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house on the old mill site on the Irtysch River in Siberia
The house is built on the foundation of the old mill, owned by Johann Wiens
in Nova Pokrovsk, Siberia, that burned down in 1953. Photo 1992

A Response to Hunger

by Justina Peters

[A personal MCC story reprinted from Bethany Manor Chronicle, Aug1, 2012,
with permission of the author, Justina Peters]

In 1992 I stood high up on the banks of the fast flowing Irtysch River in Siberia near the Russian village of Nova Pokrovsk. This was the place where my grandfather had built a flour mill in 1907 at the invitation of the Russian people. It was destroyed by fire in 1910. Grandfather put his trust in the Lord and with encouragement and help from the villagers, the mill was rebuilt. That winter 99 sleds crossed the frozen river and in one day they hauled enough timbers and lumber to rebuild the flour mill.

It was here, 100 km north of the city of Omsk, Siberia, that my father grew up. He learned to know and love the Russian people.

It was here, on top of the hill where he and mother, as newlyweds, arrived during the night of September 3, 1919 after a perilous journey of fleeing across the open steppes of Siberia to avoid the military. They had come 500 km in seven days, grateful for God's protection.

It was here in their home on the banks of the Irtysch River, that their first three children were born. When my parents heard of the horrible events from relatives in South Russia, of the hordes of bandits robbing and murdering, causing terrible suffering and starvation, they were very thankful to be in Siberia.

It was here, on this river, that my father risked his life for a man who had become stranded on an ice floe one spring. He took a boat and rescued the man while the village people stood on the river bank praying.

It was here that my father tried to take a neutral position. In his own story he wrote: "The Red military front was approaching. Many well-to-do people left their homes and fled into isolatedareas of the ancient forests of Siberia. Their safety was short-lived. Most fell victim to hunger, cold and disease. This turned out to be the fate of thousands. We decided not to flee but to trust God and remain where we were.

At the beginning of November, the military front went by without a shot being fired. While the front of the Red Army passed by, the mill was closed for a few days. We reminded ourselves: 'We had milled grain from the White Army; now we were prepared to do so for the Reds. Saturday passed; then early Sunday morning the night waterman reported seeing Red soldiers in the bunk house. The soldiers had inquired whether the owners had fled. The watchman replied, "No."

The soldiers suggested, "let them rest."

Monday morning the head commissioner presented his credentials with dignity, asking for the owner of the mill. He questioned me whether the mill was operational and whether I would mill grain for the army. Since the answer was in the affirmative, soldiers were immediately sent to get wheat, and the work began. We tried to remain neutral since every one wants to eat, whether friend or foe. We remembered the words of Scripture from Matthew 5, where Jesus says:

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?"

After the Communist victory, father was required to record all grain that was milled for the surrounding farmers. Ten per cent, and later 15 per cent, had to be delivered to the government as taxes, without consideration for the survival of the poor farmers. In compassion for their survival, father had "juggled" the books by recording less than was actually deliver when reporting to the government. In later years in Canada, he was conscience smitten, hoping that God would forgive him for it.

It was here in 1921 that the mill on Irtysch River was nationalized. Father was able to work the mill for another year, then rented it for three years, after which he received notice to relinquish the property. The family was forced to move into a small log house in the Russian village of Nova Pokrovsk.

Oh, how mother missed her good iron cook stove! The log house had only a a 'peech' which had to be heated until the bricks turned white, then the ashes were pushed down and a grating was placed over the red hot coals in preparation for baking. Mother used the 'peech' every day for baking bread to feed the lines of hungry children who came to her door begging for food. The bread was coarse and dark, having been made from uncleaned grain. It still had weed seeds in it, yet it fed the starving.

One day several mothers came with their children. Mother had questioned them, "Isn't it enough that I feed your children? Do I have to feed you too?" Later she regretted her words, realizing that they were hungry.

Mother could never erase the memory of the starving people from her mind. She wholeheartedly supported relief efforts to feed the hungry and homeless for the rest of her life.

While still in Russia, Dad had read a book outlining the Communist Five-Year-Plan. He saw no hope for the future and began to make plans to emigrate to Canada. It was here they said their good-byes to family and friends for the last time.

Mother and Dad came to Canada in 1926 together with mother's parents and relatives. Dad's family stayed, hoping that times would get better. They didn't. Times got worse.

I was just a little girl but I do remember how my parents read the letters from Russia, shedding tears because Dad's family was starving. Despite their own struggles in a new country, struggles with language, poor health, the hardships of being new immigrants with a growing family, my parents were deeply concerned for those in Russia. They fasted to feel empathy with the hungry; they sent 50 pounds of flour whenever they possibly could. The letters from Russia stopped coming in 1937 because the relatives feared reprisals from the government. For 19 years there was no word. Those years were Silent Years.

Many know the story of Stalin's rule of terror in Russia [in the 1930s]. Millions were sent to hard labor camps. Dad's brother Jacob died alone in exile away from loved ones. Families were scattered, suffering isolation, starvation, loss of freedom, and death. Amazingly some survived.

Father was able to reestablish communication with his family in 1956. It was only after Father's death in 1971 that my brother John and his wife Martha visited Russia, and later my sister Mary did as well.

Yes, it was in 1992 that Herbert and I were in Siberia and stood on the bank of the Irtysch River. My cousin interpreted what the people in Nova Pokrovsk said about my parents. The people of Nova Pokrovsk still remembered Dad as the honest miller, even after 66 years.

My mother spent several years in a nursing home before her death in 1964. My youngest sister took care of her finances, and each month she asked mother, "Mother, where do you want your offering money to go?" Often Mother's answer was, "I want it to feed the hungry."

In 1992 I described the beautiful river bank and the mill site toe my older sister Mary, who had been six years old when they left Russia. She responded, "I know, Justina. I remember; I was there."

Today lines of hungry children come into our homes via the news media and television. They need to be fed. Our donations to MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) or to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank is one way of responding to hunger in our world today.

The Bible reminds us to remember to tell how God has led His people.

"O my people, hear my teaching; ... what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, His power and the wonders He has done.... [that] they would put their trust in God and would not forget His deeds but would keep His commands."

Psalm 78:1-4, 7

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