Helga Nikkel, 90, of Steinbach, MB., passed away Monday, August 1, 2022 at Bethesda Place, Steinbach, MB.
Helga Nikkel (née Hildebrand) was born June 8, 1932, in the village of Rosengart in the Chortitza Mennonite Colony, USSR. Her parents were Abram Hildebrand and Lena Hildebrand (née Enns). She spent a happy childhood with her mother and father, her grandmother Helena Enns and, after 1936, her dear brother Abram.
Helga was fortunate to have a happy childhood, but this changed when she was 9 years old. In 1941, war came to the USSR. One night her father was arrested and taken from the family. He, along with most other German men in the area, were rounded up by the Soviet secret police and taken to a transit camp to be shipped off to work camps in Siberia. Helga saw her father only once more, at the camp where he was being held. She, Abram, and her mother were able to talk to him and they made plans for his escape but they did not see him again. It is believed he died in 1942 of starvation or execution while in exile in Siberia. Helga’s mother told of having had a dream in which she learned of her husband’s death and thereafter she lost hope of seeing him again in this world.
In 1943 Helga’s family joined the people of their village on a “great trek” out of the Soviet Union, following the German army as it fled the USSR in retreat. Helga’s family found themselves in the town of Rochlitz in Saxony, where they and over one hundred other displaced persons were housed in a large room in an old clubhouse building. Sheets were hung up to section off areas and give families some privacy. This was where they lived for two years until the war ended in 1945, when, to their great dismay, they once again came under Soviet rule as Russian troops occupied the eastern part of Germany. Their worst fears were realized when the rounding up of the Germans from the USSR began again, under the pretext of repatriation, and people were herded onto trains to be transported to Siberia.
Unlike most of her friends and relatives from Rosengart who were caught up in this forced repatriation, Mom and her family managed to remain in Germany. They and several other families found shelter in a nearby village where they were able to live in a house and disappear into the local populace. But they did not feel safe in the Russian zone of postwar Germany and made plans to flee as soon as they could. They wanted to leave for the American zone, but this was risky for them: their papers identified them as Soviet Germans whom the allies had agreed to repatriate. Here the ingenuity (or perhaps desperation) of Helga’s mother came into play. She wrote herself a letter, ostensibly from her brother-in-law in the western part of Germany, and placed it in an old envelope from him with an actual postmark from the west. In the letter, she wrote an invitation to her family to come and join her brother-in-law on his farm. He claimed to have lots of land and plenty of work. Following the advice of contacts who seemed to know what was required, Helga’s mother “armed” herself with a bottle of homemade schnapps, a pound of homemade butter, and her letter. The family travelled to the border where Helga’s mother managed to get them to the front of a very long line to plead her case with the border crossing official. The letter wasn’t enough to sway the official, so she pulled out the schnapps and placed it on the table and she ended up getting permission to leave the zone for herself and her family. The pound of butter hadn’t been needed, so it was passed off to another family so they could use it to also come across the border.
Helga and her family spent the next three years in the American zone in the south of Germany and then, through the efforts of the Mennonite Central Committee, they came to Canada in 1948. They travelled by train and ship to Steinbach, Manitoba where they were sponsored by Helga’s mother’s brother, Martin Enns and his family. Helga and her mother immediately found work in the laundry department of the Steinbach hospital and found a tiny three-room house to live in, right next to the hospital.
After almost a decade as refugees, living with constant fear and want, the early time in Steinbach were years of plenty for Helga. There was so much to learn, so much to do, so much family, so much church, so many friends.
Helga got her Canadian education working in the hospital laundry, and later also in Abram Vogt’s grocery store. These working days figured hugely in Helga’s life experience although they counted relatively few in number. Arriving in Canada at age 16, she was considered too old to attend school, and besides, her earnings were needed, so she had to do her learning at work. Helga’s lack of formal education was something she would regret for the rest of her life. Though she had attended classes for a few years in the USSR, and later in Germany, these were unsettled years. In Canada, English learning came slowly, through work, socializing and from listening to her children, who often disobeyed the house rules by not speaking German. Helga was a lifelong learner: She listened to radio, watched TV, and more recently, accessed the internet. Her mastery of the iPad over the past 6 years was a marvel – she’d never in her life used a computer, or even a typewriter, and now Helga was surfing the web and FaceTiming with Linda in BC. She swapped emails with friends and relatives all over the world and watched live-streamed funeral services, sometimes several a day. Helga loved learning – although she would say with a self-deprecating smile, “Etj dow aules faulsch” (I do everything wrong). Mom would say: “I don’t know English, I don’t know proper German, I mix everything up.” And then she would add, “But I still try.” Of course, she could say this all in flawless Plautdietsch, but that didn’t seem to count for much.
Helga’s Christian faith and her church were a grounding force in her life. In her childhood years in the Soviet Union, church attendance and religious activity had been discouraged, even forbidden. As a young child in school, she once proudly stood up in class and sang a German hymn that her grandmother had newly taught her. A few days later the officials came to warn her father that if he continued to teach such nonsense in his home he would be imprisoned.
Once in Canada, Helga was free to worship and attend church as she pleased and so, in her early years in Steinbach, she made up for lost time. As young people, Helga and friends would often attend multiple services in a day, hopping from one church to another to enjoy preaching and teaching and singing. It was a blessing and a joy for her to be able to gather and worship.
On May 28, 1950, Helga was baptized in the Steinbach Mennonite Church where she became a faithful member. She sang in the choir, attended Sunday school and youth group, and throughout her life, participated in communal congregational activities like Nähverein (sewing circle), meal preparation, bible studies, saengerfests, revival meetings, women’s conferences, and more. In recent years, as Covid pandemic control measures prevented in-person gatherings, Helga was a diligent online church attender. For the past few years, Helga caught the Steinbach Mennonite service on her iPad, often on Saturday evening, which would then leave Sunday morning free for “church surfing” – Grace Mennonite, Douglas Mennonite, Springfield Heights Mennonite – maybe a church in Ontario or BC. The ability to attend church services virtually was a gift and even a lifeline for her.
Family was the heart of Helga’s life, and Manitoba was full of family – there were so many cousins and uncles and aunts, and second-cousins and great-aunts and nieces and nephews – and Helga could tell us exactly how they all were connected. But it wasn’t just knowing how people were related; Helga put much energy into building and maintaining relationships with people. In 1950, Helga’s mother, Lena Hildebrand, married Arndt Lehn from Ste. Elizabeth, Manitoba, and subsequently moved there. This marriage brought a new step-father and five step-siblings into the picture: Arndt Jr., Henry, Ernie, Anne and Malvine. The 3-room house on Henry Street now housed only Helga and Abe, but not for long. Within a year, Helga’s Onkel Gerhard and Tante Anna and their four children arrived in Canada and came to share the little house with them. This meant that people were sleeping all over the house, four in the living room, three in the bedroom and one, her brother Abe, in the closet. There was now a burgeoning clan of Rosengard Mennonites in Steinbach – Ennses, Kasdorfs, Hildebrands – and Helga was happily in the middle of it.
Helga also did her part to contribute to the growing clan. In the early 50s she met Cornelius Nikkel through church and friends, and soon he was coming around to visit. Corny was also new to Canada, also displaced from Soviet Russia, and also from the Chortitza colony. He was handsome and he had a new truck which could take them away from the tiny house and the curious cousins, and so courtship occurred. On June 5,1955, marriage followed. Helga and Corny brought four children into the world, Rudy, Walter, Linda, and Irmgard (Irmy), who then begat six lovely grandchildren (Alexandra, Jake, Adam, Aisha, Mika, and Tadeo), and one beloved great-grandchild, Max. Helga loved all of us dearly, and words are unable to express how much we will miss her, our Mom and Oma Helga. She was a devoted mother and grandmother to all of us.
Helga treasured her many connections with family and friends and she worked hard to maintain them. In the early days it wasn’t so easy to catch up with her mother, who by now had moved to Winnipeg, and long-distance telephone charges made frequent calls prohibitive on their tight budget. But then she’d pop in to use the Winnipeg line at Corny’s workplace as part of their weekly evening shopping trip. Weekly phone calls were not enough, though, so Helga got a job cleaning the school division head office, just down the street from her home. This brought her a little income, for which she was very happy. But more importantly, this gave her daily access to a Winnipeg phone line and she began to call her mother every evening, a practice that continued for years. On occasion she called other friends and relatives as well, and though at times it seemed to us that access to the Winnipeg line was the main reason she was going to work, we know she did her job very well and she kept those offices spotless for many years. In more recent times, phone plans allowed Helga to have telephone chats at home with a wide range of people, including daily conversations with her dear brother Abe. With her recent mastery of the iPad, Helga added email correspondence to her repertoire. She emailed with many friends and relatives, often attaching photos or video links to her messages and often sharing widely messages that she appreciated. She especially treasured her email correspondence with her nephew Peter, who was always quick to send an affectionate and witty reply. Helga was diligent about staying in touch with many relatives, in Germany and in other parts of Canada: her many Rosengart relatives, her half-siblings, her nieces and nephews, and with Corny’s relatives too, since that wasn’t something Corny was likely to do.
Helga was not an avid traveler, though Corny loved to take trips. She was not very interested in sight-seeing or tourism and preferred to stay home where things were familiar and comfortable. She said she had done her traveling in her refugee years, and no longer needed that kind of adventure. But if there was ever a possibility to visit relatives, no matter how far away or how distant the relation, Mom became much more interested in making the trip.
Helga also loved to host people in her home, where there was always a freezer filled with platz and vereneke and borscht – and if she knew you were coming to Steinbach to visit friends or family, she loved to have you over for a meal and a conversation. If you needed a bed to sleep in, so much the better. And she felt honoured if these conversations led to personal discussions about the things that are important in your lives. Thank you for staying in touch with her – it was a great pleasure in her life.
In the year 2000, Helga was diagnosed with very aggressive breast and lymphatic cancer. She underwent surgery followed by courses of chemotherapy and radiation and though the initial prognosis was dire, she recovered well and a year later was declared cancer-free. She considered her survival miraculous; she had been quite prepared to die. Helga enjoyed 22 more years of life after this scare. She called them bonus years – years of health, life, laughter, and gratitude. When Helga suddenly took ill in the spring of 2022, she was entirely at peace and ready to go. She spent time planning her funeral and preparing her obituary. She wrote:
The Lord has done great things for us. He has granted us many healthy and happy years.
Psalm 100: Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.
Psalm 121: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
So nimm denn meine Hände: (O take my hand, dear Father, and lead Thou me); especially the line in the German version: Wo du willst gehen und stehen, da nimm mich mit (Wherever you wish to go and remain, there take me too).
Helga is survived by four children: Rudy, Walter (Angelika Jantz), Linda (Dale Klippenstein), Irmy (Stan Lozecznik); six grandchildren: Alexandra, Jake, Adam, Aisha, Mika, and Tadeo; and one beloved great-grandchild, Max, by her brother (and best friend) Abe Hildebrand, and many friends and relatives.
Helga was predeceased by her parents, Abram Hildebrand and Lena Hildebrand Lehn (née Enns); her stepfather, Arndt Lehn; several step-siblings; her sister-in-law, Tina Hildebrand (née Neufeld); her dear daughter-in-law, Sue Nikkel (née Penner); and most recently by her dear Corny, her husband of 67 years. She lived to celebrate her 90th birthday. Her final months were spent in the Bethesda hospital, the Vita hospital, and finally in the Bethesda Personal Care Home, where she had a room just down the hall from her husband Corny. The family is grateful to the doctors, nurses, and caregivers who so lovingly cared for our mother during her final months.
The funeral service for Helga Nikkel will be held Friday, August 5, 2022 at 2:00 p.m.. at the Steinbach Mennonite Church, 345 Loewen Blvd, Steinbach, MB., with viewing prior to the service.