Thursday, November 10, 2016

Casualties of Ideology - Remembrance Day 2016

Coming from a culturally Mennonite background, with its attendant beliefs about non-conformity, non-resistance, and avoidance of military service, there are no war heroes in my family tree. There are, however, too many stories of war survival, of heroic sacrifices and struggles in the face of abject terror, poverty, and prejudice. This photo shows my grandpa Johann Heinrich Enns who served in the Russian Forestry and Non-combatant Medical Service during WWI. As a conscientious objector, this was the alternative duty afforded to German-speaking Mennonite colonists who refused to bear arms against other human beings. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution ended the war and sent my grandfather home to his family in Neu-Samara, Central Russia (southwest of the Ural Mountains, near the city of Orenburg). It was then that the real terror began for the Mennonites (and almost everyone else) in Russia. The struggle for control of Russia meant frequent thieving raids from the Red Army (and sometimes White Army), wanton murder and molestation from gangs of bandits. In particular, Mennonites who took up arms against the revolutionaries or resisted collectivization were special targets of retribution -- to Russian peasants, communists, anarchists, and other revolutionaries, the Mennonites were wealthy kulaks who were complicit in the class struggle and economic inequality of Tsarist Russia. During and after this Civil War, the Mennonites faced starvation, drought and crop failure, outbreaks of typhus, cholera, and malaria. The reality for my almost all my direct "Russian Mennonite" ancestors was a simple life, religious devotion, and relative poverty leading up to the Great War, followed by severe poverty and premature death for all who remained in the Soviet Union.

In the midst of this chaos, my grandfather married my grandmother Anna Loewen in 1921; their first home was a sod house with a dirt floor on her father's farm. The first two children born to them on the cold Russian Steppe lived 18 months and 6 months respectively before succumbing to typhus and pneumonia. In the growing national fear and acts of state-sponsored terror against all who opposed communism (or held land, or spoke German, or withheld crops, or even their wives and children), many Russian Mennonites fled to Canada. My grandparents left in 1925, not long before this exodus became impossible. They arrived in Quebec on the SS Minnedosa, and "must have looked like a real show piece standing there on the dock in their plain dress with 'Schemadaun' in hand, not knowing a single word of English between them."* By the time they had established a farm of their own in southern Saskatchewan, they managed to get one good crop yield in 1928 before the Great Depression made life difficult once more. Still, they raised 10 children in the Canadian prairies and never saw the ravages of war up close again.

Not so for the other members of Johann's family.  His brothers and brothers-in-law and their families were not able to leave Russia during the 1920s, and thus remained to endure Stalin's collectivization, purges, and state-induced famine. As formerly productive farmers, the Mennonite "kulaks" of my grandfather's colony in central Russia were again made the target of negative attention by the communist government.  They were German-speaking, so during in the wake of Stalin's second Five Year Plan (1933-1937), and again when Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, many of the Mennonite men (including most of my grandfather's immediate family) were rounded up and sent to the gulag, tortured, and killed. Most of this information was unknown to my grandfather in Canada and has only come to light through research by my aunt. The witnesses to these "war crimes" were too afraid to tell their stories until the 1980s.

War and service means different things to different people. For my, grandfather, during WWI, it meant hard work in the forests at Tossna near Petersburg, followed by two decades of hardships. I knew him as a happy, gentle man, and realize that he had it pretty good, including a long life, compared to others in his family and others who lived and served in 20th century conflicts or met their fate because of them.

So, this Remembrance Day I remember my grandfather's brothers and brothers-in-law who were casualties to Stalinist ideology and bloodlust.  At least six of eight died at the gulag in Orenburg. These are my mother's uncles, whose crime was that their ancestors were from German-speaking countries and that they were once productive land-owning farmers:
  • Johann Bergman, born 1893, died in prison 1942. His daughter, studying to be doctor, endured incredible suffering during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942; her husband and daughter starved to death)
  • Isaak Penner, born 1879, arrested by NKVD and presumed to have died in prison 1939
  • Bernhardt Neufeld, b? d?, did not accompany members of his family who left Russia for Germany in the 1920s, possibly killed during Civil War
  • Peter Bergmann, born 1890, "ruthlessly taken from his home, falsely arrested and imprisoned, and then shot by the communists" in 1943 
  • Heinrich Enns, born c. 1902, "falsely arrested by the NKVD and imprisoned, then shot on November 4, 1942"
  • Kornelius Klassen, born c. 1900, arrested in 1942, died in prison. His wife Justina (my grandfather's youngest sister) died in forced labour camp in Kazakhstan
  • Peter Enns, born 1905, who, with his brothers, was "taken to the Ural River on Nov 4, 1942, 'with hands tied behind their back with barbed wire.' The prisoners were tortured, cold water poured over their heads before they were shot. Their bodies were rolled into a grave beside the river. The next spring, the waters rose and the bodies came to the surface."
  • Aron Enns, born 1906, suffered the same fate as his brothers Peter and Heinrich in 1942
*This post is modified from a similar version posted in 2013. I have included new information from a 2016 publication, The Aron Enns Family History and Genealogy by my aunt Susan Suderman -- all quotes, and the photo are from this book. Further information came from her earlier volume on another branch of our family.

Here were some earlier thoughts on Peace and Remembrance 2010 and 2011 and 2012.  

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