A review by: Andrew Unger
There was a time in my life when I was known to, on occasion, embroil myself in pointless online discussions. Those days are long gone. I’m a changed man, you could say. I do recall, however, one such argument with some anonymous figure on the Internet who was aghast at my suggestion that our lives, as humans, have unique and enduring meaning. Here we are, I argued, in this vast and expanding universe, that, for all we know, is completely void of life except for us. This is meaningful, I suggested. My opponent sat up in his chair, I imagine, in his mother’s basement, and lambasted me for even suggesting such a thing. “If we didn’t exist,” he said, “we would not be here to marvel at our own existence.” He was basically suggesting my reasoning was circular. Maybe so.
Still, questions of this sort, about meaning and uniqueness, can be brought to subjects with a much narrower scope. For example, why of all the vast array of villages established by Manitoba Mennonites in the 1870s, do so very few remain today? What is unique about those, like Steinbach, that are still here, and why are the others, like planets in deep space, completely empty? Of these ghost villages, some are memorialized only by a lone headstone in a farmer’s field. Still others exist only as an approximate location on historic maps. In fact, of all the Mennonite villages in what is now Hanover Municipality, only eight still exist, by my count, and fewer still have retained their original names. What, then, is unique about Steinbach? Its rise is made all the more peculiar by the absence of so many features (a body of water, a railway, fertile soil, natural resources), that have advantaged other communities. So what is it then about Steinbach? Those are the sort of questions I have. Thankfully, in this case, I don’t have any boxer shorts-clad Internet opponent to ruin everything by pointing out the obvious.
In his fascinating book Between Earth & Sky: Steinbach, The First 50 Years, Ralph Friesen does not claim to answer such existential questions. “Steinbach’s uniqueness,” he says, “resists any definitive explanation.” There are theories, of course—geography, religion, something unique in that stone brook water, perhaps. All of these (save for the stone brook water) are explored in detail by Friesen. In reading Friesen’s work, you’re left with the feeling that not only is Steinbach unique, but that whatever it was that caused this uniqueness was implanted in those first years and still shapes Steinbach’s character today. For better or worse, Steinbach, as it is now, progressive and regressive, religious and secular, pious and rebellious, can be seen and perhaps can be said to have originated in those early years.
In some sense the story is familiar. For those acquainted with Russian Mennonite history, it’s a typical story. People left the old country. Signed a Priviligeum. Settled in a new country. Struggled for a few years and ultimately the town thrived. But, Friesen goes beyond those familiar tropes to examine the individuals who shaped this community. He explores the history of Steinbach, Borosenko Colony, the village from which our Steinbach derived its name, and whose remaining residents were tragically massacred in 1919. He discusses the lives of all the 18 settler’s families, most of whom were Kleine Gemeinde, which I was surprised to learn was actually more conservative and restrictive than the Holdeman church at the time. Friesen discusses John Holdeman’s visit to Steinbach in 1881, the cause of Steinbach’s first schism, as well as the later Bruderhof (EMB) church, which also shaped the community. We learn of the tragic drowning of leader Johann Barkman in the Red River in 1875 and of J.R. Friesen’s foray into automobile sales, despite opposition from the Kleine Gemeinde church.
These stories are probably well-known to students of Steinbach history. Friesen, however, uncovers tales I had never heard before, such as the impact of one impassioned speech by Mrs. Elizabeth Rempel Reimer, who convinced her family to stay in the area, when many others were leaving. It’s entirely possible that without that speech, Steinbach would have become just like one of many other ghost villages in the area. I was interested to read of the relationships that Steinbachers had with their neighbours – in particular the English and the Metis. There’s even an intriguing story about a man who attempted to start a Chinese restaurant in town in 1921. The enterprise failed after just one year. I was also surprised to learn that when alcohol prohibition was put to a vote in Manitoba sometime in the late 19thcentury, Steinbachers were actually opposed to the prohibition. I had also never really known how the Wirtschaft system ended. I mean, how exactly was it that they went from long narrow strips of land, to larger plots? Friesen explains this, too. He discusses the social, economic, educational, and religious growth of the city, and ends with the impact of the Russlanders who arrived in the 1920s.
I must say, though, I’m just scratching this surface. The book is chock-full of interesting insights into the people who shaped Steinbach. And fascinating pictures, too. The book is thorough enough (at over 500 pages) to satisfy scholars and lively enough to engage a general audience. And, in the end, Friesen does not answer the question: why did Steinbach rise? Why did it survive when so many others didn’t? Why did it grow to become, in my estimation, the largest currently-existing city established by Russian Mennonites? Friesen doesn’t answer these questions directly, but he provides enough breadth and depth on the subject matter to allow readers to come to conclusions about these questions on their own. As for my answer, I have none, other than like Earth itself, if Steinbach didn’t exist, we would not be here to marvel at its existence.