The Bench


But trouble was brewing. The World War with Germany had devastated the economy in Russia and famine was oozing across the land. Nicholai had seen to preparing for such disastrous times and had stocked up on more than enough of the necessities expected for his family. No one in the Janzen family went hungry. Indeed, it was said that the Janzen household was always generous to anyone in dire need of food during these difficult times.

In addition, the end of Czarism with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, put the Mennonites in a difficult situation. The agreements of freedom and ownership of land had been made with Czarina Katarina the Great, a far-sighted leader of the Russian Royal family around 1750. The new socialistic government felt no particular compulsion to respect this agreement. In fact the brewing principle of communism would look askance at the prosperity of the Mennonites as they lived in peace in their isolated villages.

To make matters worse, the new government was unable to control the vast reaches of the Soviet Empire and lawlessness became rampant. In the southern part of the country, gangs of bandits mounted on horses developed strength in numbers. They frequently wandered the countryside, marauding in the well-to-do villages and stealing whatever they felt like taking, using gun and sword.

The strongest of these gangs was led by a man called Machnaw. Storybooks say this man was originally incarcerated for something he claimed he’d never done. When his punishment was paid, he came out angry. The time was right to gather up some men and ravage the people he held a grudge against. Among these men were some who had worked as hired hands for the Mennonites.

The Janzen name was well known and Nicholai knew he would be singled out by Machnaw because of his fine horses. In anticipation, he took Gerhard aside and said, “I can trust you. Listen to what I say. We will build a wall of hay and straw in the barn and keep the best horses behind that wall. When Machnaw and his men come onto our yard, my horses will hear and smell his horses. I want you to stand with my horses behind that wall. When any horse begins to make the slightest noise or wants to snort or whinny you hit his nose with this short stick. That will take his attention away from the Machnaw horses. Do you understand?”


“You will be all alone. Your brothers will meet Machnaw and his men. They will allow them to steal the horses in the front of the barn. I will have to hide. Good Luck.”

And so it was. They did come. They did scream for horses. When the boys did not respond as quickly as expected, William’s ear was cut off with the swing of a sword. When Elizabeth, his wife, protested they killed William right there in front of her. They took all the horses available but were not satisfied. They said they would come back.

Harassment continued throughout the village as the gangs of bandits did whatever they felt like doing. Of course the lack of horses and the theft of grain left poor prospects for starting normal farming operations in the spring. The famine persisted for another year. Eventually the socialization process of the country reached every part of the land and village matters settled down to a new kind of normal. But the new normal included the principle that ownership of all the farms had to be shared.

Nicholai adapted to the new regime and again things were beginning to work out. However he got word that his name was being raised as an enemy of the common people. He was being accused of taking advantage of the working class in general and of certain hired hands in particular. But this was only a rumour.

Nicholai had certainly himself never hurt a hired man nor caused any man a personal grief, but his sons might have. This burden of uncertainty he had to carry himself as the master of the house.

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Ed Janzen is the editor and publisher of CANADIAN STORIES, a literary folk magazine that publishes short stories and poems from Canadian writers of every province of Canada. Story Quilt is an electronic magazine similar in content. Ed has written four memoirs. He also writes for the old car hobby and has a column in OLD AUTOS - a biweekly newspaper featuring mostly Canadians events and automotive history.
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