Worldly (in Low German: weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen
Leaving the Mennonite Brethren church is a momentous life event. Either you are in or you are out. When I left, it didn’t seem possible to say, oh, I’ll stay in the church and be partly worldly and explore all my questions about pantheism and existentialism in the context of the gemeinde. But it’s not easy to leave the church and keep your toe in, either. This is a historical approach, of separation from the world. This was maybe largely due to the fact that as Mennonites dispersed across Prussia and Russia, their host countries didn’t really want them to mingle with the general populace, infecting the peasants with their virulent memes of pacifism, Biblical literacy, and religious self-determination. This was not a problem, because the Mennonites themselves saw that it was easier to be themselves if they stayed away from the fallen world — and maybe also because the book-reading Russian Mennonites saw themselves as superior to the illiterate Slavic cultures. Many Mennonites employed Russian laborers, but they didn’t necessarily treat them like full human beings. (This was not going to help the Mennonites later during the Russian Revolution, but that’s another story.)
Part of Russia’s approach to keeping the Mennonites contained was to restrict the amount of land they could occupy. By the early part of the twentieth century, this policy resulted in the division of the approximately 110,000 Mennonites in Russia into an elite landed and a discontented, proletariat, landless class, because there just wasn’t enough land to pass on to the kids.
So here we have the Russian Mennonites at the turn of the Twentieth Century, living with the uneasy tensions of Frisian/Flemish, worldly/spiritual, land-owning and landless. As the Russian Mennonites struggled internally with their own polarities, they began to experience the effect of similar class struggles in society at large. They were directly impacted by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the German occupation, the destructive impact of the Red and White Armies, and the Makhno Occupation, with its continuous climate of violence, plunder, confiscation of property, starvation, bloodbaths, epidemics, and rape.
I don’t know any details of the suffering Rhoda says her family experienced during this time, but I can imagine that there are parallels with my own. For more than half a century before the Russian Revolution, Mennonites had been leaving Russia for Canada and the US, in response to the political and economic upheavals that had been going on for even longer. During the German Occupation, my mom writes, the Mennonites, who were of Dutch origin, were German-speaking and thus were labeled “’agents of Germany’ and ‘enemies of the state’. They were forbidden to use the German language in the press or in public assemblies of more than three persons or face a fine or prison term. From November 1917, until the German occupation troops arrived in March 1918, roving bandits robbed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered the Mennonites. The leader of these bandits, Nestor Makhno, claimed that his molestation of the Mennonites was due to a Mennonite employer’s earlier mistreatment of him.
Mom writes that after the German troops withdrew from the Ukraine, “complete lawlessness ensued, with a civil war between the Red and White armies and an uprising of peasant anarchist forces competing for dominance at the same time. . . The area where the Mennonites and other Germans lived in the Ukraine was the territory most affected by the civil war between the Reds and the Whites.” The village where my grandparents lived, Rosenthal, “was an ideal location to station troops because it was situated in a deep and broad valley, but its farm land was located on a high plateau, affording an almost limitless view of approaching forces in all directions except south.” The windmill owned by my great-grandfather sat on top of this high plateau. The Red/White front passed through this area about seventeen times in the next few years, and even across our family’s yard, giving the family “a front-seat experience of the war with bombs flying over their house and dead soldiers in their backyard with arms and limbs shot off, empty eyes staring at the crows overheard waiting for the furor to stop.” Mennonites in Russia personally saw members of their families, friends and neighbors killed, tortured and raped. They spent time in prison because they were Mennonites. Many of their homes were destroyed. Members of their families were arrested and never heard from again. They lived in fear.
Almost every Mennonite decided to leave Russia for Canada; Canada finally opened its doors to approximately 20,200 Mennonites between 1923 and 1929. A sizable percentage of those who were able to go to Canada were Mennonite Brethren (including my grandparents and Rhoda’s grandparents). These immigrants experienced further trauma as they uprooted themselves from the Ukraine. The members of the Janzen and Funk families had called the Ukraine their home for about 130 years. Rhoda’s grandfather, Jacob K. Janzen, was an educated professional with a large family to support. My grandfather was a clerk; his family had owned a successful flour mill. Now they were expected to become farmers, for that was what the Canadian government wanted them to do.
These immigrants had survived four years of world war followed by four years of revolution and counter-revolution. Their farms, villages, schools, businesses and homes of the Mennonite colonies had been a theater of conflict for the fronts of the two armies. They had survived typhoid fever and smallpox epidemics, periods of famine.
Now they were in Canada, being encouraged to learn English and assimilate into Canadian culture, which most of them did, although not without great soul-searching. For hundreds of years, the Mennonites had been living separately from their cultural milieu – first in Prussia and then again in the Ukraine. A consistent concern of theirs was how to be more “spiritual”, and less “worldly”, and here in Canada, with its openness and freedom, their daily life was shot through and through with worldliness, in the form of media, popular culture, public education and the loss of their cultural languages of Low and High German. (In 1922-27, several thousand very conservative Russian Mennonites who had come to Canada in the 1870s immigrated further, from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, into Mexico and Central and South America, in a desperate bid to preserve their language, cultural and religious identity, objecting strongly to their children being Canadianized in the public schools.)
When the Mennonite Brethren immigrated to North America, their issues came with them. The Frisian/Flemish polarity fell away with the emergence of a new form of class consciousness: the newcomers vs. Mennonites who had come to Canada from Russian earlier. Relationships between the two groups were strained. The Kanadier viewed the newly-arrived Russian Mennonites as “too proud, too aggressive, too enthusiastic about higher education, too anxious to exercise leadership, too ready to compromise with the state, too ready to move to the cities, and too unappreciative of the pioneering done by the Kanadier. As far as the Russlander were concerned, the Kanadier were too withdrawn, too simple-minded, too uncultured, too weak in their High German. . . too afraid of schools and education.” (Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada: 1920-1940.)
Rhoda’s father, Edmund. Janzen, and his wife were both Russlanders. In my own family, my mother was a Russlander who grew up in a Canadianized home, because Blaine Lake did not have a Mennonite Brethren church. My father, Walter William Wiebe, was a Kanadier who grew up in a Russlander community (and absorbed their values). I grew up in Russlander communities in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, before moving to Hillsboro, Kansas in the early 1960s, the place where my father died.
In Hillsboro, settled in the late 1800s by Russian Mennonites, our family struggled to figure out how and who to be. We swung between the values and practices of the conservative Russlander culture we had known in Canada, and the temptations of the American Mennonite Brethren culture. I could see by the names on the tombstones in the Gnadenau church cemetery that these people who had died in Hillsboro, Kansas, were my people: Janzen, Wiebe, Funk. But — Hillsboro Mennonites were so…worldly!
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen
New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.