We live in an era of human flight and displacement. The United Nations Refugee Agency says there are more than 68 million refugees throughout the world. A top political issue in North America and Europe is the fate of refugees trying to cross our borders. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on a promise to build a wall on the Mexican border to keep refugees out. In this context it is good to reflect on migration in Mennonite history and to ask how Mennonites today should identify with the plight of refugees.
The history of Mennonites in Russia has been marked by successful frontier community development followed by heartbreaking persecution and flight. There were four major waves of emigration from Russia — the 1870s, the 1920s, the 1940s and the late 1980s to early 1990s.
Mennonite historians have written excellent narratives of these migrations, including Frank H. Epp’s Mennonite Exodus: The Rescue and Resettlement of the Russian Mennonites Since the Communist Revolution (1962); John B. Toews’ Czars, Soviets and Mennonites (1982); Harry Loewen’s Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (2000); and J. Willms’ At the Gates of Moscow: God’s Gracious Aid Through a Most Difficult and Trying Period (2010).
Harold Jantz’s new 720-page book is not another overall narrative. It is a primary-source reference work consisting of every article about Mennonites in Russia that appeared over two years, 1929 and 1930, in Mennonitische Rundshau, a German-language periodical in Winnipeg, Man. Jantz, himself a son of Mennonite refugees from Russia to Canada, undertook the arduous task of editing and translating the articles from German into English. After the article entries are 38 pages of indices to assist researchers looking for specific people, places and subjects. The excellent introduction is only five pages. The indices would be easier to use if the editor had included identifications at the top of those pages.
The upheavals of 1929-30 were triggered by Josef Stalin’s five-year plan that collectivized Russian agriculture, dispossessed and exiled prosperous landowners and persecuted religious expression. When news arrived that Canada had agreed to accept several scores of families, thousands of Mennonites rushed to Moscow.
Only a fraction managed to get out of Russia. Canada closed the door to immigrants and held the door shut despite Mennonite pressure and negotiation. Most of those around Moscow were forcefully removed to exile in the east. Germany did agree conditionally to accept a number who were eventually accepted over a period of years to Brazil, Paraguay and Canada.
The articles in the Rundschau include passionate descriptions of suffering and appeals for help, in addition to information about attempts to negotiate changes to national immigration policies.
This book is strictly chronological, without topical grouping of Rundschau articles on common subjects. It will be most highly valued by readers who have personal connections with the people and places represented in Russia. One can imagine the delight of those who find information about long-lost relatives and ancestors who were part of the upheavals of 1929-30.
Relatively few of those readers will be from the United States, because immigration restrictions of the early 1920s kept new immigrants out. Most Russian Mennonite emigrants from 1929 and 1930 went to Canada, Paraguay and Brazil.
The U.S. exclusion of new immigrants had negative consequences for Mennonite community and institutional development here. The late Cornelius Krahn, a Bethel College historian originally from Russia, wrote that the immigrants “contributed greatly to a revitalization of the religious, cultural, social and economic life of those who had previously come to North America.” The United States largely missed what immigrants from Russia of the 1920s might have contributed.
The story of Mennonite refugees from Russia represents a miniscule fraction of refugee experiences throughout the world. Most refugees live and die in obscurity. Fortunately, our Russia story is exceptionally well-documented. Books like Harold Jantz’s Flight not only remind us of the sufferings of our co-religionists but tell us that other peoples have equally important and dramatic tales of displacement, of desperate calls for help from distant families and friends, and of sometimes astonishing rescues, as well as frequent disastrous exile and death.
The ultimate meaning of refugee suffering and displacement is beyond human understanding. As we can read in Flight, the victims of this story affirmed their faith in God’s providence. But shall we in retrospect see the story as tragic, demonic or pathetic?
The late Paul Toews, historian-guide on numerous Dnieper River tours and author of The Russian Mennonite Story, has suggested the alternative concept of irony. Central to irony is the gap between expectations and outcomes. “Although Mennonites migrated to New Russia to preserve their ways of life,” wrote Toews, “they instead created a bastion of innovation.” They took on a new German cultural identity and became wealthy on this new frontier — conditions that contributed to their exile. The primary documents in Flight, the new book show how this tragic and ironic story unfolded at the grass roots.
James C. Juhnke is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.