SPIRIT AND CONSCIENCE: ‘A Family Torn Apart’ by Justina D. Neufeld

The book “A Family Torn Apart” is a heart-rending and heart-pounding story. The narrator relates in first person what happens when war and political forces that have nothing whatsoever to do with people who are just trying to live their lives, grow their crops, celebrate their holidays and love their families cause untold devastation amongst them. Her story gives new meaning to the expression “Life’s not fair.” What happens to innocent civilians in wartime is never fair. By the same token, many people, unfairly, never experience the tight-knit loyalty, warmth and tenderness of the author’s family of origin. How do ordinary people survive the most unthinkable tragedies? From Justina D. Neufeld’s vivid narrative we can only conclude that they survive because they have their love for each other.

Neufeld, the last of 10 children, was born 13 years after the Russian Revolution of 1917. She grew up in the Ukraine in a small settlement of German pacifist Mennonites who had lived there since 1798, when Catherine the Great invited Mennonites in Prussia and Holland to farm the land and promised them exemption from military duty. (Other German groups moved to the Ukraine at that time as well.) For 100 years the Mennonites were honored in Russia for producing farm machinery and large amounts of grain. After the revolution they were seen as wealthy oppressors, and foreigners besides—they had consistently kept to themselves, speaking German and continuing their religious traditions. During the first years of civil unrest after 1917 they were pillaged by bandits, as well as by the Red and White armies, and later, when collectivization was enforced, reduced to poverty. Despite the arrest of all their pastors, their culture remained intact; they maintained their faith, their rigorous standards, belief in education, and high degree of competence, as well as their long history of persecution.

Life under German occupation was easier, but the presence of the German army made them a target for Soviet bombs. In 1943, as the German army retreated, their whole village, along with other villages, fled west toward Europe by horse and wagon. Neufeld and other family members arrived in a refugee camp in Poland four months later. Eventually Neufeld reached safety in Holland, and at age 17 was adopted by a family in southern Minnesota. Her tight-knit family of 13 members had been scattered by that time; at the book’s printing, in 2003, she continued to search for them. The strong bond Neufeld felt for her family was what made it possible to get through the hardship and hunger of her childhood, as well as the horror of her father’s arrest and disappearance. Although her life was more comfortable in the United States, she entered into a completely different level of suffering as she longed to see her family again.

In the first part of the book, before the Exodus, Neufeld describes in captivating detail, the earthy simplicity of life in their village. Against the background of terror and fear, I could hear the daily singing of her mother and her “Tante” (her great-aunt who lived with them). I could smell the animals and the tiny house where everyone had one set of clothes and no bathtub. I could smell the Sunday dinner cooked in the manure-brick burning stove, as well as the dusty, cold absence of food in the extreme famine years. I felt like I was right there with this spirited, fanciful, very observant child who noticed everything and felt things deeply. Her memories, by turns, are humorous, complex and thoughtful. With flowers and bits of broken dishes found in the stream she tried to beautify her plain surroundings. She saw the clouds as “big bowls of popcorn.” She loved the squishy mud between her “winter white” toes. She gave names to the children she believed she would have someday. She was intrigued with visiting gypsies and peddlers.

In the middle part of the book, the chaos of war is overwhelming. I was infuriated at the fact that there even exists such a concept as “nationality.” It seemed ludicrous that people should be defined as Russian, or German, or American or French or anything else. When Neufeld, along with her three youngest brothers, her one sister, her mother and Tante, arrived at the refugee camp in Poland, her brothers were immediately naturalized as German citizens and inducted into the military. Later they were captured by the Americans and became prisoners of war. Another brother, earlier, had been drafted into the Soviet army. (Neufeld nails the irony of having a brother in the “winning” army and three brothers in the “losing” army: the irony of war as she watches POWs in the streets of Brussels. “As far down the street as I could see they kept coming— an endless column of prisoners. When I had seen them in their dapper uniforms in my village back home these young men had been victors. They had been our liberators from communism. Now they were defeated. I could not fathom how they once could have been our heroes and now be our enemies.”)

“Russians,” like Neufeld, her brother and his family, who had made it to France, were hunted by Russian authorities. According to the Yalta Agreement, the German Mennonites from the Ukraine were in danger of being sent back to Russia, but they were rescued by German Mennonites from America, who got them into Holland. Other “Russians” in her family, who had made it to the West, were repatriated to work camps in Siberia.

In the last part of the book we find out the results of Neufeld’s search for her family members: With some she was reunited; with others she exchanged letters and was able to send food; others are still missing. She writes a small biography of each of the 13 people, witnessing the meaning and strength of their lives.

Neufeld’s voice is clear and graceful. Her dignified, understated style dramatizes the pathos in a way that pyrotechnics never can. Throughout the book she simply tells the story. It’s the only way: When so much suffering occurs, it’s incomprehensible, it doesn’t compute, you can’t fit it into a reasonable mental framework. She doesn’t veer into philosophy, speculating on the nature of evil; or into politics, deciding which “side” is good, and which one bad; or into theology, pondering whether God has anything to do with anything. But she often refers to the religious beliefs of people around her, her brothers’ arguments with her mother about the existence of God, and her own attempts to bargain with God.

The distinct flavor of Mennonite culture—particular foods, singing as a bedrock of existence, the physical hardiness, the patient acceptance of suffering, the reserved self-expression—permeates the book. Certainly Mennonites will especially empathize with Neufeld’s story, but it is evident that her story represents a larger story. It is the microcosm of millions of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of wars, civil unrest and political forces outside their control, their lives forever disrupted and their dreams forever lost.

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A film should be made about an attractive, tender couple that finds true love in the late autumn of their lives. She’s a successful retired mental health nurse and administrator, a German Mennonite who came to the U.S. in 1947, right after WWII. He’s a retired, gentle pastor who lost his first wife to cancer. He’s crazy about his new wife’s laughter, her luminous spirit. She, after one failed marriage, has finally found her soul mate. Together, they are loved and respected by a large community of Mennonites on the plains of Kansas.

He knows she grew up in the Ukraine after the Revolution of 1917, escaped to Europe as an adolescent when war came to her village, and was adopted at age 17 by a family in southern Minnesota. But he wants to know the whole story, every detail. As he types her handwritten pages, the story unfolds.

The viewers would experience the happy ending to her story and be amazed at the couple’s courage to seize love—his courage in marrying someone so shattered with losses, and her courage to embrace love after spending a lifetime suffering the pain of unthinkable loss.

The viewers would also experience a vivid example of the devastating, monstrous effects of war and political forces on individual lives—what happens to innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

So far, we don’t have the film, just the riveting book by Justina D. Neufeld, “A Family Torn Apart” (Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ont., 2003).

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