Ep. 64 The luckiest man alive?

I was ten the first time Gerhard told me he was the luckiest man alive; I had to laugh.

Just to look at him, standing in a dirty puddle, gum boots caked in chicken shit. His denim coveralls patched here and there, stained with grease or chicken blood or some other unknown substance. It was raining, and we were towing an awkward little cart he had built through the mud to the cooler, the flats of eggs teetering precariously.

But he said it like he meant it. And then he said – Because I have you! Did he mean just me, or all of us?

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It was never just me.

I guess you are not expected to take statements like that literally. But you think someone who said that would have some evidence readily available to back it up. Maybe he was lucky to be alive, and surely that would feel like being the luckiest man alive because of the alternative. But as for the evidence I could see…

The farm was small as chicken farms in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia tend to go, the buildings’ decrepitude defining the decades of their construction. I could tell by the urgent reprimand whenever I broke an egg that financially things weren’t so great either. Seven children to clothe and feed, the car fifteen years old. Raspberries weren’t paying like they used to. No lottery winnings here.

Gerhard at Mt. Baker

Gerhard out of his element …

Gerhard in snow storm

…and in the elements.

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Easter Monday hike on Vedder Mountain.

He was a man you could lose in a crowd. Average height, average build, but strong and his biceps popped out like tennis balls. He combed his wavy black hair straight back and usually covered it with a military type of cap and his sideburns migrated up and down the side of his face according to the current style. When he kissed you, his face prickled and you couldn’t get away fast enough. If he was alive today, he’d probably have a James Harden beard. He didn’t look like a German soldier although he said he had been one. As proof he had half a thumb on his right hand, and a little devil-horn of a nail protruded from it. If he wanted your attention, he’d squeeze it into you somewhere and it really hurt.

* * * * *

Gerhard with chickensGerhard’s life began the day I was born. He came into this world a fully formed adult father of three. He was gentle as a feather but he couldn’t sit still; he was fully occupied. Chickens were fed, eggs collected and shipped, chicken shit was shoveled and distributed liberally on pastures in the town, the cow was milked, the garden tended, school and church attended, fruit was picked: this life barreled on with an energy all its own. For years this was all we knew of Gerhard, our master, protector and father. On occasion secret Gerhard would leak out – Russia! Germany! War! Sometimes we imagined we were the adopted children of Soviet spies and our parents’ true identity would be revealed at a later date. Sometimes dark Gerhard came out too, the shaking fist, the welts on the buttocks preceded by some misdemeanor, the angry shouts of “someday you’ll dig in the garbage for those peas!” There was also pious Gerhard – no one attended more church services than he did. Sundays, Saturdays, Wednesdays, prayer meetings, bible studies, evangelistic meetings, spiritual emphasis weeks, it goes on. He read the Bible every morning and tore off another page from his daily Christian calendar. Every night he knelt on the hard floor and prayed for our souls, at times becoming overwrought with emotion, weeping long and loud.

* * * * *

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Gerhard, Mary and Butch in the Rockies.

In time I realized Gerhard had been alive for a significant period before I was born. Someday I’d look into that. They say people who have been to war don’t like to talk about it and don’t want to go back. Yet sometimes Gerhard would tell tales of strange lands, strange times like science fiction, believe it if you want to, and you wanted to hear more, but the cow needed milking, and we’d go our separate ways. Perhaps he was not aware of the intricacies of a child growing up in the Sixties, how much attention to detail was required, so the times were few and far between.

There came a time when I had to decide when Gerhard was really born, and if it was in 1911 as he alleged, then there may be certain material facts I should be made aware of. Who are we? Where are we from? Where are my people?

Years later, I made a written request to Gerhard – in German. I’ll never know how it was received, with dread or excitement, but in due course I received in the mail a notebook of thirty pages, neatly handwritten in German containing certain facts of his life. After his death, several other notebooks were found along with a box of letters. This is the treasure I have shared with you.

Was he the luckiest man alive? Perhaps. If you’ve been on the Journey, you’ll have an opinion. I think luck is just luck, sometimes good, sometimes not and you rarely know which is which. Luck can always be deconstructed to become its opposite, good luck precedes the fall, bad luck builds character, so these are just events that have happened without inherent meaning. Gerhard’s incredible survival was lucky, but tempered with pain and tragedy and a cruel death. In the end it is the journey that matters. On the journey we find our luck, and like Gerhard we ourselves can decide if we are the luckiest person alive.

Gerhard and Mary

 

* * * * *

Thanks to my editor Dave Broughton who faithfully combed each episode for mistakes and inconsistencies, and who bore me no ill will since his father fought on the other side. And thanks to Julie Swenson for her wise and just criticism both as an astute reader and as my wife.

Thanks also to those who encouraged me along the way. I would not have started or continued this blog without you.

* * * * *

To my readers: Thanks for coming along. Please don’t hesitate to leave comments, suggestions, criticisms or improvements. All are appreciated.

* * * * *

This is the end. Really.

24 thoughts on “Ep. 64 The luckiest man alive?

  1. Thanks, Ed!! All the hours immersed in this Journey. Whatever will you do now? Have to say, all the Mennonite history books I’ve read didn’t “quite” include all the details. Wish I could go back in time & ask my Mom what all her night terrors I would hear across the hallway were about. She never wanted to talk about it.
    Anyway, well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Ed, This has been an amazing adventure and I am honoured to have been part of it. You are definitely a natural writer and, as I say to Eric…keep writing, if the mood strikes. This has been cathartic for you, I can just feel it, and will be treasured by all of your family members and friends…til the end of time. Is there a family tree somewhere? Will you ever meet some of your cousins? I am quite sure that they would love to know about Gerhard just as Eric’s cousins have been overjoyed to finally know the real story of Frank Ronse. 36 copies of Eric’s book recently went to a Ronse Reunion in Belgium…and they were all sold!!! Warm hugs, Tina

    On Sun, Jun 24, 2018, 1:01 AM Gerhard’s Journey, wrote:

    > gerhardsjourney posted: “I was ten the first time Gerhard told me he was > the luckiest man alive; I had to laugh. Just to look at him, standing in a > dirty puddle, gum boots caked in chicken shit. His denim coveralls patched > here and there, stained with grease or chicken blood or ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was going to say I stumbled but I think it was more led to your blog just recently. I went back to the beginning and am reading each one. My family history is also woven with the Mennonite journey. My father was born in Alexanderpol in 1918 and my mother in Kistyendey in 1920. My father shares pieces of his journey. He celebrated his 100th birthday this past March. His mind is still sharp though he is slowing down physically. Thank you for sharing your story and the history of the Mennonite journey

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  4. I have greatly enjoyed your writing and sharing of your fathers story. God saved him and he was faithful. Do we as Mennonites in North America have the faith of your father?

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  5. Thank you for writing. It is not many who are willing to look back with honesty into such a raw history. My great grandparents were among the earliest arrival in Canada and their stories were not documented. As I learnt more of the Mennonite history of those who remained in Russia for their wealth (at least in our extended family of the Niebuhrs) I was shocked when, at an extended family reunion, one fellow seemed proud of the shoes and bike the Germans had given him when his mother and siblings followed the Germans out of Russia. The question for me is had I been there where history had eroded all faith, if I could hardly have been called a Christian at that point and human nature is self preservation, would I have done the same things to survive?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you anonymous, I don’t think we ever got the real picture especially with respect to WW2. Perhaps in our youth everything was still too raw. I can’t say I would not have done some horrible things in their position, especially if my immediate survival was at stake, but the Mennonites who moved into the homes of murdered Jews and Poles did so voluntarily and were offered compensation. There is also evidence that Mennonites murdered civilians. If I was a God-fearing Mennonite today, I’d like to know the depth and breadth of that sort of activity and then find a way to face up to what was done. Other people have truth and reconciliation commissions to address the wrongs, Mennonites have a broom and sweep it under the rug.

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  6. Ed, I have enjoyed your writing immensely! I was born Dec. 25, 1945 and lived in Yarrow for almost the first two decades. How I wish I had asked my father about so many things he never volunteered. The little we do know is that he “fought” in the White Russian army, said he never shot anyone, was himself shot in the thigh while dragging a wounded soldier off the field (the bullet was never removed), spent several weeks recuperating in a Crimean hospital, then found his way back to his farm (in present-day Donetsk). His sister said he played the fiddle in his youth, but although two of his sons play violin at quite a high level, we never saw him demonstrate a single note. He had put his past behind him.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ed. What a wonderful journey to have joined you on. Thank you so much for sharing this story. It is clearly as much your journey as it is your father’s. Family history I am learning is a remarkably malleable beast. Think about publishing this is worth sharing more broadly. Thanks again and all the best.
    Shawn

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful. Thanks a lot. Wonder if you have not been to hard on the Mennonites regarding the MCC. There were indeed many young men pressed into the SS. Or they were 16 year olds who wanted to belong to the most elite units of the Reich. Only a small minority would have belonged to the camp guards or Einsatzgruppen. The fate of the ones repatriated was terrible. Most were outright killed. Others had there backbone severed and suffered terrible agonies. Very young men who didn’t know better.
    Therefore I understand the Mennonite policy of not asking. It was not a time of Justice but of revenge and the Soviets would have branded everybody a war criminal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment Tom. Before Gerhard’s Journey, I was where you are. I believed my father couldn’t have been a Nazi unless forced into it somehow. There were lots of reasons why people did what they did. I might have done the same. We all act in our own best interest. However, when you see the acceptance of Nazism across the Mennonite spectrum: in Germany, Russia, Canada, it becomes more difficult to maintain that position. Nobody knows who did what because nobody said anything. My Sunday School teachers taught me if you made a mistake, you own up to it and try to make things right. That has not happened. There are records in Russian archives, and if I considered myself a Mennonite today, I would want to know what was in those archives.

      As far as being hard on the MCC, I think they also have a few things to own up to. How Christian were they playing their ethnic games while deserving refugees suffered? Mennonites were far from the only ones dying.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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      • “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. I think you are very wrong if you believe that just being a “Nazi” is already enough to have somebody condemned. Do you think young people in the Third Reich (or anywhere in the world) are told what the true aim of their leaders is? Of course not. You battle for the cause of all mankind, for the brighter future. You tap into young peoples idealism. In the case of the Third Reich it was a “new Europe”, the brotherhood of the “European people”, social justice for all, the breakdown of the old class system.
        Not to dissimilar to how young people were motivated in the Soviet Union. The true reality was a closely held secret. If you questioned it you were immediately under suspicicion. If you insisted on the truth then it would have been your turn. Parents who wanted to preserve themselves and their kids would not talk openly. Therefore a whole generation grew up that fervently believed in the Fuehrer. To understand something of this mechanism you might read Bert Brechts play “Fear and misery in the 3. Reich”.
        Children as young as 12 run into machine gun fire towards the end of the war.
        Now we have those Mennonites living in Soviet Russia where they are marked for extinction. Maybe not physically (at least not all of them) but certainly as an ethnic, religious community.For them the Soviet Union could not have been but a Satanic institution. Anything would have been better than what they knew. Of course the young took up the cause of the Third Reich. And I cannot blame them. I have travelled to remote communities of Old-believers and religious dissenters in Russia. Ethnic Russians! Their young men either tried to desert or were simply annihilated in the second world war. Unforgettable is an old man who had endured terrible prosecution for his faith. He believed as a young man and still believed today that Hitler was a force for good. Shall I condemn him?
        I cannot. He had spent 20 years in different camps and had seen with his own eyes how believers who wouldn´t work at Easter were stripped naked and dosed with water at minus forty. Their frozen bodies were left standing upright until spring.
        So you think the MCC should have not helped those Mennonites come to the States but instead be deported to the Soviet Union? No. I cannot agree. The war was over and the victims of the Nazis were safe. Now it was the turn of the Germans (and anybody who had helped them) to be prosecuted. And I don´t mean the war criminals. I mean perfectly ordinary people. Children of German soldiers in Norway were put into special orphanages were they were terribly abused. Some even experimented upon. (The Goverment has admitted its guilt by now) And Norway was a mild case. German child soldiers were used to clear mines along the Danish coast. Thousands died. (Subject of the moving film under the sand).
        The reason for the prosecution of the innocent was not revenge. People were showing that they were on the “right” side. It is a well known fact that former collaborators were the worst perpetrators. Whereas people who have been in the resistance from the beginning were usually much more lenient.
        I believe that man has evil in himself. I also believe that it is in each and every one of us. If you understand that you understand that there can be no earthly justice. You should help the ones that are most threatened at a given moment. And in 1945 it were not the DP´s but people fleeing from Soviet “justice” like your father. To put it another way: you would not have retroactively erased the shame of the Canadian government for not having taken in Jews in the Thirties by having refused people fleeing from the Soviet government.
        Apart from that I believe you are very right to point out the blind spot of the Mennonites. But the condemnation you heap upon them is overblown in my opinion. And finally: it is a fantastic, very interesting investigation that you have published.

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      • Thank you for your thoughtful and passionate comment. My intentions with Gerhard’s Journey were simply to explore as much as I could what actually happened. I hope I have not condemned anyone for being what we today would call a Nazi. I can’t say what I would have done during those difficult times because I don’t know. What I condemn is not taking responsibility for the things that were done. How can things be set right otherwise? I condemn the MCC for valuing the life of a Mennonite, regardless of his or her criminal activities, over the life of a person who would qualify to emigrate under the rules that existed at the time. This, in a nutshell, is the Achilles heel of the Mennonites – thinking they are more deserving than anyone else. Regarding Gerhard, I know it is harsh to say, but Gerhard was not Dutch and he was a German soldier for four years. He simply did not qualify for emigration, and had the Canadian authorities known of his past, he could very easily have been expelled from Canada for not being truthful about his war time experiences.

        Thank you for suggesting Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. I read it yesterday. What an excellent artifact of the time just before the war. There was no right answer and it tore society apart. Although Brecht had communist leanings, I believe a number of the scenes would have applied equally well to periods of Russian history as to the Nazi era. Thanks again for your thought-provoking comment.

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  9. I have just read the last chapter of Gerhard’s Journey.
    Thank you for taking the time and effort to write the fascinating story of your father’s life, a Russian Mennonite, within the history and culture of the Mennonites, and amidst the tragic milieu of the 20th Century in Europe and Russia, and landing in the saving grace of Canadian life.
    The story has made me, a Mennonite of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, ponder and understand better the patterns and perspectives of my community and culture of Mennonites, within the world.
    I find both your perspective of the Mennonites and lessoskallow’s comments in response to be valuable conversation in the picking up of the rug to understand what is under it. (I, too, can understand MCC trying to save persons from the Russian revenge, and from other bad situations.)
    Thank you for introducing us to Gerhard and his journey. I will miss Gerhard. He touched my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

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