Sunday, January 30, 2011

What do I do with this?

I don't even know where to start.

Have you read the Hunger Games trilogy?
They are an incredibly captivating series of books, set in the future, where hunger is everyone's constant companion. No, really. Everyone is always hungry. Deathly hungry. Which gives those in authority a real power over the starving masses. 

Then there are "the games" where, on live television, for entertainment (and to remind everyone of their power) the ruling government sets up an arena, where 24 young people, each from different regions of the country are imprisoned and have to kill each other in order to win the ultimate prize: food supplies for their district. 

The books were horrific and well written and spellbinding and imaginative. 

When I finished reading the series, my overriding feeling was a sense of relief that this was all fiction. Just a story. 

And then.

I bought my mom a book for Christmas called, Remember Us. 

She read it and recommended I do as well.
Not sure I'm going to recover from the experience.

It is August 1989, and Frank Bargen is cleaning out the attic of his Manitoba home. He has been storing some of his parents' belongings since they died twelve years earlier. Among the possessions is an old Campbell's Soup box. In casual conversation with his younger brother Peter Bargen and his wife Anne who are visiting, Frank refers to "a box of old letters" in the attic that are "just cluttering up the place." Peter finds the box, opens it up, and discovers hundreds of faded letters, some little more than scraps of paper. They are written in German gothic script and dated as early as 1930. To Peter's surprise, his mother had kept all of these letters from Russia until she died.

The correspondence is from aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, neighbours and friends, who by choice or fateful chance remained behind in the former Soviet Union. Their letters describe the inhumane conditions under which millions lived and died: from the mother dividing meagre portions of black bread among her starving children to the father prepared to freeze to death in order to provide for his children. Although the writers' words reveal human flaws and frailties, they also bring to light an elemental faith that united the Mennonite people for over 400 years. 

It was only when the cardboard box emerged from the attic in 1989 that Peter began to comprehend the suffering of his people. For three years, he and Anne organized and translated 463 of the "pre-war" letters (1930-38). Peter learned of the events that took place in the hours immediately following his family's flight in 1929, and the unthinkable horrors experienced by those left behind in Soviet Russia. Peter and Anne wanted their children, grandchildren, and extended family to know their own story, so they printed one hundred copies of the 463-letter collection in 1991.

Significantly, research has confirmed that the letters from Stalin's Gulag comprise the largest international corpus of its kind to date. Also noteworthy is that these letters were written "in the moment." Unlike many published memoirs written years later, after memory and the passage of time have possibly eroded the experience,  these letters capture the experiences of prisoners and villagers in actual time. 

Clandestinely carried out of the country, the letters offer a rare glimpse into the bleakest chapter in the Soviet Union's history. They open a previously obscured window into both the day-to-day existence in Stalin's prison camps and the suffering of oppressed people in their home villages. Yet the letters also evoke the human spirit's most enduring quality: hope.

The letters were written by the Regher family. Let me introduce them to you...

"Jasch, Maria and their six children lived on a quiet street in the small village of Altonau, in the larger Mennonite colony of Sagradowka. Altonau is a tree-lined village near the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine. The Ingultez River flows nearby. A large Cossack mound at the end of the central street is a reminder of previous inhabitants. The grassy mound provides an all-season playground for the children. Watermelon, fruit trees and agricultural crops thrive in the fertile soil. Friends, siblings, cousins, and grandparents in surrounding villages share meals and good times. The family works on their small farm, worships in the nearby church, and the children attend the local school.

However, in 1929, everything changes. They know they must leave. Jasch's sister Liese and her husband Franz Bargen leave quickly in the middle of the night. Jasch and Maria hesitate. Frail aging parents cannot be left behind. Twelve hours later the family pack their belongings and prepare to leave for Canada. They are too late. The border has been closed. Armed guards prevent their departure. Jasch is immediately arrested for attempting to leave. He is held in a local prison cell for eight months.

Maria and the children are homeless. They are now enemies of the new Marxist state. Labeled as kulaks, they are stripped of their citizenship, home, belongings and property. They wander from place to place – it is illegal to house kulaks. Eight months later, (June 6, 1931) the entire family – parents and children (the oldest 17 and youngest three years) are arrested. With only a few hours notice, Maria packs a handmade wooden trunk. Only one pillow and blanket for two people, several spoons, forks, cups, bowls and some clothing are permitted.

Packed into a granary with other prisoners for three days and nights, the family is reunited with Jasch. His sixteen-year old brother Aaron joins them, arrested in place of his frail father. All are herded into cattle cars at the railway station. For nine days, with sitting-room only, no toilet, no washing water, and a daily ration of thin soup, the train rolls north. It stops in a prison camp in the northern Ural Mountains. The entire family is caught in a prison system of unparalleled size and brutality.

A space five feet by five feet in a three-story barrack becomes their home – the wooden travel trunk their only possession. Sound travels freely between thin walls. Bed bugs and lice are their companions. From floor to ceiling, sleeping platforms crowd the perimeter of their room. For a ration of bread, Maria, her husband and children work in Stalin's industrial sites: forests, mines, railroads and smelters. Work dominates their lives. The oldest children, Liese (17) and Peter (15), are sent on a three days' journey to cut timber. They are wet day and night. With no change of clothes and no shoes, they use leaves, bark and rags. Daughter Mariechen (13) works in an unknown location, and "has not come home" for five days. Tina (12) walks five kilometers every day to shovel slag in an iron-ore smelter. Father Jasch watches his children "stagger through snow up to their bellies -- and so they must walk 5 km. and then work a 10 hour shift without pay."

Pleas for food begin in the first letter from father Jasch. Letters and packages from Altonau and from Canada arrive in the prison camp. The trickle of aid is hardly sufficient to keep the starving prisoners alive. Powdered milk, salt, barley and sometimes dried beans arrive in parcels. As days stretch into years, hope for freedom wanes. Jasch and son Peter do not survive. Maria and the remaining children struggle against disease, starvation and brutality. Yet somehow they survive.

Finally, in 1956, they are freed from the prison camp in the Gulag. But this is not liberty. They are forbidden to return to their former home; forbidden to leave Russia; and prohibited from practicing their religion. With no possessions and no employable skills, Maria and her surviving children begin a new life, first in the Urals, and eventually in Tokmak, Kyrgyzstan (near China). They work to obtain a cow, some chickens, and a small garden. But their former home on the tree-lined street in Altonau is now a shrouded memory."

My kin lived through real, not fictional HUNGER GAMES. Stalin organized a famine to demonstrate his power. To flex his muscles. To show them who was in charge.

Reading those letters? From people who are starving? People who are freezing? People who are broken and dying and without hope?
Has given me a stomach ache that won't go away. 
Especially the parts in the letters where they cry out; "Doesn't the world know what is happening here? Is no one outraged? Is no one coming to help us? Doesn't anyone care?"

Oy.Oy. Oy.

What do I do with this ache in my gut and sadness in my heart?
1. Thank God that my Ome and her sisters escaped. Thank God that my dad, who was born there, did not die there. 
2. Thank God that Grandpa and Granny and all their families escaped as well. 
3. Thank God AGAIN that I was born in this time and in this place. Let me never take this life I have been given for granted. 
4. Stop wrestling with God about why thousands (millions?) who prayed for deliverance were not delivered. And quit saying, "if He didn't answer their prayers why would He answer mine?" because THAT line of thinking is just making me sad and bitter.
5. Realize that there STILL are places on earth today where people are wondering, "Doesn't the world know that we are starving? We are being abused? We are being stripped of our dignity? We have no homes? Doesn't anybody care?"  
6. AND I can do something about it. I have been given the privilege of being able to work. And I can share what I earn with someone who has  no opportunity. No hope. No future. I can write letters of encouragement. I can pray. And I can encourage my kids and friends to do the same. 

If you have Mennonite blood in your veins, please read this book. A word of warning. It`s very hard to read it straight through. Letters upon letters, of Jasch and Maria begging (outright begging and being forceful about it) is hard to handle. So I'd read a section then escape by watching a few chick flicks. 

Three things I'm thankful for:
1. My life.
2. My mom who talked me through my despair after reading this book. Seriously. Four hours on the phone with me being raw and vulnerable and mad at God and sad for people long gone. (One of my fears regarding old age is wondering who will take her place in talking me off the edge when I need someone to vent to, cry to, be bitter to, share extreme joy with... Really. No one loves you like your mom.)
3. Opportunities to help.


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