Words Before the Doors Close


For a certain segment of the American Mennonite population, a segment whose ancestors passed through and lived in Germany, the language of the old country was low German. Low German’s Jewish counterpart is Yiddish–and it even sometimes sounds like it. Last March, Der Bote, then one of the last three remaining German language Mennonite periodicals on the continent closed its doors. It was based in Winnipeg and it’d been founded eighty-four years ago by Mennonite emigrants. Last fall, Mennonite Life, the major arts and culture publication of the Mennonite Church USA, also ceased publishing (from 1946-1999 it was in print, since 1999 it’s been available only online). In it’s final issue, Mennonite matriarch and poet Jean Janzen–a woman who only began publishing poems late in her life–dissects her own history by examining the lives of three (she explains how) interconnected women: Czarina Alexandra, the poet Anna Akhmatova, and her grandmother Helena Wiebe, who hung herself in 1908. “The difficult circumstances of each woman cannot be compared,” writes Janzen, “nor can their responses be judged by me a century later. Rather than comparison, I venture some observations.” Read the full essay here.

Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →