What Happened to the Mennonites of Khiva?

German exiles in Kumsangir, Tajikistan weighing cotton (www.russianroots.ca)

A common question for people who have read the book or have seen the documentary is “What happened to the Mennonites who were deported from Khiva in 1935?” I devote a section of Pilgrims on the Silk Road to the issue. There are also a number of sources that outline the dramatic end to Ak Metchet, and what life was like for the Mennonites who were deported to Tajikistan.

One of the most prominent leaders that emerged from the community is Traugott Quiring. He was a boy when he and his family were deported from Ak Metchet. He grew up to be a Mennonite Brethren minister, and a key leader among Baptists in Central Asia. He wrote about the final days of Ak Metchet and his ministry in Central Asia in his book Dennoch Unter Sanftem Stab. This memoir also tells of his decades of ministry to Christians living in many of the places familiar to those who have studied the Great Trek, including Bukhara and Tashkent.

There is also a great website, Khiva.info, that includes a page about some of the first Mennonites to return to the site of Ak Metchet in 2000. The story includes the role of Mennonites in the palace before the Soviet era, and life in the exiled community in later decades.

The Mennonites of Ak Metchet remained in Tajikistan for more than five decades. For the first few years, their conditions were that of a labor camp – endless work, no religious observances allowed, appalling living conditions and frequent deaths and disappearances.

Here is an account from Hermann Heidebrecht’s book Fear Not, Little Flock (Bielefeld, 1999), pages 93-118.

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Here, about 30 kilometers from the Afghan border, were brought the Mennonites of Ak Metchet, Khiva in 1935. There was only dry steppe and sand - no trees, no water, no houses. Many died. Small children were particularly affected. The adults had work very hard: digging channels, planting cotton and harvesting. Religious services were forbidden. In 1937, many men disappeared.

In 1942 almost all the remaining men (and sometimes women) were taken into the Trudarmee [ "Soviet work army"]. Many perished in the shortest possible time. Yet, in 1956-57 a spirititual awakening occurred here in village no.7, Kumsangir circle. Some foreign brothers were had arrived there. Among them was the elder Henry Voth from Krasnowischersk in the Urals. He preached, sang and prayed.

Then, in 1957 the town was founded. Many older than 22 had belonged to the Ak Metchet community, and now a new life would begin. In May 1958 was already a Tauffest [baptism festival] performed. The first elder from 1958 was Gerhard Dyck. He was elected by the elders, and blessed by Heinrich Voth. As the elder Dyck died in 1977. Heinrich Toews took over for a short time as head of the municipality. After his death in 1978 the director Franz Pauls lead the community. Meanwhile, the parish house was built in 1975, next to the rebuilt meeting house.  … In the community there were very few young people, because some of them went, rather, to the large Baptist Church.

The proximity of the village to the border [with Afghanistan] and the associated border regime often disabled the community’s relationships with with our sister communities, because they had to obtain special permits for each visit to Kumsangir.

In 1985, we wanted to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the settlement. We had already prepared everything, but suddenly the authorities prohibited the entry of visitors from other communities. They were even at the border post in the village. The celebration not so could take place how it was planned and how we wanted it. In 1987, the Mennonite community had about 80 members. About 160 km distance from Kumsangir, was the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. There was also a small Mennonite congregation in the city, which was cared for from Kumsangir.

Other accounts relate how the Mennonites made the desert bloom in this region from the 1950s onward, just as they had done in Khiva. Many of those who lived in this village, including many who had once lived at Ak Metchet, moved to Germany during the 1980s and 90s, where they continue to live today.