March 23, 2003

One third of the way around the world in 30 days

I've always been fascinated by travelling. Those moments in life that are between places are so full of purpose and intent and so much more a stage for the human drama than a trip to the mall or eating in a restaurant. People who would otherwise never in all their lives come into contact are - in modern times - frequently compelled to share public transportation facilities.

Not that airports and railways stations are egalitarian places - quite the opposite. Nowhere is class and the privileges that money can buy more on display than in the modern airport, where first class, business class and "economy" passengers are herded into different parts of aeroplanes with different levels of comfort. Even on the ground, well-heeled passengers have access to lounges, free drinks, showers and special bathrooms to make transit just that much less unpleasant, not to mention shorter check-in lines and quicker inspections.

If you can't figure out why someone would pay a first class fare, I advise you to fly coach on the Singapore airlines San Francisco-Hong Kong-Singapore route at the end of the school year when it's packed with young Asian graduate students with multiple young children.

But travel - not simply shuttling between places or going on vacation but changing your scenery by moving permanently - is something besides just a trip. Perhaps it is because I - like my father and grandfather - have moved around so much that it means something to me. It means being in a netherworld of impermanence and flux, where only direction and destination have any substance. It's a chance to examine yourself without the distractions of day-to-day life pulling you back into routine, and to reinvent yourself by leaving the past behind. That is what I find fascinating in travel.

The romantic in me would like to say it's because of my ancestor - Grandpa's maternal grandmother - who was a gypsy infant abandoned in a Mennonite village and adopted by a local couple. Her highly ungermanic complexion ran in my family right up to my father, who had approximately the skin and hair colour of Cheech Marin and was constantly assumed to be Hispanic when we lived in the US. Unfortunately, so many generations of marriage to blonds has done in the family's dark, mysterious look, and my brother and I both have a more traditional German sort of complexion.

Besides, considering my well-known opinion of evolutionary psychology, it would be pretty strange for me to say that travel was in my genes. Grandpa moved around a lot for a number of different reasons, as did my parents. I can account for my wanderlust far more easily by simply saying that it's what I'm used to and nowadays there aren't any barriers to stop me.

At one time, the Martenses travelled first class. I have known for as long as I can remember that they were well-off in Russia. Grandpa's memoirs make this abundantly clear with its talk of estates, servants and advanced university educations. The men of the family were engineers - making me at least a sixth generation techno-dweeb - and apparently they were good at it. While researching Grandpa's story, I discovered just how wealthy they were. Although Grandpa only talks about the family's share in the neighbouring farm implement factory, I have discovered through other sources that they were part owners of the A. J. Koop Company, which in 1913 merged with two other companies to form the massive Urozhay (Russian for "Harvest") conglomerate - a public stock company that traded on the Moscow Stock Exchange. This company controlled the farm machinery industry in all of the Russian Empire and was worth tens of millions of roubles, doubtless hundreds of millions of dollars in modern currency.

Advertisement for the A. J. Koop Company 50th anniversary in 1914

The Martenses were major figures in the company - having a huge company house next to a factory is a dead give-away - although exactly what their role was I don't know. It is possible that my great-grandfather was a scion of one of the wealthiest families in the country short of the titled nobility. It is therefore no surprise that so much of Grandpa's complaints about the Bolsheviks has to do with the idea that they were thieves. This is the complaint of expropriated bourgeois everywhere. While Nestor Makhno is to Russian Mennonites something like what Adolf Hitler is to Jews, the resentment towards the Bolsheviks has a whole other sort of feel to it. It's always about the "godless communists" and how they "stole from the people."

The company - or at least something that enjoys some continuity with the A. J. Koop Company - existed beyond 1920. In 1921 the nationalised factories were reopened under the name Kommunar and in 1930 one of the company's Mennonite engineers - a man named Peter Dyck - received the Order of Lenin for designing and bringing into production Russia's first combine. This was, apparently, a key component of Stalin's plan for increasing agricultural production in collectivised farms. In 1959, the plant began producing automobiles, building Zaporozhets model cars, and later the Tauria. In 1998, after privatisation, it became part of a joint venture with the Daewoo company in South Korea, manufacturing in the late 1990's Tavria-Nova, Lanos, Nubira, Leganza and Slavuta model cars. For the last couple of years, it has assembled Mercedes model "E" and "ML" cars. The joint-venture company is now called AvtoZAZ-Daewoo and has a website.

Current Logo of AvtoZAZ

But, Grandpa's story is set in 1927. The nationalisation of the factories is over and done with and the Martenses are reduced to living like everyone else in Russia - in poverty and uncertainty. There is no evidence that they had been the special target of the police or the Communist Party. I have received no tales of them being especially harassed after the disappearance of Nestor Makhno, just stories of resentment and poverty. Later on, Stalin did make the Mennonites suffer - more for the crime of being German and for having uncertain loyalties than anything else. But so many people were inconvenient to Stalin, and the Mennonites didn't really suffer any more than so many others.

Grandpa's mother and the Martens family must have had some money - although from what source I don't know - because they were still able to pay their own way to Canada. My guess is that they were, ultimately, willing to serve the Soviet Union's crying need for technicians and engineers until they were able to get out. They travelled in third class, like common immigrants, which at the time was all that they were.

S.S. Montroyal

Grandpa has kept quite a mass of documentation from his trip to Canada. I have photocopies of great-grandmother's red USSR passport, immigration paperwork from along the way, as well as a photo of the "S.S. Montroyal" and a breakfast menu from one morning aboard. They travelled a third of the way around the world in under one month, a remarkable achievement considering that when Mennonites first came to Manitoba 50 years earlier, it took some three months, going via the Great Lakes on a paddle-wheel ferry and by coach across the plains. Fifty years later - when Grandpa's uncle visited - it took only a day to make the same trip, Aeroflot to Montreal via Leningrad and Air Canada to Winnipeg.

That is how I have always taken this part of Grandpa's story - as a sort of reverse science fiction story. It is a tale not of how wonderful the future will be but of how different the past was, and how much more wonderful it was than what preceded it. Consider how remarkable it must have been to live in a world where refugees could rely on a network of agents and offices spanning the globe to assist them in reaching a destination on the other side of the world, to be able to pre-pay for travel in a distant country weeks in advance, and to put yourself on the other side of the planet in under a month. And all of this was co-ordinated by high-tech international telegraph and telephone technology.

It was the beginning of a new world, an era of stamps and papers and immigration offices that had not existed before. And the Martenses would have to navigate this new world largely on their wits, for their money was long gone. But I should let Grandpa tell you about the trip first.


Although I was seven years old, my mother managed to keep me out of school because she did not want me to go to school with the communists. Mother and Aunt Njuta took the initiative to acquire passports for the family. All of Einlage had to be evacuated because the water would rise, the town would be flooded. Maybe that made it easier to get passports. Mother could not explain why she had been registered as the daughter of labourers. Her parents had been estate owners. God has unexplainable ways of doing things.

[As I understand it, many of Russia's former bourgeoisie were able to get themselves registered as proletarians through bribery. I suspect either great-grandmother didn't know that someone in her family had used corrupt practices to secure them with less threatening identities, or more likely she did know and didn't want to tell her son about her involvement in past misdeeds.]

Before they could leave, Mother had to have an abdominal operation in the hospital at Muntau, next to Halbstadt in the Molochna colony. [There were two large areas set aside for Mennonites in the Ukraine. Einlage and Khortitsa were in the Altkolonie - or "Old Colony" - and on the other side of the Dniepr river in an area called Molochna. See the map below.] I remember visiting her in the hospital. The operation seemed to be successful and healed well, but then the wound broke open and festered. This was very difficult for Mother. There were no antibiotics at the time, so recovery was slow. The rest of the Martens clan decided not to wait and went without Mother and me.

A map of Ukrainian Mennonite areas

Eventually Mother's incision improved sufficiently to permit her to be discharged from the hospital. My [foster maternal] grandparents were very attached to me, because they had no children of their own and I was their only "grandchild." They did all they could to keep Mother from going, but she was determined to get me out of that communist state.

The memory of waiting for the train at Kichkas is still vivid in my mind. Kichkas was the railway station name for Einlage. [In fact, it was the Russian and Ukrainian name for the village and surrounding area. Kichkas is on present-day maps of as the name of that community, now just a neighbourhood in Zaporizhzhya.] I sat straddled across our roll of bedding. It was still dark and I doubt if I fell asleep. If it had not been for the washing, my tears would still be in that roll. I still have it.

It must have been checked with the baggage, because Mother was in no condition to carry anything except maybe the enamelled kettle and two cups which we used for making tea. My duty was to carry the small wicker suitcase (21x12x8 inches) and a similar sized wooden box filled with reesche Tweeback - roasted buns. [Tweeback is the Plautdietsch word for what is more commonly known in German as Zweiback.] Roasted buns were a staple that would keep for a long time as long as they stayed dry, and boiling water was available at the railway station. At the age of seven I could not understand why I had to work so hard, and I know how upset I was with Mother.

In Moscow we were put into one room with a man. Mother thought he might have been a priest who was trying to escape from the country, but I don't know whether he got out or not. At one inspection a small oil painting on a cardboard roll was found in his possession. [I am unclear on where exactly they are staying - a transit dormitory for refugees perhaps - nor who is doing the inspecting.] He had to take it completely apart to prove there was nothing hidden inside. In spite of her poor health, Mother took me to the zoo in Moscow, but all I remember seeing is the hippopotamus with its cavernous mouth wide open. I didn't want to get too close for fear that I'd drop in.

Somewhere between Moscow and Riga the train stopped for an extended period of time. The railway dam was covered with small white shells, and people got out to pick them up. I acquired a handful too, but in the process of all our moving I'm not sure what became of them.

The atmosphere in the train was very tense when we stopped for a final inspection before passing through the iron gate at Zeberye. [I am unclear on where Zeberye is, except that it is presumably on the pre-WWII border between Latvia and Russia. I can't find any reference to it under several possible spellings.] God was very good to us, our passport was still valid. It expired the next day. We were allowed to proceed through the iron gate and beyond it lay freedom.

[Further note: In the comments, Language Hat informs me that Zeberye is Sebezh, Pskov, Russia.]

We had a brief stop in Riga, just long enough to spend the ruble Grandfather had given me for the trip. I bought a pocket knife with a mother of pearl handle. Our passport was stamped by the government of Canada on 23 August 1927 at the Port of Riga. I don't remember boarding the one-funnel little steamer that took us across the Baltic Sea and into the Kiel Canal. [The Kiel Canal is a shipping canal across northern Germany from the Baltic to the North Sea so that ships don't have to make the longer and more dangerous trip through the narrow passage separating Denmark from Sweden and Norway.] We went through that at night and part of a very foggy morning, so I didn't see anything. This could not have been the fastest boat because we were passed by a barge that had lumber piled on top of it.

The North Sea is not very deep and therefore subject to violent storms. We experienced one of them. The waves went right over the deck. All the passengers were sea-sick except for one man who travelled a lot. To get to the dining room from the cabins one had to cross the deck. He managed to get there and came back with some dill pickles, but everyone else was busy "bringing his offering to the gods of the sea" and no one ate the dills. When the storm was over, the sea was perfectly calm with boards floating on the water. I wonder what happened to the lumber barge?

Our boat docked in London and from there we took the train to Southampton. I recall looking out the window at the towns that passed. At one point the railway dam was fairly high but what struck me was that it was covered with flowers. This was the end of August.

In Southampton (Mother used to talk about "Setempton" and it took me a long time to figure out what she meant) we were housed in a gigantic warehouse. They had one building for the men and one for the women, but I was only seven years old and I only had my mother. Eventually they realised there was no other place they could put me except with my mother. The whole building was partitioned with blankets, so the lone male really posed no threat to anyone's privacy.

Here, we had to appear before the Canadian [government] doctor. Mother's wound had not healed yet, and she was in terrible physical shape. She spoke no English and the doctor spoke neither Russian or German, but Mother knew the Latin name for the operation she had had and that was all she could tell him. He let us come to Canada. Our passport is stamped "Landed as Transemigrant under Bond 29 AUG 1927 IMMIGRATION OFFICER LONDON." The medical inspection has the same date: ATLANTIC PARK HOSTEL MEDICALLY EXAMINED 29 AUG 1927.

Mother was not at all sure she would make it herself, so she had a tag tied to a string around my neck with the address of her foster parents in Russia and of her sister Susie Zacharias who had emigrated to Saskatchewan some years earlier. If she were to die on the trip, she hoped I would be sent to one of the places, whichever was closest. Fortunately, that emergency never materialised.

We boarded the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company liner the Montroyal and late in the day it set off on its voyage across the Atlantic. It may have detoured a bit, because we stopped off the coast of France to take on more passengers. It was dark by that time, and we could see lights in the distance.

I can't remember too much about what happened on the boat except that we did not get sea-sick. The dining room was a luxurious place. I have the menu for breakfast on September 6th so I am sure we did not need to rely on our roasted buns anymore. Actually, we were fortunate that Mother had been able to pay for the trip in advance. We did not come on credit as so many others did. It was not possible to bring any amount of money but at least Mother did not start with a debt.

The only other thing I can recall about the trip across the Atlantic is that we saw a movie on the boat. I always thought it must have been an early version of Mickey Mouse, but according to reports Mickey and Minnie were not around yet in 1927. [Mickey Mouse debuted in Steamboat Willie in 1928.] We may have seen some icebergs, but my memory is a bit vague on that.

We landed in Quebec City and went through immigration I'm sure, but I don't recall any of it.

From Quebec we went to Winnipeg by train. I don't remember how long the trip took, but I do recall the rock and stunted spruce growth which must have been somewhere in northern Ontario. Did we revert to eating roasted buns again? Hot water was not available by turning a tap at the railway station as it had been in Russia. I don't know how we made contact with relatives or who came to get us when we arrived. It must have been at the CPR station [Canadian Pacific Railway] because our trip was pre-paid. While Mother lived and enjoyed a good memory we were so busy trying to earn a living we didn't have time for questions like that, nor did we have the interest. Now that we are retired and the have the time and interest, the possibility of getting the answers is no longer there. All I remember is that after we arrived we went to stay with a family friend at a dairy farm west of Winnipeg near St.-François-Xavier.

Old Comments

Posted 2003/03/23 19:51 (Sun) | TrackBack

To whoever reads this fascinating site.

The Koop factory! Fantastic. I'm writing about a fictional Koop.

Indeed, I'm writing a novel on Nestor Makhno. Bob Loomis at Random House, NYC, is most interested in what I'm doing, although not necessarily on Makhno.

If, for purposes of feedback,anyone's interested, here are my co-ordinates :

Alfred Warkentin
2111 Beaconsfield Ave.
Apt. 5
Montreal H4A 2G7

Posted by: Alfred Warkentin at June 8, 2006 20:34
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