March 16, 2003

Das Alter Buch

Among the other documents included in Grandpa's magnum opus is a photocopy of the Alter Buch, or genealogy, started by my great-great grandfather, Peter Kornelius Martens. It is hand-written on unlined paper in German, using the old Fraktur script, also sometimes called "Gothic." Although I feel reasonably at ease reading German, the Alter Buch is completely illegible to me because I have virtually no knowledge of the old script - I can read it with great difficulty in print, but in hand-written cursive it's hopeless. For me, it would have been easier to read in hand-written Russian. The old German script was abolished by the Nazis in 1941 because Hitler believed it to have Jewish roots. Although after 1945 it was no longer illegal to use, it never recovered its pre-WWII popularity and nowadays it is rarely used and virtually never taught in school. It persisted among "diaspora" Germans in Canada for another decade or so after the war, but is by now forgotten most everywhere. Fortunately, Grandpa also transcribed the German into the modern script and translated it to English.

The Fraktur script
Many Mennonites are obsessed with genealogy. It's not about nobility - there is no status associated with discovering that you are descended from some worthy somewhere. I'm not quite sure where it comes from, but it is not a new thing. On the very first page of his record of the family, my ancestor has written Alter Buch! with a clearly visible exclamation mark. I can't understand the enthusiasm for family history that his punctuation indicates. Mennonites lived in very isolated communities centred on family and church, but the Martenses were among the most worldly and experienced of the Russian Mennonites, so this is a poor explanation. Alas, there is no way to ask him.

From the Alter Buch:

1894 November 28sten ist unser Sohn Kornelius geboren. Uhr 10 Nachts. Gestorben 10 Jan. 1920.
November 28, 1894 our son Kornelius was born at 10 o'clock at night. Died Jan. 10, 1920.

The Mennonites in Russia adopted the Slavic tradition of patronymic names as required by Russian law at the time. Each child's middle name was the name of the child's father. For the Russian-bilingual Germans, they would add the -ovich or -ovna suffixes to their middle names when they spoke Russian, and thus could fit in easily in Russian culture. The Martens line, however, had another interesting tradition. My great-grandfather's name was Kornelius Peter Martens, and his father was Peter Kornelius Martens, his grandfather Kornelius Peter Martens, and so on. It is unclear to me how far back this tradition went, but for a number of generations, one boy in the family had been named "Peter Kornelius" or "Kornelius Peter", alternating each generation. This tradition is clearly documented in my ancestor's Alter Buch, but it predates his record.

My great-grandfather was the last Martens so named. He chose to call his son Teodor Kornelius, retaining the patronymic tradition, but refusing to give his new-born son the name "Peter." Grandpa's name was later anglicised at the hands of British immigration and the Saskatchewan school system to "Theodor Cornelius." He was known for most of his life as "Ted."

The period immediately following WWI was the end of an era in many ways, and the end of a naming tradition in a minor German family is the least of the things that disappeared. I don't know why my great-grandfather chose to put those names to an end. I like to imagine that he was a radical and a firebrand, sick of the oppression of the old Russia that pervaded every part of life and refusing to perpetuate it. But his death in 1920 from typhus means I will never know. It was not always the oldest boy who was so named, so he may simply have intended to father more boys in his life.

Still, small as it is in the greater scheme of things, it is the change with the most immediate effect on me. Had the name persisted, I would be "Peter Kornelius Martens." Who wants to have "Kornelius" as a name, even a middle one?

In this post, I'm going to print some of Grandpa's discussion of our extended family and their lives in Russia, starting with his own father.

M. V. Lomonsov Moscow State University

Moscow University circa 1904 (from Davidson Films)

My father had been a student at the university in Moscow. He had gone to the Kommerz Schule (business school) at Barvenkovo before going to the University of Moscow [now the Moscow State University] for five or six years. No doubt his studies were in anticipation of taking part in the family manufacturing business. The family had had a share in a farm implement factory that was four stories high and employed about 120 men. [The Martenses were kulaks and factory owners, that is to say, they were members of the hated bourgeoisie.]

Uncle David told me told me he had had a real heart-to-heart talk with his younger brother Kornelius because Father was quite infected with the revolutionary ideas that were rife at the university. There they dealt in ideals, but when Father came home for a vacation, he experienced the reality of it. Father was wearing a new pair of shiny boots. He was stopped in the middle of the street by a "comrade" and ordered to exchange his boots for the guy's worn out dirty ones. That was communism in action. We say in Plautdietsch: Waut dient es, es uck mient, onn waut mient es geit die nuscht aun. What is yours is mine, and what is mine is none of your business. That cured Father of his communism.

[Great-grandpa the budding Bolshevik. I don't know how many times I heard this story over the years. It must have been just about any time my father or I said something political. From what I have gathered over the years, great-grandfather was politically quite liberal and hated the injustice of the Russian state. He wrote about it from the university in his letters to my great-grandmother. Grandpa would of course consider revolutionary thinking something to be stomped out. His own political conservatism was quite deep-rooted. It never seemed to occur to Grandpa that crushing poverty might have had more to do with this incident of footwear theft than communism. The Martenses were quite well to do at a time when millions of Russians were going hungry and cold. The one time I suggested this, it led to an extended political argument over Stalin, gulags, state atheism and the evils of materialism.]

According to Uncle David, Father must also have been a bit absent minded. He was waiting for his train at a railway station. There was much theft in Russia, so to protect his coat he put it on a bench and sat down on it. When someone tugged on his coat, he obligingly raised himself only to discover that his coat was gone. On the other hand, Father must have been a man who could be trusted with weighty matters. When the Makhnovtsii were on our side of the river and the White Army on the other side, it was Father who was asked to go across the frozen Dniepr with a white flag - a bedsheet tied to a pole - to mediate between the two sides. [The White Army were primarily royalists fighting to restore the monarchy.] Mother told me that Father could entertain a crowd all by himself.

[I was repeatedly told when I was younger that everyone who had known my great-grandfather and my father said they were very much alike in temperament. They were entertaining conversationalists, well educated and had a lot of leftist sympathies.]

Father must have been interested in history too, or at least current events. Russia had been ruled by the House of Romanov for two centuries. [Grandpa is in error. It was three centuries, from 1613 to 1917.] In 1918 that came to an end with the assassination of Czar Nicholas II and his family by the revolutionaries. Father collected material about the revolution, but then hid it with the rest of the valuables in Mother's foster parents' house.

Fronts in the Russian Civil War (Full map with legend)

When Mother's parents, Abram and Katharina Neust?dter, were murdered in 1907, the first Mennonites in Russia to lose their lives that way, the children were taken in by their mother's sister Helene Heinrichs. After her first husband had died, she decided to have a house built in Einlage and eventually married the architect, Peter Solomon Peters, who had studied architecture in Germany. [Grandpa refers to them as Grandmother and Grandfather for the rest of the text.] They built a rather imposing structure with a dome at the right front corner that originally had a cross on it. When things got real rough, they hid their valuables up in that dome, including Father's manuscript. They closed the opening and plastered it over as though there was nothing there.

Later, the building was expropriated and changed into a priyut - an orphanage. It was always within view of where we lived, just a door or two south on the other side of the street. One day, Mother saw one of the boys going down the street with a vase she knew had been hidden up in the dome. Boys being boys, they must have snooped around and discovered the hiding place. The family was afraid of the consequences, but nothing happened in spite of the manuscript.

The building we ended up living in was the southern end of a duplex which used to be occupied by the coachman and the gardener. As I recall, our part had three rooms. The first of those rooms served as a dining room and also as a bedroom for mother and me. Aunt Mika, Mother's youngest sister Maria, must have slept there too. There was also a bedroom for my Grandparents and a kitchen with a big brick oven. The entrance was from the east facing the Dniepr.

The other half of the house was occupied too, but I don't recall by whom. They did not have children , so I had no one to play with. Mother told me a Russian lady doctor had lived there for a while, but I have no recollection of them. Farther back in the yard was a barn which was parallel to the house. The left end must have had a living quarters, because a Miss Reimer lived there with her daughter. As I think back, I wonder whether she was one of the unfortunate girls who was violated during the Revolution?

From our back steps we could see the longest single-span bridge in the world. It crossed the Dniepr just to the north of town and was a wide, double-decker bridge. The top deck had two railway tracks running side by side and the lower deck was for vehicle traffic. When the Germans occupied the Ukraine in WWI, the retreating Russians blew out the middle section of the bridge to prevent the German army from crossing. This forced them to go north to Ekaterinoslav before they could get over. To prevent a trainload of wounded from falling into the hands of the Germans, the Russians set this train in motion and let it advance on the damaged bridge. Our family stood on the back steps and watched the sparks fly as car after car went over the edge and into the water below. Even the last one disappeared into the river without leaving a trace. The only living thing that survived was a cow. We became the fortunate owners.

Aunt Njuta tells me there were several trains full of screaming wounded sent to their doom by their own people over that bridge. They counted 80 cars in one of the trains. The section that was bombed out was about 45 feet in length. After the war was over, they strung rope across the gap and put boards across for people to cross. Aunt Njuta had crossed that way only once, and it was enough to cure her curiosity. They never crossed the bridge again until it was repaired.

During the revolution, two men were taken to the bridge for execution. One of them took the option of jumping off the bridge. He must have been a good swimmer because he managed to escape even though they continued to shoot at him.

I remember one time we went to Aleksandrovsk. [Aleksandrovsk was the pre-Soviet name of the city now called Zaporizhzhya.] The bridge seemed very wide to me. It was 140 feet above the level of the water. I know we went to the open market bazaar. Grandmother tasted some of the butter with her finger, and the butter was in a large ball nearly a foot in diameter. That is the way it was done.

I remember one other incident. Late one night there was a knock at the door. The door was locked and well barred with a 2x4. The people on the steps asked for Grandfather. He was in bed and refused to come to the door. The women talked to the men outside but refused to let them in. Eventually the strangers went away. Why did they not open the door? Because people were taken away under similar circumstances and never heard from again.

Of course, I went to visit my [paternal] grandmother Elisabeth Martens too. The family factory had been expropriated as had their home. Years before this, Grandfather [Grandfather Peter Kornelius Martens] had come home and announced that he had bought a present for Grandmother. It was the Andesen house, the oldest residence in Einlage. Because the property had been registered in Grandmother's name, it was not taken away. That is the house I remember her living in.

After Grandfather's death the family had to leave their home next to the factory and hide out in other buildings for their protection at night. The business owned two better homes that were formerly occupied by the foreman and the carpenters and they hoped to move into one of them.

It was rather unexpected when Grandmother was notified to appear in court in Zaporozhe. [Now Grandpa is using the Soviet era name of Zaporizhzhya/Zaporozhe/Aleksandrovsk.] The trusted coachman had initiated court action claiming he had lived in the house over an extended period of time, thus giving him ownership. Under the conditions that prevailed at the time, the outcome was not surprising. The house was given to the plaintiff causing the family to move into the old house that Grandfather had bought as a present in happier days.

During the early 30's, the same man wrote to the family and requested that they send food packages because they were starving. After the way he had treated them, they did not respond. With the depresssion in Canada and the difficulty of getting started, they barely had enough to keep themselves alive.

By 1927, preparations for building the Dnieprostroy were well under way and Einlage was to be relocated to higher ground. Before Mother and I left for Canada, Grandfather [Peter Solomon Peters again] had already started building a new house in the new Einlage. Later, after we left for Canada, Grandfather was offered a job helping to build the Moscow Subway because he was an experienced architect. He declined because he wanted to live among his own people.

Old Comments

Posted 2003/03/16 23:45 (Sun) | TrackBack

Could "Martens" possibly be spelled "Martin" in the US today? We can trace our family back to Germany, but then it's a deadend. Martin is my mother's maiden name. My father's name is Stumbo and I know it's a German name, but was spelled differently. Some spell it Stambaugh, and this may be the German spelling. Anyway, I was just wondering if "Martens" could possibly be "Martin." For some reason, Cornelius sounds really familiar to me.


Posted by: Debbie at April 27, 2004 22:52

My fathers side is 'martens' (adolf martens), we also live in canada. My parents were originally from hamburg, then moved to Tilsonburg, Ontario in the 50's.

Posted by: Thomas Martens at April 13, 2006 4:07
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