Letters from people trapped in that country in 1929-30 featured in new book
They were arrested at night, men with guns herding mothers, fathers and children to the train station where they were loaded into cattle cars, 40 persons to car.
Then “the doors were immediately sealed and that's how we travelled for a week: we weren't let out into fresh air for even a minute, just like cattle.”
So begins a letter sent to Canada in 1930 by an anonymous Mennonite in the former Soviet Union.
Along their way north into their exile, hundreds of children died, the writer noted.
When the 2,000 or so people remaining on the train arrived at their new home in an abandoned monastery, “our despair was huge,” the letter went on to say.
“Oh, dear friends, it is beyond description, outrageous. We've been dragged out here as a sacrifice and we are innocent people . . . if help doesn't come, we will be lost.”
That letter was one of thousands sent after 1929 to the Mennonitsche Rundschau, a German-language newspaper published in Winnipeg.
Written at time when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s first five-year collectivization plan for the farm economy was just beginning to take hold, the letters—most of them anonymous or just with initials, to prevent being identified by authorities—detail the arrests, hunger, exile and execution faced by Mennonites unable to flee that country in that time period.
Now that letter, and may others, are being published in English for the first time by Winnipeg author Harold Jantz in his new book, Flight: Mennonites facing the Soviet Empire in 1929/30.
“It was the Google and Facebook of its day,” says Jantz , 81, of how the Rundschau enabled Mennonites in Canada and the U.S. to connect with their co-religionists in the former Soviet Union.
For Jantz, the 735-page book is a six-year labour of love—with a personal connection.
His father managed to escape to Canada, along with about 20,000 other Mennonites, before the doors for emigration were closed by the Soviets in 1929.
He came with his fiancée, leaving behind his widowed mother, five brothers and a sister.
He hoped to bring them to Canada once he became established, but it never happened. All five of his brothers who were left behind were imprisoned or exiled. Four were executed.
At first, Jantz set out to only tell his father’s story. But then he decided he needed more information about the situation facing his relatives, and other Mennonites, who were left behind in the former Soviet Union.
For that, he turned to the letters in the Rundschau.
While reading them, “I was struck by what I was reading . . . the more I read, the more it drew me in.”
He set aside his father’s story, and Flight is the result.
Translating the letters “moved me so much and impacted me deeply,” Jantz says. “I could sense how desperate some people’s situations were, how they needed to know if someone cared about them.”
They were “hanging on for some glimmer of hope in a tragic situation.”
He hopes his book will remind Mennonites in Canada today of what their ancestors went through, and make those experiences “accessible to more people, especially younger people.”
With its copious index, it will also help researchers and people searching for long-lost relatives, he says.
While the letters detail the terror and hardship experienced by so many back then, Jantz says he was also impressed by “the many affirmations of faith.”
One letter, written around Easter by a church leader who was arrested and exiled, says that “many people say that there is no way that there can be a ‘happy Easter,’ but I'm inclined to affirm the opposite, because if we are in the right relationship to our Lord and Saviour, then it will be a happy Easter . . . even if the eyes are crying and the heart bleeding.”
At the same time, there are letters asking if “God has abandoned us,” Jantz says. But most of affirm that “God is still on the throne and will take care of things in the end.”
For Jantz, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald and founder of ChristianWeek, the book is about a terrible tragedy, but also “a story rooted in faith.”
Through it, readers today can “discover just what Mennonites here in North America were learning about what was happening to their friends and relatives in Russia in their own words.”
Flight is available from the Common Word Bookstore at Canadian Mennonite University.