For Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Man., getting requests for information about Mennonites is a regular occurrence.
But a request from Moscow was unusual. “I don’t think it had ever happened before,” he said.
It came from Maria Lotsmanova, 36, who contacted the archives in 2019 asking for information about her great-grandfather, Jakob Janzen.
Lotsmanova knew she had German ancestors. There were some relatives living in Germany, but there had been little contact with them over the years. She also knew they were Mennonite.
“But I didn’t know what that meant,” she said.
She started her search at Moscow’s Gulag History Museum. Her research revealed that Janzen’s family had lived in Crimea before their property was seized by the Bolsheviks in 1931 and they were forced to relocate to northern Russia.
While in the north, Janzen wrote to relatives in Germany. He told them about the harsh conditions, including the lack of food and people dying of hunger.
The letters were intercepted by Soviet officials. Janzen was accused of “anti-revolution” agitation and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia before being executed.
Lotsmanova found a letter from his wife, Katerina, sent to relatives in Germany in 1933.
“I am so scared because we are in their power,” she said of the Soviet authorities, adding she didn’t know what was happening to her husband.
She begged them to pray “non-stop because it is getting dark, and who knows what depths Jakob is in.”
As Lotsmanova read about her great-grandfather, it was like “meeting this man for the first time.”
“None of my family knew how they lived or what happened to them,” she said. “It was amazing to me that such a huge part of our family life was simply erased from memory. It was gone, and no one knew anything about it. It was like these people didn’t exist at all.”
As part of her research, she reached out to Stoesz at the archives in Winnipeg.
“The more I learned, the more I wanted to know,” she said. “I couldn’t stop.”
Today, Lotsmanova lives in Pittsburgh, where she works at the Carnegie Museum of Art while her wife is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. She shared about her newfound Mennonite connection and showed a video about it July 14 at an academic conference sponsored by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
“I have never seen so many Mennonites in one room before,” she said of the event, which was part of the “Mennonite Migration: Russlander 100 Tour” and attended by about 200 people.
“It was the best response to the documentary I have ever had. They could appreciate my family story. It was their story, too,” she said.
As for her Mennonite roots, “I’m still trying to understand what that means,” she said. One thing that feels good is “having a bigger family, a new sense of community.”
Looking ahead, she wants to find out more about her Mennonite roots. “There are more stories to be told,” she said. “It is an unfinished work.”
Stoesz is glad to be part of Lotsmanova’s journey of learning more about her Mennonite heritage.
“For many Mennonites in Canada, that is part of their collective identity,” he said. “The stories are known. Someone like Maria is different, growing up on the outside with no knowledge of her history. Now she is deeply interested in this information. I’m excited to be part of it in a small way.”
The film about Lotsmanova’s search for her great-grandfather is at youtube.com/watch?v=MmmocKBsBCY.