Book review: ‘To and From Nowhere’
This refugee tale is an imaginative work of biography, dedicated to “the disenfranchised and deported everywhere.” Based on the life story of Greta Enns (1902-1985), it is a timely contribution as Mennonites seek to understand their own varied histories of ethnic identity and geographic dispersion, as well as respond to current human migrant crises across borders in Europe and globally.
The book’s maps anchor readers in the two locales where Enns spent her childhood (Ukraine) and most of her adulthood (following deportation, Kazakhstan). During the Cold War era, Soviet political and military policies pushed her, along with her children and grandchildren, to migrate further, into Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, the Caucasus, Estonia and finally, in 1976, to Germany.
In many ways, this is an extended family story. Greta Enns’ biography ranges across two volumes (the first, Favoured Among Women, published in 2010, recounts the protagonist’s Mennonite childhood in prerevolutionary Russia and the upheavals of World War I, 1920s-era efforts to migrate to Canada, collectivization and the dispersal of families under Stalinism).
In 1938, Greta’s husband, Heinrich Martens, was forcibly taken from his village, along with unknown numbers of men throughout the Ukraine. Three years later, in that story’s sequel, To and From Nowhere, Greta, her five children and many thousands of others who had been classified as “German” were deported eastward in boxcars.
Greta’s bewildering first months among Muslim families, also exiled in Kazakhstan, led to myriad adaptations, raising her children in a new environment that the author describes as “working on the edge of her ability to survive.” The family’s Low German, Ukrainian and Russian idioms gave way to Kazakh language usage, while they eked out a living, along with millions of vulnerable others, in settlements and forced-labor camps in the Soviet-controlled east.
Like many of the post-World War II Mennonite survivors described by Marlene Epp in Women Without Men (2000), Greta is uncertain whether she has been widowed, or if her husband, whom she last saw when he was in his mid-30s, will survive his own ordeal and reunite with the family.
Compounding this grief-tempered-by-hope is anxiety about other family members last seen in the Ukraine but abruptly scattered, during World War II, to Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and parts unknown.
This is an extended family story in another sense, as well. The Manitoba-based author, Hedy Martens, studied the historical and geographic contours of this story for several decades. She first met her husband’s elderly aunt Greta in 1976, and then, a half-decade later, interviewed Greta at her home in West Germany. Diaries, letters and photographs, as well as extended conversations with other relatives in Europe and Canada, provide documentation by which Martens recounted the family’s tumultuous fortunes in the Soviet Union and Greta’s evolving identity as matriarch.
Divided into four sections, To and From Nowhere takes its title from the author’s finding that Soviet history books of the period fail to mention the existence of “German”-identified populations east of the Dnieper River, deported under Stalin’s orders. More familiar are accounts of German-speaking Mennonites and other German Russians who fled westward with the retreating German army and scattered, during the postwar period, as repatriated Soviet subjects or were reclassified as eligible for settlement in European states, Canada or in Latin America.
This book’s title, as well as the work as a whole, rebukes decades of suppressed information about exiled individuals and family groups in the Soviet east. “Secrecy and lying are the norm,” the author writes of 1950s-era governmental officials whose account of Heinrich’s fate the family dismissed as false.
On this point, and throughout the work, Martens contextualizes individual and familial grief by judging historical actors who held and abused power. Usually this takes the form of poetic stanzas, for example:
Never admit some were shot
one day after or before their trial
but whenever possible
have local officials give the fake
so relatives will never be able to
what happened to their loved ones.
The book’s length — 500 pages — makes it a challenging read. It has an ambitious structure — a dialogue-rich narrative, interwoven with critical verse, as well as italicized notes pushing readers to consider political and cultural developments beyond Greta’s day-to-day world.
Occasionally, From Here to Nowhere lapses into unabashed sentimentality. But that is a small criticism. For more than a generation, Mennonites in Canada and elsewhere have been producing memoirs, novels, poetry and hybrid contemporary literature inspired by their families’ World War II-era experiences. This one stands out for interrelating a singular Mennonite narrative with surrounding cultural experiences in Ukraine and Kazakhstan — Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox Christian — and for portraying, “as true as fiction can recreate it” chaos, exile and loss in ways that resonate today.
Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.
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