Journeys: Mennonite Stories of Faith and Survival
in Stalin's Russia
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Toews, John B. Journeys: Mennonite Stories of Faith and Survival in Stalin’s Russia. Edited and Translated by John B. Toews. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Kindred Productions, 1998.
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Here is a book that will help to answer some questions for persons
wondering what happened to ethnic Germans, perhaps their own relatives,
who were caught up in the persecutions and deportations of Stalinist
Russia. (A book reviewed earlier in this series contained a diary
composed DURING a deportee's experience, which was very rare because
of monitoring in the camps. This book is "Siberian Diary of Aron
P. Toews with a Biography", by Olga Rempel, translated by Esther
Klaassen Bergen, edited by Lawrence Klippenstein. Book is available
through CMBC Publications, 600 Shaftsbury Blvd, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
R3P OM4. The book is also available from the Germans from Russia
Heritage Society, 1008 East Central Avenue, Bismarck, ND 58501,
"Journeys"... contains four personal stories, two by women, two
by men, written long after they were released from their places
of exile. The author puts their experiences into historical context
with an opening chapter called "Understanding the Memoirs." The
events of the communist-takeover period and World War II are little
understood by most who emigrated in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
It is an excellent historical summary that includes the little-known
fact that, in the mid 1920s, more than 20,000 Mennonites left Russia.
Toews says of the Germans in Russia, "They viewed themselves as
separate from their host society, yet cherished Russia as their
homeland." He observes that women had no distance or detachment
from their experiences. Men more likely sought to control what was
happening to them.
The first memoir is that of Anna Kroeker, born in the village
of Karapetan in Turkistan, Kirghizia on February 25, 1902. Her family
had already moved from the Ukraine to find land in the Asiatic Soviet
Union. She hungered for an education, but it was not to be. She
told what had happened to her husband's family before their marriage.
"They did not voluntarily join the collective and so the collective
farm confiscated all of Abraham Kroeker's possessions -- gardens,
barns, horses, cows, young livestock, sheep, yard and house. Everything
inside was taken including the cupboards and a bag containing patches.
His oldest daughter was in the middle of cooking dinner when some
of the leaders of the collective came in demanding that she dump
the food so they could take the cooking pot and sell it. She refused,
and although she was allowed to keep the pot, the consequence of
her non-cooperation resulted in Abraham's imprisonment. His seven
children were then turned out onto the street with the threat that
anyone who helped them would be similarly treated. The youngest
was four years old. A family did help the children, and Anna married
their father. Her story includes being torn from her crying children
some years later and being sent off to work in the trud army. Her
assignment was to work on a canal, digging up frozen-solid earth.
Women did aid each other's survival when they could.
Justina Martens's story begins in 1930. A good storyteller, she
speaks of the role of neighbors in taking care of each other and
of the lack of food. Her father was grabbed for hiding literature.
So many men disappeared in 1937-1938. She and her children, sent
to the far north, lived in the home of Russians who, understandably,
hardly wanted them there. She describes life on a collective farm
and the faith she clung to with all her might.
Though it seems that women were more likely to survive than men,
the stories of the men, Abram Berg and Aron Warkentin, are less
heartrending than those of the women because they did things to
try to control their situation. As the train that took him to exile
left the station, Berg threw out envelopes addressed to his family,
hoping that bystanders would mail them. They did. He says that children
continued to be born in the camps no matter what measures the authorities
took. One couple had three children. The man, released first, took
them and cared for them until the woman was released and they could
marry. Some abandoned their children when they were released. Aron
Warkentin, sent to a camp in the northern forests, cleverly marketed
his skills as a carpenter and as a man competent in the care of
horses. He gathered to himself others from his village and they
figured out how to live a little warmer and eat a little better
than the rules allowed. When Warkentin realized that he was about
to be betrayed, arrested, and sent heaven-knows-where, he took direct
action and turned the tables on his accusers. He says, "Those of
us who were drawn into this harsh and unexplainable system knew
how important it was to fight for life as long as we were able."
The communists in Moscow may have had a plan, but it was difficult
for persons on the receiving end of the policies to understand it.
Officials pretended to do things by law. There were warrants, arrests,
trials with testimony, appeals, and sentences of specific numbers
of years. Only a few were ever acquitted. The people experienced
confiscation of property, uprooting of established lifestyles, tearing
apart of family life, starvation, deportation, limitations on food
with food tied directly to work, and prohibition of religious belief
and practice. Small things became important to survival -- things
such as: they did take warm clothing along when they were deported
and could they form mutual-aid relationships with others along the