Darkly comic novel explores Russian-German migrant identity

Elina Penner's German novel Nachtbeeren blends her Russian Mennonite upbringing with fiction. — Aufbau Verlag Elina Penner’s German novel Nachtbeeren blends her Russian Mennonite upbringing with fiction. — Aufbau Verlag

This article includes content that may be disturbing. — Editor

Elina Penner’s debut novel, Nachtbeeren (Nightberries), (Aufbau, 2022), provides insight into the post-Cold War Russian Mennonite community in Germany. The author — herself a Mennonite immigrant from the former Soviet Union — reflects on trauma, identity and language in a dark and often humorous way. Written in German, the novel is autofictional (blending autobiography and fiction).

The protagonist, Nelli Neufeld, was born into a Mennonite family in the steppe region of southwest Russia (then part of the Soviet Union) and migrated to Germany in the mid-1990s. She describes a difficult childhood, including cultural uprooting due to migration at the age of 4.

At age 20, she became pregnant and married the father of her child. The relationship with her husband was not happy. Although she learned a butcher’s profession, she regrets not having pursued this career after the birth of her son, Jakob. The death of her beloved grandmother was a turning point in her life.

Nelli lived as a devout Mennonite until one day her son discovered the mortal remains of his father carefully portioned in Ziploc bags tucked between zwieback and dumplings in the basement freezer. As the story unfolds and facts of the case are slowly revealed, the narrator illuminates the everyday life of German Mennonites from the Soviet Union and its successor states.

Nelli and her family are part of a tight community that maintains Mennonite values and traditions and converses exclusively in Plautdietsch (Low German). As she observes the people and scenes around her, Nelli weaves in a variety of topics relating to the Russian-German migrant experience. She lives between two worlds — that of the Ohnse (our people) and the Hiesige (the local, German population), frequently referred to as Kartoffeln (potatoes).

Dark humor, at times nearly descending into the absurd, pervades the novel. This may illustrate an emotional escape — the only way to endure a life defined by intergenerational and personal trauma.

Novelist Penner and protagonist Nelli are members of the “1.5 generation,” children brought to Germany by their parents. Nelli hardly identifies with her country of residence, nor does she feel particularly connected to her birthplace. She struggles with her identity and searches to belong.

Nelli chiefly sees herself as an ethnic-cultural Mennonite. Her sense of belonging comes from identifying with the ethnic Mennonite group with which she shares customs, language and historical consciousness. She and her family counter the migrant ex­perience of marginalization by retreating into their own ethnic group and space.

Most of all, Nelli views herself as a member of the Plautdietsch-speaking culture. The text is interspersed with Plautdietsch phrases and occasional Russian terms. Russian Mennonite cuisine serves as a marker of ethnic- cultural identity. With descriptions of zwieback, wreneces (dumplings) and faspa spreads, Penner opens a culinary world to the German audience.

Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites are a subset of the 2.5 million people from the Soviet Union/Russia who migrated to Germany in the 1990s. With their descendants, this segment of Germany’s population now numbers about 3.5 million, of whom about 350,000 have an ethnic Mennonite background.

Of the 500,000 Plautdietsch-speaking people worldwide, about 200,000 live in Germany. Penner aspires to help the German public learn about this community through Nachtbeeren. The novel arouses a fascination with Russian-German Mennonite ethnic and religious culture. The publisher is seeking a partner for an English translation.

Berit Jany is associate teaching professor of German at the University of Colorado and a member of Boulder Mennonite Church.

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