Literature, Russo-German Mennonite (To 1950s)
This section treats the literature in the German language by or about the Mennonites living in Russia or as emigres in Germany, United States, and Canada into the 1950s. With the improvement of education among the Mennonites of Russia a greater interest in literature became noticeable during the second half of the 19th century. Small home and school libraries were started by the turn of the 20th century. Some Mennonite teachers took up writing.
Bernhard Harder, a well-known minister and evangelist of Russia, wrote many poems for practically every occasion, which were collected and edited by Heinrich Franz, Sr., and published in 1888 under the title Geistliche Lieder und Gelegenheitsgedichte. J. H. Janzen says that Bernhard Harder was "our first significant poet," whose songs breathe "a warm, lifelike piety of the heart out of which joy radiates, many of them having the essence of folk songs." Peter B. Harder, a son of Bernhard Harder, also a teacher, was one of the pioneer novelists of the Mennonites of Russia. Best known is the novel Die Lutherische Cousine. In Lose Blatter, a collection of short stories and poems which appeared in 1910 in Aufwärts, he portrays Mennonite life in Russia with great ability and power of observation. J. H. Janzen says that because of his writing about Mennonites he "was regarded almost as an outsider," in spite of his being a very good teacher and the son of the widely known and recognized Bernhard Harder. About Lose Blatter Janzen says that they "enjoyed kind reception" although they caused the author much criticism from those who felt exposed.
Heinrich J. Janzen, the father of J. H. Janzen, wrote poetry under the title "Erzeugnisse schlafloser Nachte," of which several appeared in H. Dirks' Mennonitisches Jahrbuch (Halbstadt, 1905-13) and some were taken into the Gesangbuch. J. H. Janzen says about his father's poems that he fears "they will never become real folksongs." They have depth and thought but lack elasticity.
J. H. Janzen published his first fiction in the form of short stories under the pseudonym J. Zenian and the title Denn meine Augen haben Deinen Heiland gesehen, Erzählungen von J. Zenian (Halbstadt, n.d., 1910). Two parts of this book were reprinted in Canada in 1925 and 1927 as Du hast Dich meiner Seele herzlich angenommen and Dein Blut. The author states that his book "was reviewed favorably in most German papers of Russia, America, and also Germany." Arnold Dyck, another Mennonite writer, describes vividly in "Jacob H. Janzen—Writer" (Mennonite Life, July 1951, 33) what an overwhelming impression this book made on him and others when at last a gifted Mennonite writer wrote about Mennonite life in the form of fiction. J. H. Janzen himself states that he, Martin Fast, and Gerhard Loewen formed a "league of young poets" at that time. Although they could not meet because of distance they sent each other poems and encouraged and criticized each other in chain letters. Gerhard Loewen, also a teacher and minister, published a collection of poems under the title Feldblumen. Arnold Dyck, who republished this volume in North Kildonan, Manitoba, in 1940, says, "His poems are flawless in form and diction. In this category they belong to the best that the pen of our writers has left us." He quotes Linde, the German literary critic, who speaks of his poems as "not being overwhelmingly beautiful but very lovely" (Mennonite Life, January 1948, 23). Martin Fast of Muravyevka, Samara, also wrote poems. Unfortunately, little information is available about his life and writings. These were the pioneers of Mennonite fiction and poetry in Russia. Those of the younger generation who were inspired by them produced their writings primarily in Canada.
The Russian Revolution interrupted a phase of cultural development and brought it to a sudden halt. It can be expected that some literature and poetry was produced under Communism but it in the 1950s it was too early to make a study of it. Jacob Sudermann, an artist and poet, died in a concentration camp. Signs of literary efforts are found in Unser Blatt published in Russia in 1925-1927.
The sufferings and experiences of 1914 and later produced an unusual crop of young Mennonite writers, most of whom left Russia to settle, at least temporarily, in Germany. Theodor Block published Hungerlieder (Bad Homburg, 1922); A. B. Enn's, a book of poems, Die Hütte (Emden, 1924); Dietrich Neufeld, Ein Tagebuch aus dem Reiche des Totentanzes (Emden, 1921; also printed in the United States in English 1930 at Claremont as Russian Dance of Death with the author's pen name Dirk Gora); also by Neufeld are Mennonitentum in der Ukraine (Emden, 1922), and Zu Pferd 1000 km durch die Ukraine (Emden, 1922). His writings reveal literary qualities. Later in Canada he continued along these lines by writing, under the name Novokampus, Kanadische Mennoniten (Winnipeg, 1925). Gerhard Fast's Im Schatten des Fades, Erlebnisbericht aus Sowjetrussland (Wernigerode, 1935) is a moving report, historical in fact, but powerfully and imaginatively written and of high literary quality.
More recently Hans Harder, a teacher in the pedagogical school at Wuppertal, Germany, has devoted a number of novels to the Mennonites of Russia. His In Wologdas weissen Wäldern (Altona, 1934) describes the suffering of the Mennonites of Russia sent to the concentration camps of northern Russia. In Das Dorf an der Wolga (Stuttgart, 1937) he portrays in fiction the beginning, flowering, and decline of a Mennonite village of the Volga area. In his novel Das sibirische Tor (Stuttgart, 1938) he treats the Orenburg Mennonites, portraying the German Mennonite culture in the Russian environment. Die Hungerbrüder (Heilbronn, 1938) is the account of a family of German settlers in Russia, possibly Mennonites, who in the horrors of famine and starvation make their way to the East to escape from Russia. When they cross the river into China only the two boys are left, penniless, and are found by a relief organization, obviously the Mennonite Central Committee, and sent to South America. These are the major novels in which he treats Mennonites. Of the many Mennonite writers who have written on the Mennonites of Russia no other has found as much recognition in the German press as Harder, and he is probably the best writer of fiction produced as yet by the Mennonites anywhere. He hopes to complete a cycle of Mennonite novels, which would include the American aspect. Harder's writings rarely mention Mennonites, presenting his characters as Germans, but those who know their background can readily identify it as Mennonite. Other novels by Harder, all with non-Mennonite but Russian, themes, are Wie Lukas Holl seine Heimat suchte (1938), Der deutsche Doctor von Moskau (1940), Klim: ein russisches Bauernleben (1940), and Die vier Leiden des Adam Kling (1942).
Among the Mennonite writers who were educated in Russia and came to the United States after World War I and have made significant contributions using the German language is Peter G. Epp, whose outstanding novel is Eine Mutter (Bluffton, 1932). He also published Das Wunder (Newton, 1926), Die Erlösung (Bluffton, 1930), Johanna, and Das Geisslein. Several chapters of his large manuscript "An der Molotschna" were published in Der Bote (Rosthern). Epp had an unusual gift for portraying Mennonite culture.
The Mennonites of Canada who had come from Russia after World War I were, at least initially, much more productive in the field of literature than the earlier immigrants from Russia, whose only significant product had been Isaac Friesen's two volumes of religious verse, Im Dienste des Meisters (Constance, Germany, ca. 1910). The later immigrants had, in Russia, reached an economic, religious, and educational level by about 1910 in which reflection and literary production could be anticipated. The terrible experiences during the Russian Revolution and under the Communist regime brought about fruition along these lines in a way unprecedented except possibly in the Netherlands during the Golden Age after the period of martyrdom. There was, thus, a sudden emergence of writers among the Mennonites in Russia who then migrated to Canada after World War I. This Russo-German Mennonite literary output is at times fully conscious of the religious background and mission of the Mennonites, but above all it is, in most cases, representative of a German culture of which the educated Mennonites of Russia became more fully aware at the turn of the 20th century.
J. H. Janzen, who came to Canada in 1924, was a prolific writer. In Russia he had published his first fiction in the form of short stories under the pseudonym J. Zenian and the title Denn meine Augen haben Deinen Heiland gesehen, Erzählungen von J. Zenian (Halbstadt, 1910). Two parts of this book were reprinted in Canada in 1925 and 1927 as Du hast Dich meiner Seele herzlich angenommen and Dein Blut. The author states that his book "was reviewed favorably in most German papers of Russia, America and also Germany." Arnold Dyck, another Mennonite writer, vividly describes in "Jacob H. Janzen-Writer" (Mennonite Life, July 1951, 33) what an overwhelming impression this book made on him and others when at last a gifted Mennonite writer wrote about Mennonite life in the form of fiction. J.H. Janzen himself states that he, Martin Fast and Gerhard Loewen formed a "league of young poets" at that time. Although they could not meet because of distance they sent each other poems and encouraged and criticized each other in chain letters. In Canada Janzen became one of the most productive Mennonite authors. Of his approximately forty books and booklets published in Canada many are short stories and plays. (For a complete list, see Mennonite Life, July 1951, 42). Well known are his Low German one-act plays, De Bildung (Blumenort, 1912; Waterloo, 1945), De Enbildung (1913), Daut Schultebott (1913), Utwaundere (1931), and his collection of poems Durch Wind und Wellen (Waterloo, 1928). In Wanderndes Folk (3 vols., 1945-49) the author relates incidents from his family history in fictional form. Tales from Ancient and Recent Mennonite History (1948), his only writing in English, is a popularized and fictionalized narrative, a translation of his Erzählungen aus der Mennoniten-Geschichte (1943). Unfortunately in his later years Janzen had to depend on his own mimeograph to spread his writings. The limited editions of his writings, the sale being largely limited to the Mennonite market, made it impossible to have them printed without financial loss.
Gerhard Loewen, also a teacher and minister, published a collection of poems in Russia under the title Feldblumen. Arnold Dyck, who republished this volume in North Kildonan, Man. in 1940, says, "His poems are flawless in form and diction. In this category they belong to the best that the pen of our writers has left us." He quotes Linde, the German literary critic, who speaks of Loewen's poems as "not being overwhelmingly beautiful but very lovely" (Mennonite Life, January 1948, 23). Loewen continued to write after he immigrated to Canada in 1925, and in 1946 he released a second enlarged edition of Feldblumen (Steinbach, Man., 1946).
A very significant Canadian writer was Arnold Dyck, who wrote High German as well as Low German fiction and plays. He introduced himself to the Mennonite reading public as the editor of the Mennonitische Warte (1935-38) and of a series of booklets on Russian Mennonite history published by the Echo Verlag. During the war he wrote the novel Verloren in der Steppe, which he illustrated himself, and which was published in five volumes (Steinbach, 1944-48). In this story he relates the experiences of Hänschen who was "lost" in the steppes of the Ukraine. Like Peter Epp in Eine Mutter, Dyck succeeds in depicting Mennonite village life and the culture in general in a masterful way. In Meine Deutschlandfahrt (North Kildonan, 1950) the author relates his experiences during a return visit to Germany after World War II, where he finally settled in 1954. Dyck, however, will probably remain best remembered for his Low German writings. His two-volume Koop enn Bua op Reise (Steinbach, 1943) has been reprinted repeatedly. This was followed by Dee Millionäa von Kosefeld (Steinbach, 1946) and the two-volume Koop enn Bua faore nao Toronto (North Kildonan, 1948f.). In Dee Fria (Steinbach, 1947) Dyck presents a Low German one-act play, of which he soon published a new edition with an added twenty-fifth scene. This was followed by two one-act plays dealing with the forestry service program among the Mennonites of Russia, entitled Wellkaom op'e Forstei (North Kildonan, 1950) and De Opnaom (1951). Onse Lied en ola Tiet (Steinbach, 1952) contains a collection of humorous Low German stories and skits. The Low German plays by Dyck have been presented in many Mennonite communities and schools of Canada and the United States and always find a receptive audience.
G.A. Peters wrote a number of books and other prose dealing with the experiences of the Mennonites of the Ukraine during and after the Revolution. Among them are Menschenlos in schwerer Zeit (Scottdale, 1924?) and Wehrlos? (Scottdale, 1924?). He published two volumes of his poems, entitled Gedichte I, II (Scottdale, 1924?), as well as another collection of his poems entitled Blumen am Wegrand (North Kildonan, 1946).
One of the most productive writers was Peter J. Klassen who presented his experiences among the Mennonites of Russia and Canada in numerous volumes. These included Grossmutters Schatz (Superb, 1939), Die Geschichte des Ohm Klaas (Yarrow), Heimat einmal (two volumes, Yarrow), Die Heimfahrt (Superb, 1943), Der Peet (four volumes, Superb, 1943-49), Verlorene Söhne (Winnipeg, 1952), Als die Heimat zur Fremde geworden (Winnipeg, 1933?), and Fünfunddreissig Fabeln (Superb, 1944), the last largely a translation of the Russian Krylov.
Johann P. Klassen wrote many poems. J.H. Janzen, who calls Klassen "the most productive and most natural of our poets," says, "An inexhaustible and an unconquerable joy speaks out of all his poems." Some of his poems were published in the following volumes: Wegeblumen (Scottdale, 1924?), Dunkle Tage (Scottdale, 1924?), Krümlein (Scottdale, 1924), Brocken (Winnipeg, 1932), Meine Garbe (Vancouver, 1946), Der Zwillingsbruder von "Meine Garbe" (Vancouver), Nohoaksel (Yarrow, 1946), Roggenbrot (Vancouver, 1946), and Aehrenlese (Winnipeg).
Gerhard Toews (Georg de Brecht) wrote Heimat in Trümmern (Steinbach, 1936) and Die Heimat in Flammen (Regina, ca. 1922). Gerhard Johann Friesen (Fritz Senn), like most of the Canadian writers, published many of his poems and other contributions in the Mennonitische Warte (1935-38). This was also the case with G. G. Wiens who, under the name "Jan Friesen," wrote very unhappy reminiscences about the American Mennonites (Mennonitische Warte, 1938).
Heinrich Görz published a collection of poems, Gedichte (North Kildonan). Abram Johann Friesen wrote a short story, Prost Mahlzeit (Grünthal, 1949) and a drama, Gott grüsse Dich! (Grünthal, 1952). Karl Fast in Gebet der Wahrheit die Ehre (three volumes, North Kildonan, 1950-52) relates in an autobiographical narrative the last years of his experience in Russia before World War II and his time as a prisoner of war.
These are only representative of the writers among the Mennonites of Canada originally from Russia who wrote fiction, poetry, and drama dealing with their own heritage and experiences; the catastrophic years of the Russian Revolution and Communism are often predominant in their writing. Much fiction and poetry can be found in the German Mennonite papers published between World Wars I and II, particularly in Die Mennonitische Welt (Winnipeg, 1948-52), Der Bote (Rosthern, Sask., 1924- ), Der Herold (Newton, Kan.), and Mennonitische Rundschau (Winnipeg, Man.). Many of the writers wrote under pseudonyms.
The climax of this Russo-German Mennonite literary movement seems to have been reached and passed. Because of the gradual adjustment of the Mennonites to the Canadian environment, literature by Mennonites is increasingly written in English and reflects less of the Russo-German tradition. Nonetheless, the writings in the German language, although increasingly less read, will remain a monument of a literary achievement.
See also Literature, North American Mennonite (1950-1985); Literature, Mennonites in -- Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France; Literature, North American Mennonite (1960s-2010s); other articles beginning Literature
Bender, Elizabeth Horsch. "Mennonites in German Literature." Master's thesis, University of Minnesota, 1944.
"Books by J. H. Janzen." Mennonite Life 6 (July 1951): 42.
Dyck, Arnold. "Jacob H. Janzen--Writer." Mennonite Life 6 (July 1951): 33.
Dyck, Cornelius J. "How Literary Critics Have Evaluated Mennonite Writers of the Twentieth Century." Unpublished paper, Bethel College, 1953.
Fast, Bertha. "Low German Literature for Children." Unpublished collection, 1948, Bethel College Historical Library.
Janzen, Jacob H. "The Literature of the Russo-Canadian Mennonites." Mennonite Life 1 (January 1946): 22-25.
Klein, K. K. Literaturgeschichte des Deutschtums im Ausland. Leipzig, 1939.
Krahn, Cornelius. "Hans Harder--A Mennonite Novelist." Mennonite Life 8 (April 1953): 78.
Langenbucher, H. Volkhafte Dichtung der Zeit. Berlin, 1937.
Quiring, Horst and Cornelius Krahn. "Mennonites in German Literature--1940-1950." Mennonite Life 7 (April 1952): 85.
Schneider, Wilhelm. Die auslanddeutsche Dichtung unserer Zeit. Berlin, 1936.
Soergel, Albert. Dichtung und Dichter der Zeit. Leipzig, 1928.
Suderman, Elmer F. "The Russo-German Mennonite Theme in the American Novel." Master's thesis, University of Kansas, 1948.
Cite This Article
Krahn, Cornelius. "Literature, Russo-German Mennonite (To 1950s)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 23 Apr 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Literature,_Russo-German_Mennonite_(To_1950s)&oldid=169161.
Krahn, Cornelius. (1957). Literature, Russo-German Mennonite (To 1950s). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 April 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Literature,_Russo-German_Mennonite_(To_1950s)&oldid=169161.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 370-372. All rights reserved.
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