The Gift

Peter Klassen, the author of this story, grew up in a colony of refugees from the Soviet Union who settled in Paraguay. During his growing up years he observ­ed the life of an older single woman, Tina Claasen, who lived in their home. Tina seemed to him like a person who derived little pleasure from life. Like others of the “refugee generation” she seldom laughed. The stories she told were usually sad rather than funny. She worked hard and expected little from life . . . but she was happy and at peace with God. To young Peter Klassen that seemed paradoxical . . .  until he discovered her gift. Tina had brought her gift along with her from war-torn Russia.

The funeral, on a Friday afternoon in late June, was un­usual. The church service got long. Darkness comes early in June, and the sky suddenly pulled it­self full of clouds. Rain drove in sheets down upon us while we sat in church, a rare happening for this time of year.

When old people get buried, only few guests come along to the cemetery. Finding enough men to close the grave sometimes becomes a problem. So we began to worry.

Then, upon arriving at the cemetery, we noticed that rain­water had filled the grave up to the brim. Some men hurried to find pails and ropes, and we dipped out the two-metre-deep hole. Then we ran to fetch the coffin. It splashed when it hit the water in the bottom of the grave. It was getting dark, and thunder rumbled all around us. We shovelled until the sweat ran down our foreheads. Then we left wet ropes and muddy pails in the cemetery tool shed, and hurried home….

This is how we gave the body of Katherina Penner, born Claa­sen, back to the earth–the earth of the Paraguayan Chaco from which she and her hus­band and children had with much labour derived their daily bread. Her austere life had lasted 70 years, and it seemed to us that her macabre burial ended it in a way which she would have liked.

Tina–we called her that–was like a much older sister to me. She influenced my childhood years, perhaps to a greater ex­tent than anyone would have thought possible. We always stood close to each other, even though I soon outgrew the bounds of her modest field of knowledge.

Perhaps Tina Claasen’s life inspired me to think about it as much as I did because she did not think about it herself. She only lived… modestly, and in calm acceptance of the cir­cumstan­ces into which God had placed her. She was a Chris­tian in all sincerity.

Tina came to live with my parents as a young girl, before I was born. She took care of us children from little up. She car­ried us wrapped in blankets as we fled out of Russia. And here in our new home she dutifully tended our needs until she got mar­ried.

The scene in the cemetery, flashes of lightn­ing and the hurried lowering of Tina’s coffin before darkness and rain, turned my mind back to many scenes of my childhood. During our growing up years in Paraguay we never forgot what had hap­pened to us in Russia. We never forgot, because Tina painted upon our minds the terror of Revolution and Civil War. For her, ter­ror and hardship were as much a part of life as the seasons of the year. They were the element in which her soul moved.

After coming to Paraguay we would sit out­side in front of our tent, our first home here in the wilder­ness. There Tina would tell us children stories, while our parents did other neces­sary things in the evenings.

Many times she began with stories from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I was five years old and my brother was yet younger. Tina told us about Chris­tian and his pilgrim journey with all its dangers, tempta­tions, and struggles. Naturally, I did not under­stand the message of the allegory. But she kept my vivid atten­tion with the story, just as John Bunyan wrote it. Tina told us in detail how the devil caused Christian to fear, how Chris­tian walked through the fearful val­ley of the shadow of death, how he needed to struggle with the dragon of sin, how the giant of doubt cast him into a dark dun­geon, and how the seven evil spirits of despair tied him with ropes.

My brothers would fall asleep, but I would sit entranced, lis­ten­ing to her stories until I’d shudder. The moon shadow of the castor bean plants in front of the tent would move. They would creep about. And they would get continually bigger and closer until I’d start to cry. Then mother would come and reprimand Tina for telling us scary stories again. Mother would lay me into bed and I’d dream of the things Tina told me.

I know now that an expectation for earthly hardships was built into Tina’s sys­tem. She had a greater capacity for seeing the dreadful than the beautiful, because terror had set the pat­tern for her youth and formed her character.

Born in l905, she was fourteen or fifteen years old when the catastrophe fell upon Russia, and upon the Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine in particular.

With the same matter-of-factness as she told us stories from Pilgrim’s Progress, Tina spoke about the tragedies that had fal­len upon herself. Tina had early in life become an orphan.

“Ja,” she would say to us, “You have it good that your parents are still alive.”

Tina was modest about feeling sorry for herself. Her father died when she was seven years old. He had tried to get rich quick and it hadn’t worked. After buying forty wagon-loads of grain he had lost them all to a dealer who bought the grain and disap­peared without a trace, never paying for it. Tina’s father had gotten sick and died soon afterward, leaving an ailing wife and a large group of children behind him. They lived in a small rented house of the “landless”. . .  a miserable existence on an island in the Dnepr River in the Mennonite village of Insel Chortitza.

“When a funeral possession passed our house,” Tina told us, “my mother would envy the person in the coffin.” Her mother’s death was for her the release of earthly poverty and pain, but it orphaned Tina and her brothers and sisters. “We all stood at her deathbed, and when we thought she was dead, Franz, the oldest of us children, fetched a chicken feather and laid it on her mouth. The feather did not move and we knew that mother had died.”

That was in l9l9. Everything was already going to pieces in the Ukraine, and the Mennonite Colonies fell into the hand of groups of anar­chists led by Nestor Machno. Tina went to live with her mar­ried sister in the village of Burwalde, near the Dnepr River.

Tina always told us stories while picking beans and cotton, and while pulling weeds. Now, as I read historical ac­counts about the revolution and civil war in Russia I find many parallels to what she told me.

Nestor Machno, the bandit chieftain of the Ukraine, has become for many the prototype of anarchy. Collaborat­ing with Machno was Simon Prav­da, a lesser chieftain who had lost his two legs in an accident. Tina told us what Simon Pravda did in Bur­walde: “There he stood suddenly in front of our door. He had no legs and he used crutches. Beside him stood two men with guns and sabres.

‘Let the man of the house come out,’ the bandits demanded.

My brother-in-law appeared, pale as death in the doorway.

‘Are you Peter Andreyevitsch?’ they asked.

Yes he was.

‘Come with us’ roared Pravda.

My sister had a five-month-old baby in her arms. She cried, begged, knelt before Pravda, laid the child before his crutches, and wrung her hands. One of Pravda’s men turned away. I saw how his face was twitching. He wiped his tears away with a handker­chief.

‘Come along’ Pravda roared again. And they took him away.

The next day one of the bandits came and told my sister that she could come and get her husband, but she would have to bury him beside the outhouse or else something terrible would happen to her and her child. Some men from the village fetched the body of my brother-in-law. There was not one uninjured place on his body, so badly had they handled him. They had tied him onto a bench and cut and beaten his body with their sabres.”

“Later on we learned,” Tina added this almost as an after­thought, “that Simon Pravda had been looking for another Peter Andreyevitsch. He had asked a boy on the street where he lived, and the boy had directed him to our house.”

In the same week, three of Tina’s friends were killed. “I saw,” she told us, “how the boys went running down the village street toward the river, hoping to hide in the marshes along its banks. I remembered how only the evening before these boys had prayed so earnestly for their life, because they knew that Pravda was after them. Pravda meant to get all the boys who had helped in the Selbstschutz. Then we saw how several men on horse­back came along behind the boys. When they returned to the village laughing and cheering a short while later, showing off their bloody sabres, we knew what had hap­pened.

That evening a few men dared to go out with their wagons. They found the mutilated bodies of the boys lying in the field.”

The worst thing for Tina was the death of Jakob. Jakob was the brother of Peter, her brother-in-law. One night Pravda’s men fetched him and he never returned home. Days went by and nobody knew anything of his where-abouts. Tina told us this story in a strangely subdued voice, which puzzled us. Jakob must have been a very close friend of hers. But she never told us.

“More than a week passed by,” she said. “Then I went out to the shed with a basket to fetch some chaff. I filled the basket with my hands, and struck something hard.  I dug into the chaff and there lay Jakob’s body. How it looked I cannot tell you.”

Something else impressed me even more than Tina’s terrible stories. Behind it all, like sunlight behind the storm clouds, shone her faith. Her faith was anchored deeper than the sorrow, the grief she endured, and the scenes of blood she had witnessed.

Weeks and months of anarchy had plunged the Mennonite vil­lages of the Ukraine into an “end-times” mood. Farmers once rich and haughty now trembled for their lives and the lives of their families. Terrified young people saw death in front of their eyes. Farms and entire villages sank in ruin and ashes. Evan­gelists, men zealous unto death, gathered the frightened masses to call them to reconsider, become converted and prepare for judgement and future glory.

During this time Tina became con­verted. She told us about the preachers who set up a tent in the village of Eichen­feld, inviting all to attend even while Machno was approaching: “The bandits rushed into town and began plundering and killing. They locked the preachers up in a small room. Then they told the women to make a big meal for them. After their wild party the bandits got the preachers to walk into the barn, one after the next. There they were struck down with a sabre. Six men, one after another. Afterwards they were found lying in the barn with their skulls cracked open. That is how they died for their faith.

In that night 85 people were killed in Eichenfeld.”

Long afterwards, as I was better able to comprehend these things, I tried to set myself into Tina’s world. I tried to im­agine myself in the place she stood as a youth, but I could not. I do not know if anyone really can. But I understood Tina’s religion better after I remembered the events surrounding her conversion.

Revolution followed the famine in Russia. One thing followed another like the riders of the Apocalypse.

Tina was given by the leaders of the Old Colony (Chortitza) to a Men­nonite farmer for whom she had to work for food and clothes. She had it good. Her brothers and sisters were starving. We lis­tened as to a parable from the Bible as Tina related this story: “One cold winter day my brother Franz suddenly stood at the door of the kitchen where I was working. He wanted a potato. I did not dare give one to him because I was afraid of the farmer I worked for. He had strictly forbidden me to give any food to beggars. Then Franz asked me for the potato peelings from our last meal. I ran to the farmer’s wife and asked to have them for him.

`But Tina,’ she said, `you know that we keep the potato peelings for the pigs.’

My brother was crying as he turned away, and I cried too. He walked through the deep snow away from the house and I stood there looking after him. He never came back. When men started looking for him they followed his tracks into the fields. First they found a spot in the snow where by trampling his feet he had tried to keep himself warm. Not far from there his body lay frozen beneath a bush.”

“A few days later, towards evening, two Russian boys came onto our yard. They asked if they could sleep in the barn. I ran to ask the farmer because there was much straw in the barn. He got very upset: `Shall I let the house burn down over my head?’ he stormed. `At our place no strangers sleep in the barn!’

“I had to get up early in the morning to make fire in the stove. When I fetched straw from the barn I saw two snow-covered mounds under the cherry tree, both the size of a boy. I woke the farmer: `Go see what lies under the cherry tree,’ I told him. He went out and after coming back he did not say a word. He did not say anything all through breakfast.”

Tina’s vessel had run over. She had seen what most people never see: tragedy, terror, and the in­security of life on the earth. Tina did not expect life to be anything but a series of tribulations. Her unquestioning acceptance of this fact, com­bined with a living hope for the Lord’s return, set her at peace with God and existence. It was the framework which held Tina’s religion together. . . the religion that saw her and her  generation out of a war-devastated Europe, across the ocean in refugee ships, and through almost impossible beginnin­gs in the Chaco wilderness.

When evangelists came to our village during the years of that first generation in Paraguay, the whole village would assume an “end-times atmosphere”. While they laid out the plan of salva­tion and preached strong warn­ings of preparation for judge­ment, the faith of Tina and those first pioneers would thrive. The threat of world catastrophe, of impending judgement, and the need for making a decision for Jesus would hold everyone’s heart in suspense.

Conversion and Jesus’ second coming would dominate the vil­lagers’ animated conversations for weeks. We children would play “conver­sion” like we had once played “Chacokrieg” (during the war bet­ween Paraguay and Bolivia) and like we had played “funeral” during the typhus epidemic.

One time–it was in September–the message of one preacher in our church found an echo in nature, as the sun in heavy storm weather sank blood-red day after day. The preacher took the sixth seal of Revelations as his theme and his clarification of it brought young and old into an air of expectancy for the Lord’s return.

“And the sun turned dark like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall be turned to blood” the preacher read with a strong voice.

“Der Herr bricht ein um Mitternacht. . .” (The Lord comes at Midnight) sang the congregation in hushed reverence, as the blood-red moon drew a cross with the window frame. Tina combined the unnatural effect of the message with the weather, and for her the dreadful was beautiful.

“I sat outside till midnight,” she told us the next morning at breakfast. ” I thought Jesus might really come at midnight and I wanted to be awake when he comes.”

Tina’s time as a young person in Paraguay, even though peace now reigned, was far from frivolous. The course of her life, so permanently altered in Rus­sia gave her a permanent disposition of meekness and withdrawal. When the young people of our village played games she looked at it as a temptation and did not play. If at any time she could not con­tain herself and joined in with those who were playing and laugh­ing,  she looked at her failure as a cause for deep repentance. Some­times she would weep till morning in her bedroom until her tears would cease in forgiveness and rest.

For Tina Claasen the great terror in Russia had swept every-th­ing away. Family, friends, love, security, and every last vestige of pleasure on the earth had disappeared. Everything sank into the chaos of famine and war. . . everything but God and the hope for better times in the hereafter. This was when and where Tina found her faith. A new living faith not at all like the old, dead, self-satisfied religion of the colonies in the Ukraine before the revolution. It was this faith that guided Tina Pen­ner’s life until the day she died. It carried her victorious through situations where strong men went to pieces. It removed for Tina mountainous obstacles of grief and pain. It tri­umphed–actually thrived–in hardship. And it kept on guid­ing her life long after most of the people around her had forgot­ten the events in which it was born.

Tina’s faith was a miracle. It was her gift from God.

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. . . For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge. . . to another FAITH by the same Spirit. . . ” (I Corinthians l2:1, 8,9).

Translated and adapted by Peter Hoover, 1988

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