Klassen, Mary Brieger (1891–1976)
Mary Brieger Klassen family collection
Dates of Creation
1 cm of textual records and one CD
Mary Martha Brieger was born on June 7, 1891, in Riga, Latvia. Her parents were Louis Christopher Brieger (1852-1910) and Clara Gertrude Goeschel (1862-1917). She was the middle child between two sisters, Erika and Irmgard. She was confirmed as a young woman in the German Lutheran church in Riga on May 31, 1909.
On May 22, 1915, she married Jakob J. Reimer (1891-1937), whom she met in Riga. Jakob, a Russian Mennonite from Karassan, Crimea, was an electrical engineer trained at the Thüringer Institute (Ilmenau, Germany) and working in Riga at the time. During WWI, as the German army advanced, the couple moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. Mary worked as an accountant (Malcolm and Sons) and Jakob as an engineer (Mantel and Co.).
Eventually, the couple became part of a small Mennonite community in Moscow trying to find a way to maintain their Mennonite faith and values during the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and civil war. Mary worked as a secretary to Alvin Miller, director of the American Mennonite Relief (AMR) office in Moscow, and Jakob worked at several alternative service assignments during wartime (e.g., ambulance train medic and driving instructor for the Red Cross) and as an engineer after the war. A son, Harold (1923-1996), was born to them. In 1925, the couple divorced.
On September 11, 1926, Mary married Cornelius Franz (C.F.) Klassen (1894-1954), bringing Harold with her into the new family. CF was working with the Allrussischer Mennonitischer Landwirtschaftlicher Verein (AMLV) or Agricultural Union, which also had an office in the same building housing the AMR office where Mary worked. The Agriculture Union’s mandate was to negotiate with the Bolshevik government a way to reconstruct Mennonite agricultural life within the new communist reality (1923-1928).
After the Bolshevik government closed the AMLV in 1928, Mary and CF were able to secure exit visas for their family, which now included another son, Walfried (1927-2013). They, along with some 21,000 other émigrés, felt the prospects of maintaining their Mennonite way of life and values in the new Bolshevik society were swiftly becoming untenable. On November 30, 1928, Mary, CF, and their boys left Liverpool on the CPR steam ship, Duchess of Atholl, arriving in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, on December 8, 1928 (Canadian Board of Colonization card #4972).
Mary and CF and their family joined several of CF’s siblings and their families already living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mary helped CF in his new role collecting the travel debt owed by the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization to the Canadian Pacific Railway (approximately 2 million dollars). Full repayment was completed in 1946. Three more children were born to them: Herbert (1929-), Tinalie (1931-1933), and Irmgard (1931-1979).
On August 4, 1935, Mary was baptized in the Assiniboine River. Minister C.N. Hiebert officiated at the baptism and Minister Jakob Epp gave the message. That evening both CF and Mary were welcomed as members of Winnipeg’s North End Mennonite Brethren Church, CF by transfer and Mary by baptism.
In 1948, the family moved to Abbotsford, British Columbia. During the post-war years (1945-1954), CF traveled back and forth from Europe to Canada helping to organize passage of Russian Mennonites out of Europe to North and South America. He died unexpectedly in 1954 while on assignment in Europe.
Mary was best known for her courage, sense of humour, resourcefulness, and trust in God’s faithful provision. In 1971, a debilitating stroke severely curtailed her abilities. She died five years later at Menno Hospital (Abbotsford) in 1976 at the age of eighty-five.
According to her biographer, Maureen Klassen, “For some, Mary was the woman who had stood tall beside her husband in his role as respected leader of his people. To others, she was the woman who was always there behind this great figure in the Mennonite story. For her children, she was all too often the woman who was left behind without him, to take care of the family as he responded to the demanding challenges of his responsibilities with various Mennonite organizations” (It Happened in Moscow, p. 1).
More details of Mary Brieger Klassen’s life can be found in Herb Klassen and Maureen Klassen, Ambassador to His People: C.F. Klassen and the Russian Mennonite Refugees (Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 1990) and Maureen Klassen, It Happened in Moscow: A Memoir of Discovery (Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 2013).
On February 27, 2013, Maureen Klassen donated the documents in the Mary Brieger Klassen family collection to the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg. These documents are copies of the various letters, translations, and transcripts that Maureen references in her book, It Happened in Moscow.
Scope and Content
The Mary Brieger Klassen family collection consists of twenty-one documents and one CD of sixty-seven photographs. Included is correspondence between Jakob Reimer’s daughter, Erika Reimer Gurieva (1926-2012), and Jakob Reimer’s son, Harold Klassen (1923-1996), who only found each other in 1993. The documents related to Erika’s search for her long-lost brother, Harold, are also included, as well as the transcripts of Jakob’s KGB trial, execution, and later exoneration. Mary’s letters and the entire collection document well both the joys and struggles that characterize Mary’s life—and those of her descendants—both in Russia and in Canada.
- Title based on contents of collection.
- Accession numbers: 2013-05.
- Volume No.: 1000; File No. 34.
- Finding aid consists of a description and an item list of the file contents.
- Description created by Jon Isaak, April 2013.
- No restrictions to access.
- Language: English, German, Russian.
- Related materials: see Klassen, Cornelius Franz (C.F.) fonds.
Volume 1000, file no. 34
1. Mary’s letter from Moscow to her mother-in-law, Justina Klassen (nee Justina Wiebe) now living in Winnipeg; letter written in German. -- May 1, 1928.
2. Mary’s letter from Moscow to her mother-in-law, Justina Klassen (nee Justina Wiebe) now living in Winnipeg; letter written in German. -- June 10, 1928.
3. English translations of Mary’s letters to her mother-in-law (items #1 and #2). -- May 1, 1928, and June 10, 1928.
4. Mary’s letter from Moscow to her mother-in-law, Justina Klassen (nee Justina Wiebe) now living in Winnipeg; letter written in German. -- June 26, 1928.
5. English translations of Mary’s letters to her mother-in-law (item #4). -- June 26, 1928.
6. Mary’s letter from Frankfurt, Germany, to Franz and Katja Klassen in Winnipeg; letter written in German. -- January 14, 1954.
7. Erika Oyserman (Erika Gurieva’s husband’s cousin) letter from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Winnipeg City Hall, Inquiry Service; letter in search of Erika Gurieva’s brother, Harold Klassen. -- February 13, 1993.
8. City of Winnipeg letter to the Manitoba Genealogical Society asking for a response to Osyerman’s request for information. -- March 3, 1993.
9. The Genealogical Society’s letter forwarding the request for information to Lawrence Klippenstein, archivist at the Mennonite Heritige Centre, Winnipeg. -- April 2, 1993.
10. Peter H. Rempel’s letter to Erika Osyerman informing her of Herb and Maureen Klassen’s address in Moscow, with copy to Herb and Maureen. -- April 13, 1993.
11. Russian document indicating the exoneration of Jakob J. Reimer after trial review done on March 21, 1958. -- March 31, 1993.
12. Herb and Maureen Klassen’s letter from Moscow to Harold and Ruth Klassen in Abbotsford informing them of a newly found half-sister, Erika Gurieva, in Moscow. -- April 23, 1993.
13. Harold Klassen’s letter to his half-sister, Erika Gurieva, in Moscow. -- May 6, 1993.
14. Erika’s letter to Harold in Abbotsford, translated into English. -- May 21, 1993.
15. Erika’s letter to Harold in Abbotsford, translated into English. -- August 9, 1993.
16. Erika’s letter to Maureen Klassen in Abbotsford containing a transcription of the trial of Jakob J. Reimer, his indictment, and his exoneration, which she hand copied from recently de-classified KGB files while visiting the KGB bureaucratic offices and archives; letter in Russian cursive. -- December 12, 2000.
17. Transcription of Erika’s letter to Maureen (item #16) into Russian type font. -- December 12, 2000.
18. Translation of Erika’s letter to Maureen (item #16) into English. -- December, 12, 2000.
19. Pamphlet describing the Butovski Polygon--Russia’s “Golgatha”; burial place of Jakob J. Reimer. Text in Russian. -- 2000.
20. Article from The Moscow Tribune announcing opening of the Moscow Mennonite Centre. -- November 27, 1992.
21. Photographs for It Happened in Moscow scanned in high resolution by C.F. Neil Klassen and saved to Compact Disc. -- November 29, 2012.
22. Letter from C.F. Neil Klassen describing contents of photo CD (item #21) and caption suggestions for all 67 photos. -- November 29, 2012.
23. Photocopy of Mary Martha Brieger's 1891 birth registration at the Rodenpois Lutheran Church (Rodenpois, Latvia, near Riga). Donated by Randy Klassen. -- 2013.