At the beginning of this New Year, maybe you too are ready for some inspiration – ready for something that expands your thinking. This article, written by my aunt Dorothy, took me outside my comfort zone, and inspired me to think bigger. It inspired me to reflect on history, and in that reflection, energized my spirit.
REMEMBRANCE DAY NOVEMBER 11, 2015
The morning of November 3, 2015, I am sitting in the Bethel Mennonite Church with the gathered mourners. We all stand as the casket enters the sanctuary followed by my 82 year old second cousin, the grieving widower and his family. Tears spill silently down my cheeks.
I remember October, 26, 1919. It was a cool day. The Machnowze, followers of anarchist Nestor Makhno entered the Mennonite village of Eichenfeld in what was then the USSR. The harvest had already been gathered and it was a week of special Bible teaching and revival meetings, led by five evangelists, two of whom were women, Liese Huebert and Regina Rosenberg.
Those were turbulent years across Russia. As World War I raged, the Russian-German front kept shifting ground and as the Bolshevik Revolution fought to gain ascendancy, farmers were forced to billet White armies, then Red armies, whatever force moved through the area. But Eichenfeld had been spared some of the worst woes. The night before the Machnowze came, the people sang hymns of gratitude deep from their bellies and prayed for protection.
I remember the sound of horses’ hooves and the crack of the wagon wheels on the road. The feared anarchists, thousands of them streamed through the village, some already drunk, looking for food, for weapons, for gold, for women. Their primary order of business, though, was the men, property owners and village leaders. The first one shot was the grandfather of my second cousin, the second cousin who at this very moment is limping up the aisle with the help of his cane and the supportive arm of his daughter. I notice his face is pale and drawn, bereft of vitality.
It was a systematic killing in Eichenfeld followed by an orgy of brutal rape. The next morning before dawn the raiding party rode out, wagons filled with treasures of the harvest and bread the women had been forced to bake all night. Most males over 16 years of age were killed. I remember hacked and mutilated bodies sprawled in the barns or on the manure piles. Miraculously the father of my second cousin, 19 years old at the time, survived.
Women and children, chilled and grief stricken in the foggy morning air ran across the muddy fields to get help from neighbouring villages. The following days began the back-breaking, heart-breaking work of digging mass graves for 83 unwashed bodies, 77 men and six women. No service, only the prayers and cries of those left to remember.
The Eichenfeld widows and orphans were taken in by relatives. My second cousin’s father, the 19 year old Eichenfeld survivor came to live with my grandfather’s family and so it happened that his name was attached to the Dietrich Friesen passport and he was taken to Canada in 1923, the first year Mennonites were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. He married in Canada and had children, one of them, the second cousin, the figure I now see stooped in mourning for the loss of his dear life partner of 58 years.
This second cousin and I did not meet until we were adults and we are not particularly alike in life pursuits or perspectives, but whether you are the person taken in by a family, or you are a member of the family taking someone in, there is a particular bond that extends back in time and forward through the generations and laterally around the world.
My tears continue to flow through the Scripture reading and hymns, tears for my second cousin and his children, tears for his grandfather who was shot, tears for his father who escaped death, but was witness to atrocities, tears for desperate Syrian families running for their lives, a young mother barefoot in a field, baby on her hips, the father, clutching a suitcase with one hand, hanging on to his child with the other. Gun shots ring out behind them.
The eulogy, the closing prayer, but still no end to my tears, tears for Palestinian children killed daily in the latest tumult in their land with no international coverage or response, as though this is perfectly acceptable, not worthy of attention, tears for the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and men, for the generations before them, small children, elders, bodies and families torn apart, victims and survivors of genocide, tears for the whole world and for myself, we whose hearts have not yet fully remembered the horrors arising from state sponsored and organized violence.
I want to re-member.