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.