Mennonite Daughters Writing About Their Fathers

I’ve just finished reading two books with a theme of daughters writing about their fathers, but it wasn’t an intentional pairing. At least, not consciously.

In His Hands was written by Helena (Braun) Fast. I hadn’t known this book existed until Glen Klassen was presenting Henry Fast with an award on behalf of the EastMenn Historical Committee upon the occasion of his retirement, and listed his many contributions to the historical society and this local area of study… including having “helped bring his wife Helen’s book to press.” I’ve enjoyed reading Henry Fast’s Gruenfeld book, but had no idea his wife had also written a book! When I expressed eager interest in reading it, the book suddenly appeared in my church mailbox.

This is a story with a heartbreaking beginning, a happy middle, and a haunting conclusion.

It begins in the picturesque Mennonite street village of Gruenfeld in South Russia, where Heinrich Braun was born in 1907 into a poor but loving family. It was one of those situations where the poverty didn’t seem quite so bad because they had each other. He was very young when his brother who was close in age and his best friend, died. That alone is a tragic story… but it’s just the beginning. After a few years, their parents died, too. The orphaned family of siblings tried to stay together, but ultimately were separated into different homes as “help”. As the Russian Revolution swept across the landscape, young Heinrich endured many harsh situations alone. He never did tell his daughter everything he had seen and experienced, when Helena interviewed him to write this book. It was too horrible. Hence, the slim volume.

When the family Heinrich worked for finally obtained papers to immigrate to North America in 1923, he was miraculously able to join them… leaving behind all his remaining siblings. This wrenching pain of separation never left him. It was fascinating to read about his journey across the continent, through the “Red Gate of Freedom” and across the ocean, arriving in Giroux. Here he obtained work for a local Mennonite family, established himself, married, and had eleven children, finally having the family he’d always wanted. I call this the “happy middle” of the book.

For me, the haunting conclusion is the series of letters that his family had sent him from Russia as they descended into a desperate life of starvation. He’d always hoped and tried to help them immigrate too, but it never happened. The book concludes with a note stating that the family senses the last few letters were not written by family members at all, as they took on a strange quality, before ceasing altogether.

When I was finished reading the book, I found myself reaching for Mary Ann Loewen’s compilation Finding Father: Stories From Mennonite Daughters, which was released earlier this year

Reading through this exquisite collection of memories and honest reflections served as a glimpse into a time before I was born, and these stories stand alongside and might even help me make sense of other stories I’ve come across. Childhood memories contrast with awkward moments from adolescence, warm affirmations and genuine analysis — both of the subject, and of the writer.

This collection also helped trigger different memories for me personally, of my own father, who passed away at age 54 in 2006. Seemingly small things, everyday stuff that was just part of life, part of the landscape… latent memories I hadn’t realized were there. Suddenly as I was reading this book, my own childhood memories of my father flooded back. for this I am extremely grateful, and I will be re-reading this volume and sitting with these stories again.

It was only after having read both of these books that I realized they’re both entirely by women about their fathers. And they’ve both inspired me to consider how I might honour my own father in this way.