“They Thought of Me”
Pondering Life’s Mysteries – 1 -
Based on an Excerpt from Shiny Shoes Vol. 1, Chapter 2:
“Bare Feet Between Two Continents”
In writing Shiny Shoes I’ve endeavored to remain accurate and true to Papa’s character and viewpoint throughout. Some readers, who knew Dad well, have commented that they hear his character, humor and even personality quirks coming through. Others, who have read books like The Poisonwood Bible, have asked my opinion. Suffice it to say that one is fiction, the other is first-person biography. Then there are those who wonder about my viewpoint as the daughter of pioneer missionaries. I’ve put off responding to such inquiries, but now, the comfortable avenue of blogging leaves me no excuse. Thus I dare to share musings—from my own point of view. More is available in the Kidz Korner if you happen to be young at heart.
My grandparents—from both sides—were Mennonite Russian immigrants fleeing religious persecution. Their stories are typical of those recounted in the video When They Shall Ask.
Unlike most children in the west, I lived thousands of miles away from my grandparents at a time when communication by phone were unavailable, and letters took four months to reach us. There are no memories of Christmases together or birthday celebrations, or family reunions, outings or play times. I must admit that, instead of memories, there’s just a dark hole in part of my heart.
I have no memory of my grandfathers. Though one grandmother sent crocheted doll clothes and such to me in Africa, my one and only vision of her is from a time when we had just returned from Africa after a term of service. There in a little circle of family members stood a withered little woman—almost blind—who kept repeating through her tears, “I’m so glad I can see you.” I have since realized that there must have been a hole in her heart as well. Such is the gnawing discipline known to those who must be separated from loved ones for professional and other reasons.
I started to feel curious about my family heritage during my teen years, but by then all my grandparents were already dead. I wish I could have listened to them recall their memories of Russia, their daily routines, homes, entertainment or activities they enjoyed, friends, church as well as their convictions, preoccupation and concerns. There are many mysteries that lie buried with them.
Some ten years ago I met an elderly woman who had been a neighbor of my grandparents who, hearing of my curiosity, graciously offered to show me the country house where my grandparents had once lived. Though the house stood in abandoned ruins, it provided a tangible link to them.
From this same dear woman I learned that my grandma played a dulcimer to accompany the family as they sang their old German hymns together. She also told how neighbors in the area thought of Grandma Kroeker as a “medecine woman” of sorts, because when an emergency arose, families all around would find their way to her door. One knock was sufficient for grandma to reach for her basket and black apron. Consequently her nickname became, “The Woman with the Basket.” This information came as a precious gem to cherish.
The most important revelation dawned, however, with the realization that the main reason for my grandparents’ dramatic decision to leave Russia was to provide religious freedom for their children, grandchildren, and later descendants. That put me in the picture.
In the writing of this chapter of Shiny Shoes I relied primarily on a small stapled booklet written by my Grandfather in scant diary form. To that Papa added his own recollections of details he’d heard.
A Family Leaves Russia—Their Adopted Land
“A touch of autumn in the early morning air wrapped a white blanket around the sleeping town of Karkhov, Russia. A darkly clad family huddled against the central post office waiting the arrival of the post coach.
“The sound of hoof-beats in the distance announced the approaching horses, and eventually a carriage pierced the fog as it slowed to a stop…
“First the coachman helped the young, obviously pregnant mother up the steps… then a boy of about two and another about five … finally the father with a one year old in his arms sat down. With a crack of the whip the horses picked up their burden and disappeared into the white cloud… Only a few had witnessed the family’s quiet departure… on that morning of September 25,1903…
“Russia had indeed been a happy and comfortable refuge. Fertile fields stretching over many acres had provided vast estates with lush harvests for many Mennonite families, including themselves…
“For a time soft breezes had blown away the fears and cares of the past they’d known in the Netherlands. But now dark clouds were gathering over the beautiful land they’d grown to love, predicting the soon coming of violent storms of oppression and suffering.
“The Russian government, under Catharine the Great had encouraged these hard-working Mennonites to inhabit the underdeveloped areas of Russia, promising monetary compensations, freedom of religion, and exemption from military service. Now their high standard of living was becoming cause for resentment.
“Some Mennonites used their affluence to benefit their workmen and needy neighbors. Others overlooked the needs of the peasants around them and grew cold in the false security of materialism. Some mingled with the Russians, sharing with them the faith dear to their hearts. Others lived in sophisticated ethnic islands, holding to the Dutch and German languages and emphasizing religious traditions rather than following the example of Christ.
“Katharina (wife of Peter and Mother of Abe) remembered how concerned her father had been about these inconsistencies. With a fluent knowledge of the Russian language along with a caring disposition, he’d had numerous opportunities to demonstrate his beliefs. His servants were considered as members of the family and when anyone approached him with a need, he’d stop whatever he was doing to talk and pray even if it meant halting machinery and a crew of harvesters. Most of his converts were his employees…
A Wrenching Decision
“Peter and Katharina had agonized over the decision to flee Russia… Had they known all the risks involved… they might have hesitated…
“After boarding a steamship in Libau, Poland, they soon found themselves in the long narrow Kiev canal… Suddenly a loud crashing sound pierced the air as the ship shook and finally shivered to a stop… “What happened?” Peter asked some of the passengers who were running through the hall.
“Our ship has crashed,” someone hollered back… On the deck… his eyes took in a strange picture. Meshed together were two ships, Their Anglo Davis had collided with The Johnson, a sister ship…
“Exhausting hours followed as passengers were jostled and herded to another ship. With relief Peter and Katharina settled their family into a crowded cabin. As they sang their familiar German hymns, the children slipped into sleep and the ship entered the open sea.
A Violent Storm
“Again the quiet was shattered, this time by a loud thunderbolt. Soon the ship began to rock and sway, creak and crack. With each passing moment the tossing became more violent. Katharina clung to the metal bars of the bunk to steady herself while Peter tried to maintain enough balance to reach the door. Fearing that the storm might become more intense, he wanted to make sure his family had … drinking water… for three months, as the ship inched its way across the Atlantic, the passengers wrenched with seasickness. When the Kroekers at last caught a first glimpse of their promised land, Peter burst into song while Katharine rubbed her swollen stomach… (her baby Abe) would be taking his first steps on free soil.”
In pondering the story a striking parallel comes to mind with the biblical Children of Israel in their escape from Egypt. What courage it must have taken for the Israelites to leave behind their comfortable homes, possessions, and all the known and familiar, to take an unknown course. Like Abraham before them, they set out by faith not knowing what lay before. No doubt they, like my grandparents far down in the pages of history, were thinking of their descendants enjoying the blessed freedom of The Promised Land.
Most magnificent is a comparison with the most significant picture of all where we see our Savior upon a shameful cross suffering untold agony to free sinners from the bondage of sin. Because of His death and victorious resurrection the chains that bound us to Satan—and to death—are broken. We are free. The ultimate Promised Land is now in our grasp, though for a time, we must travel a path beset by trials.
How blessed I am to think that when Jesus agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, stood before jeering crowds and before a mock jury, bore a crown of thorns, endured the slashing whip, carried His cross down the via dolorosa, and hung on Calvary. He thought of me …and you.