Henry’s Red Sea by Barbara Claassen Smucker was one of the most formative books of my childhood. Set in Berlin, it dramatically recounts the story of post-World War II Mennonites who have fled from Russia. It’s told from the point of view of 11-year-old Henry Bergen, who carries responsibilities far beyond his age in his fatherless family.
The book incorporates the work of Peter and Elfrieda Dyck of the Mennonite Central Committee as they care for refugees in Berlin. I still remember the scene in which children carefully pick raisins out of their soup because they think the raisins are bugs! “Mrs. Dyck” eats some raisins to convince them otherwise.
The “red sea” Henry must cross to get to West Germany is the Russian Zone of divided Germany. From the North Sea, ships will take the refugees to Paraguay or Canada to find a new home. The most dangerous part of the journey, very dramatically told, is the train trip through Russian-held territory.
As I wrote these paragraphs just now, something remarkable happened. I realized that I was crying. My emotional reactions to this formative story have apparently resurfaced after 64 years!
I’ve asked a number of people of my vintage who grew up in Mennonite communities in North America: “Did you read Henry’s Red Sea as a child?” Most of them said “Yes.” Some started talking about the raisins-in-the-soup or the escape by train.
I asked Mennonites of Swiss Mennonite heritage: “Is this where you first heard the Russian Mennonite story?” Most said “Yes.” Another said: “It’s where I first found out there are refugees in our world.”
Henry’s Red Sea, published in 1955 by Herald Press, joined Coals of Fire, published in 1954, which showed people who believed in loving their enemies taking dangerous risks throughout church history.
Not all the stories resonated with me, but “The Mystery of the Thatch” from 18th century Switzerland certainly did.
Mennonite preacher Peter realized one night that men were on the roof of his house, removing the thatch. He said to his wife, “workmen have come to us; you had better prepare a meal.”After a while, he called to the young men on the roof, “You have worked long and hard. Surely you are hungry. Now come in to us and eat.”
They came into the house, sat at the table, and somehow endured Preacher Peter’s blessing of them and the meal as he prayed. They filled their plates, but could not eat. Instead they went back outside, replaced the thatch on the roof, and quietly left.
I checked the Fall 2018 Herald Press catalogue, and found to my astonishment that both Henry’s Red Sea and Coals of Fire are currently in print. One friend told me she gives a copy of both books to adult nieces and nephews, hoping they will read them to their children.
I also spent time as a child with a book not published for children. The Franconia Mennonites and War (1951) pictured all the young men from the conference who spent time in Civilian Public Service camps as an alternative to joining the armed forces in World War II.
I liked to flip through the book and see the photos and descriptions of three of my much older cousins – Paul Brunner, Richard Detweiler and Roy Clemmer (left to right above).
They were my heroes.
Questions for Reflection:
- What were the most formative books you read or had read to you as a child?
- What about them has “stuck with you” as an adult?
Next Week: TBA