Lists of people, long lists – archives have lots of them.
As I type up the names, my mind wanders. I lose my place and have to reorient myself. It’s not because my volunteer work at the Centre for MB Studies is repetitive or that I’m absent-minded. No, it’s because I’ve started wondering about these people.
I was entering records of births in the Old Colony, southern Manitoba, 1881–1882. Included are the names of the child, father, mother, midwife, the person who registered the child, and the home village. You know the familiar Mennonite names: Heinrich, Abram, Cornelius, Jacob; Katarina, Anna, Maria.
Then, one day, I discovered a mother whose name was Barbara! Who on earth was this Barbara, and where did she get this name so different from the others?
Was she born in Russia, or was she an emigrant from Prussia to Russia? Did she belong to one of the other German Russian groups and had married into the Mennonite community? Maybe Barbara had once been a more common name among Prussian Mennonites, and her family had hung on to it.
Stories behind the names
Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it leads to other questions.
Who were the people on these lists? Barbara, Anganetha, Johann…. What were their lives like? What became of the babies? Their mothers?
Historical records of the Old Colony, Reinlander and Sommerfelder groups provide some answers. Not infrequently, babies and/or their mothers didn’t survive. Other children survived birth but died in childhood.
Of the set of triplets born to Dietrich and Gertruda Peters June 9–10, 1881, at Neuendorf, two died the day of the birth, and their mother a few days later. More surprisingly, one of the infants actually survived until 1914. The father of the triplets married 5 times.
I’m struck by the seemingly predictable sadness and suffering in the lives of this group of people. For women, the dangers of childbirth; for men, the sorrow of burying wife after wife and the practical crisis this created for the family.
With the prejudices and perhaps arrogance of a woman living more than a century later,
I look at those lists and wonder about the point of these people’s lives. Their existence appears to have offered few choices, much suffering, and unrelenting drudgery. What questions did they ask about purpose?
Many more questions come to mind. How did the frequent loss of a young wife influence attitudes about marriage and family? Did they treasure their relationships more deeply than we do, or did their emotions become numb? Were they happy at least sometimes?
And how did they keep the faith? In what ways did they experience Christian belief and discipleship differently than I do?
Value of life
While I was mulling over these thoughts, I was reminded of words from a much older source. In the deeply personal 139th psalm, the writer speaks of the value of each life and of the mysterious ways of God. These are words for us as they were for the people on my lists.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths
of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Each of us has a story that is known intimately by God. Getting to know and to understand one another is not only interesting but important. Each person on these lists is known intimately by God. Each Jacob, Cornelius, Anna, and Barbara counts in God’s eyes. Each person has a story that matters.
I think that’s one of the reasons people keep digging around in archives: they believe people’s lives – no matter how seemingly ordinary – have value and interest. Telling their stories is part of bearing witness to the value of life. Being part of the telling of those stories is a privilege.
—Clara Toews is a retired elementary school teacher who enjoys volunteering at the Centre for MB Studies at the MB Ministry Centre in Winnipeg. She is a member of McIvor Avenue MB Church, Winnipeg.