1908, was going to bring young Renate Mathies as his wife and her daughter-in-law into her home, made her extremely happy. She anticipated many good days ahead when she and Renate would shoulder responsibilities together.
Then the unexpected happened. Elizabeth caught a cold. In an attempt to do the last cleaning up in the garden before winter she again pushed herself too much. Her life hung in the balance for about a week, but on October 11th she died of heart failure.
That changed everything. Elisa, who was only twelve years old, and Anna who was nine, were expected to have grown up over night. How were they to take care of the household, and how could they comfort their lonely father? On top of that his health was failing. In 1906 he consulted a throat specialist in Moscow who recommended that he seek the help of a certain doctor in Germany, which he did. After three months in Germany he seemed considerably better and returned home.
Elise remembers that her dear father did everything in his power to take on the role of their mother: „he showed us much love, but he was also strict.“ His heartfelt wish was that his three remaining children, Johannes, Elise and Anna, might be preserved in body and spirit.
Since son Johannes had already made a trip to Germany in 1907 with his cousin Jacob Wiebe and his father, 1911 was Elise’s turn to also go to West Prussia to explore her roots and visit her relatives. She was there for six months, staying mostly with her great-aunt Janzen. She enjoyed it immensely.
After her return from Germany she was expected to look after the household affairs. She often found that very difficult and with her younger sister Anna would simply sit down and have a good cry. It was not only that she missed her mother, but in her little black book she recorded that father was very particular but she was not. She was young and did not always realize what was happening when these two approaches caused tension.
However, she goes on to tell that they also had very beautiful times together, especially when sister Anna, who went to high school, was at home and they sang together in the twilight hours. Anna played the organ, always playing from memory. This time was often too short for father, and at his request the girls sang one song after another, sometimes for a long time when the moon was already up. In between father told them about good times and hard times. These were beautiful hours of bliss and bonding.
After the funeral of Elizabeth a decision had to be made whether or not to proceed with plans to celebrate the engagement of Johannes and Renate and the wedding that was to follow. Had Elizabeth lived she would undoubtedly have gone along to the city to make the necessary purchases for this special occasion and the needs of the bridal couple. Now, however, father and son went alone. They met Renate and her father in the city of Saratov and managed to buy what was needed.
The engagement was celebrated December 15, 1908 and the wedding on January 15, 1909. Father Johannes was deeply moved when Renate joined the family and they had a fine relationship between them in succeeding years.
In March the young couple moved to Waluevka, a farm some distance from any of the villages, but only a short distance from Fresenheim. Father Johannes had given some of the Waluevka land to the young couple as a wedding present, so they naturally wanted to live there. Thus the joy of having Renate in the home was short lived for the father when the newly-weds moved out in March. However, for the next several winters they always moved back into the village and John’s parental home because his father wished it. He was very lonely.
Years of political unrest and social upheaval followed. Johannes Dyck found it difficult to cope with the new and ever changing circumstances, one of which was land reform. In 1913 he wanted to stop farming and offered Johannes and Renate his farm in Lysanderhoeh. Young Johannes enjoyed himself so much at Waluevka that he could not find it in him to accept the offer, even though Renate would have preferred living in the village. A year later the father repeated the offer, saying he would rent it to others if they would not take it. Son Johannes found this decision extremely difficult to make but finally gave in and moved to Lysanderhoeh permanently in the fall of 1914. At one point he lamented: „First I lose my mother, whom I loved so very much, and now I have to move to Lysanderhoeh and live with father. That will be very trying for all concerned. I could talk about so many things and problems with mother—but not with father.“
Father Johannes Dyck built a new house for himself and his two girls across the street from where Johannes and Renate lived. He enjoyed car pentry, but overworked himself during the building of the house and never fully recovered. The new house was ready for occupancy in October 1914, but son Johannes wrote that his father seemed to have lost the joy and zest for life. The new house never quite became a home, because Elizabeth was not there to share it with him. He who in former years had expressed so much enthusiasm for farming wanted no more of it. His only desire was to give full attention to the needs of his two daughters, Lieschen and Anna. However, Anna chose to remain with Johannes and Renate and did not move in with him. But when Lieschen married Johannes P. Isaac on January 18, 1918, Anna did move over to care for her father.
World War I, the Revolution which followed, and several changes in government, brought much instability to Russia. Johannes Dyck found it increasingly difficult to accept what was happening and the effect these changes had on the people, particularly the Mennonites. The land reform had been initiated earlier, but now Mennonite farmers, too, were expected to share their land equally with peasants and the landless. So he lost all his land that he still had in Waluevka. At the same time, due to inflation and the devaluation of currency, he also lost his life’s savings and the money that Johannes and Renate had paid him for the farm. He felt stripped of everything he possessed, which caused him to develop problems with his nerves. Johannes and Renate assured him that as long as they had anything to eat he would too. For us who have not experienced the loss of a life’s labor in assets, it is difficult to fully grasp the gravity of this kind of a situation.
In the fall of 1918 he went to Waluevka to fetch some birch wood. While chopping down a tree he accidentally cut his right hand thumb with the ax. It did not seem serious at first, but blood poison set in, forcing him to be hospitalized some distance from home. There was very little medicine available, the food was poor and when he returned home after six weeks he was covered with lice. He had lost much weight and was in serious condition. After a year he could use that arm a little, but it seemed to be drying up.
The impact of so much hardship, his feeling so alone in the world, poor health, together with the loss of all his assets was more than he was able to handle. In the summer of 1919 he became emotionally ill. Consultations with a psychiatrist did not seem to be of much help. His nerves did improve little by little, but in 1920 he became weaker again and developed a bad cough for which he could not find relief. By October he could not leave his bed and someone needed to be with him almost continuously. Most of all he wanted his son Johannes at his bedside. In mid-October the doctor diagnosed that his lungs were rapidly deteriorating. He was not expected to live more than 15-20 days. His daughter, Anna, also spent much time with him.
A few days before he died he asked his three children and their spouses (in Anna’s case it was her fiance Alexander Quiring) to come to him and he shared how he wished his remaining possessions divided. The house was to be Anna’s, but since she would be moving to Koeppental after her marriage to Alexander, he wished that Johannes and Renate would buy it to prevent it from falling into strange hands.
His older grandchildren remembered well in later years in Canada how their grandfather had come across the street each day to visit them. They remember that when he could not come any more, they went to him, surrounded his bed for a last farewell meeting, and he blessed them with the words of Tobit 4:6: „Revere the Lord all your days, my child, and refuse to sin or to transgress his commandments.“
His only son, Johannes, sat with his father often and long during those last days. It would appear that however strained their relationship may have been at times, much healing took place during those quiet hours together.
He died on October 31, 1920, presumably of tuberculosis, and was buried at Lysanderhoeh November 6th. Elder Peter Wiens officiated and spoke on 2. Cor. 4:16-17. It was a message only a friend can offer to a friend. Johannes and Renate were thankful that he died when he did since this was about the time when the Communists unleashed their full fury with requisitions of food, livestock, money or whatever was still to be had. The liquidation or imprisonment of people became the order of the day, with persecution of Christians, Germans and those who had been more financially able. He was spared most of this.