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Authors of Mennonite Girls Can Cook share personal stories

Torn apart by war: every Mennonite family that fled Russia after 1929 had some kind of a miracle
Authors of Mennonite Girls Can Cook share personal stories


Mennonite Church Canada/MennoMedia joint release
September 26, 2012
- Melodie Davis

Waterloo, Ont. and Harrisonburg, Va.—  Canadian Mennonite history accounts in part for the popularity of the Mennonite Girls Can Cook blog and cookbook in Canada. Most Canadian Mennonites over the age of 50, whether Mennonite Brethren (MB) or Mennonite Church Canada, have parents or grandparents who emigrated from Russia.

Mennonite Girls Can Cook, available for loan or purchase from Mennonite Church Canada’s Resource Centre at, was written by one American and nine Canadian authors. It has been a best seller on Amazon Canada’s best seller list for cookbooks and on Herald Press’s best seller list for all of 2011 and 2012. By August 2012, 30,000 copies had been sold, mostly in Canada, and the book celebrates this unique food heritage.

Anneliese Friesen, one of the bloggers and authors, points out the different history saying, “It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that almost every family that escaped Russia after 1929 had some kind of a miracle to tell. All of our cookbook author forefathers and mothers, either parents and/or grandparents, were born in Russia. Many of them ended up in Canada or Paraguay.”

Her personal family story is not unusual in that regard but illustrates the difficulties they survived. Anneliese’s grandfather, David, was born in 1909 in Russia. He worked as a bookkeeper and a livestock inspector for his village. He married Helen and they had three children.

In 1941, Hitler ordered the march of three million troops into Russia. The Russian army sent David to take their best horses east, away from the Germans. This plan failed when the German army caught up with him and took him captive.

As their captive, he returned to his home and found that, while he had been gone, his village had been evacuated by the Russians. (Mennonites were culturally tied with Germany. Whole villages were being removed so that when the Germans would arrive, no one would be left.) The women and older children had been sent to work in a labour camp in Siberia.

David was obviously devastated about not finding his family but the Germans capitalized on his abilities to speak German and made him mayor of a group of villages. He was put in charge of rebuilding them to feed and support the fighting German army. In a sense the Germans became the liberators from the communist rule for those Mennonites who still remained in Russia, blinding them to the atrocities that were inflicted upon non-German people. He even had been forced to have the ignominious SS tattooed on his arm.

Eventually David was recaptured by the Russians and was despised because he had served under the Germans and they thought that he had collaborated with them. As the Russians were pushing the German army westward, David and some of his fellow prisoners, knowing that their days were numbered, discussed a plan to escape. They got away and hid until nightfall. They tried to cross a small river which separated the Russians and Germans, but they were spotted and became the targets of the Russians. David jumped into the river and hid under some plants, while bullets landed all around him. Finally the bullets stopped and David managed to make it to shore. He didn’t know where he was; exhausted, he fell asleep on the bank.

When David awoke he saw a light from a Czech home and was able to stay there a while. In 1945, as the war was coming to an end with the Allied Forces attacking Germany from the west, David became a prisoner of war once again as a German. When the war ended the captives were allowed to return to their home countries, but David did not want to return to Russia, knowing the fate that awaited him there. David applied for immigration to Canada, but was denied because of the SS tattoo on his arm. A while later he heard of an organization that was taking Mennonites to South America so he ended up in Paraguay. There he got word that his family in Russia had perished in the war. In Paraguay, David met Anneliese’s widowed grandmother, named Liese. They fell in love and got married. In this way he acquired an instant family; Anneliese’s mother was the oldest child.

After the birth of two sons, David received mail from Russia. It was a letter from his first wife, Helen, who was still living in Russia! She had been released from the labour camp and was trying to find her family. What was he supposed to do? Of course he was happy to hear that she was alive, but by now he was happily married to someone else. After much agonizing he decided to write to tell her that he could not come back because the Russian government would still see him as an enemy. Obviously he felt an obligation to his new family, as well.

Helen, though shocked, was a gracious woman who decided that this was just her fate in life. All she asked for was a picture of David with his new family.
Altogether David and Liese were married 37 years and Liese died of colon cancer in 1986.  Anneliese says her own parents moved to Canada, but her mother remained close through regular mail and infrequent visits. Anneliese recalls visiting her grandparents on their farm in Paraguay and her grandfather came to Canada to visit her family after he was widowed.

In 1993 a new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, allowed people more freedom to emigrate and Helen, along with some of her family, moved to Germany. David being widowed, and still living in Paraguay, decided to visit her in 1994, after 53 years of separation! Anneliese and her family happened to be in Germany at the same time and got to meet Helen, her daughter, and some grandchildren. They listened with rapt attention as Helen and David each told their story. “It was a very emotional time in which I was struck with the reality that these (his) grandchildren never got to know their grandfather, while I had been blessed by their loss,” Anneliese says now. “What a privilege it was to meet this sweet lady and hear her side of the story. She passed away about a year later and my Opa (grandpa) died in 1999, back in Paraguay. They never did get remarried.”

Anneliese says that on her father’s side of the family, her grandmother was newly married as her family fled across to China and then to Paraguay. “She did not see her family again for 18 years, living through very difficult times as she lost her husband and two children. Anneliese’s father was also separated from his brother for over 30 years, a story repeated many times over among Canadian Mennonites. “We all have a story that partly makes us who we are today. Our fathers did not fight for our freedom, but they still traveled difficult paths to do what they could.”

David’s story adapted from Anneliese Friesen’s blog, 

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