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Virtues amid hardship in vivid history

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Favoured Among Women
Hedy Leonora Martens

CMU Press, 2010
430 pages 


Hedy Leonora Martens’ moving biographical novel is dedicated to “all of our immigrant ancestors who left their homelands to provide us with this land of safety and especially to those who tried and failed.”

To inform this vivid account of Mennonites’ struggle in Russia from 1915–41, the author used diaries and many first person interviews with Canadian relatives as well as with those who tried to come to Canada and failed. In particular, Greta Enns – resettled in Germany from Russia at age 80 – shared her story with the author.

A beautiful and vibrant young woman born in 1902 to wealth and untold possibilities, Greta was forced to live a life of sheer survival, eking out an existence for her young family with exhausting work and grinding poverty, constantly on the move to find a home and security.

Peace and plenty quickly gave way to hunger, disease, terror, and homelessness as the aftermath of the Russian revolution reached the Mennonite villages. The dream of going to Canada, as many of her relatives had done, slowly dies as visas are denied, borders closed, and her beloved husband taken away by the authorities into Stalin’s vast network of slave labour camps. Somehow, Greta nurtures her children and retains a zest for life.

Themes of strong faith, hope, love, and even joy are there amid disappointment, confusion, betrayal, and satanic evil. The author provides historical commentary in short poetic asides that enhance the story.

For those of us who are descendants of Mennonites who made it to Canada in the 1920s, this is a story of what might have been, had our families remained in Russia. For those of us who lived through the Stalin years and came to Canada after World War II, this story will bring back painful memories. For those of us who do not share the Dutch-German-Russian Mennonite connection, this story will provide a valuable insight into the history of some of our co-worshippers.

Helen Rose Pauls is a member at Sardis Community Church, Chilliwack, B.C., where she serves on the leadership team.

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