Doing Good in the Midst of Revolution

I recently heard an amazing story that came out of Russia. The story was told to me by Dr. Myron Augsburger, the distinguished author and lecturer who previously served as President of Eastern Mennonite College (Harrisonburg, Virginia) and later as President of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. I had the privilege of working for Myron for six years and have always appreciated his insights, particularly his knowledge of Mennonite history. When Myron first read this story in The Los Angeles Times, he checked it out with the son and grandson of Aaron Rempel, the main figure in this tale, who both live in California; they confirmed the accuracy of the story.

The Tale of Aaron Rempel

In the early decades of the 20th century, Aaron Rempel, a wealthy Mennonite farmer and estate owner, lived in southern Russia, in a town called Gnadenfeldt. He was so prominent and wealthy, and his estate so well known, that the Czar of Russia would often visit and hunt on his estate.

When the Revolutions of 1917 broke out, the White Army was initially successful in defeating the Red Army in the region near Rempel’s estate. The officers of the White Army ordered their soldiers to put Red Army prisoners into boxcars and ship them off to Siberia. One evening, as Rempel was walking home from the city with groceries he had purchased for his family, he came upon a railroad siding where there was a boxcar full of men. One of these captured soldiers called out to Rempel, “Sir, we’re so hungry, we’ve been in here all day with nothing to eat. Can you help us?”

Acting on his Christian beliefs, Rempel walked over to the boxcar and began shoving his bread, cheeses and sausages through the cracks. The man inside took them and passed them around. He said, “Thank you,” and Aaron replied, “God bless you.”

Some months later, the tide of the struggle changed. The Red Army totally defeated the White Army, put their prisoners into boxcars and shipped them to Siberia. Within a few months, as the Marxists took over the country under Lenin’s leadership, the Red Army rounded up all of the Mennonite farmers in the area, put them into boxcars, and shipped them to Siberia as well.

Deported to Siberia, Rempel went from a life of wealth to a life of poverty, from a position of strength to one of weakness. And yet, he remained the entrepreneur he had always been. Recognizing the need for a warm drink in the Siberian cold, Rempel began shipping in tea from Mongolia and soon had a good business going. His neighbors, however, were envious of his success and – calling Rempel’s business the crime of capitalism – had him arrested by the Marxist authorities.

As the trial progressed, it became evident that he was, indeed, “guilty of capitalism.” Finally, the Commissar told him to step forward to be sentenced. Aaron Rempel stepped forward, fully expecting the sentence to mean his execution. But the Commissar said, “I think we have met before.” “No, your Honor,” Aaron replied, “We have never met.” “Yes, I think we have. Were you ever in Gnadenfeldt?” Aaron said, “Why yes, I lived there.” “Do you remember an evening when a man called to you from a boxcar, and said ‘We are so hungry, we have been in here all day with nothing to eat?'” “Yes,” Aaron said, “I remember that.” “And what did you do?” “Why, I went over to the boxcar and shoved my bread and cheeses and sausages through the slats.” “And what did you say?” Aaron paused for a moment and then replied: “I think I said, ‘God bless you.'”

The Commissar said, “Yes, we’ve met before. I was that man. I’m not going to sentence you. If you would like, I’ll sign those papers for your family to emigrate.” Aaron said, “Oh sir, thank you, and would you sign those papers for all of the Rempels, for I have brothers here.”

All of the Rempels immigrated to Burbank, California.

The Power of Good

When Aaron Remepel fed those starving soldiers, he did not know what the future consequences would be. As a disciple of Christ, he chose to live by the good. As Myron Augsburger noted, doing good always outshines evil. Even though it is not necessarily always victorious over evil in the short term, it is good that lives on.