Discovering Ancestors Through a Photo

Posted by Daniel Mast on

by Willi Frese

I was born in a  Mennonite village in Siberia (former colony of Barnaul). Up until attending school, I could only speak Mennonite Low German. I am married and we have two sons.
    Our parents and grandparents have spoken very little about the origin of Germans in Russia. They only said that the Mennonites originally came from Holland to Prussia and then emigrated to Russia. This is due to the tragic past of the Germans in Russia, especially from the 1917 Revolution, World Wars I and II, until at least the mid-1950s. My generation has had a good life compared to my grandparents and parents, but as soon as we had contact with Russians, we often felt that we were not part of it, until the end, when most of us emigrated to Germany.
    At the age of 40, a colleague inspired me to do genealogical research. I tried to find out who my ancestors were and to which colony they originally immigrated in Russia.
    With this data traced back to the oldest known family members of my four grandparents, I started genealogical research:

1. The Frese (Fröse in Prussia) Family
Gustav Frese (Jan. 15, 1888-Mar. 17, 1938), was the son of Jakob Frese and Margaretha Ekkert. Gustav was born in Lindenau, colony unknown, since three colonies with that exact name existed at that time. Margaretha was the daughter of Johann Ekkert, date of birth unknown. (Because there is no letter Ö in the Russian alphabet, the name Fröse was changed to Russian written with an ‘E’ or Frese.)
2. The Loewen Family
Peter (1872?-1943?) was the son of Peter Loewen. The first woman died, the second woman was the twin sister of the deceased woman. Date of birth unknown.
3. The Mantler Family
Isaak (Aug. 17, 1896-June 18, 1938) was the son of Gerhard Mantler, and was born in Rosental, Colony Chortitza.
4. The Friesen Family
Anna (Dec. 5, 1903-Jan. 25, 1975) was the daughter of Jakob Friesen, and was born near Samara (Colony unknown).
    In the next 12-13 years, I contacted many archives, but except for a 1917 census of the Mantler family, I received only negative replies. Even the Internet could provide no information on my ancestors. All the information I have collected in all these years has came from relatives, and has concerned only descendants of the persons mentioned above.
    Surprisingly, my mother could remember many details about all four grandparent families in our discussions. During this time of research, I copied all the old photos from relatives in Germany, even with unknown persons, including the following picture of two young men found at the home of a granddaughter of Gustav and Margaretha Frese. Margaretha had lived with this granddaughter until her death.
    Since I got stuck and could not seem to get any further in my research, I turned the gathered material and old family photos into a book for my children and interested relatives and was about to stop with this genealogy search.
    It was certainly frustrating after so many years not to be able to determine the origin of all of my four grandparent families as well as the immigration site in Russia of three grandparent families.
    Then surprisingly about a year ago at a birthday party, I learned from my father-in-law that there is a distant relative in his family who traced her family history back to the sixteenth century. She, as well as my parents-in-law, are Catholics. Because this woman seemed to have a lot of experience with genealogy, I contacted her. I wanted to know how she would proceed with the search for information about Gustav (b. Jan. 15, 1888) and Margaretha Frese. The next day I
received an e-mail with five copies of documents showing the registration of Gustav’s family in Siberia, with the name of the colony they came from. In addition, there was also a family register of Margaretha (Ekkert) Frese’s family pictured below.
    That was a huge surprise that I never expected!  After so many years, I finally received documents about my Frese family from a woman who had nothing to do with Mennonites. This is how I learned that Gustav and Margaretha Frese were born in the Colony Am Trakt.
    A few months later, I read an excerpt from the book Jacob J. Dyck Am Trakt to America; Sixty Years of Silence by D. Frederick Dyck and Alice Sitler Dyck on the Internet. It contained a story about a Gustav Fröse (Frese) and his family who lived in the colony Am Trakt. Because the father of Gustav was called Cornelius and not Jakob in the book, as with my ancestor Gustav, I saw no connection to my family. But then I discovered this photo (pictured above) on the last page.

    The man looked very familiar to me and reminded me of a person in my photos with unknown persons. When I compared the photos, it was clear to me that this photo shows the same person—Jakob Dyck (Aug. 17, 1881-1954)—as on the unknown photo that I found years ago with Margaretha’s granddaughter.
    Meanwhile, I contacted Frederick Dyck, the grandson of Jakob Dyck in America, and since then we have written to each other regularly. From his book, as well as in his letters, I learned a lot about my ancestors especially about the mother of Jakob Dyck and Gustav Frese—Justina (Wall, Dyck) Frese (Feb. 1, 1855-?) and her Wall family. After Justina’s first husband, Jakob Dyck, had died, she married Jakob Frese. Unfortunately, I have not yet found any data about Jakob Frese.
    In addition, I also found a diary of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Johann Wall, the grandfather of Justina (Wall, Dyck) Frese in a Russian archive last year. In this diary, he describes his life in Prussia including the preparation and emigration to Russia, and the family register of his family. He was the organizer of the emigration from Prussia to the last German colony ‘Am Trakt’. It begins like this:

My dear father, Johann Wall, was born in Bröske near Neuteich on February 20, 1765. His father’s name was also Johann Wall, but he was born on another property. Grandfather died in 1776 when he was only 11 years old. His mother was Helena von Bergen who died in April 1793. She had seen me for two months. My father was elected teacher of the community in 1798. He died on March 15, 1831, and was 66 years and 24 days old. My dear mother Helena, born Klaashen, was born on June 22, 1772, in Neuteichfeld . . .

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