WHEN visiting my grandmother as a young girl, I would climb into her bed in the early morning and ask her for a story. She told me about her childhood during the early days of communism in the Soviet Union; of nearly starving to death during the famine; of her wedding day on the last day of services in her church, before the communists closed it; or of later fleeing in a wagon with her four small children as bombs exploded behind them. I loved hearing these first-person accounts of war and suffering and famine. After all, adversity makes for an exciting tale, especially if one experiences the telling, not the living, of it.
Years later, I realized that my grandmother’s stories were first-hand accounts of some of the major events of the 20th Century, and they deserve retelling. This book contains the stories of the six Dyck siblings who lived through the Soviet communist era. My grandmother, Angeneta (Neta) Loewen, the eldest Dyck sibling, was born into a German-Mennonite family in Ukraine in 1912. She was five years old when the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 established Soviet Communism, a political system that ravaged her family’s lives. She and her sisters, Tina and Anni, were able to escape the Soviet Union during World War II. Her brothers, Hein, Peter, and Gerhard, became victims of Stalin’s harsh regime, each sentenced to the Gulag as political prisoners for ten to twenty years. Upon their release after Stalin's death, they were exiled to remote parts of the Soviet Union, unwanted foreigners in their native land. After its collapse in 1991, the three brothers were finally able to leave. They experienced both the beginning and the end of Soviet communism.
During my childhood, my family visited my grandmother, Neta, in Clearbrook, British Columbia, four times a year. I remember with fondness the cheerful clatter of pots and pans as she and her aunt, Anna Penner (Tante Nüt), bustled around their kitchen, cooking tasty Mennonite food: thick summer sausages; borscht, the thick vegetable stew from the Russian plains; and veraniche, pasta pockets filled with cottage cheese or fruit slathered with rich white cream and coated with sugar. Sometimes Tante Anni, my grandmother’s sister, would drop by for a visit, filling the kitchen with her infectious laughter. These people nourished me with hearty Mennonite food served on thrift-store china, and an abundance of love.
On Sundays during these visits, my family attended my grandmother’s German-speaking Mennonite church, where my two sisters and I yawned through the long sermons, and giggled as we attempted to sing German hymns without knowing German phonetics. The congregation was made up of older German immigrants from Russia. (They were actually from the Ukraine, but they always referred to it as “Russia.”) I grew up solidly convinced that Canada's second language was German, not French, because I had little awareness at the time that we were part of a unique ethnic community of German Mennonites from Russia that lived in Clearbrook and Abbotsford, B.C.
Over the years I met my grandmother’s other siblings. Tina visited from Germany a few times. I met Hein, Peter, and Gerhard, the “Russian uncles” as we called them, once or twice when they visited Canada and our home in Oregon. They seemed to me tall and austere. They spoke German, Ukrainian, and Russian, and I spoke only English. Barred as we were by language and separated by two generations, I found them frightening after my parents had told me that they had been in prison for many years. I didn't understand at the time that they had been political prisoners of an unjust system. I have a few pictures of me as a child standing next to these tall unsmiling men. We visited Tina and Gerhard in Germany in 1990, when I was 17. Tina had lived there for many years, but Gerhard had been out of the Soviet Union for just a year at that time, and Hein and Peter were still trying to emigrate to Germany.
My mother, Agnes Ferngren, had been a refugee until she came to Canada as an 11-year old in 1949. We visited her family regularly in Clearbrook, B.C. (now Abbotsford) and when with the Loewen family (Neta and her four children), we often heard stories of the family's past life in Russia, as war refugees, and as immigrant children struggling to learn English during their early days in Canada. Over time, I came to realize what a treasure those narratives were.
A Historical Interest
I pursued a master’s degree in history at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, from 1995 to 1997. After taking a class in Russian history, I thought that my grandmother’s experience might be a good basis for my thesis. Armed with my tape recorder and cassette tapes, I interviewed her several times. “But I’m not that interesting,” she told me. “You should meet so-and-so from my church. They came from Russia too, and they have a more interesting story.” She would take me to meet more friends of hers who had fascinating lives. In all, I interviewed about 20 Russian Mennonites in Clearbrook, B.C. (now part of Abbotsford). All were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. When I was finished, I had more than enough for a 300-page thesis. Twenty years later, I am still working with this material.
When I began collecting these stories for the first time in the 1990s, I had access to the people I interviewed and to their collections of photographs. By 2016, these people were mostly gone, a great loss indeed. Scholars, however, had been sifting through the Soviet archives for 20 years and discovered other victims’ accounts and original sources with an abundance of new historical details. An enormous amount of online data and photographs gave me greater access to the historical record.
My Approach, Methodology, & Sources
I recorded and transcribed Neta and Anni’s stories in 1996. Gerhard made a tape around the same time, which my mother, Agnes Ferngren, transcribed and translated for me. At first, I kept these first-person narratives exactly as they were spoken, but over time I corrected some language and syntax problems for the sake of clarity. Oral accounts are not necessarily linear, so I imposed a chronology on them. Beyond that, I have left them intact.
I find the differences between the voices delightful. Neta is quiet yet descriptive, doing her best with her third-grade education and mountains of life experience. Anni is colorful and vibrant, just as she is in real life. And Gerhard, with whom I never spoke the same language, is eloquent and wise. All agreed about the character of their parents: their mother was a complex character, a vivid storyteller, yet perhaps not the nicest woman; and their father was kind and gentle, and died too young. The second-hand accounts of Hein, Peter, and Gerhard, were based on Anni Kessenich’s writings. She wrote for me a sketch of each of the three siblings whom I didn’t interview. I wrote to Peter’s family and received additional information on him from his daughter Irina. I also decided to weave historical background into those shorter narratives, to give them a sense of context.
The pictures are from the collections of Neta Loewen, Anni Kessenich, and Peter Dick, and Neta's children, Agnes Ferngren, Helen Lescheid, and Katie Loewen. Neta smuggled her pictures out of the Soviet Union in the bottom of her sewing machine. Helen Lescheid’s book, Lead Kindly Light, based on Neta’s written memoir, has been invaluable in filling in gaps in my oral narrative, and in giving me a love of and familiarity with Neta’s story.
This is a privately published volume, intended for limited distribution among members of this family. I am intellectually indebted to numerous sources, many of which listed in the bibliography at the end of this volume. Because I wanted this to be a visual history, I used a graphics program that did not allow for footnoting. The lack of proper citation is a substantial shortcoming in this volume. It is my hope to publish this work, and give full and appropriate citation there.
What I Found
It is remarkable that this family survived. The Russian Civil War, the Holodomor Famine, Stalin's Purges, World War II, and the Soviet Gulag each claimed millions of victims, and the six Dyck siblings--Neta, Hein, Peter, Tina, Gerhard, and Anni--lived through all of those. Stalin alone is credited with as many as 20 million victims. I suppose, when I began, that I was looking for the secret to survival, as some have searched for the elixir of immortality. I thought some strength of character, sound moral judgment, and unwavering faith must lay behind their longevity and endurance.
Instead, I found faulty human beings, imperfect people who had made many mistakes. There is no discernible reason why they lived and others died. The secret to their survival is not found in their strength, but simply in God’s protection over them, found in small mercies or human compassion at just the right moment that, for them, made the difference between life and death.
There is no bitterness in their accounts. They did not blame others for their suffering, or ennoble their own Mennonite people. In this volume are stories of Mennonites doing bad deeds and Russian communists and Nazi soldiers who showed mercy. “There are good and bad people everywhere,” my grandmother and her sister Anni told me many times. They accepted their lot in life, which was worse than some but better than many. They didn't credit themselves for having survived. They would say that they were nobody special, but that God was, and that freedom was a treasure to be prized.
This book is a tribute to those in it, remarkable people in my life who were my family. Thank you for taking the time to tell your stories and to share your lives with me. I hope I have done justice to them. In my own life, these accounts have given me a persistent refrain of gratitude for the peace and prosperity which we enjoy. The help that others gave my mother's family, which meant for them the difference between life and death, prompted my husband Paul and me to adopt one son and foster another.
Some study family history looking for impressive pedigree, but there is none here. We are solidly peasant stock. But since adversity births some of the richest experiences, I am proud to be a refugee's daughter. These are stories of human fortitude in the face of great suffering and injustice. The ability to endure these events, and to live well on the other side of them, testifies to the resilience of the human spirit.