A Tribute to John G. Rempel
by his daughter, Laura K. Wiens
When it was suggested to my sister, Agnes Wall, that a study be done on our father, it rekindled an interest in her heritage. After four years compiling his vast written legacy, she nominated him for this honour. This is a brief historical outline of his life, as gleaned from his memoirs.
Our father was born in 1890 in Nieder Chortiza, Russia. Times were peaceful and prosperous for the Mennonite Colonists and he had a happy childhood. He loved playing with his many wooden horses, and on hot summer days swimming in the Dnieper river with his friends. Life centered around the church and Christian ideals were instilled early. Education was encouraged, and at the age of 19, Dad embarked on a professional teaching career.
Dad loved poetry and his writings are interspersed with sentiments from Schiller, Goethe, Pushkin and others. His book of geometrical drawings done at the age of fifteen, shows not only an artistic flair but the quality of education at the time. These drawings are now in the archives of the Mennonite Historical Society in Saskatoon.
With the outbreak of WWI in 1914 Dad, along with thousands of Mennonite youth was mobilized into military service. As nurse's aide on a hospital train he saw the atrocities of war, tending to the wounded and sick as they were rushed from the front lines to Moscow.
After two years Dad was transferred to headquarters in Moscow, where he served as secretary on various councils representing the nursing aides and, as special judge, adjudicated conflicts between medical personnel. These experiences served him well when anarchy replaced order in the colonies. The nursing skills enabled him to save lives when the roving bandits brought the dreaded typhus.
In his memoirs Dad recalls the morning of March 1st, 1917. "The streets of Moscow were eerily quiet. Then a sound like a howling wind gained momentum". Dad, with other Mennonites, watched from the window of their quarters with dark foreboding as a huge red flag appeared, followed by a mob shouting and singing slogans of Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! The discontent of the masses with the ruling party had reached a feverish pitch. This was Revolution. What would it mean for them?
On the first holiday to celebrate the Revolution, Moscow was decked in red flags. The entire military had deserted the old Regime, joined the people and a huge parade was underway. Dad's curiosity led him to a comfortable vantage point at one of the giant columns in front of the Bolshoi Theatre. He could see the entire area; to the right the Municipal Duma (or parliament) and to the left clear to the Lubianka Prison. Then he allowed himself to be pushed forward by the jovial crowd marching toward Red Square. The entire area was historic and this day, history was again being made. But in the sea of red flags before him one flag was disturbing. It was black and represented anarchy.
Here in early 1917 Dad, still in his twenties, had a front row seat as the drama of the downfall of the Tzarist Regime began to unfold before his eyes. It was also the beginning of the end of life as they knew it, for the Mennonite Colonists in Russia.
In June of that year the teachers in the armed forces were demobilized. Dad left Moscow, first for southern Russia to acquaint himself with the situation at home which was gloomy but hopeful, then on to Halbstadt as a delegate to the All Russian Mennonite Conference. One delegate's perception of the consensus of each of the three regions represented was:
"We do not want to fight"... " We do not fight'... "We will not fight."
Dad returned to Nieder Chortiza to resume his passion for teaching. The following year he collaborated with a friend to open a high school there. Outbreak of Civil War late 1917 ended this dream.
Warring forces came and went. The colonists lived in constant fear. In 1918 Dad counted 23 changes in government. By 1919 typhus raged in the villages and Dad's training in suctioning these patients relieved much suffering. Of the seven stricken members of his own family he was unable to save his parents and a younger brother.
Books were confiscated and teaching of religion was prohibited in schools. At the end of 1921, a decree issued by the Central Government, prohibited a religious minister from teaching. Dad, by this time was an ordained minister. He ended his teaching career and devoted his time fully to the ministry. In his memoirs he recalls the challenge at this time to find a suitable text for his sermons to comfort a discouraged congregation.
Occasionally during lulls in fighting, Dad relieved his exhaustion by gathering and drying wild flowers for his collection. He also had a collection of bird's eggs. During one looting rampage bandits crushed all the eggs and trampled the flowers with glee. Dad's sister managed to save some of the large collection. These have been donated to the University of Saskatchewan.
At times the colonists would find relief from the growing tension with a sense of humour. One day Dad's humour was not appreciated. He was taken into the woods at gunpoint and when ordered to hand over his coat replied: "Then you have two coats and I have none!" At being told to turn around Dad, knowing his potential fate, handed over the coat.
In 1920 Dad married Susanna Epp. Food was scarce so only the family was invited for the reception, and with a complete crop failure the following year the future for the colonists looked bleak. Emigration was the only solution. In June 1923 Mom and Dad, their two little boys and Dad's two younger brothers, with much faith and hope, joined one of the first groups of Mennonite Colonists to leave their homeland for Canada. Again, history was being made. As their train slowly pulled away in the evening twilight, Dad heard singing from the station platform: "Ach bleib mit Deiner Gnade; Bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ."
On Nov.23, after a journey of five months they arrived in Saskatchewan and settled in Langham, where dad became minister to the Mennonite congregation. Finally there was peace but poverty prevailed, especially during the depression of the 1930's. I was born during this time and have two vivid memories - one being of a very large (to me) pail of peanut butter, the other of a gifted rabbit hanging in the porch and my mother looking at it, wondering where to begin.
In 1935, Dad accepted the position as Director of the Bible School in Rosthern and my parents, now with a brood of seven, relocated there. A fond memory I have from childhood there is Dad entertaining us with poetry: "When I was sick and lay abed, I had two pillows at my head...", or "How would you like to go up in the air, up in the air so high" or Chicken Little, who thought the sky was falling because a piece of it fell on his head.
Dad was always writing, if not on the typewriter upstairs, then in the warm living room with a board across his rocking chair. This was private time with my father. I would take the comb from his pocket and he would let me to do as I pleased with his hair.
In 1946 Dad was ordained Elder of the large Rosenort church. In addition, he held positions on various boards and committees and was secretary-treasurer of the General Conference of Mennonites in Canada for many years. I remember visitors coming and going and Mother turning Dad's worn shirt collars before another train trip and another conference. It was Mother who maintained the rhythm of a busy household. She was the glue that kept it all together.
In 1952 Dad flew to Basel, Switzerland as a delegate to the World Conference. While in Europe he was at times mistaken for a Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi. In his journal he recalls with amusement an incident in a Paris restaurant when a fellow delegate orders 'rahm' (German for cream) for his coffee and was served a glass of rum.
In 1956, less than a year after retirement to Saskatoon, Dad suffered a debilitating stroke. His first words were in Russian. His brother who was at his bedside, recognized them as Pushkin, the great poet.
With gratitude we remember the many thinkers and doers who each in their own way fostered the ideals of the Mennonite faith. It is because of their courage and convictions that we live here in peace and freedom. Our father was only one of them.
As a family we thank the Mennonite Historical Society for including our father, John G. Rempel, on their honour list.
Laura (Rempel) Wiens