‘Volendam: A Refugee Story’ is Haunting, Yet Joyful

I hold the DVD for Volendam: A Refugee Story in my hands. It’s a new documentary directed by Andrew Wall of Refuge 31 Films, about Mennonite refugees who fled Europe to South America in 1947.

An image from the past, little children with large eyes, peers back at me. A haunting statement at the bottom reads: “In memory of those that never made it to freedom…”

I’ve learned a fair bit about the Kanadier immigration of the 1870s and the Russlander refugees of the 1920s, but not all Mennonite people left South Russia at those times. What of the Mennonites who remained behind?

Sadly, it seems, the longer one stayed in Russia, the worse things became. Volendam takes us on their harrowing journey, revisits unsettling, horrifying memories, and concludes with the story of those who made it to freedom aboard the Dutch ship, Volendam.

This film covers a lot of ground, first taking us back in time to help the viewer understand why the Mennonites of South Russia remained in Europe when so many others had left for North America, and how they were buffeted by the winds of change and chaos of war and famine sweeping across the land.

There’s a lot of history here, of context, and Wall uses a variety of methods to tell – and show – the story while keeping the facts clear. He has interviewed many people for this film; scholars, historians, archivists, and people who were actually there. There’s really no replacement for the tone, emotion, and expression of someone reaching back into their memory to a time of great trauma. What was it like? How did you feel? I imagine Wall asked them questions like these, but I suppose I’ll never know. I will say that I am astounded at the memories these people have shared with him… shared with us all. It’s captivating.

As the subjects reflect upon their childhood memories of experiencing upheaval in Europe, we see their memories play out before us. There’s a dreamlike quality to these scenes, with the edges blurred or lights strangely bright, and I feel as if I’m peering directly into the subject’s memory. The imagery is compelling, enhanced by an evocative soundtrack.

One gentleman remembers his father saying at the door, “And now they are here. It is the end.” As he shares this awful memory, his voice trails to a sad, terrified whisper that will probably haunt me for a very long time.

Also this: a young girl falls asleep next to her mother; they are starving. She awakens to discover her mother has died in the night.

Another striking image occurs on the Great Trek, as Mennonites attempted to outrun the advancing Russian front… a heartbreaking endeavor when you think of it. People on foot, carrying suitcases and children. Suddenly, they stop walking. They’re still. Listening.

Out of the forest, tanks emerge.

The vivid imagery is astonishing.

Many of these stories were theoretically familiar to me, but to see and hear them brought to life in this way, is striking. And, it’s a myriad of stories! Each voice is unique and punctuates or reinforces the point of the previous voice, while moving the story forward.

This film gives us a real sense of the choices the Mennonites of Europe faced in the midst of the chaos of war. Living under military occupation. Men being “taken”, never to be seen or heard from again. Women, children, and the elderly being sent to “The Gulag” (slave labour camps in Siberia). Surviving on just dried beans and grass.

The film makes excellent use of archival footage to tell the story. For example, when interview subjects mention Stalin, we see Stalin. And when they tell touching stories of the help provided by the Mennonite Central Committee, we see evidence of the MCC soup kitchens and Fordson tractors in action on the fields.

The film also conveys much about the genesis of the MCC, as the organization was born to provide help to the Mennonites of Europe.

The film takes another bright turn at the mention of C.F. Klassen and Peter and Elfrieda Dyck on the ground in Europe, working with the MCC to shelter the Mennonite refugees and actively working to find a way to rescue them. And they did find a way: the Volendam.

The story doesn’t end with the refugees getting on the boat, either. We’re able experience life on the ship, the refugee camp in Argentina, and arrival at their destination: the Paraguayan Chaco.

“What we went through, you can’t imagine,” they say.

Though this documentary goes through some pretty dark territory, in the end it all somehow hits with joy. Gratefulness. Thankfulness, at rescue.

To get your copy of Volendam: A Refugee Story, order direct from the Mennonite Heritage Archives’ online bookstore. This link brings you directly to Volendam: https://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/82/22163