In the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, the older woman in the nursing home tells the younger woman visiting her regularly the story of the Whistlestop Cafe and the women who managed it. She states, "People stay alive if you remember them." She is keeping those two women alive by telling their story.
I want to keep my aunt Aganeta Janzen Block alive by telling her story. I met her in 1989 in Moscow when she was living a daughter and husband in a high rise apartment building.
Aunt Neta had an amazing spirit despite decade after decade of unspeakable hardships, including eleven years in forced labor in Siberia during the 1940s. At the time she had four young children, the youngest about two and the oldest a growing boy of 16. Her husband, conscripted into the German army, died at the Belgium front during World War II.
Aunt Neta was a woman of indomitable faith in a loving God despite years of living with extreme cold, hunger, and brutal treatment at the hands of overseers. She wrote me about her life in about sixty to seventy letters, which I have been translating. It became clear to me wherever life gave her a resting place, even for a few minutes, and she had an audience, she would tell a story. Here is one:
At the death of her grandfather in 1915, she, then a young girl of nine, and her parents traveled 60 kilometers from Trubetskoy, where her father was working, to the funeral. My mother Anna and sister Tina and the houseparents at Bethania Mental Hospital, who were all employed there, came for the funeral also.
She writes that her two oldest sisters, whom she barely knew, having been away from home a long time, were attractive young women at the time. She especially remembered my mother, who was wearing a beautiful sky-blue shawl with a long fringe. She heard people say, "What lovely girls the Janzens have."
That wonderful memory of my mother remained with her. She said as she was writing about that image, it was like it had happened yesterday.
At the age of 15 [girls from poor homes left home early to help earn money], she left home to work for her Uncle Hans Janzen, whose wife was sick. They had four young children. She had to look after the whole household, which her uncle valued. One day he brought her a large white shawl -- not sky-blue.
Years later, in 1932, she and her husband, son of a kulak (landowner) were struggling to stay alive in Siberia, working in the forest. During the period of collectivization, landowners were displaced and their land seized by the regime. The forest work was hard. Her children small. The mosquitoes merciless.
One Sunday, early, they had gone to the nearest town to try to buy supplies. In a ,waiting for her husband, she carefully examined her surroundings and the people. All at once she saw a woman who looked exactly like her sister Anna, only her shawl was white. She couldn't quit looking, she was so drawn to this woman.
When her husband showed up, she said, "Come, I'll show you someone who looks just like my sister Anna."
"Yes," he replied, "and that woman is my Neta."
How could she have been so mistaken, she asked herself. The walls were mirrors and mirrors were no longer a part of her life. Later, they often laughed at her mistake.
I have since wondered after reading her story, what life would be like if one morning every mirror in the U.S. shattered and we had to live without them. What difference would it make? How much time would we have for other things?