A story of past and present

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of Justa’s Escape: A Journey from WW II Ukraine by Justina Neufeld with Russell Binkely (Resource Publications, 2022)

The world is on the move. A tidal wave of refugees and displaced persons topping 8 million has swept the globe. Wars have displaced most, including Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghans, Congolese, and many other nationalities. Some have fled from storms, fires, and other natural disasters. The last time comparable statistics were tallied was during World War II. The Imperial War Museum in the United Kingdom estimates that in Europe alone over 65 million people were displaced or forced to leave their homes. Mennonites living in what is now Ukraine were a part of the WW II story, including a young girl named Justina Neufeld. Her story, based on searing childhood memories from 80 years ago, sings with authenticity. Tragically, it is one that millions of people today would find familiar.

Born in 1930, Justina “Justa” Neufeld came of age during the Second World War. She was the youngest of 10 children (eight boys and two girls) in the Anna (Sawatsky) and Dietrich Peter Neufeld family. The Neufelds lived simply in a small village of Gnadenfeld (later Wodjanaja) of about 50 Mennonite families some miles west of the Dnieper River. Justa describes a childhood of helping her mother and aunt, going to school, playing with close friends, and working with extended relatives and village families to help bring in the harvest, butcher pigs, and make bricks. Readers learn about pre-WW II daily existence in a Soviet agricultural collective where life experience was informed by community reciprocity, family resourcefulness and frugality, the changing seasons, and, important for this Mennonite community, worshipping in secrecy. Though many of her memories sound idyllic, there was also hardship, including severe food shortages during especially long winters. Overshadowing even the brightest days were the midnight abductions of village fathers and brothers by Soviet Russia’s secret police. Once they were taken, the men did not come back. In 1941, it fell to Justa to inform her mother that her father’s time was up.

By 1943, when she was 13, the war came home and her family fled Gnadenfeld. Villagers left together in a long line of wagons and trekked north and west to Lodz in Poland. From Poland, Justa’s family fled to German-occupied France, the Netherlands, and finally, some made it to Canada. Others, including Justa, traveled to the United States under the auspices of Mennonite Central Committee. Justa’s escape took four years and she survived harrowing conditions including family separations and deaths, sexual assault, hunger, bitter cold, and a near abduction by the Russian secret police who were on the prowl for Russian speakers in France after the war. Once found, these “traitors” were sent to Siberian work camps. One of Justa’s brothers paid the Russian snatcher three cartons of American cigarettes to gain her freedom.

First-person historical accounts of wars from women are rare, from children even rarer. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, Justa’s memories immerse the reader in the harrowing events of WW II as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Historians have found that collecting memories and oral histories from survivors can be difficult. Many do not want to tell their story. Why would they want to relive those times, those agonies of separation from homeplace and family members and of barely enduring extreme hardships? After 80 years, Neufeld mined her experience and has written this book for young adults. A companion volume, A Family Torn Apart, is written for adult readers. Neufeld’s books are in the first person and she writes her deeply personal accounts in a direct and clear, often stirring voice. Justa’s Escape is both history and a story for our times. Neufeld’s memories confront the reader with the sacrifices, turmoil, and heartbreak of being a refugee and trying to rebuild one’s life after WW II – but also today.