[lg policy] A Mennonite town in Kyrgyzstan

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 14 11:37:39 EDT 2019


A Mennonite Town in Muslim Central Asia Holds On Against the Odds
The Mennonite prayer hall in Rot Front, or Red Front, Kyrgyzstan, the
easternmost outpost of the Mennonite exodus from Europe.CreditMaxime Fossat
for The New York Times
Image
The Mennonite prayer hall in Rot Front, or Red Front, Kyrgyzstan, the
easternmost outpost of the Mennonite exodus from Europe.CreditCreditMaxime
Fossat for The New York Times

By Andrew Higgins <https://www.nytimes.com/by/andrew-higgins>

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ROT FRONT, Kyrgyzstan — Each Sunday morning, a rickety white bus wheezes
down the main street of one of Christendom’s most remote and odd outposts
in the Muslim world.

The bus travels only a few hundred yards but continues a long, meandering
journey begun nearly 500 years ago by German-speaking Mennonite Christians
fleeing persecution in Europe. Having survived the fury of the Roman
Catholic Church, the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union, their
community today in Central Asia is small and shrinking but, against the
odds, is still hanging on.

Their principal stronghold here is the village of Rot Front, or Red Front,
the Soviet-era name of a tidy, two-street settlement at the foot of the
Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim-majority nation of breathtaking
natural beauty and deep poverty formed when the Soviet Union imploded in
1991.
An old mini-bus takes the Mennonites to the prayer house for the Sunday
morning service.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times
Image
An old mini-bus takes the Mennonites to the prayer house for the Sunday
morning service.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times

Rot Front, formerly known as Bergtal, or Mountain Valley, is the
easternmost outpost of the Mennonite exodus from Europe, which also
scattered believers westward to North and South America

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The German community in Rot Front lived for generations in a closed world —
entirely German-speaking, dominated by religion, fighting off modern
intrusions like television. It is still wary of outsiders but, as residents
began emigrating to Germany in the 1990s, and those left behind began using
cellphones, interaction with the wider world has grown.
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Out of a village with more than 1,000 people, only 10 German families are
left. The German bakery closed years ago and the local primary school
dropped mandatory lessons in German. The teaching is now all done in Kyrgyz
and Russian.
Local Kyrgyz shepherds at the entrance to the village.CreditMaxime Fossat
for The New York Times
Image
Local Kyrgyz shepherds at the entrance to the village.CreditMaxime Fossat
for The New York Times

But the Sunday morning bus helps keep alive the religious faith at the
heart of the German residents.

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Driven by Nikolai Pauls, an ethnic German car mechanic whose 11 siblings
have now nearly all left for Germany, the bus collects worshipers — a mix
of German Mennonites and Kyrgyz converts — from outside their homes and
deposits them at the village’s biggest building, a prayer hall decorated
with biblical verses in archaic versions of both German and Russian,
written in Gothic script.

Irina Pauls, the bus driver’s wife and a singer in the church choir, said
she and her husband had planned to move years ago for Germany but stayed
put because their five children did not want to leave their friends.
A Canadian Christian purchased three houses built by Germans, setting up a
shelter for Kyrgyz orphans.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times
Image
A Canadian Christian purchased three houses built by Germans, setting up a
shelter for Kyrgyz orphans.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times

Whether to leave, she said, “is a very painful question.”

She has often visited relatives in Germany, where nine of her own 11
siblings now live, and admires German order and neatness. “Here Kyrgyz
people think we are crazy because we cut the grass,” she said.

Three of her grown children have moved to Germany, and she worries about
the marriage prospects of the two daughters still in Rot Front. Mennonites
rarely marry outside their faith, and while German believers sometimes
marry Kyrgyz converts, Ms. Pauls said she would like her children to marry
fellow ethnic Germans.

“There is still a line between us,” Ms. Pauls, 56, said. “The Germans are
on this side, the Kyrgyz on the other.”

KAZAKHSTAN

Bishkek

Rot

Front

TIAN SHAN

MTS.

UZBEK.

KYRGYZSTAN

CHINA

TAJIKISTAN

200 MILES

By The New York Times

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But finding a suitable spouse for her remaining children, she said, is
growing increasingly difficult as emigration drains the pool of eligible
grooms and brides who share her family’s faith and speak Plautdietsch, a
dialect of Low German.

The Mennonites and Amish both belong to the Anabaptist tradition, a
reformation movement dating to the 1500s that rejected aspects of the
established Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. They share a commitment
to pacifism and simple living.

The German Mennonites who settled in Kyrgyzstan started their journey east
in the early 16th century from what is now the northern Netherlands.
An ethnic Kyrgyz resident of Rot Front waited for the shuttle that will
take her to Sunday service.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times
Image
An ethnic Kyrgyz resident of Rot Front waited for the shuttle that will
take her to Sunday service.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times

After settling first in West Prussia, now part of Poland, they moved on to
Russian-controlled Ukraine in the 18th century, and then to Kyrgyzstan,
settling first in the west and then on rich farmland in the Chuy Valley
east of the capital, Bishkek.

The original German names given their new settlements have mostly been
lost. The German names that survive were imposed on towns by Moscow and
given a Soviet slant, like Rot Front.

Of the approximately 100,000 ethnic Germans who lived in Kyrgyzstan when
the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, only 8,300 remain.

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Old photographs of the Mennonite community in the basement of the prayer
hall.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times
Image
Old photographs of the Mennonite community in the basement of the prayer
hall.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times

In Rot Front, the exodus to Germany has been accompanied by a wave of new
arrivals, mostly Kyrgyz but also a few Westerners.

A Canadian Christian purchased three houses built by Germans, setting up
shelter for Kyrgyz orphans, a guesthouse and a farm.

Wilhelm Lategahn, a non-Mennonite schoolteacher, came to Rot Front from
Germany on a government program to promote the German language. He intended
to stay a year or so but, nearly a decade later, is still here. He set up a
small museum to honor the village’s fading German heritage.
Ethnic German Mennonite youths in one of the two streets of the village.
CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times
Image
Ethnic German Mennonite youths in one of the two streets of the village.
CreditMaxime Fossat for The New York Times

At the prayer hall, built in 1987 after the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
relaxed restrictions on religion, female worshipers sit on one side while
their husbands, fathers and sons sit on the other.

Germans and Kyrgyz mix constantly — in prayer, at school and at work in the
fields, where residents grow their food and raise cattle. They communicate
mostly in Russian, the one language everyone speaks fluently.

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The village also has a mosque, but it is much smaller than the Mennonite
prayer hall.

After attending prayers on a recent Sunday, German and Kyrgyz children
gamboled together along the main street, chattering away in Russian. Lotti
Schmidt, 12, said she missed friends who had moved to Germany but still
wanted her own family to stay in Rot Front.
The choir rehearsing at the prayer hall.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New
York Times
Image
The choir rehearsing at the prayer hall.CreditMaxime Fossat for The New
York Times

Even many of those who have left still come back regularly on visits.

Adolf Koop, who moved to Germany in 2011, still keeps the house he and his
wife built in 1958 in Rot Front and recently returned with a son and
son-in-law to do some repairs.

“I get so bored in Germany,” he said. “I miss all my friends here.”

His memories of Rot Front, however, are not all rosy. His father, the head
of the village’s early Soviet-era collective farm, was arrested and
executed at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1938.

Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 turned ethnic Germans
into enemies of the people. Much of Rot Front’s adult population was sent
to labor camps, leaving German children to fend for themselves, often with
help from local Kyrgyz, who sheltered and fed them in the mountains.

The wartime experience broke down many of the cultural and language
barriers that had previously separated ethnic Germans and the indigenous
Kyrgyz population. It also made it difficult for Germans who survived the
war in Rot Front to feel comfortable in Germany.

Their offspring, too, can find life in Germany problematic.

Andrej Keller, a 59-year-old ethnic German who was born and raised in Rot
Front, said he had tried moving to Germany in 2011, but was unable to find
a job and returned to his Kyrgyz village after just 18 months.
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He said he, like many others, had been seduced by the promise of an easy
life in Europe.

“Everyone wants to drive a big car, a Mercedes, and eat fat sausages.” he
said. “But I was not used to big sausages. Life there was comfortable but I
could not get used to it.

“The human needs very little to be satisfied,” he added. “As my mother used
to say: ‘To be satisfied you need very little and who is satisfied is a
king.’ People never have enough of everything. You have to be happy where
you live. If there is no war there, what more do you want?”

“Germany is not our country,” he said. “Our country is here where we were
born, this is my home. Here I grew old.”
A version of this article appears in print on May 13, 2019, on Page A4 of
the New York edition with the headline: A Mennonite Outpost Clings to the
Old (and Some New) Ways. Order Reprints <http://www.nytreprints.com/> | Today’s
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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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