Walter Ratliff is a Great Trek descendant, and Producer/Director of Through the Desert Goes Our Journey, a documentary about the migration to Khiva and the settlement of Ak Metchet.
There's something about a redemption story that resonates in the human spirit. Perhaps moments of redemption are what we hope for in the regular failings of our own lives. A story where the reader participates in the redemptive process is perhaps the most powerful of all. The Gospel is the perfect example of this kind of story.
One of the best illustrations of redemption is found in Psalm 40. The psalmist is raised out the muddy pit and is given a new song to sing - many see and hear this moment of redemption, and put their trust in the Lord.
Location of Khiva
The Great Trek of Mennonites to Central Asia is a story in need of redemption. North American Mennonites almost always associate this story with the End Times errors of Claas Epp, Jr. and the hardships suffered by those who accompanied him to Central Asia in the 1880's. However, newly discovered documents offer a fresh perspective on the community founded at Great Trek's ultimate destination. By considering this new evidence, we have the opportunity to reassess the story itself - create a new song, if you will.
In the accepted narrative of the Great Trek, the eschatology of Claas Epp, Jr. takes center stage. Epp declared that Christ would return to earth deep inside Muslim Central Asia. He also maintained that true Christians from around the world would seek refuge from the Antichrist and the Tribulation in the Mennonite settlement established there. Authors of the key Great Trek accounts, including Epp contemporary Franz Bartsch and historian Fred Belk, closely link Epp's failed prophecies and unorthodox beliefs to the Central Asian migration and the settlement of Ak Metchet.
But documents unavailable to Belk, Bartsch, and others are shedding fresh light on the subject. It's an extraordinary event for historians and journalists to overhaul the understanding of an old story through new information. Transforming the Great Trek narrative is a redemptive process, garnering the participation of everyone who listens and retells the story.
Most of us live somewhere between our own failures and a fully redeemed existence. We are, as Annie Dillard wrote, "Frayed and nibbled survivors in a fallen world," and we are getting along. To paraphrase Dillard, we are not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead we are wandering about awed on a splintered wreck we've come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe delicate air, and whose bloodied and scarred creatures are our dearest companions. The beauty that beats and shines in our history and our communities is not found in their imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them.(1)
For Mennonites living in Stalin's Russia, Ak Metchet did in fact become a refuge from the tribulations stemming from Communist oppression. But the similarities to Epp's eschatology end there. In the 1920s and 30s, other settlements across the Soviet Union were forced to give up ways of life central to Mennonite identity. By the mid-1930s, the government banned religious instruction, and revoked exemption from military service. Even the crops they grew were confiscated. The Communist government labeled many successful Mennonite farmers and business owners "kulaks" or oppressors. This label condemned many to exile, imprisonment, and death.
In contrast, the Mennonites of Ak Metchet lived much as they had before the revolution. Until 1935, the children in its humble adobe schoolhouse continued to learn history, geography, and arithmetic in their own language. In the church, religious teaching continued as it had for nearly five decades, albeit in secret during the last few years of the settlement. As one Mennonite community after another fell to Soviet collectivization, the hallmarks of Mennonite life diminished across Russia. At the same time, some Mennonites considered Ak Metchet the last oasis of true Christian community left in the Soviet Union.(2) That characterization is a far cry from the prevailing American narrative of Claas Epp, Jr., and the Great Trek.
To be sure, life was increasingly difficult for the Mennonites of Ak Metchet. They suffered occasional searches and repeated thefts. They also tried to resist increasing taxes while maintaining their autonomy. This was compounded by difficult economic conditions reaching from Europe into Central Asia. Though frayed and nibbled, they were getting along much better than other Mennonite communities across the former Russian empire.
A young minister named Gustav Toews from the Trakt village of Hohendorf wrote letters to relatives in America during the 1920s and 30s. His correspondence tells of life in Am Trakt under Soviet pressure, as well as what it was like in Ak Metchet for those seeking refuge there. The story below draws from the correspondence Gustav and others sent from Central Asia to relatives in North America. It is supported by documents preserved by those close to the Ak Metchet Mennonites, yet unavailable until very recently.
For young Gustav, the village of Ak Metchet seemed straight out of a fable. Growing up in Hohendorf, he had heard stories of the Great Trek to Central Asia from those of his grandfather's generation. It had been 48 years since the first wagon trains left Mennonite settlements in South Russia for Turkestan. Tales of hostile rulers in exotic lands, strange theologies, and the perils of desert travel filled the imagination of children like Gustav when adults discussed the journey. Now, he was making his own trek to Ak Metchet.(3)
Two friends, Gustav Klaassen and Franz Albrecht, joined him on the expedition. They left Hohendorf on October 3, 1928, and likely followed the rail line from South Russia to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. They would take the train through Tashkent and Samarkand, then downstream by boat and wagon along the Amu Darya to the city of Khiva.
When Mennonites first traveled along this great river in 1882, they straddled the border of the Imperial Russia and one of the last Silk Road domains ruled by a Muslim king. It had taken them two years to reach Khiva from the Trakt, and two more years before they finally settled in the walled garden of Ak Metchet.
For Gustav and his friends making the same trip in 1928, the journey took three weeks. What they found when they reached Ak Metchet was a clean and modest village of about 45 Mennonite families living as they had for decades.
Walking through the main entrance of Ak Metchet, the friends saw the church and schoolhouse sitting in a courtyard dotted with poplar trees (now barren of leaves in late autumn). They could quickly identify the church by its arched, eight-paned windows. Encircling the courtyard were a square of adobe houses, each sharing a wall with their neighbors on either side. The single-story row houses' rectangular windows were flanked by wooden shutters.
Inside the school, Mennonite boys wearing dark gray cotton jackets sat on the right side of the classroom, and girls in black dresses and shoulder-length braids on the left. Every Sunday, Mennonite families would fill the church's slender, arch-backed chairs. Lay members of the community would deliver messages from a pulpit inscribed with the words "Herr, hilf mir." Translated: "Lord, help me." Likely a reference to the Canaanite woman's plea to Jesus in Matthew 15:25.
Sundays would also bring the dozen or so remaining followers of Claas Epp, Jr., to the old leader's house just north of the main church for their own service. Epp passed away in 1913. However, a few still held on to his teachings when Gustav and his friends reached the village fifteen years later.
The first person they met at Ak Metchet was Gustav's uncle, Otto Toews, the chief administrator for the village. They were delighted to chat with him - he was the first person in weeks they could speak to in Low German. Otto and the others at Ak Metchet were pleased to see the three young men as well. It had been many, many years since they had Mennonite visitors to their isolated community.
Gustav Toews writes of his experience as simply a young man on an adventurous holiday. However, there was a much more serious motive behind his journey. Those facing communist oppression, including his family in Hohendorf, were looking for a safe haven. About year before Gustav's journey, Soviet authorities in Moscow had granted the Ak Metchet Mennonites exemption from military service.(4) Three years after Gustav's journey, the Toews family had abandoned their home in Hohendorf and taken up residence at the Mennonite settlement in Khiva.
Communism had begun to envelop the Trakt settlement more than a decade earlier. One particular event on the heels of the Bolshevik Revolution signaled the shape of things to come. In February 1918, Mennonite and Volga German delegates were called to a district assembly. At issue was a resolution approving the Leninist takeover of their villages. Delegates opposed to Communism outnumbered the Bolsheviks at the assembly. Upon noticing this, a long recess was called by the Communist leadership.
When the delegates returned, all the Bolshevik delegates were seated together on one side of the hall. When the assembly's president asked if anyone wanted to speak against the acceptance of Communism, many hands went up. At that moment, the president gave a signal. The rising curtain revealed four machine guns with Red Army soldiers at the trigger. Behind the machine guns was a battalion of guards with revolvers pointed at the non-Communist delegates. The two Mennonite delegates looked for an escape, but a heavily armed Red Army guard stood at each exit door. The president asked again if there were questions about the resolution. Silence filled the hall. No one moved when the leader asked for opposing votes. The Soviets recorded that the decision to accept Communist rule in the Volga region was unanimous.(5)
By 1921, the whole region suffered under a crippling famine. Mennonites were accustomed to the cycle of good crops and bad, and had stockpiled food and seed for the lean years. The Communist government confiscated these stockpiles, along with machinery and livestock. Though the famine subsided in later years, the pressure to renounce their faith and join Soviet collective farms grew more intense. Those willing to reject their faith and join a collective enjoyed some privileges, including the ability to use tractors and other agricultural machinery. But even in the collectives, corruption was rampant. In 1927, the harsh realities of life in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic lead Gustav's father to remark, "Better to be poor and alone than to be well off in a commune. Oh! If there is a commune where it happens to be peaceable, I believe it not. In all the Soviet-land, there is always fraud in business."(6)
The early years of Soviet rule claimed the lives of about three percent of the Mennonite population, or more than 3,300 deaths between 1914 and 1923. About 40 percent or 1,230 of those deaths were murders or executions. The remainder of deaths were from famine and disease. The majority of these deaths were in Ukraine, where the anarchist forces led by Nestor Makhno terrorized Mennonite villages. However, other settlements, including the Trakt colony suffered from similar circumstances.(7)
As a boy, David Toews had made the Great Trek from the Trakt to Khiva from 1880 to 1884, and his parents took the family to Canada just before Ak Metchet was established. As he heard the tales of oppression experienced by Soviet Mennonites, he recalled the tremendous difficulties he and his family experienced on the migration. He quit his job as a school principal in Canada to aid the rescue of Mennonites suffering in the Soviet Union.(8)
Between 1923 and 1930, more than 20,000 Mennonites immigrated from Soviet Russia to western Canada, with David Toews at the helm of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization. As the years went by, the Soviets made leaving the country more difficult. Canada was also suffering from depression and unemployment.(9)
Near the end of the decade, Mennonites living in Russia knew the open door to the West was closing. Roughly 18,000 traveled to Moscow from their homes in Molotschna, Chortitza, Am Trakt, and other colonies in hopes securing exit visas. Only about 6,000 were able to leave for Germany, South America, and Canada. The rest remained at the mercy of authorities, who now regarded them as disloyal to the Soviet state. Many never saw their home villages again. The Soviets deported them from Moscow to labor camps in Siberia and Turkestan.(10)
In the years ahead, the "dekulakization" of the Soviet Union began in earnest. All those who owned land and employed others were targeted as oppressors, and regarded as obstacles to collectivization. Mennonites were common targets of imprisonment, exile, and executions because they had once been prosperous farmers and business owners. Ministers were also forbidden to preach, and their removal to prisons and labor camps left many communities devoid of formal spiritual leadership. Worship was forbidden. Many churches were left empty, used as barns, or converted to clubs and theaters.(11)
In 1928, as young Gustav Toews sailed down the Amu Darya toward Khiva, Stalin's demands for grain was further crippling Russia's farmers. A year afterward, Stalin responded to widespread resistance to the requisitions with a nationwide program of collectivization. Many were forced into communal farms or were sent to labor camps. For many, the camps were the equivalent of a death sentence.(12) As a result, families from the Trakt and Aulie Ata began making their way to safety in Ak Metchet.
A year after Gustav's family moved to the Mennonite community in Khiva, another daring young person paid a visit to the Mennonite settlement in Khiva. Ella Maillart, age 29, had spent the previous two years in a variety of professions. She was a stunt woman in British films, a champion skier, and captain of the Swiss national women's field hockey team. Her travels around the Soviet Union were supported by women and men closely connected to great literature: Jack London's widow, Charmian, and Leo Tolstoy's daughter, Countess Alexandra financed her travels in the Soviet Union.(13) Maillart is most famous for accompanying Peter Fleming on an audacious trek from Chinese Turkestan to British India in 1935. (Peter's younger brother Ian gained fame with James Bond novels.) These influences and others sustained Maillart through a life of adventure travel. It was on her journey to Turkestan in 1932 that she encountered the "Germans of Ak Metchet."
In her book Turkestan Solo, Maillart describes a bumpy ride on one of Khiva's three bicycles from the old Silk Road city to the Mennonite village. Some of the Uzbek locals reported that the Mennonites received sacks of rice and medicines from Germany. Their neighbors also said the Mennonites kept their own Christian holidays in the Muslim country, often surprising the locals by arriving in Khiva wearing their Sunday best. Aside from holidays, she wrote, the Mennonites came to the bazaar about every three days to sell butter and fruit.(14)
Two "spectacled aunts knitting in straight-backed armchairs," are among the first Mennonites Maillart met at Ak Metchet. One of the aunts revealed she was a refugee from Aulie Ata, and was expecting more relatives from Am Trakt.
"At present, there are three hundred and forty in the colony," the aunt said to Maillart, "it makes rather a squeeze to find room for them all."(15)
Maillart visited with Otto Toews, still the settlement's chief administrator, and Emil Riesen, who accompanied Claas Epp, Jr., in negotiations for the Mennonite migration to Khiva five decades earlier.
Among the Mennonites, Maillart discussed the writings of Ali Suavi, a Turkish activist who was often on the run from Ottoman authorities until his death in 1878. Suavi's writings mentioned that Khiva's remoteness had given the kingdom a reputation for being a place of refuge. Maillart drew a connection between Suavi's comments, and the fact that many Mennonite refugees were fleeing to Ak Metchet from Russia.(16)
Maillart was struck by the values and attitudes of those she met in the community. Some of the Mennonites she met were serious, some were lighthearted. She pondered what the future would hold for the community that had opened their gates to those who had suffered in other parts of the Soviet empire. She closed the account of her visit to Ak Metchet by remarking, "To think, I had come to the depths of Turkestan to comprehend the power that lies in cleanliness and the discipline of faith."(17)
For some who had fled to Ak Metchet, the stay was temporary. A number of those who had fled from Aulie Ata returned home after a time. Some stayed a few months, others for more than two years. However, those from the Trakt faced imprisonment or worse if they returned to their home villages, and stayed there permanently.(18)
By the mid-1930's, the community was still crowded with families who had found refuge there. By this time, the Soviet government had ordered an end to all religious instruction in the community. However, Franz Quiring and Johannes Funk, both refugees from the Trakt, continued to secretly teach catechism and other subjects.(19)
In 1934, on the heels of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Ak Metchet, Gustav's father wrote that "there hangs a dark cloud over Ak Metchet." He reported to his family in America that the Soviets had confiscated the papers of those living in the community, and called Otto Toews and the elder Otto Schmidt to the city for a hearing. Stalin's second Five Year Plan was well underway, and the authorities felt this remote Mennonite outpost somehow stood in the way of the rapid centralizing of life and work in the Soviet Union.
Some of those who fled to Ak Metchet saw their refuge through somewhat rose-colored glasses. Johannes J. Dyck's sister fled to the settlement from Am Trakt, and described the village in glowing terms:
The entire village here lives in great unity. Morally, the youth are on a very high level, which is remarkable in these times. Looking at the whole life here I must say: here there is still a piece of simple, pure Mennonitism.(20)
Others, such as Gustav Toews's father, Gustav, Sr., saw very human sources of conflict within the settlement. Writing two days after the community celebrated its 50th anniversary jubilee, he told of the struggle between the Ak Metchet's haves and have-nots:
A large part is well off, and the other part entirely impoverished. The biggest issue is food on credit. . . . None will stand behind the other when the last pound of butter and the last morsel of bread are sold. This was sharply called attention to at the festival. Our Gustav, who delivered the last speech under lights, emphasized it vigorously.
Gustav's father also mentioned cases "in the past" where some menial workers received a "vigorous thrashing" for not accommodating their employer. The same fate awaited those caught stealing melons or potatoes. Gustav, Sr., also pointed out a certain pride among those at Ak Metchet over their resistance to the political and social changes around them. He openly wondered whether the message of hope and humility in the epic poem his son wrote for the jubilee festival would reach the hearts of some in the community. Even so, he noted that no food was served at the celebration. Gustav, Sr., says that his cousin Otto Toews, one of the wealthiest members of Ak Metchet, agreed with everyone else that the food should go instead to the needy.(21)
The NKVD, predecessor to the KGB, investigated the community in April 1934. The political officer's report highlighted the defiance of the Mennonites toward Communist authority.(22) He reported that the Mennonites ignored demands by the authorities to install a leader chosen by the Communist party, and elected a leader of their own choosing (Otto Toews) prior to 1923. Citing "the will of the community," the officer reports that the community did not participate in the local Soviet congresses.
The officer also reported that the community continued to maintain two houses of worship (the main church and the former home of Claas Epp, Jr.), and that the men of the village supported the churches by contributions of five to seven rubles each per month. He also noted that the Mennonites of Ak Metchet refused to contribute to the maintenance and housing of dozens of Communist teachers living in the area.
The Soviet officer further condemned those living in Ak Metchet for raising children using "old methods and old textbooks." The community refused Soviet textbooks and guidance from the state-run schools. He also reported: "The law of God is taught once a week. According to this law, parents punish school children by a belt, or hand ruler."
The officer summarized the report by emphasizing how Ak Metchet remained unaffected by Soviet influence. He noted an absence of Soviet organizations and a general refusal to accept the Communist program. The NKVD officer also noted that the Mennonites regarded the former Khan of Khiva as a "fair manager," and hung his picture on the walls of their homes.
Each household was surveyed in the report. The officer made special notes for each member who owned land or employed others in business. These notes speak to the Soviet agenda of identifying "kulaks" and targeting them for imprisonment or worse. Also noted were the refugees' origins, ranging from the Volga region to Kyrgyzstan and "Luban" (perhaps a typo referring to the Kuban colony). The officer also noted whether they profited from business in their former villages.
The report paints a picture of a vibrant economic life at Ak Metchet. There were 52 separate farms sitting on a total of 138 acres. These included dozens of horses and more than 100 head of cattle, along with various other livestock. About a dozen families owned milk separators that enabled them to produce and sell cheese, butter, and cottage cheese. The community also enjoyed many contracts for their blacksmithing and carpentry businesses.
One year after the NKVD report was issued, Otto Toews was ordered to collectivize the community. He refused on the grounds that they had a governmental decree allowing them personal freedom and the right to govern their own affairs. In response, the Soviets organized a town meeting. When the Mennonites refused to vote for collectivization, Otto Toews was arrested. The next night, another meeting was held, and another leader of the community was elected. When the Mennonites again refused to collectivize, this leader and a prominent elder in the community, likely Emil Riesen, were arrested.
This scene played out again and again until ten leaders of the community were in chains. The prisoners were tried as counter revolutionaries. Each testified to their steadfast faith that the harshest punishment would not shake their belief that the Communist system was not God's will for them. They were each sentenced to death by firing squad, and their families were condemned to exile in Siberia.(23)
Mennonites from the Trakt and other colonies had been living at Ak Metchet for more than four years by this time. Seeds of defiance planted when the first refugees arrived in Ak Metchet years earlier now produced a harvest of solidarity among both the old timers and those who had lived there for a short time.
When the trucks came to take the condemned families away, the Mennonites of Ak Metchet began to chant, slowly at first: "All or None. All or None." The chant became more vigorous, and members of the community blocked the trucks ready take the families away. Rather than exercise force, the Soviet officers walked back to Khiva, leaving their vehicles with the defiant Mennonites.(24)
Uzbeks living around the old settlement of Ak Metchet in 2007 still have a number of artifacts given to them by the Christians who were once their neighbors. Today, they are family heirlooms for the people who live in the modern village of "Oq Machit." These include wooden and glass boxes constructed by the Mennonites, a hammer and pestle, cookware. It's likely that these items were distributed to their Muslim neighbors in the days prior to April 15, 1935, when a large number of Soviet trucks arrived at Ak Metchet, and deported the entire community to Tajikistan.
Of course, that isn't the end of the story. The first several years in Tajikistan were extremely difficult. With few supplies and endless forced labor, life was extremely difficult in their new desert home, where there was "only heaven and steppe."(25) The community still lived in tents when they entered the winter of 1936. During their first Christmas there, each of the 85 families received a parcel with supplies and food from Hermann Jantzen, a former member of Ak Metchet who had migrated to Holland.(26)
Jantzen was a teenager when he and his family made the Great Trek from the Trakt to Khiva in Claas Epp, Jr.'s wagon train. He had learned local languages and Uzbek culture in the khan's palaces, and later became a missionary to Turkestan's Muslims. Jantzen's memoirs tell how the schisms over Epp's theology during the early years of Ak Metchet damaged his spiritual life.
"We had much wealth as we left our beautiful home in Hahnsau," wrote Jantzen, "Father had sold his three farms and sacrificed it all to this 'Irrsinn' (madness or heresy). To the glory of God and our Savior, let it be said: we never became bitter toward our parents; for we loved them too much. But Uncle Epp caused me great struggle."(27)
However, Jantzen's opinion of those living at Ak Metchet changed dramatically by the time the community was deported. No only did he go to great lengths to send them relief supplies in Tajikistan, he referred to them as heroes in his memoirs.(28)
Conditions improved over time. A year after they arrived, the families lived in dozens of two-family homes. As the years went by, their stormy treatment as prisoners subsided into the life of a collective. The Soviets began to provide them proper irrigation and equipment to cultivate the cotton harvest. By 1938, they were successfully raising a variety of crops, and tending to a small number of livestock. While most fruits were rare, they planted peach and apricot orchards. These trees grew quite well.
"It is unbelievable to one who has not witnessed it," wrote Johannes Toews, Gustav's uncle, "When we came here three years ago, it was desolate dry steppe. And now, one sees almost no houses - only trees eight to ten meters high."(29)
Johannes's daughter Elisabeth later wrote that the former residents of Ak Metchet were allowed to hold worship services for the first year in Tajikistan. Then, the ministers (including young Gustav Toews) were suddenly "disappeared" by the Soviets, and never heard from again. Religion was forbidden. Church services didn't begin again until 1956. By then, there were only a half-dozen of those left who had followed Claas Epp, Jr.'s teachings, and they joined the main Mennonite congregation.
Though conditions improved, life for the former members of Ak Metchet consisted of hard work and many struggles over the next six decades. In 1994, the German government opened its borders to ethnic Germans living in the former Soviet Union. Though many of the remaining survivors from Ak Metchet were in their advanced years, they chose to move to Bielefeld, Germany. The last survivor of the Claas Epp church, Martha Janzen, died in Germany. She had long ago rejoined the Mennonite church.(30) Today, many families in Bielefeld have connections to those deported from Ak Metchet in 1935.
The hope for deliverance is a common theme among the Mennonite stories of migration to Central Asia. In the 1880s, Turkestan offered new lands and freedom from military service. For the followers of Claas Epp, Jr.'s particular brand of end times theology, Central Asia was also the place of Christ's imminent return, and Ak Metchet was an earthly refuge from the Tribulation and the Antichrist.
By the time Ak Metchet took up its role as a refuge in the midst of (lower-case "t") tribulation, the eschatology of almost all of those living there had transformed. Their faith and diligence were driven by a heavenly reward, rather than hope of a special role in Christ's return to earth.
Gustav Toews, the same young man traveled to the "fabled" village of Ak Metchet in 1928, committed to writing a history of Ak Metchet after he fled there with his family in the 1930s. This history was lost to North American Mennonites until very recently. It is also at odds with the prevailing narrative of the Great Trek and Ak Metchet.
Gustav's epic poem entitled Die Gemeinde Christi was read by various members of the congregation on May 4, 1934, during the settlement's fiftieth anniversary jubilee. Claas Epp and other figures from the Great Trek are not mentioned. It also does not mention Epp's failed prophesies about the Second Coming and the earthly reign of Christ. Instead, it places Ak Metchet firmly in the long history of Mennonite migration eastward. Rather than an earthly kingdom ruled by Christ, Gustav urged the audience to stay faithful, looking forward to a heavenly reward:
O, it is worthwhile itself to struggle here.
This time is brief, then we are drawn
toward life in the land of glory.
Let us now rise hand in hand,
this narrow course onward soon we land
there above in the blessed Canaan.(31)
In his book, Am Trakt, Johannes J. Dyck briefly described the deportation of Ak Metchet, adding: "With that, probably the last oasis of a Christian community in Soviet Russia has been destroyed."(32)
A fresh look at the story of Ak Metchet reveals how those faced with adversity drew strength from their faith. It also provides a solid example of how a group opened their homes to those in need, despite their own strained circumstances.
For these and other lessons to be learned from the story of Ak Metchet, the story needs to be lifted out of the mire of the old narrative associated with the Great Trek. Recently discovered evidence sets this story on a new foundation and gives those who see it as a proud part of Mennonite history a firm place to stand.
Reconsidering the Great Trek and Ak Metchet will not only give the next generation a more accurate account, it will honor those Mennonites who persevered in their faith despite tremendous difficulty. To be sure, the Mennonites of Ak Metchet were not perfect. Yet, despite their flaws, the beauty of their story shines through whatever human imperfections they might have carried with them.
Visitors to the site of Ak Metchet today will see a few of its gnawed trees still breathing the delicate air of Uzbekistan's desert steppe. Long gone are the Mennonites who occupied this land from the time of empires well into the modern era. Yet, new generations are coming to this site to re-examine the story of the Great Trek and Ak Metchet. Central Asia carries a bloodied and scarred history, but the oasis of Ak Metchet now calls us to a sing a new song.
1. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998).
2. Johannes J Dyck, Am Trakt: a Mennonite Settlement in the Central Volga Region (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1995), 79.
3. Gustav Toews, Gustav (younger) to Otto Toews, Paso Robles, Calif., 2 April 1928. Private collection.
4. Dov Yaroshevski, "Central Asian Context for the Khivan Mennonites Story," Central Asia on Display; Proceedings of the VIIth Conference of the European Society for Central Asian Studies (2004), 361.
5. Dyck, 54.
6. Gustav Toews (elder) to Otto Toews, Paso Robles, Calif., September 1927. Private collection.
7. Peter Letkemann, "Mennonite Victims of Revolution, Anarchy, Civil War, Disease and Famine, 1917-1923," Mennonite Historian, June 1998.
8. John E. Sharp, Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites Tell (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001). Also Mennonite Encyclopedia, vol. 1, 507-508.
10. Heinrich Goerz, The Molotschna Settlement (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1996), 241.
11. Ibid., 243.
12. Bill Keller, "Major Soviet Paper Says 20 Million Died As Victims of Stalin," New York Times, February 4, 1989.
13. Biography, http://www.ellamaillart.ch/bio_en.php.
15. Ella Maillart, Turkestan Solo (London: Tauris Parke, 2005), 273.
16. Ibid, 270.
17. Ibid., 275.
18. Mrs. Wilhelm Penner to Mrs. J.K. Penner, Ak Metchet, January 31, 1934. Private collection.
19. Mrs. Wilhelm Penner to Mrs. J.K. Penner, Ak Metchet, February 14, 1935. Private collection.
20. Dyck, 76.
21. Gustav Toews to Otto Toews, Paso Robles, Calif., May, 6, 1934. Private collection.
22. Copy of report in the possession of the author.
23. Fred Belk, The Great Trek of Russian Mennonites to Central Asia, 1880-1884 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976), 191-192.
24. Alexander Rempel and Amalie Enns, Hope is Our Deliverance (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2005), 143-146. Franz Bartsch, Our Trek to Central Asia (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1993), 131-140.
25. Johannes and Anna Toews to Otto Toews, Paso Robles, Calif., November 24, 1935. Private collection.
26. Hermann Jantzen, Memoirs of Herman Jantzen: Missionary to Turkestan, Caucasus and Bulgaria, refugee from Bolshevik Russia (N.p., 1975), 127.
27. Ibid., 18.
28. Ibid., 127.
29. Johannes and Anna Toews to Otto Toews, Paso Robles, Calif., October 8, 1938. Private collection.
30. Elizabeth Toews Wiens, "The Fate of the Last Mennonites Living in Ak Metchet in 1935," June 15, 1998. Private collection.
31. Gustav Toews, Die Gemeinde Christi, May 4, 1934. Translated by James Juhnke and Walter Ratliff.
32. Dyck, 79.
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