In Memory Of Jasch Regehr
In January 1933, Jasch (Jakob) Regehr wrote from a bleak Soviet gulag prison camp to his sister and brother-in-law in Canada, “If it would be possible to write all our days into a book under one title, it would certainly be called `Lamentations.’ There would be days that can never be forgotten and which must go to the grave with me….The future is so very dark, only hunger and starvation, and again hunger.”
This Mennonite “kulak” must have known, going for the third day without any bread, ill and confined with family members to a barrack hardly big enough for one person, seeing his children forced into hard labor, that he could not survive much longer. Less than nine months later he was in the grave he wrote about.
“Today it is three weeks since I had to bury my deeply beloved Jasch in that frightful, gloomy primeval forest. I shudder….Think of it, dear siblings, I can never weep over his grave again. Now it is winter and everything is under snow.” So wrote his widow Maria in October 1933.
And so reads the North American Mennonite in the comfort of his warm spacious home in January 2009, in the book “Remember Us: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1930-37), Volume One: The Regehr Family.” In that 2007 book, and in a companion DVD, “Through the Red Gate,” editor Ruth Derksen Siemens takes up her own spade to make sure that the bleak days of Jasch and Maria Regehr do not all remain in the obscurity of a northern Russia grave.
“Remember us! Remember us!”
But how then shall we remember?
There are lessons proposed and actions suggested in Derksen’s book and DVD, and elsewhere. Peter Bargen, who discovered the German gothic script stored mute in a Campbell’s soup box in a relative’s Canadian attic, and had the letters translated into English, concludes his videotaped interview on the DVD sadly, “Truly the inhumanity of man to man can reach great depths.”
In her epilogue to the book, Derksen writes, “attempting to make meaning out of the absurdity of the Soviet system in the 1930’s is a complex venture and likely a futile one….[but] we can address the silence.” Her courage and resolve to break the silence deserve our humble gratitude. “Their bodies died, but some of their voices live on….”
Next October (2009), the International Mennonite Memorial Committee (“IMMC”) will unveil a monument, “To Mennonite Victims of Tribulation, Stalinist Terror and Religious Oppression,” in the former Mennonite village of Khortitsa (Chortitza) in the Ukraine, in honor of the “one-third of all Soviet Mennonites who perished, most with no gravesite” (news release of IMMC, Mennonite Weekly Review, 1/12/09, p. 1).
This writer respects of all of these forms of tribute and appeals to conscience. But I am also haunted by the prospects of futility evoked by Derksen, especially as North America descends into a period of social cataclysm and financial chaos that could match the days of the Great Depression, or–God forbid–even the Stalinist terror of the 1930’s in the Soviet Union. What did we learn, what can we learn, what must we still learn, from the unspeakable sadness and horror of Jasch and Maria Regehr?
The experience of this American pacifist reading “Remember Us” is one of internal conflict. Repeatedly, the Regehrs write of their hopes of rescue, that their relatives and fellow church members in the West will rally others to their plight, that they will be saved from their oppressors. How could that happen? One captive’s release has apparently been demanded by Germany: “May God grant his blessings to such a development….Does the fact that there is a different government in Germany have any significance for us?” muses Jasch Regehr in May 1932.
It can be no coincidence, then, that when Hitler’s forces eventually sweep into the Ukraine, they are viewed as saviors by many Mennonite colonists. It is a stark reminder about how different the unfolding history looks to a Jasch Regehr from how it must have looked to a Midwestern Mennonite listening to the radio addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The letter-writers of the gulag need to speak with circumspection. In “Through the Red Gate,” Peter Bargen says these writers had to “speak through the flowers,” that is, to cloak the news and analysis of their slavery and abuse in language that would not lead to their execution were the letters to be opened and read by the authorities. Writing letters to the West was punishable as a criminal offense at some places and times during the gulag era, and at best was fraught with risk.
One of my clients expressed similar fears recently, he a military deserter from Laos, who was given chilling warnings about American spies by his Communist superior officers shortly after he had written to and received mail from his sister in California. Is there nothing new under the sun? So far, my client’s claim for the remedy of political asylum–one of man’s efforts to address the inhumanity of man to man–has been rejected, and he still speaks guardedly, as though “speaking through the flowers.”
But, at least for now, his American lawyer does not need to “speak through the flowers” when he writes about the suffering of his forbears in the Soviet Union. Or thinks he need not.
And therefore, I feel compelled to ask the conscientious reader and student of history to ask some big questions even in the face of the feelings of futility. Why? How was such brutality possible? Who was it that orchestrated this horror for my people and other innocents whose lives were run into the ground in the service of Soviet ideology?
It is socially acceptable to invest Josef Stalin with the main responsibility for these crimes, and indeed he must bear it, even though he may not have known the details–no doubt he did not want to know the details. The prison guards were no doubt “just doing their job,” just like the low-level front line of American capitalism, that hardens itself to the pleas of humanity. But who were the people who issued the orders, who enforced the brutality from their dachas in Moscow and regional headquarters? What mentality could have possibly allowed this cruelty?
Here one encounters something strange, particularly for a Mennonite. Here the serious student is forced to consider the disproportionate role that another ethnic community and its adherents–indeed its ideology–may have played in the horrific treatment of the Regehrs and multitudes like them.
“Remember us! Remember us!” Remember us with something just more than words and monuments! Remember us by naming the names of our persecutors–not for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of accountability, for the sake of truth and reconciliation, and for the sake of vigilance. Do not remember us with abstractions.
Mennonites have been good at honoring their Judaic brothers and sisters and the presumed Old Testament basis for their faith, in the 20th century and up to the present. It has also been a popular thing to do. No doubt it has sometimes been the right thing to do. In “Through the Red Gate,” Peter Bargen tells the dramatic and poignant story of his own family, who–unlike the Regehrs–escaped on the last trainload of Moscow refugees from impending Stalinist terror in 1929. He notes that they were sheltered in a duplex owned by a Jewish tailor on the outskirts of Moscow, while Peter’s father, a former mayor, went about his fearful way to obtain the documents necessary for his family to emigrate to Canada.
One terrifying evening, the family was saved by the prostitute who was allowed to ply her trade in the unit next door to them. When soldiers came looking for fugitives, she treated them instead to “quite a party” and they had forgotten the purpose of their visit by the time they left. Bargen understandably remarks, “God bless her”–and yet I was also struck by other implications of the story: that this dubious enterprise, catering to man’s weakness, that could not have been a secret from its Jewish landlord, was essentially being protected by the Soviet authorities–and while dekulakization proceeded full force.
The idea of Judaic proxies, willing to break the law and willing to do what Gentiles will not openly do themselves, for what they regarded as a higher morality–or was it perhaps simply for their own profit and that of their elite Gentile protectors?–is certainly not an idea unknown in history, even if it is regarded suspiciously as an unfair stereotype by liberal and tolerance-minded North Americans.
Does it mean anything, one isolated story? Perhaps not, but might it yet be a metaphor, or even just a hint, at an unseen reality that we have been reluctant to broach when we write about the suffering of Mennonites in Stalinist Russia, an unseen reality that also includes Mennonites turning against Mennonites, Mennonites informing on other Mennonites, Mennonites betraying their neighbors, Mennonites who complied with the new atheistic government whether out of egalitarian fervor or prudence, wealthy Mennonites and poor Mennonites, even Mennonites who rallied to aid and rely on certain outlaw Jews–and those who did not?
We flinch at naming Jews as outlaws or rogues just like we hesitate to name our own people as such. Why indeed name the Jews? Why not tell the story with Stalin as the only villain? But then, why not name Jews? I could not help but notice in Derksen’s book there is nary a reference to any rogue Jews, but that she credited Jewish scholars Anne Applebaum and Lewis Siegelbaum with helping her better understand the gulag system. Applebaum is author of Gulag: A History. Siegelbaum is chair of the history department at Michigan State University and editor of Stalinism as a Way of Life. These are progressive people, our kind of people, respectable Judaic intellectuals. Indeed, Soviet-era scholarship is heavily indebted to Jewish scholars, as will be even more evident below.
But this is also anomalous, because there is simply too much evidence of the heavy hand of ethnic Jews in Stalinist terror, even from Jewish writers themselves, to discount. May Mennonites, indeed all Christians, ask themselves the hard question, is this or that story lifted out of the pages of history simply about the inhumanity of man to man? Are all equally sinners and fallen short of the glory of God?
Or are there beliefs and practices in certain religions that institutionalize predatory attitudes of some men toward others? That effectively ensure that their adherents can view themselves as supreme or deserving, above all other men, indeed to sometimes view other men as subhuman, placed here to serve the supremacist goals of the ethnic elite? Ask the Palestinians of Gaza; they will have opinions, perhaps even of their own coopted leaders.
“On January 15, Helpdoctors.org reported that Al Quds hospital [in Gaza] had been `again the target of bombing.’ Some 50 patients, 30 in wheelchairs, fled as the burning hospital was `totally destroyed.'” [Media Lens Media Alert, “Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media,” U.K., www.medialens.org]
What kind of marauders are these, who kill 1,300 and wound 4,200 in the name of their Judaic state?
Mennonites themselves should know all about ethnic elitism. They should reject the notion that it is taboo to consider the possibility, and the implications, of such an attitude in other ethnic groups, chief among them the Judaic people–at least as long as they are also vigilant to curb their own such tendencies. But there is also a huge difference between what Mennonites have done with their ethnic elitism and what some Jews have done with theirs.
Consider, then, as we remember Jasch and Maria Regehr, a number of facts that have come to the attention of your writer, even though he must disclaim status as an historian of the Stalinist era:
–In his 2004 book, The Jewish Century, Yuri Slezkine, a Jewish professor at my alma mater, University of California at Berkeley, reports that during the 1930’s, the decade of the Regehrs’ enslavement, the secret police was one of the most Jewish of all Soviet institutions, with 42 of 111 top officials being Jewish. Ethnic Jews headed 12 of the 20 directorates of the secret police, including those in charge of State Security, Police, Labor Camps and Resettlement (Deportation). The Gulag system was headed by ethnic Jews from its beginning in 1930 until the end of 1938, “a period that encompasses the worst excesses of the Great Terror,” writes Dr. Kevin MacDonald in his review of Slezkine’s book (www.vdare.com/macdonald/051105_stalin.htm). Slezkine argues that the horrors that these individuals helped perpetrate was not because they were Jews, but because they were Communists; but (says MacDonald) “it strains credulity to suppose that these migrants completely and immediately threw off all remnants of [their] Eastern European shtetl culture which had a deep sense of estrangement from non-Jewish society, a fear and hatred of peasants, hostility toward the Czarist upper class, and a very negative attitude toward Christianity.”
–At the same time that Mennonites like Regehrs were imprisoned in distant labor camps, those who were “fortunate” enough to have remained in the Ukraine were enduring a famine imposed by authorities in Moscow. See Moroz, V., “Nationalism and Genocide: The Origin of the Artificial Famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine,” Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1986 (Vol. 6, No. 2), pp. 207-20 (www.ihr.org/jhr/v06/v06p207/Moroz.html). Slezkine quotes one Jewish witness on this famine, which affected scores of Mennonites: “You mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We are the agents of historical necessity. We are fulfilling our revolutionary duty.”
–Many people are not aware that famed writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a book titled, The Jews of the Soviet Union. In it Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Yet another colleague of many years’ duration of N. Y. Yeshov [people’s commissar of the interior appointed in September 1936] was Isaac Shapiro. He functioned after 1934 as Yeshov’s advisor, then as the director of the NKVD secretariat, then as head of the `Special Section’ of the GUGB [another part of the state security apparatus]. In December 1936, of the 10 directors of the Soviet agencies for the state security marked with code numbers, seven are Jews.” (p. 304). He comments specifically on those directing the “National Camp Administration” (gulag system). “Yes, there too there was a large proportion of Jews. The photo portraits I have reproduced from the Soviets’ own self-congratulatory book of 1936 [shown in The Gulag Archipelago] of the leadership of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal project have provoked much outrage; it is said that I had selected only Jewish faces. But I made no selections. I simply ran the photographs of all the higher directors….Whose choice and whose guilt is it if all were Jews?” (p. 305). Solzhenitsyn went on to observe, “Among these regional rulers [district and regional authorities of the GPU and the NKVD], there were still many Jews throughout the entire 1930’s who decided questions of life or death of each inhabitant [of the gulags].”
–Listen to an Israeli writer, Sever Plocker, who wrote in December 2006: “We mustn’t forget that some of the greatest murderers of modern times were Jewish….[The Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage founded by Lenin, known first as Cheka]…became the largest and cruelest state security organization. Its organizational structure was changed every few years, as were its names: From Cheka to GPU, later to NKVD, and later to KGB….An Israeli student finishes high school without ever hearing the name Genrikh Yagoda, the greatest Jewish murderer of the 20th century, the GPU’s deputy commander and the founder and commander of the NKVD. Yagoda diligently implemented Stalin’s collectivization orders and is responsible for the deaths of at least 10 million people. His Jewish deputies established and maintained the Gulag system. After Stalin no longer viewed him favorably, Yagoda was demoted and executed, and was replaced as chief hangman in 1936 by Yezhov…[who] was not Jewish but was blessed with an active Jewish wife….Jewish historian Sebag Montefiore writes that during the darkest period of terror, when the Communist killing machine worked in full force, Stalin was surrounded by beautiful, young Jewish women….Montefiore characterizes [Jewish politburo member] Lazar Kaganovich as `the first Stalinist’ and adds that those starving to death in Ukraine, an unparalleled tragedy in the history of human kind aside from the Nazi horrors and Mao’s terrors in China, did not move Kaganovich….In 1934, according to published statistics, 38.5 percent of those holding the most senior posts in the Soviet security apparatuses were of Jewish origin….” (www.ynetnews.com/english/_home/0.7340,L-3084,00.html, reprinted by Reporter’s NoteBook, New York, New York) (the author acknowledges Reporter’s Notebook and Michael Santomauro for making available several of the foregoing sources; the author alone is responsible for the interpretation presented here).
What means this? We are reluctant to address it; it is not part of acceptable discourse. Why not let it be? Why stir up enmity? But I know what it means to me. Let me be wary of ideology, and particularly Judaic ideology (based on the Talmud and not on Old Testament scripture), but also any racist or supremacist ideology, and of the concentration of too much power of any sort among those groups or cliques proven prone to devalue others’ lives. Let me be wary of predatory creep that starts out or masks itself with glowing premises.
The final quote above is from an Israeli Jewish writer, not from an anti-semite. I will certainly be accused of anti-semitic motives in reprinting it here, and in juxtaposing it with the rest of the material reprinted above, and indeed in urging that North American Mennonites look seriously at the role played by Judaic elites in the persecution of their forebears. I am also urging that Mennonites also look at the complicity of some of their own people in this persecution. “Remember us!” My suggestion will not be viewed favorably by those Mennonites who have benefitted from a close association with Judaic capital and mercantile interests, going all the way back to Russia (or before?) and extending to some (but certainly not all) of those who successfully emigrated to North America, leaving their hapless brothers and sisters behind.
If I do not urge retribution, I certainly do not counsel collective guilt. I do not believe in collective condemnation. I do not justify the brutality against Jews that occurred in Germany and its neighbors in the 1940’s, whether randomly or as a backlash. But I do believe in critical thinking, in discernment, in analyzing not just individual actions but social and religious movements as these relate to history, and as they are relevant even to the present. And I believe that myths are more prevalent than one might think, and that they are usually more destructive than helpful. My Anabaptist forbears challenged the oppressive myths of their era. Who are the mythmakers of ours?
My mother recalls that one of her early memories as a girl beginning school in the early 1930’s was of hearing in her Mennonite Brethren church about the plight of the Mennonites in the Soviet Union. She associates those stories with stern warnings of damnation and the need for faithfulness, and no doubt at that time rural American Mennonites were trying to make sense in some desperate way of what must have been seen, at least in part, as “God’s judgment” on some of their people, just as today we also grasp at trying to make sense of the holocaust of the Mennonite people in the 1930’s. These explanations of the forebears are not always completely satisfying. There comes a day when we are ready to accept nuance, to consider the unpalatable, to be alert to paradox, and not simply govern ourselves by parable or myth.
“Remember us! Remember us!” cry the voices from the graves. As before, these voices are forced to speak through the flowers, but there are some of us who do not need to, who will not let ourselves be forced to, and who will no longer let our voices be filtered through flowers. “REMEMBER US!!”