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Sep. 25, 2021 | Saturday
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Letter: Reflections on Mennonite and Indigenous genocides
Miranda Krause-Chivers lives in NOTL and is the author of the "Russian Mennonite Chronicles. Book One: Katarina’s Dark Shadow," which was released on Sept. 7. (Supplied)

Dear editor:

In 2019, Parliament proclaimed the second week of September as Canadian Mennonite Heritage Week. But who are the Mennonites and why is this important?

Mostly known for distinctive food, a quiet faith and community service, Russian Mennonites share a violent record branding us as survivors of intergenerational trauma.

Revisiting our forebears’ chronicles comes easily as we devour roll kuchen, forma worscht and Kielke met schmaunt fat. Then, the sting of ethnic discrimination surfaces.

My Mennonite grandparents fled during the Russian Revolution when their religion, wealth and German language branded them as dissidents and foreigners.

They saw their villages plundered and razed by the Bolsheviks, their peers tortured and murdered; then tarried in displaced persons camps for two years because of Canada’s biased immigration policies against them (1919-1921).

That small-mindedness still causes some to be wary of government actions today, but also urges us toward compassion.

The recent First Nations crisis awakened our own ancient scars of bigotry. The unmarked graves on desecrated burial grounds offer proof of ethnic cleansing in a way that chillingly parallels the Mennonite story. Rooted in our DNA is the recognition that prejudice has many faces and its injury lasts for generations.

Our experience spurs us to ease the suffering of others. These gruesome acts, which highlight the worst of human behaviour, will not disappear until we confront the racism, fear and hatred behind them.

Silence only encourages the perpetrators to repeat the brutality. Decades of guilt, shame and anger manifest through mental illness, addiction, child abuse and domestic cruelty.

Words wound, but they also heal. Therefore, recovery demands influence from those who understand.

Upon visiting my ancestral sites in Ukraine in 2014, the blatant evidence of cultural genocide overwhelmed. Barren fields now cover the demolished graveyards and razed villages of my great-grandparents — the testimony to a deliberate political action to erase us from Russian soil.

Later, I sat with a profound sense of alienation and despair, while healing began in the torn pages of my soul.

As news broke about the First Nations atrocity, a sombre ceremony in Ukraine restored dignity to one Mennonite graveyard. Recent construction development discovered the ruined gravestones bulldozed during the Stalinist era.

My grief resurfaced when I verified the names against the Mennonite genealogy database. Out of the now identified eighty-six markers, fourteen were my recorded cousins. The stunning truth sickened me. I wondered about their deaths.

Although my backstory differs from that of Canada's Indigenous people, we share the deep wounds of bigotry. Mine hides behind my white skin.

Still, I’m ashamed about the desecration of sacred grounds done by the same country that granted my grandparents sanctuary and gave me life. We all deserve dignity. And walking out our altruistic platitudes requires more than head nods.

Dismissing the ugly truth only buries it temporarily — because history proves that blood screams to be found and bones rise from the graves. Yet time blinds us to the traumatic past.

This September, while we gorge on glums vereniki, slurp Borscht from our soup spoons, or submit donations to Mennonite Central Committee charities, let’s be mindful that our freedom to indulge arrived with a hefty price.

And while reflecting on history, let us examine our cultural sensitivity and remember — we are the lucky ones.

M.J. Krause-Chivers

NOTL

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