Fixing a Spoiled Biography

Mennonite identity and the Second World War

T he Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory and the Second World War is the biography of a man called Hans, written by his son, Hans. It is this simple fact that makes it a gripping book. The son (hereafter referred to as Werner) is a historian whose explicit aims are made clear in paragraphs about memory at the end of each chapter. That these paragraphs are inadequate is partly because of the urgency of an implicit personal goal that takes precedence: the son’s effort to come to terms with how his father came to terms with the past. The plain speaking that has historically led Mennonites to resist fiction is visible here in the almost painful honesty with which Werner records facts even when they contradict his father’s stories. Like Jacob wrestling with an angel, the son who wrestles with his father’s ghost seems to say: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Genesis 32:26). The Constructed Mennonite is a kind of ghost story, but more startling than the ghosts are the actual people who emerge from the distant past to quarrel with our assumptions about history.

Growing up in Steinbach, Manitoba, Werner heard his father’s war stories over a period of 40 years. His father could not read and write “beyond a basic level,” but, like Coleridge’s “ancient mariner,” he told the same stories again and again. Werner seems puzzled by the fact that there was “little deviation in the narrative structure or details of the stories.” Trauma theorists have argued, however, that such “repetition compulsion” can be related to belatedness. As Cathy Caruth puts it, the violence of trauma is “not known in the first instance” and therefore returns to “haunt the survivor later on.” Werner’s own style contains the stiffness that happens when powerful emotions are held at arm’s length.

The simple facts of the life story are compelling. Werner’s father (hereafter referred to as Hans) was born in a Mennonite village in Siberia on Christmas day in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. Before he was four, all the other male members of the Werner family, including his father, died in a cholera epidemic. Hans’s mother, Anna, then married a man called Jonas—a violently abusive alcoholic stepfather. After escaping from him, Anna married a third time to Johann Froese, “a troubled man with a vicious temper.” Werner speculates that early abuse was the cause of his father’s stuttering.

The story that will resonate most deeply with Russian Mennonites in Canada is the account of the mass flight of Mennonites (and other -German-speaking peasants) to Moscow in 1929. The Werner-Froeses, including twelve-year-old Hans, joined more than 18,000 people after selling all their belongings in order to purchase passports. They made the journey to Moscow in cattle cars, where the majority (including Hans’s family) had their hopes shattered. Along with other refugees, they were reloaded into the cattle cars and shipped back to their villages. Meanwhile, in response to intervention from Germany, the Soviets gave in and allowed the 5,600 remaining in Moscow to emigrate—some to Brazil and Paraguay, others to Canada. For Hans and his family, returned to Siberia, there followed famine and suffering beyond imagining. In Hans’s own halting words we hear how he and his stepbrother discovered his stepfather’s body hanging in the granary.

Dispossessed of his religious and ethnic heritage, Hans offered no resistance when he was drafted into the Red Army, where he became Ivan Ivanevich. In 1941, during a confrontation with German troops in black uniforms, Ivan surrendered when he heard “the unmistakable sound of German, the language of his childhood.” As a prisoner of war, he quickly reinvented himself as Johann and was then drafted into the German army. On the eleventh of April in 1945, Johann was captured and spent time in an American prisoner-of-war camp before immigrating to Canada to become John Werner.

Werner uses these name changes as markers of “the various ethnic and national identities” that his father “negotiated.” John is a name that slips across borders with particular ease—Jack, Jean, Sean, Ian, Yann, Yon, etc. The name that appears in this book as part of “Stalin’s Hope”—Ivan Ivanevich—is in fact the Russian equivalent of John Doe. We tend to laugh off the deep fears and longings that we invest in the act of naming, but they become palpable in the context of war. At first sight, the title of this book may seem to locate it alongside recent memoirs such as Rhoda Janzen’s best-selling Mennonite in a Little Black Dress-: A Memoir of Going Home, in which the very idea of Mennonite identity is something of a joke. Werner’s sobering subtitle, however, puts it on a different shelf altogether. On the one hand there is the borrowed nostalgia about faux-folk identity that now saturates writing about Amish and Mennonite identities. On the other hand, there is the angst of a son who wonders what lies his father might have told in order to be registered safely on a Nazi –Volksliste.

This book raises questions that are familiar to many other groups in Canada. Public questions about history are domesticated—linked up with private ones about memory. For groups that have experienced collective trauma in another country, these questions are not academic. What should be remembered and what should be forgotten? What should we tell the children? My own family came to Canada from Russia in the 1870s, as did the families of Patrick Friesen, Miriam Toews and numerous other Canadian writers. This group—the Kanadierexperienced the hardship of pioneering on the prairie but not the horrors of war. Like many others from that group, I became aware of these family questions as a result of marrying someone from the later group—the Russländer. The story that many Mennonites tell their children is familiar to me. It is the story of a “golden age” lost, followed by unspeakable suffering. That Mennonites were among the 14 million massacred in what Timothy Snyder has recently called “the bloodlands” is known to Canadians who have read the fiction of Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell and other descendents of the Russländer group that, unlike the Werner family, escaped. What is not as well known are stories told from the point of view of those who did not get out in 1929, some of whom eventually came to Canada. Their stories challenge the myth of the lost “golden age.”

So radical is the experience of dispossession for the displaced persons that it is hard for Mennonites from other immigrant groups even to fathom the nature of the experience. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990, awareness of displaced persons has been heightened as new information has come out about the lives of relatives who were previously hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Something of the scale of the task of reconstituting these lives can be seen in Anne Konrad’s Red Quarter Moon: A Search for Family in the Shadow of Stalin. In a gargantuan labour of love, Konrad traces the lives and deaths of the uncles and aunts who, unlike her father, were left behind.

How do we rewrite our family myths when new facts shatter the ones we have lived with? Perhaps it is because The Constructed Mennonite refers back to a child’s point of view that it conveys both the fear and the wonder in this process. The question of which one was worse, Hitler or Stalin, is for adults. The deeper fear of the child is that his father might have been one of the bad guys. Werner remembers that when he was a child he puzzled over the fact that his father did not parade with the other veterans in Steinbach on Remembrance Day. “As I began to grasp the gravity of the Holocaust,” he writes, “I remember experiencing a moment of fear that there would be a knock on the door and that my father would be arrested for having committed an atrocity—a story that he had never told us.”

Recent revisionist history tells of “ordinary Nazis” like Udo Klausa, who lied about their past in order to achieve a “normal” post-war identity. No atrocities, however, are exposed by Werner’s research. The most shocking lies have to do with the fact that his father conveniently “forgot” that he left a wife behind in Siberia and another one in Germany. Werner concludes that his father “could never find a narrative that included the story of his previous marriages without destroying the ‘myth’ he was creating about himself.” He hangs on to that myth even after it is discovered that his first wife never remarried and that she died in 1986 in the Soviet Union. Like Homer’s Penelope, she remained faithful to her spouse. Her myth, if she had one, did not match with that of her -husband.

The fictions that are tested in this book resonate at a deep level. Most ancient of these is the -departure/return trope. On his journeys, Homer’s Odysseus confronts numerous ordeals, each one testing the values of his nation. When he returns home, the nation celebrates his heroism. Werner’s father, similarly, tells his stories “in a heroic fashion.” The trouble for him, as for other modern heroes, is that home is the place to which you can never return. Added to this is the inconvenient fact that women have a different story to tell. Most troubling, however, is the way the fog of war obscures all values. At no point does Werner claim that his father’s ordeals were a test of his Mennonite values. He was dispossessed of those long before he joined the Red Army. Indeed, this father with the spoiled biography sometimes seems like one of T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men.”

As Werner notes, it was not uncommon for “men with ‘spoilt’ biographies in the disrupted world of war-torn Europe” to fabricate details in order to “gain permission to emigrate.” A useful context here (which Werner does not mention) is the work of sociologist Ervin Goffman, who relates the notion of “spoiled identity” to the concept of stigma. Group identity is only one of several kinds of stigma discussed by Goffman, but it is an important one for this book. The most dangerous stigma or “badge of shame” in the “bloodlands” was, of course, Jewish identity. Werner tells of how his mother’s name was changed to Frieda by German troops because Sara was considered to be a Jewish name. He also tells of how his father and other German soldiers had to “appear naked before a panel of seven doctors” to identify the men who were circumcised.

It is within this charged context that Werner puts forward the question of Hans’s Mennonite identity. Like many others in similar circumstances, Hans emigrated to Canada with the help of the Mennonite Central Committee. The first task of MCC officials was to establish the Mennonite identity of the person applying for emigration. The documents show that Hans fixed his spoiled identity by denying that he had become a German citizen and by claiming that he had been drafted against his will into the German Army. Although Werner was not a common Russian Mennonite name, “his fluency in Low German sealed his identity—he was clearly Mennonite.” Convenient at the time of Hans’s application to emigrate, Low German became a “badge of shame” in Canada—a barrier to the construction of a bourgeois identity. Werner recalls “with some guilt” that he was embarrassed that “Mennonite Low German was the only language spoken in the home.” Although all the interviews with his father were done in Low German, the Low German version of John is conspicuous by its absence in Werner’s catalogue of names. It is not Hans but Hauns. Despite this significant deletion of one letter, Low German survives in this book as a residual and welcome reminder that culture and identity cannot and should not be purified. Spoiled biography can never be fixed once and for all.

Biographer Patrick Honan once observed that a biography fails if it does not evoke a sense of the living presence of the subject in every chapter. By that standard, this biography succeeds. Hans Werner is an elusive and contradictory figure but always there—sometimes boasting and at other times a stuttering fool, a chameleon man who dissembled in order to survive. His survival strategies may not look like the kind of non-resistance that Mennonite theologians talk about, but he is in good company. There is a body of folklore containing stories of how Menno Simons himself escaped becoming a martyr by means of various tricks and survival lies—so common in the 16th century that they were called Menniste Leugen. It could be argued that to be a Mennonite is, by definition, to be a constructed Mennonite. Anabaptists were, after all, so named to mock their rejection of infant baptism and their insistence on adult choice. In North America we now think of Mennonite groups in terms of ethnicity, but the reality is that 70 percent of Mennonite Christians in the world are now located in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Are they not also “constructed” Mennonites? These and other questions will engage readers of this book. Werner makes no grandiose claims, however, for the significance of his father’s life. For him it is enough that his father lived to tell the tale and that he “was able to assemble his narrative—to fix his spoiled biography—in ways that allowed him to come to terms with his past.”