Flight: Letters from the Mennonitische Rundschau, 1929/30

Harold Jantz (standing with Neoma Jantz) addresses a group gathered in Winnipeg for the launch of his book, Flight, on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, at the CommonWord resource centre, Canadian Mennonite University. Photo credit: Steve Salnikowski, ChronicCreative.

In 2012, when Harold Jantz first came to the archives to borrow the bound collection of all the 1929 issues of the weekly magazine Mennonitische Rundschau (or Mennonite Observer in English), I was quite nervous. Why? It is a fragile and very rare collection. But as I learned more of what he had in mind, it seemed like a good risk to take.

In fact, the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission was so impressed with his translation project that it awarded him a project grant in 2015 (see news release at: http://www.mbhistory.org/news.en.html#dec_15_2015).

In this book, aptly called Flight: Mennonites facing the Soviet empire in 1929/30, from the pages of the Mennonitsche Rundschau (Eden Echoes Publishing, 2018), Harold has rehabilitated voices of suffering and longing from the past. How so? Harold translated and summarized all the German letters published in the Rundschau during the years 1929/30.

These letters were submitted and published with the hope that loved ones in North America or in Russia might learn the news of those family members who had emigrated or who had been blocked from emigration by Soviet authorities. The newspaper functioned as a “message board” for Mennonites separated from their loved ones by geographical and political barriers.

These letters—likely allowed by sympathetic Soviet officials—eventually arrived in North America and the recipients turned them over to the Rundschau editor, Herman Neufeld, who edited and published the letters out of his office in Winnipeg, Manitoba. While other newspapers carried news from Russia, the Rundschau carried the largest amount and was read by the largest number of people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, as often happens, a social group that manages to obtain liberation from oppression turns around and becomes a new oppressor. Such was the case following the Bolshevik revolution and civil war. And so it was that the Mennonite settler communities living in Russia got caught in this massive social and economic reversal.

The Soviets were passionate in their quest to remake Russia and the Mennonites were simply on the wrong side of Stalin’s grand Five-Year Plan. They were offside for three reasons:

  • They professed a Christian faith.
  • They practiced private landownership, even though they shared much in communal villages.
  • The language of their literature, church life, and cultural preference had remained German in their farming settlements on the Russian steppes; now they were associated with Russia’s enemy, Germany.

Many felt they now had little choice other than to emigrate from Russia. However, most did not succeed. Thousands of Mennonite settlers assembled in Moscow, beginning in the summer and through the fall of 1929, requesting permission from Soviet authorities to leave. Some 5,600 German settlers—3,885 of whom were Mennonites—managed to secure exit visas through Germany, but more than 8,000 were refused exit papers and were sent back in hastily assembled boxcar trains to their villages or into exile. Many thousands perished.

Flight makes a huge contribution for three reasons:

  • Harold uses one the best first-hand public sources for this period of terror and loss, the Mennonitsche Rundschau
  • Harold puts into English these accounts, which would otherwise be inaccessible, as most North Americans no longer can read German very well.
  • Harold has created an extensive Index of names, subjects, and places, so as to make this massive 735-page book usable.

Clearly a labour of love—readers with family ties to this era will be especially appreciative of this book, as will anyone interested in human rights, political science, sociology, church history, and Russian history.

Flight sells for $60 and is available through the CommonWord resource center on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. More information at: https://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/2/19795?readmore=1

Written by Jon Isaak, Director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg.