Klassen, Gerhard Johann (1903–1965)
Gerhard Johann Klassen fonds
Dates of Creation
7 cm of textual records
Gerhard J. Klassen, church leader and farmer, was born on May 25, 1903, to Johann J. Klassen (1869–1941) and Aganetha Doerksen (1871–1920) in Malvinovka, Kharkov, South Russia (now Ukraine), the seventh of thirteen children (Johann, Simeon, Abraham, Agatha, Aganetha, Jakob, Gerhard, Maria, Cornelius, Dietrich, Katharina, Anna, and Erna). Gerhard married Helena J. Froese on March 13, 1930, in Manitou, Manitoba, Canada. Helena was born on August 26, 1903 to Johann Peter Froese (1878–1949) and Katharina Dueck (1881–1919) in Kronberg, Schoenfeld, South Russia. Two children were born to Gerhard and Helena: John and Sarah. Gerhard died in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on December 28, 1965.
A year after Gerhard was born, the family moved to Wassilyevka, Ignatyevo, South Russia, a village with a Mennonite Brethren church. In 1910, they relocated to Barwenkowo, Naumenko, South Russia, where his father and two others started a farm implement factory. Gerhard was known as bright and gifted; he was well-liked by his teachers. At the age of 13, he made a confession of Christian faith and was baptized into the Mennonite Brethren church in 1917. He participated in the church youth program, sang tenor in the choir and played violin.
When Gerhard’s family immigrated to Canada in 1925, Gerhard remained behind with the intention of giving a Christian witness to his Russian friends and colleagues. The Klassens, along with many other Mennonite families, immigrated to Canada with hopes of brighter future, as Stalin’s new religion-less society and farm collectivization program began to spread across Russia. The long tradition of Christian faith, hard work, and private enterprise, made the prospect of Soviet-style communism difficult for most Mennonite families to accept. The Klassen family was no exception. Eventually, Gerhard, too, decided to leave while the option to leave was still open. He left Russia to join his family in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a year after they had left.
Gerhard’s conviction that his calling was to do mission work among Russian people remained strong and he spent one year as a student at a Russian Bible School located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. With his family, in the area of Winnipeg called, North Kildonan, he helped to start the church that would become known as the North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church. He taught Sunday School, preached, sang, and although he was never ordained, served as leader of the church during its first two years.
In 1936, he came to a disagreement with the North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church’s leading ministers and withdrew from the church. See copy of Gerhard’s journal from this period along with translation and reflections by his son, John G. Klassen, included in the fonds.
In 1937, Gerhard and Helena moved to Petersfield, Manitoba, and farmed there until 1947. Moving back to Winnipeg, they bought a small chicken farm in North Kildonan, which they operated until his death. Back in Winnipeg, Gerhard re-established his membership with the North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church. He was known as a man of faith, one who led a “difficult, but significant life.”
More details of Gerhard J. Klassen’s life and legacy can be found in the following sources: Gerhard J. Klassen obituary, Die Mennonitische Rundschau, 16 February 1966, pg. 11; Genealogy of Johann Janzen 1752–1977, compiled for Ernest J. Klassen of Winnipeg by Katie Peters, pg. 51; Ann Wiens, Leaving a Legacy: treasuring the rich Christian heritage of the Johann J. Klassen family (Winnipeg, 2004); and John G. Klassen, “Gerhard Johann Klassen (1903–1965): Reflections on a difficult life” Mennonite Historian 39/1 (March 2013): 1–2, 8.
In July 2012, Sarah Klassen, Gerhard and Helena's daughter, donated the hand-copied song notebook made by her father, Gerhard, in 1927.
In February 2013, John G. Klassen, Gerhard and Helena’s son, donated seventeen pages coming from the translation of one of Gerhard’s journals.
In March 2013, John G. Klassen, donated ten pages of translated excerpts from letters and journal entries to function as an Appendix to the GJK journal translation donated in February. Daughter, Sarah Klassen, translated two of these letters.
In November 2015, John G. Klassen, donated the remaining personal papers he had in his possession with respect to his father. These include: correspondence, newspaper clippings, photos, the two journals/diaries from which he had earlier translated selections (see reference in this description), and immigration papers.
In November 2018, John G. Klassen donated his grandfather's genealogical family register (started in 1890) along with an English translation checked by Bert Friesen and his sister, Sarah Klassen. The author (initially) was Johann Klassen (1869–1941), the father of Gerhard J. Klassen, and grandfather to John G. and Sarah.
Scope and Content
The Gerhard J. Klassen fonds consists of one, 132-page notebook of hand-copied songs (music and lyrics), presumably for church choral settings. This fonds documents well the type of music, as well as at musical notation style (i.e., Ziffern) used among the Mennonite Brethren at that time.
The fonds also includes a file consisting of 17 pages: one photocopy of an image of GJK, one photocopy of one page from GJK’s sermons, a 12-page translation (selections) from one of GJK’s journal, and a 3-page reflection written by John on his father’s life, which he describes as “difficult, but significant.”
The remaining files in the fonds include personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, immigration records, photos, and three journals/diaries. The fonds is enhanced by English translations of some of the documents (letters and journal entries), further clarifying the life of GJK.
- Title based on contents of fonds.
- Accession numbers: 2012-05, 2013-01, 2013-04, 2015-22, 2018-13.
- Volume No.: 1346.
- Finding aid consists of a description and a file list.
- Description created by Jon Isaak, August 2012. Updated February 2013, March 2013, November 2015, and November 2018 by Jon Isaak.
- No restrictions to access.
- Language: German and English.
1. Hand-copied choral song notebook with Ziffern and lyrics. -- 1927.
2. Translation of GJK journal along with reflections by John G. Klassen. -- 1933–1936.
3. Translation of five documents (letters and journal entries) as an Appendix to the GJK fonds. -- 1926–[1946?].
4. GJK correspondence with church leaders and family. -- 1933–1949.
5. GJK obituary, newspaper clippings, and personal correspondence. -- 1953–1966.
6. GJK immigration papers, school report cards (Russian), and family correspondence. -- 1915–1936.
7. Two GJK diaries/journals. -- 1928–1936.
8. Genealogical family register (diary) composed/started by Johann Klassen (1869–1941) in 1890, the father of GJK, with English translation. -- 1887–1958.