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.