Hoeppner Memorial: From the Island of Chortitza, to the MHV

One lovely evening last fall, Andrew and I visited the MHV to see the Hoeppner Memorial. I mean, we’ve seen it before, but we’ve never paid an exclusive visit to the memorial, and really paid attention to what it’s all about.

I think first of all, it should be said that there is a personal reason for being interested in Jacob Hoeppner — Andrew is a direct descendent. (I know of another friend who is also a direct descendent of Hoeppner: shout-out to J.R.!) Realizing the family connection, it was time to study and ponder this memorial, specifically.

The story of Jacob Hoeppner is kind of intense. Back in 1786, he and Johann Bartsch were assigned to leave Prussia and go check out “New Russia” (Ukraine, today) to see if the West Prussian Mennonites should move there.

The Mennonites had been in Prussia for a long while (around 200 years) but at this point the government was becoming annoyed that they would not join the army, and so the Mennonites were not allowed to buy land anymore, and they were taxed quite heavily. Stuff like that, made many of them think they should get out of there.

Around that time, Catherine the Great of Russia found herself in control of “New Russia”; her army having obtained this land from Turkey. She wanted to put some people there, and the Mennonites seemed like the folk she wanted to place there, so she invited them over and promised them some attractive things, like being able to avoid going to war.

That’s why Hoeppner and Bartsch were told to go see if the land was any good.

It took them about a year to survey the area, and when they returned, they gave the thumbs-up, and a year later they returned to “New Russia” with the first wave of Mennonite immigrants from Prussia.

Thing is, when they got there, for some reason the land they thought they were getting — the land they told their fellow folk was pretty good — was “not available” by the time they all arrived, and instead they had to settle on Chortitza Island… and it sucked. The people hated the land and blamed Hoeppner and Bartsch. Mostly Hoeppner, actually, because apparently his personality was a little more boisterous. Andrew’s family book about the Hoeppners says this: “Bartsch, a quiet man offered no resistance and was more or less disregarded. Hoeppner, a capable and energetic man, refused to buckle down to the unfair religionists. For this he had to suffer.”

To continue the story, we’ll now skip over to what the plaque says, at the memorial at the MHV:

“In their frustration, the settlers expelled Heoppner from his congregation and accused him of inappropriate use of funds. He was jailed in Ekaterinoslav and was to be exiled to Siberia. After one year in prison Hoeppner was pardoned by Tsar Alexander I. He died in 1826 and was buried on his estate, as he had chosen not to be buried in a Mennonite cemetery.”

Okay, well maybe you’ve heard how this all turned out — ultimately, the Island of Chortitza was awesome, the Mennonites were successful and flourished, and so in 1890, they felt grateful for what Hoeppner and Bartsch had done for them, and set up this obelisk on the Island of Chortitza.

The Hoeppner Book states that, “The revolution and the war years destroyed the once flourishing Mennonite colonies of Southern Russia. The settlers themselves either fled from the land or were sent into exile beyond the Ural Mountains. Soon the monuments would have disappeared into some foundation of a public building as so many monuments have. To save them from this fate, the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society obtained permission from the Soviet Government to transfer the monuments to Manitoba.”

The Hoeppner Memorial was moved to the Mennonite Heritage Village in 1973, and is configured just the same as it was on the Isle of Chortitz.

You can see the bullet holes from the Russian Revolution (1917). The German and Russian inscriptions read:
“In commemoration of the deputy Jacob Hoeppner. Dedicated by the Chortitza and Molotschna brethren, 1890.”
“Remember the days of old, and consider what He, the Lord, has done for the forefathers. Deuteronomy 32:7”

The gravestone standing inside the fence was erected in 1826 for Jacob Hoeppner and his wife, Sara, with German inscriptions on both sides:
“The Isle of Chortitza Jacob Hoeppner Born December 22, 1748 Died March 4, 1826. Delegated as leader and immigrated to Russia with the first Mennonites in 1788.
“Now I have overcome the wounds of the cross, suffering, fear, and want. Through Jesus’ holy wounds I am reconciled with God.”
“Sara Hoeppner Born Dick in 1753, Died 1826. Here where my brethren / Here where Christ’s members / After victories won / Through struggles / Lie like lonely grain / Here with Jesus’ sheep / I wish to sleep my fill.”

It’s a lovely spot to sit, while trying to wrap our minds around what all happened in Jacob Hoeppner’s life.