North American Anabaptists might skim the surface of refugees’ plight by watching the news from their easy chairs. A Strong Frailty peels away this safe and comfortable distance. Katie Funk Wiebe plunges readers into the gritty, heart-searing story of her aunt, the late Aganeta (Neta) Janzen Block (1906-2000). Neta, with four of her children and thousands of other Mennonites from the former Soviet Union, endured the brutal despair of Joseph Stalin’s forced labor camps after World War II.
Wiebe uses her aunt’s letters and other accounts to tell a dramatic story from Russian Mennonite history. Neta was one of 12 children born to the late Franz and Katharina Janz. She was a younger sister of Wiebe’s mother, the late Anna Funk, who with her late husband, Jacob, fled to Canada in 1923.
Anna Funk and her late brother, Jacob, were the only Janzen siblings who escaped the heartaches of the “left behind ones.” Some couldn’t get visas. Some balked at leaving their homeland but then, ironically, were banished from it. They were broken by hunger, dispersion, cruel work and early death.
From 125 letters written by Neta, Wiebe — who met her aunt for the first time in Moscow in 1989 — gleaned accounts of Neta’s girlhood in the Mennonite settlement of Trubetskoye. Neta reveled in the village enclave of faith and family until she was 8. But the Russian Revolution and eventually World War II aborted that life and scattered the family “like feathers in the wind, actually the storm,” she said.
“Living in the village as a child was wonderful on a Sunday morning,” she wrote. “Everyone walked slowly to church. The atmosphere was quiet. The acacia tree-lined streets were clean and beautiful. Singing rang out from the church.”
The bells fell silent during the revolution of 1917-19. “The rich people left for the Crimea with wagons piled high with their belongings,” she wrote. “Others thought the revolutionaries would not harm them, but when these men found the wine cellars and became drunk, everyone and everything were fair game. They took all the food and clothing and ripped up the feather beds so that feathers stuck to their muddy boots.” The day the estate owner was forced off his property, “they beat Mama and Papa because they wanted my sister.” The revolutionaries lined the whole family up against the wall and threatened to shoot them.
Neta’s family fled to another Russian village, Proghnow, and in 1921 to Friedensfeld in Sagradowka. There Neta met Hans Block, whom she married in 1926. In 1928 Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan brought collectivization, agricultural reform, renewed attacks on religion and indoctrination of communism. About 13,000 Mennonites were deported to forced labor camps in the northern areas of the Ural Mountains.
Many left behind five generations of successful colonization on the Russian steppes. One of the prosperous farm families (kulaks) who faced persecution by Stalin’s regime was Hans Block’s family. When Neta and Hans told his father they wanted to immigrate to Canada in 1929, he tried to dissuade them. “Everything we own we have brought together with our own hands,” he said. “No one can be that evil that they would take this away from us.” Neta was anxious and sad about leaving. Nevertheless, the young couple went to Moscow, hoping to secure exit documents, but were denied. They moved back to Neta’s father’s home in Friedensfeld, where life was bleak.
In 1932, Hans and his two sisters and a brother fled to a Jewish village in the “safer” region of Siberia. Neta and their son, Johannes, joined him in 1933. They went to work in a Siberian forest.
Neta and her family returned to Friedensfeld in April 1941 and soon were engulfed in the chaos of World War II. Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June. Hans was conscripted by the Russian work army but escaped its wagon train only days later and returned home secretly.
Then came two years of reprieve as German forces occupied Ukraine and restored freedom of worship. But in the fall of 1943 the tide of war turned, and German forces retreated before the Russian army reclaiming Soviet territory. Mennonite villages were uprooted as all Germans were forced to leave Ukraine.
Neta and her family became part of the Great Trek to Poland. On Dec. 20, 1943, they arrived in Nagol Pommer and lived in a refugee camp for six months. They were naturalized as German citizens, and Hans was conscripted into the German army. He died in combat in Belgium in 1945.
After the war, Russia demanded that its citizens return. Neta and her four children were shipped to Siberian labor camps in cattle cars. For 11 years, they worked for starvation wages. Neta wrote: “I have no anger in my heart when I write about this, but my spirit aches desperately. I would rather trust in Bible verses such as Hebrews 13:5, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ That is what our great God did through his Son. Whether naked or well fed, what we went through was God’s way for us. To him be praise and thanks.”
After Stalin died in 1953, Mennonites were freed to go anywhere except back to their villages in Ukraine. In 1954 Neta moved to Kirov and in 1979 to Moscow, where she spent the last decades of her life with daughter Ella and her husband, Eugene Clatis, and their three daughters.
Neta lived to see the end of Soviet communism, which had caused her so much suffering. In 1992 she watched on television as American evangelist Billy Graham preached to more than 100,000 people in Moscow.
In 1993 she wrote that when she thought about the past she also looked forward to when she would see God and “in the light of truth . . . understand why God took me in these ways.”
Though Neta died in 2000 at the age of 94, her story survives as a testimony of faith and courage. Those who read it will be exiled from their easy chairs and thrust into the midst of suffering, where they will discover fortitude as well as frailty.
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan.