The late Mennonite Brethren writer Katie Funk Wiebe, who died in 2016, was passionate about translating Die Hungersnot in Russland und Unsere Reise um die Welt (The Famine in Russia and Our Trip Around the World) from German into English.
The book, by Krimmer Mennonite Brethren leader D.M. Hofer and published in 1924, was about North American Mennonites’ response to the horrific suffering by their Russian sisters and brothers in the faith following the 1917 Communist revolution, including a devastating famine.
Wiebe was the daughter of parents who survived the maelstrom with the assistance of food provided by Mennonite Central Committee. She repeatedly told the book’s editor, Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., “I have poured my life-blood” into the translation project. “People should know what happened.” (Wiebe’s family story is a fascinating epilogue in the translated version.)
Thanks to Wiebe’s tremendous efforts, Hofer’s book, now titled Terror, Faith and Relief: The Famine in Russia, has been published, providing detail to MCC’s earliest work. Now people can know more about one of most terrible episodes in Mennonite history. It is heart-wrenching.
In one of the book’s most striking examples of desperation, of 823 families in one district, 755 ate horses, 344 ate cats, 184 ate dogs and 71 ate field mice. In the absence of wheat and rye, the starving people made bread from beets, straw, corn cobs, ground bones, tree bark and sawdust.
Russians’ suffering led North American Mennonites to found MCC in 1920. The release of Terror, Faith and Relief is well-timed, corresponding with MCC’s centennial celebration this year.
Hofer served from 1922 to 1923 as the second director of MCC’s relief work in Russia. He writes of food and clothing distribution, the famous arrival of 50 Fordson tractors to till the land, and the Mennonites’ religious lives.
Hofer devotes fewer than 100 pages to his actual work on behalf of MCC. About a third of Terror, Faith and Relief was written by the Russian Mennonites themselves, offering stark details and emotional impressions of their suffering, including accounts of the attacks by Nestor Makhno, the anarchist who led an army that committed atrocities across southern Russia, including in Mennonite villages.
Rapes, executions and terrorism were the Makhnovites’ modus operandi. One survivor recounted, “Jakob Matthies was arrested, his clothes removed, tied behind a wagon, and the horses whipped forward for about several hundred feet.” The exhausted man was then shot and killed.
Many Mennonites saw their troubles as punishment for having become careless in their faith. “We were rich in earthly treasures and believed we were also rich in those things that neither moths nor rust can corrupt,” claimed one writer. “Our high-handed pride caused us to look with scorn on the non-Mennonites living around us. . . . The Lord took from us one treasured item after another. The handsome automobiles, horses, spring wagons, even our daily bread, were all gone.”
Said another writer: “We have found out that our Lord is a consuming fire. Yes, in good times one is easily deceived by the master of all lies to believe that God is only love.”
The question of suffering is, of course, as old as humanity itself, although it’s not addressed in the book.
The Americans provided not only food and clothing but also spawned a spiritual revival. Hofer reports being repeatedly invited to lead evangelistic services, where often more than 100 souls responded by committing themselves to Christ.
“Never before have we experienced such an overwhelming moving of the Spirit,” he recounted after one visit. “There was wrestling and pleading, weeping and sobbing, such as we had never seen before.”
The largest, and unfortunately mostly irrelevant, section of Terror, Faith and Relief is about D.M. and Barbara Hofer’s round-the-world return to the United States. Hofer provides observations about visiting Europe, the Holy Land and Asia. They no doubt were of interest to the less-globalized Mennonite readership of the 1920s but are now mostly quaint.
Throughout the book, particularly the section by the Russian Mennonites, are tributes to the North Americans who came to their aid, punctuating the stories of terror, sickness and starvation with good news.
“What was done in our midst made a deep impression on us,” wrote a minister. “Children and grandchildren will long speak of what took place. And when those who witnessed this great act of love are gone, the story of the Mennonites will be illuminated in great big letters, pointing the next generations to that small body he prepared to rescue thousands of their brethren.”
Wiebe, one of those children, has pointed the next generation to the generosity and love of the church at its best.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.