Growing up in Turbulent Times: Memoirs of Soviet Oppression, Refugee Life in Germany, and Immigrant Adjustment to Canada
Waldemar Janzen. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2007. 279 pages.
Appropriately titled, this autobiographical book reflectively details the life of the author as a young boy growing up in Stalinist Russia and emigrating to Canada following World War II.
Engaging the reader from the very start, Waldemar Janzen begins immediately with the story rather than spending considerable time with context. Context emerges as the story unfolds. In very understated fashion (refreshing for such an autobiography) he begins to describe the turbulent events through which he and his mother lived.
Many books and autobiographies have been written about Mennonite émigrés over the years. Each has a different perspective as each person experienced the same times in their own fashion. What sets this autobiography apart from the others is its primary concentration on the life of a young boy growing up amid one of the greatest social revolutions of the twentieth century. The autobiography concludes when the author is twenty-four, and has completed university and seminary. However, through a spare postscript, the reader is filled in on the rest of Janzen’s life and career into retirement.
Janzen’s father was arrested and taken from the family when he was three years of age. His father was a teacher and also a minister. He was the last minister of the Ohrloff Mennonite church. On occasion, his mother was able to visit him in prison, and then for years they would not hear from him. He experienced many arrests and deprivations. In 1957 his father died—still trying to get out of the Soviet Union. Hence the book is largely about Janzen and his mother as they survive and escape the Soviet Union.
What makes this book so engaging is that the author—who became a well-known Old Testament scholar and teacher—kept a diary as a young boy in which he noted his observations of the dramatic events that unfolded around him and his mother. Repeatedly he refers to, and sometimes quotes, his diary entries. They provide a fascinating window into the thinking and reflections of a displaced person and, later, a refugee.
Throughout the book Janzen provides some very personal glimpses into their lives as a small family unit of mother and son. Often, in other such accounts, the difficulties are recalled with a stiff upper lip and a sense of mandatory Christian triumphalism. Janzen seems not to do that—at least not that can be detected.
A poignant moment is the description of his usually strong mother breaking down with the burden of holding a full-time job in a Soviet factory, caring for aging parents and a young son, and at moments suffering from acute headaches and despair over their plight. At times it would become too much for her and she would beat her fists against her head. Janzen notes: “That was very upsetting for me, so I grabbed her hands to pull them away and pleaded with her to stop” (19). He notes that his mother suffered from depression and that the disease ran in her family. But for him to so honestly describe such occurrences is boldly refreshing and one soon senses that this is a reflection that is perhaps a more honest description of the stress and difficulties that most DP’s and refugees had to endure. Janzen does not present a varnished portrait of strength amidst adversity. He portrays life as it was.
Another such moment is the author’s description of religious life in the Soviet Union. He notes honestly the duplicity in their lives:
I lived in two worlds, in a state of unconscious compart-mentalizing. On the one hand, I heard Bible stories and believed them; prayed my bedtime prayers. . . . At the same time—without a conscious sense of contradiction—I respected my teachers (in school), listened to political instruction, and kept the home world to myself. (37)
He goes on to reflect on what this must have meant for his mother and other parents of Christian families. They literally trained their children in duplicity (his words) since all Christian parents knew that there was no other way to live without risking being sent to concentration camps and losing their children forever to Communist orphanages. The theme of ethical issues that DP’s and refugees faced runs throughout the book. It surfaces in particular in how a young boy such as he experiences it. He makes no apology for that.
Janzen notes that from early on he was attracted to the “holy.” While he knew that he had Mennonite roots, his consistent church experience in Germany and later in Waterloo, Ontario, was Lutheran. He attended Waterloo Lutheran as a young man and then took his last year of seminary at the Mennonite seminary in Chicago. It is fascinating that the early education and faith experience of this notable Mennonite Biblical scholar was Lutheran and not Mennonite.
Intriguing in this regard is his chapter on “Faith Struggles, Baptism and Confirmation” (Chapter 23). What he experienced was not a struggle with doubt, but rather a struggle with sorting out faith and faith practice in his own mind. He notes how the first part of his life, together with his mother, was a time to simply to expend all effort in order to survive. Once they had immigrated into post-war Germany, there was time to reflect and discern issues of faith. Having by this time already encountered everything from atheism to various Christian denominations, it was a time to formulate a deep faith commitment that would influence and guide him the rest of his life.
The concluding section of this four-part book narrates Janzen’s immigration to Canada and life as a young man in high school, university, and seminary. He describes and reflects upon his and his mother’s perceived cultural separation both in school and in the Mennonite church they attended in Waterloo. How does one fit in when one’s life experiences are so very different from those of one’s peers? He details the journey to negotiate the gap in social, cultural, and religious perceptions.
A defining moment occurs when he decides to further his education rather than taking some very good jobs offered to him. He makes the choice and becomes a scholar and teacher. This is important and strikingly unusual. Of the thousands of post-World War II Mennonite refugees, I can only think of four who went on into higher education and earned doctorates. Waldemar is one of them. Many refugees obtained jobs, often in the construction industry, and went on to do very well for themselves. A sizeable number went on to earn fortunes. I have frequently heard it said that post-World War II Mennonite refugees were too aggressive. I doubt if they were any different from refugees who enter our country today and see opportunities everywhere after having had so few in the countries from which they emigrate.
This book ranks among the finest as an autobiography on this period of time. It is social history of a young person at its very best. It is well worth the read.