Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Life Pilgrim of Indomitable Spirit

When I came to the final chapters of Harry Loewen's most recent book of stories about people in Mennonite history, Cities of Refuge, I recognized at once that I had met the main character of one story many years ago.

In 1989 while with a tour of about thirty other Canadian and American tourists interested in their Russian-Mennonite origins, we visited Karaganda in Kazakhstan. As our plane flew mile after mile over densely forested territory to the north,I was reminded of scenes in the movie Dr. Zhivago. This was the Siberia I had heard much about. We had already visited the Ukraine where I was privileged to walk the streets of Rosenthal, where my parents had lived, loved, worked and endured. In 1923 they and thousands of other Mennonites left for Canada. But now I was back in the land of their birth.

The tour schedule was rigorous so one Sunday in this far eastern part of the former Soviet Union I stayed in my room during the evening church service to sleep. I was worn out. About 9:30 p.m. Clarence Hiebert, our tour leader, came knocking on my door with a local minister, Johann Koop and his adult son. They wanted me to join them to visit the elder Koop's father, David Klassen. There was a possibility that he had worked together with my parents at Bethesda Hospital for the Mentally Ill in the Ukraine.It would give the old man great joy to talk about his early life there. I agreed to go with them.

We drove to a high-rise apartment building. In the central court children were still playing as old women, probably their grandmothers, watched. I found little to please the eye. Everywhere there was quickly-built housing -- a forest of apartment buildings, each like the other, each without architectural adornment, all beginning to deteriorate. But this was before perestroika.

At the Klassen apartment a pile of shoes and a mound of rugs greeted us at the entrance. This family was in the process of redoing their apartment before leaving for Germany. They, like hundreds of other German-speaking people living in Russia, had been infected with emigration-fever to become Umsiedler (resettlers) in Germany.

Everywhere we went during our tour, the talk was about who was leaving and who was staying. One minister told me, "We don't know if the emigration is of the Lord, but we can't stop it." In the 1920s some people had hesitated to leave. Times would improve now that the Russian Revolution was over. Why leave? Later they regretted their decision. Now people of German-origin were rushing through the open door. Who knew how long it would stay open?

Old Mr. Klassen, age 90, was already in bed, so he was awakened. A daughter-in-law dressed him in a shirt and someone covered his legs with a blanket to make him respectable for the "American visitors." He had been deaf for a while but now was also blind. We spoke to him through a speaking tube made out of a newspaper held to his ear.

He told us his story briefly. During the 1930s and 40s he had been exiled three times for a total of about 25 years because he was a minister of the Gospel. His wife had been sent away for ten years because she had gone to church services. As she was driven away, her young children clung to the sleigh, but the driver whipped their little hands.

I learned he was a poet and a musician as well as preacher. He took my hands in his long, strong ones and wept. He had worked in Bethania from 1925-27 until it was torn down because of construction of the Dnieper dam. My parents had already left that institution by that time. No overlap.

Before we left we prayed together. He insisted on standing for prayer "to the glory of God." No sitting during prayer for him. I learned he died the following year.

Every once in a long while we meet a memorable character. David Klassen is one of those people I will never forget because of the impression he made on me in those brief moments we had together. He was a man of spirit, faith, and will. He went back to sleep, I assume, after we left -- and I lay awake to ponder his story.

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