What is the taste of amniotic fluid?

1926, Saskatchewan, Canada: my grandmother Anna is on the right; her mother-in-law Susanna is in the middle

My red-haired grandmother Anna Janzen Funk was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of twelve children in a Mennonite Brethren family. The Mennonites were about 18 percent of a German minority of some two million in Russia.  She and my grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1923, and the picture above was taken three years later.

When Anna had just turned 22, in early spring of 1918, she was working as a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. The Russian government had collapsed and now the Bolshevist regime was in power, attempting to transform revolutionary theory into soviet reality. Their army (the Reds) had taken over the area, seizing livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. The White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine. Also at this time, Russian peasants were vengefully confiscating the Mennonite farms, and, led by Nestor Makhno, participating in massacres against the Mennonites.

Anna’s family had disappeared.

Just a month ago, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male Bethania Mental Hospital patients. Now it was a Sunday morning, and the revolutionaries were back, warmly dressed, slurping soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked.

She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen.

When she opened the door, she was startled to see two dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River.

“Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?

The Reds were having their soup in the dining room at that very moment!

As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that their uniforms and boots were muddy from their scramble up the thawing banks of the Dnieper River.

There’s Anna on the back step at Bethania, the flour dusting her forehead, breath condensing into clouds, facing those hungry, rough young men. Perhaps one of them reminded her of one of her lost brothers. Whatever sparked it, in that moment, she took courage. She used what she had—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her disappeared family —and spoke.

Grinning, she scolded the White soldiers as if they were her brothers: “Boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”

Disarmed, they smiled and cleaned their boots. Anna quickly brought the trays of fresh bread into the Red group, eagerly encouraging them to fill their pockets for later, opened the front door for them and shooed them out. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

I have read that children in the womb can taste what their mother is eating. The food flavors the amniotic fluid. I imagine those days in 1924 when Anna carried my mother, she would have been eating borscht with sour cream, and many other delicious Russian recipes she brought with her to Canada.  But there was another flavor that Anna passed on to my mother — a taste for courage and creativity.

Worldly: Part 1

mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

  • What is “Mennonite” about Rhoda Janzen?
  • Which part of her is the Little Black Dress?
  • After a Mennonite woman has worn the Little Black Dress, can she really go home again?

I will address these three questions in this response to Rhoda’s book.

First, please bear with me while I give you a lot of background on myself and Rhoda and our genetic and cultural relationship. What follows may seem like a long string of “begats” but knowing this information might be interesting and useful. And some people have mentioned that the historical information Rhoda gave in her book was too sketchy. So here goes.

My red-haired grandmother, Anna Janzen, was part of the radically revolutionary religious group of Anabaptists called the Mennonites. Anna was born March 15, 1895, in a village in the Ukraine, in Southern Russia.  In 1923, Anna and her husband – my left-handed, vigorous grandfather Jacob Funk – immigrated to Saskatchewan with their two young girls, Annie and Frieda, avoiding the two undesirables of either being wiped out entirely, or disappearing into a labor camp in Siberia. Arriving with nothing but twenty-five cents and a debt of $468 to the Canadian Pacific Railways, they stepped of the train in the small prairie town of Rosthern. They soon moved to an even smaller town, Laird, where my mother, Katie was born, at a cost of $14, then the big city of Saskatoon, then back to the sticks of Bruno, where my Uncle Jack was born, and finally, Blaine Lake, a slightly bigger dot on the map, where my Aunt Susan came into the world. Throughout these moves, Jacob Funk pursued a career in the grocery business and tried not to think about the events he had witnessed in the aftermath of March 1917:  beheadings, stabbings, shootings, typhoid epidemics, rapes, mass burials, hunger, anarchy and general panic. It was enough now, to be in Canada, safe, and free.  Having been ordained as a deacon/evangelist in Russia, he also preached in the Mennonite Brethren churches in Saskatchewan.

My mom, Katie Funk, married Walter Wiebe (also the child of Mennonite Brethren immigrants, who had come to Canada in 1917). I was Katie and Walter’s first child, a little ray of sunshine, chubby, energetic and interested in everything.

My red-haired grandmother, Anna, was part of a large extended family. When her grandfather, Kornelius Janzen died in 1896, he left each child an inheritance. I don’t know what Anna’s father Franz did with his money, but it is recorded that Anna’s uncle Jacob Kornelius Janzen used his inheritance to study theology in Germany.

After Jacob K. had finished his theology studies and was back in Russia, he became a Mennonite minister, and from 1912 to 1920 he also was the highly-respected housefather of the Bethania Mental Hospital in Alt-Kronsweide, Chortitz colony.  From 1915 to 1920 my grandmother Anna Janzen Funk worked as a cook at Bethania, where she became good friends with a young woman named Tina, who was working at Bethania “for the Lord”, as a volunteer, and not for wages as my grandmother was. On a clear spring day, March 30, 1920, Anna’s uncle Jacob K. Janzen married Anna to Jake Funk, a co-worker at the hospital.

Three years later, in July, 1923, Jacob and Anna Funk immigrated to Rosthern, Saskatchewan, Canada. Jacob K. stayed behind in Russia with his wife Martha and their children, Jacob, Siegfried and Walter. Martha died, and Jacob K. married his children’s nursemaid, Katherine Quiring. This was Tina, my grandmother’s friend at Bethania.  Tina and Jacob K. had another four children, Martha, John, Waldemar and Edmund.

A few terrible years later, (Rhoda’s book marks it as 1925 although the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encylopedia Online has it as 1927), Jacob K. Janzen, Tina, and their seven children immigrated to Laird, Saskatchewan. My grandparents were living in Blaine Lake, a town full of Russian Doukhobors, which was not far from Laird as the crow flies.

(Doukhobors were kind of like Quakers, in that they believed “The church is not within logs, but within ribs”. My grandpa was chosen to run the OK Economy Store in Blaine Lake because he could speak Doukhobor Russian fluently, among other languages.)

A trip from Blaine Lake to Laird could not be taken as the crow flies. My grandparents would get in the Buick and drive south through the Indian Reserve and then take the Petrofka Ferry (there’s a bridge there now) across the Saskatchewan River, head east to Waldheim, and then north again to Laird.  In winter, there was no need for a ferry. You could drive right over the river on the ice. The whole trip is about sixty kilometers.

My mom says “Our family often visited (Jacob K. and Tina and family) in summer and they came to our place in Blaine Lake by horse and caboose in winter. We were poor but they were poorer.” She mentions the challenges Jacob K. Janzen faced in his transition from being an educated, well-to-do professional in Russia, to being a novice farmer with seven children to support.  All the immigrants were supposed to be farmers; my maternal grandfather was lucky to have had an uncle, D.A. Schellenberg, who had come to Canada earlier, who offered him a job in his grocery store. (My paternal grandfather was not so lucky. A poet, musician, and sensitive soul in Russia, he became an anxious, terribly inept Canadian farmer. Their family was so poor that as a teenager, my father couldn’t have his burst appendix removed. Somehow he survived, but a few decades later, when I was fourteen years old, a massive jelly-like tumor coalesced around the site of the trauma, and killed him.)

But back to the story of Jacob K. Janzen.  In the early 1940s, he moved his family to a fruit farm near Grimsby, Ontario. He became one of the ordained ministers of the nearby Vineland Mennonite Brethren Church. His youngest son, Edmund, married Mary Loewen, and in the mid-1960s, they had a daughter, Rhoda.

Leaping ahead, in her forties, Rhoda Janzen published a book, mennonite in a little black dress and all hell broke loose. It was reviewed in the New York Times and the Mennonite Weekly Review, and became the talk of the Mennonite blogs. Hurt feelings were aired. Controversies swirled. Some people didn’t like Rhoda’s generic approach to describing Mennonite beliefs and culture.

My friend, Ruth Baer Lambach, a woman of Mennonite origin, who incidentally is also my (Mennonite origin) husband’s double second cousin, gave me the book to read on flight from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, on my way to my granddaughter’s fourth birthday party.  At the time, I didn’t know that Rhoda was in any way related to me, but knowing that she was writing about the experience of being a Mennonite, I was interested.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

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.