Remembrance Day, for me, brings back thoughts of my two dads.
My biological father died when I was 4. I have a few vivid memories of him, including the day he died. Everything else I know about him comes from family and friends.
My mom married my (step) dad about 5 years later. He was considerably older than she, and this caused its own issues. He was, I believe, the making of me.
Both men were in wars: my stepdad in the Russian Revolution, and my dad in WW2.
My stepdad, Jacob Thiessen, was born and raised in a small, Mennonite village in what is now the Ukraine. Being the son of a Mennonite preacher, he was very familiar with the church’s stance on peace and pacifism.
When the revolution broke out, towards the end of WW1, dad was a young teacher in his late teens. As the revolution grew, the Red Army began to terrorize the villages where the Mennonites lived. Theft, rape, and murder were common.
Dad joined up with a group of similarly minded Mennonites that called themselves the Selbschutz, or self protection. They stockpiled weapons and, under the guidance and training of the White Army, began using guerilla tactics to make life as difficult as possible for the Red Army.
This put him on the Bolshevik watch list.
In addition to his outwardly disruptive ways, Dad was also marked because of the subversive nature of his job: teacher. Under Lenin, all intellectuals were targeted and systematically eliminated.
After a number of death-defying scrapes, Dad was advised to leave Russia immediately. He asked his fiancee to go with him to Canada. She said yes. They left that day and literally stayed an hour or two ahead of the military police until they reached the border to freedom.
Dad’s memoirs read a bit like a James Bond novel, and I loved listening to his stories. Learning how to use a bayonet to permanently silence a sentry (left arm around the windpipe, thrust upwards between the 5th and 6th ribs to hit the heart with the right) seemed very exciting and daring to a young boy.
There were times, though …
Dad would be telling a story:
“There was a young Sawatsky boy in our unit. We all made fun of him, because he was about 6′ 6″ and not more than 140 lbs. He looked like a scarecrow.”
Pause. And I knew, even at that young age, that Dad was no longer there, but back in Russia. His eyes would lose focus, and tears would sometimes come.
“And yet, when a grenade was thrown into our foxhole, it was Sawatsky who threw himself on it to contain the blast. Without him, we would have all died.”
Dad had gone into the war to protect the people he cared about. In doing so, he went against the teachings of the church. As a consequence, he was looked at with suspicion and mistrust.
Coming out of the war, though, Dad had become convinced that pacifism was a better response. “The problem with war,” he would say, “is that it doesn’t solve anything in a real way. The Russian Revolution set the stage for Lenin and Stalin, who killed millions of their own people. WW1 turned into WW2. WW2 started the Cold War, with Korea and Vietnam thrown in.”
“There must be a better way.”
I know less about my “real” dad. Everything I know comes from my mom or uncles and aunts, and this makes it hard to figure him out.
Julius Schellenberg, dad number 1, volunteered for the Air Force in WW2. This was a surprise to the members of his church, as he believed in peace and was a pacifist. My mom said that Dad and his oldest brother volunteered to protect their younger brother from being drafted.
Of the four Schellenberg boys, three were of draft age and one was too young; however, one draft aged male was allowed to stay home and work the farm. The two oldest volunteered.
Dad was shipped off to a base in Ontario for basic training. While there, the air force discovered that he had a knack for repairing things, and he was assigned to be a mechanic.
I was talking to Mom a few months ago. She mentioned that, although he had gone into the armed forces as a pacifist, things had changed as the war progressed. Towards the end of his stint, Dad had volunteered to rotate overseas to Europe; fortunately, the war ended, and he didn’t need to go.
When Dad came back home, he, too, was looked at with mistrust and suspicion from his faith community. Unfortunately, this was common at the time for others in the community returning as well.
As I think back about my two dads, I realize that it is easy to pass judgement from afar. Obviously neither of them were really pacifist. Obviously they hadn’t really learned anything from their peace-loving churches. Why didn’t they become conscientious objectors?
One of the things Mom said was that Julius had volunteered for two main reasons: to keep his brother safe, and to have a choice in what arm of the armed forces he would serve. He believed that if he was in the air force, he wouldn’t have to kill anyone personally.
It’s easy to cry hypocrite. Surely he knew that keeping the planes flying meant that those planes could kill others. Surely he knew that by being a cog, it was the same as pulling a trigger himself.
It’s easy to think these things from afar, with the benefit of time and hindsight. It’s tougher to do when you are a young kid, doing what you believe to be the best thing in a bad situation.
I try and keep my judgement of, and anger at, the church in check. At a time when both of my fathers needed it most, the church withheld comfort and support; however, the church, too, existed in that time and that place. It, too, tried to do what it believed was right, even if I don’t agree with its decision.
So often, we would like to be in control of our world, and so we see the world in black and white. This is right. This is wrong. Peace is right. War is wrong. And yet, both my dads tried to find their own ways through the shades of grey that we all need to deal with.
I believe that control is a mirage. It’s a unicorn. It would be nice if it was real, but it doesn’t really exist.
On a day like today, I try to remember the people who fought and died. Many, I’m sure, were doing what they believed was the right thing to do, in that time and in that space. As I read, with dismay, that more than 22 military veterans in the United States commit suicide every single day, I realize that even the survivors – maybe especially the survivors – paid a very heavy price.
As human beings, we are just not equipped to see and do the things they had to see and do.
My dads were not perfect. They were flawed, as am I. They did, however, do the best they could. And for that, if for no other reason, they deserve my respect. As do all the other moms and dads who, in times past and present, do the best they can, too.
I’ve spent more than my share of time in hospitals. For about a week, my room mate was an old Native Canadian man with a great sense of humour.
“Schellenberg,” he said. “I knew a Julius Schellenberg. We were stationed together in WW2.”
“My Dad,” I said.
He broke into a grin. “Schelly! Man, that guy was always telling jokes and playing the guitar. Boy, could he play!” And he broke into a story of the two of them pulling pranks to break the tension that they all felt.
It seems a fitting way to remember them: two ordinary kids, from two completely different walks of life, thrown into extraordinary circumstances and trying to make the best of it.
My wife works for Mennonite Central Committe, the relief and service arm of the Mennonite church. They have a button that I really like: To remember is to work for peace.
I think both my Dads would agree on that.