Life in Paraguay! What an adventure it all seems for idealistic sixteen-year-old Anna when she arrives in her new homeland in the Chaco of South America. Then she discovers the wilderness is hostile, pioneering is unrelentingly difficult, marriage brings sorrow, and friends become enemies. But she also finds love. Again and again, as her exuberant spirit is tested, she strives for resilience. And near the close of her life, she finds the best surprise of all. Under The Still Standing Sun is a deeply affecting and intimate journey through a woman’s life, woven into the narrative of Mennonite settlement in Paraguay.
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“An inspiring story, told with skill, vigour and understanding” – author Barbara Smucker
“a gem of lucid understatement” –- Prairie Fire
“her accomplishment in this relatively brief novel is considerable” – Mennonite Quarterly Review
“delightful, yet painful portrayal…carefully researched…vivid descriptions” – Mennonite Reporter
“Author’s ability to make Anna’s life authentic at every age is most impressive” – Al Reimer, MB Herald
“Neben der interessanten Erzählung enthält das Buch auch eine ausgezeichnete Schilderung des wirtschaftlichen, gesellschaftlichen, psychologischen, religiösen Hintergrundes eines bedeutenden Kapitels der Geschichte der Mennoniten.” – Historian Wilhelm Schroeder in Mennonitische Rundschau
“Ein mennonitischer Roman, der sich im paraguayischen Chaco abspielt—und ein guter! ...von vorne bis hinten interessant, dynamisch, spannend…” Annegret Horsch, Mennoblatt
“One of the significant elements of this novel is…a woman’s perspective on pioneer life in a male-dominated community… recommended not only for its portrayal of life in a pioneering family, but also because it captures the essence of the Paraguayan Mennonite experience.” Mennonite Historian
About the author Dora Dueck
When the Apipe docked at Puerto Casado I strode off with my head high. My eyes were wide and unblinking, and my lips were parted, ready to smile. I was sixteen, and though a refugee, I was full of hopes and ideals. I had set myself to welcome my new home.
I nearly stumbled on the solid, unyielding pier because my legs had taken on the rhythm of the gentle, rocking boat. But my unsteadiness was brief. Eagerly I crossed the wide wooden platform. My feet touched the grey shore.
“I’m here,” I murmured reverently. “I’m finally here in the Chaco.”
Just beyond the dock I stopped, slipped my sack of possessions onto the ground, and began my inspection of my surroundings. I had waited more than eight months for the Chaco, that region of Paraguay where we Mennonites from Russia would settle. I wanted to embrace it with all my heart.
The sun hung low in the west, red as embers, as intense as if it had gathered all day, not given, and was now full for departure. Tones of fiery red and orange radiated across the sky in waves, beginning with the most brilliant and then fading gradually into the muted blue of the eastern horizon.
To my right, I saw a tall smoke funnel. It belonged, I guessed, to the tannin factory. I heard cheerful voices and clanking and swishing of machines. I noticed the dwellings of the port. They were pale pink or green or blue, or simply whitewashed, but all of them were overlaid now with the rosy veneer of the setting sun.
And the trees! Palms with dark, towering trunks and long graceful fronds; scattered fern-like plants, imitating the trees in miniature; stately eucalyptus trees with slender leaves; and many others I did not recognize but would learn about soon.
Shielding my eyes against the sun, I looked at the swift, wide river. The water glistened as it moved; it seemed to dance. Then I remembered what it hid: hordes of treacherous piranhas. So the sailors had said, grinning at us.
But it didn’t matter what moved beneath the surface, I thought. The river was important because it brought us here. Lapping against the high, sandy banks it whispered: you’re home, home, home.
I narrowed my eyes, and the water was compressed and gleamed even more as it ran away behind the steamer. The shining golden line broke into the stream of my people straggling off the boat, noisy and uneven like brown water over rocks, filling the dock as if it were a pool. The Apipe cast its shadow over them.
I saw our leader, Mr. Schroeder, greeting the port officials and gesturing grandly with his gaunt, vein-lined hands. He was probably trying his few words of Spanish. His trim, pointed beard rose and fell with the movements of his chin as he spoke.
Several dark-skinned Paraguayan women in bright dresses and kerchiefs, balancing cloth-draped baskets on their heads, slipped into the crowd. I watched one of them stop suddenly in front of Hans Wiebe, swing her basket down, and flick aside a napkin to reveal a mound of cream-yellow baked goods. Strange words poured from her mouth. Wiebe scowled and shook his head.
The woman persisted, blocking his way. He blushed. Finally he darted around her, looking both ashamed and pleased at his escape. The vendor laughed cheerfully as if she had sold him everything, covered the rolls with one smooth motion, and whisked the container onto her head again. I laughed too.
Other women leaned in doorways, following the Apipe’s arrival with casual curiosity. I thought they were lovely. Although their skin was dark and their hair black as night, they had an aura of color about them; they were like flowers and their teeth flashed white when they smiled.
The workers on the boat shouted to each other, and waved at the women. They looked at us too, in our greys and navys and browns.
One of the sailors caught my eye and called to me. Gibberish, this Guarani or Spanish, whatever tongue it was he used. But I smiled back. I felt happy. Why not show it? He grinned, and on the strength of an exuberant whoop heaved a wooden crate onto his shoulder.
Paraguay was wonderful, I decided. The air was moist and sweet like a ripe tropical fruit. Strangest of all, the season was winter. Never had winter been so pleasant.
We left Russia in winter. The night we turned the corner on the road out of our village in the Orenburg settlement for the last time it was bitterly cold, and the sharp wind threatened to bring us a storm.
We fled in secret, in great haste and agitation, scarcely able to grasp what we were doing. I looked back at the turn, but our farmyard was lost behind swirling snow.
“Good-bye, dear home, good-bye,” I had breathed, my eyes blurring with tears.
During the hour’s icy ride to the station not one word was spoken by any of us, huddled under robes and blankets. I had stared at the immense grey sky and tried to swallow the fact that I would never come back. I knew that.
In the months that followed I felt my life as something I carried. It seemed like a piece of luggage I was waiting to set down and unpack. And now I had touched the Chaco. My existence could be fastened here, secured, moored, even as the steamer had been bound to the dock.
This was a moment of great significance for me and I felt I must celebrate it. I closed my eyes. Mentally I repeated the names Russia and Paraguay. I followed the distance between them again. My mind, like a finger tracing the lines of a map, travelled the road in the village to the turn that hid my childhood home from sight, then the kilometers of train tracks to Moscow and beyond, over Germany, with our stay at the refugee center in Moelln, and the long journey across the Atlantic. I pronounced Buenos Aires and Asuncion, scanned the bends of the river beyond small hamlets and reached Puerto Casado, the Chaco at last.
I jumped. “Oh Mama, you scared me!”
Recovering, I cried: “Isn’t it pretty?”
Mama, a stout woman, puffed from exertion. “Pretty? What?”
“The Chaco is pretty!”
“The Chaco! My dear child, what are you talking about?” Her eyes moved rapidly though the milling crowd of people.
“I’m trying to find your father,” she said. “Have you seen him? And I’ve lost Klaus and Maria too... Oh that man! He forgets I can’t keep up when he walks so fast!”
“And you,” she continued, “every time I need your help, you’re gone. What are you doing? Standing and dreaming again, I see.”
“I’m looking,” I said. To her first question, I added, “Papa will be missing you in a minute, you know. Stay here. He’ll come.”
Mama sighed. “I don’t want to see water again!”
Dear Mama. She had been sick much of the ocean passage. Then, when we left the large liner in Buenos Aires and boarded the small river steamer, the service fell far short of her expectations.
“Untidy! Crowded! And the Spanish food! It’s very trying for us Germans,” she had complained. “We’ve left European civility far behind, I see.”
“No more voyages, Mama,” I comforted. “We’re here.”
“To be sixty and heavy, and travelling like a gypsy instead of ruling a kitchen is no delight I tell you, Anna.”
Suddenly Papa appeared.
“See?” I nudged Mama.
“There you are!” he declared triumphantly, as if we had tried to hide from him.
“I’m finished with boats and water forever, I hope,” Mama announced.
“You’ve come to the right place then, my treasure,” he said, not smiling. “The Mennonites who already live in the Chaco say the water situation is desperate.”
“Oh, I don’t mean that!” Mama clucked in exasperation. “Now, where are we supposed to be sleeping, Abram? Come Anna, bring your things. What’s happening, Abram?”
“We take the train inland tomorrow.”
“And then we’re there?”
“No, no! From there, several days by wagon. Ox-drawn wagon! The Kanadier will transport us. Come.”
“I think I’ll like it here!” I said. “It’s wonderful.”
Without responding, my parents lifted their hand baggage and began to walk away from the dock area. I followed.
Papa stopped suddenly, but I was not watching, and stumbled against him.
“Oh!” I giggled, skipping to gain my balance. We met in a half-circle and, thinking they had not understood me earlier, I said:
“You know, Paraguay’s actually nicer than I expected. It’s a lovely home, don’t you think?” My joy would simply not settle; I was stirred by the significance of our arrival.
Papa glared at me.
“You keep your tongue, Anna,” he said. “You’re barely off the boat, and you’re babbling and making pronouncements!” He brought his face close to mine. “Paraguay is actually worse than I expected, if you want to know what I think. It’s like erasing fifty, maybe a hundred years, for us.”
He whispered, but I felt the hiss of his rebuke and scorn. I flinched from him as if struck by a spark.
“You’re blind if you think it’s a place to leap about,” he concluded, turning abruptly and wiping his mouth.
“Where’s Klaus and Maria?” Mama interjected, glancing anxiously from him to me.
“Stay here,” he said.
Papa strode away. I heard him mutter “Oxen” as he left.
“Look for Klaus and Maria, will you?” Mama called.
He did not turn.
I waited until he was out of sight. “Well,” I pouted, “this is the Chaco we’re standing on, isn’t it?”
“Papa doesn’t want to be here. He’s still thinking that we might have gone to Canada.” Mama adjusted the black shawl on her head.
She lifted her arm to my shoulder. “Each day brings us closer,” she said, sighing. Just as suddenly her arm dropped. “We’re weary, that’s what. Waiting is harder than working. Yes, it’s the waiting that makes me so weary.”
Why was she not listening to me? I looked at her. She gazed at something in the distance. Perhaps the birds hovering over the Apipe, or the wide river. Did she not see what I saw at the port?
People sometimes told me I resembled my mother. We were the same height; my eyes were greenish-blue like hers, I had her mouth, too wide, and the full lips. Her expressive, sometimes dramatic manner of speaking also; we shared a lively spirit.
But I could not find myself in the woman before me. I was sixteen, I was slim, and she was heavy and old, with once-blond hair that had greyed unevenly, giving it an unappealing yellowish hue. Her face looked tired, as if it could no longer be held taut.
She was meticulous about herself and her clothing, however, insisting on cleanliness and neatness of dress. Sometimes she hinted at earlier beauty. (If it was true, my sister Maria was her heir, not I.) In public she tried to carry herself erectly and proudly in spite of her build. It amused me. I thought she should be long past vanity.
“Waiting and travelling,” Mama broke her reverie, “it’s no way to live. I thought I might enjoy some serenity in my latter years, and I’m seeing the world. Just to start again? From the beginning?”
“That’s why you shouldn’t go on the way you do, Anna. Angering him. We haven’t done any work here yet. When we’ve got a house standing, done something with our hands, you may praise it. Papa’s not one to be pleased with fancy emotions you know.”
“It’s not that!” I protested in a rush. Why would Mama scold me too? “You have to look about. It’s our new home!”
“Look about!” She repeated the words disdainfully as if I knew nothing.
If you looked about, I wished to reply, the waiting wouldn’t be so hard. All you and Papa think of is how it used to be.
Yes, I knew my parents had not abandoned our beloved home in vast, magnificent Russia willingly. I knew we had, in effect, been driven away.
I also knew we had nearly been too late. And very nearly too early too; the clearing of the Moscow suburbs had already begun when we arrived. Even on the way, as another train passed us, we glimpsed Hein Martens from the village next to ours. Hein Martens! What was he doing? He had gone to Moscow for papers earlier, and now he travelled east? We all saw him, for the light focussed his face as the other train slid past ours. There was no doubt, window next to window, it was the Hein Martens we knew. He looked ahead, and he seemed pathetic and shabby, shadowed, even in the sun.
We learned later that he volunteered to return to his farm, but the word “volunteered” had an ominous overtone.
And we, coming neither too early nor too late, were allowed to leave. We were among the few who escaped. Yet my parents still wound their lives around deceptive Russia as tightly as thread on a spool, with not even a short frayed piece left for any place else.
But it was different for me. My life lay ahead of me. I collected this arrival into the scrapbook of my mind, not because it ended something, but because of what it began. Couldn’t they see that? Couldn’t they understand that I had few memories as important as this, that everything I experienced here would be of monumental consequence?
In spite of my father’s rebuke and Mama’s condescension, I brimmed with feeling, for I walked on new—to me, holy—ground. The Russia I left was a land without promise, godless and frightening. I did not care for it any longer. I would´t miss it, I decided. They could think about it if they wanted. I would not.
I was not happy though to be alone in my fervor and out of sorts with Mama. If only I could tell her what I meant. And had she already forgotten what she said as the train stopped, just before crossing the border? We were instructed, when leaving Moscow, to take no Russian money out of the country. So when a tattered beggar passed along outside the train cars, holding his hat to the windows, it seemed a good opportunity for the emigrants to rid themselves of their last currency. His hat was nearly full, his eyes incredulous, wild with joy, when he reached our wagon.
“It’s the greatest fortune of his life,” someone remarked.
“Perhaps he thinks we’re a visitation of angels,” another commented.
It gave us a moment of pleasure amid the tension we felt (the tension which would not subside until the Red Star crossing was clearly behind us).
“He’s full and we’re empty,” Mama observed quietly. “But he doesn’t know that we’re better off than he is. We’re leaving, and he must stay.”
It was a good insight, a statement to admire.
“Remember what you said about the beggar, Mama?” I asked her now. “That we’re better off?”
“It’s still true,” she said mildly.
I was glad. I had to push, sometimes for these concessions. I gratefully squeezed her hand as we waited together in the darkening port.
We spent the night in several large shelters with open doors and dirt floors. I slept fitfully. It was warm, uncomfortable, and crowded, and I felt insects crawling over me all night, though they were more imagined then real perhaps, for I brushed at them and they did not move.
I awoke, instantly alert, before the sun rose. I groped in my sack for my clothes, and dressed quickly, awkwardly, under my blanket. Then I tiptoed past my sleeping mother and sister and stepped outside.
The air was fresh and invigorating. I stretched. Had anything changed? No. Yesterday’s excitement was still with me, my feet stood in the Chaco, and today we would proceed inland. Very soon, we would live in a house, till the soil, be settled again.
Papa was already up, seated on a rough backless bench. He was a long man; all the parts of him—head, arms, body, legs—were long and narrow, and their length was emphasized by habitually-stooped shoulders and a full head of dark, rather unruly hair. He was staring at the ground, and seemed sad, brooding.
I was not surprised to see him, for though I usually woke early, I rarely preceded him. But his presence dismayed me, reminding me of last evening’s reprimand. We had not exchanged words since then.
Unable to retreat, however, and not daring to walk past, I approached him.
“Good morning, Papa,” I said.
“Anna. Yes, good morning.” He looked up. “Sit down.” I obeyed. Together we watched the sun come over the earth’s rim. It moved as resolutely, as joyfully, I thought, as a diligent man or woman to work.
“Have you noticed how quickly the sun rises and sets?” Papa asked suddenly. “Have you noticed that the moon fills and empties the opposite way? Did you know we’ll have Christmas in summer?”
I did not answer, knowing he did not expect it. His questions were statements. Then he bent over and tried to mark something in the dirt with his finger. The ground was too hard; it allowed no impression. Papa walked to a spiny bush with small leaves and broke off a short branch. With this he scratched a triangular shape on the earth in front of me.
With the stick, he indicated a spot on the upper right side of the shape. “This is where we are now,” he said.
He swept his hand over the crude drawing. “This is the Chaco. The part of it that lies in Paraguay. It goes into Bolivia here, Argentina here. Here is Brazil.” He waved to the three sides of his map as he named Paraguay’s neighbors.
“We came up the river. We’ll enter the Chaco along the railway.” He scraped a line running west from the point he had first marked as the port.
“Here is where the Kanadier live—you know, those other Mennonites, from Canada, already there—west of the railway’s end. North and west of them, that will be us.”
Papa dropped the branch and straightened.
“Compared to the Chaco, this port is like a seed,” he said. “Like a seed beside a full-grown tree. That small. And bearing that little resemblance. I haven’t been any farther than you. I haven’t seen it either. But I know that much.”
He had not looked at me while speaking. When he did so I quickly nodded. I did not understand him, but I realized that this instruction concluded yesterday’s scolding, and that it was conciliatory. Papa was a strict, quick-tempered man, but he was fond of me. I was the youngest, his favorite, his Liebling.
But that was no concession to my view.
“It won’t be pretty, Anna,” he continued, sounding nearly angry again. “Pretty is a word for children.”
“So, I’ve warned you.”
I was intent on the strange sketch, trying to remember what it meant, still puzzled by Papa’s words, when Johann Walde joined us.
He and Papa greeted each other, and immediately Johann seated himself between us and began to talk. I politely said Hello to him but he appeared not to hear me; it made no indentation in their exchange.
Walde, as he was known, was a small but solidly-built man in his mid or late twenties. He had an attractive face with a charming smile of even, good teeth. Sitting beside him, I was aware of the faint odor of perspiration he exuded. It made me feel too close to him, but I did not move.
Johann Walde and his wife Leni came from the Orenburg settlement in Russia, as we had, but we did not know them there. During the organizational meeting in the refugee center in Germany, he and Papa discovered they would settle in the same village in Paraguay. In spite of the disparity in their ages, they became good friends, often sitting together on the deck of the ship. Walde talked much more then Papa did. Sometimes, I thought, he lectured Papa, though he did it respectfully enough, and even stated matters in question form, as if suggesting Papa could correct him if need be.
Once Mama complained to Maria and me, “Walde helps himself to every conversation, whether invited or not. Then people repeat what he says, as if he knows everything.”
I had countered, “But he knows a lot.” What Walde said might be contested, even spawn an argument, but I noticed that his opinions held. At least they held with Papa.
Johann’s wife Leni was young, but her features were drawn and pinched. I had watched her on the ocean journey, as I watched all my fellow passengers, and had felt contemptuous of her. She seemed weary and worried and unhappy. She did not enjoy her children as I believed a mother should. She had three daughters, all of them barely ten months apart, so she was busy enough, it was true. Johann did not help her. He sat and visited with the men.
The baby seemed never to be out of Leni’s arms; always she was nestled against her mother’s neck, like a gourd on a plant, hiding beneath the leaves. Leni might have stroked the smooth fat cheeks, for the child was as round as a piglet, but she complained, as if she wanted to shake the child away.
“Leni’s pregnant again,” Mama had informed me, sighing, as if that explained everything.
Then yesterday, for the first time, Leni had spoken to me. She happened to pass me and she said, cheerfully, “Isn’t it a relief that we’re finally here? And safely too, without one of my little ones pitching into the Atlantic? Or plopping into this awful river?”
It so surprised and delighted me that I wondered if I had been wrong in my assessment of Leni.
I remembered her words now; and I heard Johann speaking. He was intelligent and determined. He had the makings of a leader. It made me proud to sit with him and Papa, and to be associated with a couple like Johann and Leni.
“The first group arrived the very last day of the year right here in Puerto Casado,” Johann was explaining. “1926. Last day. At the hottest time of the year. By the time they’d all come, there were more than 1770 of them. Over 1770 who left the Canadian plains for this lovely jewel of the South. Can you imagine?”
They were talking about the Kanadier, as we called them, the Mennonites from Canada who had entered the Chaco several years earlier. They had originated in Russia too, but had left it for Canada in the 1870’s. They were more conservative than we were; they wanted to keep to themselves. And when their freedom to do so was threatened in Canada, a group of them sought another country.
“One of the main issues was language,” Johann said, “and the right to decide on education. They were supposed to give up German in the schools.”
“It’ll be a help having them here, I guess,” Papa said half-heartedly. With his shoe he absentmindedly erased the map he had made.
“If they hadn’t come, who would have thought of it?”
“Who would have indeed?”
“There are two sides to the story though,” Johann said with an air of wisdom.
Papa murmured assent. For a few minutes, the two men sat without speaking. The sun had warmed the dawn air. There was increasing activity in the sheds. People were getting up; near us several women were lighting fires and beginning breakfast preparations; small wisps of smoke rose into the morning air and disappeared, leaving a faint pleasant aroma. The leaves of the palms waved gently in the morning breeze, like giant fans.
“Well, we can be thankful for one thing,” Johann said suddenly. “They got us the Privilegium. Our own schools, language, religion. Freedom from military service. Forever. Not many countries like that left, willing to make those guarantees.”
“Countries break promises,” Papa said glumly.
“Right, right. But listen, Abram, Paraguay will keep her promises for a long time. They need us here. We’ve already seen how poor they are. They need us!”
“We’re poor too.”
“Yes, but we know how to work! They’ll give us no help starting, but we’ll be helping them in time, just you see!”
“I suppose. I suppose. But I’m sixty-three. That’s too old to begin again. And without my sons too.”
“You have Klaus,” Johann returned.
Papa sputtered “Klaus!” and they both laughed.
My five brothers had been the pride of Papa’s life. The way he spoke of them, Maria’s husband Klaus was nothing. He was not a farmer. His father left the farming life to stand behind a counter in an Orenburg store, and Klaus had worked as an office clerk. But did it mean he wouldn’t learn?
“I’m too old to start without sons,” I heard Papa repeat despondently, as if seeking encouragement.
“I’ll be there, Papa!” I declared eagerly, breaking into their conversation for the first time. “I’ll work hard!”
“You’ve got Anna,” Walde agreed, pointing to me as if he had just now seen me beside him. “The lovely Miss Sawatzky is worth as much as a son or two.” He smiled at me.
“And it’s still better to be here than in Russia,” I said earnestly, directing the comment to Walde.
“You’re right, girl, absolutely right,” Johann responded. He rose. “Indeed, we’ve been delivered from hell.”
It was a fact. Our release had been a miracle.
Then Johann laughed, not merrily, but in a grating, cynical way.
It added something to his statement. He mocked me.
We left Puerto Casado on the tannin company railway—a small, narrow-gauge train, slow and primitive compared to what we knew from Russia—which linked the port with the rich reserves of red quebracho, from which tannin is extracted, in the Chaco interior.
This journey was a strange one for me. We crossed marshes, filled with reeds and water grasses, and dotted with palms. The track cut through this warm, green world, moist, brimming, fecund; we were surrounded by it, yet I had the sensation of looking at the scene from the top of a hill or at a great distance. It was something apart from me, contained, complete in itself. It did not notice me. At the same time it provoked my curiosity, and my longing.
The palms varied in maturity from young trees poking above the grasses to tall, magnificent giants. Their tops were graceful mounds of green with old brown fronds drooping beneath or hanging limply along the trunk. In my opinion, they sadly detracted from the tree’s appearance. But it was a small thing, I reasoned, and supposed it had to be that way. The tree apparently grew taller by casting off its lower branches, and the trunk, straight and mottled, could only reach its full height by this sacrifice. But couldn’t they drop off sooner? I wondered. And were those hanging branches dead or still partially alive?
Strange, beautiful water birds rose out of the swamps, their motion smooth, effortless. In the moment it took me to catch a breath, they were airborne. What startled them into flight? What did their calls mean?
Oh to be a pure white heron! To spring up and see the Chaco from above—what a thrilling view it must be—instead of traversing it slowly on this odd, noisy train. To see it all!
“Farewell!” I wanted to cry, “I’ll meet you there. I’ll wait for you.”
Perhaps the others would want to join me. If only we could all be granted flight. I imagined the men on the open, roofless luggage cars, spontaneously ascending from the train, their legs no wider than sticks dangling behind, floating majestically to the new settlement. The women and children seeing this, rising immediately to follow. Klaus and Maria, and Mama...
I giggled. A preposterous idea, indeed.
I remembered what Johann Walde had told us about the explorer Fred Engen. He worked for General McRoberts, the New York lawyer who negotiated the Kanadier Mennonites’ emigration to Paraguay.
“Engen was determined to get to the heart of the Chaco to see if it could be settled. He was enthused about a ‘state of pacifists’ here. He managed to push beyond the marshy region that floods every year when the river overflows. And he found campo. Grassland that could be used for crops.
“When he returned to Asuncion, he telegraphed his employer, ‘I found the promised land’.”
So that Engen-man knew his Bible, I thought. He knew about Jordan rivers and special lands and special people. I sounded his phrase within myself. “I found the promised land.”
Oh. Perhaps he simply meant he had done what he promised he would. He had fulfilled his obligations.
What had he meant?
Johann had not explained but continued the history, telling how that incident led to another and another. It led to this. To this slow voyage through a muggy green sea. How long it took! The train scarcely moved faster than a man could walk.
Jokes about it circulated. Someone said, “I’d rather walk; at least I’d be doing something while I get there.”
“But this way you don’t miss anything that goes by,” his neighbor replied.
Later another man grumbled, “We don’t even move fast enough to make wind.”
But his friend held his nose, saying, “Even when we stand still, you make wind.”
The day wore on, it grew hot, and humor and conversation lagged. My hands were damp; I was perspiring. I wiped my forehead, and swatted at insects. I was tired. It was an effort to keep my eyes open to the Chaco vista. Indeed, I found myself irritable with the dense, green view. Its sameness was flat and unending. I had seen enough; already it seemed as if I had grown up with it. I was impatient for a corner and the possibility of something less familiar.
Then, my first doubt about this adventure: a small, unsettling thought, which troubled me as if it were a temptation. Just yesterday I celebrated our arrival in Puerto Casado. The place was chosen arbitrarily, yes—I might have selected Buenos Aires as the point where we touched South America, or Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. Or I might have waited a few days until I sighted the campo on which our village would be established.
But I had chosen Puerto Casado because we left the water there. There began the solid, continuous mass called the Chaco, and weren’t we like Jonah, spit up on the beach and given another chance?
I knew it would take four or five days for the trip inland, although I could not visualize this in terms of either the distance or the hours, with the speed of transportation here unlike my previous experience. But this did not cause my uncertainty.
Rather, I experienced a hesitant but nagging suspicion that after yesterday’s significant juncture, nothing was different. My happiness changed nothing. My people sat, as before, in their various groupings, with the same faces, the same voices, the same jokes and complaints and weariness from the older ones, the same innocence in the eyes of the younger. And I too, Anna, a day older, but unchanged, observing and waiting, carried along. The landscape was new, but already it seemed old. What did home mean?
I closed my eyes. How very tired I was, and soon, just around a bend, I would come to a station. We would reach it soon, nearly hidden by fog and the steam of warm breath in the sub-zero air, and underneath, the vibrations of a train and the stamping of boots on a wooden platform and voices, calling in Russian...
I jerked, tense with fear, and opened my eyes. The warm, green bush on both sides, the pale blue sky, the flies buzzing about me, were a relief.
My heavy eyelids closed again. But I must not sleep! No, I must not sleep, but pray; I must pray. Oma’s last words to me were, “Annchen, I’ll be praying here, and you must pray as you go.”
So I must call to God fervently through every terminal, past every fur-robed, mustached officer, asking without ceasing, God be merciful, help us please! Be gracious, Father, hear our prayer! I must never stop praying.
Again I jerked awake, terrified, and realized where I was and that I was dreaming. There was no fear, no hurry, no necessity to pray on this slow, easy train. No fear! We were welcome here, weren’t we? I could close my eyes and relax. I could lean against Mama or Maria and shut my eyes.
When I opened them again, having napped, though I did not know how long, it was to my first view of a Chaco campo. Campo. It was the Spanish word for this plain stretching before us, trees here and there, like a park, planned for us. It seemed friendly, accessible, inviting us to walk in it.
Oh, I thought, it’s pretty!
I remembered: “Pretty is a word for children.”
I won’t say it, I thought defiantly, but Papa doesn’t know what I am thinking.
And what was that swift activity over the long dry green grass? Strange creatures were running, fleetly, between the scattered trees. They were long-legged, long-necked.
Ostriches. I heard that new word and learned it too, agape at the comical shape and stride, but thrilled because of their speed and their gracefulness in spite of their awkward-looking bodies. The wind seemed to stir over the plain because of them. I closed my eyes again to hold the stunning sight, to keep back my tears.
When we reached Endstation, the farthest point we could travel by train, Kanadier men, straw-hatted and barefooted, waited with their wagons to transport us to our settlement. It was several days’ journey away; we had to enter the Chaco still deeper, westward.
Every hour and every day we spent on the narrow trail, two grooves the width of the wagon wheels apart cut through the bush, moved us closer to our land. Yet our pace was so halting, so laborious, it seemed to me we made no progress.
The landscape, however, had changed. Dense grey-green, thorny, compacted woods surrounded us here; they did not deserve the name forest, with its suggestion of height, coolness, shade, and mystery. With memories of forest we had seen in Europe, we knew instinctively that this must be called by the simpler, slighter, inferior name “bush”. It was very dry.
At a distance the bush appeared a tangled, complex, crowded mass of spiked bushes and scrubby trees. Cactus dotted the area. A closer look revealed astounding variety and numberless tiny, intricate leaves. These plants were adapted to heavy clay soil, sub-tropical heat, the vicissitudes of the rainfall. Vines wove in and around the other plants like threads.
I heard Johann Walde explain these things as we moved slowly, torturously slowly, through the bush. (Of the oxen he said, “It’s remarkable how much dust their hooves can raise even at this pace, enough to make you cough.” He was right. When they raised the dust, it hung in the air, waiting for us to pass through it.)
I heard questions asked of our Kanadier driver, a Martin Toews, about the rain and the weather, and what plants were suited for the region. Mama wanted to know about raising chickens and pigs, about gardens and fruit trees. Taciturn Toews answered every inquiry patiently, but otherwise revealed nothing.
These conversations seemed secondary to what I saw and thought. Perhaps I missed the details or did not follow the connections, or I trusted my parents to learn what was needed. I was trying to define for myself what had altered in the Chaco since we left Puerto Casado and the river. These changes had occurred too subtly, too gradually, for me to remember the variations. The scenes could not be collected like pictures, to be spread out and compared later. I was already forgetting how the port had looked.
We travelled endlessly, it seemed, yet were always stopping: to water and graze the oxen, to eat and sleep, to eat and sleep again. When the sun was setting I felt as if it had just risen and we had not moved. The place where we camped for the night, I felt sure, was the same place we had left in the morning.
Occasionally we traversed campo, seemingly empty, but we did not unpack. We might farm here, I thought each time, but the wagons rolled on. Why would they put us so far away?
Neither the sun nor the sluggish pace of the oxen would help me believe we were going to reach our destination. Everything looked the same, there were no landmarks. Nothing was familiar, nothing had a name. Dusty crippled bush blocked any sense of horizon, trees that looked starved or stunted mocked me. Birds shrieked raucously at us; I did not hear them sing.
When Wilhelm Froese began to speak, his story did not interest me, for words about Molotschna, war, the revolution, famine and bandits were the notes of a too-familiar melody. I had heard plenty of accounts of suffering already. For my elders, the experiences of Russia were like the village well, which they shared and from which they could draw at day’s end or when subjected to lengthy periods of inactivity during travel. They had time to carefully document every person who was mentioned—who his father or his grandfather or his neighbor had been, where he had lived—as if to find every mutual connection and ensure that the story, however distantly, belonged to them all.
I was more intrigued with Froese’s large, protruding ears. When he spoke or gestured, they did not move but stood stiff, as if guarding his head. His daughter Susi, a year older than I, had inherited those ears. But being a girl, she had long hair, which she pulled tightly over her ears and wound into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. There was only a small bulge on each side of Susi’s head. I had not made any particular effort to befriend Susi; she was too quiet and her personality too bland to suit me.
But I had, that very day, noticed her older brother Hans. My feelings for boys at that time were much like the flight of a bird from tree to tree. They had alighted on him for the small reason of observing how lithely, how smoothly, he sprang to the ground from one of the large wooden wagons in which he travelled. He was not bad looking either and I wondered what he was thinking.
I did not anticipate talking with him, however, for he was as shy as the rest of the family. All the Froeses—Wilhelm and his wife, Hans, Kornelius, Susi, Greta and the three younger children—were reserved.
Thus, it was unexpected that Mr. Froese would tell a story. But I listened because of Hans.
“There was nothing to eat,” Froese said, “nothing but a few slices of bread. My dear wife, she said to me, ‘Wilhelm, we need something more, for the little ones especially. What shall we do?’ I walked out of the house without answering. I didn’t want to see their pleading faces again. The children’s eyes looked so hollow. They hid behind their mother’s skirts every time she came to me with news like that. The older ones understood, but not the little ones. We’d already lost our baby...”
Mr. Froese talked in a soft voice, too quickly; several times he stuttered. When his voice caught on a word he breathed deeply, closing his eyes to concentrate, and flung his arm forward and down in a punching motion and then the flow of words came again.
“God had always provided something. Every time. But this day, I felt we were truly at the end. He won’t let his own suffer hunger, I told myself. But I knew some of his own had died. I didn’t understand; he let some of them die. So I ran out of the house to the fields to pray, like I had before, for something, some little help, from somewhere. I couldn’t give him ideas, for who had anything to share? Yes, some still had small stores, but I couldn’t beg. I threw myself on the ground. It was hard. It was frozen. But there was no snow.
“I tried to pray and always the question in the children’s eyes faced me. They seemed to think it was my fault, I was their father and...”
Froese’s voice stopped. The muscles of his face twitched.
“And then, lying there in despair, I saw a mouse run by,” he continued. “Only a few inches from my outstretched hand. It let itself be caught! It wasn’t so skinny either. It was too cold for it to be out, so my dear wife couldn’t say anything when I brought it. It’s from God, I told her, so it’ll be all right. We had soup. Two days later the relief supplies from America arrived in our village.”
As if his tongue had been loosed, Wilhelm Froese told us a second story.
One night a band of anarchists came to their house, he said, demanding a meal. While Mrs. Froese cooked the potatoes, which was all they had by then, the men searched the house. There was little of value left, but they took some woolen stockings, a watch, some candles, a shirt.
“Then they looked at the women,” he said. “At my wife. And the officer in charge spotted our Susi. He was a big man and he had the pistol. That’s why he talked so boldly. He said, ‘I’ll take her later’.”
A sudden fear seized me. How would the story end? Where was Susi? I was relieved that she was not sitting with us. I ducked a little, hoping the deepening dusk would help conceal me, so I would not be noticed at the edge of the circle.
“They ate all the potatoes, while we sat in the other room. They didn’t leave over even one potato. And then the leader came in. He stank of the wine which they had brought. He belched and then he said, ‘I’ll have the young lady now.’ He came straight to her and touched her. He touched Susi...”
Again Froese’s voice stopped though his lips still moved as if speaking. His face contorted as he struggled to control himself.
My premonition exploded into fact. I did not understand the villainy of the man’s touch. But during Froese’s pause, my heart pounding like thunder inside me, I grasped that something unspeakably terrible had been done. All thoughts of Hans were replaced by the reticent, sweet-faced girl.
Stunned, I tried to fit her into the scene, as her father went on. “He touched her with a sneer. I cried, ‘No, no!’ I offered him something, another shirt, maybe; anything instead. With his other hand he pointed the pistol at me. My dear wife hurried the children into the small room, and Susi was crying. He tore at her dress.”
If anyone attempted to stop Froese, I did not notice it. Only partially comprehending, though hearing clearly, I listened as he described the rape which he had been forced to watch. Froese seemed determined to give the details of the assailant’s conquest, though many of his words seemed to choke in his throat. Mrs. Froese had sung loudly behind the closed door in the next room, he said.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he stated. “I saw that he intended to do it, really do it and not just tease us with it so he could enjoy our terror. He almost forgot me because he was looking at her and feeling her. I couldn’t stand by, so I sprang up. I wanted to kill him, I think, yes, I guess I would have...
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