David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun; September 20, 1946; München, Germany



Boder's interview with Anna Braun represents a departure from those with other survivors. Mrs. Braun was a Mennonite whose family was victimized by the Stalinist Soviet Union, especially during the 1930s. The Mennonites are a Protestant group whose members first began to settle in the Ukraine, where the Braun family resided, in the late 18th century. They believe their lives should be guided by Christ's teachings in the Holy Bible and by the Holy Spirit. They call for a strict separation between church and state and advocate the extension of biblical teachings into social and economic life. In so doing, they reject military service and holding public office, strive for congregational and communal autonomy, and embrace an ethic of love and devotion to the Divine. These and other teachings were anathema to the atheistic, totalitarian Stalinist regime, which sought to inculcate the Soviet population with communist ideas and ideals. Therefore, the Mennonites communities living in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic underwent repression and persecution. Then, following the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941, Mrs. Braun and her family endured the vicissitudes of a brutal war which cost millions of lives.

Mrs. Braun was born in 1906 in the Zaporozhye district of the Ukraine. Her native language was German, and Boder conducted the 1946 interview with her in this language. At the time of the interview, she was accompanied by her twenty year old stepdaughter and ten year old daughter. The original Braun family included Anna's parents and her brother and two sisters. Her father owned a steam-powered flour mill in the town of Tartiza. During the 1918-1921 civil war following the 1917 communist revolution, Mrs. Braun's father was killed. The 1930s brought difficult times to the Mennonites of the USSR, and by the mid 1930s all Mennonite churches had been closed by the regime. Mrs. Braun's brother was arrested in 1935 for seeking permission to hold church services. He died in prison two years later. Her husband was arrested in 1936 on false charges. After six months of imprisonment, he was sentenced to death and never heard from again. In 1938, at the height of the Stalinist Great Terror during which some 800,000 people were executed, Mrs. Braun's stepfather was arrested, imprisoned and was also never again heard from. Many other Mennonite families suffered similar losses, and the spiritual leadership of the Mennonite communities was decimated.

Mrs. Braun survived the Great Terror and, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, was working as a technical draftswoman. By the late summer of 1941, the Germans had captured the area of the Ukraine in which Mrs. Braun resided, and she and her family lived for two years under German rule. The Germans allowed the reopening of Mennonite churches, but Mrs. Braun was appalled by the genocidal policies of the Nazis towards Jews and deeply offended by the sacrilegious nature of the "Heil Hitler" salute.

As the Red army approached the Zaporozhye region, Mrs. Braun and her children were deported for forced labor in Germany in the fall of 1943. The Brauns arrived first in Lvov (now L'viv) in western Ukraine, and ended up in a camp in Neustadt located on the Baltic near the city of Danzig (now Gdansk). Mrs. Braun continued to work as a technical draftswoman and received some financial compensation for her labors. As the front approached in the winter of 1944-'45, she and her daughter and stepdaughter were again deported, this time to Czechoslovakia. After about four months, there was a final evacuation in the direction of Munich, but some sixty miles from there, the Brauns were liberated by American forces.

After first being interned in a displaced persons camp in Heilenbach, Bavaria, they finally made their way to the Funkkaserne displaced persons camp in Munich after receiving word that relatives of theirs were there along with several hundred other Mennonites. From this camp, they intended to immigrate to British Columbia in Canada where brothers of Mrs. Braun's husband lived along with other Mennonites. The Brauns were much more fortunate than thousands of other Mennonites who were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union. Upon their return, many were arrested and exiled to Siberia.

Mrs. Braun's story is a reminder of the strength and resilience displayed by Mennonite women in the predominantly female-led families of the group during and immediately after the war. It is also a reminder of the cruelty and suffering inflicted upon its people by the Stalinist Soviet Union, which, like its Nazi totalitarian counterpart, debased and destroyed countless millions of human beings. The Stalinist terroristic state transformed peaceful citizens into "enemies of the people," perverted the judicial system and brought about untold numbers of family tragedies and losses such as those endured by Mrs. Braun.

—Elliot Lefkovitz