Reflecting on the past: six memoirs

Writing a memoir gives a person the opportunity to remember, reflect on, and – in a way – re-create the past. The venture may immediately benefit the writer’s family and friends, who now see the pieces of their loved one’s life linked, enlarged, and explained within a larger narrative.

The exercise can enrich other readers as well. Helen Buss, a scholar of the autobiographical genre, says that personal experience can be seen as “a touchstone for thinking about our larger situation as human beings on this planet.”

Six recent memoirs by individuals associated with the Mennonite faith tradition are such touchstones. They enlarge our understanding and hence, our capacity for love.

Waldemar Janzen’s Growing up in Turbulent Times: Memoirs of Soviet Oppression, Refugee Life in Germany, and Immigrant Adjustment to Canada (CMU Press, 2007) is one of those books that seems, from beginning to end, simply a privilege to read.

This is because he lived through times of great historic import. Janzen grew up in the Soviet Union, lost his father at age three in the Stalinist arrests, and fled to Germany with his mother during World War II. He experienced the life of a refugee for many years, and then, as an immigrant to Canada in 1948, faced many adjustments to a new country and culture.

It’s also a privilege because of the thoughtfulness and particular tone Janzen brings to the work. He does not dramatize events, but neither does he underplay memories of loneliness or delight. His hunger for and awakening to God (formal religious instruction was not an option in Soviet Russia) remains something of a mystery to him, but it was a mystery, in spite of doubts that followed, of great significance for his future life.

The memoir ends – too soon – with Janzen’s appointment to the faculty of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University), where he taught in the areas of Old Testament and German for 46 years, as well as serving many years as dean. Trivia buffs will be interested to know that Janzen is the great-grandson of noted MB historian, P.M. Friesen.

Henry Bergen’s Four Years Less a Day: a WWII Refugee Story (Trafford, 2006) covers the same historical events, with particular focus on the years Bergen’s family was on the move – fleeing their collective farm/village in Ukraine ahead of the German army, which was retreating westward, and eventually arriving in Manitoba with the wave of post-World War II Mennonite immigrants. For almost a year, Henry, then 14, and his brother, were separated from their mother.

Bergen’s style is more informal than Janzen’s, and the story generally unfolds within the mind of the adolescent he was then, with its limitations of perspective but also its deeply felt emotions. Both these memoirs remind readers of the absent father’s role in the consciousness of the child – as a distant saint, or as a figure of ambivalence because of an incomplete or unresolved relationship – as well as the powerful role of women in the survival and nurture of family and community.

Bergen’s mother had a “deep, unostentatious faith” and a tender conscience; a “lie of necessity” she told during the war bothered her the rest of her life. Of his mother’s role in forming his “religious perceptions,” Bergen writes, “This was not conveyed so much in overt teaching as in being; in her matter-of-fact acceptance of the reality of God; of her inner assurance, and in the songs…”

Out of the Jungle Chaco, before moving to Canada with his parents. (“Jungle” seems a misnomer; the Mennonites who settled there call their forbiddingly thick but dry, scrubby (Guardian Books, 2007) recounts memories of Peter Boldt’s first 15 years, lived in one of the Mennonite settlements of the Paraguayan woods “the Bush.”)  Boldt has a great recall of details and relates many interesting adventures and customs, organized by themes such as weather, water, pets, and so on.

Boldt recalls that punishments children received in the family and community could be severe. It is good to be reminded via such memories how arbitrary our actions as adults may sometimes appear to the young ones in our midst.

Kendra Dyck Kieft asked her grandmother to respond to questions, then wrote her story in The Legacy: A Father’s Dream; A Mother’s Strength(privately published). Marie Froese Dyck farmed with her husband, Bishop Jake Dyck, in the La Crete, Alta. area, then raised her 13 children alone after his death at 46. The book includes photos, letters, songs Marie loved, and short tributes to each of her children. This will be a particular treasure for what is, by now, a large family.

A somewhat different kind of memoir is Gary Harder’sDancing Through Thistles in Bare Feet: A Pastoral Journey (Herald Press, 2008). Harder shares stories from 42 years as a pastor, including his “journey with a deeply divided congregation” around the issue of homosexuality at Toronto Mennonite Church. He reflects on Scripture and on what he learned in his role. There is both joy and complication in it, as the title well expresses.

Consider the Threshing Stone (Pandora Press, 2008) is a translated and edited selection of the autobiographical writings of Jacob J. Rempel, who helped organize Mennonite emigrants in Russia in the 1920s. Included are memories of service as a medic during World War I, events leading up to the emigration, and the murder of relatives. David J. Rempel Smucker and Eleanore (Rempel) Woollard have produced an attractive volume of record that includes extensive footnotes, photos, and genealogical information.

Dora Dueck is a Winnipeg writer and co-editor of Northern Lights: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Writing, forthcoming from John Wiley & Sons Canada.


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