At the Archive of Fernheim Colony, activity was at high pitch: photographer Mark Beach sorting through what might be interesting scenes from settlement history, and Edgar Stoesz delving into correspondence and minutes of the Colony. Moments were brief when we could discuss the character and structure of the book to be written.
I want to produce a coffee-table book, he responded when I tried to suggest that we need to work toward a scholarly account of our history, since there had been plenty of books and booklets (in German, to be sure) narrating that story in a traditional celebrative manner, as is usual in Mennonite circles. No, Erie Sauder had not commissioned him to do scholarly work, but to write up the story in a way that would appeal to the younger generation of Mennonites in North America. They, not being involved as directly with the Russian refugee resettlement program in Paraguay, might loose track of this chapter of MCC history, and that was to be avoided. So Stoesz does not beat around the bushes in his preface, stating that
This is a celebrative book, based on a celebrative history and again (p. 4)
The book is deliberately celebrative.
It is an account of Mennonite colonization of the Chaco, written from the vantage point of sympathetic observers, representing the MCC establishment and its role in this process. Thus, indirectly, it may be seen as an evaluation of MCC involvement during the first three decades, chiefly, of pioneering work in this context. A slight uneasiness, or at least some open questions, have lingered on over the years between representatives of MCC and settlement leaders regarding authority structures and decision-making at that time. In the Epilogue, Stoesz signals this, saying,
Dependence inevitably brings resentment (p. 207). But he builds on the fact expressed by the German aphorism
Ende gut, alles gut (All’s well that ends well) to conclude that, all in all, it was a success story. The Mennonites were successful, economically, politically, and spiritually. Their interaction with other cultures surrounding them - though by no means free of ethnocentric mistakes - may be regarded as exemplary. Their contribution to the country that opened its doors at a desperate time cannot be overlooked today.
Structurally, the book is divided into four sections: 1) History (of Paraguay); 2) Strangers become friends in the Wilderness; 3) Building community in the Wilderness; 4) Today. The narrative form throughout the book is centered on the story of individual persons. This improves the readability of the historical accounts. The
before-now dialectic is present throughout the greater part of the book, resulting from the aforementioned interest in marking the progress in all areas of communal life. Treatment is indeed comprehensive, health, education, communication, administration, economy, church and mission, recreation, as well as the interethnic encounter, all being reviewed.
For people not familiar with the different groups of Mennonites that came to the Chaco, there is a good discussion of their origins, the causes for migration, and development of their respective settlements.
In chapter 18, perspectives for the future are pondered. To what degree has there been integration? How will it continue? Will there be success or failure in mitigating the economic and cultural gap between Mennonite settlers and the people surrounding them? A warning finger is being raised not to forget Russia, where the failure to recognize
the signs of the times in this respect contributed to the suffering of Mennonites during the period of anarchy and later under the Kulak purges.
The book, it may be emphasized, does full justice to its stated intention. It provides a panoramic overview of the 70-year period of Mennonite settlement in the Chaco. Not only is this a welcome feature for readers in the USA and Canada, but also for local readers here in Paraguay. Thus a Spanish version of it was projected by the time the first shipment arrived here, and is now ready to go to press. It will doubtless be a convenient addition to the scarce materials available in Spanish.
It can and will not replace scholarly work to be done, on the interethnic question, for example, or on the relationship structures between MCC and Paraguayan Mennonites, especially during the so-called
Völkische Zeit in the early 1940s. For the present generation, new opportunities to look at our history are opening up. Might it be appropriate to suggest that local historians now active in Paraguay, cooperate with colleagues from North America to re-assess this experiment, after it has been stated to be an overall success?
Fernheim Colony Archives