The Mennonite Heritage Village has an artifact case on display in the Russlander exhibit that tells the story of the Abrahams family. 

Andrea Klassen, Senior Curator at MHV shares the story that gives an inside look on what that experience was like for so many.  

The story starts with Peter and Anna Abrahams, a couple who leave their home in Crimea in 1929, hoping to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union for Canada. 

Klassen says once they arrived in Moscow, they were told the borders were closed and to return to Crimea. 

“We're told the women and the family agreed, but only under the condition that the men could come along as well. Because at that point in the Soviet Union, if you were seen to be trying to leave, you could very quickly be labeled a traitor and sent to the camps in the East.” 

There was an exception made for them and they stayed in Moscow because Anna had just given birth to their first child, also named Peter, on November 12th, 1929.  

“So, the father, Anna, Anna's mother, and the baby were allowed to remain in Moscow until Anna had recovered from the birth.” 

The person who donated these artifacts is a descendant of the Abrahams family and says the day they were supposed to return to Crimea after Anna had recovered, they were suddenly told they could leave for Canada. 

“And she explained it's not known whether the family was suddenly given permission, or if they snuck out of the country somehow.” 

On their way to Canada, the family stayed in immigration stations in Germany. Baby Peter, at just over 11 weeks old, died in Germany on January 31, 1930.  

His parents and grandmother had to continue on their way to Canada, and they arrived in Nova Scotia on April 13, 1930. 

“So, we look at these documents, and on the surface, it just looks like documents, but it's this heartbreaking story of this young family and what this journey cost them, what life was like, what are the conditions under which an 11-week-old dies,” she says. “It just leaves you looking at this thinking, within the big arc of history there are there are stories like this everywhere.” 

The case in the exhibit tells the story of the Abrahams family and how they ended up coming to Canada as part of this migration. 

“On the surface, this case has one artifact. It has a little ashtray in it, but for the most part, it's paper documents.” 

The display includes the Abrahams Family Register, Citizenship Certificates for Peter and Anna Abrahams, and a Birth Certificate for baby Peter.

MHV also has postcards from the barracks where the Abrahams family stayed in Germany on their way to Canada, as well as Identification Cards and Visas documenting each step of the family’s journey to Canada. 

“Including medical exams that they had to pass in order to be allowed to come, entry paperwork, Certificate of naturalization. So, all of the paperwork that usually is not very exciting to us, I often call that the administrative burden of life, within that paperwork is this very personal story."

The Russlander exhibit at MHV marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the migration that saw roughly 23,000 Mennonites come from the Soviet Union to Canada between 1923 and 1930.  

Klassen says the exhibit looks at this chunk of history from various perspectives. 

She says it answers questions like what life was like in the Russian Empire before WWI, and what were the reasons Mennonites felt they had to leave the Soviet Union in the 1920s. 

“What were the pull factors for them to come to Canada? What were the things that had to change in Canadian immigration policy, or even in the world of Canadian Mennonites here that enabled thousands of Mennonites to come in the 1920,” she says. “And why did the door close in the 1930s? I think people might be surprised, it wasn't just the Soviet Union that closed the doors to leaving, it was Canada that closed the doors to coming.” 

She says they look at all of these questions by looking at artifacts from MHV's collection. 

The Russlander Exhibit is open until December 2. Every artifact in there tells as personal a story as this about what this migration meant to these individuals and these families.  

With files from Michelle Sawatzky


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