Heinrich Plett wrote to this historical Rundschau in 1882
I recently discovered some of my great-grandfather’s letters to a Mennonite publication and found them a fascinating window into a past from which most records were destroyed after families were uprooted. Then based in the U.S., the Mennonitische Rundschau was a lifeline for separated families and friends on different continents. The translated letters are shared below along with a short biography of Heinrich, information about his descendants, and photos.
Heinrich Plett and Katharina Teske
Heinrich Plett and his family
Heinrich Plett (1853-1934, #54349) was a teacher, minister, healer, farmer, accountant and writer. One source names him as the Sagradovka editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau for many years. He probably forwarded letters from others and contributed anonymous letters from the Sagradovka settlement, in addition to his signed letters.
Heinrich taught for 38 years, the first five probably in his birthplace of Molotschna, then from 1877-1910 in Alexanderfeld, Sagradovka. He was recognized as the longest-serving teacher in Sagradovka at the settlement’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1922.
He then focused on church ministry, apparently writing several theological books. In 1902, he began preaching, joining several other all-volunteer speakers in the Nikolaifeld Mennonite Church. In 1907, he was appointed its leader. Differences of opinion about how strict church discipline should be (he took a moderate view) caused some families to leave the church and start a new one, but community life continued peaceably.
After the Communists outlawed religion, the church building became a granary. As Mennonite ministers had never been paid, Heinrich continued to earn income from his dairy farm. When the farm was collectivized, he continued living there and became an accountant for the collective. He was also the church accountant for 21 years.
Heinrich was also a gifted healer. He ordered herbs from Switzerland and Austria for his remedies. Heinrich once healed a Russian official who had been near death. The official with the Communist party was so grateful that he promised to help the family if ever they were in need.
That help was crucial twice for my father’s family: first when they were denied fire insurance when their house burned down, and later when they were refused baby bonus money after the final twins were born in 1939. After writing to the official in Kiev, the money arrived. My father, Peter Plett, was 13 years old on the second occasion: “For the first time, we had new clothes and bedding, which my mother sewed with new fabric. For the first time, I had proper shoes. New shoes! We all had shoes. We had more than ever before under Communism.”
Heinrich enjoyed a long marriage with Katharina Teske (1857-1918), our ancestor (he shares about the Teske family in a letter below). Their ten children are discussed below. Many of them are also in a photograph taken at the death of their son Peter.
After Katharina died in 1918, Heinrich married Justina Friesen (1858-1927), a widow of Heinrich Goertzen. In 1927, after Justina died, Heinrich married Helena Friesen (1875-), a widow of Franz Wiens.
On 8 Dec 1934, at 81 years of age, Heinrich died peacefully at home in Nikolaifeld, Sagradovka.
Photo: Heinrich and Katharina’s family at the death of their son Peter Plett (1885-1913). From left to right:
This is a summary of Heinrich and Katharina’s children and their descendants.
I translated Heinrich’s letters with the help of the translation websites, DeepL and Google. Heinrich was a clear writer, and I only added a couple of paragraph breaks for clarity. Those interested in the original text may enjoy the German language version of this article. I’m grateful to volunteers at the Mennonite Historical Society of B.C. and others who provided the letters and other sources noted below.
- Irene Plett
1881: A strong storm
Alexanderfeld, Sagradovka, Sept. 20 (published 15 Nov. 1881 p. 2)
Warm greetings to the dear readers of the beloved Rundschau. In the last few days we had a lot of snow and rain here, accompanied by a strong storm from the north-east, which claimed many a head of cattle and even human victims.
The harvest here has turned out to be quite bountiful, but due to the abundant rainfall that we now have every day, quite a lot of grain will remain unthreshed over the winter.
New Year’s 1882
Alexanderfeld, Sagradovka, January 6, 1882 (published 1 Mar. 1882 p. 1)
The state of health is somewhat uncertain here. Many suffer from bad eyes. Occasionally people also get severe abdominal pains, but the pain quickly passes.
The weather was fairly mild until the new year, but on January 1st, we could feel winter’s power through increasing frost [temperatures dropping further below freezing] and some snow.
1889: Searching for heirs
Alexanderfeld, February 1, 1889 (published 15 Mar. 1889 p. 5)
Dear Rundschau: Because you stop in so many homes, I’d like to give you something for the round trip. Rundschau readers are hereby cordially asked to give me information about the following people through the Rundschau:
On June 15, 1881, Andreas Unruh died in the village of Karassan, Crimea. On May 28, 1898, his property was distributed among his heirs. Since this is a matter of inheritance, please give me information about the following persons, if they are in America:
Children of the deceased Anna Ratzlaff, née Unruh: Benjamin and Helena, the latter married to Heinrich Unruh. Grandchildren, i.e. children of the deceased Heinrich Ratzlaff, Johann and Maria. Should these lines come into the hands of the persons concerned, I ask that they send without delay to me, as the authorized representative, a legal release of the claims to the property of the deceased Andreas Unruh, whereupon the same will be sent to them, according to the distribution deed.
Further, where is my sister [Aganetha Plett], the widow of Cornelius Quiring, and what is your address? I would like to tell you something, dear sister, if I knew your address. My address is:
Alexanderfeld, Beresnehovate post office, Kherson Governorate, South Russia.
Note: Aganetha Plett (1848-1914, #47480) travelled from Russia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1876, then settled in Mountain Lake, Minnesota. She had 13 children with Cornelius Quiring, who died in 1888, two months before their last child, Helena, was born. Aganetha moved to Hepburn, Saskatchewan, where she died in 1914.
The man discussed in the estate matter, Andreas Unruh (1808-1881, #106099), was born in Prussia but died in the Crimea. In 1847, he lived in Gnadenfeld, Molotschna, where he attended the Alexanderwohl Church. His wife was Anna Unruh (1822- #106098). This letter provides new information for the GRANDMA database about their daughter and grandchildren.
1899: Michael Plett’s legacy
Sagradovka, Alexanderfeld, October 7, 1899 (published 15 Nov. 1899 p. 2)
Worthy Rundschau, since you are a reliable mail carrier and probably also a beloved guest of my sister in America [Aganetha Plett], the widow of Kornelius Quiring, serve to notify you, dear sister. Our dear, old father [Michael Plett], who completely contrary to our wishes, moved to Ufa with four of our siblings this year in the month of February; in the month of September, went gently and blessedly home there at the old age of over 85 years. Peace to his ashes! Haven’t you received the letter in which I wrote you, dear sister, about some of the reasons that he moved away? Because you have not replied, I can assume that probably you did not receive it.
If these words should come into your hands, hurry and send me a certified power of attorney, so that I can represent you in the division of our father's small legacy. The children of our late sister Katharina Plett, married Siemens, are also hereby asked to send their powers of attorney to me. My address is: Alexanderfeld, Beresnehovatoe post office, Kherson Governorate, South Russia.
Note: Michael Plett (1814-1899, #47477) and Maria Ratzlaff (1830-1866, #527928) had six children, Katharina, Maria, Aganetha, Heinrich, Johann and Peter Plett.
1902: 25th Anniversary
Alexanderfeld, 20 April 1902 (published 4 June 1902 p. 4-5)
Dear friend Wiens,
How great is the goodness of the Almighty! Thanks to the infinite goodness of our heavenly Father, we will be allowed to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary on May 5th of this year, and on the same day, also my 25th anniversary as a teacher (serving in one village for 25 years, but already 30 years in total). I cordially invite you, dear friend, to come to this double celebration to rejoice with us and to praise and glorify God our Father together!
With warm greetings,
My warmest belated wishes for happiness and blessings to the anniversary couple! May the faithful Lord especially keep the men and women who “love their people” with us for a long time yet! My congratulations extend not only to the celebrating couple, but to the whole village of Alexanderfeld, which knew how to keep its teacher for 25 years. In my opinion, the latter fact is well worth congratulating.
An anonymous writer discusses the jubilee celebration below. He seems unimpressed by food that sounds mouthwatering, which was commonly served at local events. Fragrant coffee was also served, but my father never had coffee in Russia. His first cup was my mother’s gift in the late 1940s at the historic Schwarzer Bär cafe in Jena, Germany.
A three-fold jubilee
(published 2 July 1902 p. 2)
On May 6th of this year, Teacher Plett of Alexanderfeld, Orloff district, celebrated the 25th anniversary of his marriage and of his service at the Alexanderfeld school, as well as the 30th anniversary of his service in general.
Before I tell the dear reader about the beautiful celebration, I would like to make some preliminary remarks. Here, as everywhere, a celebration has two sides: one is ideal, the other — for the stomach. Some would say that the latter has always "come off short" here: whether grief or joy is the focus of the occasion, a few baskets of Zwieback baked by friendly neighbour women, a few Mauergrappen of fragrant coffee, ditto stewed fruit together with slices of cold meat, and with that, enough, according to Luke 21:34. [Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.” NIV] Item: What I call a beautiful festival is when my spirit is encouraged to rise above the boundaries of everyday life through meaningful lectures of every kind, singing, music and good conversation.
The introductory address of our celebration was given by brother Martens. Text: “By God's grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10). Basic idea: Where do we at the jubilee celebration direct our gaze? Explaining this provided the day's motto: "Look backward, forward and upward.” The speaker set himself the task of elaborating on the first part, "look backward," based on the scriptural passage.
He briefly sketched for us the young, fainthearted, slightly hesitant beginner in his office, who at that time would never have believed that God would keep him working in his vineyard for a full 30 years. He went on to speak of the wonderful reactions that have always flowed out of the quiet, dear evangelical schoolhouse, and that here, too, there are unmistakable traces of their beneficial influence on the surroundings; this celebration is the best proof of this, but at the same time it is also a beautiful testimony of the Alexanderfeld village community.
Then the attention of the listeners was drawn to God's guidance in the life journey of the dear Plett brethren. It is a particularly thankful duty to remember these leaders today; to think and to thank is synonymous, because when God speaks of the ingratitude of his people, he is probably saying: they have forgotten me. With grateful retrospection of the past, may the jubilee couple today still humbly say with the apostle, "By God's grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me has not been in vain." [1 Cor. 15:10]
The second address was given by brother Reimer. Text: “I walk in the strength of the Lord; I praise your righteousness alone. God, you have taught me from my youth; therefore I proclaim your miracles. Neither forsake me, O God, in my old age, when I am gray, until I declare your strength to my children's children.” Psalm 71:16-18. Main idea: Look ahead. The speaker described the task of the teacher as a difficult, serious, but also lovely one. Taught by God, may the teacher unwaveringly direct his gaze into the future, and may his zeal for the cause of the kingdom of God not slacken. Brother Plett has already achieved what the psalmist desired — he is already proclaiming the strength of the Lord to children’s children. The speech came from a heart full of sincere love for the little ones at school and respect for their teachers. — May God bless all true friends of school, and resist the many little foxes that spoil the vineyards!!
Brother Janzen spoke about the last part of the day’s motto on the basis of the apostle's words: "Forgetting what is behind, I reach out to what is ahead and pursue the goal set before me, the treasure which is held before us by the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus." Phil. 3:13-14. The speaker gave an excellent description of running through barriers for the prize, which was common among the ancient Romans. Thought process: A disciple of Jesus gets rid of everything that could be a hindrance in following him, leads a sober life, so that his spirit is strengthened, moves inexorably on his way without deviating from it, and his gaze is constantly directed at the relentless one. Glorious is the reward of faithfulness and well worthwhile to step through barriers. The teacher has a very special promise, therefore may the jubilarian complete his work joyfully looking up to God. --
The church service part of the celebration concluded with prayer and congregational singing.
Now numerous congratulations and gifts were offered to the jubilee couple. A very favorable impression on the audience was made by the deputies of the village community. Two venerable men in gray hair presented their teacher with a large wall clock, and expressed in moving words the community’s gratitude to him. The deputies of the church teachers presented a large splendid Bible and shouted a "Vergelt's Gott" [may God reward] to the jubilarian in the name of the church convention. Representatives of the teachers read out an address in Russian. They also gave an apparatus for washing laundry, which particularly pleased the wife of the jubilarian. --
During the meals and in the free hours between meals, the guests enjoyed the beautiful songs and melodies performed by the Gnadenfeld Sing-Musikverein. The young people of Alexanderfeld also played a few pieces. This kind of singing music has this for itself, that it is dedicated solely to the service of the Lord Jesus.
Meanwhile, the jubilarian, brother Plett, addressed the guests and the village community. He was full of praise and glorification of the grace of Him who had made it possible for him to succeed. With eloquent words, he also commemorated the many tokens of love from the Alexanderfeld villagers, which in the course of time made his hard work in the school significantly easier.
The celebration found its conclusion in a closing word by brother Braun. Text: "Do not remember the old things, neither pay attention to the former things: for, behold, I will make a new thing, now it shall grow up; that you will come to know that I make a way in the wilderness and rivers of water in the desert." [Isaiah 43:18-19] The speaker talked about the pure joy of the celebration, about some obstacles that can spoil the joy, and tried to answer the question: What will the Lord say to this, that is, to our festive joy.
1910: The Teske Legacy
Friedensfeld, Sagradovka, 5 July 1910 (published 17 Aug 1910 p. 12)
Dear brother Fast, firstly, a warm loving greeting to you. Please allow my letter a modest place in the dear Rundschau.
I just received a letter from our brother Heinrich Schroeder of Terek, in which he writes that we still have cousins and nieces there in America, namely: Jakob Schmidt, David Schmidt, and another David Schmidt, who has a wife, Maria Teske, who should also be our niece.
He writes further that our uncle Benjamin Teske, who was a real brother of our late father, Kornelius Teske, was here in Russia, died childless there in America and is said to have left quite a fortune. The heirs there in America have probably already received their portion; however, the portion of our late father Kornelius is said to have been leased, consisting of 20 acres of land. They have already searched for the rightful heirs through the Rundschau, which unfortunately did not come into my hands.
Now I would like to ask you, dear uncle and nieces, unfortunately I don’t know your addresses, or if this doesn’t come into your hands, other Rundschau readers who know of this inheritance matter are hereby kindly requested to do us a service of love in this matter in word and deed, for which we thank them all most sincerely in advance.
Our father Kornelius Teske, who was a brother of our late uncle Benjamin Teske in America, already died eight years ago [in 1902], and left children who are now entitled to his inheritance.
The heirs are:
1. Heinrich Teske, who died along with his wife, but they left children;
2. Johann Teske;
3. Kornelius Teske;
4. Kornelius Richert, married to Anna Teske;
5. Heinrich Schroeder, married to Maria Teske;
6. Johann De-Jeger, married to Susanna Teske;
7. Heinrich Plett, married to Katharina Teske; and
8. Peter Baier, married to Aganetha Teske.
Hence eight heirs here in Russia.
My address is: Preacher Heinrich Plett, Friedensfeld, Tiege Post Office, Kherson Governorate, Russia.
Dear Brother Plett, I have put your name on the list today, and expect that perhaps you will write a report every month—please. Greetings. Editor.
Note: This letter wonderfully fills in part of our family tree that had been missing or mistaken. I shared my research of the Teske family in “Meet the Teskes.”
1922: Distress call
Famine in Russia in the early 1920s resulted in many deaths, and inspired the creation of the international relief organization, the Mennonite Central Committee. In this letter, Heinrich reaches out to North American friends and family for help to survive. And survive he did. He now writes from Nikolaifeld, Sagradovka, where he settled until his death in 1934, after enduring a second famine.
(published 27 Sept. 1922 p. 9-10)
Distress call to the Mennonitishe Rundschau.
At the time of our escape, when we had to leave our house and farm, we lost all our papers and the addresses of our friends. I am thus turning to the M. R., perhaps it is possible through the same to find brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances, to perhaps find compassionate and willing hearts for our plight here in Russia.
I do not know whether you, dear sister, widow Aganetha Quiring, or your children, are still alive. I have your photograph in front of me, with your 3 sons and 1 daughter. How much happier you are there, where you do not have to starve and freeze like we do here. And all your friends, relatives and acquaintances there.
I have been a school teacher for 38 years, a church Äeltester's deputy for a few years, a church accountant for 21 years, and now a gospel worker for 20 years. I'll soon be 69 years old, and my life has been very difficult, eventful and very responsible. And today, I can no longer reach the bread basket, because it hangs too high for me, an old man. We have lived in good circumstances, had no lack, but our heavenly teacher Jesus Christ has given us visual lessons of Psalm 39:7, as it says in the last sentence. [Psalm 39:6 in English translations; “We heap up wealth, not knowing who will spend it.” NLT.]
We have 1 horse, 1 cow and 1 yearling, other than furniture. We also have a good farm, but it gives us no bread and no clothes for the winter. Late in the year, I had sown 7 dessiatine [19 acres] of winter wheat sown in black fallow, but everything completely froze, no pud was harvested from it, nor was any summer grain harvested because there was no seed. Our harvest consisted only of hedge mustard, and that gives only oil, not bread or clothes. — So then, in my advanced years, after so many years of sacrificial service, I am finally in a very serious, hard and distressed situation, from which, unless help comes from over there, I will be given as the — cost.
Now it occurred to me to send a cry of distress to you, dear brethren, friends, and yes, brothers and sisters. So many possylki (food draft packages) come here with food from their friends, which are then pressed to their hearts by the happy ones. Wouldn't you dear ones, whoever you are, be able to make it possible to make us happy too, and thus save us from hunger? —
I heard that the teachers and preachers in Molotschna receive a monthly possylka. Oh, you dear ones over there, if only I could count myself among these lucky ones! You, who have already shown so much goodness to us Russians, are you not able to throw me a lifeline as well, to gather strength again? How much easier it would be to cast the gospel net if we were not so hard-pressed for sustenance. Please help cast and pull the net in this regard.
There is also a dear brother Martin Fast there, he used to be editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau (Now in Reedley, California. - Editor.) If he is still alive, he will remember me and my family well. Perhaps he, too, could help a little to alleviate our need.
Moreover, I still have there an uncle, David Peter Schmidt, who emigrated to America in 1874. The photograph of him and Aunt is also in front of me. And their gazes are so friendly, as if they wanted to say, “Yes, the Lord has blessed us, and we would like to send our bread across the water.”
And now winter is coming again, and the last clothes will soon be used up. Do you also have a door open for this help? Then a thousand thanks in advance, may the Lord repay you in this world and let you hear the acclamation when you enter eternity: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me . . . enter into eternal rest there in the homeland.” [Matt. 25:34-36.]
Couldn’t someone please send me the Mennonitische Rundschau? Perhaps it would be possible, please!
Preacher Heinrich M. Plett
Village of Nikolyskoye [Nikolaifeld], Tiege post office, Kherson district, Nikolayev governorate.
Note: David Peter Schmidt (1862-1941 #85937) married Helena Teske (1862-1956, #85927) and had seven children. They first lived in South Dakota and later Herbert, Saskatchewan, where David died in 1941. Helena died in Abbotsford, B.C. in 1956. Helena was a second cousin of Katharina Teske, Heinrich Plett’s wife.
Aganetha Plett (1848-1914, #47480), the widow of Cornelius Quiring, was a busy mother of 13, mentioned above. She lived in Mountain Lake, Minnesota and Hepburn, Saskatchewan.
Martin B. Fast (1857-1949, #2615) was editor of the Rundschau from 1903-1920. He often sent financial help to Russia and encouraged others to contribute. He visited Russia in 1908 and again in 1919 during the civil war. Fast’s relief work led to the founding of the Mennonite Central Committee in 1920, where he served as its first General Secretary. He became a minister in Reedley, California, and continued his passion for missions.