This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Rare Russian Mennonite photos to see new life

A collection of photos depicting Mennonite life in Southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) at the turn of the 20th century — a pinnacle quickly wiped out by the Bolshevik Revolution — should find its way back to the printed page early next year.

Sarah Rempel, John Rempel’s grandmother, poses for a photo in the studio of her husband, Peter Gerhart Rempel, with their children in 1910 in what was then Southern Russia. — John Rempel
Sarah Rempel, John Rempel’s grandmother, poses for a photo in the studio of her husband, Peter Gerhart Rempel, with their children in 1910 in what was then Southern Russia. — John Rempel

John Rempel of Toronto and Lauren Friesen of Chicago are working to produce a reprint of Forever Summer, Forever Sunday, featuring 93 photographs by Rempel’s grandfather, Peter Gerhard Rempel.

The original run by Sand Hill Books in 1981 only produced 1,000 copies. Friesen is aware of only a handful that remain.

“It’s a portrait of a world that’s lost,” Friesen said of the rather rare photos spanning roughly 1890 to 1917. “And for those of us who have ancestry who arrived in the 1870s, these photos are from 20 years later. It reflects, in a way, a life we left behind to come to America.”

Chafing at the thought of following in his father’s successful farming machinery factory, Gerhard Rempel chose the rapidly developing world of photography instead. He studied in Germany before operating a studio, but also photographed life in Chortitza and Molotschna colonies, with special focus on his native town of Rosenthal.

There are photos of prosperity — typical homes and clothing, villages and workers, mansions and estates, a tractor factory and parks.

John Rempel, former professor of theology and Anabaptist studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and current director of Conrad Grebel University College’s Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, called it “a ripening of culture, but with very few people in it realizing how unstable and endangered order was in the Russian Empire.”

Carrying a memory

Many Mennonites had grown wealthy developing the strain of Turkey Red winter wheat the czars needed to feed a massive nation. But when a disgruntled working class rose violently to power and the Soviet Union came into being, Gerhard Rempel saw what was happening and was able to acquire hard-to-get exit visas in 1923. The family’s luggage included dozens of glass-plate negatives, which still survive.

“In July on one of the first trains to leave Russia, they were on it,” his grandson said. “They weren’t as desperate as the later waves of immigration, but it was still tense and uncertain.

“These [negative] plates and other printed photographs were so important to him. He took them along in a time you could not take a lot of luggage. That’s one of the things that brings me satisfaction in publishing this book — that my grandfather’s outstanding effort is able to be realized so many years after he died.”

The Rempel family arrived in Canada in 1923, but their new life wouldn’t be like the old one. Camera culture was changing, and Rempel never quite got his footing. He worked as a tool-and- die maker, falling back on what he learned early on in his father’s factory. He died in 1933.

While many Mennonite immigrants to North America prospered, others found hardship and melancholy. John Rempel relied on the remarkably crisp memories of his aunt, who worked as an assistant to his grandfather, for many of the book’s details.

“She was a person who never adjusted to life in Canada. Her life in Russia was shattered, and she lived as a hermit,” he said. “She was talking about how wonderful, just unspeakably wonderful, their world was before the revolution, and then she said to me in German, ‘No, Johnny, you don’t understand, we lived in a world that was forever summer and forever Sunday.’

“It was an arresting phrase. That seemed like the obvious title.”

Gathering support

Friesen has known Rempel since they attended seminary together in the 1960s.

“When I found out he had this, the light came on for both of us that we should try to get this out,” Friesen said. “My idea was that the museum in Henderson [Neb.], where I come from, would like to have something to sell.

“This would make a great coffee table book souvenir for them to handle if they don’t have to come up with the initial entire price for printing the entire first edition.”

He envisions a hardcover production with a cloth binding and has already raised about a quarter of the $6,000 to $10,000 needed to produce the initial run of 1,000 copies. Those who donate $100 or more will receive a complimentary copy.

The Henderson Mennonite Heritage Park will handle sales, with income going to printing additional copies, funding for the heritage center and John Rempel, the copyright holder.

“My goal is to try to raise all the funds this calendar year and then release the book next spring,” Friesen said, “perhaps when John could be a guest speaker in the center or a local church and have an author event.”

To contribute, contact Lauren Friesen at or 810-730-1788. Checks should be made out to Henderson Heritage Park, but sent to Friesen at 5555 S. Everett, E6 Chicago, IL 60637.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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