|Vol. 10 No. 3||
Roots and branches
Looking Out for my Brothers: Mary Neumann's recollections about her father, B.B.Janz
by Helen Rose Pauls
Mary Neumann greets me with a hug, "My good friend's daughter has come to visit me." She is shrunk at over 90 years, but her eyes are as bright as ever. I remember her from my childhood as the storekeeper's wife from Arnold, not realizing until much later that she is the daughter of Mennonite statesman, B.B.Janz, to whom many of us owe gratitude for being in Canada.
When asked to tell me impressions of her father, she does not hesitate. "I loved my father very much," she says, "so the least I can do is tell about him."
"I was born in a village in Ukraine called Tiege, where our father B.B. Janz was the teacher. The teacherage and the school were under one small thatched roof. At school Papa was my teacher and I didn't know what to call him, so I didn't call him anything. At home, he played the violin while he taught us many songs, and he also had us perform in front of the school. In winter, while mother made supper, he read us stories and got quite emotional during the sad parts. We little girls all cried, too. Then he was called for his two years of alternative military service in the forest, and was rarely home.
On one of his visits, he brought me a doll cradle of woven twigs which he had made during the cold, dark and lonely winter nights. Meanwhile, we had to move into a little house on the churchyard, where mother and us five children could clean the church. We had the use of a small barn for keeping a cow and chickens, as well as a fruit and vegetable garden. Mother was very resourceful. She could sew and make over old clothes, dry the fruit from the orchard, and dig and store potatoes for winter. She was a farmer, and had said as a young woman that she would never marry a teacher or preacher. However, not once did my parents own a home or land in Russia."
It was during this time, that Russia's turmoil began. Revolution, civil war, forced collection of grain and produce, Machno's massacres, famine, and disease decimated the country and the Mennonite villages. B.B. Janz, ordained as a minister in 1909, felt an overwhelming responsibility to help his people. He corresponded with American Mennonites about the plight of their brothers and sisters in Europe, and chaired the Union of Descendants of Dutch Lineage (Verband der B?rger Hollandischer Herkunft; VBHH) in 1920, the foremost Mennonite political organization in Russia at that time. He tried to negotiate the release of Mennonite youth conscripted into the Red army, but with little success. By 1921, when the famine hit Ukraine, Janz had become a foremost diplomat and negotiator, helping to clear the way for American Mennonite relief agencies to send food to the starving colonies. His tenacity prevailed and food arrived, too late for some. This effort was the beginning of what would come to be called the Mennonite Central Committee.
"What a brave mother I had," Mary continues. "When the poor years came and food was scarce, I remember mother and we children standing as we always did, to say grace before the meal. Mother said 'Amen', and suddenly she fell to the floor. She had given what food there was to us, and had fainted from hunger. One day when father was home, an American visitor entered our little house. Oh, how wonderful he looked with beautiful clothes, shiny shoes, lovely things, and he was so well groomed! We were instantly in awe of "America". Father had been begging for bread from his "brothers" in America, and this man had been sent to see conditions in Russia. Soon we had a food kitchen in the local school, as did most of the Mennonite villages, and the neediest, mostly children and the elderly, could receive a meal a day. What joy! America had sent food..
And more joy--baby Martha was born. Oh how we loved that beautiful child! Not everything was dark, because she was a sunbeam! Martha entered our family, and Peter, my oldest brother, had to leave it. He was close to the age of being taken into the army and that should not be, so he was sent to Canada with relatives. Our turn would come later, after father helped many others leave. One evening father came home after another long absence, and little Martha asked me who that man was, for she could not remember him."
B.B. Janz was the first leader to explore emigration seriously, foreseeing a very bleak future for Mennonites in Russia. His tenacity and integrity gave him influence with Russian authorities. During this time, he was usually away from his family, in meetings in Charkov or Moscow. Although the leaders had drawn up lists of 20,000 hopeful ?migr?s, there were setbacks: repeals, medical inspections, difficulties with visas, devalued currency, a war-ravaged transportation system, and uncertainty on the part of the sponsoring Canadian Pacific Railway and the host country. These terrifying waits during this chaotic time made people very anxious, and in desperation, they flocked to the Janz home.
"We began to dread it whenever dad was home," Mary says. "We were five children and two parents in a little house, and my sisters and I slept on the "pull-out" bench beneath the front room settee. We could not go to bed until the last visitor had decided to leave. How mother coped, I cannot imagine."
"One day, when father was in his Moscow room, a Communist friend came to him and said, 'Janz, it is high time that you get out of this country, because they are looking for you!' Dad bought his visa in a different city and came home to say good-bye to us. He returned to Moscow with his hat deep over his forehead and with his collar up, and left on the train for Latvia. Months later, we held an auction and also left our home, with dad's friend who would help us in Moscow. He saw us onto our train to the border of Latvia, where the big red gate stood. What tension was in the air! How quiet it was on the train as we neared the border and the train went slower and slower. Praise God, the train was not stopped, and men threw their hats in the air, and we sang, 'Now Thank We All Our God'! Arrangements had been made for us to travel to Southampton, England, and as our ship docked, father appeared on the deck. What a reunion!"
"Before long, we were living in a house in Winnipeg. It was wonderful to be together as a family and make a new start. It took only a few days for my two older sisters and I to find work as domestics in private homes in the city. At fifteen, I was expected to earn the money to pay my travel debt to the C.P.R. Father would spend much energy, and travel all over Canada, trying to collect this debt from the "brotherhood", together with David Toews from Rosthern, Sask.. Also, he had a new challenge, as he knew no English. When he had to eat in restaurants during his travels, he would just point to something on the menu. Usually he ate whatever came, but sometimes he couldn't."
Eventually, the family was able to buy farmland in Coaldale, Alberta, where Janz became the leading minister. He traveled extensively for the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, helped found the Coaldale Bible School, the Coaldale Mennonite High School, as well as serving on boards such as MCC, Christian Press, and the Canadian M.B. Conference. He was even sent to South America for a year of reconciliation and resettlement among the various Mennonite groups there, to unite the recent settlers into one harmonious church. This job was very difficult, as each group held on to their own ideas. Janz apparently lay on the earth and cried, "Help me Lord, for I don't know what to do." The churches eventually melded together. It was this reliance on God that gave Janz the tenacity to continually "Look out for his brothers".
*taken from an interview with Mary Neumann, Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia [ v] , and a speech that Mary wrote for her ninetieth birthday.