Died August 14, 1946 in Burnaby, B. C., Canada: a much belated tribute by his nephew Jack Thiessen
After writing two hundred plus articles in Europe and in North America in English, High and Low German it might be assumed that penning an article on a member of my family, my mother's oldest brother would be the easiest.
Weit gefehlt. Far from it. My sources and sources of contacts for this article had far range and spanned much time.
The fact that the former CMBC, now CMU contains fairly exhaustive documents, including copies of most of the correspondence Uncle Gerhard conducted while working as a Board Member of the Canadian Board of Colonization with head office at 400 Main Street in the Thirties, Winnipeg and a branch office is Rosthern, Saskatchewan was of help.
There was more, namely the personal memories of John J. ("Monarch") Klassen, who claimed over many years of reflection that Gerhard aka Board Sawatzky was the smartest man he and other schoolmates at the MCI in the mid twenties had ever encountered.
A surprising source of information relating to this man and his work came about when I was in Karlsruhe in 1956 and announced myself to that Venerable Bead (Bede) as he had come to regard himself, Prof. Dr. Benjamin Unruh. I visited Unruh only twice but in those two meetings I was witness to a record and a mind, memory and imagination that only a few men of O. T. Fame and God himself could match.
Unruh and Uncle George were, as I was to learn in Karlsruhe, visionaries of a rare order in their day, exchanging letters as to where Mennonites might settle in order to realize their full and unique potential. For reasons that can only be speculated on, the correspondence, rich and varied and spanning decades, came to be deposited in the Mennonite Archives in Filadelfia, Paraguay.
Aa few years after my doctoral dissertation "Studien zum Wortschatz der kanadischen Mennoniten" 1963 was published, the premiere dialectologist of things Germanic, that patrician Jew, Viktor Schirmunski, then Leningrad, invited me to conduct a seminar and a lecture on my Muttersprache at the Institut der Wissenschaften in Leningrad; this was in 1966.
At that time the Russians were better at Intelligence, meaning spying on others and themselves than they were at drilling for oil or tilling the soil. But I, like every kid born to Russian Mennonites, knew about cloaks and daggers and their ways and means many years before the Americans discovered in their mono-dimensional way what Fellow Travelers were all about, real, but mostly imagined. And so it came to be that within six hours after arriving at the above-named Institute, many colleagues appeared with more questions than I had faced since rounds of such surfaced at my baptismal qualifications. Obviously I was on guard and they knew it so they lubricated conversation and collegiality with many rounds of Vodka. Even Schirmunski got into the act and he shortly informed me that he had been professor to many Mennonite students before the "historical turn of events". There was no doubt that my host remembered both of my uncles Cornelius and Gerhard with fidelity and clarity. To what extent he relied on his memory and to what extent I was known to that motley group of experts, all in their field, via their "Big Brother is everywhere" system I do not know. Nor will I ever know. And by now I do not much care. In time I came to know that the Mennonite Snooping Co. Ltd. was every bit as effective as the KGB and or the GPU or the NKWD, only that our system works on the "all for the good of you" principle but is practiced every bit as efficiently with the headquarters being the Seeing Eye Dept. of the churches. Christian Gossip is a force to be reckoned with.
Prof. Viktor Schirmunski insisted that I be his guest in his dacha, a twenty minute drive from Leningrad. The dacha was southeast in a thick forest and had no electricity. Much like home when I grew up. As I rummaged about lighting a fire, the Gospodjien lit a lamp and a lantern and shortly emerged from a hut outside with another bottle of Stolychnaya and when he proposed a toast he said in perfect Low German, probably rehearsed: "Hiea derwe See uck Heil Hitla saje", meaning we were beyond the range of you know what.
We talked the night away with people dropping in until the sun rose after three hours or less. The Russian White Nights are hauntingly mysterious. When one of the visitors asked if I had ever been so far north in Canada where people could read a newspaper at twelve midnight, I replied, "Yes, I have been in Churchill but there I found no one who could read." They laughed so boisterously that shortly the bells on Nevsky Prospect joined in the refrain.
By the time we returned to Leningrad from that stay in the dacha I had finally understood with totally clarity that we Mennonites learned many things in Russia and adopted a few others, most notably hospitality. Let me repeat: Mennonite hospitality is not a Germanic trait, it is Russian and is forever.
When Schirmunski and I said "Auf Wiedersehen" he confided that he had checked my uncle's academic records prior to my arrival but that he was not permitted to divulge them. However, he was prepared to answer any questions I might have. By that time I had long shed my reticence and so I upped, "Is it true that my Uncle Gerhard scraped the genius category with his pronounced bald pate?" Schirmunski smiled and laughed gently; by way of response he quoted a verse from the Bible: "Du hast es gesagt!"
Some people get everywhere fast by virtue of their parent's money and connections. We all know such and sundry but we probably know just as many of this ilk who are not worth the knowing. Paris Hilton is only one of a thousand who comes to easy mind.
And yet: I remember when the Sudeten-Germans came from the land of the Moravians and the Bohemians, part of Czechoslovakia to settle as a political entity in northeastern B. C. and northwestern Alberta. And so, in the early seventies of the previous century, when Reuben Epp, Dawson Creek and these Sudetenländer from that area and Pouce Coupe invited me for a visit, having established that Gerhad Sawatzky who had led their settlers to the promised land as named in 1938, was my uncle, I went north to visit, based on my Uncle having made the rough places plain and the curves straight. "If that little fellow with eyes all around his head, and a mouth incapable of speaking nonsense, and a heart as big as the northern sky is your uncle, then come to visit," said the M.P. Willie Wanka and I went.
All pioneering experiences drain the pocket book but enlarge the heart in indirect proportion; this had happened to the Sudeten Germans, certainly to Reuben Epp and his clan and probably also to the tenor of world acclaim, namely Ben Hoeppner, all of Dawson Creek.
All snoops are obnoxious, particularly so if institutionalized. And yet, Professor Viktor Schirmunski was the kindest, gentlest scholar and gentleman one could hope to meet. He was a knowing man. Before I departed that memorable city Leningrad, now Petersburg, he asked me if Uncle Gerhard Sawatzky had accepted the position which the United Nations had offered him short months after the inception of that institution. I informed him that my uncle died in 1946. He filled in the chronological gaps as obviously provided by Big Brother. "Gerhard Wilhelm Sawatzky translated German articles into English within three years after arriving in Canada for the Mennonite Quarterly Review. And others. Gerhard Sawatzky's remarkable intelligence and learning had come to the attention of those in the know at United Nations on the lookout for people with exceptional ability and potential. His starting salary at the United nations would have been $18,000.00 American plus moving expenses. There was only one stipulation: a clean bill of health. Your uncle Gerhard Sawatzky failed the mandatory physical and died on August 14 in British Columbia in the year 1946."
The circle was complete.