The Virtual Museum of Mennonite Clocks

A Refugee Story

Listen to the sound of an historic Kroeger clock hour bell made ca. 1910 in Rosenthal, in what is now Ukraine.

Throughout history, refuge seekers have had to overcome dangerous circumstances to find safety, security, and a place to call home. For many people, memories of home were triggered by the ticking sound of a clock and the chiming sound of an hour bell.

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The ‘Neufeld’ clock, made for Gerhard Neufeld in 1880 in Rosenthal, Chortitza Colony. Made by David D. Kroeger (1829–1909) who's son, also David (1860–1909) whose son, also David (1860–1920), is shown in the background photo.

Since David Kroeger built this clock in 1880, it has been a witness to stories of hardship and resilience. The delicate flowers on this clock face mask the clock's harrowing journey from Russia through Germany to Brazil, and finally to Canada.

 
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Mennonites leaving Russia in 1923.  Courtesy Mennonite Heritage Archives

Mennonites leaving Russia in 1923. Courtesy Mennonite Heritage Archives

Like many communities around the world, Mennonites have had to escape danger and hardship. Migration involves difficult travel over land and sea. It also means having to travel with few belongings – items needed to sustain life on a perilous journey.

Why would many families in flight carry these large, heavy clocks with them through such journeys?

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The reason for this is simple: for Mennonites, clocks and home were inseparable. One owner explained that although her family moved many times, her mother declared that each new house was ‘home’ only when both the curtains and the Kroeger clock were hung.

 
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The Neufeld family in Suvorovka, Orenburg Colony, early 20th century.

The owners of the clock were the Neufelds. But the 1917 October Revolution, which led to the founding of the Soviet Union, took a financial toll on the Neufelds. In 1921, famine hit their own and surrounding villages. Entire households died. To make matters worse, suspicions escalated towards people who practised religion and towards German-speaking communities. Faced with fear of deportation to labour camps, they applied for exit papers in secret in 1929.

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The Neufeld family outside their first permanent home in the Brazilian jungle, where their clock hung.

They collected money for their journey by selling most of their belongings. Despite the risk, they travelled with their Kroeger clock, protected by a pile of bedding. With very little food and almost no money they made their way by train and ship to Germany, where they waited for months before being offered a new permanent home in Brazil.

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The Neufeld family outside its first permanent home in the Brazilian jungle, where the Neufeld, discussed in this story, clock hung.

Life in Brazil was not easy. The family struggled to make ends meet despite unfamiliar challenges such as the humid heat of the jungle and ants invading their limited food supply. Despite these hardships, the family clock was well looked after.

A family member wrote to Arthur Kroeger: ‘I still hear the tick-tock and rustle of the chain when my father would wind it in the evening. Aunt Agatha would shine the brass parts of the clock so they would glisten properly.’

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Elisabeth Neufeld (née Reimer) (1907–2006) (left), with the Neufeld clock. Her father-in-law, Gerhard Neufeld, was the original owner of the clock, which he acquired in 1880. The photograph is by Arthur Kroeger before he repainted the clock in the 1990s. Background photo: The German ocean liner 'Werra,' on which twenty-three members of the Neufeld family crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil in 1930.

With time, the family was able to build a better life. By the 1970s most members had immigrated to Canada. Once again, they brought their clock with them. The decorations on its face eventually faded and were repainted in the 1990s. The clock itself endured everything from the icy winters of the Russian steppes to the humid hot jungles of Brazil.

 
 
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