Hans shoved his arm through the tangle of the Russian Red soldiers’ arms and grabbed a hot potato from the bowl that his mother, Agatha, had just set down on the table. He had learned that to eat, he must be fast.
These soldiers had taken over their small house, and they expected Mutter to give them meals. But because of the famine there was almost nothing to eat. Hans and his brother and sisters had to go door to door begging for bread, but the neighbors also had almost nothing left.
It was 1922; 10-year old Hans lived in the Molotschna colony in Ukraine, southern Russia. Years of war, drought and disease had caused catastrophic famine.
People were eating cats, dogs, horses, leather, bark and other unspeakable things. One of Hans’ saddest days was when they had to kill their own dog to eat. One day he saw a dead body lying in a ditch—a man who had died from starvation. His oldest brother Martin and his wife, Lena, had a little baby boy, their first, named Abram. But Lena was so thin and malnourished that she couldn’t produce milk anymore. They buried Abram when he was one year old.
If something didn’t change they could all die, but no one had any way to find food. Revolution and war overrode everything that used to be normal. Hans remembered how it used to be, but nothing was the same anymore. Sorrow and memories ruled their thoughts. Hunger ruled their bodies. Hopelessness ruled their hearts.
Some Mennonites managed to send a small commission of men to America to notify them of the dire need. When the North American Mennonites learned of the severity of the famine they were shaken. Several men gathered on a porch on a hot Kansas afternoon trying to grasp the scope of the situation. How to begin? Such massive need. Such urgency. They decided to reach out to other Anabaptists in the U.S. and Canada for help. This tragedy brought together people who had not previously associated with each other, but now they realized they must.
Together they planned, organized and sent out a call to all the churches for contributions, and soon shipments of food and other supplies were sent, followed by shipments of tractors. When the train loads of food finally arrived in the Ukraine, after a year of government stalling in Turkey, the hungry gathered around the trains without enough energy to rush forward. Their skeletal bodies slowly moved toward the aid workers, literally crying for bread.
This group of North American Anabaptists did not disband after these shipments of food and tractors reached Ukraine. They became citizens of the world and formed Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and have been working for 100 years providing relief worldwide during disasters and famines, aiding in development and working for peace and justice, all in the name of Christ.
Over the last century, thousands upon thousands of people have served, and been served, through MCC. Please help MCC continue helping the poor and oppressed by giving to the MCC Centennial offering this October. Thousands more wait.
Hans and his family survived.
Hans was my father.
My two sisters and I feel that we owe our lives to MCC and are ever grateful.
Nancy Boothe is a member of First MB Church, Wichita, Kansas, and a recent appointee to the U.S. MCC board representing the Mennonite Brethren. She loves being a granny to three, being outdoors with flowers, mountains, and trails, photography, videography, reading and buying more books than she will ever read. Her number one characteristic is curiosity and she is known for her unending questions. Her husband, Reg, is a man of great patience—and her greatest supporter.
I believe my Great Uncle Rev.D.M. Hofer from Bridgewater, SD was one of the Anabaptists from USA who worked with the delivery of these items. He wrote a book about it. It was translated last year by Katie Funk Wiebe. Title: Terror, faith, and Relief. The Famine in Russia. From Center for MB Studies, Tabor College.
Thanks, Nancy, for your excellent remembrance of MCC and the impact on your family. I remember Hans (John) as my Sunday school teacher at First MB in Wichita when I was in Junior High and High School. I remember little, if any, of what he taught us. I do remember how he cared for, loved, and took an interest in the row of teenage guys in the upper balcony of the original sanctuary of the church on Second Street.