The thrill of the chase

Anne Konrad’s parents were among those Mennonite refugees who managed to leave the Soviet Union in 1929, but most of her uncles and aunts were not. Over the past twenty years, Konrad, a writer living in Toronto, has been searching for and documenting the fates of relatives who stayed behind. She combed through old letters and documents, tramped around areas where her parents had lived, visited members of the extended family in various parts of the (eventually former) Soviet Union, and most dramatically, gained access to the police files of the trials and executions of her uncles.

Red Quarter Moon: A Search for Family in the Shadow of Stalin (University of Toronto Press, 2012) describes Konrad’s experiences as seeker and the lives of those found. It’s true, as her husband remarked when he read the manuscript, that there are “too many names,” but I decided to simply enjoy her story and the stories of these numerous relatives and not worry too much about keeping the connections straight. (There are family charts to help, however, both for father Konrad and mother Braun’s sides.)

The broad strokes of the story are familiar enough, taking us through the second world war, the purges and displacements, the myriad vicissitudes of life under the Soviet system. I was struck by a number of things. Although family members in North America sometimes received letters begging for help, and such letters were published in Mennonite periodicals, the irony is that letters or financial help coming from the West often endangered those who received them. I hadn’t realized either just how difficult it had been on account of the label nemtsy or German.

“They all seemed to have the same hope, to become invisible.” (p.92)

I was also reminded how diverse people’s responses to their circumstances can be, how wide the cast of characters any community yields. One knows this, of course (and it’s a fiction writer’s bread and butter), but as far as Mennonites who stayed in the USSR are concerned, we usually hear more about those who maintained some connection to a faith community, even if underground, than those who did not. Konrad must take her family as they come, some with a great knack for survival, some scarred by tremendous suffering, some at odds with one another. What they have in common is delight in finding one another and having  “what happened?” at least partially answered. It’s a strange feeling to hear a dead uncle, now rehabilitated of his “crimes,” confessing to sabotage in the bakery by using mouldy flour, delaying the baking, and adding mice to the dough.

One of the small personal links I made in reading this book is that Anne Konrad’s father’s oldest sister Susanna was the first wife of my husband’s grandfather Peter Rahn, who also fled in 1929 but landed in Paraguay. (Still with me?) She doesn’t tell that sister’s story, since she died in childbirth before the Mennonites left and their only child to reach adulthood disappeared during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. But the mention of the Rahn name sent me back to Opa Rahn’s unpublished autobiography, which we have a copy of, and I learned the details there. It’s a distant and not even blood connection, but fascinating nevertheless – the thrill of the chase as it were, which also animates Red Quarter Moon.

5 thoughts on “The thrill of the chase

  1. Hi Dora,

    The name recognition continues and the who is related to whom is still a fond tradition. In the end we are all somehow related. In the responses that I have heard about Red Quarter Moon, many non Mennonites have said, “That’s my story too. My Ukrainian uncle… my Irish grandmother.. My family in Vietnam… and so on.

    I don’t know what you mean by “strange feeling” – your comment about my uncle who worked in a bakery. I know that you know that none of the crimes that these pople arrested in 1937 and 1938 admitted to were genuine or true events. Genuine “confessions”? Men signed knowing the accusations were false. Tortured people will sign a blank page and discover that they have “confessed.” The acccusations of adding mice to flour was ludicrous, but nobody laughed. The rehabilitation document is ludicrous too. Too late. The man is dead. That’s the irony. And, alas, that’s the story of Stalin’s legacy.

    Anne Konrad

    • Thanks Anne — so enjoyed the book, and good to hear from the author. If my meaning was unclear on “strange feeling,” you’ve given it context: for me, the juxtaposition of the high seriousness of the trial proceedings, the seriousness of the outcome (death), and these bizarrely astonishing things “confessed.” It was just the strangest sensation (I’m stuck on that word, I guess) for me to encounter it at this vantage point.

  2. Thanks for making me aware of this book Dora. As I mentioned in my last post, my maternal grandfather, Abram Kroeger, was arrested in 1938, accused of planning to blow up the big bridge across the Djnepr. Anyone who knew my grandfather would see this as ludicrous.

    I’m rereading Ingrid Rimland’s book “The Wanderers: The Saga of Three Women who Survived” (1977). You write that while reading Konrad’s book you are reminded how diverse people’s responses to their circumstances can be. Rimland was a child when she and her mother and her grandmother fled Russia. She held the Germans in highest esteem because they rescued them, while the Russians were looked upon as cruel beasts. This attitude is already apparent in “The Wanderers”. Many Mennonites felt that way. Later she meets and marries the holocaust denier Ernst Zuendel, and has written two more novels, totally permeated with Nazi propaganda.


    • I don’t think anyone ever thought anything would come of doing that, but perhaps now that they allow access to information it might be worth a try.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s