When Ethnicity Brings Us Home
by Ardie S. Goering
From the Mennonite Weekly Review 9/23/99.
There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before–Willa Cather
If Cather is right, surely one of those great stories is that of pilgrimage–a faithful people searching for new lives in a new land.
Like the Scandinavian immigrants Cather writes about in O Pioneers, Mennonite immigrants from the Russian Ukraine also settled on the vast American prairies in the late 19th century.
1999 marks the 125th anniversary of the arrival of many Mennonite groups to this continent, including my ancestors of Low German descent who founded Goessel and other communities in Kansas.
Also celebrating a 125th anniversary are Mennonites of Swiss Volhynian ethnicity (including my husband), who gathered for a commemorative celebration in Moundridge, Kan., Aug.14(MWR, Aug. 19).
Their journey from an old country to a new one is not unique. But what was celebrated in Moundridge last month was the unique aspects of their struggles and triumphs, the particular characteristics and beliefs that make up the Swiss Volhynian Mennonite story.
A casual observer might find the events of an ethnic celebration quaint. Here is the horse-drawn plow, the woman in the black shawl, the piquant scent of kraut berrogi.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Here is the memory of children dying while walking home from school in a blizzard, and another story of a Mennonite orchestra teacher almost losing her job for refusing to conduct the national anthem.
And here are the questions raised by such commemorative events. Have we failed to keep the faith because we did not remain the close-knit and closed communities our ancestors wanted to preserve? What value is ethnicity when we are no longer bound by a common language and customs and geography?
While the cultural trappings such as food and dress add color and charm to ethnic celebrations, they are less important, Kirsten Zerger says, than what she calls “essential ethnic treasures.”
A member of the 125th Anniversary Organizing Committee, Zerger believes “those philosophical, spiritual or moral revelations,…those hard-won and well-cherished scraps of universally useful wisdom, must serve to define our ethnicity as we move forward in a global village.”
On a personal level, Zerger believes an understanding or ethnicity is important for parents to instill in their children. As one of billions on people on Earth, she says, “a child needs the sense of self and place which are provided by family and community. To this end, preserving some sense of ethnic heritage is part of the compass which all children need to orient themselves as human beings.”
Although born in central Kansas, Steven Stucky was away from his native Swiss Volhynian culture most of his life. It was only at a “certain age” that he began to regret not knowing more about his missing heritage and started a modest amount of genealogical and historical reading.
Presently a professor of music at Cornell University, Ithaca, N. Y., Stucky has been commissioned to compose works for groups such as the Chicago Symphony, Chanticleer and the Baltimore Symphony. Add to that list the Swiss Volhynian 125th anniversary, for which he composed the music of “A Hymn of Heritage.”
“When Arnold Wedel (of the organizing committee) approached me,”says Stucky, “the Moundridge celebration seemed like a wonderful opportunity to try coming ‘home,’ to show my own family the part of the country where I grew up, and to make a tangible contribution I hoped would gratify my relatives still in the area, especially my father, Vic Stucky, in Hutchinson, and my aunt, Ruth Galle, in Moundridge. I wasn’t disappointed; the whole experience was extremely satisfying.”
“Home is where one starts from,” wrote T. S. Eliot. If ethnicity is one part of home, we all need it.
Ardie S. Goering lives in Albuquerque, N. M.