Walter Ratliff’s excellent book discusses the journey Helena took
Helena Graewe Warkentin (1865-1942) shares her amazing story about how she travelled across deserts and mountains in a wagon train from South Russia to Turkestan, Central Asia in 1880.
Helena was 16 years old when her family left Kleefeld, Molotschna, for Central Asia. Along with many other young people, she walked for most of the 18-week journey covering 2,600 miles (4,200 km) of rough terrain.
When I read that Helena was baptized in a mosque, I wondered if it was a typo. But no. Helena and 20 others were baptized in the Kyk-Ota (Blue Grandfather) mosque in Sarabulak, now Uzbekistan. Her sister, Katharina Graewe (1859-1916), married Bernhard Wiebe (1859-1921) in a double wedding in the same mosque.
Some descendants of families on the trek travelled to Sarabulak in 2007. They were amazed to find the mosque still standing, and villagers who affectionately remembered the Mennonites through stories of their ancestors. Their interreligious and intercultural cooperation sets a powerful example of the potential when groups work together. The Mennonites still kept separate and privately called the others “heathens,” but tried to be loving toward their neighbours.
I learned about Helena when researching my maternal grandparents, the Graewes. Helena’s father, Heinrich Graewe (1834-1917), was the brother of my great-great-grandfather, Isaak Graewe (1827-1888). While Isaak stayed in South Russia and moved from Molotschna to Sagradovka, Heinrich felt called to go further east. There the young men were promised to be free from military service. Even alternative service in forestry seemed like a dangerous compromise for this peace-loving group.
Five wagon trains with this intention met in Tashkent in 1880-1881, but eventually split into two groups. One group, mostly from Molotschna, developed the Aulie-Ata settlement, now in Kazakhstan, with few Mennonites still living there.
The Graewes joined the other group, mostly from Am Trakt, who experienced much upheaval and several false starts. Sometimes they travelled with no idea where they were headed. They first tried to settle in the Bukhara emirate, but were evicted more than once.
Their next stop was Serabulak, a village on the caravan route where they had stopped briefly before Bukhara. Now they spent the winter, staying in caravan lodgings, donkey stalls which they tried to fix up, even in the mosque. The day after they left Bukhara, they worshipped in the mosque. The Muslims used it on Fridays and Saturdays and let the Christians worship there on Sundays.
In his gripping memoir, Our Trek to Central Asia, Franz Bartsch mentions a scary experience of one of the Graewe women in Serabulak (likely the mother, Katharina Giesbrecht Graewe, 1837-1916): “Sister Graeve had mixed a yeast dough and was examining it to see whether it had risen. She noticed a dark object in the dough and when she put in her hand to remove it, a scorpion attached itself to her finger. It stung her instantly, causing great swelling and dreadful pain.” (p. 88)
Finally the group was allowed to settle in the Khiva Khanate. They made the difficult trek and called their settlement Lausan. But local tribesmen often stole horses, cattle and other property, knowing the Mennonites would not use violence to resist them. After a horrific murder (Heinrich Abrahams, 1854-1883), 23 families gave up on Asia, voyaging to America in 1884.
Those who remained again split into two groups. Some moved to Aulie Ata, others to Ak Metchet (White Mosque), a garden oasis offered by the Khan of Khiva in a safer location near the city of Khiva. The small settlement offered little land for farming, but neighbours and even the Khan sought the Mennonites’ services in language interpretation, carpentry, sewing and other work. Their innovations in photography, agriculture and other pursuits are now remembered with gratitude by locals, even celebrated in a Mennonite museum in Khiva, the Ichan Kala Museum.
After 51 years, in 1935, the Khivan Mennonites were deported by the Russians to an empty stretch of desert in Tajikistan. Many then died, but survivors and their descendants migrated out when the opportunity arose, and have been found in Germany.
The Graewes settled in Newton, Kansas, where they joined the historic Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in nearby Goessel, Kansas. Helena wrote this account of her experiences to share with the youth group there. An earlier letter written to the Mennonitische Rundschau in 1916 provides a glimpse of life in Kansas, and some memories of the trek.
I translated Helena’s writing with the help of DeepL, adding paragraph breaks for readability. The original text is in the German language version of this blog post.
More stories about the trek to Central Asia are shared in Letters to Tashkent. An overview of all 5 wagon trains and its casualties is shared in Asia trek deaths 1880-1884. Walter Ratliff does a marvellous job of bringing the trek to life in his book, Pilgrims on the Silk Road.
The Mennonite Heritage Archives of Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, preserved Helena’s trek story and kindly shared it with me. Her account of the strong faith and community fellowship during her arduous adventures is one that will stay with me. I hope that you find it inspiring as well. Thank you, Helena.
- Irene Plett
Our trek to Asia
In 1932, I was asked by the youth group if I might want to tell them something about our trip to Asia. So I asked the Lord to give me something so that I could be a blessing with what I shared.
And now in 1942, just 10 years later, the dear youth asked once again for a report about the trip to Asia. But now I am not healthy, and cannot, and so this came to my mind, and I wish that I could be a blessing for you too! God grant it!
To be delivered to the youth group, August 14, 1932.
Excerpts from our trip to Asia
Because not long ago a report about our journey appeared in two issues of the [Christliche] Bundesbote, and if I am right, last year from another, also in two issues, I didn't really know what else I should share. So I asked the Lord to give me something that I could be a blessing with what I report. And so it occurred to me that no one had yet reported anything about how and when we started our journey.
It was on Aug. 17, 1880 [new style calendar], two days later than the date that I am sharing this with you. My dear parents started this arduous journey from the village of Kleefeld in [Molotschna] South Russia, because of the compulsory military service and did it out of love for their children. House and farm and land had to be sold very cheaply, and because the passports took so long, it was too late in the year. There was a difficult parting from all the dear ones. Then we all drove to the village of Waldheim [in Molotschna], where everyone met as arranged.
Sixty-five families gathered here, each of them now carrying a few belongings, as much as could be loaded on a wagon, and whoever could walk went on foot. Only the old, the sick and small children could always ride. Here we stopped for a day to settle everything. Here we slept for our first night under the blue canopy of heaven.
The youth may be interested in the rules and organization of our wagon train. Because 65 wagons in a row formed a long train. When we had to get up, the bell was rung, then we quickly took care of the horses, cooked breakfast and ate. Then the bell was rung for general morning worship. A song was sung, several [Bible] verses were read and then there was prayer. Then everyone quickly went back to work, cleaning up and loading everything. The bell was rung three times to pack, harness [the horses], then drive off.
Everyone had to leave about five paces of space to the one who drove in front of him. And no one was allowed to pass the other. If something happened to the person in front of him and he had to stop, the next person had to help him out first.
We had a very wise and dear leader, Uncle Jakob Janzen. Everyone followed him and loved him. When a whistle was heard, everyone kept quiet. So we drove from early morning until noon, [then] always drove when possible into a round circle, it looked pretty. Then we cooked and ate, simple though it was, but oh how nice it tasted! All sat on the ground on a blanket, and yet such a delicious meal. Then it all had to go very quickly again, because we had a very long journey ahead of us. Then drove until late in the evening.
The first days we were very tired from all the walking. When everything was taken care of, we enjoyed the beautiful evenings in God's free and fresh nature, and were called again to evening devotions, and everyone came. It was a nice crowd, with many youth and children. Then after the service, the youth had singing lessons, whenever possible. They were never too tired, and many a song was learned.
On Saturday, we searched and looked already from noon on for a suitable place to stay over Sunday, then stopped early. And the women and girls had a lot of laundry, because walking on such dusty paths in sweat and then rain now and then, that creates enough work. On Saturday we all had to be quick, then there was singing with the children.
Then came beloved Sunday, a true day of rest for us. Then as always: first morning devotions, then church service. In the afternoon Bible study or prayer meeting. In the evening again devotions and singing hour. Also Sunday school was held during the day with the children.
And Sunday was too short and not at all boring. Because there were often so many interesting things around us, sometimes a mountain to climb, and everywhere so many wonders of God to see in nature. So many birds we had never seen, so many wild flowers. Once a large field of tulips, then a field of violets, that had a lovely scent. How often as young girls we could bring bouquets of flowers to the parents and the old and the sick, and there was much joy. And often we came across such beautiful stones when we climbed a mountain that it was a pity we could not take them with us. Everywhere we saw the great Creator and we were sometimes overcome with wonder by such a place. But what will it be like for us one day when we see the great Creator face to face, and then to have already lived from youth in such a way that we need not fear to meet Him and look Him in the face.
So it went one week after the other for 18 weeks. During this time we were often reminded that winter was approaching, because we slept on the ground and the nights were already very cool.
Until now I have mentioned some light aspects of the trip, now I would like to mention some of the dark aspects. It got colder and colder, and froze as low as 25° [F or -4°C], and then day and night outside under the open sky. It came gradually, otherwise it probably would not have been possible. Many of us had to sleep on the ground even now, because a wagon offers little space. And in several wagons there were sick people, and walking was so difficult because of the snow that started to fall, and our clothes were sometimes quite wet in the evening. We dried them on the little embers left from cooking, which we took in a bucket and hung in the wagon. Often we showed each other our cracked hands from the frost and from washing with all kinds of hard water.
For the healthy it was probably bearable; but the poor little children, and the sick and dying. For many a grave had to be made, and many tears were sown on the journey. But one helped the other as much as they could. Here you could learn love, practice love, and really understand the word: God is love! [1 John 4:8] For in the hours of prayer all could give vent to their hearts, and the young men were not afraid to come before God, and also the young women, and how they helped the old parents, even if they were not their own parents. And when evening came, we were all very tired.
Because we also came upon very bad roads where often the horses had to be put ahead of us [to help pull other wagons] and then pushed. But we could see that the Lord often held us. A funeral was observed so solemnly, with preaching, singing and prayer. Then we went on from the fresh grave, but with an ache in our hearts.
We finally reached Tashkent, where the highest official lived, who had invited us to come [Gov.-Gen. Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufmann]. And caring like a father for his children, he had prepared small rooms for all of us and put in ovens.
But now came the hardest part: we could not tolerate the warm rooms, and one by one we fell ill with typhoid fever, and several died, including my 20-year-old brother [Heinrich Graewe #265718 died on 19 Feb. 1881]. That was very painful.
We stayed here for about eight months, but not idly, because the men and young men who were not sick, they transported stones for street paving. The boys carried snow and ice into large cellars. The women and girls did tailoring, so something was earned wherever possible.
But many graves were also dug here. A lot of soldiers came to our devotions and funerals, and eternity will one day make it clear what was done for the Lord also on this journey, even if only in small measure.
Here in this big city we were visited by small groups of people who already had little to give, also thieves who stole our horses. And soon we wanted to travel further. But here too the Lord helped!
Then we went from Tashkent to the Bukharian border, without a proper road, often just deep, well-trodden camel paths. With all my heart I often pity our missionaries, when they travel a lot, how much do they get jostled in a day? And then again there were quite a few sick people; one family had to stay behind because of that. Among the sick was also our dear mother.
This trip probably lasted seven weeks. Here we drove through a valley, but often we said to ourselves: This is probably the paradise inhabited by Mohammedans. There were fruits of all kinds, the trees heavily laden, and for little money we could enjoy it with them, fruit that was so sweet and good, that we will probably never eat again in this life.
We got as far as Samarkand, where the heathens offered us their mosque for our sick people. This was a big city. But after a few weeks' stay, we continued our journey and reached the border town of Kattakurgan.
Here again men were dispatched to the Emir and we received permission to come [to Bukhara]. When we journeyed there, we received orders to return.
Meanwhile, it was already cold again, and we went back across the border and rented apartments in a heathen village [Sarabulak] and lived here among them for 10 months, where we got to know heathenism.
Here, too, they gave us their mosque to live in and also [let us use it] for all church services. And although four families lived inside it, a double wedding was celebrated here, where my dear sister was also included [Katharina Graewe #265092 married Bernhard Wiebe #265091 on 21 Feb. 1882].
I was also baptized here [on 14 Dec. 1881], and many others too. Many sermons and songs and prayers went up to heaven from this heathen church. For we had nowhere to go.
Men were sent to Khiva and we were allowed to go [to Bukhara]. So in 1882, we loaded up again, hitched up the horses, and continued on. Through four provinces, each of which provided us with protection to travel through. Here we encountered the tightest path, and O the poor sick ones, and our dear mother, how she suffered, and so did the other sick ones.
Some of our group had already exchanged their horses and wagons for heathen arbas. These were two-wheeled carts, one wheel seven feet high [2.13 m], with the axle in the middle supporting a platform, which was loaded with passengers and things. A horse, but only a small one, was harnessed and off we went.
We again drove onwards to the Bukharian border [to travel through Bukhara] towards Khiva. It seemed that there was no resting place for us in the world.
After several weeks, we came to a sandy desert which we could not pass through with the wagons. On the first trip we also encountered one where we had to go through, but there it was still possible to do it by adding horses to pull each wagon, which was nevertheless very difficult. And we and our horses had to suffer from a shortage of water. Here we learned to thank the Lord from the heart for a drink of water. In that heat, we also understood the expression, "My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth." But also, "The desert sand burns my feet." Because they got blisters that hurt a lot.
Only camels, donkeys and horses could traverse this desert. This stretch was probably 35 miles long [56 km]. Here we had two who were terminally ill, a young woman named Maria Albrecht, and our dear mother. Now the wagons were taken apart, so there was no more little cabin for our sick, just a small tent made from the canvas of the wagon. This disassembling and readying for the desert trip took several days.
And O — how people prayed at prayer meetings, "Lord, take this sick person to You before we begin this arduous journey." The young woman died, and we held her burial ceremony at the edge of the desert.
But our dear mother had to be loaded onto a camel, along with the other sick people, the old people, women and children. Boxes were made, with two boxes connected by ropes. The camel lay down, then the boxes were hung over the camel, which wore a saddle, and one of the 2 people climbed into a box. Our mother lay on one side, and my little brother Peter and I were on the other side [Peter Graewe #31810 was five years old in the fall of 1882 when this trip took place]. Father and the other adult men and young men were on horseback.
When a camel lies down, it lies first on its front legs. When it stands up, it rises first on its hind legs. This caused many a shout, because one felt as if the load was toppling over to the front. The wagons and all the heavy boxes were loaded in this way. Then one camel was tied to the other, and now and then a guide on a small donkey led the camels in front by the rope.
When everything was loaded, it was nearing evening. There was bright moonlight and a comet in the sky. The caravan started to move and it was a strange procession [or train]. The caravan meandered along the narrow paths on the length of the sandy canyons. But the route looked very dangerous, high sand mountains on one side and deep ravines on the other. That night we really learned what it means to "pray without ceasing” [1 Thessalonians 5:17].
I had a bottle of water and a small cloth with me, and now and then I crawled over the camel and moistened my dear mother's lips. At one point the leader shouted and flung himself back, because our mother's side became overweight, and only God saved us from death here.
We rode all night, until the next day at 10 o'clock in the morning, then we stopped to refresh the people and animals. Then we covered the last stretch to the Amu Darya River. This river was so rich in fish that we had not come across anywhere else. Here our things were unloaded from the camels and the guides received their wages.
How were we to go on now? We were still several hundred miles from our destination. But here there was no more road, only tracks of beasts of burden.
So ten boats were hired. Here again all the sick, the old, mothers and children, the wagons and belongings, all were loaded. This took several days. These boats were 10 feet wide [3 m] and 100 feet long [305 m], had a rudder, the rowing was done by the strong current. The young crew rode along the river with a guide. But we went along on the water until Saturday evening. Our dear mother also had to go through this arduous journey. She often said, "Paradise, paradise, how sweet is your fruit," and no complaint passed her lips. On Saturday evening they tied the boats as arranged, because we wanted to celebrate Sunday on the shore.
On Sept. 27th at midnight from Sunday to Monday, our dear mother died. What pain! In such a time! In a wild forest, on the edge of the Amu Darya, her grave was dug at night, and she was laid to rest as well as conditions allowed in a camel box. Her coffin did not shine. Monday morning was her funeral, and we tearfully had to leave the grave and get back on board, and never saw her grave again. Our dear father could hardly bear this. [He was away with the other men and horses.]
In a little over a week, with this trip behind us, those with the horses also arrived. But what that looked like! Riding in all the undergrowth had torn their clothes and made for a poor ride.
The area where we ended up, and what was supposed to be ours now [Lausan], was a wilderness. There was snow when we arrived. At first we set up very small tents, not all were lucky enough to be able to stand upright in them. And at night, because there were bushes, the wild animals let themselves be heard: the king tiger with his bass voice and the jackals with their howling. But the good Lord protected our little group here too. How grateful we were to be at the end of the journey.
But families where such great rifts had happened [from death] often did not sleep well at night, but wetted their hard camp with tears.... The beginning was very difficult. However, the Lord helped, and often so tangibly and wonderfully.
As we Asians are getting older, and our days are over for some, at the end of our days each of us must often think back to this time and ask ourselves a big question: Lord, am I still as close to You as I was in the prime of life? Am I still serving You as faithfully as I was in the time of need? Am I still as grateful for all Your expressions of love? When visiting the sick, am I still as I was in the time of need? Where no contagion was feared, whether it was smallpox, typhoid or some other bad fever? How could young men and women watch so faithfully through the nights at such a bedside, and call on their knees [in prayer] for relief! Or have the good days left us lukewarm? In such hours of self-examination, our heart often softens and we ask the Lord for strength to witness for Him, to love Him, to serve Him, with all the strength of our hearts, until we too will be home, where He is.
May the Lord bless this imperfect [effort] to the praise and glory of His name.
Widow Helene J.J. Warkentin.
When the waves are strongest, just pray
published 23 Feb. 1916 p. 5.
In this letter to the Rundschau, Helena recounts the tragic losses of two family members on the journey to Asia, and shares about daily life in Newton, Kansas.
Hillsboro, Kansas, February 8, 1916.
Dear editor and readers, I’d like to write something again. The weather is beautiful today; the sunbeams are lovely. But the snow is still firmly on the ground and doesn't want to melt easily.
It’s been pretty cold for a while. There are a lot of sick people this winter, and the flu has spread to nearly every home; it was the same with us. It showed up quite strongly this year. If you catch a cold, it’s difficult to get rid of it.
Aunt [wife of] Bernhard Schmidt has been lying sick for a while, she feels even more lonely than usual in such hours. For health reasons she has not been able to go to church for many years. Old Aunt Peter Schmidt [Helena Duerksen #2879] is now ill, probably old and tired of living [she lived until 1933]. The Lord knows the right time and hour. Some people have to go who would love to stay here, and some stay who want to leave. But the Lord misses nothing, his way is good.
The young man, Peter Warkentin, is still lying on his sick bed. As many people write and ask about him, I would like to let you know how he is. As many know, he fell from a scaffold on May 8th in California. His backbone was so damaged that he was helpless from that moment. He was there in the hospital for a month. Then his stepmother, Mrs. A. C. Schmidt, went there to get him, which I wrote about earlier.
Then they brought him here to the Goessel Hospital [in Kansas], where he was for two months. Then his desire to be back home again was so great that they tried to get him. And it went even better than they thought, so he has been cared for at home for six months. During that time, he was so seriously ill for several weeks that anyone who visited him thought that his end was very near.
But again, dear God thought differently than we short-sighted people. His ways are not our ways, we have to say that so often. Now Peter can eat a little and sleep more. He can read something on his own. But it is not easy for him and for his parents who care for him, and it requires earnest prayers. But the Lord gives strength, and so proves that this verse is true:
When the waves are strongest,
When drawn by silent power,
Your soul pushes upwards,
After the highest struggle,
Just pray! Just pray!
[by Charles H. Spurgeon, 1834-1892, translated from German translation]
The family of B. G. Doerksen of California, I received your letter. Thank you! You ask about my dear parents, Heinrich Graewe [#265716] and his wife [Anna Schmidt #86923]. The children took the letter to them. They were very happy and send their greetings. They live in the town of Goessel. Sometimes they feel lonely, as Father can no longer be around a lot of people, because then he gets a bad headache. But he is happy, or both are, when we visit them.
He often speaks of his loved ones who have gone before him, and how scattered they are, sunk in their graves. One son [Peter Graewe #265719] died in Russia at two years of age. The other [Heinrich Graewe #265718], at 19 years of age, died on the trip to Asia after we had been traveling by wagon for 18 weeks. The winter was quickly approaching and we stayed in the city of Tashkent for the winter, where we all got typhoid fever and he had to die from it after he was laid up for 40 days. He was buried in a cemetery for soldiers.
Then in about a year, but while we were still on the trip, his dear wife, our much beloved mother [Katharina Giesbrecht #265703], became very sick. She was so sick when she had to ride in the wagon for several weeks, then further on camels through the desert, which was almost impossible, then further on an open barge on the water. Then she died and was buried in a wild forest in the country. And we drove on and never saw her grave again.
He has had a turbulent life in the past, and that affects his spirit. He has now journeyed together with this second mother [Anna Schmidt #86923] for 29 years, and nearly 25 years with the first. They can still care for themselves, which is a great blessing.
But I want to stop. Please excuse that this has become too long: I didn’t want to, but maybe it’s because I’m so alone today, and went on longer than I normally would have. (We don't think anyone will mind. Editor.)
Greetings to all readers. Goodbye!
Preview of Walter Ratliff’s award-winning documentary,
Through the Desert Goes Our Journey