Fonds CMBS Personal papers collection (textual), Audiocassettes: NA-18-07, NA-16-5, NA-16-3. NA-16-4. NA-18-08,Photographs: NP10, NP52-01, and NP51-02 - Cornelius Franz (C.F.) Klassen fonds

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Cornelius Franz (C.F.) Klassen fonds

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CA CMBS CMBS Personal papers collection (textual), Audiocassettes: NA-18-07, NA-16-5, NA-16-3. NA-16-4. NA-18-08,Photographs: NP10, NP52-01, and NP51-02

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  • 1922-1964 (Creation)

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43 cm of textual records
128 photographs
5 audio recordings

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Name of creator

Biographical history

Cornelius Franz Klassen (C.F. Klassen) (1894-1954) was the oldest of the 13 children of Franz F. Klassen (1870-1924) and Justine Wiebe (1874-1933) in the New Samara, Russia, Mennonite settlement. He was an active lay worker in the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church of Canada and an outstanding leader and administrator in Mennonite relief and colonization work in Russia, Canada, and Europe. From 1945 until his death he was director of the refugee and resettlement service of the Mennonite Central Committee in Europe, on behalf of the Russian and Danzig refugees. His early schooling was in the village school at Donskaya, Neu-Samara, Russia where the family lived beginning in 1900; his father operated a store there until 1918. He also attended the Zentralschule at Karassan, Crimea from 1907 until 1910. After his baptism into the MB Church at Lugovsk in the summer of 1911, he entered the office of the Otto Deutz Co. of Moscow in 1912. He studied in Education under A. Tcheriyayev in St. Petersburg (1913-1914) and then served a year as private tutor. His plan to study medicine was blocked by induction into the Mennonite forestry service (Foresti) as a conscientious objector (1915-1917). Klassen first served as a representative of the Mennonite community in 1917 as a delegate to the All-Mennonite Congress at Ohrloff. He also represented the Mennonite forestry service men at the Bundeskonferenz at Halbstadt. He and Peter Froese were sent by the Congress to negotiate the release of Mennonites held in prison in Moscow by the Kerensky government. After serving as elected representative of the settlement of New Samara and Orenburg both at Moscow and to the Bashkir Republic at Sterlitamak (1918-1919), Klassen and Froese, were chosen again at Ufa in 1920 to represent the Mennonites of East Russia and Siberia in Moscow. He worked in Moscow in 1920-21 with the United Council of Religious Bodies and the Russian Relief Committee, and he aided A.J. Miller in the negotiations with the Kremlin. These negotiations laid the foundation for the American Mennonite Relief (AMR) of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Russia. He was active in the AMR program from 1921 until 1923. He then shared in the organization of the AMLV (Allrussischer Mennonitischer Landwirtschaftlicher Verein; All-Russian Mennonite Agricultural Union) in 1923. Klassen was vice-president of the AMLV, while Peter Froese served as president. The AMLV rendered valuable service both in the great emigration of 1922-1925 to Canada, and in taking over the representation of the Mennonites of Russia after the church conference organization was suppressed by Moscow. In 1928 Klassen left Russia for Winnipeg, Manitoba. He entered the service of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1930 and provided leadership in the great effort to pay off the entire transportation debt accumulated by the Mennonite emigrants of 1922-1925. The transportation of these emigrants from Russia to Canada had been financed by over $1,000,000 in loans from the CPR. Klassen also worked very closely with bishop David Toews of Rosthern, Saskatchewan in the work of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization. He helped to organize the Mennonite Central Relief Committee of Western Canada in 1940 and served as its first secretary-treasurer. He served on the board of trustees of the Mennonite Collegiate Institute (MCI) in Gretna, Manitoba and the Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Beginning in 1936, Klassen was a member of the Committee for General Welfare and Public Relations of the MB General Conference, and in 1941 he began as secretary of the Military Problems Committee of the Mennonite Churches of Western Canada. With David Toews he served as Canadian delegate to the Mennonite World Conferences at Danzig (1930) and Amsterdam (1936). He was also a delegate and speaker at the succeeding world conferences at Goshen-Newton (1948) and Basel (1952). Beginning in 1944, he was a member of the Mennonite Central Committee, and a member of its Executive Committee from 1946. Klassen's greatest work was as European Commissioner for Refugee Aid and Resettlement under the MCC in Europe from December 1945 until his death. During the last year of his service he was also the general director of MCC work in Europe. He was the MCC representative on the important Liaison Committee with the German Mennonites, as well as on the Board of Trustees of the European Mennonite Bible School at Basel. He handled with outstanding success the arduous and difficult assignment of negotiating with various governmental and international agencies (UNO, IRO, etc.) for the exit permits, transportation, and migration for over 10,000 Russian (plus several thousand Galicians and Danzigers) Mennonite refugees to Canada, Paraguay, and Uruguay. He was the founder and administrator of the resettlement housing program in Niederbiber, Espelkamp, Backnang, Enkenbach, and Wedel for Danzig Mennonite refugees in Germany, and a prime figure in the establishment of the service of old people's homes at Leutesdorf (where he is buried), Enkenbach, and Pinneberg. During the difficult postwar period in Europe, particularly in Germany, he acted as counselor and helper in the revival of Mennonite church life and in the establishment of such institutions as the Foyer Mennonite at Valdoie-Belfort, France, the Basel Glaubenskonferenz, and Der Mennonit, of which he served as editor during the last year before his death. Through his tireless labors and extensive speaking tours on behalf of relief efforts, he became not only the symbol of Mennonite relief and refugee service to Mennonites in general but a strong influence for better mutual understanding and co-operation among Mennonites across denominational lines. This also found expression in his participation in the work of the Mennonite Encyclopedia, of which he served as an associate editor from the beginning of the project until his death. Klassen died in Gronau, Germany on 8 May 1954. He was survived by his wife Mary (nee Brieger) and four children, Harold, Walfried, Herbert, and Irmgard. His residence in Canada was in Winnipeg until 1948 when the family moved to Abbotsford, B.C. Two books have been written about Klassen. "He is Abel" is an English translation of "Er Kan" by H.F. Klassen, 1978 and Ambassador to His people by Herbert and Maureen Klassen in 1990. - From Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia on line.

Custodial history

The Cornelius F. Klassen fonds was donated to Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies at various times. Early in 1977, Catherine Klassen (wife to Cornelius' brother H.F. Klassen) donated two albums of photographs which were compiled by C.F. Klassen. In April 1981, Harold Klassen donated five wire recordings which have been put on to audio cassettes. In January 1987 Catherine Klassen (sister-in-law in Winnipeg) donated 42 photographs of the C.F. Klassen collection, mostly of MCC in Europe and World War II. In June 1993 Mrs. Catherine Klassen donated C.F. Klassen's personal papers, found in this fonds. Some files appear to have been the property of Klassen's son Herb Klassen, who we assume donated the material after the writing the book on Klassen Ambassador to His People. Some materials are dated well after C.F. Klassen's death and it is unclear how this came to be included with Klassen's papers. They may in fact be the papers of C.A. DeFehr and from G.H. Sukkau. Two files are photocopies from the P.H. Unruh Collection general correspondence MLA-MS-20 at Bethel College Historical Library Newton, Kansas.

Scope and content

The materials in this fonds consists of correspondence, reports, and minutes to and from Klassen in his role as an administrator and advocate for Mennonite refugees. There is lengthy correspondence with Cornelius A. DeFehr (C.A. DeFehr) and Benjamin H. Unruh (B.H. Unruh). Correspondence is with M.C.C. board members such as H.S. Bender and Orie O. Miller. The documents reflect Klassen's activities with relief organizations, settlement of Mennonites in Paraguay, Brazil, and Mexico, travel debt repayment, world conferences, and his involvement with such issues as non-resistance. Also included are documents to and from important organizations such as the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, Mennonite Central Relief Committee Canada (MCRC), Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council (CMRIC), which later joined to form the Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCC) in 1963. This material shows the difficult situation the refugees in Russia faced and how Mennonites in Canada, the United States, and to a lesser extent in Germany and Holland tried to help them through financial and material as well as emigration to Canada and South America. Some of the material is dated well after Klassen's death and this material tends to be connected with C.A. DeFehr and to a lesser extent G.H. Sukkau. The fonds also contains some bibliographic material of a personal and family nature such as a fiftieth birthday celebration event, tributes, funeral, and articles "Er Kann" by H.F. Klassen, written about C.F. Klassen, Mennonitische Rundschau 27 September to 13 December 1972 The photographs are of churches that Russian Mennonite immigrants had erected or acquired in Canada after 1923 and of the occasion of Sir Edward Beatty's and Colonel J.S. Dennis's visit to the Mennonite settlement at Coaldale on September 19, 1937. (See Mennonite Brethren Herald 4 February 1977, p. 18). Other photos are of Klassen's work in Europe. Located in the CMBS tape collection is a tape that Klassen sent to his family in North America for Christmas, 1952. Another tape consists of reports from MCC workers in Germany. Reporting are Martha Thiessen, Helen Janz, Sigfried Janzen, Margaret Janzen, and C.F. Klassen, 1950. There are also cassettes in the form of tributes to Klassen.

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Described by Conrad Stoesz June 6, 2003. A detailed file and item inventory for files 1-17 was completed at an earlier date by [Herb Klassen?] which was used in this finding aid.

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Associated materials

Related material: B.B. Janz fonds, C.A. DeFehr fonds, Heinrich F. Klassen and Catherine Thiessen Klassen fonds.

Associated material: Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization fonds at the Mennonite Heritage Centre. Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCC) fonds at Mennonite Heritage Centre, A.A. Friesen fonds at Mennonite Heritage Centre, Mennonite Central Committee US (MCC) fonds at Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana, P.H. Unruh fonds at Bethel College, Newton, Kansas.

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Some German and Russian

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  • English

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