Lilli Gebhard, Identitätskonstruktionen russlanddeutscher Mennoniten im Spiegel ihrer Literatur.  Peter Lang GmbH., Frankfurt am Main, 2014.
Reviewed by Merle Schlabaugh

In her extensive dissertation research, Lilli Gebhard seeks to formulate the identity of the Russian-German Mennonites currently living in Germany through their literature. Following six initial interviews and a questionnaire consisting of 24 areas, Gebhard attempted to identify themes or terms that might give some direction to her literary analysis. The interviews began with earliest childhood memories of daily life, family life, customs, celebrations, and the parents’ work, followed by events in Russian history. These historical events included the 1920s, the dekulakization, collectivization of the villages, results of the political events in Germany after 1933, Stalin’s repressions, World War II, deportation, time spent in work colonies, life in special settlements, the post World War II era, and finally migration to Germany. Significant topics that emerged from the interviews and questionnaires were homeland, homelessness, family, community, the Christian community, specifically Mennonites, and “our Germans” (unsere Deutschen).  

A cross-section of literary genres emerged in Gebhard’s research of Russian-German Mennonite literature including biographies, poetry, stories, novels, fantasy novels, vampire novels, mysteries, children’s stories, letters and fragments. Within the works analyzed, Gebhard identifies the following categories central to the group’s identity, namely home, heaven, homelessness, longing, as well as self-understanding, isolation and language. Since the Russian-German Mennonites experienced an uprooting as a result of war, deportation, life in special settlements and finally migration, the term Heimat or home has several meanings. It may refer to the place of origin, such as a village, the parents’ home, the place where family and a religious community exist, thus a sense of belonging. The term may also refer to the search for a final home either on earth or in heaven, as opposed to the place of residence. With one exception, Gebhard found the term Vaterland or fatherland to refer to the land of their ancestors, not to the Soviet Union or Russia where the writers had been born and lived. Several authors draw a parallel to the Old Testament, in which the Israelites seek the peace and quiet of Canaan, the “promised land flowing with milk and honey” after years of wandering in the desert or in exile. Likewise many Mennonites, after years of suffering in the Soviet Union, longed for the “promised land” of Germany where they could live out their beliefs in peace and freedom with their relatives, at least before reaching the final “promised land” of heaven. In the novel Gemeinsam schaffen wir das! by Heinrich and Darlene Klassen, a father exclaims, “In Germany there is enough milk, butter, sausage and bread. There we can eat as much as we want.” [translation mine] (Gebhard 113). For those who had lived through the frequent shortages of the Soviet era, one can imagine that the promise of life in Germany seemed comparable to the biblical Canaan. 

A second theme identified by Gebhard, heaven (Himmel), is frequently used in conjunction with the triad of world, parent’s home, and father’s house (Welt, Elternhaus & Vaterhaus), the latter referring to heaven. One can bear life on earth only because of the hope in heaven. The parents’ house offers some protection from the world, whereas the Vaterhaus or heaven is the place of complete security. Many poems cited by Gebhard depict the pilgrim life on earth while waiting on and longing for the heavenly life. In reading Gebhard’s work, one might easily draw a parallel to German literature of the baroque period when authors such as Grimmelshausen, Gryphius, Silesius, Fleming, Opitz and Gerhardt, among others, depicted the sufferings of the Thirty Years War and the hope of a better life to come. Much of German baroque literature is religious in nature, as is that of many of the Russian-German Mennonite writers. In addressing heaven, Gebhard identifies additional subcategories, especially in poetry – heaven as attainable, longing for heaven, awaiting heaven and entering heaven. Even in Lena Friesen’s fictional works, such as the Rinland Trilogy, Gebhard identifies a transcendent place that promises rest and fulfillment of longings.  

The third theme, homelessness, is tied to the earlier theme of home. To a certain degree this theme could also be referred to as the loss of home. During the Soviet era, more specifically the Stalin era, Mennonites faced forced collectivization, arrests, deportation, planned famines, war, forced repatriation to labor camps in Siberia and resettlement in Central Asia. During these times they were referred to as “Germans” or “fascists,” yet paradoxically, once they immigrated to Germany, they were dubbed “Russians.” Consequently they developed a longing for a place to call home which would include family, church community, an end to repression, and finally “arrival.” This arrival may be interpreted as either an earthly location or the biblical heaven.  

An additional theme with numerous subcategories, identified by Gebhard in order to identify the identity construct of the Russian-German Mennonites, is group membership. The subgroups examined are family, church, village community and Germans. Most important is the family, both the immediate and extended family. As soon as the regulatory command ended in 1956, these Mennonites began moving from place to place in order to be reunited with family – parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and children. Here one could expect support and acceptance, as well as the possibility of reestablishing a church community. A result of this reunification was the development of the more traditional family constellation of father, mother, children and grandparents. The reestablishment of the church community brought additional support via spiritual brothers and sisters, especially to those without immediate family surrounding them. Permission granted in 1964 to hold religious services in German added to their identity as Germans.  

Gebhard’s research also includes various positive characteristics that these Russian-German Mennonites attributed to themselves. These included agronomy and animal husbandry skills, craftsmanship, strength in suffering, modesty, restraint, willingness to help others, orderliness, unshakable trust in God and striving for freedom. These attributes were also characterized as goals in much of their literature.  

Only one writer, Peter Klassen, painted a positive image of the communist system in Zerreissprobe, found in his work Gedichte und Erzählungen (p.18-44). In this tale, he describes a seemingly German village within the larger collective farm system, in which individuals with both German and Russian names voluntarily joined the collective. There is a happy integration among these individuals of diverse backgrounds. The youth are proud of the emancipation and equality in this community. There is no church or evidence of religion in the village. Only one old woman thinks or communicates in proverbs (Sprüche). German may be spoken freely in this place. Women’s groups and celebrations are part of the community. Incidents that might otherwise be termed illegal or embezzlement are passed off as forgetfulness or lack of attention to detail. This somewhat idyllic description of happy integration under the Soviet system is singularly unique in Russian-German Mennonite literature. All other descriptions of the communist system found in tales and biographies are negative.  

In her conclusion, Gebhard focuses on collective symbols that may serve as metaphors, symbols which may be visual, symbols which may have double meanings, etc. Symbols identified by Gebhard include nature, water, storm and struggle, paths or roads, and biblical references.

Gebhard’s extensive bibliography is perhaps her most important contribution to the field of Mennonite literature. This bibliography includes at least 44 authors and more than 315 novels, biographies, poems, tales, children’s literature, letters, fragments, and songs. Through her examination of these literary documents written by Russian-German Mennonite writers, she has given scholars of Mennonite literature, history and culture invaluable insights and materials for further examination.