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David G. Rempel, with Cornelia Rempel Carlson. A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789-1923.

David G. Rempel, with Cornelia Rempel Carlson. A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789-1923. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Cloth, xxxvi, 356 pp. ISBN 0802036392. CDN$70.00.

One of the most tragic periods in the life of Russian Mennonites were the years after the 1917 Revolution. Not only did the Mennonites of Russia lose their traditional social, cultural and religious existence, but also their possessions and in many instances their freedom and lives. In the 1920s, some 21,000 Russian Mennonite emigrants, the group to which David G. Rempel belonged, were able to escape the Soviet Union and find new homes in Canada, the United States, and South America. Those who remained in the Soviet Union after 1930 experienced first the terror of Stalin's rule and, after 1941, the difficulties of the Second World War. Like many other Soviet Germans, they experienced severe persecution, separation from loved ones, exile and hard labour in the Gulag, and often death in the northern and eastern regions of the Soviet Union.

This well-written new book by the late Professor David G. Rempel (1899-1992), edited by his daughter Cornelia Rempel Carslon, deals primarily with the first quarter of the twentieth century. Rempel, who came to live and teach in the United States, was not only an academically trained historian, one of the first among Russian Mennonites, but one who himself experienced as a student and young teacher in the Mennonite colonies in Ukraine the turbulent times after the First World War.

The interesting biography begins with the history of the author's relatives who resided in the so-called "Old Colony" villages of Nieder-Chortitza and Rosental along the Dnieper River. David's father was a store owner and grain merchant and his mother, nee Pauls, came from well-to-do Mennonite landowners in Rosental. The author traces the tragic circumstances of the two families during the periods of Revolution, Civil War, the Nestor Makhno terror, typhus epidemic, famine and in the end emigration for some and exile for other members of his extended families.

Russian Mennonite history has been largely written by lay historians, many of whom were preachers and other church leaders. Their interpretation of Mennonite history was church-oriented and to a certain extent triumphalist in intent, meaning that they not only wrote from within their religious tradition, but also saw their history largely through rose-coloured glasses. According to their interpretation, Mennonites were excellent farmers and craftspeople who had been invited to Russia by Catharine II in the late eighteenth century and granted many privileges, including religious freedom and advantageous settlement terms. They lived peacefully in their new homeland for over a hundred years and contributed significantly to the Russian economy and welfare of the Russian state and society. According to this view, the 1917 Revolution and the following Civil War were seen as the destruction of the Mennonite communities, including their religious and cultural institutions. Especially the banditry, plunder, rape and killing under Nestor Makhno, followed by the exile and execution of many Mennonite leaders, were seen as the height of Mennonite tragedy in that country.

This rather positive view of Mennonite history is generally correct, but the reality, "wie es eigentlich gewesen" (as it really was), includes many shades of grey and required a more nuanced approach. Professor Rempel has provided such a nuanced revision of the traditional view of Russian Mennonite history.

Like his church-oriented colleagues, Rempel laments the destruction of the "Mennonite Commonwealth" in Russia, but he portrays the critical events fairly objectively and does not shy back from critiquing the Mennonites and their failings. He shows, for example, that Mennonites did not always live up to their religious ideals and principles. They often failed to be social and economic models for their Slavic neighbours, something the Tsars expected of them; they often not only mistreated their Slavic employees, but also took advantage of the less well-to-do among their own landless brethren; and they fought each other over religious and ideological views and practices. Rempel describes the class struggles between the rich farmers and estate owners on the one hand and the workers and cottage dwellers on the other. Sometimes, as Rempel observes, the Russian government had to intervene to establish peace and justice among the warring factions in Mennonite society.

For some readers it will come as a surprise that after 1917 there emerbed among Mennonites rebels who not only renounced their Christian fiath, but also joined either the Soviets, the Makhno bandits, the White Army that tried to bring back the Tsars, or the Selbstschutz (self-defence units) which sought to protect the colonies from the bandits. For example, one Abram Loewen, who during the German occupation in the First World War had joined the Selbstschutz, caused much embarrassment and grief among Mennonites. He dealt most brutally with Ukrainian peasants who had stoled goods from Mennonites, and even killed four among them with his own hands (210). In the end, Loewen too was punished by the Makhnovites and brutally murdered (229). There were also Mennonites who joined the Makhno bandits. One Petia (Peter) Thiessen, as Rempel writes, "was a Makhnovite, and many residents of both the Khortitsa and Molotchna settlements recall other Mennonites participating in bandit raids" (242). Writing like this one finds seldom in Mennonite history books.

The chaotic times, as described by Prof. Rempel, also brought out the good among men and women. Young people like David Rempel and members of his family helped the oppresssed, suffering and sick villagers wherever they could, disregarding the imminent danger in which they found themselves. When the entire Rempel family lay sick with the dreaded typhus disease, it was Mother Rempel who sacrificially and at great risk to herself took care of her own family and others who needed assistance. Moreover, there is a human touch in how Rempel describes how some Makhnovite "guests" in Rempel's house asked Mrs. Rempel to pray and sing for one of their sick women. Since Mrs. Rempel was unable to pray in Russian, she prayed in German and sang the well known German folksong, "Have oft in the circle of loved ones / rested in the fragrant grass, / and sang me a songlet / and worries would quickly pass" ("Hab' oft im Kreise der Lieben ..."; 231). "These [spiritual] sessions," according to Rempel, "not only quieted the woman, but also revived Mother's spirituality and quiet confidence" (232).

Some reviewers of Rempel's book feel that the author does not stress sufficiently the faith aspect of Russian Mennonite life. Such criticism is reminiscent of earlier Mennonite writing by religious leaders who generally emphasized church matters rather than the mundane aspects of Mennonite life. Rempel's book is not a history of Russian Mennonite religious life, to be sure, yet he appreciates the religious aspect of his people and gives credit to the strength that faith gave them in time of need (246).

Most Mennonites believed that after 1917 there was no future for them in the Soviet Union. It was Rempel's mother who urged her children to leave the Soviet Union for the West as soon as possible. Her last words in Low German were: "Boys, if you can emigrate, then go, even if you have to leave everything behind" (247). In 1923 David Rempel was among the first emigrants to leave the Soviet Union for Canada, later making his home in the United States, where he pursued his historical studies and teaching.

Rempel was not a prolific writer of books and articles, but what he published in journals and magazines such as the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Mennonite Mirror and Der Bote, among others, is solid historical work. As an historian and mentor of history students, he remains an inspiration and model of the historical craft. James Urry, an expert in Russian Mennonite history, acknowledges the profound influence of Rempel upon his own study and interpretation of Mennonite history: "[Rempel] humoured me, chided me for youthful impetuousness, forgave my impertinence, and gently guided me towards a richer and fuller understanding of Russian history and Mennonite life" (Journal of Mennonite Studies 11, 1993).

Harry Loewen

Professor Emeritus of History and Mennonite Studies

Kelowna, B. C., Canada
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Author:Loewen, Harry
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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