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Remember Us – Letters From Stalin’s Gulag (1930-37) – Volume One
It’s August 1989, and Frank Bargen is cleaning the attic of his home in Manitoba. He has been keeping some of his parents’ things since they died twelve years earlier. Among the possessions is an old Campbell’s Soup box. In a casual conversation with his younger brother Peter Bargen and his wife Anne who are visiting, Frank refers to “a box of old letters” in the attic that are “just cluttering up the place”. Peter finds the box, opens it, and discovers hundreds of faded letters, some little more than scraps of paper. They are written in German Gothic script and dated 1930. To Peter’s surprise, his mother had kept all these letters from Russia until her death.
The correspondence is from aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, neighbors and friends, who by choice or fate have been in the former Soviet Union. His letters describe the inhumane conditions in which millions of people lived and died: from the mother who divides meager portions of black bread between her hungry children to the father willing to freeze to death to provide for his children. Although the writers’ words reveal human flaws and frailties, they also shed light on an elemental faith that has united the Mennonite people for more than 400 years.
It was only when the cardboard box emerged from the attic in 1989 that Peter began to understand the suffering of his people. For three years, he and Anne organized and translated 463 of the “pre-war” letters (1930-38). Peter learned of the events that took place in the hours immediately following his family’s flight in 1929, and of the unimaginable horrors that were experienced by those left behind in Soviet Russia. Peter and Anne wanted their children, grandchildren and extended family to know their own story, so they printed one hundred copies of the collection of 463 letters in 1991.
Significantly, the research confirmed that the letters from Stalin’s Gulag constitute the largest international corpus of its kind to date. It is also worth noting that these letters were written “in the moment”. Unlike many published memoirs written years later, after memory and the passage of time have possibly eroded the experience, (for example, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Eugenia Ginsburg, Kseniia Medvededskaia) these letters capture the experiences of prisoners and the peasants in the present time.
Clandestinely brought out of the country, the letters offer a rare glimpse into the darkest chapter in the history of the USSR. It opens a previously obscured window into the daily existence of Stalin’s prison camps and the suffering of oppressed people in their home countries. Yet the letters also evoke the most enduring quality of the human spirit: hope.
Translation of the Letters
Translating the letters presented numerous challenges for Peter and Anne Bargen. In their collection published in 1991, they note the following:
1. Many letters are unsigned and undated. We have done our best to estimate by whom and in what time they were written.
2. Many words, phrases and sentences are illegible due to weak writing, faulty spelling, abbreviations, smudging and unknown Russian expressions. We tried to express the substance of the communication accurately.
3. Many “place names” unknown or illegible in the German or Russian language are used by the correspondents and are written as they appear to the translator; can be grossly misspelled (i).
The Bargens explain that they tried to reflect the essence of the letters as accurately as possible, and did not “sanitize” the story. It is also my intention to present the letters accurately and to preserve the integrity of the writers. In publishing this book, I insisted on keeping the letters intact. Writers do not need to be censored once.
However, to guide the reader, I have provided contextual information, clarified family relationships, and defined some Russian terms and ethnic expressions. Most spellings of geographic locations follow the Germanic-Mennonite conventions used by letter writers. In some cases, Library of Congress spellings (in the non-Cyrillic alphabet) are used to represent Russian words used by writers. Ellipses generally indicate either words that are missing from the original letter or a writing that is impossible to decipher.
This volume begins with an introduction to the Mennonite people. It describes his journey from Europe in the 16th century to Russia in the 18th century. It also narrates the Mennonites’ odyssey from a golden age of relative peace and prosperity to the dark prisons of the Gulag in the 20th century.
Chapter one begins includes the first letters of Jasch and Maria Regehr and their six children, recounting their arrest in 1930, imprisonment and exile. Chapter II presents the letters written from various prison camps to which the Regehr family was transported (1932-33). Chapter Three contains letters written the following year (1933-34) that reflect a loss of hope after several deaths in the family. The number of letters drops dramatically after 1934; those of Chapter Four reveal the growing vulnerability of the remaining family members. The letters stopped in 1937. Decades of silence followed.
So, after more than fifty years, two surviving sisters, Lena and Mariechen, “fill in the gaps”. His letters are included in Chapter Five. The renewal is evident in this chapter, which recounts a meeting with Lena in 2005 in Cologne, Germany. The only survivor of the Regehr family, the girl who wrote a letter from her cramped space in a prison barracks, the woman who embodies the pain of an oppressed people, now radiates hope for her daughter and two granddaughters . The Epilogue invites readers to respond to Jasch and Mary’s prayer: “Remember us.”
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