Portrait of Cornelius F. Klassen
Mennonite Brethren Herald Photo collection
Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies Winnipeg, photo collection 44-04-98
Translation of Corenlius F. Klassen's obituary
19 May 1954
[Obituary and tribute to C.F. Klassen (1894-1954) as written by his brother H.F. Klassen]
Brother Cornelius, as a warrior on behalf of his brethren in the faith and for whoever needed his help, was tireless in his efforts for them. And in his greater and lesser efforts he was always concerned about being on the Lord's side. He loved his Saviour, trusted Him implicitly, and served in the full conviction that if God is for a cause, all difficulties can be overcome, for GOD CAN!
That was the secret for his many successes, although it often happened in puzzling and inexplicable ways!
In his 36 years of service for our people he was also subject to failures, setbacks, mistrust, slander, and attacks. Whenever he confided his pains to me about such matters, I was always moved by how quickly he would forget, and how deeply he appreciated all experiences of love, trust, and intercession. An inherent physical heart problem, years of separation from his parental home, as well as from his own family, plus persistent financial concerns – all of that did not keep him from his work which he considered his calling and his duty, i.e., to serve God and man with absolute devotion. If we drew attention to his need to watch his health, he would reply that God would supply him with strength as long as He wanted to use him.
This trust in God gave him a confident and clear approach and gained him respect even before Soviet authorities, high officials, and persons in the countries where he worked on behalf of refugees and the needy. He was offered very tempting positions in other fields and posts in other settings, but when he told me about it, I could already see in his eyes what his response was: “My service with my own people comes first, and that is not finished yet!”
During the first week of May , Cornelius traveled by car to Bremen, Hamburg, and Gronau, after which he would go to Heerewegen, Holland, to a meting of Mennonite representatives from Holland and Germany. When he came to Gronau on May 7, he suffered a heart attack and went to see his doctor. Upon the doctor's orders, he drove to the hospital. Treatment there gave momentary relief and he considered continuing on to Heerewegen. However, the doctor forbade all visitors and possibly no one was at his bedside during his last hours. Next morning his wife in Frankfurt was called, but she arrived to late to see him alive, he having been called home by God between 9:30 and 10.
For his wife and children and for us the blow was so sudden and so painful, that we tended to forget the great joy and the blessedness of the one who was now in the presence of his Saviour.
A telephone call from our sister-in-law informed us that the funeral would be held in Frankfurt on the 12 th and the burial on the 13 th .
Far from his birthplace in Samara, Russia and from his new home in Abbotsford, Canada, his body will rest in a cemetery in Frankfurt. Here in Canada memorial services will be held in many places. Much love and deep sorrow on the part of thousands of former refugees, as well as many who knew him in life, will be expressed.
At the time when the new settlement of Neu Samara in northeastern Russia, between the Volga and the Ural Mountains was being established, a young married couple, Franz F. Klassen [son of F.A. Klassen of Lichtfelde, Molotschna] and his wife Justina [daughter of Rev. Gerhard Wiebe of Dolinsk], lived on the Chutor on the Took. Their first son was born on 22 July 1894 and was named Cornelius in honour of the great-grandfather, Rev. Cornelius Epp of Lichtfelde. The parents later moved into the village of Donskaja and opened a store which they operated successfully until the Revolution of 1918. Father was a lively and sociable worker and for many years held a position in the Forestry Service.
Cornelius was a good student and after he finished the village school, his parents sent him in 1907 to Karasan in the Crimea to attend high school. (As a 7 year old I was allowed to go along to the railway station 50 werst distant. When that roaring train took my brother away, and it seemed to me that it was forever, I hid behind the gate and wept uncontrollably.) However, by 1910 he finished that school and came home for a year. That was a wonderful year. We were already 10 children and ours was a happy home. The next year, Cornelius and the brother next to him, Franz, were converted. They were baptized in the Mennonite Brethren church in Lugowsk.
Since he was a person who never did things by ‘halves', in his commitment to his Lord, he was wholehearted also and that ensured direction for his later life and service.
In order to enlarge his practical knowledge, he left our quiet village again in 1912 and entered the business offices of the Otto Deutz Company in Moscow. The work however did not allow him enough time for his studies, so the next year he took courses at A Tchernagagewa in Petersburg. His deepest wish was to be able to enroll in the Faculty of Medicine and become a medical doctor.
World War I broke out in 1914. I recall how terrified I was when I realized that my oldest brother might be taken, since mobilization was a topic of daily concern. However, he was able to serve was a tutor for one winter, after which he was called up for Forestry Service and stationed at Schwarzwald, South Russia.
After the February Revolution of 1917, he became the Forestry Service representative for the Chersono-Besarabischen Okrugs and was delegate to the Bundeskonferenz in Halbstadt, to the All-Mennonite Congress in Ohrloff, and representative for the Mennonite Forestry Service men and medical orderlies in Moscow.
It was here in Moscow that he and P.F. Froese were commissioned to petition the Kerensky Government in Petrograd to free the Mennonites orderlies who had been imprisoned and charged with spying. Eventually their extended efforts were successful.
In the meantime the need for this own “Wolost” administration arose in Neu Samara. Until now the regional office had been in a Baschkir village, but during these revolutionary times that was not a good arrangement. Cornelius was commissioned by his home settlement to go to the higher authorities for authorization to have their own Mennonite Wolost administrative organization. Even though the October Revolution had begun at this time, the changeover was successfully completed (Other delegates accompanied him in this work. At one point he told Father that he liked to travel with Br. N. Friesen with whom he could fellowship in prayer in the evenings in their lodging and take their concerns to the Lord, seeking strength and encouragement.) In 1918 the settlements of Neu Samara and Orenburg sent him to Moscow. (We were fearful since travel was dangerous in those times.)
After the Baschkir Republic had been established in that region, Cornelius, on behalf of both the above-named settlements, went to the Republic's capital, Sterlitamek and remained there was representative.
In the following year, 1920, the representatives of the Mennonites of East Russia, Siberia, and Ufa, met in Dawlevkanovo, Ufa. They chose P.F. Froese and C.F. Klassen to represent the settlements in Moscow.
There followed for them the work in the United Council of Societies and Groups in Religious Matters, dealing with questions of non-resistance, alternative service, church matters, publications, etc.
After the total crop failure of 1921, starvation stared many regions of Russia in the face. In Moscow C.F. Klassen worked along in organizing the All-Russian Relief Committee. (I was a delegate from our settlement to the meeting of that Committee when the Secret Police broke it up, and I ended up with Cornelius in that horrible Lubjanka Interrogation Prison. We were separated and he ended up in solitary confinement. This separation was bitterly painful, for the goings on were horrible – Would I see my brother again? Yet god's way was in our favour and we were released after many interrogations.)
In the fall of 1921, the MCC representative, Prof. A.J. Miller from America, arrived in Moscow, just on the day of our release from Lubjanka. Br. Miller, with C.F. Klassen as interpreter, negotiated with the Red leadership in the Kremlin after which that great relief action of the North American brethren came to our suffering people in Russia. Cornelius was active in this as a right hand man and consultant to A.J. Miller. Many, many were saved from the bitterness and death of starvation.
That, of course, did not solve the economic and social needs of our villages. In 1923, the organization All-Russian Mennonite Agricultural Society was formed with C.F. Klassen as member of the Board of Directors.
Another possible answer to the crisis was that of emigration, and again he put his full energy and insight into this small migration of people. The Soviet government later held this against him with all severity. Together with B.B. Janz, P.F. Froese, and other leaders of the time, and Elder D. Toews on this side of the ocean, more than 23,000 people were brought to Canada. At the same time great efforts were made to re-establish those left behind and for a time the above-named agricultural society had considerable success.
In 1923, our brother Gerhard, who was staying with Cornelius while undergoing medical treatment, died. In 1924, our Father who meant so much to us children, died at home. He was a noble, pious, wise man and a model in his service. Those were hard blows and the days were politically evil.
In 1925, Cornelius accompanied me to London when I, together with my dear mother and six siblings emigrated to Canada. (Two brothers had gone a year earlier.) Cornelius returned to Moscow since things were not hopeless as yet and he wanted to continue helping out settlements. We bade farewell again with great fear, since he seemed to be returning to the “Lion's Den”. When his activity was totally curtailed by the Reds in 1928, he received as if by a miracle and a gift of grace from God, visas for his wife and two children to leave the country. He never forgot that answer to prayer. Later the GPU could not understand how he had escaped. In December 1928, we were extremely happy to receive them here in Winnipeg.
It was only natural that he would continue his activities over here. However, to orientate to a new country is and adapt is not painless, as many others have also found be experience.
He attended an MCC meeting in 1929 and then made an extensive tour of Mennonite groups in the USA.
When in 1930 the 2 nd Mennonite World Conference took place in Danzig, elder David Toews and he were the Canadian delegates.
After his return, he was given the difficult task of collecting the travel debt. This task depressed him quite often and he bore the debt as if it were his own. How gratefully though, he often referred to the helpfulness of the brethren in the churches who helped along so diligently. His face beamed when he talked about how in unexpected places generosity and sacrifice and true Mennonite honesty were show – often women were a part of that that played a noble role. Our dear Mother died here in Canada in 1933.
The 3 rd Mennonite World Conference took place in Holland and again in the company of the dear Elder Toews, he was able to attend. After the conference he travelled through Germany and also visited Riga.
When World War II broke out, he was able to deal successfully with the question of military service in Ottawa and elsewhere, being able to counsel many. His greatest concern however, were the bad reports coming out of eastern Europe. The war between Russia and Germany had terrible consequences for the Mennonites in south Russia, as well as in east and west Prussia. In 1945, he succeeded as special envoy of MCC, to move into Germany and to make contact with the refugees coming from the east.
Serving these unfortunates now took up all his thinking, feeling, and planning. God alone knows what toll it took on Cornelius's life, but he never took that into consideration.
By now the great crisis was past and work ran more smoothly. Possibly his yearning to be home with his family and church could soon be realized. But then, ‘God's thoughts are not your thoughts!'
While I'm writing this, there are many details about his passing, the funeral, etc., which we don't know yet. We do expect a reunion, for we know that he entered eternity through death. May our gracious god grant us that reunion together with many who sorrow with us.
Sister C.F. Klassen, Irmy and Herbert were with him in Germany since September 1953. They expect to return to Canada at the beginning of June. The two oldest sons, Harald and Walfried with this families, lived at Abbotsford, BC. Of the 13 children of the large F.F. Klassen family, three sisters and six brothers are still living and are all married: Justina, Mrs D.A. Peters of Mt. Lehman, BC; Agathe, Mrs Em Horch of Winnipeg; Elfrieda, Mrs Peter J. Dyck of Moundridge, KS; Franz F. Klassen of Abbotsford; Heinrich of Winnipeg; Jacob of Winnipeg; Johann of Montreal; Nicolai of Abbotsford; Alexander of Vancouver.
Cornelius lived his life with much love and care and honourably as the oldest brother, and we are now a tree that is left without a crown.
For the many words of comfort and condolence we are most grateful. We know that C.F. Klassen was a help and a blessing to many. Many God grant that the blessing continues to thrive.
“They overcame him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Revelation 12:11.
Dedicated to that big brother in heartfelt love, by H.F. Klassen.