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Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 69–71 

Book Review

Flight—Mennonites Facing the Soviet Empire in 1929/30, from the Pages of the Mennonitische Rundschau

ed. and trans. Harold Jantz. Winnipeg, MB: Eden Echoes, 2018. 718 pages.

Reviewed by Peter Letkemann

This recent publication by Harold Jantz, former editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald from 1964–1985, documents the desperate attempt of some 18,000 or more Soviet Germans (mostly Mennonites, along with some German Lutheran, Catholic, and Baptist settlers) to leave the Soviet Union via Moscow or via the Chinese port city of Harbin in the years 1929–1930.

After the 1918 Bolshevik declaration on the separation of church and state and then the implementation of the New Economic Policy in 1921, many of the 100,000+ Russian Mennonites felt a new sense of optimism about their future in the new communist state. However, more than 19,000 who did not share this optimism and who felt that their future lay in Canada were able to emigrate legally from the USSR between 1923 and 1928. But after Stalin’s declaration for the need of a “Second Revolution from above” and the proclamation of his first Five-Year Plan in late 1928, optimism turned to panic. The Five-Year Plan, with its emphasis on rapid industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture, accompanied by the elimination of the more prosperous farmers (kulaks) and influential (and potentially critical) community leaders, along with a vigorous propaganda campaign aimed at the eradication of all religion, marked the beginning of a catastrophic confrontation of Mennonites (and other Soviet Germans) with Stalin and the Soviet State.

The official records of this confrontation are found in thousands upon thousands of documents located in many former Soviet archives, in various German archives (Deutsche Bundesarchiv, Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes, {70} Mölln Stadtarchiv, and the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Weierhof), and in Mennonite archives here in Winnipeg, North Newton, Fresno and Goshen, as well as in Paraguay. But on a more personal level, countless letters from individuals living in the USSR to family and friends in North America found their way into various German Mennonite newspapers of the time—including the Mennonitische Rundschau, Der Bote, and Zionsbote (among others).

The Zionsbote was the official organ of the American Mennonite Brethren Church; Der Bote was founded in Rosthern in 1924 by the well-known teacher Dietrich H. Epp, after his arrival from Khortitsa; the weekly paper circulated mostly among General Conference Church members. The weekly Mennonitische Rundschau, published since 1923 in Winnipeg by Hermann H. Neufeld, probably carried the largest amount of information and was read by the largest number of North American Russian Mennonites.

Harold Jantz has chosen to provide English readers unable to access these original German materials with excellent summaries and idiomatic translations of the many personal letters, reports, and articles printed in the pages of the Mennonitische Rundschau from 1 January 1929 to 31 December 1930.

These letters, written by individuals from Mennonite settlements in all parts of the USSR, give us a moving sense of the hunger, hurt and despair felt by the writers. They describe conditions in the villages and complain of increasing attacks on the so-called “kulaks”—including exorbitant taxation, arrest, confiscation of property and exile out of the village to remote regions of northern Russia and Siberia. Yet, amid the seemingly endless tales of woe one senses the deep faith of the writers, many of whom see this as God’s will or possibly as God’s judgment on them: “Yes, indeed, God wants to purify us, if only we knew how to accept the evil days as we also accepted the good days which now lie behind us” (440). “Thank God we are well; continue to live with hope of eternal life, and even with a renewed hope that despite various and very painful disappointments in this world, life will once more get better. There is so much praying and certainly the great God Jehovah hears the prayers and will answer them insofar as it will be good for us” (MR, 25 June 1930; cited in error as 28 June by Jantz on p. 456).

Jantz provides a good five-page introduction, summarizing the historical and political context of those years both in the USSR and in Canada. The translations for the most part are accurate and idiomatic, and do not read like translations. But there are a handful of errors due to misreading of the Gothic script: for example, Vossische (not Bossische) Zeitung (228); Freiherr von Rotenhan (not Rotenbau, 420). On p. 426, Jantz cites the author as Peter P. Epp, when in fact it should be Peter B. {71} (Bernhard) Epp, the prominent Mennonite leader from Slavgorod, who earlier reported on the “flight” from Slavgorod (208).

There are also errors in the interpretation of abbreviations and place names: for example, “WZIK,” not “W.I.J.K.,” is the Russian abbreviation for the Central Executive Committee of the RSFSR (250); the abbreviation given as “B.Y.U.R.” on p. 475 should also read “WZIK.” Incorrect place names include Klasima (199), which should read “Kliasma,” and Tyastin (502), which should read “Tyashin” and refers to the town of Tyazhinsky in north-central Siberia. On p. 444, Jantz surmises that the exiles mentioned in the letter were sent to Solovetskii, when it is more likely that they were exiled to the Arkhangelsk region (cf. Viktor Fast, Vorübergehende Heimat [Steinhagen: Samenkorn, 2009]).

Jantz has included dozens of photographs to illustrate the stories and provided helpful editorial comments connected to these photos or individuals named in the letters. For more information on the life and fate of Prediger Johann Toews (212), Jantz suggests that readers consult Aron Toews, Mennonitische Märtyrer, v.1, 47 ff. For information on Aeltester Jakob Rempel (279) he suggests that readers consult the biography by his son Alexander Rempel, Hope is Our Deliverance (Pandora, 2005). For more details about the assault on Johann Hiebert in Kleefeld (399), Jantz refers readers to John Harder’s book From Kleefeld with Love (Pandora, 2003). Many more useful references could be cited.

Finally, Jantz has provided three detailed indexes—a very useful tool if one is looking for names of specific persons, places, or subject categories.

Jantz is to be commended for helping to bring these tragic years in the lives of our Russian Mennonite ancestors to life and providing an excellent English-language resource to supplement the extensive bibliography of books and scholarly articles associated with the “flight” via Moscow and Harbin.

Peter Letkemann, PhD, is an independent researcher who has written extensively on Russian Mennonites and on Mennonite musicians. His most recent book is A Book of Remembrance: Mennonites in Arkadak and Zentral, 1908–1941 (Old Oak, 2016). He lives and works in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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