I come from a one-dimensional family. Let me explain. My father had a mother, five brothers and one sister. No father that I was aware of. Lots of Funks around. My mother had no father, no mother, and only one brother, or so I thought. Few Janzens. Having relatives on only one side seemed natural.
Of course, while we children were growing up there were passing references to a former home in the Ukraine, to our Janzen grandparents, to Janzen aunts and uncles and many more, but those people weren’t as real to me as my Funk relatives whom we visited regularly. A child accepts whatever reality she experiences as normal. One grandparent was sufficient – and I never realized until later that most children had four grandparents, all living.
Only as an adult did I learn I had a huge extended family on my mother’s side who had been trapped by the Bolshevist regime in the Ukraine after 1929. Some had spent what will have seemed like endless lifetimes to them in forced labor in Siberia.
I met one aunt in Germany and another in Moscow in 1989 and began to aggressively research my mother’s relatives. Who were these people who had contributed to my gene stock but also my cultural upbringing?
Recently I wrote a 4,500 word article with photos about Aunt Aganeta Janzen Block, which was published in CMBS Newsletter Fall 2011 She lived an entire lifetime in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately it is not online but available for a suggested of $5 or more sent to Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Tabor College, Hillsboro KS 67063. If I live long enough I hope to expand this writing into a book-length manuscript.
After my visit with Aunt Neta Janzen Block she began writing her life story in letters to me, a sister, an aunt and to her nieces. She was a reader and a story teller. During the limited time I spent with her in 1989 she told me stories about her life while I took notes feverishly. I collected everything I could lay hands on. In the article I wrote about her life I could only highlight a few major events of her amazing, though difficult, life gleaned from her letters.
She wrote about her conversion as the result of an experience with the demonic in the life of a young man in her community.
About being married to the son of a kulak (landowner) and the resulting hardship of being forced out of their home three times, carrying only a suitcase in one hand and a child in the other.
About the Great Trek from the Ukraine to Poland of thousands of German-speaking citizens of the Ukraine during World WLar II. She wrote later that she only understood what was going on in that terrible march when she read about it decades later in the Rundschau in historical reports.
About the night her husband left home after being conscripted into the German army. He died on the Belgium front. She sent me his last letter to his family – a last will of his hopes for his four children.
About being shipped like cattle to Siberia to work in forced labor in forestry work, heavy construction , mining and similar industries, always hungry, always cold. Always mindful of her four young children.
About being interrogated by the secret police, night after night, who attempted to force her to tell lies so they could “legitimately” punish her.
About seeing her sister Tina after a separation of more than 25 years. This sister and her family had been exiled to another part of Siberia in the 1930s.
In Canada, Mennonites are familiar with these accounts. A large wave of Mennonites who had survived the tumultuous events of the war and its aftermath immigrated to Canada from Paraguay and Europe after World War II and brought with them their stories about life during the Bolshevist rule. Here in the United States we know about the Amish, the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Mennonite migrations of 1870s from Russia to the prairies, and such events, but too little about this aspect of our story and the difficult sojourn in the cold hell of Siberia. It needs to be known.
My aunt deserves a legacy. Through this article I have begun to give her one. It is the least I can do.