A loud rap on the door interrupts the mealtime of Mennonites Johann and Barbara Strausz and their children in June 1815. They live in Polish Austria, where they farm the land and live in peace, exempted from serving in the military.
War was brewing. The government’s promise of peace to their ancestors who moved there from southwestern Germany in the late 1700s was being broken. As a result, as described in For His Sake, the lives of the Strausz family and their good friends and nearby neighbors, Peter and Maria Kaufman, were forever changed.
The late author Mildred Schrock — the last surviving granddaughter of the book’s heroine, Barbara Graber Schrag Unger — describes the Strausz family’s fear.
“The officer swore and said sneeringly, ‘So? You’re another one of those ______ cowards. I met one up the road a while ago,” pointing in the direction of the Kaufman home. “If you fail to appear in the morning, you will both meet the same fate. You will be shot.”
Early the next morning, Johann and Peter walk to the village of Michelsdorf. In the midst of forced conscription mayhem, the two men make their choice. They refuse to take muskets and are thrown in prison. In August, the government transports them to another site, where the two men escape in the middle of the night.
They make it back to their homes, where they devise a plan: The men will travel with the baby, Lisbeth Strausz, separately from their wives and older children. Their destination is Volhynia, a Russian region bordering Austria. In the 1770s some Mennonites migrated there to develop farms in exchange for non-conscription. The families of Peter and Johann chose to remain in Polish Austria rather than uproot to Volhynia. Their only choice now is to flee there.
The families risk separation and death. The stakes are high: the integrity of their faith. They must follow Christ, for his sake.
After dangerous and difficult travel, the men and the baby reach the home of the Katosky family just across the border in Russia. Mr. Katosky offers to go in search of the other travelers.
Would he find them? We find out: “Maria and Barbara looked uneasily at the stranger, silently wishing that he would go on his way. . . .
“He had come from Russia, he said, and he was looking for just such a party as this: two women and five children who were on their way to Kovno. ‘Are your names Strausz and Kaufman?’ he asked.” They said yes.
“ ‘Good!’ he exclaimed. ‘If you will follow me, I will take you to where your husbands and baby are staying.’ ”
Sensing their distrust, he pulled out a little red apron, worn by Lisbeth.
“My baby’s apron,” Barbara sobbed. Clutching the little garment, she pressed it to her breast. She had made it with her own hands.
Because of the apron, they follow the man back to their husbands and father.
The little red apron’s journey symbolizes the trek Swiss Mennonites took for Christ’s sake — to Germany and Austria, then Volhynian Russia and America, always seeking a land where they could remain faithful. The book traces the migrations of generations of Mennonites through the lives of Lisbeth and her daughter, Barbara.
(The Swiss Volhynians are the “other” Russian Mennonites; the South Ukrainians are more widely known, and their experience is routinely told as “the Russian Mennonite story.” This book contributes to preserving the memory of the Swiss Volhynians.)
Barbara and her husband, Joseph Schrag, leave Russia when another nonconscription promise is broken. They migrate to America — Dakota Territory, then Oregon.
Where is that little red apron now? It was given by Lisbeth to Barbara and then lost. But the life stories that spin off its journey will never be lost as long as storytellers like Schrock keep passing it on.
The book’s tales — ranging from 1815 to 1911 — are written simply in the living colors of drama and suspense. The stories are a great fit for several audiences: for schoolchildren absorbing Anabaptist history for the first time, for family devotions or bedtime reading, for children’s time during Sunday morning worship.
The can’t-put-it-down feeling I had while reading For His Sake transported me back to childhood. I was gripped by the pioneer drama of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. The tenor of For His Sake is strikingly similar in its droughts and blizzards, early deaths and deep faith in the midst of hardscrabble life.
The first two editions of For His Sake in 1972 and 1973 were taken from oral tradition, which is the source of its simple charm. The third and current edition includes the latest research on the Swiss Volhynians, rightly placed in appendices. The additional material would have disrupted the masterful storytelling meant to capture the attention of children as well as adults.
Good storytelling uses images readers can hold in their hearts, long after facts, figures and maps are forgotten. Similarly, the image of the little red apron can fan the fires of faith for 21st-century Mennonites. They are at risk of forgetting that today’s freedoms were hard-won: by fathers who carried babies across borders, mothers who raised children without fathers and entire families who left their homes for the sake of preserving their faith.
The book can be ordered from Wilbert R. Shenk, 57679 Seventh St., Elkhart, IN 46517.
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan.