No. 10, Winter 2000
Peter Braun: Dedicated Teacher
Peter J. Braun (1880–1933) was, by all accounts, a gifted and dedicated teacher. Educated at the St. Petersburg Pedagogical Institute, he was, upon graduation in 1908, immediately appointed to the Halbstadt Zentralschule [Central School] and in 1917 became the director of the Halbstadt Lehrerseminar [Teachers School] in South Russia. Ill with tuberculosis since 1915, Braun nevertheless guided the school through the difficult period following World War I, until its closure by the Communists in 1923.
Already before, but especially during the war with Germany, Mennonites came under attack as traitors. Braun defended them in his 1914 Kto takie Mennonity? (Who are the Mennonites?). An expanded 1915 edition also addressed the land liquidation laws issued against German and Mennonite colonists in February and December 1915. To write the booklet, Braun had to search for documents in the district Mennonite archives. But they were in a state of chaos, and many important documents could not be located. Therefore, shortly after the collapse of the Tsarist government, at the General Conference of Mennonites meeting in Neuhalbstadt, South Russia, in June 1917, Braun urged the conference to establish a central Mennonite archives. The conference responded positively, and – as Mennonite conferences tend to do – named him archivist. He immediately set to work collecting materials, only to have the entire archives carted away by the Communists in 1929. It has just recently (1991) been rediscovered in Odessa.
Braun was a gifted student, very tall but also painfully shy. In the struggle to master his handicap, Braun became sensitive to the problems of his own students later on, making him a compassionate and deeply caring teacher. But he was also a teacher who worked tirelessly to improve his teaching skills.
During the post-war revolutionary and early Communist years, the South Russia Mennonite colonies were devastated by criss-crossing armies, the anarchist bands of Nestor Makhno, the Communists who requisitioned nearly all their food and animals, and the famine and disease that followed. Conditions got so bad that the Lehrerseminar had to be closed in 1919. Braun used this enforced leisure to organize his archives and write the first history of the Molotschna Mennonite School Board, which had done so much to improve the Mennonite schools. In the midst of death, destruction, famine, and his own deteriorating health, Braun resumed his duties in 1920 when the school was reopened.
Braun’s students were no better off than he, sometimes worse. To help them through these difficult times, he wrote to American Mennonite colleges encouraging their students to help his students by sending food packages. Of the forty students in the school’s three classes – all between the ages of 16 and 20 – many had eaten their last “crumbs” before Christmas (he wrote in January 1922). All they had to drink was “prips,” a warm drink made of roasted barley. During the cold winter months the classes met in his home, so he knew their condition intimately. He said of his students: “I cannot help but admire these young people who are prepared to suffer hunger if only they can continue to attend school.” In another letter he observed that the Lehrerseminar was the only functioning school left in Halbstadt, no doubt due to his own determination to fulfill his high calling.
But he did all this not without inner turmoil. To a friend who had escaped to Germany he wrote: “On top of all these troubles there is an inner tension: shall I stay here? shall I leave? This is my home after all, these my brothers, this my people. Shall I leave all this simply to live better personally? The school, which is just beginning to flourish again, is – I may well say without being immodest – to a great degree the work of my hands, is my child. Shall I leave it to go into an uncertain future?”
Braun did not leave until after the school was closed in 1923 and turned into a hospital. Even then he wrote B. B. Janz that he would stay if that was God’s will for him. Braun and his family finally emigrated to Germany where he died in September 1933.