One of my Christmas gifts this year was a book by Sarah Klassen, The Wittenbergs: A Novel. This 400-page volume is very engaging, as the setting moves from the late 20th century to the early 20th century and back again many times.
A pivotal character, Marie Wittenberg, is a survivor of the atrocities that many Mennonites (and others, for that matter) experienced at the hands of bandits in post-World War I Russia. Her granddaughter Mia, a Grade 12 student in Winnipeg, is a talented writer and spends many hours sitting with “GranMarie,” listening to her stories from Russia and writing them as part of her English assignment.
The Wittenberg family seems to have been dealt a disproportionate share of grief, trauma and dysfunction, beginning with Marie’s horrible childhood experiences in Russia. While the intensity of these life challenges helped make the story engaging, I found myself wishing the family might get a break every now and then.
As it turns out, Mia quickly becomes the family historian. Despite all of Marie’s terrible experiences in the land of her birth, the rest of her family has remained woefully uninformed about their family history. Only when Mia begins to write her grandmother’s stories do they become aware of many of her experiences. For example, they were surprised to learn that some Mennonites gave up their long-held position regarding pacifism and resorted to taking up arms to try to protect themselves and their families from the pillaging, rape and murder inflicted on them by the troops of anarchists. This initiative became known as the SelbstSchutz or self-defense. Marie’s stories, shared through Mia’s writing, begin to prompt additional exploration into the family’s past.
It struck me that the fictional Wittenberg family may not be unique in their ignorance of their own history. For much of my life I’ve been so preoccupied with the present and the future that I’ve not spent much time looking into the past. And for most of that time I didn’t really understand the value of being acquainted with one’s past.
Perhaps it’s logical that many people only develop an interest in their history later in life. But I find it quite delightful when I encounter young people, in their teens or twenties or thirties, who have a profound interest in where they came from and how they got here.
The mission of Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) is “to preserve and exhibit, for present and future generations, the experience and the story of the Russian Mennonites and their contributions to Manitoba.” Our museum works hard to keep people of all ages connected with their history. That means telling the stories in many ways that will engage many age groups. That is our challenge.
The Wittenbergs: A Novel is published by Turnstone Press and is available at our gift shop, Village Books and Gifts, for $21.00.