He was born to a German-speaking Mennonite family in Siberia in 1917 and named Hans. As the changes wrought by the Russian and then Stalinism penetrated his community, he became Ivan. He served in the Red Army during World War II. When captured by the Germans, he was recognized as German and naturalized as a German. Now his name was Johann and he joined Hitler’s Army, serving on that side until he was captured. After release from an American POW camp, he applied to emigrate to Canada. It was a long, difficult process, but he and his bride Margaretha eventually got permission. In Canada, he became John. Continue reading
A couple of people I know were contacted by The Walrus about a piece the magazine was doing on Mennonites in Bolivia. I had no idea what angle it would take, but hoped it would provide some current information on the situation that hit the headlines more than a year ago: the rape of many women in the Manitoba colony and the arrest of a group of men alleged to have perpetrated these rapes. I assumed the piece would bring professional journalistic standards to bear, and perhaps arouse concern and even indignation on a number of aspects of this situation, from the trauma of the women to the lack of trial proceedings for the men.
A comment to an earlier post alerted me that said Walrus was now out. Her assessment of the piece, a photo essay by Lisa Wiltse? “Hmm, there’s got to be more to the story than this!” Now that I’ve also had a chance to see the issue, I couldn’t agree more. There’s only four paragraphs of text. The photographs are wonderfully done, yes, capturing the lives of the children especially, their energy, shyness, and beauty. There’s a lovely family spirit, a kind of bucolic charm, in Wiltse’s photos that’s attractive, even a rebuke to our consumerist society. The text is fine as far as it goes, as well, which isn’t far enough, giving the summary facts of Mennonites, the Manitoba colony, the rapes, the limitations for women and children. Much is hidden behind a few words: the men “wary,” the women “reluctant,” and “a tension pervaded the colony.”
Yet, the article continues, life goes on, as it has “for centuries.” That’s the tragedy of the tale, perhaps. Life goes on, as it has.
Yes. But. I see that lovely blond girl with her slate, head framed by a blackboard of numbers, and I remember myself at that age and my longing to learn, to discover, to go on reading and discovering day after day after day…. and knowing I could. This girl’s brothers will stop school after seven years and she’ll have to stop even earlier. It’s enough to break one’s heart.
Add to that attitudes about sex, and the role and purpose of women, which may take her to a life of drudgery and sexual activity that feels demeaning rather than freely participated in and joyous. That’s heartbreaking too. Continue reading