We have come to that time of year once again when we all pour ourselves a drink and reflect, again, on Mennonite heritage.
That’s right – we are just days away from Mennonite Heritage Week.
And while I am sure that you are all busy addressing and sending out your Mennonite Heritage Week cards and planning your Mennonite-themed cocktail party menus, we should also pause at this busy time of the year to think about the Mennonite Heritage moments we experienced over the last year.
As for me, it’s been a big year for Mennonite heritage in my life. For, I went on a Mennonite Heritage Tour.
It wasn’t my first Mennonite Heritage Tour. When I was sixteen, I went with my family on that tour where the highlight was singing hymns in a cave in Switzerland. And when I was twenty-one, I went with my parents on the tour where the highlight was signing hymns under a decrepit oak tree in Ukraine. This time, we sang hymns on a train.
And I got to give a book talk.
The point of this tour was to commemorate and reflect upon the voyage of those Mennonites who immigrated from what was then known as South Russia (the land of the aforementioned decrepit oak tree) to Canada in 1923 — the so-called Russlaender Mennonites.
I was interested in this trip because two of my grandparents were among the 21,000 Russlaenders who came to Canada between 1923 and 29. So I pitched the idea to the organizers that there should be a cocktail party and they should have me make a commemorative cocktail. And my pitching skills must be improving because they took me up on it. And threw in a book talk on the train for good measure.
For the talk, I decided to seamlessly interweave talk about my cocktail book with excerpts from my grandmother’s memories or war, revolution, illness and immigration, throwing in a bit of gallows humour to keep the mood light.
Turns out not everyone is keen on gallows humour.
Here’s some of what I said:
My Talk for the Train
My mother was the daughter of two Russlaenders — Her parents were Maria Pauls and Julius Heinrichs and they both came from Chortitza colony. My father was Kanadier. So, clearly a controversial marriage. Not really, though. My father’s parents had been active in Manitoba in welcoming the Russlaender and encouraging the conservative members of the Bergthaler Church to collaboration with the newcomers.
As for my mother – she had never even heard that there were any kinds of Mennonites other than her own and so had no inkling that there could be a problem. Which, the Kanadiers in the audience would probably say was, in fact, very Russlaender of her.
My grandmother was 16 when she immigrated. My grandfather was older and he also came later — they met in Canada. My grandfather died when I was four so I never really knew him but I did know my Oma. Which is why I will be referencing and reading from her memories and not my Opa’s.
Some of you might have attended the lecture that Aileen gave two years ago online or, like me, you might have crammed the online preparatory lectures in the last couple of weeks. In either case, you might remember that she said something about many of the memoirs that we have from the Russlaender are from people who were teenagers at the time.
She suggested that this skewed our understanding of the immigration because these were adolescents. And that had we heard from older people we may have seen more hesitation and doubting, and the suffering that they experienced in the immigration process. And less youthful enthusiasm.
That got me thinking.
[Here I asked for a show of hands of all the people who have parented teens and travelled with them — which was about 3/4 of the people on the train]
I, too, have travelled with teens. Not on an immigration trip to start a whole new life after war, famine and typhus in a new country halfway around the world. But still. I took a couple of teenagers across the ocean for a vacation in Europe once and, really, how different can it be?
I gotta say that “youthful enthusiasm” are not the words I would use to describe my experience travelling with teens. How about “surly disgruntlement”? Maybe “reckless disregard for the consideration of their loved ones who might be worried about them if they just wander off”?
I took a new look at my grandmother’s memoirs after that. Because I do not for a minute believe that teenagers in 1923 were so significantly different from teenagers of the twenty-first century. Instead, I think she edited her past.
It actually took a lot of effort for us to get my grandmother to talk about her life in those crucial years between 1917 and immigrating. We always thought it was because of the trauma and that she did not want to re-live her bad memories. But now I think that — like all of us — she just didn’t want to re-live her ADOLESCENCE.
But occasionally, she’d offer up a story or two and eventually one of my uncles sat her down and made her go through her life year by year. Which isn’t the way people usually write their memoirs. If you ask me what happened the year I turned thirteen, I think there’s a lot I’d forget and that I just might not want to tell me kids because – you know, I was thirteen.
But that’s what I have of my grandmother’s memories. And I have no doubt that in re-telling her life story, she left out stories about slamming the door on her parents and telling them that everything was unfair! And their fault. As I would, too, if I was her
So I have to read between the lines to find anything I’d recognize as adolescent energy. For instance, here is was she wrote about 1921:
“Immigration fever started. Some didn’t have enough fuel for the winter. We didn’t think they would make us write exams. There was another crop failure and famine.”.
It’s pretty sad.
But how about that third sentence, right? It’s the one about the exams that really hits.
We didn’t think that we would have to write exams.
Because in that one sentence, you can tell that she did have to write exams and that she still held a grunge against her high school teachers who made them study for exams seventy-odd years later.
Now there, I’m seeing some adolescent energy.
She and her community had just experienced war, famine and pestilence and saw death all around her — literally the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And on top of it all, the icing on the cake — they had to write exams!
Which is surely the fifth horseman of the apocalypse for fifteen-year-olds.
I don’t mention the dreaded 1921 exam season in my book, or even adolescent energy at all — I’m not really marketing it to the underage drinking crowd (though there is a whole section on non-alcoholic cocktails in the back). And I do encourage it as a gift for Mennonite college students.
But there are a few other intersections with the Russlaender experience.
The book has 4 sections.
The third section is the one where we’d really expect the Russlaender connection to come through. This section is called Moved by the Spirits and it is devoted to migrations and schisms from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. And I apologize that there is only a bit that is specific to the Russlaender experience. But we have a long history of migrations and schisms so I can’t just focus on those that are relevant for the Russlaender experience. Still, there are a few:
- Migratarita — which references all of our many migrations
- The Black Russian Soil — which references the migration from Prussia to Russia in the first place by such people as my own ancestor Jakob Heppner.
- The Kirschliche Cocktail — which commemorates the split between the Mennonite Brethren and the Kirschliche Mennonites. It’s not mentioned in the book but I think we should acknowledge here that the MBs and the Kirschliche Mennonites (and even some of the smaller schismatic groups) did willingly travel on the same boats with each other in 1923, which is one better than the Amish and Swiss Brethren back in the 17th century who preferred local persecution to sharing transportation with their schismatic rivals. So that’s something.
- the Paper Plains of North America – which of course honours the place that many of our ancestors made the homes, at least until they could find their way to a proper city
- The MCC Breeze (oh, my grandmother does have some lovely passages in her memoirs about the MCC relief. They’re not that funny, though)
- and last but not least, the Nestor Mahknegroni
People on this tour already, I expect, know all about Nestor Mahkno, the leader of the anarchists in Ukraine whose followers were responsible for a lot of the terror that the Mennonites experienced during the years of the civil war. It was they who massacred the village of Eichenfeld and they also murdered individual Mennonites in the towns and villages they passed through. In my grandmother’s memory, Mahkno was a boogy-man to fear. She mentions Mahkno only in passing a couple of times and then says that if we are interested, we should just go and read Dietrich Neufeld’s book. I’m not sure if she got anything for that endorsement.
In any case, more of her family and friends died of typhus than at the hands of anarchists. And my great-grandfather wrote that the hunger was worse than either because it didn’t come and go but was always present.
My grandmother’s story was very much what we have come to think of as the dominant narrative for the Russlaender experience. She had an idyllic childhood, growing up on Chortitza island. World War I and anti-German sentiment disrupted that and served as a harbinger of worse to some. She moved into the town of Rosenthal, then, and her father took a job as a machinist in a factory. She was just starting high school when the revolution made itself felt in her home town. Her family was forced to billet soldiers first from Makhno’s army and then from the Red army. Typhus followed quick upon occupation — she, her parents and all of her siblings caught and survived typhus, and then the terrible famine and hunger that lasted until food aid came from the North American Mennonites.
As the second eldest daughter in a family of six, my grandmother had her duties in the household and many of the opportunities for fun were curtailed by — you know, war, famine, disease, death, and exams. When not in school, she helped at home with cleaning, food prep (when there was food) and also, mostly, with taking care of her younger brothers and sisters. Who were, no doubt, as bored as she was with the endless search for food and desperate attempts to make soup out of water and dirt. Part of her annoyance with Mahkno’s bandits (in addition to the general reign of terror) came from them ransacking her family home while she was away, and in the process smashing the little matchbox toys she had made for her younger siblings.
Desperate for any excitement at all, she and her siblings eagerly grasped onto the hope of immigration. Theirs was not one of the families that dithered. They got their papers together as soon as they could and were on the first train out of there. They traveled in freight trains for the first leg of the journey, the men having built shelves and benches for them. Accounts of the train ride relay it as full of singing and gossip. Though, for someone like my grandmother, it would also have been full of babysitting.
Their first stop was Riga, where all the would-be immigrants needed to take a shower and pass a medical exam. The shower, my grandmother wrote, was terrifying as none of them had encountered such a thing before, having only had baths in Ukraine. She passed the medical exam, there, as did her mother and siblings. But the doctor looked into my great-grandfather’s eyes and diagnosed trachoma.
I’m going to finish by talking a bit about trachoma because I wanted to finish this talk with a laugh and nothing’s guaranteed to bring the house down quite like a dangerous eye disease that thwarted the immigration plans of many. I did a bit of research and learned of one man who was stateless for decades because of a trachoma diagnosis. So, yeah, it could be pretty serious.
But it wasn’t that serious in my family.
Trachoma is a highly contagious eye infection that can lead to blindness. Though it often doesn’t. Immigration authorities were *very* concerned about people bringing it into Canada where they thought it would run rampant through the population. But they also weren’t very good at diagnosing it. So, even though it was a serious matter, it was always seen as a bit of a joke by my family — or at least by my grandmother who — remember — was 16 at the time.
And probably a bit more prone to eye-rolling than eye hygiene.
After my great-grandfather’s diagnoses, the whole family was sent to Lager Lechfeld in Germany where he would receive treatment for his trachoma. Lager Lechfeld was a refugee holding station that was set up for this purpose, Mennonites in Germany working with the Weimar government to convert an old army barracks into housing and farm land for the Mennonites coming out of Ukraine.
My grandmother thought it was wonderful. They were fed and housed and had enough work to make a bit of money but not so much that it dug into their liesure time. She still had to babysit but could get away from the little ones from time to time. She even went with her father and some friends on a sight-seeing excursion which — to her great delight — ended up taking two days instead of one because they missed their train. Her mother was probably worried sick at home but she got to see Lake Constance.
Meanwhile, my great-grandfather was in a quandary about his eyes. When the family arrived at Lechfeld, the doctors there looked in my grandfather’s eyes and declared them clear, contradicting the previous doctor. To be safe, he started treatment anyway. Until he realized that the treatment, which involved cauterizing his eyelids, was likely to do more harm than good. So he just prayed and hoped that the next doctor would agree with the second rather than the first one.
The fateful day arrived and the family all lined up to have their eyes checked. They waited and watched — great-grandmother, my grandmother’s sisters and her younger brother all were declared cleared to go on the boat. But my grandmother’s father was not. And then, neither was her older brother. They all knew that his eyes were red because he had dust in them from playing football but he was to be held back all the same.
And then it came to be her turn. She would have fully expected to be allowed to go on and to have to board the boat with her mother and all the younger ones. She may have been wistful, thinking of leaving this refuge that she’d loved so much and going back to babysitting on the boat.
But then the miraculous happened. The doctors saw that she had a stye and declared that she, too, needed to stay back another six weeks in Lager Lechfeld. So she waved good-bye to her mother and little siblings and settled in for the closest thing she would have to a vacation for many years to come.
So there’s some adolescent energy in her attitude to being left behind in Lager Lechfeld. Not so much the raring to go excitement kind. More the much more familiar kind to those of us who have parented teens. She was hiding from work.
But I’ve done that, too, in my life so I’m happy to raise a glass to slacker teenagers of all times and places.
The people on the tour and at the gala event in Montreal got first tastes of the cocktail. But now you can have it too, and make it part of our heritage.
The Canadian government held many of our ancestors back in Europe because they were suspected of having trachoma, a terrible eye disease that threatened to blind the whole Canadian population if a single infected Mennonite entered the country. And not just metaphorically.
This cocktail will not blind anyone unless consumed in such quantities as to induce blacking out.
- 2 oz genever (note: gin is also ok)
- 1/2 oz triple sec
- 1 oz lime juice
- 2 1/2 oz orange juice
- 1/2 oz grenadine
Shake the genever, triple sec, lime and orange juice with ice. Pour into a highball glass filled with ice and drop the grenadine in, stirring enough to create a sunrise effect.
Serve with a straw and look directly in your partner’s uninfected eyes while toasting.
Top photo is a painting from my personal collection by Henry B. Pauls, the brother of my grandmother — that brother who had been playing football in Lager Lechfeld and so also had another 6 weeks vacation before moving to Canada.