Last year I acquired a thin prayer booklet handwritten in old German script and dated 1873. It had surfaced in Arizona and was offered at an Internet auction.
What intrigued me was the title page, which reads: Gebet Buch des Johann Kliew. aus Franzthal, den 5. Now. 1873. Not until after I received the booklet and read the last page did I find out that the writer's complete name was Johann Kliewer. He had made the letters of his name on the front page so large that his full name could not be squeezed into the available space, and so he abbreviated his surname to Kliew.
Who was Johann Kliewer? Born on March 23, 1830, in Franzthal, in the Molotschna region of South Russia, he lost his father at an early age and worked for room and board on a farm. Later he learned to be a carpenter and coffin maker. He married Maria Janzen on December 1, 1854, and they had many children. Several died in infancy. In 1874 Johann Kliewer emigrated with his wife and five children to America. The ship Teutonia sailed from Hamburg to New York and arrived there on September 3, 1874. Johann Kliewer died June 26, 1875, in the vicinity of Burrton, Kansas, of tuberculosis.
In her book Frakturmalen und Schönschreiben: The Fraktur Art and Penmanship of the Dutch-German Mennonites while in Europe 1700-1900 (North Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1980), the author, Ethel Ewert Abrahams, describes the emigration of the Dutch Mennonites in the 17th century from the Netherlands to the Danzig area of West Prussia and Poland. From there the Dutch Mennonites founded new villages in the early 1800s in the isolated Molotschna region of South Russia. They retained the Dutch language for several generations, but later accepted High German as their language of instruction, prayer, and commerce. In everyday life, a Low German dialect was used, in addition to the Russian language when necessary.
Although Fraktur is usually associated with the Pennsylvania Germans, there is a long tradition of this art among the Dutch-German Mennonites. Author Ethel Ewert Abrahams gives many beautiful examples of these works in her richly illustrated book, among them Vorschriften (writing instructions), Lesezeichen (book marks), Belohnungen (rewards of merit), Haussegen (house blessings), Rechenbuecher (Arithmetic books), Irrgarten (Labyrinths), Scherenschnitte (cut work), Weihnachts- und Neujahrswünsche (Christmas and New Year's wishes) and other illustrated texts. There are no prayers listed in the above book; however, some of the sentiments expressed in the New Year's wishes show a similarity to the supplicating prayers of Johann Kliewer.
The first page of his prayer booklet is written in large Fraktur letters with beautifully done calligraphy. Colors used are red, dark blue, green, and a kind of light olive, possibly an attempt at creating the color yellow. The even writing of the prayers shows discipline and the four-color Fraktur page a certain artistic flair.
The booklet measures 4" x 6 ½" and consists of 25 pages, all of them in good condition. The cover, a green paper in a malachite pattern, is fragile, with scuffs on the spine and edges. An imprint, possibly in Cyrillic letters, can be seen on the upper left corner of page 3. There are several chapters: Einleitung (Introduction), Morgengebete (Morning Prayers), several prayers at mealtime, supplicating prayers, and one prayer at the hour of death. The last page shows Johann Kliewer's full name with the small poem.
The collection of prayers is the work of a pious man. The wording is simple and of a childlike piety, with hope in God's help and goodness. Punctuation and spelling are not always correct, which would have been normal for that time of the 19th century (1873). I have transcribed all words as written, including misspellings, and have not imposed any additional punctuation in order to keep the German text exactly as the original. The prayers were probably composed by Johann Kliewer himself. Maybe he remembered them from his childhood.
The writing style is that of a mature person. This kind of script was used in 19th century Germany and up to approximately the 1950s. The prayers rhyme in German, except the introductory words which are like a short sermon. Morning prayers express heartfelt thanks for a quiet night and a new day and ask for continued blessings and help. Other thoughts in these prayers are: praise, protection, guidance, obedience, faith, mercy and grace, presence of Jesus, avoidance of sins, anxiety, and misery.
Prayers at table do not have a separate heading. They give thanks for the food and again invoke the Lord's blessing. The hope is expressed that after the meal here on earth, eventually the praying family would be guests at the heavenly banquet. Jesus is praised as the "Bread of Heaven" and "Food for the Soul".
Evening prayers ask for protection from the devil through God's presence. Remorse for offenses and sins is offered in the hope that the praying person will remain in God's love. He is acknowledged as the Creator, the Father who cares for his children.
A "Supplication for steadfast Goodness" offers love and surrender to God's mercy. Several virtues are mentioned: to be free of sins, to live in the image of Jesus, to act honestly, to love humility and meekness, to overcome pride and vanity, to seek the things above, to keep the fire of faith, and after such a life to be led to heaven.
Another prayer is written in thanksgiving for the love of our Savior, who has redeemed us through his precious blood. With praise and thanks the praying person offers his heart to Jesus in the hope of avoiding sin and receiving eternal life.
There is only one prayer at the hour of death. It has almost the flavor of a psalm: "In my misery, I call to you, o Lord, my God." Body and soul are entrusted to the Lord's mercy and the hands of the guardian angel. Again the praying person invokes the sufferings of Jesus, his wounds and agony and precious blood, which make the dying man an heir to the Kingdom above.
On the last page of his prayer book Johann Kliewer pens a four-line poem, that this book belongs to him, whoever steals it is a thief, and whoever brings it back, is a child of God. In his beautiful handwriting he says: "Johann Kliewer I am named. My life is in God's hand. And when I die, then I am dead, and they will bury me under the roses red. Roses red in the green valley, there the little birds sing, young and old."
His vision of life after death included the fruitful valley and the blooming roses. One may wonder if he expected a small portion of this happiness in his life on earth by emigrating from his homeland to the prairies of Kansas in the New World. The translator of the prayer book feels much sympathy for Johann Kliewer whose sudden death from consumption not long after his arrival in America cut short the dreams of the hopeful immigrant from Franzthal in the Molotschna of South Russia.