Ruth Derksen Siemens and Harold Derksen
Brick Number: 
8591-8595

In memory of Johann and Katherina (Regier) Derksen, victims of communism.
 
 Our paternal grandparents, Johann and Katherina (Regier) Derksen were born in Russian Mennonite villages of the Molotschna Colony (present-day Ukraine) in the 1890s. With their parents, they moved to the Northern Caucasus region and married in 1918. In the early days of their marriage they endured the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and survived the three-year Civil War with the subsequent famine (1917-22). The slaughter of thousands of farmers, peasants and workers under the new communist regime established by Lenin followed by Stalin’s severe repression resulted in an unprecedented terror.  As independent landowners, entrepreneurs and religious adherents, the Mennonites were specifically targeted. Many were left destitute by forced redistribution of land, impossible quotas and destruction of industries. Resistance was met with execution or exile to the prison camps in the expanding Gulag Archipelago.  
 
Johann and Katherina, along with their extended family and community, feared for their future under the new communist regime. Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin’s reclassification of citizens marshaled in a new wave of fear. The Derksen family was among a group of 20,000 Mennonites who narrowly escaped a toxic climate of discrimination and betrayal. Obtaining exit visas was complicated – they had been property owners, and were members of a suspect ethno-religious group that was resistant to Soviet Marxist ideology and the collectivization of their land. 
 
The journey of these parents with four children from their home in Northern Caucasus (Kalantarovka) to the environs of Moscow began in Fall 1924. Waiting for documents, signatures and exit visas was a tedious and harrowing process. They lived in conditions similar to others attempting to flee: renting a small room, finding food and fuel, enduring the stigma of a despised people, and suffering almost daily interrogations by the Soviet police.  
 
Finally, the family’s exit visas were complete and they boarded a train to the western border of the Soviet Union. Their journey was often interrupted. Military officials and security agents searched the passenger’s luggage, inspected their documents and asked probing questions.  Finally, their train passed through the Red Gate into Latvia and into freedom. Once across the border, the train stopped and International Red Cross officials welcomed them. They were free. Although the journey and challenges ahead were far from over, they were free from the oppressive regime that had threatened not only their way of life, but also their very lives.  Johann, Katherina and their children boarded a ship in Riga, hoping to soon be in Canada. But much to their dismay, they were delayed for eight months in Southampton – one of their sons was hospitalized after contracting polio and another had a severe eye infection. Once the polio virus was no longer infectious, the family continued their journey. They arrived in Canada in June, 1925. 
 
But some of their extended family members were not able to escape. They were not free. Some were allowed to remain in their home villages to work on the collective farms established by the Soviet regime. Some were executed and others were sent into the Gulag network of forced labour camps in remote regions. Johann’s mother and two sisters were among those transported to Gulag labour camps of Asiatic Russia (Kazakhstan). There they died of starvation. 
 
The forced dispersion of families and communities was unparalleled. News and desperate messages were difficult (if not impossible) to transmit. Mail delivery was random and unreliable in the rapidly expanding empire of the Soviet Union. Yet some letters did arrive in Canada. Individual family members and two Canadian Mennonite newspapers received correspondence. The writers wrote cautiously. In examining the letters decades later, it is clear that many contain masked messages and convey only the most critical information. As one writer explains, “We are writing through the flowers.” But this vital link ended in 1937. A wall of silence obstructed all communication. The Iron Curtain had become impenetrable.   
 
Although their new life in Canada was difficult, enduring the depression and dust storms of the 1930s, Johann, Katherina and their children now had hope for the future. They were in the land of refuge. They were free.      
 
Citations and selective information from Remember Us: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1931-38), Ruth Derksen Siemens, Pandora Press, 2007.