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Mennonite Victims of Revolution, Anarchy, Civil War, Disease and Famine, 1917-1923
by Peter Letkemann
Sparked by the work of Harvey Dyck and an international team of scholars, Mennonites in many parts of the world have chosen 1998 to commemorate the victims of terror and repression in the former Soviet Union during the 40-year period from 1917 to 1956. My contribution to this commemoration has been the compilation of a comprehensive name-list of victims, continuing the work begun almost 20 years ago by Dr. George K. Epp. The primary purpose of this list is to perpetuate the memory of these individuals and their suffering, and, secondly, to provide accurate and verifiable statistics on the extent of Mennonite losses during these years. In this, the first of a three-part series of articles, I wish to share some preliminary findings regarding the victims of war, revolution, civil war, disease and famine during the years 1914-1923.
The Time of Troubles for Russian Mennonites began on 1 August 1914 with the declaration of war between Germany and Russia. During the first three years of the war Mennonites suffered relatively little compared to the rest of the Russian population. Some 12,000 Mennonite men (approximately 12% of the Mennonite population1) were enlisted in the war effort as forestry workers and medical orderlies, as well as in various secretarial and administrative positions. Of these enlisted men, only 132 are known to have died2 125 from diseases such as typhoid, cholera, or tuberculosis; 3 committed suicide and 4 forestry workers were murdered. To date, I have been able to ascertain only a handful of names.
With their men away in the service, women, children and the elderly on the home front had to work doubly hard to keep farms and industries going. While the work was not easy, the grain that was harvested could be sold for good prices and Mennonite mills made a handsome profit. Mennonite factories, most of which had been converted to war production, also made good profits.3 True, the Land Liquidation Laws of 1915 hung like the sword of Damocles over their heads; yet, while over 200,000 Germans from Volhynia were deported to the Eastern parts of the Empire in 1915-16, Mennonites for the most part were never directly affected by this legislation.
When the Tsarist Regime was toppled by the bloodless revolution of February/March 1917, most Mennonites breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to better times. Their hopes, however, were dashed by the Bolshevik coup détat in October/November 1917 and the ensuing years of anarchy and civil war.
The first Mennonite historian to attempt a count of victims during this period was Adolf Ehrt.4 He provided a figure of 1,107 deaths (approximately 1% of the Mennonite population): 132 war casualties, 647 people murdered, 168 typhoid deaths and 160 famine victims. Thirty years later Frank Epp doubled this estimate when he wrote that from 1914 to 1921 more than two percent, or over 2,250, of the Mennonite population had met death by violence or disease.5 Epp provided no documentation for this estimate, nor did he include famine victims in his calculation.
My research to date has identified a total of 3,189 victims during the 6-year period from 1917 to 1923:6 1,230 (39%) were brutally murdered or executed; 1,452 (45%) died in the typhoid epidemic of 1919-20; and 507 (16%) are known to have starved to death in the famine of 1921-22. Together with the 132 known war casualties listed earlier, we arrive ata total of 3,336 deaths during the period 1914-23 more than 3% of the Mennonite population.
The deaths during the period 1917-23 were not evenly distributed geographically: 96% percent of the victims (3,055) were from Ukraine with 69% from villages west of the Dnieper River (including thesettlements of Chortitza, Yazykovo, Zagradovka, Borozenko, Baratov,etc.) and 27% from villages east of the Dnieper (including Molochna,Memrik, Ignatyevo, Schönfeld, etc.). Only four percent of the victims (134 persons) came from the Russian Federation (RSFSR), which included Mennonites in the Crimea, Caucasus, Volga, Don and Ural regions, and in Siberia.
Of the 1,452 known typhoid victims over 85% were from the Chortitza region alone. Several writers have indicated that typhoid deaths in the Chortitza region amounted to at least 10% of the population.7 The number of 1,258 victims (426 known by name) in the Chortitza region, however, is based on reports from only 9 villages (Blumengart, Chortitza, Rosental, Einlage, Neuendorf, Nieder Chortitza, Osterwick, Schöneberg and Schönhorst). In the Yazykovo villages only 36 names are known, in the Molochna settlement only 44 typhoid victims have been identified, and in Zagradovka only 3. Given the scope of the epidemic, it is quite likely that there were many more victims than those that have been identified to date.
Of the 507 reported famine deaths, at least 387 (76%) were from the Molochna villages, compared with only 77 from villages west of the Dnieper River (48 from the Chortitza Settlement, 16 from Zagradovka, 12 from Gnadental and 1 from Friedensfeld), and 40 from the Orenburg Settlement. None of the Molochna victims are known by name. In the Chortitza region, the village of Nieder Chortitza was especially hard hit, with 33 reported deaths.8 The total number of famine-related deaths was relatively low, compared to the population as a whole, thanks to the timely arrival of aid from North American and European Mennonites.
Of the 1,230 murder victims, 1,148 are known by name; only the names of 82 (out of a total of 129) persons murdered in the villages of Ebenfeld and Steinbach (Borozenko Settlement) in early December 1919 have not been found.
The first known murder victims were three men from the village of Marianovka in the Terek Settlement, shot by bandits on 16 October 1917 while returning home from Chassav Yurt. By mid-February 1918 another 6 men were dead and the 15 Terek villages were abandoned as residents fled to the Kuban and Molochna in the wake of attacks from the surrounding Muslim mountain tribes.
In 1918 a total of 156 murders and executions are reported. Most of the victims were residents on estates and private farms, or travelers. The scattered settlements in the Schönfeld-Brasol region were especially hard hit. The first casualties were five members of the Aron Thiessen family, brutally murdered on 25 January 1918. In all a total of 96 persons from the Schönfeld-Brasol region were murdered before residents finally abandoned their farms and estates by the Fall of 1919. Other Mennonite villages in Ukraine were relatively untouched during 1918, with the exception of Halbstadt where six men, including 5 Mennonites and 1 Russian youth, were executed by the Bolsheviks in February 1918. One of the ring leaders responsible for the executions was a Mennonite by the name of Kroeker. According to various reports, Kroeker and at least five other Mennonite Bolsheviks: including a Hübert from Nikolaipol, Peter Braun (Lichtenau), Gerhard Friesen (Gnadenheim), Johann Wiebe (Lichtfelde), and a Neufeld (Molochna region), were executed by German occupation forces during 1918.
Over 67% of all murder victims (827) were killed in 1919, the vast majority during the six-week period from 26 October to 5 December, when Makhnos anarchist army overran Mennonite villages throughout Ukraine. Brutal massacres occurred in Blumenort (Molochna), Eichenfeld (Yazykovo), Münsterberg (Zagradovka), and Ebenfeld and Steinbach (Borozenko). Maknos men occupied the villages of the Chortitza and Yazykovo region until late December, when they were finally driven out by Bolshevik forces, and left a terrible legacy of disease and rape. No contemporary reporter ever attempted a tabulation of rape victims or a count of how many unwanted pregnancies (or abortions) occurred as a result of such violations.
As the Bolsheviks consolidated their control of Ukraine, the number of murders decreased dramatically: in 1920 there were only 43 reported deaths, in 1921 only 35 (including 11 Mennonites executed by the Bolsheviks after an unsuccessful peasant uprising in the settlement Am Trakt, and another 15 executed as counter-revolutionaries in the Molochna region); eight men were killed by roving bandits in 1922, and Abraham Siemens was tortured to death by the GPU in 1923.
The list of those killed in 1918-19 includes 8 men who died while serving in the short-lived Mennonite Selbschutz, and another 45 men who died while in the service of the White Army some as soldiers, some as medics, others as drivers conscripted to provide transport for the White forces. It is known that some Mennonite men also died while serving in the Red Army during this time, but I have found no names of casualties.
I will conclude this preliminary report of findings by allowing several contemporary writers to speak to the persistent question: Why did we have to suffer? Why did God allow these terrible things to happen? As early as April 1918, A.A. Kroeker wrote: We suffered because of our wealth (um des Mammons willen), which we pursued too aggressively. We were too materialistic, too selfish. That is why God sent the Land Liquidation Laws, and when they did not achieve the required effect, the knife had to cut deeper.9 Another writer, commenting on the biblical text Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, stated: Our people have suffered so many afflictions in the past few years, but do not seem to have learned from these.10 Hermann Neufeld wrote: That He [God] allowed all these (misfortunes) to occur is not without a reason. . . . Maybe we wronged our servants and brought hatred and revenge upon ourselves; or we sinned against God and our fellow man in the way that we dealt with out land and our possessions. . . . 11 Finally, in his unpublished novel Panta Rhei the well-known writer Fritz Senn allows his characters to offer an indictment of the Mennonite sins of omission and commission in pre-Soviet Russia that contributed to the destruction of the Mennonite commonwealth including individual greed, instances of human exploitation, failure to deal with the problem of the landless, the treatment of servants and repulsive materialism and concludes, like a crucible, this time of sufferings will destroy the rot and whatever thrives on it.12
Peter Letkemann is a researcher, writer and businessman who lives in Winnipeg.
- Population estimates provided by archivist Peter Braun, Einige Zurechtstellungen, Mennonitische Blätter May 1932, 53: 1914 = 101,000, 1917 = 106,000, 1922 = 113,000.
- Karl Lindemann, Von den deutschen Kolonisten in Rußland, 29.
- David Penner, Essen, trinken und vieles wissen, Neues Leben Nr. 37 (5 Sep 1990), 8.
- Adolf Ehrt, Das Mennonitentum in Rußland, 116f.
- Frank Epp, Mennonite Exodus, 37.
- These figures are still subject to change as additional information is received and processed. The complete list of names, together with selected stories and analysis will be published next year.
- T.O. Hylkema, De geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinde Gemeenten in Rusland, 79 (see also the German translation of this work, Die Mennoniten-Gemeinden in Rußland während der Kriegs- und Revolutionsjahre, 92). According to a report by Johann G. Rempel (brother of the well-known historian David G. Rempel), in My Village Home Nieder Chortitza, 62, Nieder Chortitza had 94 typhoid deaths (61 men and 33 women) in a population of 894 = 10.5% of the population.
- Johann G. Rempel, My Village Home Nieder Chortitza, 67. Rempel notes that none of these 33 victims were women.
- A.A. Kroeker, Unsere Befreiung, Volksfreund, 27 April 1918, 1.
- N.H., Ihr sollt euch nicht Schätze sammeln, Friedensstimme, 2 Nov 1918, 2-3.
- Hermann Neufeld, Die Zeit der Heimsuchung, Friedensstimme XVII, 31 (4 Sep 1919), 3. See also C. Orosander, Warum geschieht uns solches? Friedensstimme XVII. 42 (14 Dec 1919), p. 1 and nr. 43 (21 Dec 1919), 1.
- Gerhard K. Friesen, The Sins of the Fathers: Fritz Senns Novel Panta Rhei, Journal of Mennonite Studies 12 (1994), 191. See also Gerhard K. Friesen, The Purple Pulpit A Previously Unpublished Prose Text by Fritz Senn, Journal of Mennonite Studies 7 (1989), 84-95.
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Last modified December 8, 2000.
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