Diary of Anna Baerg

Book review by Marion Mertz

Peters, Gerald. Diary of Anna Baerg. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Canadian Mennonite Bible College Publications, 1990.

"A tiny mirror...reflecting a little of the life that passes by.”

As Anna Baerg watches the "days line themselves into months and years..." she shares with us in her diary the emotional insecurity and confusion she experienced when she was nineteen years old in 1917. Her diary was written during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, a social struggle between the Bolsheviks and the bourgeoisie.

Anna lived in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna, a sister colony of Khortitza in the southern Ukraine. These two colonies, which had been established in 1820 with an original 10,000 settlers, had grown to well over ten times that of the original by 1914. These communities had prospered: they had acquired vast land holdings, set up factories and model farms, founded churches, schools, and welfare institutions. Along with Anna the inhabitants were not prepared for the catastrophic events which were to follow.

Anna lived on a large estate where her father was foreman. She lived in two worlds; she shared an idyllic childhood with the privileged few, but as she grew older became aware of the differences in class distinction. She was able to accept these differences without condemning them. Crippled by a childhood illness, Anna was unable to take part in normal daytime activities and expressed herself in writing. Her diary accounts are simple and devout. She wrote about what she knew and what she saw, a limited view, but truly a tiny mirror of the life that passes by.

In her diary Anna ponders the vicissitudes of life, the differences between people, and the miseries surrounding her. She calls upon God to set things straight. She says, "We have freedom and yet no freedom.” She rues the constant change between danger and calm. Devastated by the death of her father on Good Friday in 1919, Anna consoled herself with the thought: "...he has gone to a place where there are no more struggles, no more tears."

On August 17, 1921 Anna's entry in her diary read, "Oh, how beautiful it is to be alive and young! ...we sang: Es geht nach Haus.” Anna found happiness where she could.

The editor remarks that one disaster after another struck the Mennonite colonies. Massacres, outbreaks of typhus and smallpox, famine, loss of crops and livestock, and the scarcity of food took their toll. Across the Ukraine millions of people were dying of hunger. On March 1, 1922 Anna says, “Although we haven't actually starved, we are hardly ever full.” She speaks of the supplies sent by the American Relief Administration. Anna took great solace in writing poetry, but when asked to submit her work for publishing she remarked, "...I don't want everyone to be able to peer into my soul."

In the spring of 1920 a commission of three Russian Mennonites was sent to Europe and then to America to study the possibilities of mass emigration from Russia. For the first time the outside world was able to hear how serious the situation in Russia had become. The Mennonite Central Committee was formed to alleviate conditions.

Mass emigration was considered but met with opposition from Soviet authorities who were reluctant to lose some of their best farmers. Eventually, the first group of 726 emigrants left the country in 1923. Others were to follow. By 1929 the emigration movement had been terminated by the Soviet government. In seven years over 20,000 Mennonites had made their way to Canada or Mexico. Finally, for the Baerg family the anxiety and doubt over whether they would be allowed to leave Russia for North or South America were over, and the journey began. Anna Baerg and her family left for Canada on June 23, 1924. Anna gives a particularly graphic portrayal of her family's journey to freedom: from wagon to train, by ship, and then by automobile to the farm where they were to begin their life in the new world.

Anna describes white mountains, thick forests, blue forget-me-nots, red strawberries, billowing grain fields, violet clouds and green waves. On board ship she comments: “...the full moon appeared from behind the clouds to admire himself in the great mirror of water.” The book concludes with a poem written by Anna in honor of Isaac P. Regehr, her friend and choir leader who died in 1930 in Saskatchewan. Both the German and English translations are given.

Anna died on February 16, 1972 in Clearbrook, British Columbia, after a lengthy illness.

Diary of Anna Baerg is a rambling account by a very ordinary young woman about her experiences, joys, and concerns during the disturbed and trying times of the Communist Revolution. Her descriptions of the events she had witnessed were often in error because of her limited access to the truth. However, from time to time the editor inserts historical accounts of the period (1916-1924). T. D. Regehr, who wrote the Foreword, was particularly interested in the translation of the diary because his grandfather, father, and other relatives were mentioned in the diary .The book is set in clean, easy-to-read type, well-marked with specific dates. The translator and editor, Gerald Peters teaches English at the University of Regensburg in Germany.

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