The Journal of Historical Review

Review

Novel Traces Wartime Exodus of German Mennonites

Reviewed by Theodore J. O’Keefe

Most Journal readers are at least sketchily aware of the vast and criminal expulsions of more than 14 million Germans from their ancestral homes in the heart of Europe, planned, ordered, and facilitated by American, British, and Russian leaders sitting in baronial luxury amid barbaric plunder as infant and grandmother died miserably, in the millions, by road and railside. Not so many readers, though, are aware of the longer but scarcely less agonizing Calvary endured by the sizable number of Germans who have lived in the Russian and Soviet empires from the times of the tsars to the present day.

Ingrid Rimland’s novel The Wanderers, recently republished in a new edition after winning the California Literature medal in 1977, tells the epic of one group of these, a family of German Mennonites who endured the brutal chaos of Red revolution and civil war, then famine and persecution in Stalin and Kaganovich’s Ukraine until liberated by the victorious Wehrmacht. Forsaking the villages and farms they had worked and lived in from the time of Catherine the Great, Katya Klassen Wall’s extended family makes its agonizing way back to the land of their ancestors, northern Germany, barely surviving the fiery hell of a Berlin prostrated, at last, beneath the bombs and boots of Stalin’s brutal conquerors. These stern-willed Mennonites turn their backs on their homeland in the Jahr Null to resettle on Paraguay’s remorseless Gran Chaco, where their tireless industry recreates, so far as possible, the flourishing landscape of the Ukrainian steppe.

Ingrid Rimland’s telling of this saga concentrates on two characters: the simple, sturdy, enduring matriarch, Katya, and her granddaughter, a misfit among the dour Mennonites who is driven from them by the quest for a beauty and meaning in life beyond the bare bones Biblical faith she has been bred on. These two women are well drawn, as are a host of subsidiary characters who figure in The Wanderers: Jasch, the eternal opportunist, who veers with aplomb from commissar to functionary in the German occupation, militant atheist to fiery preacher; Johannes Klassen, elder and patriarch whose bedrock faith has molded Katya; Sara, Katya’s daughter, whose strange and violent heritage stamps her daughter Karin; and numerous other kinfolk, as well as the odd Ukrainian or Paraguayan among the carefully shunned “Hiesigen” (“locals” or natives).

The Wanderers has been recently rewritten to restore most of the ten percent that had been edited out by a publisher in 1977. In the absence of the original version, put out by Concordia in 1977 and Bantam in 1978, the reader may speculate as to whether the earlier editor’s blue pencil eliminated such passages as the following, included in the latest edition:

The Germans wept for Dresden as they had never wept for any city yet. Dresden had no strategic importance at all – filled as it was, stuffed to the seams, with weakened, helpless refugees, a city of women and children, known to the world for its exquisite beauty and charm. There was no reason to slay Dresden but the baseness of a vindictive West – an enemy past comprehension in its lack of understanding of the necessary German shield against the barbarism of the East.

The Wanderers is a readable tale of the conflict between the duties of community and the demands of freedom. Readers unfamiliar with the German Mennonites (who, by the way, were the first German settlers of America, in 1683) will be interested in Rimland’s portrayal of their intense loyalty to their language and fatherland, which has sustained their German ways wherever they have wandered, despite their exposure to a never-ending Kultur-kampf waged more effectively, because more insidiously, by such “democracies” as Canada than by authoritarian or “totalitarian” regimes.

While not exactly the equal of Hans Grimm’s classic Volk ohne Raum, The Wanderers may be read with profit and enjoyment. Chronicling the mortal joys and woes of what its author calls “one of the quietest epics of colonization of all times,” this novel reveals truths about man and woman, men and women not to be found in mass-market potboilers.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 2, p. 40.


Published with permission, courtesy of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR).

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