It was hard to put down this riveting first-hand account of a Mennonite family’s hardship in the 1930s Soviet Union and the Second World War, ending with freedom in Canada. It was like sitting around the kitchen table listening to the author’s mother, two aunts and an uncle, share their intimate stories of survival. Insightful historical background is added to the eyewitness records.
The author began her journey into the past after visiting Ukraine with her mother, Anne Friesen (née Dyck). She wondered, “How is it possible to lose everything -- childhood, home, family members, health and every tangible expression of freedom -- without losing faith, spunk, or grace? This is the puzzle that gave birth to this story.”
The story opens one winter night, as the family is evicted from their home in Rosenort, in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement. All their possessions are carted away, including Anne’s new warm red coat.
It began when Anne’s father, Cornelius Dyck, was taken away when she was six years old, in about 1930. He was one of many young men (including my grandfather) wrongfully declared an “enemy of the people” in Stalin’s Great Terror and used for forced labour. The shocking after-effect was that Anne’s mother, Katharina Dyck (née Klassen), was soon after also declared an enemy of the people. Now she and her children had no rights.
They found shelter in a room in another village home, but battled starvation as their mother couldn’t work, and no one was eligible for bread rations. An aunt accepted the family in the village of Einlage, where they occupied one room, but food was still scarce. Anne lived with other relatives for three years, where she worked and saved crumbs to share with family on weekly visits.
Somehow Anne’s mother survived typhoid fever. Her father returned from the labour camp in 1933, escaping with three others in a cavity they made in a boxcar loaded with timber. He met his youngest son, Cornelius, for the first time. Tragically, the child died after his fourth birthday, his starved body too weak to fight dysentery after scrounging rotten fruit.
The family’s strong faith was a life-saver. When the children were able to attend school, they had to recite an oath of allegiance, ending with “and there is no God.” Lydia said she whispered, “and there is a God,” quickly after the required recitation. Their mother read the Bible every day, and when she was finished, would start from the beginning.
Forced to move again, the father was able to find work teaching in Nikopol, where life normalized. They lived in two rooms in the damp school basement. But authorities began interrogating city residents about whether they believed in God. The father couldn’t deny his faith, despite the consequences. He was then arrested and squashed in a basement room with too many prisoners and no provisions, where he didn’t survive long.
The others survived and thrived, even as war approached. Anne’s brother John said, “I learned that being fearful didn’t get you anywhere. To move ahead, you have to take a calculated risk, be aggressive and not look back.”
Although they often endured bombing raids, life improved after the German army arrived in 1941. Mother and the two oldest sisters found work with the occupying Germans, while John was apprenticed. Mennonites were considered German, despite their original Dutch heritage. Suddenly they were the “chosen” people, favoured over Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.
Jewish people were disappearing, with some reports of them being shot. Their mother refused clothing that she knew must have been taken from a Jewish family. They were horrified to later see starving people wearing the Star of David behind barbed wire in the Warsaw ghetto. They later learned the full extent of what happened to these innocent people.
In 1943, when the German army retreated from Russia, the Dycks also fled. Mennonites would be considered traitors who sided with the Germans. “We knew we would be shot on the spot,” Anne said.
Unlike most Russian Mennonites, who left their villages in a wagon train of horses and buggies, the Dycks were given a boxcar. It took several weeks to traverse war-torn areas. Even after they settled, they didn’t stay long, as the Germans continued to retreat. John was drafted into the German army, and shares his gruelling experiences of fighting to survive.
It was touching to hear the women’s experiences with violent conquering soldiers. When the Russians took over where the women were hiding, soldiers entered their bunker. Martha heard them saying in Russian, “Let’s bring many soldiers because there are nice ladies here,” before they left.
Martha later woke to the room crowded with soldiers. When her mother shouted her name, suddenly Martha was in her mother’s arms, not in the room where she had been sleeping alone. “I don’t know how the angels took me out,” she said. The soldiers started grabbing her arms, and those of Anne and other women.
Their mother’s loud prayers in the Russian language somehow sent the soldiers running, while screams of other victims were heard nearby. Some women fearing rape wanted to slash their wrists, but Katharina advised, “No, no no. Don’t do that. God will help you.”
Order was restored a few days later, but they were now in the Russian zone of East Germany. John was amazed to find them when they were reunited. All managed to escape to the west and avoid “repatriation” to the Soviet Union that most Mennonites suffered. (My father, Peter Plett, is the only one of his close family who escaped being sent to Russian Gulags, the crude camps where inmates endured backbreaking work on starvation rations.)
Life normalized in West Germany, but the Dycks never felt fully accepted until they came to Canada. An aunt initiated moving the entire clan. They found a sponsor in Yarrow, B.C., immigrating in 1948. They worked hard to quickly repay their significant travel debt of about $1,500. The young women began with housework for wealthy Vancouver families, joining the phenomenon discussed in Ruth Derksen Siemens' award-winning book, Daughters in the City: Mennonite Maids in Vancouver, 1931-61. Each sibling found success with work and marriage, while their mother lived into her nineties.
I found it fascinating to compare similarities to my family’s story, and learn new aspects of Mennonite history.
The author says that Stalin’s Great Terror had three waves, although typically the Great Terror is described as what the author calls the third wave. However, the privation of the regime can well be described as three waves of terror.
The third wave was when countless innocent men were arrested on false charges in the late 1930s. Interestingly, Cornelius Dyck’s first arrest was before this time in about 1930. I wonder how many others suffered false arrest in those early days. Although the author places this arrest in the first wave, another approach may be to extend the time frame of this wave.
The first wave is when wealthy farmers were called “kulaks” and their property was confiscated, in the 1920s and early 1930s. This is when my father’s family was forced to move from a large home and leave everything behind. Anne described a gradual process of property being taken, until the eviction after their father’s arrest.
The second wave, placed in 1933, likely refers to the 1932-33 forced famine. Grain quotas were too high for the farmers of the Ukraine to have enough food, and many starved. My father talks about how he survived that famine in an interview I published on YouTube. For the Dyck family, starvation began two years earlier when the state made them homeless.
The Dyck family went on to help other refugees, both relatives and people in need from Vietnam. Their original sponsor to Canada, Mr. Rempel, also sponsored more refugees. Perhaps we can be inspired by their example to help others in need today, thanks to this intriguing memoir.
- Irene Plett
Details: Edith Elisabeth Friesen: Journey Into Freedom: One Family’s Real-Life Drama (Raduga Publications, 2003, ISBN 0968729916)
Topics: Mennonites, Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, Molotschna Mennonite Settlement, Canada, Starvation, Immigration, Refugees, World War II, Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Holocaust, Cornelius Dyck (father and son), Katharina Dyck (née Klassen), Anne Dyck (née Klassen), Lydia Peters (née Dyck), John Dyck, Martha Janzen (née Dyck), Josef Stalin’s Great Terror, Kulaks, Mennonite Maids in Vancouver, Ruth Derksen Siemens
Irene Plett is a writer, poet and animal lover living in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.