To and from Nowhere
Hedy Leonora Martens
Review by Helen Rose Pauls
This sequel to the story of Greta Martens recorded in Favoured Among Women is even more interesting than the first volume.
Woven with care from personal interviews, diaries, journals and letters, this biographical novel drawn from Mennonite history also speaks to current events.
The story spans the years 1941–1976. Greta’s beloved husband is taken to prison at night and never heard from again (a scenario familiar to readers of MB Herald’s obituaries). She and her five young children are herded onto cattle cars with only what they can carry and made to live in sod huts with Muslims in Kazahkstan. This was another of Stalin’s internal displacements, sending one and a half million Germans into exile on the Kazahk steppes.
Assigned to milk 15 cows morning and evening on a collective farm, Greta has courage and strength to do her work and see to the needs of her little ones. She soon finds herself looking after many fatherless families whose mothers have given in to despair and have lost the will to live. Typhus, lice, the death of children, hunger, cold and grinding poverty cannot diminish her will to live and to keep those around her alive.
She draws strength from Heinrich’s Bible which she keeps hidden and has no time to read, but it is a tangible memento of her lost husband. Her songs and storytelling while she works keep her family’s spirits up. She often refers to her husband’s Christian values when guiding the children so in a way, they feel they know their father and want to emulate him. She creates a home where faith hope and love shine through the misery.
Eventually, in the ’70s, her entire family is able to emigrate to Germany and a life of freedom.
The author adds historical detail to provide context to the story. Poetry and personal reflections further enrich the narrative.
Little has been written about those left behind the iron curtain after the second world war. This book provides a valuable addition to our understanding of Mennonite history in this period.
[Helen Rose Pauls is a member of Sardis Community Church, Chilliwack, B.C., and author of Refugee, a memoir of Agnes Pauls.