Thursday, March 8, 2012

Origins of Mennonite Central Committee -- a story from the underside

I have said that more needs to be written about the origins of Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and development arm of Mennonites churches, from the perspective of those who were helped.  We usually hear about those who did the helping, and that is good. But it isn’t the whole story.

          I grew up with stories of how MCC got started  because my parents, Jacob and Anna Funk, were among the first volunteers of that world-wide organization in the year 1921 in Rosenthal/Chortitza in southern Ukraine. 

          On Sunday I gave  a five-minute talk at the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church about my parents’ role when MCC was mostly a gleam in the eye of its originators.   I talked about  those stressful times when hunger and disease raged rampant through the Ukraine.  People were dying.  The famine was both politically induced and  due to natural causes. 

          D.M. Hofer in his  book  Die Hungersnot in Russland  (1924) has a section called “Mosaiken oder Bunte Steinchen gesammelt in den Steppen Sued Russland” (Mosaic pieces, or  a variety of  little stones, gathered on the South Russian steppes).  My parents’ copy, which I inherited, shows much reading. The cover is torn and a few pages are missing. I hope some day someone will translate this section because it shows the underside of MCC beginnings. 

          It  is a wonderful collection of poems, anecdotes, vignettes, and  testimonies by people from the Mennonite colonies  helped by Mennonite Central Committee. They are full of emotion, strikingly fresh, written by people, young and old, eager to speak their thanks for the help when food resources were drained. 

          One  account is  of the Sunday morning service during the height of the starvation times (p.320).  After a breakfast quickly eaten because there was nothing to eat, the people dragged themselves off to church. At the end of the service the minister read a list of those who died of typhus the preceding week, followed by those whose death was due to starvation.  No one cried or showed emotion.  They were already deadened to the losses.

          Communion was no longer observed because there was nothing to celebrate it with. 

          In my grandmother’s home  in Rosenthal (she was now a widow because my grandfather had died of typhus),  the pantry was empty that Christmas.  My uncle Abe, about ten or eleven at the time, remembers hoping that Saint Nicholas would still bring him something.  On Christmas morning he came to the table to see two small packages wrapped in newspaper on his plate. Inside each was a dried cube of bread. His mother has saved a slice from her own ration, cut it in four pieces, and given two to each of her youngest sons so they would have a Christmas gift.  

          My father recalled  catching a gopher. Mother cooked it.  “It tasted like pigeon,” he told me decades later.  Mother told about seeing  a commotion in the yard next door and went to investigate.  The people were cooking a cat.  If your dog didn’t come home in the evening you knew it had ended up in someone’s pot.  People ate bark, berries, anything. My sister Frieda, then a toddler, lost the ability to walk because of lack of food.

          And then came the wonderful news that the American Mennonites were going to help their brothers and sisters across the ocean. Food kitchens were going to be set up in various key localities, including Rosenthal/Chortitza. Would the help come before another family member else  died?

          On March 13, 1922 a trainload with box cars filled with flour, rice, beans, canned milk, shortening, and sugar arrived in Chortitza.  The people rushed to the railroad to watch the food  being unloaded. 

          Ration cards were issued for a daily meal consisting of 788 calories.  No one who had a need was turned down regardless of race, creed, nationality or social standing.  People who still had some salt donated it. Young boys split wood.

          Mother and Dad became the head volunteers in this food kitchen, mother as cook because she had about five years experience cooking for large groups in the Bethania Mental Health Hospital, Dad as her helper because he had experience managing a large army field kitchen supply house during the war.  Part of his job was prying open the dozens of cans of condensed milk  used each day, for they had no can opener. In exchange for their services they received free rent and double rations so that they would strength to work.  Two men carried water for the kitchen and three girls assisted with the cooking.  The kitchen fed about 800 to 1000 people each day. 

     Gradually the need for the food kitchen dwindled and  it  was closed down, Mennonites in the area talked about leaving the country that given them a home since the late 1700s.  About  20,000 headed for Canada, my parents among them. 

      As a parting gift MCC gave them $10, a special package of flour, shortening, cocoa, milk and sugar,  and a quilt.  Mother baked Zwieback,  which she roasted.   Zwieback was their staple  food on the long journey to Canada. By the time they arrived in Rosthern, Saskatchewan,  Dad had only 25 cents of that $10 left. He  bought a bar of soap with it – their first luxury in several years.  Living without soap had been one of the hardships during the famine.  Being clean was part of the new beginning.

     They arrived on a Friday evening and spent the night at their sponsors’ home,  Abram and Margaret Schellenberg, Dad’s uncle and aunt.   Monday morning he was already working in a store for his uncle.

     In an account of her experience as a MCC volunteer, Mother wrote: “I thank God for the vision the Mennonites had back in 1922, and that we were able to be part of that vision.”  I am thankful also, for without that vision I might not be alive. 

     Mother’s account of her experiences as an MCC volunteer has been published in various places, including my book The Storekeeper’s Daughter (Herald Press).

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