For all those who've asked: Why did they go and what really happened?

The Tragic Trek of the Mennonites 1948


A bright vision of peace in a tropical paradise led 1,700 members of a Canadian sect to Paraguay three years ago in a mass exodus from Manitoba farms. Here is one family’s story of life — and death — in the green hell where 900 still struggle to build a Vale of Happiness

With the vision of a promised land to comfort them and a haven of peace in a war-torn world assured them, 1,700 Canadian-born Mennonites set out three years ago on a tragic trek to Paraguay in South America. On June 19, 1948, their train drew out from the little station at Letellier, Manitoba, to take them from the licorice-black loam of the Red River Valley to the steaming palm and bamboo and liana forests of a new and terrifying land.

Their exodus was marked by an unsuspecting naïveté apparent from the very first when they began to break up their homes in progressive Manitoba towns. They sold farms where they had lived all their lives. They left behind tearful friends and relatives. Not once did they question the glowing reports of four advance delegates who had come back to tell them of fine cleared land in Paraguay, half ideal for wheat growing, the other half suitable for rice.

At Quebec their chartered steamship awaited them. From Buenos Aires they would go by luxury paddle steamer up the Parana River into the South American interior. Then by cart and oxen they would travel along a trail hacked out of the tropical forests of untamed Paraguay.

For 300 years these followers of a Dutch reformer, Menno Simons, have been moved by a wanderlust born of a desire for peace and non-violence. In the 17th century they fled the military tyranny of Prussia to go to the banks of the Dnieper in the Crimea. In 1874 they fled Russia after being threatened with military service. Now once more they were on the move.

But in Paraguay they have found no peaceful haven. They have found instead a country torn by revolution. The land of promised fertility and flowing milk and honey is instead a waste of swamp and uncleared jungle that cannot support them.

They found Paraguay neighbors with appallingly low standards of life, uncared-for lepers who crawl the streets, five-minute snakes, insect plagues, filth, strange disease, and death. Their infants and children over one three-month period died at the rate of one a day. For those without money to buy food at inflated Paraguayan prices, hunger and starvation became daily companions. More than half lost the savings of a lifetime.

They did not find what they sought—a new community based on a fertile soil, where they could have freedom of education and religion, where they would have a haven away from war. Seven hundred have returned to Canada. But at least 900 remain in the green hell that was to have been a promised land-—many of them are trapped because they haven’t the funds to return to Canada.

For their Manitoba neighbors it was difficult to understand the exodus. In a material age, dramatic sacrifices for spiritual convictions are few. People like J. C. Braun, merchant of Plum Coulee, Man. willing to move his entire clan to South America in a chartered North Star liner—are few. Braun is back in Canada now. He is $50,000 poorer than he was three years ago.

The Mennonites have paid a terrible price because they felt that their young people were drifting from the farms to the cities; that their quiet simple life was being menaced, and that there was a growing antagonism in Canada toward their historic pacifist stand which made their forebears one of the most persecuted groups in history.

When their trains drew out of the station they felt they were leaving a Western prairie civilization they had found wanting. They left behind, they hoped for good, beer parlors with their green painted windows and yeasty smells, picture shows, radios and the temptations of smoke filled halls where youths played pea-pool, snooker and billiards. There would be no more young people taking wild night car trips across the border to the cocktail bars of Minnesota or to the Sodom and Gomorrahs of Morris and Carman and Winnipeg.

John Wiebe was one of the 1,700. A lean tall farmer of 29, with hushing fair hair, he had lived on his 13 acres near Horndean, Man., where he raised sugar beets, sunflower seed and grain.

He had talked the matter over with his wife, Susie, long into the nights. “It is a land of flowing milk and wild honey,” he assured her. “The Hildebrandes say from the trees grow wild oranges and bananas to eat. By South America it is so warm and no hard winter.” The older people might be right in their claims that the Mennonite way of life had heen lost in Canada. “In Paraguay we will get a large farm—only seven dollars an acre. Wheat we will raise and rice. The Hildebrandes said it is not sandy.”

As a Mennonite with four centuries of pioneering tradition behind him the prospect of a new life in Paraguay seemed thrilling. It would be the great adventure.

Throughout Mennonite communities in Manitoba, in homes and in churches, the older people held meetings to persuade others to join the exodus. The tradition of parental authority is strong in Mennonite families; younger sons and daughters and their wives and husbands made up their minds to go to South America. Like others, John Wiebe sold his farm. With him went his family of six children: Mary, 7, Susie, 6, Alice, 5, Abram, 4, Agnes, 2 and Johnnie, four months.

A steam engine being loaded aboard the Volendam. The church elders purchased this 30 year old piece of farming equipment with the intention of using it to power a sawmill in East Paraguay. Many onlookers thought the ship would capsize from the weight of this huge piece of machinery being loaded onto the deck.
But the minor doubts of John and Susie Wiebe and the other families were stifled by the time they reached Buenos Aires and took a paddle steamer up the Parana River for the next leg of their journey. It was a leisurely trip west at first into the interior of Argentina, then north to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The 700 miles took them a week. Once they passed a high-cut bank of red soil brilliant with green foliage; someone laughed and shouted, “There is the soil red and green growing out yet!” Further upstream they saw a huge sign on the Argentinian side, “SWIFT’S PACKING LIMITED.” Abe Derksen yelled, “See - -we are pulling into Winnipeg now!”

They found Asuncion a pleasant place at first. It had wonderful shop windows with dresses and goods just like in Winnipeg. They saw the beautiful marble Banco de Paraguay with its door gleaming like gold in the sun. But in the café where they ate before taking their bus to Villarrica they saw holes in the walls and ceiling. John and Susie wondered but did not ask questions.

After lunch, when they crossed to the bank building with its beautifully kept lawns, they saw the shining brass doors riddled with bullet holes; there was no glass left in the first-story windows. Pillars in front of another building had been almost shot away, one held up by a brick near the base.

These were the scars of a revolution which had been born and had died within the year since their advance delegates had come down. And it was obvious to them now that they would not find it easy to turn the other cheek in a country where men lived daily by violence, where people walked the streets armed with machete, dagger and Forty-Four.

There were other shocks to come. The first afternoon in Asuncion little Susie pointed excitedly down the street and they saw a boy crawling along the pavement, dressed only in a grey rag of loin cloth. He had no nose, the side of his face was gone, his hands were missing and his feet turned grotesquely in at the ankle. He crawled past them on wrist and ankle bones which were quite visible and they found that he was one of many lepers who crawled Asuncion streets, eating whatever the gutters offered them, sleeping in an open doorway or the corner of two buildings when they tired at night.

On the bus to Villarrica the Wiebes and their children could not take their eyes off the Paraguayan women smoking their home-rolled cigars and spitting between each puff. They were appalled when they saw the bus floor deep with slime and horrified that the women passengers with babies had placed them on the floor for the trip.

“What kind of people do not look after their sick ones?” Susie asked John in wonderment, “That the women black cigars smoke and spit between the puffs, then put their little babies to sit in it!”

An advance group had gone ahead of the main body to make arrangements for setting up a temporary tent community near Villarrica, 100 miles east and south into the centre of Paraguay. They discovered that the trail from there on was impassable and that half of it must be hacked out with machete and axe and spade.

At the temporary community near Villarrica they stayed three months, waiting for road to their promised land to be cut out of the jungle. Here for the first time in their lives they heard the rustle of night wind through palm leaves and bamboo, felt the sting of sand-flies and warbles, heard of tarantulas and climate sores. Here they saw' monkeys chained to front-door steps to act as watchdogs. It was here that two-year-old Agnes became sick.

The first sign that Mrs. Wiebe had of Agnes’ illness was a high temperature; the child had diarrhea and thirst. Her mother put her to bed on the mattress in their tent and the next day the Paraguayan army doctor, like a dark hawk in brass buttons, made his weekly call. He took Agnes’ pulse and prescribed an enema of certain seeds obtainable in a dispensary two miles away. Since John was away helping cut the trail through jungle to the colony Mrs. Wiebe went to get the seeds. The remedy did not help.

Agnes cried incessantly for water which the doctor had forbidden, and the next afternoon when Mrs. Wiebe was doing her wash she looked up to see the delirious child stagger from the tent, fall to the ground and crawl on hands and knees to the tub tilled with the soapy water in which her mother had just rinsed the soiled clothes. The next day a German doctor from Villarrica examined Agnes and told Mrs. Wiebe there was no hope for the child. He told her to give Agnes all the water she could drink.

By the time John came home three days later Agnes’ little body had wasted away and her skin, which had always been fair, became so transparent they could see her intestines through her stomach.

At night Susie and John Wiebe lay on their mattress with Agnes between them, hearing the dry rustle of night breezes in the palms overhead, the raucous pheasant squawk of bush hens in the jungle. None of the muted hush of the Manitoba night surrounded them. Susie heard the insistent gobble of wild turkeys, the squalling of mating, fighting wildcats, the far scream of a jaguar. She could not sleep. She would rise and go outside. All through the village, in every tent she could hear crying—of infants, children, women and of men.

She would return to the tent and lie down by Agnes. She could feel the baby’s feet chill against her own legs and one night could feel the chill almost perceptibly glide up the hot little body. In terror she shook her husband. “John, John! I think death is coming!”

But at dawn Agnes was on fire again and outside the toucans were calling; hoarse flights of parrots came in search of kaffir corn.  On the afternoon of the sixth day of her illness, her eyes staring up to the ridgepole of the tent, Agnes died. Her parents today do not even know the name of the disease which killed her.

Unlike most of the other women, Susie Wiebe had not brought with her the white cloth for burials; she had a superstition that it would be inviting death into her family. Mrs. Isaac Friesen, the minister’s wife, gave her some white dimity. She and her mother-in-law made a dress for Agnes, the long nightdress sleeves gathered in ruffles at the wrist. She closed Agnes’ eyes and braided her fair hair.

John got some white cedar and made a coffin with carefully mortised corners. With white cloth left over from the dress, Mrs. Wiebe lined the casket. Then six-year-old Susie picked small sprays of jungle fern and the green looked nice against the white. A Spanish woman brought a large crimson flower and placed it in Agnes’ folded hands so that it looked as though she were holding it. John made a headstone of hardwood which would last for hundreds of years. Upon it he carved her name and a star for her birth date, then a cross for her death date. In three days she would have been three years old.

They stood dressed in their black Sunday best with heads bared to the intense tropical sun, against the brilliant green of palm and liana while jade parrots croaked and monkeys swung overhead and the red soil around steamed with tropic mist.

No Escape from Fear

John went to Villarrica to make out the death certificate, accompanied by two other fathers whose children had been buried the same day. The official in the city hall looked up as they entered, laughed and reached for a pile of forms at his elbow. He asked for Agnes’ name.

John told him and he laughed at such a funny name. He laughed while he made out the other two death certificates. John Wiebe knew then that if he had been armed, as many of the Paraguayans were, with razor machete and dagger and revolver, a four-century-old Mennonite abhorrence of violence could not have stopped him from killing the man. Now this country had stolen from him even his religious faith in the peaceful life.

When he got back to their tent village he found Mary and Susie and Alice and Johnnie, the six-month-old baby, running fevers in much the same way as Agnes had at the start of her illness. There followed a nightmarish two weeks until they were sure that each tow-headed child was out of danger. Now, as with most of the others in t he temporary tent village, they were filled with uncertainty and fear.

Night after night Susie cried herself to sleep, despairing of a way out of this terrifying land. Once John said to her, “I wish there were not you and the children. Single I wish I was. so it would be all my own suffering!” And once Susie explained to him how she felt. “It is like I want to run away, but where is there I can run to?”

Two months after Agnes’ death the Wiebes were the first to set out on the new trail for the Mennonite land 10 days away. They traveled alone, John ahead at the oxen, a cow he’d got at Villarrica tethered behind. Inside under a canvas cover hooped over the wagon box were the freight and mattress and blankets for the family bed. John’s brother, Abe, traveled with them. The wheels moved almost soundlessly through the dry red trail dust, lifting and hanging on the air, so that John could barely make out his brother on the wagon seat. He could seldom see the rest of the covered wagon at all.

Their first day out of Villarrica they passed Paraguayans coming out to market from the interior: a woman in white, balancing a basket of beef guts on her head, the looping entrails swinging around her ears and forehead. A man on a spirited horse rode by them; then—trudging along in the dust, balancing a great oxhead—his wife, with the ox tongue lolling down over her eyes and forehead. Mrs. Wiebe took one look at this cigar-smoking apparition and, for the first time since Agnes’ death, she laughed.

A little of the sorrow and fear lifted from their hearts as they rolled slowly along, the children making a game of spotting monkeys swinging through the trees, playing tag behind the wagon sometimes as far back as a quarter of a mile. They would climb up whenever they tired and wanted a nap. Four-year-old Abram sometimes hung on the tail gate and dragged his bare toes in the dust. “Everything will be all right, Susie,” John said again and again. “The pain for Agnes will go away. Soon we will have a fine farm of our own. Everything will turn out fine.”

Without warning, tropical storms began to come, loosing upon them deluges of rain that turned the trail into red glue. In such a storm they came to a halt just before the halfway point of Caaguazu on the hank of a river. At t he head of the oxen in the darkness of the night, John stepped into the swirling waters of the river. Looking back he could see his brother on the wagon seat, for he was wearing a bright yellow slicker. The flooding water inched slowly up past John's knees and then to his armpits as he led the team and the wagon containing his wife, his sleeping children and all his possessions.

He felt the oxen pull away from him —downstream. He sensed that the wagon was slipping sideways and he tried desperately to turn the oxen upstream. He shouted to his brother, who leaped from the wagon seat, landing downstream from the oxen. The pale slicker, floating out wide around his shoulders, frightened the oxen and they veered upstream again. John was able to lead them to the other side.

A Swing for the Children

He rushed back to the wagon and looked in upon his family. His wife, with the baby in her arms, stared back at him with white face. The other children had slept right through the ordeal.

On the 10th day they reached the site of their Paraguayan home, the rich soil upon which they would build a new life, where with 15 other families yet to come they were to build a town they had decided to name—Gnadenthal, or Vale of Happiness.

Before them they saw two palm-and mud and bamboo buildings on land that was half swamp, the other half uncleared palm and hardwood and bamboo and liana as dense and inhospitable as they had ever seen. Mrs. Wiebe turned to her husband. “There will be no fine farm here, John!” In that moment they gave up forever their dreams.

The Derksens, the Duecks, the Hildebrandes, a nurse, Annie Elonderich— all the families began to arrive. Medical supplies and heavy freight were hauled from Villarrica: corn pickers, plows, seed drills, 11 tractors, bulldozers, a sawmill. Plans were made to turn one palm-and-mud building into a church and schoolhouse, the other into a trading post stocked with supplies from Villarrica. Paraguayan people could come with beans, fruit and manioca needed by the Mennonites until their own land would feed them.

John Wiebe built a shade roof by cutting down bamboo and making a framework tied with liana vine, thatched with dried palm leaves. Under this 40-foot structure he pitched a tent. He put up a play swing which was taken over by three-year-old Willie Derksen in the next tent. As soon as Willie’s feet hit the ground in the morning he ran for the Wiebe swing and, swinging the entire day, he sang “O Canada” with barely a stop.

Stubbornly and stoically, the Wiebes went about the job of setting up housekeeping in the jungle. At one end of their palm home John dug a hole, covered it with a stove plate; that was the kitchen. He found fine soft water in a four-foot well right in front of the shade roof. Under their cot he dug another hole as a cooler for the baby’s bottle.

They tried to carry on the simple tasks of living as though they were not in a steaming tropical climate where the most ordinary and innocent act might without warning become a dangerous and threatening one. John Wiebe worked with others at setting up the sawmill brought to South America by J. G. Braun. The first logs which were to become the lumber for the village buildings sank to the bottom of the river when they tried to float them to the mill. They hauled them then with oxen. The first log through shattered the disc, which had to be replaced with a specially tempered one. The iron-hard wood turned back and kinked nails so that it had to be drilled and pegged for building.

They planted potatoes which almost vaulted from the soil in the humid 120-degree temperature; before their eyes the plants seemed to move to a height of five feet, then wilted and died. They laid out logs and shaded the plants with palm fronds and swamp hay. They grew just as high, skeleton white for lack of chlorophyll. No tubers formed. They planted corn which leaped in no time to a height of 12 feet. It bore no cobs. They planted flax which reached giant proportions, bloomed with gargantuan flowers which dropped off. So it bloomed again and they dropped off. And it bloomed again. No seeds were ever formed.

It was obvious now, even to the most stubbornly optimistic members in the colony, that from the standpoint of living off the land Gnadenthal was anything but a vale of happiness. And while their parents were learning this bitter lesson the children played in the red soil of the village. Little Abram quickly discovered a caterpillar with red lights down its sides, exactly like a CNR freight car back in Manitoba. He would sit for hours, touching it and watching the little lights blink out. He would wait for them to come on again, then with the tip of his finger extinguish them again. His parents soon came to believe that Abram’s train caterpillars were the only insects there that were not a threat to the lives and health of their children. One day at noon Willie Derksen came running in to his mother and father, shouting, “From the bush they are running bears yet!”

Everyone rushed out, then laughed with relief as they counted almost 100 pigs which had swept past the village. Abe Derksen shot a 200-pound sow at the tail end of the herd as it went grunting and squealing up the hillside. They skinned it that afternoon, marveling over the black sparse hairs as coarse as darning needles, the scissor sharp tusks, the tail that was more like the short stub of a fox terrier than the curling tail of a respectable pig.

The Wiebes had spareribs for dinner the next day; they canned a lot of the pork. A week later, when Abe Derksen spoke of it to a Paraguayan in the store, the man turned pale. Herds of berserk wild pigs are feared even by the fierce jaguar which turns from their path. They have been known to destroy whole Indian villages.

From time to time they saw Indians; John met one in the middle of the trail to Villarrica on one occasion. The Indian snatched a machete from his G-string and stood threateningly until John turned and walked back with the hair lifting on his neck. Another time he came upon a dozen Indian women when he had gone to find his cow in the bush. Stark naked and terror stricken, they turned from him and fled shrieking.

The pattern of their days became terrifying. Children soon were complaining of stings and minor pains that turned out to be buried green warble flies. Mothers learned to ask each child if fingernails or toenails hurt, after they noticed that many Paraguayans had no nails. Some in the colony lost nails after tiny sand flies got under them and caused festers.

Sitting in church just after Christmas, Mrs. Friesen brushed at a bothersome fly. At the end of the service she felt a sting in her left nostril; she had brushed the fly up her nose. An hour after she got back to her tent she had an almost unendurable headache. A nurse gave her chloroform and took out more than 50 maggots.

Before three months in Gnadenthal had passed those who could manage the passage money were returning to Manitoba. Those who had no funds stayed. For the Wiebes the great adventure now held only fear and anxiety—such moments as the almost-nightly discovery of a tarantula among the children’s bedding, of a five-minute snake found curled up in Alice’s dress in the morning, a bush snake dislodged from a small shoe tapped against the dirt floor before a child put it on.

Early in June, John Wiebe’s mother returned to Lowe Farm in Manitoba. John and Susie and the children stayed behind, for they had no money to get home. When she could, John’s mother promised, she would send them money to return to Canada.

Food in the colony had run low and the diet of many had become limited to beans and manioca and peanut butter. For one two-week period after his cow died in the swamp John had no way of getting milk for Johnnie, the baby; the infant lived on rice water. John and his wife frequently went without their meals, giving their plates to the children. Hunger was with them always and once John saw Mary snatch a stalk of sugar cane from the jaw of a passing oxen to suck on it herself.

Throughout the summer and into the fall they waited for John’s mother to send them the money to buy their reprieve. “What can be holding up the money to go?” Susie asked John again and again.

One evening Mrs. Wiebe noticed a small pimple on the inside of her left knee. She paid it little attention. Soon ! a scab formed. It grew, breaking away at its raised edges, suppurating and exposing bleeding flesh. Like many of the others in the colony, she now had a climate sore. The one on Mrs. Dueck’s leg had spread completely around above her knee; others had them on calves.

The Wiebes had given up all hope of ever getting back to Canada; they had become resigned to the loss of the baby, for he had not recovered from the two weeks on rice water and lay listless in the tent, a skeleton of a child who would surely die as Agnes had died.

Then on New Year’s Day after almost a year and a half of the closest thing to living hell that they could imagine—word came that John’s mother had managed to send them $1,800 to fly back to Canada. “It is the best Christmas present we got yet!’’ John said.

Nine hundred remain in the Paraguayan colony, some by choice, others because they have no funds to return to Canada. Those with money to buy supplies and have them hauled from Villarrica and those who will not admit the trek was ill-fated and unfortunate have stayed. There is hope they may be able to get. land which will support them; there is the conviction that pioneering has always been heart-breaking in its early stages. It is particularly hard on those without money, forced to live off a land that will raise only tobacco, sugar cane, peanuts, and kaffir corn for chicken feed. These people know starvation.

Today back in Lowe Farm, John and Susie Wiebe still feel the same way about getting back to Canada. They are thankful. They have no farm. The baby died soon after their return; for several months the family had only oatmeal and milk to live on. But no one in Lowe Farm has ever heard them complain. Before they left Paraguay and the Vale of Happiness, all took a vow that they would never complain again.

They have kept it carefully. To remember , Mrs. Wiebe has only to look at her leg and the great spreading climate sore which the doctor says he must cut out. When she works around the house it frequently breaks open. The scab with its raised spokes, like moles tunneling under a lawn, exposes raw flesh an inch deep. She has only to listen to eight-year-old Mary counting up to 20 in authentic Spanish, or watch the new baby playing on the floor with a curving orange toucan beak—to remember.

John Wiebe does road maintenance work for the municipality of Lowe Farm now. He has some souvenirs of his own: a cylindrical bottle of light reddish soil which stains the fingers when rubbed between them; an ink bottle filled with grey pellets of kafir corn; the memory of a fair-haired little girl who fell on the ground when their plane landed at Miami to kiss the landing field and cry, “Canada - Oh, Canada!”

He has nightmares of being still in Paraguay, unable to get the funds to release him and his children from a prison of hunger and disease and filth. Gnadenthal Vale of Happiness.

Not a day passes that he is not thankful to be back in Canada. He puts it this way: “Where could you get such a country would grow wheat like we got—or people like we got or a government like we got yet? It is Canada! Oh, God, it is Canada!” 

MARCH 1 1951 | Maclean's

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