Ponder a-new: the Russlaender 100 Tour arrives in Steinbach!

Good morning!

Even though I’ve been hanging out with the Russlaender 100 “train people” as they are now being called (lol what?!) quite a lot over the last three days, I’m going to start by telling you about yesterday. Because yesterday they came to Steinbach.

A very full morning service!

And yesterday is still ringing in my head and heart.

When I had examined the schedule originally, before I knew I would have any part of the tour at all, I had been pleased to see the tour would spend pretty much all day Sunday at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. I had always planned to spend that time at the MHV, most definitely. But I hadn’t expected to have met many of the people on the journey, to have heard vital pieces of their stories and backgrounds and what had drawn them to this tour in the first place, and its significance to them.

So. I arrived at the MHV at about 9:30am yesterday. The two large buses were already there in the parking lot: the tour had arrived. And locals were now arriving too, in droves. The reception area was flooded with people. I met other lifetime members of the MHV (heyyyyy this could be you too, it’s easy and quite beneficial, I wrote about it here) as I walked up to the museum. This was a relief. An exhale, as writer Dora Dueck would say. (I appreciated her blog post, A Great Exhale.) Even though I’d really just experienced talking with people from all over who had been converging upon Winnipeg for the CTMS conference and Saengerfest, I’m still at home. These are people who are from the same place as me. It’s grounding.

MHV Senior Curator Andrea Klassen lights the memorial candle.

What I mean by “grounding” is that a lot of this train journey and storytelling and sharing and absorbing of academic papers has been incredibly heady. I knew my brain would be whirling, because it always is at the end of a CTMS conference when I’ve been trying very hard to listen and learn and I know that I am absolutely failing.

The MHV grounds and gardens are so beautiful right now, alongside the artefact buildings, I had to take photos!

Well, the grounds are large, and right now so verdant and inviting. Executive Director Gary Dyck has said many times that walking the museum grounds is beneficial for your mental health, just like any walk in green space I suppose… but this one that is steeped in history with many spaces for time away from people, for reflection and a pause… I don’t know, it’s just a beautiful thing.

SO. I arrived at the MHV around 9:30am (the worship service was going to be at 10am) and I was delighted to see the crowds arriving. I enjoyed my walk up the village street, following the signs to the morning’s worship service in the Peter Barkman Pavilion. Walking with Karen and Willie Peters was a grounding experience for me. Not only did I attend grade school with their children in Kleefeld (their niece was a very good friend of mine when we were small) but they had been dairy-farming people just like my dad was. It’s just comforting to me, to chat with them.

The moment I set foot in the pavilion, there was Andrew, seated with the Russlaender 100 tour (they receive select seating everywhere they go… and every time I encounter my husband at one of these events, I am quite delighted and squeeze in next to him if there’s room. (Andrew and I are on different legs of the Russlaender 100 train journey!)

So I was whisked from a grounding, local conversation to sitting in the midst of those who have been experiencing Mennonite information and connection since July 12 (when Leg 2 had departed Toronto).

And then the service. WOW. I should have been more prepared. Stories would be shared, connecting to the songs we would sing. I should have had a tissue ready, because after archivist Conrad Stoesz shared the story of the Russlaender first arriving at the train station in Rosthern, Saskatchewan… and the Kanadier all waiting for them… I cried throughout the song… but I think when something connects on a deeper level for me, the tears come out the wrong corners of my eyes. They seem to be coming from a different place… I’m struggling to explain it.

Archivist Conrad Stoesz from the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, shares a meaningful moment from history, when the Russlaender arrived in Rosthern and met their Kanadier cousins.

I had often heard the story of how the Russlaender began singing when they arrived in Rosthern. I thought it was “Now Thank We All Our God” … but I think Conrad said it was a different song. And the thing that really got me was when he told us that the Kanadier waiting expectantly for their Russlaender cousins responded in kind, with song… oh gosh, yes I was crying. What a beautiful thought and story.

There are many themes on this journey but one of the most vital themes is the importance of song, of music. So much is communicated through music, through singing, that mere cold words simply cannot articulate. There is something primal in it. It feels like it’s in our DNA. Yes even mine. Perhaps I’m doing a terrible job of endeavoring to join in song… but I do go for it. I can’t not. My only regret is that I still do not know German. I think if I knew the language and could sing those German verses, that sense of connection would be further heightened.

Because of the stories and songs, that Russlaender centenary service yesterday morning at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach was one of the most incredible services I’ve experienced. And it was FULL. They threw open the large overheard doors to let in the amazing fresh crisp air (how incredible that this July is turning out to be a little cooler than usual, so refreshing!) and add more seating at the periphery. It was needed.

Afterward, there was so much mixing and mingling outside of the pavilion in the shadow of the giant windmill. I met and talked to people that I’ve dearly wanted to spend time with over the last few years but had not seen. It was trippy to see people I’d met who were here from far away, for the Russlaender 100 journey, mixing with people I know from real life in southeastern Manitoba.

Ensemble: Kathy Bergen, Ron Dick, Harold Kroeker, Pat Gerber-Pauls, Ben Pauls, Marie Rempel, Gerry Sapinksy, Irene Schellenberg, June Snider.

Oh and also I need to say, the locals did us proud. Is that okay to say in a Mennonite context? (Maybe I am not good at humility.) I’m so blown away but also not at all surprised but just to be there to see how the MHV and local committees hosted and provided… I was basking, I think. Even though I have nothing to do with it, it’s just like… this is my home, I live in community with these people, and what they have done is incredible.

Anyway. Then, lunch. I was determined to give the Russlaender 100 folk space to breathe and to prove I could be at an event like this on my own. I went to the long line at the Livery Barn Restaurant (the line in itself is an experience!) and found my in-laws there. Again, more of a grounding experience, to enjoy the buffet lunch with them. The summertime Sunday lunch buffet at the MHV’s Livery Barn Restaurant is not to be missed, in my opinion! The vereniki and schmauntfatt? The BEST.

Then, there were tours happening throughout the afternoon. I stupidly had not realized they would already be full, but obviously, I mean, of course, if I would have stopped to do the math of the situation: 60 Russlaender 100 tour attendees, and tour groups limited to 15… means they were already full by the time any of this occurred to me.

But it’s just as well I suppose because this allowed me to do a lot of wandering. I love wandering the MHV grounds. And when it’s so super busy, it’s just fantastic because every time I turn a corner, there is a person standing in front of an informative plaque or something, alone and pondering. I back away and allow them time to absorb. They are doing the same thing I love to do! Yay!

I also encountered many from the tour taking time and space to sit alone. I felt so grateful for the large amounts of green space at the museum.

Hollyhocks & a housebarn at the MHV.

Also, it rained. I was wearing my usual hat and rain jacket so I was fine and in fact eager to keep wandering in the rain because it’s so very atmospheric. It was in the drizzle that I encountered poet Sarah Ens in the midst of the village street, just as the sky unleashed an absolute downpour. We hurried into the printery (which is in need of funds for restoration) and continued our conversation as water gushed outside. It was a Moment. A Memory.

I love how people throughout the museum likely did just what we did — sought shelter in any number of heritage buildings and structures. I think experiencing the outdoor portion of a museum in the rain is a cleansing experience. I love how humans all do the same thing in this situation. I think we are all very cute.

My friend, historian Ernie Braun, introduced me to Heinrich Siemens from Germany. His publishing house is called Tweeback Verlag. He publishes in Plautdietsch!

That was the only real downpour. Soon we were able to venture outside again. I found my way back to the main building, where my mother-in-law was volunteering with great enthusiasm in the quilting room. Here she was taking delight in practicing her German with museum guests from Germany and she and her fellow quilting volunteer were surrounded by an appreciative crowd. It was also a Moment.

My beautiful mother-in-law, Caroline Unger, volunteer quilter at the Mennonite Heritage Village, in her glory!

I wandered into the galleries, where the Russlaender exhibit is currently on display. I had never been there when the gallery was so full of people and felt it was like a party and I wanted to experience this. I have walked through the gallery a few times before and now Senior Curator Andrea Klassen was holding court, taking a group on a tour of the displays.

Senior Curator Andrea Klassen leads a tour through the Russlaender exhibit in the MHV gallery.

I feel a tour with a curator is one of the most important things you can do at a museum and if you get the chance you should jump on it!

I turned a corner and there was Andrew in conversation with Japanese scholar, Iyo Kunimoto!
And then Sarah Klassen (author of “The Russian Daughter”) met Iyo Kunimoto and I experienced cuteness overload.
And then I stepped outside the gallery and found my uncle Dennis Thiessen hanging out with Ed Krahn. My uncle sang in the Saengerfest on Saturday night! And Ed I know from many committees and projects (and, well, Facebook, haha).

In the gallery, as I tried to keep a respectful distance from the tour, it wasn’t long before I was in quiet conversation with someone from the train, Amy. She gestured to one of the extraordinary photos, of a group of gorgeous Russlaender women, taken a century ago (I’m guessing) and told me her grandmother was in that picture.

I reeled back in surprise and delight. “Your GRANDMOTHER??? Which one??” I asked in a fascinated whisper.

“Let’s go closer,” she suggested.

Standing by the picture, Amy pointed to her grandmother, a beauty in the midst of other beauties. I could see the resemblance! This was a moving, remarkable moment.

A moment that was then captured by videographer Kenji Dyck, who has been hired by filmmaker Andrew Wall to capture material for the documentary he’s creating on this whole journey. I stepped away and allowed the moment to unfold without my oppressive presence. I will know more when the documentary is released. I’m so excited to see it already, I’m tearing up!

This image is making me cry once more, with love and wonder.

One more thing. A big thing. Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre was performing two plays yesterday afternoon at 3pm and I had been typically aggressive about making sure I would have a ticket. I got in! (I’m not sure if everyone did… there was quite the overwhelming crush of people rushing to access a seat… and once again, I loved it! What a rush.)

So. The plays were winners of a playwriting contest.

First, Refugees, 1948 by father/daughter writing team Sarah Ens and Waldy Ens, took us into the experience of Russlaender on the move in Europe, trying to settle down but needing to keep moving. Taken into the moments, the factors, the decisions, the feelings… okay now I’m tearing up again.

For this first play, I was a good girl and avoided trying to insert myself next to Andrew. I can be independent! I selected a lone seat as near to the front as I could, placed my coat there, and then did a bit of wandering in the lobby as folk showed up for the plays and were informed of its sold out nature. (An unexpected bonus of an experience, I think… though honestly I was not surprised at this point, having seen all the other events packed to the brim!) When I returned to my seat, there were two people in active conversation. I sat down and immediately learned the woman next to me will be on Leg 3 of the journey as well! How extraordinary! I do not know her yet… but I sure will, later this week. Wow! I only spoke with her a bit, but already a connection. I’m so excited!

At the intermission, I thought I would say hi to Andrew. He is easy to find in a crowd because he is tall. He told me there was an available seat right next to him so I quickly relocated myself in time for the second play to begin. I was now sitting between Andrew and Amy. She told me what else had happened after I left the gallery, as she was being filmed for the documentary: a connection. Again, I’m tearing up. As she was telling of her grandmother in that photo, someone else from the tour told her that her grandmother was also in the photo. They were sisters. That meant these two women who were on train together were related. Turns out they’re double second cousins. They had no idea they were so very related.

There were tears and long hugs. I once again witnessed something incredible that is really none of my business.

I just love how this connection was created at the MHV. You’d expect it at the Mennonite Heritage Archives (which is where the tour is today!) but I don’t know that the gallery at the MHV was where anyone was prepared for this.

Yet are we surprised? Maybe not. There is so much connection when Mennonite worlds collide and converge.

Then the second play began. It was called “Wherever You May Be” and it was written by Monica Reis. I laughed very loudly and obnoxiously. It was heartwarming and hilarious. Tears of laughter. So much laughter! Mennonites love to laugh together, I think that is something that is not too often explored although obviously Andrew and any readers of the Unger Review (Daily Bonnet!) are well aware of this.

The main character plans her own funeral: hilarity ensues.

And then, chaos was unleashed as the play concluded. I was aware the Russlaender 100 tour had a dinner reservation in Winnipeg and they are notoriously on time for things so I needed to stay out of their way… although Andrew had requested that the buses drive through Steinbach so that he could give a Steinbach bus tour for a bit. So, that happened. But I was not there for it. I am not on this leg of the journey and it was time for me to disappear. I said goodbye and evaporated into the crowd, out into the parking lot, on my way to meet a Mennonite friend for supper at Smitty’s, so I could process the day. (Thank you, C, for letting me process!)

More to come.

Gorgeous green path at the MHV that leads to the pond and a moment of peace.