It’s a story of the Russian Mennonite community facing the Soviet empire in 1929-30. It’s one of mass flight of Mennonites to Moscow, the refugee movement to Paraguay, Brazil and Canada, and the beginning of exile for many who remained in Russia. It’s a story about suffering, faith in the face of adversity and starting over again.
The book is called FLIGHT, and while author Harold Jantz said it’s not the book he intended to write, it’s one he’s glad he did.
The former MB Herald and Christian Week Editor was at the Buhler Active Living Centre Nov. 13 to talk about FLIGHT, a 720-page book of translations and summaries which tell the story of what happened to German speaking Mennonites in Russia from 1929 to 1930.
His visit was sponsored by the Winkler Mennonite Brethren Church.
Jantz said he was researching a book connected to his own family in Russia when he came across the weekly Mennonitische Rundschau. As he began to translate from the gothic German script, he was captivated by the two years in particular.
“I got to thinking, there’s lots of material here,” he said. “I got into it and I thought to myself this might be a good project to undertake.”
He set aside the eight chapters he had written and began translating.
“I just began at the beginning of 1929 and I went right through to the end of 1930 and translated everything that had to do with what was happening there, how people were experiencing what the Soviets were doing, and about the people that tried to get out.”
Mennonitische Rundschau began in the 1870’s in the U.S. but was brought to Winnipeg, in the era Jantz translated. The stories that lie within are found as letters from the Gulag, stories of the refugees who came out, news reports, letters, lists, actions of bodies like the MCC and the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, Canadian debate about accepting refugees, actions of the Soviet government and much more.
Jantz said it’s a fascinating time. “Thousands of Germans, mostly Mennonite but also Catholics and Lutherans went to Moscow, 18,000 to 20,000 in the latter part of 1929,” he said. “About 6,000 of them were able to get out. Papers around the world carried stories about people collecting in Moscow. The League of Nations became involved.”
Jantz said many of their descendants live in Canada today. “It was a very dramatic period in the Soviet Union and part of the reason was that Stalin had introduced his first five year plan,” he said.
That plan led to vast collectivization of the farm economy, requisition of most of the yield of harvests, an intense assault on religious belief, the arrest and eventual exile of many better farmers, a shift to a five-day week and the advantaging of cities and heavy industry.
“People who were very active in the church came under pressure, people of Orthodox or Catholic backgrounds, huge numbers of their religious leaders were sent into exile and almost certain death or were executed, and for Mennonite religious leaders the same happened,” he said. “Many of them were arrested. I had an uncle who was arrested at that time and ended up in prison camps, and eventually lost his life there.”
The book also includes a large index allowing people to trace their own families, places or events.
While it’s a great resource book, Jantz said it’s more than that.
“There’s a story there of faith in the face of adversity and suffering that is important for us to keep on reminding ourselves about,” he said.
“We live in a world that has become so much easier for us, especially for those of us who live in Canada. We have prospered materially, we live in many ways, very comfortable lives.”
There’s also a lack of knowledge about that time in Mennonite history.
“Even though the experience of the people who went through what happened in the Soviet Union in that period is only a generation or two behind us, for many of us this is unknown territory,” he said. To make stories of this sort available, accessible to people, I think is helpful.”
“My hope is that people will read it and not only make connections perhaps with their own families, but will find something there that’s a reminder of what people experienced not very long ago in our history,” he said.
FLIGHT can be purchased for $60 (plus $15 for shipping and handling) from Eden Echoes Publishing in Winnipeg. For more information call 1-204-667-1419 or email email@example.com.