Connie Braun
Brick Number: 

In memory of the Family of Jakob and Maria Letkemann, who survived Communism, but never forgot. In the summer of 1930, in the Slavgorod colony, there is a mass arrest that includes preachers, choir directors, and anyone connected with religion or church. The two hundred prisoners – men, women, and families with children, bewildered and terrified – are tightly packed into waiting train cars on that summer day.Jakob receives a directive from the church to go and visit the the camps who are severely weakened by hunger and disease, the difficult terrain of the swampland, as well as the debilitating cold, mean a successful escape is unlikely. The congregants in the Slavgarod Colony collect an offering and gather provisions so that Jakob and his companion may purchase a ticket on to the Taiga-Sibirj, the taiga forests of Siberia. These people also have loved-ones in the camps. Before Jakob and his companion depart from the platform they are detained by local GPU members and taken to an office where they are interrogated.            On the seventh day they arrive at the barracks. Jakob is shocked at the sight of the sick and starving exiles, living corpses whose eyes grow dim like lanterns without oil. And after they distribute what they have brought, which is so little, but in ways, so much – a word from home – the two weary men start on their journey back. And again along the way they are interrogated, followed, kept under surveillance, suspicion appended to them like shadows. “I have gone through the experience of incarceration, through river, in Siberia all the way to Narem.” There is no record of imprisonment, nothing within Jakob’s brief biography. Is the “river” he mentions a literal one, or a metaphor? Jakob does cite the prison experiences of others.Jakob wrote about a young woman named Neta whose entire family was exiled in 1932. In the forest camp, both her parents and two of her siblings died of starvation. Soon after, she and another orphan attempted escape – their only route being through the swampland, the top of heads, one here, one there, shockingly visible to Neta and her companion as they trudged through the muck. “God have mercy,” Jakob wrote, as though years afterward he was horrified at the conditions that, throughout the time of his own survival, were numbing.At his lowest point, Jakob walks past a cemetery, and, for one moment, envies the buried ones. He has seen a lifetime of suffering across this young Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the people in exile, many living in hunger. In this life of suffering, all walk like skeletons. He prays for strength and patience. It is incomprehensible that multitudes died of starvation or disappeared, unjustly branded enemies of the state, co-religionists, intellectuals and writers, farmers – people, as Jakob might describe, “blameless in a crooked and depraved generation, shining like stars in the universe....” Excerpted by permission from The Steppes are the Colour of Sepia: A Mennonite Memoir by Connie Braun, Ronsdale, 2008.