Thursday, January 9, 2014

I was hungry and you fed me

I hold in my hands a much-read book published in 1924: Die Hungersnot in Russland und unsere Reise um die Welt by D.M. Hofer (The famine in Russia and our trip around the world). The binding has dried out so that the pages hang by frail threads.  

My mother gave me this book at a time when she was thinning out her stuff.  She and my father had lived what was in the pages. Now she handed the legacy of this book to me.  

David M. Hofer, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren minister and editor, was sent to Russia in 1922 to help with the distribution of food and clothing sent by American Mennonites to their brothers and sisters in the faith and other needy persons. They established food kitchens in Mennonite communities that fed not only the Mennonites but also anyone who had need. 

Need was beyond measure. Hofer mentions that in one district alone 823 families suffered from lack of food and 326 persons dying of starvation.  They ate whatever they could find that might offer a few calories of nutrition: crows, gophers, horse meat, cats, dogs, dead livestock, leather. They baked bread out of beets, leaves, hay, oil cakes, corncobs, pumpkins, bran,  sugar beets, ground bones, oats, barley, wild mustard, weeds, flaxseed, tree bark, sawdust and so forth.

Hofer tells about extreme famine that followed the Russian Revolution and the period of anarchy, looting, burning, murdering and raping that followed. The mass slaughter of innocents by blood-thirsty gangs destroyed families and sometimes whole communities.  The book gives a first-hand, in-the-moment glimpse of the extreme need of these people  and how AMR (forerunner of Mennonite Central Committee) helped.

Last fall I began translating this book, page by page, weeping, praying, wondering how anyone could endure so much misery and survive. Part of my Advent journey this year was to become more mindful of the need to be thankful for our many blessings and less enamored  by consumer goods.  I recall how  Dad had once turned to Mother to ask, “Do you remember when you fried the gophers I caught?” They had known hunger.  Here are two stories:

The first food package  (p.241)Lord, you shower the needy with good things (Ps. 68:11)
When, in fall, the first snowflakes drift down from the skies, tumbling and turning, the children shout excitedly, “Hurrah, it’s snowing! It’s snowing!  In spring when the snow melts away and the first violet shyly lifts her head, the children cry again, “See, a violet! How beautiful it looks!” And when on a beautiful morning the first swallow flits near the window,  there’s joy once again, “Listen, the swallows are back! The swallows are back!” 

Our joy was much bigger when in April of 1922 the first food package arrived from America.  Bread had been scarcer and scarcer since Christmas.  The little piece which Mother doled out daily became smaller and smaller.  And then one day there was no bread on the table.  We came to the table hungry, ate our watery soup slowly, and stood up still hungry.  The children’s cheeks grew paler, parents’ faces more drawn.  When one has not had enough to eat  each day, one begins to  understand the fourth command in the “Our Father” prayer and can pray with deep meaning, “Give us this day our daily bread.” 

And suddenly the word came.  One day the children came storming in, “Papa, Mama, there is a package for us. The man told us.  When can we go get it, Papa?” 

“At once, children!’

“May I go with you?”

“And I?” 

“Yes, children, yes!”  The little wagon was brought out and with brisk steps we walked to the distribution center. Gleefully, the group returned to the home. “Mama, there is a lot of flour for us—and all white!”  “And rice!” “And tea!”  The words came tumbling out. “And also sugar!” said the littlest one and waved his hands.  The spirit of Christmas joy filled the house.  With hopeful dreams and bright eyes the little ones danced around the room and shouted for joy as each sack was opened and they saw what was in it. “Now you can bake bread again, Mama!” “And Zwieback!” declared the little one, eyes happy and bright. Mama folded her hands, “Dear Father in heaven, thank you.”

After that other notifications came for us [to pick up packages] and for other people, always causing us to say thanks. I have often wished that the dear loving donors could have been present  when a package was opened.  They would have seen the beaming faces, eager eyes and heard the children shouting. They would have seen the tears of joy and thanks.  They would have been enriched by the best and purest joy imaginable.  Thank you, you dear loved ones, a thousand thanks. May God bless you throughout your lives. --P.J. Braun, Neuhalbstadt

Good Friday
A dismal, very stormy day. I found myself in H. where I had been summoned to nurse my sick sister.  I hadn’t left my room for three weeks and had an unspeakable longing for something different and for fresh air.  The patient, God be thanked, was on the way to recovery.  I determined  to go to P.  to  hear the new minister L. who was reported to give very good sermons. Breakfast consisting of a cup of black Prips and a little piece of bread made of mixed grains didn’t take much time so I started out at the crack of dawn accompanied  by my sister’s little serving-girl. We found the church packed full.  We found a small spot on a bench without a back.

During the sermon  I told myself once again that the sermon that offers the simple clear word of God makes the greatest impact.  The immature  believer can’t handle a sophisticated sermon.  Using his Bible the preacher simply and surely spoke the most important truths about being born again.  (The young girl accompanying me talked to me on the return journey about her amazement how the “Uncle” could make things so clear.)  

At the end of the church service the minister read the weekly death list.  “God be thanked,” he said, “there are already fewer this week ... only 18.... We have buried more than thirty in one week.” “Died of typhus, died of starvation,”  he intoned again and again .  If I remember correctly  only one person had not died of typhus or starvation.  Mute, withdrawn, the people sat. No one cried, no one showed  a sign of sympathy.  The people had experienced  too much sorrow to feel it now.  

The minister then urged the people to bring dried fruit if they wanted to observe the Lord’s Supper at Easter.  If they didn’t have cherries, they should bring other dried fruit.   If this wasn’t available a little beet syrup would help.  Congregations were so poor that they couldn’t even have communion together.
In the afternoon three little school girls went with me and my sister on a stroll looking for violets in the “bush” but didn’t find any.  The year 1922 was even poor in flowers.

In order not to show the village of H. in too bad a light, the little Russian girls began to tell me about significant little things about it.  Among them were three churchyards.  They invited me to visit them.  To get there we had to pass the poorest section.  In front of one shack I noticed a crowd of people. Little Lydia quickly supplied the information that a funeral was being celebrated there.  Both Harders had died on typhus or starvation – they didn’t know which.  We went to see. 

 The porch of the little house was so small that only a few persons  had room beside the two bodies. Never before had I seen such a funeral.  The two bodies were lying on bare boards. They were wrapped up to the neck with white sheets so that they looked like mummies.  Thin, skeletal-like, with almost black faces. I looked around the gathering.  The faces of the living looked equally dark.  The reason was possibly that these people had for months filled their stomachs with all kinds of substitute food instead of normal nourishment. 

Most were poorly clothed, some even with ragged garments.  Many women had covered themselves with old blankets instead of shawls.  Minister Harder  was just finishing the funeral service and spoke of a place where there was neither heat nor cold, hunger nor thirst.  At the end of the closing hymn a few people spoke their voices weak. 

Then the two bodies were loaded onto a wooden wagon pulled by two nags.  The wind pulled mercilessly at the gray beard and sparsely covered head of the man, tugged at the Haube (covering)  of the woman, as if it wanted to pull it from the woman’s head. It took skill to get the bodies to the church yard on the rutted roads with a strong wind blowing. 

During the drive it looked as if the dead were always nodding their heads and saying good-bye to those who followed.   They seemed to be earnestly  admonishing us: “Would we really have had to die if you had shared your last piece of bread with us?  Maybe God gave you more in order to be able to share with us who had nothing!” 

 Eventually we reached the graveyard. The sun was about to go down.  We stopped in front of  a very shallow grave. The bodies on the boards were lowered into the grave. To the right and left of the hole was a small dug-out area.  The bodies were shoved into these niches, the boards placed in front of them and the grave filled in.  During the shoveling the men had to take turns because they were all without strength.  Close to the Harders’ grave another grave was being dug by a man in ragged clothing. 

A daughter of the deceased pair had placed her head on the wagon and was crying bitterly.  She had been working in an area well supplied with food.  She was better clothed.  The other children were so oppressed by misery that they could not give expression to their feelings.   The sons stood looking downcast.  After the prayer at the grave Minister H. spoke lovingly to the relatives, and slowly, wearily, without words, the crowd dispersed. 

The  image of the bobbing heads of the two old people followed me for days.  Ever and again I saw the haggard,  care-worn faces who had returned to life on the bier.  Always I had to ask myself: Have we Christians truly done our duty?  If we had used a little less couldn’t we have given a little more? Is it really not possible except that people in our midst have to die of want? Soon we heard that the three sons of the pair had also died.  For them the help came too late.

How can I ever forget this funeral?  And still people assured me that this was fairly normal and regular in comparison to the mass occurrences in the surrounding Lutheran villages.  In P. the minister had to admonish the people for a time to take care of their  dead.  The people  were so stupefied and weary of all the misery that they stopped burying their dead.  – K. Reimer, Gnadenfeld, June 1923

I have many more such stories.  When I finish my translation, I hope to find a publisher somewhere.