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Path of Thorns

Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life under Communist and Nazi Rule

Edited, with an introduction and analysis, by Harvey L. Dyck
Harvey L. Dyck
Sarah Dyck
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 476
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  • Book Info
    Path of Thorns
    Book Description:

    Paths of Thornsis the story of Jacob Abramovich Neufeld (1895-1960), a prominent Soviet Mennonite leader and writer, as well as one of these Mennonites sent to the Gulag.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-6440-1
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Maps
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction and Analysis
    (pp. 3-50)

    Jacob A. Neufeld (1895–1960), a prominent Soviet Mennonite leader and writer, provides a rich human story of the fate of Soviet Mennonites under Bolshevik rule and Nazi occupation. Through crisp images of his eventful life, the lives of fellow Mennonites, and the tumult that ripped apart their world – a vivid, original contribution – Neufeld elevates a simple story of terror and survival into a remarkable chronicle and analysis of the cataclysm that swept away his small but significant ethno-religious community.¹

    8 March 1949. Jacob Neufeld, his wife, and children stood on the deck of the Empress of Canada and watched...

  6. Part One Five Years in the Gulag, 1933–1939

    • Chapter One Arrest and Interrogation, 1933–1934
      (pp. 53-80)

      The German government’s hostile attitude towards Communism and Communists, the suspicious burning of the Reichstag, and the subsequent persecution of German Communists, provoked aggressive Soviet countermeasures. Although Soviet protests abroad were necessarily limited, inside the USSR the Soviets could unleash a wave of unrelenting Soviet rage and vengeance. Using whatever means were needed, the regime was determined to root out national movements that it thought active everywhere among its suppressed peoples. Russia had close to two million German-speaking citizens at the time, who were still anything but firm in their attachment to Communism. Germans in the USSR had often suffered...

    • Chapter Two Marking Time, 1934
      (pp. 81-92)

      As I walked down the passageway and was led to its far end, I saw a long row of men with belongings, suitcases, etc., standing along the wall. To my considerable surprise I recognized F. Cornies, in his well-known fox pelt, the [former] vice chairman of the Union of Citizens of Netherlandic Origin (VBHH), then Joh. J. Nikkel, A.A. Loewen, H.H. Friesen, D.A. Friesen, the ex-chairman of the Halbstadt District (Raion) Branch of the VBHH, David D. Goerz, the treasurer, teacher A.P. Ediger, and Gerh. H. Funk, ex-chairman of the Khortitsa District (raoin) Branch of the VBHH, and others – all...

    • Chapter Three Railway Building in the Far East, 1934–1935
      (pp. 93-106)

      We were just finishing off our job which the prison director had obligingly entrusted to us four Mennonites and had almost lost our longing for the outside world, so zealously had we pursued it. The job was to rid the some 10 cells on our corridor radically of bedbugs. These vermin were an insurmountable, never-ending plague throughout our imprisonment. During the summer of 1934 they had vastly multiplied, making the nights intolerable. We were to wash down not only the bed boards but walls and floors with hot water. The four of us took on the mission with pleasure and...

    • Chapter Four Managing a Pig Farm in the European Far North, 1936–1939
      (pp. 107-139)

      As was true everywhere with unfree people like ourselves, one never knew what might happen next. Abruptly we were told to gather up our belongings and prepare for another move, an order not completely unexpected. Still, it left us downcast. It was in the first days of May 1935. To a man, our whole little group was led to the rail station where we awaited a train. Whither now? Would it be west or would we be sent farther east, perhaps to the Island of Sakhalin or the Kamchatka Peninsula? It had already been rumoured that we “spies” had landed...

    • Chapter Five Coming Home, 1939
      (pp. 140-148)

      After travelling back and forth on trucks and on a small section of the railway being cut through the taiga to connect Kotlas with Vorkuta in the extreme north and beyond, we reached the river port of Ust-Vym. The river was frozen over and un-navigable. Four years earlier my friends and I had taken off on foot from here northwards into an unknown future. I could now put that time behind me. Yet I no longer recognized the road from those days with its forlorn grey stopping places spaced out along its length. This was especially true of Ust-Vym, where,...

  7. Part Two Tiefenwege:: Soviet Mennonite Life and Suffering, 1929–1949

    • Section One: New Directions and Shattering Experiments, 1928–1939

      • Chapter One Stalin’s Upheaval
        (pp. 153-159)

        Extraordinary events unfolding in the once-powerful Russian Tsardom since 1917, have kept the world in suspense. They have given it no peace. Over four decades, peoples and groups in Russia, including its Mennonites, have personally experienced the upheaval. They have borne its afflictions and drained its cup of misery. The first phase of the Revolution and the civil war, from 1918–21, was a time of great anguish. Mennonites in southern Ukraine remember it especially for the banditry and terror of the time of Makhno. There were nonstop robberies, thievery, arson, assaults, and killings. As civil war fronts moved dramatically...

      • Chapter Two A Day in the Gnadenfeld Kolkhoz “Karl Marx”
        (pp. 160-167)

        It is early in the morning on a day in May, during the regimented but more orderly years before World War II [from 1939–41, when I had already returned from the camps]. The world is just awakening, glorious in its abundance and thirst for life. This should fill us with joy. That is how it once was, but few such feelings survive today. Troubled by hardship and care, people have been robbed of their happiness and each day seems grayer than the one before. As dawn breaks, one can see ashen spectres moving swiftly along streets and garden paths...

      • Chapter Three The Establishment of Collective Farms
        (pp. 168-177)

        In 1921–2, the first land reforms had been introduced throughout the country at great expense. At that time private farms were established with allotments of additional land. Collectivization still lay in a distant future. Previously Mennonites in south Russia, and other Germans, had owned larger, indivisible farms of some 70 hectares each. In some cases they had been half that size, and in others 16 hectares, or a quarter that size. (Mennonite land had been held in hereditary tenure, not in repartitional tenure, as was common among the native [Ukrainian] population.) Then, in early Soviet times, the land norm...

      • Chapter Four Getting Rid of the “Kulaks”
        (pp. 178-183)

        “Liquidate the kulaks.” For years in the early 1930s this cruel and barbaric watchword served as the slogan of the Stalin Party in the village. It was a battle cry that would shake the foundations of village society, bring agriculture to the edge of the abyss, and threw villagers into helpless confusion. “What is wrong now?” the villagers cried. “What crime have we committed? Has human order disappeared?” Only two or three years earlier, Iakovlev, the Soviet Commissar of Agriculture, had pointed to the agrarian achievements of previous years, and said: “Every peasant, even the smallest, should become independent, with...

      • Chapter Five Stalin’s Impact on the Mennonite Character
        (pp. 184-192)

        The influence of the new economic order and the entire Soviet system on Mennonites was highly corrosive, most notably for Mennonite customs and group traits. Under Bolshevism our group character underwent profound change. Mennonites had earlier taken pride in their reputation for sincerity, honesty, self-confidence, independence, and integrity in thought and behaviour. But these traits steadily lost ground when faced with relentless Soviet pressures and concepts that opened the way to base thinking and a false character. And how could this have been otherwise when Christian principles, morals, and accepted ways of behaviour were being jettisoned at every hand. In...

    • Section Two: World War II, the End of Bolshevik Rule, and the German Occupation, 1941–1943

      • Chapter Six Outbreak of World War II
        (pp. 195-206)

        We had been shaken in 1939 by the outbreak of Germany’s war against Poland and other countries. Soviet Russia prepared for hostilities and occupied portions of Poland. For our part, we were uneasy and had to meet soaring state demands for agricultural produce. We were also astonished when Germany concluded a friendship pact with Russia [in August 1939]. That was good news for us and we tried to breathe more easily. Might our situation improve and mistrust towards us disappear? But many Mennonites were sceptical of the pact, especially when a large number of ordinary Soviets remained dubious as well....

      • Chapter Seven The Last Days of Bolshevik Rule
        (pp. 207-217)

        Events moved relentlessly on. At home life settled down a little but rumours persisted, filling us with alarm and keeping us on our toes. Meanwhile a new defence force, a destruction battalion(istrebitelnyi otriad),consisting of Party members and activists from surrounding villages, had been created and our village, one of the larger ones, had contributed 50 men. The battalion was equipped with weapons. Other than a few who manned observation posts, the men worked at regular day jobs, but at night gathered at one spot to respond immediately to any alarm. Since the battalion’s activities were cloaked in total...

      • Chapter Eight German Occupation and Rule, October 1941–September 1943
        (pp. 218-232)

        The following day I saw the German soldiers – no, I watched them in astonishment – our rescuing angels, calmly going about their tasks without the least fear. It was as if they had been here for some time, and were not among enemies. They greeted us as friends, seemingly happy to be in a German village and a few saluted us with “Heil Hitler.” That was a new and unusual greeting for us, one we had not heard before. Puzzled, I thought to myself, does Hitler inspire the soldiers, is he the mainspring of their advance, deportment, self-assurance, their confidence in...

    • Section Three: The Great Trek, 1943–1944 (based on personal diaries)

      • Chapter Nine By Wagon Train across the Dnieper
        (pp. 235-258)

        In the fall of 1941, with few losses, the German Wehrmacht had occupied Ukraine up to Rostov-on-the-Don [in the USSR], and then pushed farther and farther east, triumphantly and with great self-confidence. These were our liberators and those of the whole Ukraine. Who could have dreamt that the German army would be forced to begin their great retreat two years later? In our view, Providence had snatched a substantial part of the South-Russian Mennonites and several hundred thousand other Germans from the jaws of the Bolsheviks, our longtime tormentors and looters. Suddenly we faced the collapse of all of our...

      • Illustrations
        (pp. None)
      • Chapter Ten West to the Polish Border
        (pp. 259-287)

        Our departure on the second leg of the trek has been announced for early tomorrow morning. What has not been done will simply remain unfinished. We are somewhat concerned that we could not shoe the horses. (This was a failure of our leaders that would have fateful consequences for us later on.) Foodstuffs are distributed and wagons packed. By now all of us have some experience with this sort of thing. Everyone is caught up in feverish activity, especially the women, who still want to bake. A number of soldiers who have taken to living with us report a Russian...

      • Chapter Eleven Refugee Life in Western Ukraine and the Warthegau (Poznania)
        (pp. 288-304)

        The old year has passed with its joys and failures and a new year has started, veiled and dark. All of mankind awaits the end of this calamitous war. Every nation craves victory, and we hope and pray that it will be Germany’s, and hence ours. Who knows what the year will bring. We have become beggars, ignorant of what is happening and incapable of making choices. We must depend on the leadership and orders of the German Ethnic Liaison Office, whom we see as a tool in His all-powerful hand. The Lord has helped and will continue to help....

    • Section Four: Germany’s Collapse, 1944–1945

      • Chapter Twelve Pell-Mell by Horse and Wagon to West Germany, 1945
        (pp. 307-320)

        We celebrate New Year’s in an atmosphere of calm. It is a deceptive calm, to be sure, but gratifying. Then suddenly there is the alarm. The Soviet offensive starts on 12 January, followed by a deep breakthrough behind German positions from south of Warsaw to Cracow. In the north the Soviets thrust forward across the Vistula. “Panzer penetrations are meant to do that, to spread panic,” we are reassured. Urgent directives order our area to prepare to receive refugees. The fear is palpable, but no one imagines that we ourselves will suddenly have to flee with virtually no warning. People...

      • Chapter Thirteen The End of Hitler’s Reich
        (pp. 321-330)

        We pass through German city suburbs with attractive new houses surrounded by neat gardens that leave an impression of modern progress and well-being. But the inner cities, with narrow streets, closely crowded, high-gabled, half-timbered houses, and old adornments still carry the stamp of the Middle Ages. Old centres are still often enclosed by massive city walls and large gates surmounted by huge ornate clocks, the latter seemingly intended to prod wanderers into quickening their pace or inviting them to spend the night. This is the layout of Perleberg, Uelzen, and Dannenberg with core areas that evoke a comfortable and secure...

    • Section Five: Allied Occupation and Emigration, 1945–1949

      • Chapter Fourteen Come Look, The Tommies, 1945
        (pp. 333-344)

        Sunday is followed by a few more days of torment. The hail of bombs never seems to let up. The constant artillery fire and the many rumours keep people on edge. Celle itself continues to be spared. Infantry battles are taking place nearby. On 12 April we endured a night and day in which hell itself seemed to have opened its gates. Artillery fire is directed into the city and bombs fall round about. Nearby bridges, munitions depots, and factories go up in flames and sirens scream without stop. We are keyed up and stay near the cellar. There we...

      • Chapter Fifteen Rekindled Hopes, 1945–1949
        (pp. 345-372)

        The picture of our refugee life would be incomplete were I not to describe our experiences in Germany in the four or five years after Germany’s collapse. First, I must relate the story of an important and agreeable visit from North America. It came at an extremely difficult and desperate time for us, and gave us renewed hope and courage to persevere. I have already touched on the dangers and fears of repatriation to the Soviet Union that long caused us such terrible anxieties. These anxieties helped trigger the movement back and forth of our people across Germany, as well...

  8. PART THREE A Memoir-Letter From Jacob A. Neufeld to His Wife, Lene (Thiessen) Neufeld, on the Occasion of Their 25th Wedding Anniversary
    (pp. 373-408)

    … [I remember] the unforgettable aunts in Liebenau. I spent my village school years boarding with Aunt Marie (or Tante Mitschke, as father called his sister), Uncle Jacob, and their children. Other children and older people became part of our village circle and left a lasting impression on me. Later I moved with my parents and siblings to Klippenfeld. There I put off my childish ways. Children naturally long to be grown up, yet my experiences in Klippenfeld were painful and disagreeable. They caused a split in my young soul. Quickly I found myself in a group of more mature...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 409-424)
  10. Index
    (pp. 425-444)