Friday, 3 November 2017


Our last week is rushing to its final conclusion.  We had deliberately left this week open as we knew external events would intervene in any of our plans.

Last Sunday we arrived by train in Zaporozhe from Kyiv.  The train trip was uneventful except for a strange time when the train just stood for a whole hour.  Later we found out that it was the weekend for Ukraine to switch back to standard time and an extra hour was introduced into the schedule.  To ensure the train stayed on time, it just stopped and waited till the extra hour had passed.  I could not get a satisfactory answer as to what the train did in spring when the schedule lost an hour.

Monday morning we were met with an avalanche of requests for assistance.  The one that sticks in my mind is that of an elderly husband looking for assistance for his wife.  She has had six surgeries on her spine, with a progressive story of horror attached to each surgery.  She was now in extreme pain and needed her spine fused.  They had borrowed money for each surgery but now were so deeply in debt they barely had food to eat.  The request was for $750.00.  We agreed to accept their request and submit it to the board for approval.  I often ask myself as to why I feel compassion for certain requests.  In this case I know why.  Here was this poorly dressed man, who one could see just loved his wife and would do anything for her, asking for help in a very dignified way.  It was very touching.  Even though he did not request it, we asked the staff to give him a food parcel as he left.  I regret not getting his picture.

Tuesday was seniors’ lunch day at the Mennonite Centre.  Many seniors come early just to sit in a place where there is some warmth and visit with their friends.  As with any program there always are issues to be resolved.  The occasional guest has had issues with poor personal hygiene.  The odour can overpower the dining room and all attendees are made uncomfortable.  We have started accommodating these guests outside.  I am always impressed with the loving way our staff treat these “special” individuals.

Tanya Serving a Special Guest

On our way home on Tuesday evening we met our favourite neighbours in Molochansk.  They are Anatoli and Raisa.  We refer to him as the turkey man, as he used to keep these birds in his yard.  He is hard of hearing and has poor eyesight but once he realized who we were, we had to come in for a visit.  His wife had just been released from hospital where she was for 3 months with kidney stones.  This couple has never come to the Mennonite Centre for any assistance but has received all Mennonites from Canada with open arms.  Anatoli is proud of the fact that his grandfather was a coachman for a business in Molochansk (Franz and Schroeder). He feels a definite kinship with all Mennonites.

Anatoli age 90

Anatoli is very enamoured with Mary and always remembers her name but butchers up mine quite badly.  He praised Mary to high heaven and chastised me for my poor Russian.  He told me that I had been here often enough that I should be quite fluent in it.  He gave me an “F” in Russian language speaking skills.  He compared me to Frank Dyck that had come from Canada and spoke Russian quite well.  While I have never met Frank Dyck I do know of him.  He had come to Ukraine with a different organization and had been instrumental in founding the current Molochansk Mennonite Church.  He also was born in Ukraine and had a distinct advantage in learning the Russian language as a youngster.

Wednesday morning we drove out to Melitopol to see Father Peter, our favourite Greek Catholic priest.  We first met him when he was renovating the former Mennonite Church at Schoensee to start his own congregation in that village.  That congregation is now established and Father Peter is focused on an outreach in the City of Melitopol.  Among his many programs in Melitopol, he operates a daily soup kitchen for the homeless.  In summer her feeds about 30 people a day with this growing to over 100 a day in winter.  The Mennonite Centre supports his work in Melitopol with a monthly contribution of $350.00.

Passing Food Through The Open Window

Father Peter was in a very relaxed, jovial mood and we talked about many things.  He gave us a delicious meal of a chicken that he claimed had still been running around that morning.  When we pointed out that the plate held 5 drum sticks, he claimed that it must have been a miracle with the chicken producing an endless supply of drumsticks. We reminisced about our event with the Ambassador last fall.  He told us that Schoensee was becoming a destination for pilgrimages in eastern Ukraine.  Last year about 100 people participated in a joint pilgrimage from Melitopol to Schoensee.  Father Peter sees this as a start.  A similar pilgrimage in western Ukraine attracted 85,000 people last year.  All the Mennonites walking the Camino in Spain may wish to consider another option.  A prayerful walk through our ancestral villages would be very meaningful.

Our Meal of Miraculous Chicken

Renovated Schoensee Church

We talked to Father Peter about our trip to the western part of Ukraine the previous week.  We thought we detected something different in the people.  Father Peter strongly agreed. The people in western Ukraine did not experience communism for as long as they did in the east.  The concept of family was not destroyed in the west as it was in our area.  The people in the east who survived the Holodomor of 1932-33, lived with a sickly fear.  For example, they were known to hoard food in case of another famine.  Father Peter felt that the Protestant churches were better at relating to people and this gave them an opening to getting established in eastern Ukraine.

Thursday morning I finally had a chance to meet my much anticipated “Tunnel Lady”.  She happens to be the local undertaker.  We enjoyed the irony of meeting right after Halloween in her place of business to talk about subterranean passages.  The concept of under-promising and over-delivering is not understood in Ukraine.  She had not walked the tunnel as promised.  It seems that every person in Molochansk has a second cousin once removed, who once had a friend, now deceased, who actually walked the tunnels all the way from the Willms mansion to the Willms flour mill.  The tunnel lady’s father had drawn a map of the tunnels but this map is now lost and her father has died.  She remembers that it definitely showed the tunnel from the Willms mansion coming passed the Mennonite Centre and on toward the former Mennonite Credit Union.  There apparently were tunnels in many parts of Molochansk and she may show up later today to give us a surface tour of where she remembers seeing tunnels.

Site of Latest Meeting on Tunnels

Thursday at 11:00 AM we had to be back in Melitopol for a “Prayer Breakfast” organized by the local clergy in honour of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  This anniversary is a much bigger deal in Europe than it is in Canada.  All Protestant churches as well as Father Peter of the Greek Catholic church were invited.  Even the mayor of Melitopol was in attendance.  I was given almost 24 hour notice that they were expecting me to make a presentation on the work of the Mennonite Centre.  When I got there I realized that I was the main speaker.  Glad I put on my tie.

Prayer Breakfast Meeting

In the book “A Mennonite Estate Family in Southern Ukraine”, Nicola Fehderau spent his last day in Halbstadt (now called Molochansk) walking around the town and commenting on many aspects.  I had hoped to do the same but life has intervened. I might cover that topic in future trips.  I thought I would show one final picture. 

Former Clay Pits in Molochansk

This is a picture of the old clay pit in Halbstadt.  Clay was extracted here during Mennonite times to make bricks and roof tiles.  It is also the location identified by Nicola Fehderau where Soviet authorities buried the bodies of the Mennonites they executed during the time of the Revolution. 

This is good-bye until the next time that Mary and I have the fortune to come to the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine.  Talk to you then.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Friday, 27 October 2017


We have been struck this week by how interconnected we all are.  I am not just referring to the Mennonite community but much more broadly.

On Sunday we left by train for Kyiv.  Monday morning I was to give the opening address at a Christian education conference.  The conference organizers were very aware of the tradition of religious leaders in this country not knowing their limits, with sermons often droning on for an hour or more.  Everyone was given a very limited speaking time.  I was given 8 minutes to make my case, including time for translation.  I consider it a “Suderman” virtue to be concise and get to the point when speaking.  I might not show the same virtue when writing a lengthy blog. I gave them a history of Mennonites and Mennonite education and the current role played by the Mennonite Centre in supporting education in Ukraine. I finished in 7 minutes.

Later on Monday, we had a 3:00 PM meeting with the Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk.  He had come to the Mennonite Centre one year ago to participate in celebrating our 15th anniversary.  I asked him for his favourite moment at our celebrations.  The answer surprised me.  I had expected him to say that the opportunity to address the people of Molochansk in our evening event was his favourite memory.  Instead he said the performance by the men’s Faith and Life choir at Schoensee, the next day had turned into his most memorable experience.   The choir had been invited there by Father Peter of the Greek Catholic church to sing in German “Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich” (Holy God We Praise Thy Name).  The Greek Catholic church building in Schoensee is a restored former Mennonite church.  The Mennonite Centre, with generous donations from Mennonites connected historically to that village, had financially assisted in its restoration.  At the event, the Ambassador talked to the current residents of Schoensee (now called Snegorovka) and got their story.  They also were victims of Stalin’s wrath just like the Mennonites.  The residents were all originally from western Ukraine and from the area occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939.  After the war, Stalin had refused to return this territory back to Poland.  He knew the residents did not like him and he wanted them away from the border and in a safe place where he could watch them.  Stalin also wanted room to build a large military base on the western edge of the Soviet Union and had to clear close to 100 villages from the area.  There was no better place to move these displaced villagers than the former Mennonite villages that were empty after the war.  The surprising part was that the current residents of Schoensee all came from the ancestral village of Roman Waschuk, our Ambassador.  Our 15th anniversary celebrations became a family reunion for him.  It is not surprising that we were warmly received in the Ambassador’s office.

Faith and Life Choir performing at Schoensee with local people in foreground

On Tuesday morning at 6:50 AM, we boarded a fast train for L’viv in western Ukraine.  We had a 4:00 PM appointment that day to visit the Home of Hope.  This is a special place where girls leaving the state run orphanages can learn some life skills while they complete their education.  In the government institutions the orphans are housed, fed and clothed, while attending their own segregated schools.  They do not know how to function in society and generally are angry and lack the emotional skills needed to form stable relationships.  At the Home of Hope they are taught to cook, budget, and buy their own food with funds provided by the state or the home, while completing an education that will enable them to become self-supporting.  The Home of Hope is run by some loving Sisters under the auspices of the Greek Catholic Church.  We were given a tour of the home by Sister Yeroneyma.

Sister Yeroneyma with girls from Home of Hope

Mary and I had heard about this place from a chance encounter in Winnipeg.  We heard a young lady speak passionately at a fund raiser about the work of this charity.  This young lady is Natalie Tataryn.  She was adopted from Ukraine by a Winnipeg family as a baby.  She knows that her life could have been much different if she had stayed in the orphanage system in Ukraine.  She has a passion for helping orphans in L’viv.  We have invited her to attend our upcoming fund raiser on November 18 and briefly share her story with the audience.  You will enjoy meeting her.

We started off our conversation with Sister Yeroneyma by introducing ourselves and the work at the Mennonite Centre. It turned out that she knew Father Peter, the priest who started the congregation at Schoensee.  They had worked together in Donetsk at one time. She also told us that one of the Sisters from her order was also stationed in Schoensee.  It seemed that no matter where we went in Ukraine, the Mennonite trail would cross that of some other organization where we already knew the people.

The most exciting part of the visit for us was to hear Oksana, our manager at the Mennonite Centre, suggest that the Mennonite Centre give cooking classes to the orphans living at the orphanage in Molochansk. We know the children at that place as we have visited them many times.  We have helped our local orphanage in many ways but this would be a unique way of helping individual children.  As with any idea, there will be many bumps along the road in its implementation but I look forward to seeing where this idea might go.

Speaking of the orphanage in Molochansk, we visited there just before leaving for Kyiv.  We came at their invitation to meet their floor hockey team.  While our local orphanage has many of the problems of other similar institutions, it is the only orphanage with a good floor hockey team.  Because of support from the Mennonite Centre they have been able to travel to tournaments and participate in many competitions.  Their team has done well.  There are four graduates of the Molochansk orphanage that play floor hockey in established teams in Zaporozhye, our nearest big city.  They also have one graduate that plays volleyball professionally in Ukraine.  These are all exceptional achievements for orphans and the staff wanted to thank the Mennonite Centre for making this possible.

Girls Floor Hockey Team at our Local Orphanage

I would like to continue my exploration of the book “A Mennonite Estate Family in Southern Ukraine” by Nicholas Fehderau.  Early in the book he gives details of a trip from their home in Halbstadt (now called Molochansk) to their estate further south near the city of Melitopol.  This covered a distance of about 50 miles and was completed in one day.  The streets that he identifies and the landmarks he notes are all still visible today.  We no longer take the same route when driving to Melitopol but the trail is still discernable.
Nicholas describes the two horses being hitched to the coach which was standing in their yard.  Many items would be loaded on the coach and his mother was always the last one coming out of the house after giving the staff countless instructions.  Nicholas would sit up front beside Pavel, their coachman.  They turned right out of the yard and headed down their street to the main thoroughfare coming through Halbstadt.  Here they made a left hand turn.  In a few blocks they turned right and headed down the road that would take them through Alt-Halbstadt.  They passed the Willms mill on their left and the Neufeld brewery on their right.  He comments on the cobblestone streets in this section and how everybody drove beside the paved section because it was smoother. They were heading to the “high” bridge taking them over the Molotschna River.  As they drove through this part Nicholas talked about the herdsman having collected the cows in the village and taken them out to pasture near the bridge.
Fehderau House on right Looking Down the Street

Willms Flour Mill Today

Old Cobblestones visible Through Asphalt Pavement

High Bridge over Molotschna River with Herdsman

The seven story Willms mill is still standing but the brewery is gone.  The streets are generally paved with asphalt but this has disappeared in places and the old cobblestones still are visible.  That road today is so rough, that we often drive beside the pavement just as they did in Nicholas times.  A high bridge over the Molotschna River still exists in this location.  It is a very old looking structure but it is hard to imagine that it is the same bridge from more than 100 years ago.  On our exploratory drive, we approached the bridge just as a herdsman was chasing cattle into their pasture.

After crossing the river, their coach approached the village of Prischib.  They had left the Mennonite community and were in a German colonist village settled by people of the Lutheran faith.  Nicholas comments that Prischib did not look as pretty and as orderly as Halbstadt.  Today the difference has been erased as both places look equally run down.  They continued south through two more villages and then started the climb up the large escarpment that is very visible in the area.  We continued following this trail in our car and found a paved road leading straight up the escarpment as described by Nicholas.  At the top we had a beautiful view of the Molotschna settlement.  Nicholas and his sister always had to climb this section on foot as the load on the horses had to be reduced.  Mary and I enjoyed the view from the top before returning to our residence in Halbstadt.

Road up the Escarpment with Halbstadt visible in upper left

Mary and I have only one week to go before we leave for home.  The time has gone by quickly and we look forward to finalizing everything here and seeing our friends and families back in Winnipeg.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 21 October 2017


I feel that I should start off this blog with a warning.  It is more about my interest in local Mennonite history than it is about the ongoing work of the Mennonite Centre in providing assistance to the people now living where our Mennonite ancestors once lived.  It is based on many conversations and experiences that came at surprising times during our regular work here at the Mennonite Centre.  I ask for your tolerance as I feel compelled to write this blog as it is what is on my mind.

On November 7, 2017, Ukraine will pass the 100th anniversary of a very important event in their history and nobody cares.  On October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg.  This date is based on the old calendar.  On January 31, 2018 the new government moved to align their calendar with the rest of the world.  The following day after January 31 in the new Russia was February 13.  When you adjust the date of October 25 to the new calendar, you come up with the new date of November 7.

I mention this fact because on November 7, 1967, there was a large celebration in Halbstadt (now called Molochansk), celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bolsheviks coming to power.  The Rozhman family of Halbstadt came out to celebrate that event with their two little boys and to see the big parade come down the main street.   It was important enough that it was recorded on a picture.  Alexandre Rozhman (one of the boys in the picture) remembered exactly where the picture was taken.  Naturally I had to go out subsequently and capture the view as seen today. Note that you can enlarge the pictures by clicking on them

Rozhman Family 1967

Same StreetView 2017

The importance of the picture to us is not the family but rather what else one can see in the picture.   The building on the right is the former Mennonite municipal office (Gebietsamt).  On the left in the background and covered very much by the trees is the former Mennonite credit union.  The house on the left that is most visible is standing in the location identified in Mennonite maps as the Thiessen residence/store.  It is not the original Thiessen building and it has since been demolished.  The roof line of the Mennonite Credit Union is different than today.  Alexander Rozhman grew up attending an open air theater in the former credit union building.  Most likely it lost its roof during the war.  The roof line was changed when the roof was restored and the building is now used as a sports school.

As an aside, Alexandre shared a picture of the old Willms mansion taken in 1957.  The picture has been damaged by being cut, but one can see the building with no roof and part of the second floor missing on the left.  I can look out of my bedroom window and confirm that the roof has been replaced but there is no one using the building at the moment.
Damaged 1957 Photo of Willms Mansion

The reason Alexandre came to the office was to help me with my ongoing research into tunnels in Halbstadt.  I wrote a blog last year about the start of my investigation into tunnels.  The stories all focused on the former Credit Union building and we toured the basement and saw where the entrance to tunnels had been closed by bricks.  Last year we also toured an underground storage facility that is part of a Mennonite house.  It is now privately owned and the lady who let us in a year ago has since died.  This can complicate further access.  Her grandson did tell us that the entire population of Halbstadt hid in that structure during the artillery bombardment in October 1943.  He told us there was a well inside the underground structure to supply the people with water.

Alexandre has had a lifelong fascination about the history of Halbstadt.  He expressed this to a history teacher in school who cautioned him not to go there.  It was official communist policy to suppress and eradicate the history of the Mennonites living in this area.  I suspect this caution just raised Alexandre’s curiosity.  He told me of his exploits in exploring the tunnels underneath the former Mennonite boys school (Zentral Schule) which is right across the street from the credit union.  He talked about walking through wide tunnels.  When he came to the end, there were smaller openings on the side.  He crawled through these and came to other wide tunnels.  There was even an underground well in one location that had a device you could turn to open or close to control access to the water.  He stopped his exploration when he started running out of candle power.

Alexandre provided me with a hand written map of where he believes the tunnels exist.  He drew this up with the help of another lady who he assured me had personally walked all the way from the Willms mansion, through the credit union and on to the Willms flour mill and beyond.  I have been promised that I will personally meet this lady before I leave Halbstadt.  Alexandre expressed his appreciation at being able to share his information with us and told us what a delight it had been to meet us.  He then kissed Mary and Oksana goodbye and left with a smile.
Alexandre Rozhman

He left us with a lot to think about.  According to the map, the tunnel went from the Willms mansion through a number of houses, the former Mennonite girls’ school ( now the Mennonite Centre), on through the former Mennonite orphanage, under the former Mennonite Brethren church, under the Raduga publishing house and into the Zentral Schule on the way to the Credit Union.  For those who know at bit about Mennonite history and politics, that is a strange assortment of conspirators - if you wish to read something sinister into all this.

The easiest place to start my further research was right at the Mennonite Centre.  There is an opening at the side that leads into the basement.  I had been there before but had never looked up.  Sure enough, I was in a tunnel with a curved brick ceiling that ran parallel to the street.  My problem was that I was not that deep underground.  I went outside and looked at the place where the tunnel would have exited the building.  There were some interesting clues outside.
Tunnel Under Mennonite Centre used as Storage
Tunnel Exit Covered by Brick

The tunnel left the building with the top part above ground level.  The exit of the tunnel has been sealed off by bricks but it was not done by Mennonites.  I know this because the bricks sealing the exit are not done in the traditional Flemish bond pattern (alternating long and short) which you can see in the other part of the building.  Mennonites used that brick pattern religiously in all their construction.  If a tunnel existed here it would have been partially above ground level.  I have looked at old photos of our building but cannot find one that confirms that.

For further research we went to the top and got a meeting with our Mayor.  He was interested and quickly arranged to get access to the tunnels under the Zentral Schule.  We entered the back yard of this old school building with the Mayor’s assistant breaking down some small trees to ease our access.  We also had to scramble over some piles of rubble, go down some decrepit steps where they pulled open an unlocked door.  Once inside the basement we soon entered the tunnels.  They were wide and high, just like Alexandre had told us.  It had a curved ceiling made of brick.  There were a number of ventilation ducts built of brick giving an opening for fresh air.  At the end of some tunnels we saw the smaller access places described by Alexandre.  If one were younger and so inclined we could have tried crawling through them.  There were a few places where large opening had been sealed with bricks.  You could easily spot these as they do not have the Flemish bond brick pattern which is visible throughout the tunnel.
Zentral Schule Tunnels with Mary Oksana and Mayor

Small Connecting Tunnels

Close-up of Connecting Tunnels

After leaving the tunnels we were approached by some local women.  They knew about the tunnels and correctly guessed as to where the mayor had taken us.  They started sharing their stories.  One of them had worked at a collective farm in the 1980’s.  She had a key to the tunnels at that time as it was used by the farm to store produce.  She told us about wandering around the tunnels.  She claims to have walked most of the way to the mill but turned back because of time constraints.  The group talked about how great it was to finally share their information with us as it no longer had to be kept secret.
Ad hoc Tunnel Committee Meeting with Mayor on Left

There is no doubt in my mind that the tunnels were built by Mennonites.  I also believe that they were built before the events of 1917 as they are such an integral part of the buildings they pass through.  What is puzzling is that there is no reference to them in any literature that I have read.  I can only conclude that the process of building and using the tunnels was so mundane that it did not need to be mentioned.

Word of my interest in tunnels is getting around town.  We had one man stop by the Mennonite Centre when we were out to tell us about tunnels in his village.  He lives south of the Molotschna settlement area and about 6 miles from Melitopol.  We go to his town on a Sunday afternoon as there are some springs coming out of the hills and it is a lovely place to have a picnic.  He claims to have tunnels in his village and someday I may have the opportunity to visit them.

I named my topic today “Scratching the Surface” because that is what I feel I have done with this topic. It needs some diligent and organized research and I am open to getting some help.

Next week Mary and I are off to Kyiv.  I am scheduled to give a short opening address at a Christian Education conference. We also have a meeting with Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine.  We want to thank him for coming to the Mennonite Centre last year and participating in the celebration of our 15th anniversary.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, 15 October 2017


This has been the week for celebrating Thanksgiving in Canada.  There is not quite the same tradition in Ukraine though they have a harvest celebration sometime in August.  Mary suggested that we thank our kind staff at the Mennonite Centre by having a party for them where we (Mary and I), would prepare a traditional Canadian Thanksgiving meal for them.  All I had to do was agree with Mary’s idea, cook the turkey, make the cranberry sauce, and prepare the cherry sauce for dessert.  Mary would look after the rest.  This is our natural division of responsibilities for dinners at home and naturally I agreed.  As usual in Ukraine, things happen along the way that make you shake your head saying, “I did not see that coming”.

Our first problem was buying a turkey.  We have seen them in villages roaming around with the other fowl.  However we have never seen one for sale in a store.  We were planning on spending several days in Zaporozhe with our representative Olga Rubel.  She knew a farmer in one of the villages that raised turkeys and as we were already scheduled to visit that village, we could stop at the farm and pick up the turkey at the same time.

The village we were going to is called Shyroke.  It was called Neuendorf in Mennonite times and is one of the villages in the north end of the Chortiza settlement.  Over the years the local school has received help from the Mennonite Centre in buying new doors and windows, chalk boards, and desks.  A recent donation had supplied them with four sewing machines and some embroidery thread. They enthusiastically showed us the room with all the equipment.  What struck us most was the warm bond between the teacher in the sewing room and her students.  Apparently even the boys try to sign up for sewing instruction so they can interact with her.  The school administration gave us a thorough tour of the school with many expressions of thanks for making their school a better place for the students.
Sewing Room with Teacher and New Sewing Machines in Background
Classroom with new windows, chalkboard and desks

When we left the school, the sewing teacher skipped a class and came with us as we were buying the turkey from her.  On our drive to her house, she started telling us her story.  Her grandmother was originally from the Kharkov region.  She had fled west during World War II as the front had come through her area.  She walked for several 100 kilometers and ended up in Neuendorf in 1942.  The German front had passed this area quickly in 1941 and the place was largely undamaged and still inhabited by Mennonites.  Her grandmother found shelter in this village and was given food by the Mennonite inhabitants which allowed her to survive.  With the advancing Russian front in 1943, the Mennonite population fled west in the fall.  The teacher’s grandmother stayed and became a permanent resident of Neuendorf.  Despite the negative press from Soviet authorities after the war, she remembered the kindness of the Mennonites and thought of them favourably.  It was a touching story.
Mary being presented with Embroidered Runner from Sewing Teacher

When we got to her house we realized that it was a former Mennonite building.  It was well maintained and she told us that next time we came we had to come to her house for a cup of tea.  While Olga Rubel went inside to pay, we loaded up the turkey in our van.  We then took the teacher back to school to complete her teaching for the day and started our drive back to Zaporozhe.  Once we were on our own I asked Olga about the price of the turkey.  I am naturally curious about many things and I just wanted to see how it compared to Canadian prices.  To our surprise, Olga became rather emotional and in a halting voice she told us that the teacher had refused to accept any payment.  This was the teacher’s opportunity to thank the Mennonites in Neuendorf for saving her grandmother’s life.  We were all shocked and drove on in silence.   We are accustomed to seeing Thanksgiving as a time to be thankful.  We are not used to receiving thanks in such a powerful and surprising way. 

The Thanksgiving party for our staff was a great success.  The 25 pound turkey (weighed it with my luggage scales) actually fit into the oven and was done on time.  All family members of our staff were invited and we had 16 people in attendance.  I started off by talking about Canadian Thanksgiving traditions with Oksana translating.  To avoid having to translate the blessing for the meal, I asked Oksana to do this in the local language.  Ira (our cook) had brought her partner and he objected.  We could not eat till I had said the grace in English.  I was glad to oblige.  The people were willing to give the strange looking dressing a try.  The cranberry sauce got a few tries but was not their favourite.  They really went for the turkey.  For a number of them, this was the first time they had ever eaten turkey.  Mary and I did not understand this, but for local people to have access to as much meat as they wanted was a real luxury. 
Party Room Decorated by Mary
Alvin Carving theTurkey
Group Photo of Participants

We sat around the table and talked as a group.  They asked a lot of questions about our lives in Canada and probed into our historical links with their town.  They were surprised to find out that my mother had lived in Molochansk (Halbstadt) and had left here in 1928 to go to Canada.  We asked them all to share what they were thankful for.  It was the first time that we had a party for our staff where we were together and not segregated by language groups.  Oksana was so busy translating that she almost did not get to eat. 

I would like to briefly continue my exploration of the book “A Mennonite Estate Family in Southern Ukraine” by Nicola Fehderau. When writing about events in Halbstadt in 1922, the author mentions the name “Bagon”.  He was the top Soviet official in town.  I reacted to this name because, as a youngster, I had heard this name often when my parents were visiting with relatives who also came from this area.  I even know the correct pronunciation. It is pronounced ba-gun, with the accent on the second syllable. He was always mentioned with a sense of fear with reference to different people he had sentenced to be executed including my mother’s cousin Aaron Wiebe.

The story in the book begins with Nicola’s mother hearing that they are about to be evicted from their house.  She would like to confirm the story with Soviet officials but it is dangerous for a man to walk into their offices.  His mother bravely takes on the task and walks into Bagon’s office.  He receives her courteously but gives an evasive answer regarding his intentions on evicting them.  Three days later they receive the eviction notice.

My interest is in understanding Bagon.  Very little is known about him.  According to other sources, he was of Latvian ancestry but had worked in a Mennonite publishing house in Halbstadt before the war.  He therefore knew the Mennonite people.  At the time of this story, Bagon was living with a very pretty girl who used to be a servant in the Fehderau’s neighbours home.  It is always interesting as to what the author observed and commented on.  It is my speculation that Bagon fell out of favour with Soviet authorities sometime after the revolution and was marginalized in the new communist society.  I base this on a story my mother told me.

My mother, her three sisters and parents left Halbstadt in 1928 to come to Canada.  They left behind her two brothers, who could not get the documents to travel.  My mother and her parents stayed in touch with her brothers by mail and sent them money during the Holodomor (the forced famine by Stalin of the Ukrainian people in 1932-33) in order to buy food.  One day in Canada they received a letter from Bagon demanding money.  He had become aware that her brothers’ were receiving money from Canada and extorted my mother’s address from them.  In a separate letter, her brother told them not to send any money.  Bagon tried to use his fierce reputation to gain a personal advantage but he no longer had any power to cause trouble.  No money was sent from Canada and as far as we know, there were no consequences for my mother’s brothers.  I remember feeling some satisfaction that Bagon would be reduced to a form of begging in order to get food. I don’t know if he survived the Holodomor. I would love to see the letter that Bagon wrote but it no longer exists.

One day at the Mennonite Centre I asked if there were any people by the name of Bagon living in the area.  Our staff had never heard of anyone with that name.  I sometimes ask myself what I would do if someone with that name came looking for assistance.  I do not have an easy answer but hope that I would judge the situation with Christian care and compassion.  On the other hand, we will not be erecting any monuments in his honour at the Mennonite Centre.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: 

Saturday, 7 October 2017


We have now been in Molochansk Ukraine for almost two weeks and continue to come across small incidents that provide validation as to why the Mennonite Centre is so important to this area.

I was walking to the local train station to get tickets for our planned trip to Kyiv, when a young man came by on a motor scooter.  He slowed down when he recognized Oksana and gave her a big smile and wave.  Oksana told me that he was a graduate of the local orphanage and was studying to become an electrician at a trade school.  This was only possible because of a scholarship from the Mennonite Centre.  That was his connection with Oksana.  He was wise enough to know that he should maintain a good relationship with the Centre but the depth of his smile really spoke to his thankfulness.

Last spring I recall that as a board member of FOMCU, I received a copy of an application for a woman in Molochansk to have some surgery.  The request looked okay to me and I voted in favour of the request as did other board members. The request was approved.  Last week Oksana was at the post office and was approached by this woman.  She had just had the surgery and in tears she stood there and thanked Oksana, the Mennonite Centre and sent a special thanks to all the donors overseas for making this possible.  It is usual for people to give their thanks to Oksana and ourselves if we are in town, but to recognize that this money comes from individual donations in Canada and the United States was unusual. 

Sometimes we come across stories that make us recognize the depth of the social problems in Ukraine.  In the last few weeks in Molochansk there were four attempted suicides, with three of them successful.  It speaks to the level of hopelessness due to a high rate of unemployment as well as substance abuse.  I understand that almost 60% of adults in Ukraine suffer from some level of addiction to alcohol.  This compares to about a 10% rate of alcoholism in the west.  This will explain to our supporters why the Mennonite Centre does not give out cash for any assistance.  If you require surgery, we will pay the hospital directly and deposit the money in the hospitals bank account.  This way all transactions can be audited and it provides better transparency.

I have heard the joke that if a Mennonite won a $1,000,000, they would blow it all on rum and Mennonite history books.  I have to admit that since getting involved in the work of the Mennonite Centre, I have blown lot of money on Mennonite history books.  This last winter I read a book that has fascinated me.  It is entitled, “A Mennonite Estate Family in Southern Ukraine”.  The book is written by Nicholas J. Fehderau.  It is the personal account of a young boy growing up in Molochansk (called Halbstadt in Mennonite times), who lived through the revolutionary times and came to Canada in 1924 as a young man.  He records some fascinating details including quotes from his parents, who now probably wish that he had not been so attentive.  In the next several weeks, I would like to take my readers on a tour of Halbstadt, exploring the present day town through the eyes of Nicholas Fehderau.

When I come out of the front door of the Mennonite Centre, I find myself looking across the street and imagining a large haystack behind all the current houses and high fences.  This is because of the book by Nicholas Fehderau as well as a chance encounter I had back in 1998 at a Suderman reunion in Abbotsford. The reunion was the usual assembly of aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins.   Another person by the name of Suderman heard about the reunion dropped in just to greet us and give us his story.  His parents/grandparents had lived in Halbstadt and owned a car dealership.  They imported Opel cars from Germany.  In traditional Mennonite naming fashion, they were known as the Opel Sudermans.  In 1913, Nicholas father bought a brand new car from the Opel Sudermans.  The garage for their dealership is located right around the corner from the Mennonite Centre and it is in their back yard that I see my imaginary haystack.

With the overthrow of the Czar in November 1917, there was a gradual descent into anarchy in Halbstadt.  It started with some bizarre legal charges from the new local authorities. One charge was that the son of one of the local wealthy Mennonite families had shot their maid.  Her body was found in their garden.  Nicholas mother gave an interesting line of defense for the accused when she said, “Surely (he) would never do such a thing.  That fat blob is much too lazy to shoot anybody”. (It probably sounded a bit more polite in the original German.) I have withheld the name of the individual, but if you wish to know, you can read the book for yourself. The charges were eventually dismissed but it was a sign of trouble ahead.

In February of 1918, Halbstadt was fully controlled by a Bolshevik army.  There was much looting and any means of transport, including horses and cars, were confiscated for use by the army. There were two men murdered in their homes and 30 men were arrested and held in the small municipal jail, just down the street from the Mennonite Centre.  On February 18, 1918 the summary executions started.  The first to be dragged out of the cell was the young man accused of shooting their maid.  He was placed up against a building in full site of the other 29 men and shot.  Five other men were also brought out one at a time and shot.  For some reason, the executions stopped at that point.  It may be that a more senior Bolshevik officer appeared on the scene and ordered an end to the executions.  The surviving 24 men were eventually released, but as Nicholas notes in the book, the town was in shock.
 Mennonite Municipal Building

On March 3, 1918, Germany and Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty which took Russia out of World War I.  Among the many conditions Russia had to accept was the fact that Ukraine would be recognized as a separate country and that Germany had the right to occupy it for 15 years.  This news only reached Halbstadt gradually.  The Bolshevik army continued to occupy the town and cause trouble.  Sometimes the trains would stop and Bolshevik troops would come into town 
“requisitioning” food for themselves. By mid-April, people in Halbstadt heard that the German army was in Melitopol, about 45 miles to the south. It was hoped that they would come to Halbstadt and restore some order to the place.  There was just no way of contacting and inviting the German army to come to Halbstadt as all means of conveyance had been stolen.

By early April it was apparent to the locals that something was changing as the Bolshevik’s looked increasingly agitated.  They were starting to withdraw their armies.  On some days the local people counted close to 30 trains passing through Halbstadt loaded with Bolshevik soldiers and supplies.

To everyone’s surprise in Halbstadt, there was suddenly a red car on the road.  It was driven by Willy and Jasch (Jacob) Suderman of the Opel Sudermans.  Their property had been thoroughly searched by the Bolsheviks but the Sudermans had succeeded in hiding a car.  They had simply built a haystack around it. This must have been behind their garage, right across from the present day Mennonite Centre.  Willy and Jasch managed to make contact with the German army and a train carrying German troops arrived in Halbstadt on April 18, 1918 shortly after 4:30 PM.  Willy and Jasch were the heroes of the town as some sense of stability was finally restored.  The surrounding population however noted the collaboration with the German army and bided their time.
Current View Site of Opel Garage

Typical Haystack Today

With the signing in the west of the Armistice agreement on November 11, 1918, the Russian government abrogated the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and moved to reoccupy Ukraine.  Germany decided not to make an issue of it and withdrew its troops.  The Civil War erupted in full battle with Halbstadt being variously occupied by opposing White and Red (Bolshevik) armies.  During one of the times that the Red army was in control, Willy Suderman was arrested and sentenced to be executed.  Willy was married with a family.  There were some quick and anxious negotiations and it was agreed that Willy’s younger unmarried brother (name not given in the book) would take his place.  The younger brother was shot.

I am left looking at my imaginary haystack and wondering what survivor guilt was carried by Willy Suderman.  I also wonder about the man I met in 1998 at the Suderman reunion and if he was a descendant of Willy Suderman.  History is so different when you know the story.

Maybe this story can help explain why we are connected to the work of the Mennonite Centre.  It is part of our own reconciliation process.  Mary and I have come to love the people that are here. They are still hurting from the events that occurred 100 years ago and we are glad to help.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 30 September 2017


Yes we are back at the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk Ukraine.  Mary and I arrived here on Monday September 25.   Our flights were all on time and thankfully uneventful.

During the last leg of our flight from Vienna to Dnepropetrovsk, I found myself intrigued with a group of my fellow travellers.  I approached them as we were disembarking and commented that they looked like a bunch of Mennonites from Canada.  This really startled one of the women and she asked, “How did you recognize us”.  I never answered her question but I thought about it later on.  My first clue was her husband’s cap, which was advertising a certain type of chicken feed in English.  After that I guess it was their demeanour.  The last clue was realizing that the only people flying into Dnepropetrovsk besides Ukrainians returning home and European business people, were Mennonites curious about their ancestral homeland.  The couple I spoke to were from Abbotsford, British Columbia and the group was on a church mission trip.  They knew all about the work of the Mennonite Centre.  They had been there at the opening in 2001.

Our manager, Oksana was at the airport to greet us.  She has become a good friend and we always look forward to seeing her.  She updated us on changes since our last visit.  Ukraine has made another small move in aligning itself with the West.  The traffic laws have changed regarding how to enter traffic circles.  The previous law was that vehicles entering the circle had right of way with some exceptions. The new law is that vehicle already in the circle have right of way with no exceptions. This is consistent with driving rules in the West and will reduce confusion with drivers coming into Ukraine from Western Europe.  Drivers from Russia on the other hand will be confused as this is not consistent with their driving practise.  Ukraine has made another small step in aligning itself with Western Europe.

We spent Wednesday morning planning our time at the Mennonite Centre.  There were 12 items on our list.  These included meetings we wanted to have, presentations we are committed to make, people we wanted to connect with, and places we wanted to visit.  Our experience has been that it is best if we attack our “to do” list with a sense of urgency in the beginning, then there is a better chance of getting it done.  Toward the end of our stay, local events always press in and distract us from our own agenda.  We look at this list every day and are happy with the progress in either initiating the task or completing our part of it.

One of the items on our “to do” list was to visit Tyma and Vika and see the business that they have established.  Tyma is from the neighbouring village of Kutuzovka (formerly called Petershagen) where he and his father had a small farm growing grapes and other crops.  Tyma’s first interaction with the Mennonite Centre was in receiving a scholarship to study agriculture at a university in Melitopol.  After a few years of putting this agricultural knowledge to use on his farm, Tyma and his partner Vika (short for Victoria) decided to branch out into the tourism business.  With the loss of their traditional vacation resorts in Crimea, Ukrainians are going to new places along the coast by the Sea of Azov.  Tyma decided to develop some land he owned along the coast, just south of Melitopol.  He built some vacation cabins and came to us last winter for a loan to build a small store to cater to tourists.  He built the store this summer, got it operational, and made his first loan repayment to us one year early.  He and Vika are hard workers. It is great to see this entrepreneurial spirit in young people.  It needs to be supported in Ukraine where too many people are waiting for somebody else to solve their problems.  The Mennonite Centre is committed to using these loan repayments in a sustainable way to encourage other entrepreneurs.
Tyma and Vika in their new Store

Tyma’s location on the coast is about 12 km east of the new border with Russia in Crimea.  The Sea of Azov is the shallowest sea in the world with an average depth of 14 metres (46 feet).  It reminds me a bit of Lake Winnipeg, which is also a shallow lake.  Because of the shallowness, storms can come up suddenly with very violent waves.
Mary Walking Along the Coast of the Sea of Azov

Mary always has her own outreach ministry.  She knew that one of our staff, whom we refer to as little Tanya, likes to knit.  The only affordable source of wool for Tanya is to buy old clothing and unravel it.  Mary received a large quantity of wool this last year and brought it from Canada for Tanya.  She was thrilled to get this gift.  The next day Tanya came to work with a gift for Mary.  It was a large bag of grapes from Tanya’s garden.  There were 4 varieties of grapes and they are beautiful to look at and delicious to eat.
Beautiful Grapes from Tanya

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: