Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Strong Frailty: Aganeta Janzen Block

Having a book published is like having a baby.  Both have a long incubation period and painful birth process. After the birth you are ready to show them off. You desperately want people to like your offspring. 

A few weeks ago my book A Strong Frailty: Aganeta Janzen Block Heroine of the Faith in the Former Soviet Union was published by the Center for MB Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kans.  This was a great cause for rejoicing because the book was more than two decades gestating. 

When I was in Moscow in 1989 I met my aunt Neta and realized she had an amazing story to tell about her long, eventful life, so I encouraged her to tell it through letters.  I collected well over two hundred or more letters from her and other relatives that I translated and sorted to find the story line.  Her stories were not necessarily in chronological order.  But I knew her life story was one worth preserving as a legacy for my children and grandchildren. 

I wanted my children and their children and other people’s children to know something about the underside of this particular history – what happened in the lives of thousands who made up the statistics we read in daily news report and history books about the events following World War II behind the Iron Curtain. 

My father’s extended family made it out of the former Soviet Union to Canada in 1923.  My mother’s family stayed behind, never expecting to be exiled to 11 years of forced labor in the northern regions before being given a measure of freedom at Stalin’s death.  

Two families. Could I tell their stories?  A Strong Frailty is the story of my mother’s family.  My Emigrant Father, due to be published in spring is  the story of my father’s family.  

I can’t tell you about the exact moment of conception but I have stacks of research files, pages of time lines putting events in the right order, and early drafts.

My aunt Neta, whom I met in Moscow in 1989 was an amazing person. She was a born story teller.  She began telling her story in letters to me and other relatives over a period of years. Her husband was the son of kulak (wealthy peasant), so he had been disenfranchised. He lost his citizenship rights. No one was supposed to hire him. 

A major event in the lives of Germans living in Ukraine was the invasion of the Nazi army  in 1941. These  two powerful regimes had once been allies but were now battling for supremacy.    When Germany retreated from Ukraine its military pushed all Germans in the area before it to Poland.  This is known as the Great Trek with hundreds upon hundreds of small makeshift wagons pulled by worn-out horses loaded with a few household goods inching their way to the north.  No hotels at night, no MacDonald’s to buy a hamburger, not enough fodder for horses, no medical attention – just keep moving to stay out of the clutches of the mighty Soviet army.  

In Poland these Germans who once had lived in Ukraine, including Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics,  were naturalized as German citizens and given work. The men were conscripted into the German army. Neta’s husband was killed at the war front.  

As the Russian military pushed toward Berlin, the Germans fled, knowing they would be killed as collaborators with the enemy.  Some of them escaped into the Allied zones but some were caught in the Russian dragnet and told “We’re taking you home.”  Home?  They were herded into cattle cars and shipped like livestock to the northern parts of the former USSR to work in mines, lumbering, and factories on starvation rations.  They had become slave laborers. People were dispensable. Lots more where these had come from. They never saw their former home again.

My aunt was sent to the Kirov region, where overseers of the various industries looked them over and selected the strongest for the work they had in mind. Women with children like my aunt with her four youngsters were low on the list of desirable workers.

In this book my aunt tells the story of life in these camps, interrogation by KGB,  struggles to find enough food, and  being shipped from place to place.

I added a chapter in which I attempt to interpret her life and answer questions I have been asked: How did she survive hardships she didn’t deserve at a time when society said a mother without a husband by her side to defend and support her couldn’t make it?  How did she maintain her faith?  How did she pass her faith on to others?  How did she deal with the brutality of camp life, rape, deaths, and  lack of medical attention?

Not all questions have been answered, yet when I think back to meeting her I recognize now even more or so than then that she had incredible inner strength. I am humbled to have been entrusted with her life and words. 

Dr. Marlene Epp, Mennonite historian, writes that “these never-to-be-forgotten stories should be read by everyone in the free world… an amazing chronicle of resilience and grace through years of brutality and despair… this is a story of family and faith, and, despite the book’s title, also one of fortitude more than frailty.”  

A Strong Frailty is available from Center for MB Studies, Tabor College (, Watermark Books in Wichita, KS, and from Kindred Productions (  in Canada.   

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Is the black man my brother?

            A friend argues that you can’t have real convictions on a social issue until you’ve experienced the matter personally. For example, you can’t claim a solid opinion on capital punishment until you’ve seen a few heads roll (maybe your own?) or demand racial tolerance until you’ve lived side by side with people of other races.  

            I wish my friend’s word were accurate. Then I could rid of the uneasy feeling that I have no responsibility with regard to both issues. I have never seen a person guillotined or had blacks living next door. But to say I have no convictions would be untrue. The headline news these days is much about the racial unrest in a St. Louis community: white cop shoots black young man. 

            I can’t remember when I didn’t hold to the position to some extent that all races are born equal before God.  My attitude was molded to a large extent by my father’s influence during my childhood.  He grew up on the steppes of South Russia as a descendant of the Mennonite settlers who migrated there from Holland and northern Germany in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A sturdy, industrious people, they prospered and became wealthy landowners in their adopted land, living in self-contained, isolated villages, thereby preserving their culture successfully.

            The poorer neighboring Russian peasants, not as successful materially or culturally, became objects of prejudice on the part of some Mennonite settlers. My father’s bitter denunciation of this down-your-nose attitude and how Russian stable boys were sometimes denied the warmth of a bed in the attic of the landowner’s house and sent instead to the hayloft on cold winter nights is an impression I can’t erase. 

            I knew my father as one who, in his own way, always helped those being stepped on by others – the poor, people without work, social outcasts and others. He had seen too much mishandling of others because of prejudice.

            As the son of an Einwohner rather than a landowner my father shared the misery of these Russian peasant boys. He learned to love them and also formed a basic attitude toward the wealthier and more highly educated people that he carried with him throughout life.  He found some experiences hard to forget. As a young man he completed burial arrangements of four close relatives in a two-week period, one of them his father – washing the bodies, prying boards  from fences to make coffins, arranging for transportation to the graveyard on a makeshift cart, and saying the prayer over the grave—during the typhus epidemic and famine. No preacher, no horse-owner,  answered his plea for help. 

            As children we relived the Russian Revolution through our parents’ eyes.  We heard how the battlefront of the Reds and the Whites shifted through  Rosenthal, the anarchist raids, the courage of individuals, and the struggle of all to survive the famine. 

            Yet in northern Saskatchewan we lived far removed from the race issue as it affected people living in the southern United States.  Of course, we Canadians had our Indians, but that was another matter. Indians were simply Indians, and didn’t actually count as people.   They lived on reservations because they had no other place to go.

            Negroes, as we knew them as children, were the objects of jest and a source of amusement.  The only African-Americans we knew were the jolly minstrels, faces darkened with burnt cork, who gave our recreation-starved community an opportunity to laugh.  Mother had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in a German translation.  Her re-telling of the slave girl Eliza’s flight over the ice floes with hounds and bounty hunters in full pursuit became etched in my young mind. It was therefore a simple transfer of sympathy from the exploited Russian masses to the discriminated Negroes of the slave era when our family lived in Canada. But it was harder to see them as people like us only with a different skin color  when they lived in our little village.

            One day an odd family moved into a shack at the edge of town: A white man whose youth had long left him, a white woman, much younger than the man, tired looking and unkempt, and an assortment of children – two white, two black, dark as the night, and one who was neither black nor white. Their sudden presence in school was both a novelty and embarrassment. What should we do with them?  In early spring, when the snow melted and roads opened, they were gone.  I think we were glad.

            At about age 15 I attended a United Church girls’ summer camp. One leader, a national from Trinidad, probably knew the meaning of the word “prejudice” more deeply than we girls grasped at the time. She patiently taught us its meaning: Being down on what you are not up on. She also taught us her name, syllable by syllable: Wilma Samlallsing.  After 70-some years hers is the only name I remember of the more than a hundred people I met at that camp.

            An experience with deeper impact on my attitude toward other races occurred when my husband attended graduate school at Syracuse University in 1961-62.  I and the children remained in Kitchener, Ontario, for the winter.  He shared an apartment near the campus with a Chinese student from Formosa and a young Nigerian, both in America under the sponsorship of the Laubach Literacy Foundation.

            My husband told me about the “little League of Nations” in that apartment.  Both men were intelligent, outstanding individuals. Sometimes by comparison American students lacked their caliber of character.

            Lucky, the Nigerian, more so than Larry, the Formosan, suffered from the blight of racial intolerance.  We suffered with him.  He related how one summer he motored with friends to the West Coast to find employment. En route he was denied admittance to some restaurants because the proprietors thought was an American black.  With the hurt rankling in him, he tested a hunch on the return trip. He traveled the same route and stopped at the same restaurants, but with a difference. This time he was decked out in the outstanding agbada of a Nigerian, a long, full-flowing gown of brightly-checked cloth, embroidered and closely fitted about the neck.  The result? All doors swung open before him.

            Together with Lucky we drove through the black section of Syracuse. Large, unpainted apartment  buildings lay muddled together, with children and adults lolling around on the rickety verandahs. They looked indifferent and indolent. I wondered if the bars of prejudice that imprisoned them were broken, would they rise to the stature of our friend Lucky? 

            The full seriousness of the race issue stunned me when we moved to Kansas in 1962.  In Canada we heard only faint rumblings of the racial unrest, but now it was a full-blown issue with riots, marches, bombings and killings. 

            Every time I saw a black man on the streets of Wichita I took a second look.  I  read books like Black Like Me, Cry the Beloved Country, To Kill a Mockingbird and other strong opinion molders. When I taught minority literature at college I studied black history and literature intensely, reading, sorting, thinking. I researched Christian theology that supported slavery. I was forced to confront the issue of Black English in classes.  Was it a dialect or another language? Would students speaking only Black English successfully navigate the business and academic worlds of their future as Americans? 

            A student told me she had learned in grade school that if you touched a black person you would break out in a rash.  I recalled her comment on a trip to Chicago sitting in a bus with  a large black man next to me. Would my skin break out in red welts? 

            In the late 1960s at an open air meetings Rev. Vincent Harding, black Mennonite minister, related his experiences traveling in the deep South.  Like our friend Lucky, he was denied use of rest rooms, privilege of entering certain restaurants, hotels, and the like. 

            At the close of the service, he taught the audience the civil rights song, “We shall overcome.”  Slow, dirge-like we sang it but without depth of feeling. I sensed a strange restraint in myself and others in that almost completely white audience that seemed to say, “Blacks should have civil rights, but must I, a white person, identify completely with them to help them achieve freedom? If so, how does one do that?”

            I have often told writing classes that it is possible to trace the evolution of any attitude we hold, even the pathway to or away from prejudice.  So, my friend, I have had experience with prejudice and I am entitled to an opinion.  People of other races are my brothers and sisters. They deserve to be treated like equals.     

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Here, once again, is something I wrote for my book Prayers of an Omega: Facing the Transitions of Aging.  Last Sunday, together with a large number of family members and friends, we celebrated my ninetieth birthday so publishing  the following  seemed appropriate. I patterned these prayer/poems after the structure used by the psalmist in the Bible. The book was published in 1994 when I was seventy. I still agree with what I wrote then.

Even to  your old age and gray hairs I am he,
I am he who will sustain you.
I  have made you and I will carry you:
I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isa. 46:4)

Lord God Most High, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. I trust you. I have trusted you these many decades since I walked down the aisle of that little country church. I praise you for more than sixty years of faithfulness.

Don’t let me doubt your love, especially as I age. In my silences I hear the lions of the later years growling at my door. They grow bolder, demanding entry.

Hear my prayer, O Lord. For even as I face the new year, I weary of the lions of discouragement and loneliness daring me to quit trusting you.

The way ahead looks uncertain, Lord. The sand is running through an hourglass with a barrel-sized opening.  Stand by me in this coming year. Don’t let me drift through my final days like a toy boat on a fast-flowing river.

Here I am, Lord, more tired at the end of each day. Pudgy again like a kitten. Graying, wrinkled. That snapshot the kids took of me showed I had jowls­--hideous things. And it will get worse. Dewlaps. Underarm-flaps. Flaps everywhere.

Don’t let me get sick. What if I fell down the stairs and broke a leg? Would anyone miss me? I could rot; who would care? This growing old is not for me, yet I can’t bypass it like I can step over a mud puddle.

You’ve been my hope, my salvation , O God, since the youth group sent me on my way with the words, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.”
We began together, Lord.  You said I was your child. I trusted that word. Lord, I return to it again and again.

But when I look around I see older men and women who have subsided into mute, indifferent human beings.  I’m not thinking of those sick with Alzheimer’s or something like that, but those with functioning minds and bodies. They come to church to sit. They go home to sit. They church doesn’t really need them other than to fill pews, to give money, and to bring finger food. Do not cast me away when I am old. Give me again the joy of the Lord.

Though you have made me see my troubles, you will restore my joy.  You have done so in the past. You will do it again. I quiet my soul.  Praise the Lord, amen.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Now I am an Omega

            At various times in life we move to the head of the line because of personal qualifications:  “Johnnie, you are the tallest – you go first.”  “Betty, you’re good a leader – you take charge.”  “Lily, you know how to do this, so show the others.”  

               At other times, we move to the head by default. There's no one else to take on this role.  This September I will be 90 ninety years old – at the head of the Funk branch of the family  by default.  I am the oldest in the Funk clan.

               When my mother died at age nearly 99,  I realized I was now an Omega, approaching the end of the  line.  In my book Prayers of an Omega, I wrote the following to introduce the entire series of prayer-poems about transitions in aging: 

                                                     Now I am an Omega

            God, my everlasting Comforter, we buried Mom today. We laid her in the ground, next to Dad. Now I am Omega, the last in our family.  I’ve moved to the head of the line.

            Now the storms of life can beat directly upon me. No buffer. I used to think of Mother as an umbrella, holding God’s love over us like a shield. She prayed every day for each of us by name—children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She used to say that was how she remembered the names.

            Now no one covers all of us with her prayers. I stand alone to pray for my children and myself. And sometimes I forget. My umbrella is gone. And it’s cold and wet in the rain.

            Lord, I’m probably next in line to die.  The generation above me is all gone. Now I have to be strong for the generation below me. I have to be the umbrella.  For my children.  Their children.  And I don’t feel able. I’m not ready to be patient, long-suffering and, and forgiving, as Mother was.

            And I’m afraid of the darkening shadows. Of being an Omega. It was easier being an Alpha, a child, near the beginning.

            Decades ago, driving home late at night we children slumped together in the backseat of the car like four loosely packed sacks of potatoes. Though it was dark and the road was bumpy, we knew we were going to that wonderful place called home. Dad was driving, Mother was watching. We knew we were safe. We would get there.

            Mother and Dad did the best they could to raise us with what understandings of family relationships they had. And daily trusted in God’s grace. They worked out understandings with their own difficult past. And worked hard at bringing us up to become responsible human beings. And kept on praying and loving.

            Now Mother and Dad are both gone. I am an Omega, the last in a series. And I am afraid.

            Yet you, Lord, promise to carry us like a mother eagle that spreads her wings beneath the unsure eaglet testing its flying strength. You promise to bear us should we fall.

            So, Lord, spread your strong arms of love under me and around me and steady my faltering feet. Let me travel hopefully. Carry me, an Omega, by your grace. Lord, I trust you. Amen.