And When They Shall Ask is a Mennonite docu-drama created in 1983. Thirty-four years later, I’ve finally watched it!
The cover is a little on the drab side, depicting a girl peering solemnly from behind a the wheel of a cart of some sort. This image is incredibly familiar to me. I thought for sure our church library must have had it…maybe on VHS or Beta or something. My brother tells me, though, that our grandparents had owned the film. However, I can’t remember anyone ever talking about actually watching it. I’m sure people did… but I probably filtered it out as a youngster, dismissing it as “boring stuff”. Because clearly anything to do with Mennonites = hopelessly boring.
But really, And When They Shall Ask is the opposite of boring. It’s actually fascinating, because it depicts the history of the people I’m descended from… and it’s punctuated by stabs of horror.
Many of the events that caused Mennonites to migrate are unspeakable… and the interviews depicted in the film demonstrate this, as interviewees get choked up, struggle to maintain their composure, are suddenly unable to go on… and then force themselves to relay the horrific images in their minds.
A starving family is reduced to eating potato peels… or nothing at all.
A young man is torn from his wife and infant, kicked off a train before crossing into Latvia.
A 5-year-old girl stumbles upon the body of her dead father, his head gashed in.
A young boy hides in fear, as he hears his mother and sisters being raped.
It is no wonder that the people who lived through these things never wanted to speak of them again.
They remained quiet and sad, sitting by as their progeny enjoyed peaceful, prosperous lives. Perhaps this is how general knowledge of the history of Mennonites has become merely the source of an innocuous joke. We’ve focused on the amusing accent, fattening food, and penchant for farming… not realizing or appreciating what those who have gone before us had lived through.
The film documents the Russian Mennonite experience, from the time the Mennonites arrived in South Russia, to the time many of them left. Until now, I’d been under the impression that there were just two waves of immigration to North America, one in the 1870’s, and one in the 1920’s… but in fact there were many more. The film depicts the experience of the Mennonites in Russia from the 1820’s to the 1950’s… how those remaining were sent to the Gulag in Siberia, many never heard from again.
The film opens depicting the Mennonite’s life in Russia in the mid-1800’s as a hazy, heavenly dream. Croquet, servants, mansions. This haziness makes sense to me, as I’ve heard tales of Mennonite wealth back in the “old country”… though I feel patently disconnected from it.
Another scene depicts German soldiers sitting around the table with a Mennonite family. A young Mennonite boy spies the soldier’s gun resting against the wall. He is smitten with the firearm. His mother firmly admonishes him.
And a dramatized scene that had me staring in disbelief: It’s sometime in the 1920’s. A Mennonite family travels through a field, cart loaded with belongings. A gang of Makhnovists on horseback attack. As the camera pans away, we see the family scattered around the cart, dead. In the distance, a lone girl retreats, alone. She had hidden and escaped, the only one.
I have heard stories such as that one… but to see it dramatized is pretty powerful.
If you casually dabble in Mennonite history (you know, like I do), I strongly suggest watching this film. And, try watching it with your parents or grandparents. The experience just might elicit stories you otherwise wouldn’t have heard.