The autobiography of Henry D. Remple is a remarkable reflection upon the human spirit triumphing over many difficulties and tremendous pathos. The text, From Bolshevik Russia to America: A Mennonite Family Story, is based upon a diary kept by Remple from the time he was age 13 through 19, that is, from the years, 1922 through 1928 -- starting in Russia and ending in Nebraska. The rest of the book involves the author's reflections about his life's journey along with thoughts of his sisters, Agatha and Agnes. Throughout the text there are also comments made by his wife, Mariana Lorenz Remple.
Henry was born in 1908 during the Russian czarist regime in Alexanderwohl in the Ukraine. Because of problems including civil war, political dislocation and drought, the Remple family left their home for what would hopefully be a better life in North America. The Remples, along with many other Russians Mennonite families, left their home in 1922 heading toward the Black Sea. Here they thought they could find a port city for migration and immediate passage to a new land. Instead, the Remples, along with about 250 other families, found themselves held in Batum for several months in a destitute refugee camp. While in Batum, Remple's parents Dietrick and Aganetha (Fast) Remple and six siblings died as a result of malaria and typhoid.
With the help of Mennonite Central Committee, Henry and his two remaining sisters landed in Henderson, Nebraska, in 1923. In Nebraska he was taken in by the C. D. Epp family. From there, we read of Henry's move from adolescence to adulthood. This includes reflections about his positive experience as part of the Epp family, his work on the farm, his public school education, and getting ready for college. In the rest of the text, Henry describes his years at Tabor College, his marriage and children, work in the U.S. Army during World War II, and his many years as a professional counselor.
In reading From Bolshevik Russia to America: A Mennonite Family Story one is struck by a number of points. One is the pain and destruction that occurred during the Communist Revolution in Russia. More specifically, we see the horrific trials faced by the many Mennonites who left Russia. As a response to this pain, the Mennonite motif of service is highlighted in this book. This service is seen at the institutional level in the work of Mennonite Central Committee and the more personal involvement of the Epp family in caring for Henry. There is a brief reference to some of the pain experienced by young Henry as he settles into tightly-knit Mennonite culture in the Henderson community. This pain is not only the negative memories of the trip from Russia. The hurt also involves snubs and innuendoes experienced by this young immigrant to the United States. These snubs and innuendoes came from other Mennonites who perhaps were threatened by existence of the newcomers.
Throughout the text the reader is reminded time and time again of the power of the human spirit to persevere through the greatest odds -- and win. Important in the latter point is that the survival and positive lives led by Remple and his sisters is predicated upon the idea that children who are raised in loving homes -- as was the case of the Remple children -- may make many contributions to the larger world -- even though they may have experienced profound suffering.
In reading the book, one may wonder why Remple, as a Mennonite, became a member of the United States Army during World War II -- from 1942 until late 1945. He left the army with the rank of captain and five battle stars earned in the European Theater of Operations. In brief, Remple says regarding his entry into the military, "I had resolved my questions about how I, a person raised as a Mennonite with a proud pacifist heritage, would serve my country in the time that I had sought United States citizenship" (p.296). Not much is said about how the author made this resolution.
From Bolshevik Russia to America: A Mennonite Family Story is well written. Remple has the ability of making complex situations and stories easily understood. This text is helpful in understanding the difficulties many Mennonites experienced as they left their homes in Russia during the first part of the 20th century. The text helps us to understand the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture. It is an account of Mennonites serving each other in times of profound need. The book also informs us of the many contributions Remple made in serving others in his professional role as psychologist that spanned almost sixty years. Finally, the book tells us about the importance of memory and witness. Indeed, as Paul Toews says in the forward to this text, "Because of memory, Henry D. Remple's entire life is a witness" (p.12). A witness to how triumph may overcome tragedy.
The text includes a variety of photographs and maps that help to illustrate Remple's life experience.
Henry D. Remple, Ph. D., is a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology of the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is retired from his private practice and his work as a psychologist with the Veterans Administration.
Dwight Emanuel Roth
Director of the Lifelong Education and Development (L.E.A.D.) Program
Hesston College, Hesston, KS