It began with an under-layer as a prayer that undergirds the work and the sacredness of the story, then continued with the top layer.
Context: The mural is a triptych telling the story of Elaine’s relatives during the Russian Revolution and Civil war. Beginning in 1917 there were three armies fighting for control of Ukraine and Russia: the White Army for the Tsar; the Red Army for the Communists; and Anarchist armies made up of dissatisfied peasants. Mennonite communities were often targeted, for three reasons: because they were German-speaking they appeared to be pro-German; they were for the most part materially secure (food, grain, horses, clothing); and as pacifists they did not fight back.
Center panel: Nestor Makhno (sitting being served by Anna Schulz) led the Anarchists in Ukraine. He was both a brilliant strategist and a brutal warrior; he and his men both redistributed goods from wealthy estates to local peasants, yet would also sometimes force people to watch the brutalization of their loved ones. Makhno had worked on a Mennonite farm, and thus knew their wealth and vulnerability, so he often terrorized their communities. In October 1918 he and his men murdered Anna Schulz’s sister and children, and in December they commandeered the Schulz fabrik (see Elaine's reflections on her 2010 pilgrimage to this place). The males over age 14 immediately fled into the forest, as they would have been killed. The six girls were hidden in the attic, including Elaine’s grandmother Margaret (pictured at top with angel’s wings, peering down through the floorboards). For two terrible weeks, Anna Schulz and her 6-year old son fed, clothed and nursed Makhno and his peasant soldiers. This remarkable act of hospitality gave flesh to Jesus’ gospel command to “love your enemies” (written in Greek and German in the book held by Menno Simons at right).
Left panel: In 1919 Elaine’s paternal grandfather Franz Enns was 28 years old. The battle line between Red and White armies was shifting back and forth right across his farmstead. One day, the White army had to make a hasty retreat, and hid their rifles in one of the straw stacks on the farm. One of the Russian hired men found the rifles and brought them to Franz—a very dangerous situation because some of the hired men were also Bolshevik informers. Franz and the man carefully counted the rifles and put them in the shop. That night, when everyone was asleep, Franz snuck back to the shop and bent each rifle barrel just slightly so they could not shoot straight. He then returned the useless rifles to the Red army the next day. If Grandpa Enns’ act was not exactly beating swords into plowshares, it was nonetheless a courageous effort to bend the logic of violence. After passing through his hands, these rifles would never be able to kill again.
Right panel: Between 1923-1928, only 20% (approximately 20,000) of the Mennonites in Russia and Ukraine escaped, eventually coming to Canada. The scene depicted is the Lichtenau Train Station, the point of departure for most. Many were pulled off the train and murdered; none were safe until they reached the border of Latvia. All four of Elaine’s grandparents got out in this way; most Mennonites, however, did not.
Flanks: The mural is flanked by two angels, who look with fierce love and compassion for all those who suffer, holding the story and the memory. Next to them are two sacred caves. On the left is the Tauferhohle, which harbored the original Anabaptist dissidents in the 1520s in Switzereland. Elaine and Ched visited this cave in 2011, and were deeply moved. On the right is Painted Cave, which lies in the Santa Ynez mountains an hour north, above Santa Barbara. It is a sacred site of the indigenous people of this area, the Chumash, and considered the most spectacular native pictograph site in North America.
This mural honors sacred stories and places, and we are committed to the preservation of both.
Note: Elaine is researching and writing up the stories of her people, trying to make sense of them and their continuing legacy. There is a disproportionate rate of depression, anxiety and other mental illness among the survivors of this violence, and she is hoping to better understand and heal intergenerational trauma.