I wrote this in response to an interview I conducted recently with a retired Mennonite gentleman. He told me some of his story, almost in tears, and I listened, almost in tears. I will write a professional article at some point next week, but I wanted to share his story here as well.
I don’t always do forgiveness well.
By that I mean that I extend a lot of grace to people on an immediate basis, but I don’t forget they ways they’ve hurt me. I can still be bitter months to years later, especially if I get they sense the person never cared about reconciliation.
Yesterday I called a retired senior from my hometown and asked him to tell me his story. He knew I was going to call, but neither he nor I had much idea of where our conversation would go. I had been told that he was a retired dentist, he was Mennonite Brethren, and he had once worked on the teeth of the wife of a KGB director.
Those of you who aren’t Mennonite won’t realize the significance of those three facts in conjunction, you wound understand that this story is going to get messy.
My friend (let’s call him Ed) was born in in 1945 in Canada. His parents and siblings came from Russia in ’28, a decade after the revolution, but still fleeing great turmoil. Most of his father’s family was already in Canada, yet his mother’s parents and brother had stayed behind.
Those who have heard these types of stories before will know where they generally go. In the early thirties the Soviets clamped down on communication in and out of the country, and the letters back and forth between separated families dried up. Many refugees wouldn’t discover what happened to the loved ones who stayed behind for years, or even decades. The news when it came, especially for Mennonites from the colonies, was almost never good.
Ed never knew that his mother’s father was thrown in jail for being a ‘kulak’ (technically a member of the agricultural middle class, but essentially anybody with a couple coins to rub together and no connections). He never knew that his mother’s brother was arrested by the KGB and either tortured to death or outright executed in Moscow in the late thirties. He never knew that his maternal grandparents starved to death, and their bodies were left uncovered in the freezing Russian winter, since no family remained to bury them.
He learned those things only after the Cold War thaw in the late sixties, and he found that he hated the Soviets for what they had done to his family.
The Mennonites are a group without a home or nation, a group that has moved many times, and faced terrible persecutions. Yet to a man like Ed, who could see the cruelty and injustice around him, even etched in the lines on his mother’s face, it was more than simply history.
You don’t simply forgive the murder of family members, regardless if you heard about it the day after or decades later. You don’t simply forget the destruction of your community, the rape and abuse of your neighbours, the blatant theft of your land and property. Mennonite or not, Christian or not, you want justice.
In Canada Ed was a dentist. He watched perestroika, glasnost, the destruction of the wall, and the attempted coup as a distant observer. Yet in 1995 he was offered the opportunity to volunteer his services to the needy in the new Russian state, and, seeing a chance for emotional redemption, he jumped at it. He journeyed with seventy other medical professionals to Moscow and set up a temporary office. Little did he know that his clientele, far from being the bottom segments of the citizenry, were often going to be military officials and their wives.
They were not the same officials who had arrested Ed’s grandfather, or tortured his uncle, but they were still corruption within a corrupt system based on exploitation. Many had benefited from the brutality of their predecessors, or carried out violent acts against so-called ‘enemies’ of the Soviet state. Ed held the memory of his family and the responsibilities of his profession side by side, and found it hard to do.
One day he was entrusted with the KGB head’s wife, and Ed realized he was shaking as he worked. He was tempted not to use any anesthetic, to make her hurt, in some small way, as his grandparents had hurt. He wanted to stop, to refuse to help this woman who had dumbly benefited from so much atrocity — indeed was still benefiting (she had been bumped to the front of the line waiting outside Ed’s office). He realized then what he was, a Mennonite, serving the KGB even after the Soviet Union no longer existed and Stalin was only a terrible memory.
Ed did his job, served the rest of his time in Russia, and came back to my hometown a different man. He still bled for the memory of his grandparents, but his bitterness no longer tempted him. He had seen the talking, laughing, new generation translating for the volunteers in Moscow, and come to a startling epiphany. His stories, the stories of his grandparents and the other Mennonites were part of the past, and the present had outrun them. The future was a different world, and Ed would not tarnish it with the consequences of his history.
He had seen the new generations of Russians in Moscow, and found he could not blame them for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers.
Ed is not the only Mennonite with grandparents and great-grandparents who went missing during the dark years. He’s not the only one that heard whispers of starvation, atrocity, rape, and murder amongst the murmurs of the survivors. He is also not the only one who has been able to forgive, even though such grace is remarkable every time it occurs.
I don’t think I could find it within me to do what Ed did. I believe in absolutes, things like righteousness and justice, equality and respect. I have been raised on a steady diet of media in which the bad guy is always punished for his sins, and the protagonist does not starve to death on the steppes of Russia.
I would not have gone back to Moscow, I don’t think I could have found the strength.