Village News (May 16, 2019)
By Gary Dyck
Two Trains, One Track
Trains are salient in the plight of the Russländer, the 24,000 Mennonites who had to flee their homes in 1920’s Russia for the security of Canada. Some were herded into boxcars. Although they were very sad to leave their homes, they imagined a new life in Canada. The parents would keep looking out through the cracks of the train to see if they were heading out of Russia. Helen Rose Pauls recorded these words from her mother in a memoir entitled Refugee: “These hopes perished when it became obvious that we were climbing into the mountains. We were headed for Siberia and were shivering already. It was July. Once all hope for deliverance had died, the boxcar was filled with despondency. Men, particularly gave into despair. Women busied themselves trying to keep the little ones alive.”
For those who were on the trains heading west to the shores of Latvia, imagine the release of tears when they realized they were safe. Safe from the hands of anarchy and an army of bandits. Two trains, one track.
Another family had that feeling of relief when they made it to Moscow. As they boarded the train to leave the country, the men were forced to another train. Those men were never seen again. Two trains, one track.
In Canada, Mennonite leaders made agreements with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to provide the Russländer Mennonites with transport from East Canada to the prairies on credit. By 1930 the debt totaled 1.5 million dollars, which is 22 million by today’s standards! In this train trek they were probably wondering what they were getting themselves into. Will somebody help us?
By 1930 they had built their first church in Manitoba. They had met for worship in homes, in other churches, but now here was a place they could finally call their own. It was quite an achievement considering their debt load and the stress of upheaval. A community in trauma needs something to rally around.
As part of our May 25th Russländer Tribute Fundraising Banquet we will hold a commemoration service in that very church which was moved to our grounds in 1994. For those who buy a banquet ticket, there will also be a VIP tour of our new Russländer exhibit, a banquet and a meaningful evening of music and presentations.
That church reminds me of the other houses of worship that recent immigrants to Manitoba have built. These buildings are something to celebrate as it helps a people in distress put their roots down and feel like they have a home again.
Mennonite Heritage Village’s Russländer Exhibit will help us to appreciate where this first large group of refugees to our region came from. The Mennonites already in Canada at that time did not understand the trauma they brought with them. We didn’t know about PTSD then. We didn’t understand why these merchants and artists couldn’t just assimilate with our farm culture. Many of them moved to the city instead.
How are we in Canada doing today? Are we accepting the immigrants around us? They have come through a lot, they probably didn’t want to leave their home, and it will take years for them to feel at home here. Two trains – life can be so cruel or it can be so comforting. Let’s know our history and be the help that our families themselves once desperately needed. Get your ticket for May 25th train, before they run out!
Calendar of Events
May 25, Russländer Tribute Fundraiser Banquet – 4pm (RSVP by phone or mhv.ca)
June 8, Tractor Trek – 8am to 8pm
June 14-16, Summer in the City – Main Street, Steinbach