IMPOSTER! (at the Russlaender CTMS conference, ep.1)

(Feature photo: Sue Sorensen in conversation with Sarah Klassen.)

I like to try to secretly stalk interesting, quirky Mennonite happenings in Manitoba. So when I saw that Leg 2 of the Russlaender Memories of Migration tour was going to be in Winnipeg for four days, I was going to be there. Except it’s not a secret that I’m stalking the situation because by now my husband is famous in these circles and he’s on this actual tour and we keep trying to be together. Which technically is not bad of course, but well the whole scenario is a bit weird (which I explained here). We are not apart by choice, but by circumstance. Which, now that I think of it… is maybe a (very poor) metaphor for what the Russlaender Mennonites felt when they left their homes (and often loved ones stayed behind) for Canada. (I don’t know. That’s kind of the worst metaphor, really. I’m sorry. Wow.)

So! I was so pleased when I learned of these four full days in Manitoba for the Russlaender 100 tour. Two of these days would be filled with the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies conference at the University of Winnipeg, titled The Russlaender Mennonites: War, Dislocation, and New Beginnings.

This conference is open to the public, so I was obviously going to be there!

Day One. The first problem here is that I’m not Russlaender at all. I am an interloper. The second problem is that I don’t have an academic brain at all, so how would I digest this all? LET’S FIND OUT.

Time to open the little notebook that I was madly scribbling into.

First, my intention was to be there for the opening remarks at 9am. This is always my intention. I have never yet managed to make this a reality. Including this past Friday. Ugh.

Okay, so I walked into Wesley Hall and could hear Sue Sorensen’s voice (Canadian Mennonite University) as she interviewed writer Sarah Klassen and I was panicked to be missing this.

Friends, the place was PACKED.

I did expect this, though, because I had seen the CTMS email which cautioned attendees to prepare for a very full conference. So, I took myself to the balcony. And it was full too! I obnoxiously wedged myself into a sole available chair and quickly realized I was sitting next to poet Joanne Epp and promptly felt bad for her because sitting next to me is annoying, as I’m fidgety (I think this is related to my forgetfulness and klutzy nature but my coworkers think it might be ADHD, who can say — also might be due to my aggressive caffeine intake). So, apologies to Joanne Epp. And thanks for kindly enduring being seated next to me.

So! Guess what. I did not take notes yet. I was still working on sipping coffee, waking up. I was fascinated by Sue’s line of questioning, and Sarah’s gentle replies. Sarah is a poet, who decided to write two novels, her most recent being The Russian Daughter. I really loved this book, and the village life she depicted, and how the village changed over the course of the novel fascinated me. It seemed a character in and of itself, an organism. Living, breathing… and then, not.

Fantastic that the conference opened with a literary conversation! Terrible that I was late and didn’t take notes!

I think I was also kind of thinking that maybe my note-taking is distracting and I should just try to absorb the conversation. (That maybe is not a great tactic. Notes are helpful, however terrible my notes may be.)

I also think I won’t take you through every single paper. As I would tell a friend, I wouldn’t include everything. You know how it is — certain things stick with you, so right away there is a smattering of impressions, some of which may be completely off-track. Here we go!

The morning’s session was titled “Neighbours, Revolution, and Civil War”.

From left to right: Alfred Eisfeld, Dr. Aileen Friesen, Peter Letkemann, with Jonathan Dekel-Chen at the podium.

The paper presented by Jonathan Dekel-Chen from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was fascinating. His paper was entitled “Mirror Images? Russlaender Mennonites and Their Jewish Farming Neighbors”. He told us about how the Jewish villages and the Mennonite villages 100 years ago in what is now Ukraine were actually located fairly close to each other and they likely did indeed interact and know of each other and what were these interactions and what were the similarities? I don’t have an answer for this. His 15 minutes were up far too suddenly and when he realized this, he did something no Mennonite presenter did: he simply stopped talking and sat down. Oh dear. I felt like we’d been driving on a high-speed highway toward a fascinating destination and hit a brick wall. Well, the good thing is that the Journal of Mennonite Studies will be published at some point this year and when it arrives in our mailbox I shall be reading this entire paper for sure and learn of his conclusion. (Also of note!  I took a picture of one of his slides entitled “Principal Jewish Farm Colonies in Western Canada” — I hope/assume this will also be included when his full paper is published in the Journal so I can examine it closely! I think his point was… according to my scrambled brain… that even when they arrived in Canada their villages were often near Mennonite villages..?)

Another paper that fascinated me was from Dr. Aileen Friesen, entitled “Surviving the Abyss: Mennonite Women during the Civil War”. I love how she uses language to elicit visceral responses even in her title. I was captivated, I knew it would be interesting… but it turns out it was devastating. Again, no notes yet. I just leaned forward from my seat on the balcony and heard tell of rapes and attacks. I should add, she was the only one with a trigger warning before she began. A kind, thoughtful, frank trigger warning. Important. It was from listening to her paper that I began to wonder about my great-grandmother who came to Canada in 1909 — what was happening in Chortitza at that time that made the family decide now was the time to get on the move? I’m not Russlaender at all… but not 100% Kandier either, I think. There are some mysteries.

In fact, that was a subject that kind of tied many of these papers and conversations together — the nature of Mennonite secrets… and are they best left undisturbed? And as writers (I think I have a book in me, someday… but at the moment I even have trouble formulating a good blog post, so…) is it ethical to pursue these stories, to extract them, digest them… spit them out, formed into something new and possibly dangerously inaccurate? To what end? Entertainment? From here my memory jumps to a very short conversation I managed to have with writer Dora Dueck (at the reception at the end of day two), because this reminded me somehow of her award-winning novel This Hidden Thing — about secrets and whether they matter but also whether everything needs to be said and exposed. I think these are valid questions to explore and I don’t have a straightforward answer. I think often life requires us to live in tension and this is maybe another example of that?

Anyway. I took zero notes that morning. And am simply going to say that I am eager to read these papers in the Journal.

It was time for lunch. The conference had only just begun and yet I felt there was much to sit with. Part of the reason for this is that I had no capacity really… you see, I had just overextended myself by stupidly booking three days of historical exploration AND family time in and around Winkler (expect those posts in August). It was only on Thursday that I realized I had made a very large mistake. I was going into the conference with limited capacity. Shoot.

So, when the conference broke for lunch, I remembered a few things — that the restaurants get very suddenly overwhelmed with attendees and the wait times can be long and it can be tricky attaining nourishment in an efficient fashion. These lunch times over the years have resulted in some of the most fascinating conversations, I’ve met some incredible people this way — because you end up crammed into a random restaurant and can recognize fellow conference attendees and you can process together. It’s really cool!

BUT this conference has never been in July before (at least, not as long as I’ve been invading it) and that lawn in front of the university was so inviting… I had it in my head to get a sandwich and sit on the lawn alone. Plus Andrew had planned to meet a friend who works at the U of W for lunch and I was going to leave them to it. While I appreciate that friend also very much, I had a different agenda: sitting alone in the grass under the shade of that tall elm tree.

So, like we often have other years, I hustled across Portage Avenue to Bahn Mi King. This time I purchased an actual bahn mi (I don’t remember what I ordered other years) for takeout, plus a custard tart that I saw in the little display. I took my spoils back across the avenue and plopped onto the grass, kicked off my Crocs, and let out a massive exhale and gazed up at the castle-like Wesley Hall. I devoured my sandwich with my typical lipstick-ruining aggression and felt quite suddenly very satisfied with my choices. It was in this moment of serenity that poet Sarah Ens found me, and I felt lucky to be in her company for a few peaceful moments.

Pictures I took for my Instagram story, of my sandwich and my view.

I hurried back into the building prior to 1:00, feeling proud of myself for being on time for something, for a change.

The first afternoon session was titled “Exodus and Accommodation”.

Dr. James Urry’s (Victoria University of Wellington, NZ) paper “Before and After the Time of Chaos: The Wider Contexts of the Mennonite Emigration to Canada, 1900-1926” captured me. I was particularly interested because this actually covered the time some of my non-Russlaender ancestors came to Canada — 1909 is in the midst of this. I’d always assumed it was just some innocuous random time… but no. Hmmm. I mean… my notes suck. All I really wrote down was “things not discussed in Mennonite society — bribes/capitalism. Reminds me of Aileen’s paper, how rape was not talked about; ‘not discussed greatly…’ Urry: ‘They didn’t get on with some of the other Mennonites’ re: regrouping in Canada; resulted in a collective chuckle from the audience.”

Dr. Nataliya Venger (Dnipro National University) was next, with “the Mennonite Verband and Soviet Power in the 1920s: A Game on a Razor’s Edge” — another exciting title! She addressed it immediately, stating, “the word ‘game’ is a little provocative” — and I’m here for it! But then I couldn’t keep up. I did write down something that captured my imagination: “‘caught between two fires’ — (Mennonites b/t Moscow & Kharkov, ca. 1923”. How cryptic of me.

When Ad van de Staggij (of The Hague, Netherlands) presented “Doopsgezinden, Refugees, and Colonists, 1924-1938” I was captured because here was someone who is Dutch, presenting on Mennonites… and the notion of what our national identity might be was discussed a lot and because my (maiden) last name is Koop which seems Dutch to me (I saw “koop” as a part of a larger word on many shop signs in Amsterdam) but I’m sure he was not there to elicit such pesky thoughts in the audience. You can see how my attention is not that amazing. I did write down “‘they had abandoned almost all their principles’ — proof they’re Dutch, not German — ‘not of German origin, but a distant offshoot of…’ (Dutch heritage?)” — “Question of nationalism: Dutch or German?” — “power struggles” — “incessant bickering among settlers”. Well.

More from my notes, written when I was not able to follow Dr. Olena Khodchenko’s (Dnipro National University) paper “Emigration of Mennonites during the New Economic Policy: Causes of the Exodus”. I wrote down, “Maybe (hopefully) one day I’ll be able to better comprehend/follow the papers on economics… but that day is not today.” Alas!

I found myself drifting off, thinking about how remarkable it was to sit in a very, VERY full Wesley Hall, listening to all these papers being presented on the topic of Mennonitism. What a stunning return to form in the wake of the height of the pandemic!

And then my notes resumed upon the Q&A. I think that’s one of my most favourite parts — when they presenters stop reading their papers and start reacting to questions from the audience and discussing amongst themselves. I love those immediate, in-the-moment interactions! When we jump off the page and into humanity, in real time.

Dr. James Urry

Dr. Urry was a virtual presenter, and his face was projected onto the screen, larger than life. It was about 6am in New Zealand. I love seeing all his books and research piled high behind him in his background. I find it to be very life-giving for some reason. Anyway, I also loved seeing his disgusted reaction to a question from the audience. I think Mennonites typically conceal their disgust (and this is why Mennonites freak me out — I am a Mennonite BUT I’m a bad one because I do not conceal anything, what you see is what you get, unfortunately — AND I’m not great at reading people who are busy concealing their true selves… which I suppose is the point of the concealment, BUT STILL!) — anyway, James Urry is not a Mennonite (at least not that I know of…) — he is a scholar of Mennonites (with a particular love for Grunthal! I cannot wait for his book on this!) — so his reaction to an attendee being grateful for their ancestor’s foresight in coming to Canada, we could all see. I believe he rolled his eyes and that was when everyone kind of laughed and moderator Dr. Ben Nobbs-Thiessen suggested Dr. Urry had a response, and Dr. Urry replied, with some exasperation, “You want me to reply to that?!” and I laughed far too loud and wrote down a little of what he said, “reading the past through the future; re: the idea of foresight…” is foolhardy? I forget. Something to that effect. Like I said, my notes are terrible and that’s why this post is so long. YEAH! There is SO MUCH.

From left to right: Colin Neufeldt, Dr. Nataliya Venger, Johannes Dyck, with Ed Krahn at the podium.

I need to stop. There is more to come!