The general history of the Russian Mennonites has not yet been written. The bits and pieces of the underlying body of evidence have not yet reached critical mass. Thousands of individual stories and events have not yet congealed into a larger narrative of human experience of war and revolution, of social growth and economic prosperity, devolving into dissolution and famine. We know that it is essentially a history of dispersed communities, broken families and individual descent into despair and isolation. The crushing suffocation of individualistic religious experimentation and social non-conformity, of political iconoclasm and creative pioneering on the cutting edge of society, the borderlines of organized settlement and national delimitations — all these larger historical trends and developments are at the heart of the Mennonite story. As a progressive, pacifist mobile diaspora it could not survive the massive assault on its unique individuality by the ideological conformity and collectivist imperialism in conflict. Every Mennonite story, every Mennonite memoir, every Mennonite village history is a story of idyllic 19th century evolution from poverty to riches and 20th century destruction by war and revolution, by communism and Nazism, by dekulakization, exile and dispersal, relieved only by the miraculous escape of a remnant, a minority who found freedom in a promised land on remote shores.
These three highly individual stories of three remarkable Russian Mennonite women, told in diverse and unique ways, are just a few examples in a spate of new memoirs from survivors or descendants of the victims of totalitarian extremism. Justina Neufeld, Mariechen Harder and Ann Dyck were ordinary Mennonite girls, born to a life of comfort and security within the fold of quiet, pacifist families. But they were destined to grow up in turmoil and pain and barely survive the vicissitudes of war and revolution, famine and destitution. In this the three accounts share the same content, but their stories are clothed in very different prose: satin and lace for Dyck provided by her daughter-author Edith Friesen, tailored wool and cotton by John Harder for his niece Mariechen, and linen and medical cotton by Neufeld for Neufeld, since she tells her own story. She tells it in starkly realistic prose, being a registered nurse, rather than professional writers like the other two. Edith Friesen writes the most complicated, refined and multi-level essay, frequently fusing into poetic lyricism. She deftly constructs a convivial drawing-room conversation with four siblings: her mother Ann, two of her aunts, Lydia and Martha, and their brother John. But in the background, fading in and out of the conversation like some ethereal angelic ghost, is her grandmother Katharina, a person of consequence, long after her death. This is the story of three generations in mystic communion, sharing the joys and sorrows of similar yet far different lives. The artistic physical design of the book reflects the shimmering prose, interlaced with narrative, description, interpretation, and conversation and faded pictures of individuals floating in and out of the frame of reference. Edith Friesen is a stylist of distinction, such as few Mennonite memoirs reveal. This conscious effort to shape and color the story at times detracts from the subject and draws the reader's attention to the author.
Justina Neufeld of Gnadental in the Baratov-Schlachtin settlement has written a standard autobiography. As historical raw material it is the most useful of the three memoirs. Social historians, interested in providing realism and authentic ethos in their work, love the kind of detail and minutiae packed into Neufeld's account about everyday events. The arrival of spring, milking time, butchering day, swimming in the village pond, gathering eggs, interacting with Jewish peddlers and gypsies, weddings, snow storms, departures, arrivals, the daily struggles with war and its contretemps — these form the backbone of the Neufeld story. She does not hesitate to share with us how a Mennonite teenager deals with the mysteries of her first menstruation, which made her think she was having a baby. Her descriptions of life during the war is rich in detail and honest in its unfiltered youthful enthusiasm, whether dealing with life under occupation in the Ukraine, on the
great trek, during the hardships of resettlement in Poland or at the end of war with Germans and black American soldiers in Alsace. It was in Alsace, now part of France again, where Peter Dyck the MCC worker eventually found her and facilitated her emigration to America. Her style is clear, stark and pedestrian at times, but she is never boring or uninformative.
As a trained historian and writer John A. Harder's translation and editing of Mariechen Harder's letters from Kleefeld in the Molotchna to her relatives in Manitoba during the difficult years of Stalin's collectivization and industrialization campaigns, with all its destructive effects of Mennonite farmers and their disintegrating communities in Ukraine, bears all the earmarks of professional standards. In brief introductory notes he puts each letter by Mariechen and her friends and relatives in its historical context and provides enough information to give the book a kind of running progressive narrative. He presents with the help of her translated letters a clear and nuanced profile of an educated and mature Mennonite woman under great duress. The central theme of these long letters, which frequently turn into social and political commentary or reports covering the village, its inhabitants and government policies and their shattering effects on traditional social and religious values, clings to the ultimately failed attempt to emigrate. While these letters together become a kind of memoir studded with numerous names of persons unknown and uninteresting to non-family members, it does end up in painting a picture of life under the stress and strains of collectivization. Most of the experiences depicted are familiar to readers of such memoirs. There are detailed accounts of life in Siberian exile or slave labor camps in the far North, as well as confrontations with Communist agents and kolkhoz administrators, which add valuable detail to our knowledge of life in rural Russia during the late 20s and early 30s. There are some awkward translations in places and nearly all the maps are printed in reverse order, hence illegible. This is not a minor error in that there are frequent references to places on specific maps. This book throws light on the lonely life of unmarried women in Russia at the time and challenges the life of single women in a family oriented community, falling apart at the seams because of
families torn apart.
As in all memoirs written by ordinary people there is a combination of repetitive innocuous experience and banal recitation of daily events which can be of interest only to those readers who themselves have had similar experiences or have older members of the extended family who have. Select any paragraph at random and you will find this to be true:
From the time he was nine years old he helped with plowing, harrowing, cultivating, weeding, mowing, and threshing. By age fourteen he carried heavy sacks of wheat up to the attic for winter storage. After graduating from high school he enrolled at Chortitza in the Pedagogical Technikum where Gerhard had also attended. Jake writes 'in 1933 the heating system failed in the school and dormitory, and my hunger pains became unbearable. So I fled at night. I waited till I knew who the watchman would be. When it was Mr. Dyck's turn, I sneaked out without him noticing. It was a bitterly cold night. I lugged my satchel of sparse belongings along, walking the two kilometers to the train station. The train was not heated either, but I rode to Dolginzewo station where I got off and walked the rest of the thirty kilometers to Gnadental. Half frozen, I got home and then became ill.' Had he not gotten home he might not have survived (p. 207). In this paragraph Chortitza, the Pedagogical Technikum and the hunger year 1933 would all be signals stimulating interest to hundreds of people who could and can identify themselves with experiences attached to them. For such individuals the banal facts in the sample become living history and reifying confirmation of individual worth within a larger community of faith.
Even a polished autobiography like that of David G. Rempel's is filled with banal detail of interest only to the family chronicler and eye-crossingly boring to the point of ennui to everyone else. That is why memoirs are of greater interest to social historians and anthropologists than they are to the average reader. Some pages further into the text quoted from Neufeld we find the following paragraph:
His next threat came from the NKVD. The Russians had obtained permission through the Yalta Agreement to comb all of allied occupied Europe for their citizens and repatriate them to Russia by force. Miraculously, Jake was not picked up by the NKVD, because he was moved from one camp to another, always arriving at the new camp just after the NKVD had been there and left (p. 209). Clearly, this passage because it deals with more than mundane issues might well be interesting to readers beyond the immediate family or ethnic community. This is how an extraordinary individual experience becomes a universal human dilemma.
In Edith Friesen's commentary, following a passage that recreates a family discussion about Hitler and Stalin, she compares the evil deeds of these men on the basis of the shape and size of their mustaches. In fact, she does it more than once. This struck me as too cute and innocuously irrelevant, not to say trivializing, to be taken seriously and hinting perhaps that the author was out of her depth. Yet further thought led me to the conclusion that she may very well have consciously taken a cue from Charley Chaplin, whose humor was anything but innocuous. Sometimes, the only thing you can do when confronting the horror and monumentality of the evil deeds these men left behind, is to laugh at them and ridicule them. In the case of John Harder's edited letters, filled with names of unknown and unidentified people — to non-family members or people not from Gnadental — and seemingly meaningless little events and facts, have the unintended cumulative effect of demonstrating the success of the much derided 5-Year-Plan of the Soviet oppressor. To Mariechen telling her relatives in Canada what happened to all those friends and villagers demonstrates in graphic detail how the old family and communal ties were dissolved and a new soviet society and kolkhoz economy was built up by coercion and violence. By telling us who was next on the list for dekulakization, who had been arrested, who had died of malnutrition, who had been sent to freeze and starve in the tundra or whose family had been torn apart and deprived of a loved one, whose barn had been torn down to build a kolkhoz pigsty — she tells us how collectivization works. Mariechen Harder gives us a rare insight into the painful and costly process of collectivization, valuable far beyond mere ethnic Mennonite nostalgia.
The most important Mennonite memoir recently published is probably David Rempel's A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union (Toronto, 2002), which is actually written and edited by his daughter Cornelia Rempel Carlson. By that standard all three of the books under review come close to meeting the standard and can be uniformly recommended to readers beyond the Mennonite world. They come close in terms of their approach, not the scope or range of factual content. All of them are largely the work of women, establishing finally a trend in the continuing stream of Mennonite recollections of life during the difficult times between and during two world wars. The world they describe was a world largely deprived of men and as such their literary coming of age is long overdue.