Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so it seemed appropriate to feature a Ontario Mennonite poet whose name was Valentin.
Valentin Sawatzky had the unusual experience of immigrating to Canada from Russia as a boy in the 1920s with his family. However his family made the unusual decision to return to Russia/Soviet Union in 1928 because they believed Lenin’s New Economic Policy and its promises of freedom. Valentin’s father died in prison and his mother eventually died in Siberia. Valentin finally returned to Canada in 1948 as a refugee. He and his wife had left the Soviet Union when the German Army retreated in the 1940s, and were assisted by C. F. Klassen to get to Canada.
Valentin published seven books of poetry in the German language. His story is told in more detail in the article by Erica Jantzen in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.
Valentin Sawatzky: poet; born 2 September 1914 in Chortitza, Rosental, Ukraine to Abram (1890-1940) and Anna (von Kampen d. 1962) Sawatzky. He had a younger sister, Anna (1922-2006) and a younger brother, Herman (b. 23 June 1929).
In the 1920s, Sawatzky’s family came to Canada, but returned to Chortitza in 1928 because the New Economic Policy promised freedom and hope in the newly established Communist regime. However, in 1936 Sawatzky’s father was accused of being a traitor, was arrested and died in custody in 1940. Sawatzky’s mother was arrested in 1937 and remained in prison 5 years. She died in Siberia in 1962. Her sisters took care of the two younger children while Valentin escaped to Zaporizhia (Zaporozhe) where he studied to become an engineer.
On 5 June 1940, Valentin Sawatzky married Anna Pries, daughter of Gerhard (b. 1864) and Aganetha (Andres) Pries (9 April 1915–20 November 1996) of Rosental. They had two sons, Ernest (6 June 1942–28 October 1993) and Peter (b. 2 March 1952). When the German army retreated from the Ukraine, Valentin and his family fled to Germany. By the end of World War II they were in Oldenburg, northwest Germany. Contact with C. F. Klassen and other Mennonites led them to Leer, Ostfriesland in The Netherlands where refugees gathered in the Mennonite church still in existence there. Here Valentin and 40 others were baptized by elder H. H. Winter on 19 June 1947. After joining the church, Valentin and Anna asked Rev. Peter Klassen to solemnize and bless their marriage.
In 1948 Valentin and his family arrived as refugees in Vancouver, British Columbia. When he found a job at MacKinnons, now the General Motors Plant in St. Catharines, Ontario, the family moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Later after he got a job in Toronto in 1961 they moved to Waterloo and Valentin commuted from there. The family joined the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church.
Valentin Sawatzky loved poetry and art and was a prolific writer of poems. His seven German collections were published during 1958-1983 in both Canada and Austria:
Lindenblätter, Ausgewählte Gedichte (Virgil, 1958, 1962); Heimatglocken, Lyrik und Balladen (Virgil, 1958, 1962); Friedensklaenge, Gedichte (Waterloo, 1971); Abendlicht, Gedichte und Märchen (Waterloo, 1977); Eichenlaub, Gedichte und Märchen (Waterloo, 1981); Glockenlaeuten, Gedichte (Waterloo, 1983); Einkehr, Gedichte und Märchen (Steinbach. 1983). His themes were nature, homeland, childhood, youth, love and God. His deep religious faith is evident in poems like, “Zuversicht,” “Verirrt” and “Preis der Gnade” despite an inclination to periods of depression.
Valentin Sawatzky died in Waterloo 23 February 1995. His poems were of great significance. J. J. Thiessen expressed amazement at his God-given talent that allowed him to express his thoughts and feelings so beautifully. He belongs to the group of writers in the Mennonite-German tradition of early Canadian-Mennonite poets who set the stage for the surge of writers to follow.