The Constructed Mennonite
History, Memory, and the Second World War
John Werner was a storyteller. A Mennonite immigrant in southern Manitoba, he captivated his audiences with tales of adventure and perseverance. With every telling he constructed and reconstructed the memories of his life.
John Werner was a survivor. Born in the Soviet Union just after the Bolshevik Revolution, he was named Hans and grew up in a German speaking Mennonite community in Siberia. As a young man in Stalinist Russia, he became Ivan and fought as a Red Army soldier in the Second World War. Captured by Germans, he was resettled in occupied Poland where he became Johann, was naturalized and drafted into Hitler’s German army. There he served until captured and placed in an American POW camp. He was eventually released and then immigrated to Canada where he became John.
The Constructed Mennonite is a unique account of a life shaped by Stalinism, Nazism, migration, famine, and war. It investigates the tenuous spaces where individual experiences inform and become public history; it studies the ways in which memory shapes identity, and reveals how context and audience shape autobiographical narratives.
- NOMINEE, McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, Manitoba Book Awards (2014)
- NOMINEE, Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction, Manitoba Book Awards (2014)
“A significant contribution particularly to the canon of life-stories of Mennonites (and other Soviet Germans) who lived through the tragic years of Stalinist repression and the Second World War. Werner’s struggle with his ethnic identity as illuminated in the numerous name changes he experienced in his lifetime provides important and rare insight into issues of belonging and identity.”
– Marlene Epp, University of Waterloo
“The Constructed Mennonite is a kind of ghost story, but more startling than the ghosts are the actual people who emerge from the distant past to quarrel with our assumptions about history.”
– Magdalene Redekop, University of Toronto, Literary Review of Canada (Link)
“Memoirs and family histories play a significant role in Mennonite historical writing. Hans Werner has taken this venerable genre to a new level. Telling the story of his father, Werner not only brings to light a fascinating life but also makes a significant critical contribution to the historiography of Mennonites, immigration, war, family, and Canada.”
– Brian Froese, Canadian Mennonite University, University of Toronto Quarterly
“The title and the cover design suggest that our memories sometimes show a distorted picture, with pieces that don’t quite fit together properly. When the pieces don’t fit, our memories use creative reconstruction. Perhaps all our Mennonite communities are products of such creative reconstructions, and if we look closely we will discover there are flaws we’d rather not see.”
– Barb Draper, Canadian Mennonite (Link)
“Beautifully written and engaging, The Constructed Mennonite offers an unflinching look at how we present ourselves to those around us.”
– Rachel Waltner Goossen, Washburn University, Mennonite World Review (Link)
“Those interested in understanding the conflicted responses of Soviet Mennonites to Stalin’s terror and World War II should read The Constructed Mennonite.”
– Colin Neufeldt, Concordia University College of Alberta, Mennonite Historian (Link)
This highly readable monograph reconstructs one man’s life within a turbulent period that required the constant identity shifts echoed in the four names. At the same time, it offers a case study in how events are remembered, reconstructed, and retold to form a coherent, usable past for their authors. –
– Emily B. Baran, Middle Tennessee State University, Canadian Slavonic Papers (Link)
“This story of shifting identities and allegiances is intrinsically captivating. It invites readers to consider the rare story of a common soldier who emerged from a community of religious pacifists but ended up serving in not just one but two armies during World War II. As such, the book offers arresting plot lines, twists of fortune, and surprise revelations, and is as gripping and well-told as any historical novel.”
– Tobin Miller Shearer, University of Montana, Journal of American Ethnic History
“This book is a richly textured and layered story of the author’s father. At its basic level, it is a biography—a fascinating story of a man who lived through a remarkable era of European history and lived to tell the stories. Then, Hans Werner reflects on the role his father’s memory played in shaping an reshaping the stories of his past, how memory selected what was included and excluded, how memory adapted to different contexts, and how memory was influenced by gender. In addition, Werner reflects on the importance of both storytelling and memory in the way his father constructed his identity; hence, the title of the book—The Constructed Mennonite.”
– John J. Friesen, Canadian Mennonite University, Journal of Mennonite Studies
“A rich work of history, which will appeal to academics with interests in World War II, transnationalism, migration, and oral history, as well as to others with interests in bringing complex family histories to new life.”
– Susie Fisher, University of Manitoba, Manitoba History
“Werner has written a remarkable book on the nature of memory and oral history. Sometimes, he concludes, we need to distance ourselves from the usual documents and just listen. Oral histories, he writes, spring from the perspective of the marginalized, the little ones caught in the ebb and flow of history. Despite their inaccuracies, he says, they provide a
valuable counter point to the dominant narrative of leaders and states.”
– Robert Martens, Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia (Link)
About the Author
Hans Werner teaches Mennonite Studies and Canadian History at the University of Winnipeg. He is the author of Imagined Homes: Soviet German Immigrants in Two Cities. John Werner was his father.