David Klassen was born in 1899 to Johann and Anna Klassen in a Mennonite village called Rosenort in South Russia (now Ukraine). Although Johann and Anna owned a small grocery story, they owned no land and were not wealthy. At a young age, David, along with his six sisters and two brothers, had to work to help support the family. The boys worked as day laborers for wealthy landowners, earning four meals and sixteen kilos of wheat per day.
The quiet Mennonite life in Ukraine ended in 1914 with the beginning of World War I. The war led to a revolution in 1917, ending in a terrible civil war. Armed bands attacked villages and individuals. David, too, survived an episode where he was interrogated by a Machno band with guns directed on him, but the Lord kept him safe. The situation normalized in late 1920 when regular Soviet troops gained control of the area.
In 1917, during hay harvest time, David became severely ill with jaundice. His elder sister, Margarethe, was afraid that her brother would die. She had a premonition that David would become a preacher – even an itinerant preacher. She vowed that she would not get married if the Lord would keep her brother David alive and would instead serve the Lord by teaching in children’s school and visiting the sick and poor people. She kept her vow until her death in October 1920, when she was caring for her sister and brother-in-law who were ill with typhus.
In August 1918, David Klassen was baptized in the Mennonite Brethren Church in Tiege by the well-known Benjamin Janz. He began serving in the Sunday School, joined the church choir, and later became the conductor of the youth choir.
When the famine of 1922 hit, David and his family had no reserves to help them through, as their two cows had recently died in an epidemic. Help came through the American Relief Administration where David got the position of a baker. His family, consisting of seven persons, received five portions of white bread and a warm meal each day. So the whole family survived.
On December 13, 1924, David was hired to work as a nurse at “Bethania,” the Mennonite hospital for mentally ill persons in Einlage. Personnel formed a choir and had regular prayer meetings on Saturdays. In 1927 the hospital dissolved and patients were transferred to a state hospital. Several workers, including David Klassen, were transferred to the state hospital. He continued his work there in different positions until his arrest on April 8, 1936.
During the summer of 1928, David Klassen built a home for himself in the village of Neu Einlage. In November of that year, he proposed to Sara Hamm. They were married in the Lichtenau church on May 12, 1929. Their first child died in infancy; a son, David, was born in 1935, and a second son, Ernst, was born the following year. In 1934, they adopted a daughter, Anna, whose parents were deported as kulaks (wealthier peasant farmers) and died. Sara’s aged parents were also dekulakized and deported, but they received special permission from the government to return and settle with David and Sara. They both died before World War II.
During Easter week, David Klassen was arrested in the early hours of the morning on April 8, 1936. Together with ten others, he was accused of anti-Soviet activity under the guise of religion and was sentenced to seven years in the labor camps. In November of that year, David was sent to the Temnikov labor camps (Temlag) in the Autonomous Soviet Republic of Mordovia, to serve as lumberjack. The work was very hard and the food insufficient. By January of 1937, he needed a walking stick to reach his place of work. In March, David was transferred to a tuberculosis station where he had to care for more than 120 inmates. He was labeled as politically dangerous in 1938 and moved to a different location, but there again got a medical job. He spent the remainder of his imprisonment in different medical positions in the northern part of the country in the White Sea-channel, Onega See, and Archangelsk area. His term was to end in April, 1943, but due to the war with Germany, he wasn’t released until December 12, 1946.
In July of 1941, at the beginning of the war with Germany, David’s wife, Sara, was arrested and sentenced to ten years in the labor camps. She served her term in the Karaganda labor camp (Karlag), one of the largest labor camps of the Soviet Union, in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. She wasn’t released until 1952.
After his release from the labor camps, David settled in Karabulak in northern Kazakhstan where his children had been deported at the beginning of World War II. He found his two sons, David and Ernst, then 12 and 11 years old, living with his sister-in-law, Elisabeth Hamm. They were short of bread and potatoes, without underwear, dressed only in thin, short trousers, with one old and patched jacket to share between them. They had no fuel—no hay, wood, or coal. They heated the house with a little straw that was left behind by a former cow. David dug hay and straw out from underneath the snow in the field, but even this amount of fuel was not sufficient, and sometimes the water in the bucket in the room was frozen.
Their daughter, Anna—around sixteen years old by this time–had been deported to the Autonomous Republic of Komi with her near-blind aunt Anna Klassen. Aunt Anna was swollen up to the navel, and young Anna assumed that she too would die at a young age. David Klassen borrowed 200 rubles and sent them to Anna; the money saved her life. Aunt Anna died shortly afterwards, and daughter Anna returned to her brothers and mother in 1952 or 1953.
But the persecutions had not come to an end. On September 1, 1949, David Klassen again was arrested, along Anna Dueck, a medical doctor, Greta Regehr, Johann Federau, Suse Reimer, and Lida Unger, a teacher. All were charged with “anti-Soviet agitation under the guise of religion” and sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment. Their interrogation took place in the Kustanai prison. Over the five months he stayed there, David had 91 daily and nightly questionings.
David was sent to Dzhezkazgan (known as Zhezkazgan today) in Central Kazakhstan for his prison term. Here he once again got a medical position. In Dzhezkazgan he met brethren in Christ that had been imprisoned there, Russians as well as Germans. Their numbers sometimes reached 20 or 30, and the even celebrated Lord’s Supper with apple or cherry juice – and sometimes even with wine!
After Stalin’s death, David’s term was reduced to 10 years. In 1955, however, he was declared physically impaired and released from prison. On October 19, 1955, David returned to his family, now living in the large city of Karaganda in Central Kazakhstan. Karaganda had become a home for many deported Russians and Germans, including Mennonites and Baptists. A Baptist church, formed mainly of deported people, had existed there since 1931. It even achieved legal status in 1946.
David began attending services at the Baptist church and helped erect a new building for it, but he did not join.
In December of 1956, nineteen Germans the Baptist church to found a new German Mennonite Brethren church. In the same year, the Germans in the USSR were released from deportation and free to choose their place of settlement. Many of them started to move to Karaganda, and the new church grew very rapidly. In 1957 only, 251 baptisms took place in the congregation. David and Sara joined the church in May 1957. On June 16, 1957, David and two more brothers were ordained as preachers, and in September, David was elected church elder. Meanwhile, the large congregation gathered for worship in several dug-out houses simultaneously. Their attempts to get legal status failed.
In 1958, a new wave of religion persecutions came over the whole country, affecting all confessions. The Mennonite Brethren church in Karaganda continued gathering, but its leaders had to pay a high price. First, David Klassen was fined a large sum that he refused to pay. On August 20, 1962, he led a Thanksgiving service in a private home where the church was gathered. On September 29, 1962, David was arrested. In December of 1962, he was sentenced for a third time, because of his faith. David refused to agree with the accusations. He was sentenced as recidivist for three years in maximum-security conditions.
In the labor camp, David was assigned to clean cesspools. After 20 months the security conditions for him were somewhat lowered. Finally, on April 30, 1965, Klassen was informed that the Supreme Court of the USSR had rehabilitated him. He was released early and unexpectedly arrived home on the same day.
David returned to his church and to his family. Shortly afterwards, the church elected new leadership, but David continued his work in the church and within the broader fellowship as highly respected person and preacher.
David Klassen died at the age of 91 in Karaganda with his family. His life as a fearless witness for Christ left blessed traces within family, church, and community.
Source: David Klassen’s Autobiography in Rückblick, 1/2005, pp. 17-23.
Submitted and translated by Johannes Dyck. Edited by Elizabeth Miller.
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