My partner comes from a Mennonite family. Mennonite all the way ‘around. Mom, dad. All grandparents, all the way back to the Lower Rhine, all the way back to Menno Simons, and all the migrations his group of dissident Dutch-Prussian anabaptists made. There is nothing novel about that, not in these parts. And by “these parts” I mean not only The Fraser Valley (which basically belongs to Mennonites still, many of them of the multi-millionaire variety these days), and all of the lower Mainland, but all of Western Canada, too. My partner’s mom was in town visiting recently, and I tried to find out some about her recollection of her family’s Mennonite history.
Not a lot of detail—which makes good sense.
My partner’s parents were good and typical Mennonites: in that, they immediately identified several theological aberrations within the contemporary Canadian practices of the Mennonite movement, and got their children as far away from it as possible. They scrubbed their kids of Menno Simons, and their own memories as well. So, when I tried to suss out where, in Canada, her ancestors had first set up shop, she knew it was Manitoba, and that was as much as she wanted to know. Cutting ties with insanely controlling and piously religious bozos is something I know myself quite well, so I get where she’s coming from.
My partner’s mom’s mom was a Krahn. Good solid Mennonite name that. The Krahns in Canada all seem descended from Cornelius Krahn, who came over to Manitoba in the migration of 1874. Cornelius and clan settled in Altona, Manitoba. Cornelius’ Canadian clan grew hardy, and the Krahns were common across southern Manitoba. Eventually, the more sensible of them realized that Manitoba was insanely fucking cold, and while the pursuit of a pure heart was a good thing, staying warm and not freezing der arsch off was a virtue much higher.
Many of the freezing faithful stayed put. Altona, aka Krahn Canada Central, presently has an approximate population of 3,500. It still contains six active Mennonite churches. If Krahns are what you’re craving, Altona is the town for you. Like a lot of those old Mennonite families, the Krahns who didn’t migrate didn’t make it. By the end of World War one, the Krahn name had died out across Europe.
Two days ago marks what would have been the 59th birthday of my partner’s father, Ross. He died of ALS nine years ago at the age of 50. Also raised a Mennonite, Ross spoke but a smattering of Low German. Maybe a smattering is generous. I only knew him for a few months before he died. I never got a chance to hear him speak words in any language. His ALS was too advanced for speech, when I started to date his only daughter. A few years before the illness had taken hold of him, Ross and Deb had gone on a cruise. They came across a German couple. Ross decided to show off his German heritage and language skills. On the deck of the ocean liner, Ross smiled broadly then exclaimed,
“Ich habe einen großen Schwanz!”
I never intended to end up back in a religious family. Happily, as you can see, I didn’t—not a strictly orthodox one anyway. Happy Birthday, Ross. Here's to you and all the Canadian Mennonites who stopped being Mennonites.