by Liz Jansen
Sunday I’ll walk to the cenotaph at the Orangeville town square. I’ll join hundreds of others gathered to remember the men and women who have served, and continue to serve, during times of war, conflict, and peace. With each step, I’ll breathe a prayer of gratitude for being able to live in a land of peace, freedom, and opportunity.
One hundred years ago when the Armistice was signed, my ancestors lived in southern Russia, now Ukraine, in the self-sustaining Mennonite colonies they’d thrived in for more than a hundred years.
During WWI, Russia and the British Empire (which included Canada) were allies; Germany an enemy. Russian Mennonites were loyal citizens, but they were of German ethnicity and spoke German. Non-resistance was (and still is) a core Mennonite tenet. Rather than participating in conflict at the front, (most) men served in alternate services, such as medics.
WWI may have ended on November 11, 1918, but Russia was not at peace. Precipitated by the 1917 abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, followed by the Bolshevik overthrow of the Provisional Government, she was in the throes of a savage civil war. My grandparents were still teenagers.
Anarchy reigned and Russia seethed with turmoil and conflict. Years of living with indiscriminate plundering, terror, and mass murders, compounded by starvation and hyperinflation, followed for all citizens. German-speaking Russian citizens, who because of their values had not fought for their country, became direct targets of terrorists. Not until 1924 and 1925 were my ancestors, penniless refugees, able to flee to Canada.
Deeply divided Canadians resisted opening the doors to these people who looked different, came from a foreign culture, and spoke German (a reminder of their recent enemy). Under the leadership, vision, and courage of Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, legislation barring immigration was revoked and émigrés allowed in.
Sadly, Johann Klassen, my paternal grandfather, died at age twenty-eight, two years after arriving here. Mom’s father, Gerhard Reimer, lived to age eighty. Having a say in government was new for someone who had grown up under the Tsar. Gerhard voted in every election. His perspectives and work ethic aligned more with Conservative party policies, but his gratitude overruled party lines. Out of gratitude to the Prime Minister who made it possible for Mennonites to come to Canada, he always voted Liberal.
Remembrance Day is a special day to honor those who made it possible for me to live in this land of peace, freedom, and opportunity, but I remember their sacrifice every day. With each step, I breathe a prayer of gratitude.
May we never forget.
Preview the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Crash Landing—a memoir exploring how the experiences of my ancestors shaped me.
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Related articles: Remembrance Day 2016: Remembering Isn’t Enough