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.

This review is by Edna Boardman. If you wish to repost it or print it and have not already requested permission to do so, please send a message to

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, for $8.50.

"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 way.

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