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Siberian Diary of Aron P. Toews, with a Biography by Olga Rempel

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Rempel, Olga. Siberian Diary of Aron P. Toews. Edited Dr. Lawrence Klippensteins. Translated by Esther Klaassen Bergen. Winnipeg, Manitoba, CMBC Publications.


Aron Toews (1887-1938) was a prosperous Mennonite living in a khutor, a farm usually run by an extended family, separate from the villages. He had received an education and was the village school teacher. He fashions his name as Aron Petrovich Toews and his daughters were Olga and Natasha, which suggest integration of the Mennonites into Russian naming conventions.

The rule of the Bolsheviks, who as early as 1917 declared "All Land to the People," signaled a deterioration in the lives of the people, and for Aron it got significantly worse when he was chosen as a minister to the Mennonite communities at Chortitza. Determined to maintain a quality ministry in whatever ways were possible, he was tagged a "cult worker" and subject to additional monitoring and taxes. Despite suffering to himself and his family, he continued his ministry until his actual arrest.

After a period of imprisonment at Dnepropetrovsk, he was sent to Siberia, where he earned his living first as a bookkeeper at a small Russian factory. The factory manager was delighted to have this competent bookkeeper, but communist officials would not allow him to stay in so soft a job. He was forced to become a woodcutter. This was cold, exhausting labor that rapidly undermined his health and paid him wages that barely permitted him enough food to survive. More correspondence than one would have thought possible passed between him and his family back home. Many other clergymen he meets in the camps and on the work crews, especially Russian Orthodox, share his fate. During his exile, he kept a diary, which by some miracle got back into the hands of his daughter Olga. She took it along when she emigrated to Canada. To put this book together years later, she had to set the diary into the context of the happenings with which it concerns itself, so the book is part diary and part history. Toews goes on at length in his diary with meditations on scripture passages. I wanted to tell him to quit talking about Second Corinthians and tell me what was going on in his life. But his spiritual meditations were surely what made it possible for him to keep himself balanced. His communications stopped suddenly, the last on February 6, 1938, and his family was never able to learn what became of him.

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