“Do I really want to publish this?” Hans Werner, a professor of Mennonite Studies and Canadian history at the University of Winnipeg, said he asked himself that question just before The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory and the Second World War went to press. He knew some of the things he was about to reveal in his very personal book about his parents, would come as quite a surprise to many people, including his own siblings. Should he still go ahead with publishing the story?
“This was a book I could only write after my parents had both died,” says Werner, “because it includes stories I uncovered in my research that my parents never told us. Some of their story was difficult for me to tell.”
I had just finished reading The Constructed Mennonite last week when I attended a book information session featuring Hans Werner at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg.
Werner told us that in writing his book, “I wanted to honour my father by attempting to be as good a storyteller as he was.” His father loved to tell stories and couldn’t maintain a conversation for long before veering off into a narrative about the past. Ultimately it was his fascination with his father’s stories that drew Werner back to university to earn a PhD in history after he had already completed an engineering degree and spent many years working in the agricultural industry.
“I realized early on that my father’s stories were pretty fantastic and were not common to the ones other boys in Steinbach heard from their fathers,” said Werner. Werner grew up in Steinbach, where his parents maintained a home on Spruce Crescent, attended Steinbach Mennonite Church, and his father worked as an automobile mechanic.
Reading The Constructed Mennonite I learned Werner’s father had four different identities during his lifetime. He was given the name Hans when he was born to German Mennonite parents in Siberia in 1917. While working on a collective farm in 1938 he was drafted into the Red Army. He took the name Ivan and fought for the Soviets in World War II. The Germans captured him and he was conscripted into Hitler’s army where he served under the name of Johann. He became an American war prisoner and when released, managed with the help of Mennonite Central Committee to immigrate to Canada as John Werner along with his wife Margarethe who was pregnant at the time with their oldest son Hans.
Hans Werner said initially he had a healthy bit of scepticism about his father’s stories but as he did his research he was literally “blown away” by the accuracy of many of his father’s wartime memories. He also realized however there were factual errors in some of his father’s narratives and there were things his father had deliberately omitted and other events he had chosen to highlight from a certain point of view.
The story Werner chronicles in The Constructed Mennonite is riveting but I found equally interesting his reflections on how we choose to tell our life stories. Werner says in his introduction to this book, “we are always constructing ourselves when we share memories of our past lives with others.” Why did his father decide to focus on only certain aspects of his war experience? Why did he relate some parts of his life in great detail and yet keep some very significant relationships with women, including a previous marriage, a complete secret? Why did his mother tell her story in a way that emphasized suffering and salvation? Werner says he believes, “we fit the stories of our past together to form a narrative we can live with.”
Steinbach residents will be particularly interested in Werner’s idea that his father shaped his stories so he could fit in with the religious and cultural milieu in Steinbach.
The Constructed Mennonite provides some interesting glimpses into how the author was affected by his father’s stories. Having heard his father describe his daring exploits as a World War II soldier, Werner was puzzled as a child when he attended the Remembrance Day parade in Steinbach. He asked his father why he wasn’t marching with the other war veterans. Later when he learned more about the Holocaust he became worried because his father had been in the German army. He thought one day the authorities would knock on the door of their family home and arrest his dad for some atrocity that he had never confessed in any of his stories. The book left me wishing for even more of these insights into how the knowledge of his father’s past influenced the author, his relationships, his professional life and the kind of person he became.
The book also left me wondering what Werner’s father was like during the years he raised his family in Canada. The book doesn’t explore that in-depth and I found myself asking people from Steinbach who I thought would have known the senior Werner what kind of personality he had and what they knew of his social presence in the community.
I found The Constructed Mennonite thought-provoking. I can definitely recommend it as an engaging story that prompts the reader to hold a mirror to their own family stories and consider them in new ways.
Other posts about Mennonite family history………