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Sorting through family stories and finding my place

 

By Edna Froese

03/29/2017

One of the benefits of travel is that what was once only a name becomes a real place, with sounds and smells and stories. If that name already has a history, then perhaps “travel” is also “pilgrimage.” The difference between a traveller and a pilgrim is that the traveller observes, experiences whatever presents itself, while the pilgrim has a destination and a search. I’m speculating here, trying to understand how it is that Rückenau and Neukirch, former names of small villages now inhabited by people who are not my people, are still part of who I am.

The connection was first made in my childhood. My mama and papa talked often of their birthplaces, back in Ukraine (they called it Russia) where, in the late 1700s, Catherine the Great had granted Mennonite immigrants from Prussia generous tracts of land — and freedom of language, education, and religion (including exemption from military service). Beside the Dnieper and the Molotschna Rivers, they farmed the land and built their villages, estates, and institutions. According to stories told by the refugees who fled after the ravages of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, that self-contained Mennonite world was idyllic. Undoubtedly, it now seemed so. With only a few sepia-toned pictures to help me, I tried to imagine my parents’ world of watermelon plantations, communal pig butchering, church weddings, skating parties on the river. The Mennonite foods were familiar to me, but everything else seemed as remote as the strange “Englische” worlds I read about in library books. All I absorbed, really, was profound sadness and unacknowledged prejudices.

In my early adulthood, Rückenau and Neukirch re-entered family conversations. In 1972 my father’s older sister slipped through the Iron Curtain to come to Canada, leaving behind one son so she could join her other son, not seen since the Second World War. Five years later my father gathered all his courage and flew back to Russia to visit the family he’d left behind 50 years ago. He returned a changed man. Having reunited, at last, with family he thought he had lost forever, he had been freed to express affection to his family here. All the hard stories now had to be told again, because he had heard their epilogues, some tragic, some miraculous. I listened now with more mature ears.
Meanwhile, Rudy Wiebe’s first novel (1962) opened the floodgates of Mennonite story-telling for the English-speaking public; descendants of Russian Mennonites reclaimed and reshaped the narratives of an unwillingly nomadic people. I read eagerly, eventually making Mennonite fiction the subject of my PhD dissertation. Unfortunately, in my years of study, both my parents died, first my father who had fled Neukirch alone as a young man, and then my mother, who had left Rückenau as a 12-year-old, with her entire family. All my newly acquired historical, sociological information, my increasing understanding of their once-baffling attitudes toward Russian peasants or “other” Mennonites, I had to sort through without their help. That loss still stings, 25 years later.

Was it even possible for me, born in Canada, to comprehend the cultural and religious forces that made my parents who they were? More and more, the effort to imagine the land they walked on, the soil they tilled, the schools they attended, the stories they heard in church seemed irrelevant, a squandering of emotional energy.

A disconnect settled into my bones. I would read no more traumatic Mennonite stories. Enough already. I felt no longing to see the “old country” that had shaped my people. Until, that is, we learned about a Russia-Ukraine tour focused on Mennonite history, just when we had concluded that one major travel adventure would be possible after all.

Rückenau and Neukirch are no longer just names. I’ve walked down pot-holed dirt lanes between ancient brick houses, a few of which are still Mennonite handiwork. Although the subsistence gardens, grape vines, chickens, and occasional cow remind me of my parents’ descriptions, I don’t delude myself that this is what the villages were like when my parents lived there. Were those homey little benches in front of almost every house a Mennonite custom? I don’t know, but my heart warmed to see that neighbourly closeness still mattered.

Yet how much of this history of those once prosperous small kingdoms, destroyed first by marauding bandits and competing armies, then by forced collectivization and seasons of hunger, belongs to me? Am I actually rooted here, where I’ve never been before and will never be again? Admittedly, I wept before the monument built to remember the far too many dead; those dead include family members. I was surprisingly moved by the now abandoned Mennonite church in which my grandfather once preached, and even more by the old railway station from which some Mennonites departed west toward freedom and some departed east, to Siberia — to disappear.

The problem is that the stories of Rückenau and Neukirch and all the other villages that were the whole of my parents’ world have been changed by a more complex awareness of place. For I have walked also in the palaces and streets of St. Petersburg and in the Red Square and the Kremlin; I have seen other remembrances of the dead, from ornate crypts for the czars to mass graves of the innocent and helpless. The Russian and Ukrainian peoples also endured bitter suffering as events and choices utterly beyond their control overturned their lives and ended their dreams. Mennonites have no corner on pain, not even on religious persecution.

My parents’ stories of pastoral security and unfathomable loss are now set beside the losses of the Russian peasants who also dreamed of a better way of life on land they deeply loved. Rückenau and Neukirch — the Winter Palace and the Kremlin: how shall I hold these names in my mind, with their interwoven stories? I still do not know.

Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.