Wednesday 30 October 2019

WEEK 6 A TERRIBLE TRAGEDY AND A SMALL ACT OF RECONCILIATION


On the night of October 26-27, 1919, eighty-three people were murdered in the Mennonite village of Eichenfeld (now called Novopetrovka), a small village located on the west bank of the Dnieper River between Zaporozhe and Dnipro.  Thirty-seven of these people were related to one of our board members, Anita Toews.  The atrocities were committed by the followers of Nestor Makhnov, a local anarchist who was active during the time of the Civil War.  When we realized that both Anita and Dave as well as Mary and I were going to be in Ukraine at that time, we knew we had to do something to honour the 100th anniversary of that event.

We had the option of making it a small private memorial service or we could try to involve the local community in the event.  While it is a lot more work to involve the local community, we thought it was worth the effort to do this as they are part of the story.  Three weeks ago, we drove out to the village and met with the manager of the local “House of Culture” (auditorium) as well as the local school principal.  This gave us a strategy for the venue, participation of locals in the program, and an agreement to advertise the event.  I asked Olga Rubel, our representative in Zaporozhe to be the Master of Ceremonies and she really took charge of the program and worked out all the details.

House of Culture in Eichenfeld

We left Molochansk early Saturday morning for the 3-hour drive to Eichenfeld (Novopetrovka).  We got there by 11:00 AM and got ready for the event which was to start at noon.  Several representatives from various Mennonite organizations came as well as about 70 towns people.  A local choir dressed in traditional Ukrainian attire started the program with several songs.  One of the songs was a mother’s lament for the loss of a loved one.  Two young girls from the local school sang solos.

Local Choir

In my address, I tried to give the historical context of what happened.  My full speech was as follows:

On the night of October 26-27, 1919, a terrible event happened here in Novopetrovka.  83 people died that night in this village.  What were the circumstances that lead to this tragedy?  There were two separate events that converged on this village that day.

In the summer of 1919, with the Civil War still raging in the countryside, the Red Army established control in this area.  The anarchist forces under Nestor Makhnov were pushed north and west from here to the city of Uman where they were encircled by the White Army.  On September 25-26, 1919, Makhnov counter attacked, broke through the encirclement and defeated the White Army.  Their narrow escape may have enraged and emboldened the Makhnov supporters. Within a week, the Makhnov forces had swept back south-east and were closing in on their traditional turf, the area once occupied by my Mennonite ancestors.  That is what brought the angry Makhnov forces to Novopetrovka on October 26, 1919.

The other event that is important is what I will call the tent mission.  At the end of the war, there were some young men and women who became concerned about the spiritual life of the people living in Ukraine and Russia.  These young people were predominantly from Mennonite families but there were others who came from an Orthodox tradition and even a convert from a Jewish tradition.  They received 5 tents from the Red Cross and started what they called a tent mission.  They would travel the country, holding meetings in their tents, and encouraging people to commit to a deeper Christian faith.  They had done this all summer and with winter coming, they decided to head south to their home base in Molochansk.   They conducted tent meetings along the way as they made their way south.  This is what brought the tent mission to Novopetrovka on October 26, 1919.

The details of that day are not clear.  It is known that the Makhnov forces disrupted the actual tent meeting.  The five leaders of the mission were soon killed, and a general slaughter began of the village population.  It was mainly the men who were killed but there are also some names of women on the list.  Many of the surviving women were sexually molested.  The next morning the village was in shock.  There were bodies lying in the street.  Some had been cut to pieces.  The surviving women and children walked around in a daze.  Over the next 5 days, the survivors and others from surrounding villages began to gather the bodies and bury them in 12 quickly dug graves.  The names of people in each grave was recorded.  There was no time or energy for other traditional preparations.  Traditionally in a Mennonite funeral there is a viewing of the body in the coffin.  That was not possible as there was no time to make coffins.

The memorial that stands in this village is in the shape of a coffin, representing the coffins that were missing from the funerals.  It is slightly tilted to enable the viewing of the body that the deceased should have had.

We come today to remember the names of those who died that day.  We would like to also acknowledge the terrible suffering of the Ukrainian population who lived in the villages surrounding Novopetrovka during this period.  We specifically would like to thank you, the people who now live in Novopetrovka.  We thank you for maintaining the memorial site.  We thank those in the community who continue to promote the values of faith and life that were the mainstay of so many Mennonites at that time.  We thank the local pastors and priests for encouraging the life and faith of those who have lived and died in this village.  Specifically, we would like to thank Lubov for her faithful work in this village in administering the emergency medical fund that is financed by the Mennonite Centre.  We, the Mennonite Centre, would like to continue our relationship with Novopetrovka.  You have been a blessing to the descendants of the people that died here 100 years ago, and we would like to be an ongoing blessing in your daily lives.

Alvin Speaking and Olga Translating

In her speech, Anita Toews was very poignant and personal as she related the event through her father’s eyes.  Her speech was as follows:

One hundred years ago today, my father - Henry Regehr - was 14 years old. He lived in a small village named Reinfeld not far from here. Johann Schellenberg and his wife Helena Pauls, my father's cousins also lived in Reinfeld, just a few houses away.

During the week before October 25, 1919, some missionaries came to these villages to preach God's word. On Friday, the missionaries arrived here to Novopetrovka. Johann Schellenberg also came here to meet the missionaries and to ask them to come to Reinfeld on Sunday.  He wanted to invite them to his house for a rest, a good meal and good conversation.  Today we know that they never went to Reinfeld. We know that terrible things happened to them before they could leave this place. But Helena his wife did not know what happened to her husband.  She knew he didn't come home on Saturday night. And then he didn't come home on Sunday.

Soon the family was hearing reports of murders going on in Novopetrovka. On Tuesday morning, Helena asked her son to see if he could find out what happened. So her son Johann took the wagon and went to look for his father. Here, in this village he came to the barn of Isaac Warkentin. When he went inside the barn, he found his father wearing only a shirt and underwear lying dead in the straw, covered with blood and dirt. His head had been cut from the back with a sword. Young Johann picked up his father's body and took it back to Reinfeld. When he arrived in Reinfeld with the wagon, my 14 year old father watched as the family washed the body, dressed him in his clothes and laid him straight in the wagon. The body of Johann Schellenburg was the only body removed from the village and given a proper burial.  The other 82 people were all quickly buried in 12 mass graves over the next 5 days without the dignity of a proper burial.

On that weekend of October 25 and 26 there were 83 people killed in Novopetrovka, 8 more in Dolinovka, 18 people in Morozovka, and 10 people in the German villages of Petersdorf and Paulheim.  Of those 119 who died on that weekend, I was related to 37. I mourn when I think of how they suffered and how they died. I know what my father saw when Johann Schellenberg's body was brought home in the wagon. And I know it was something he could never forget.

But I also remember how Helena Pauls said in her story, "God is merciful." And I remember how my father learned to believe that God is good. He never forgot the things that he had seen and heard, but he learned to forgive.

In 1923, when my father was 18, he left this country with his family. He lived to be an old man, but he never came back here.  It wasn't possible and he had too many memories. Maybe that is why I like to come here. It feels as if I am coming home, that these are my roots and this is where I belong.

Eighteen years ago, in 2001, I came to Novopetrovka with many members of my family for the dedication of this memorial.  I remember walking through the town that day to the holy ground near the monument. Many people in the village came out of their houses and walked with us down the middle of the street. I remember women with large bouquets of peonies joining us as we walked. I will never forget how grateful I was for all of you that were here that day and I felt your love.

We cannot change the things that happened 100 years ago. We can only honor those who died and remember the survivors who moved forward so we can live. There are thousands of people - in Canada, United States, Germany and Ukraine who know this story and were affected by it. I want to light a candle today in memory of all those who died and all those who lived. May their light shine and never be put out.


Anita Speaking and Olga Translating

The program concluded with several songs by the Rhapsody Choir from Tokmak.  They are a small choir that sing with a precision and beauty that is captivating.  Their final song was the Orthodox version of The Lord’s Prayer.   We all stood for that song.

Rhapsody Choir

At the end of the service in keeping with Orthodox tradition, my wife Mary handed out a memorial gift of food for people to take home and eat while remembering those who died.  In addition, people were encouraged to walk with us the half mile to the memorial marker.  We had expected very few to join us in this endeavour but almost everybody came.  I was in the vanguard to get the procession started and walked ahead with 4 young girls.  They giggled and practised their “hello’s” on me.  I enjoyed the walk with them, and they were the first to place their flowers on the memorial.



A local lady joined me, and I was told that she knew the exact location of the 12 graves.  I followed her through the cemetery and into a bush where she gave me more directions than I could follow without an interpreter.  

By the time I got back to the memorial site, the service had already started.  Two local men gave short talks.  One was Borys Letkeman who gave a devotional.  Another, Victor Penner talked about the Makhnov anarchists and lamented that no one had ever been brought to justice for this event.  We concluded the service with Anita Toews reading the names of the 83 people killed and I said a short prayer.


It was a beautiful touching service that we and the local people will long remember.

As a result of the memorial service, Anita Toews was asked to share her speech the next day at the New Hope Church in Zaporozhe.  Mary and I attended the local Greek Catholic service in Tokmak as we had promised the previous Sunday.  Leanne Barnovskaia, one of the members of the Rhapsody choir, also attends there.  She shared the story of our memorial service with the parishioners.  They were totally unaware of the story.  It was good to see their interest.

Anita Toews was at the event in 2001 when the Eichenfeld memorial was first erected.  She told us of that experience. The local people had been invited to participate at that time.  She noticed an elderly local man in his mid-eighties, who seemed to be eager to engage with the group.  He told Anita, that 82 years ago as a very young boy, he had visited the village with his mother right after the event.  The village was deserted as the survivors had fled after the massacre.  He and his mother had entered some of the houses and removed items which they brought home to use.  Over time these items had broken or been discarded.  The only item left was an old teacup.  He had brought it along as he wanted to restore it to the rightful owners in the best way he knew how.  He gave the old teacup to Anita.  It was a symbolic but significant step in reconciliation.

There were similar events in the village of Ebenfeld in the Borozenko settlement as well as in the Sagradovka settlement later in November of 2019 where many people in a village were killed. These were also acknowledged and remembered at our event. 

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/


Sunday 27 October 2019

WEEK 5 THE YOUNG AND THE OLD


The town of Molochansk has two schools – one teaches in Russian and the other in Ukrainian.  This week we visited the local Russian School.  The principal is Marina Romanova.  She has been a great friend and supporter of the Mennonite Centre and is the current chair of the Mennonite Centre board in Ukraine.

Marina wanted to show us the school, as well as the projects that the Mennonite Centre has supported in her building.  It was very educational.  Her school in Molochansk is the largest in the region.  There are 13 other schools in the region.  In the next few years there will be some consolidation of the schools as an “amalgamated” community is established in the area.  There will be more school buses and some outlying schools will be shut down.  There are currently 400 students at the school with 40 teachers on staff.  That is a student teacher ratio that would be the envy of all teachers in western schools.  The biggest change that is coming is that the Russian language will be phased out as the language of instruction and the Ukrainian language will become the dominant language in the school.  This will be a significant change in our area.  This change was coming anyway but has probably been hastened by the recent conflict with Russia.  Choice of language can be a very personal and emotional issue.  The conflict has changed the public mood to where this has become a more acceptable policy and the locals will proudly tell you this while speaking in Russian.

Class with Marina facing children

The school provides free meals to all children up to grade 4.  In addition, any child whose parent is in the army gets a free meal regardless of age.  Even children from people forcibly resettled from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 are still given a free meal.  The Mennonite Centre recently helped the school make major upgrades in the kitchen by paying for the installation of venting equipment and new cooking facilities.  Judging from the loud chatter, the students eating in the dining room seemed to enjoy their meals.

Kitchen with New Facilities


Last week we had a party for our staff.  This is something that Mary and I like to do to thank the staff for their contribution to the work of the Mennonite Centre.  Since this was around the time of our Canadian Thanksgiving, we decided to make it a thanksgiving meal.  Two years ago, we did this and served a turkey.  This time Mary decided to give our celebration a French-Canadian flavour and prepared tourtiere (meat pie).  It was a lot of work and Mary did question her sanity on occasion, but it was a great event and a beautiful evening with our “family” at the Mennonite Centre.

Mary's Tourtiere

Last Sunday we decided to visit another congregation.  We drove to Tokmak and walked into the new Greek Catholic church.  The priest, Father Taras, was very happy to see us and interrupted the service to give us a special welcome and arranged for us to have a place to sit.  Everybody else stood throughout the service.  The Mennonite Centre has always had a good relationship with Father Taras and his church.  What is unique about their new building is that they used the Flemish bond brick pattern in its construction. This pattern uses an arrangement of alternate bricks having their short sides and long sides facing outwards, with alternate rows being offset.  Mennonite used this on all their construction in Ukraine and it distinguishes their buildings from any built by the locals.  The use of this construction technique on the Greek Catholic Church is an outward sign of the bond between the Mennonite Centre and this local congregation.

Flemish Bond Pattern on Greek Catholic Church

New Sunday School Building on Left and Church on Right

Toward the end of the service, Father Taras asked us to come back next week and take part in a discussion on Mathew chapter 11. I was given some homework to provide an analysis of verse 11.  He promised us some food if we came back.  He specifically promised me some “salo”, which is a favourite of the locals.  It is a smoked lard that has not been rendered and is usually eaten on dark bread with a lot of onion greens. It is not my favourite, but we will go back anyway.

On Monday morning we were invited to participate in a meeting initiated by the Pastor of the local Mennonite Church.  The meeting included the organization Dorcas International, the Mennonite Centre, the local mayor, and the local pastor.  Dorcas International is an organization based in the Netherlands, that stands for peace and justice, and is trying to help people all over the world make the best of their situation.  The purpose of the meeting was to look at ways how all organizations present could make life better for seniors in Molochansk.  As usual, it was a learning opportunity for me.  Under Soviet times, the factory bosses had power that extended well beyond the role of running the factory.  They would intervene in the personal lives of the family and made major decisions.  These bosses would make decisions on which seniors should be institutionalized because the family could no longer care for them at home.  That authority no longer exists but many families are not used to accepting responsibility for these decisions.  This has left senior care in a vacuum.  These types of shifts in society are always difficult.  As usual, the meeting did not resolve the issue, but it has started the discussion.

On Saturday, October 26, 2019, we will be participating in a memorial service in the village now known as Novopetrovka.  In Mennonite times it was called Eichenfeld.  83 people died in the village exactly 100 years ago and we will be remembering them.  I hope to report on that memorial service in my next blog.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/


Sunday 20 October 2019

WEEK 4 VARIOUS AND SUNDRY


There was no single over-riding event in the last week and I will use the blog to comment on numerous smaller events that have occurred during our time at the Mennonite Centre.

On our first Sunday, we were walking home from church when we were warmly greeted by a lady and her young grand daughter. They had not come from our church but seemed to know us and wanted to stay something.  We finally figured it out.  Four years ago, Mary had given the young girl a small spinning toy when she encountered her in the town square.  The young girl had remembered Mary and just wanted to say thankyou.  That was our blessing for the day.

We had some friends from Canada visiting this week. They were Al and Linda McBurney.  Linda’s father, Victor Derksen, came from the village of Schoeneberg in the Chortitza settlement.  Of course, we had to visit the place.  It was a good reminder that tourists coming to find their ancestral homes can never bring too many clues.  Maps can help but it is difficult to orient a 100-year-old map to the current landmarks.  Linda’s father had come to visit 16 years ago and had a picture of himself with the resident of the house that Victor had left in 1943.  We were not sure of the location and stopped a babushka (grandmother) walking down the road and asked for help.  She could not orient herself to our map but instantly recognized the man in the picture and knew where he used to live.  The man has since died, but his daughter now owns the house and is in the process of renovating it for herself.  The daughter (Luba) received us warmly as she was fascinated with the picture of her father taken in 2003.  Linda was given the full tour of her father’s house.  The encounter ended with an exchange of gifts, a warm embrace, and the promise to stay connected.
Luba on left  looking at pictures of her father


Linda is a retired schoolteacher and we gave her a tour of the local daycare facilities (known here as a Kindergarten) as well as the local school. The principal took us into every classroom, and we could disrupt the class for a while.   Linda was impressed with the good behaviour of the students.  She found them to be very respectful.  For example, when we entered each classroom, all the students would stand. Having four foreigners and the principal entering a classroom may also have been a bit intimidating.  One girl in grade 9 spoke up in English and told me I had spoken to her when she was in grade 5.  She even remembered my name.  I have long since forgotten that conversation but felt honoured that she had remembered.
Linda on Left in a Classroom

Mary and I had the opportunity of voting this week in our upcoming federal election in Canada.  We had followed the prescribed procedure for voting by mail and were looking forward to our ballots being sent to the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk as the web site promised.  Last Tuesday, we got an email that the courier was unable to deliver our ballots as Molochansk is too far off the beaten track for courier service.  We drove to Zaporozhe on Thursday and found our ballots at the courier offices.  We had to write in the name of our candidate with no room to indicate which riding we live in.  We were told that the ballots would be delivered to Ottawa next Tuesday, October 22.  The process for mail in ballots required that they be in Ottawa on the date of the election, October 21.  Mary and I can console ourselves that we tried to do our civic duty of voting but have no idea if our efforts will count for anything.

After many years of tripping on the raised threshold of every doorway in Ukraine, I finally received an explanation on why they exist.  Crossing a threshold in Ukraine is a statement that you are entering a house or a room.  Without the raised threshold, there might be an ambiguity as to whether or not you really were in the house.  A traditional Ukrainian house had a threshold that was over one foot in height.  This was useful in keeping out water that is running over the ground and it was very clear when you were crossing the threshold.  Now the one or two-inch threshold is just an annoyance and makes it very difficult for people in wheelchairs to move about freely.  The only time it has been useful for us is when the washroom flooded, and the raised threshold kept the water from flooding the entire apartment.

There is increasing interest in Mennonite history from the people now living in the villages once occupied by our ancestors.  For example, the village of Waldheim (Vladovka) in the Molotschna settlement has a private museum dedicated to preserving items from Mennonite times.  The curator and owner of the museum asked me for a book.  He wants the P. M. Friesen book on the History of the Mennonite Brotherhood completed around 1910.  He wants the book in English as that is the preference stated by his wife.  The book is over 800 pages and is not the type that you would take to bed for some casual reading.  I have promised to get this book for him.  I am sure there are many unread copies of this book in Canada.

The museum in Waldheim contains numerous items from the Neufeld factory.  This factory founded by I.J. Neufeld in 1889 manufactured threshing machines. There are many tools from the factory as well an emblem which was the logo for the company.  Numerous paintings of the Neufeld family and buildings are also on display.  These have been created within the last 15 years.  It is worth the visit if you ever get to Waldheim.
Neufeld Factory Emblem

Painting of I.J. Neufeld

I was disappointed this week to find out that some old behaviours from the past still exist.  The police in Ukraine had a tradition of being corrupt.  Three years ago, there were large scale changes made in the police force.  Many police were dismissed, and a smaller number of better paid police were appointed.  Two years ago, I happened to break the law while driving and entered a round about in the wrong manner.  I was stopped and received a severe reprimand in Russian and was allowed to proceed. In the last year, I heard of someone else being stopped at the same location for the same infraction.  He was taken to a private room with no witnesses where he was given the ultimatum of paying a bribe or having his license revoked on the spot.  I attended the Ukraine Reform Conference last July in Toronto and heard about Ukraine’s efforts to impose the rule of law in the country.   I was disappointed to hear that the system is reverting to the old way.  Police still feel that in addition to policing, they are also the judge, jury, and executioner.  That is not the way the rule of law works.

On a more pleasant note, I experienced something beautiful last weekend in a Ukrainian restaurant.  It was not the food so much but rather the presentation.  I had ordered a Greek salad and it came with a beautiful mixture of sliced cucumbers, red onion, olives, red peppers and tomato, topped with a large cube of feta cheese which had been dipped in a mixture of light and dark sesame seeds.  It was a magnificent sculpture.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/


Sunday 13 October 2019

WEEK 3 PHYSIO THERAPY IN UKRAINE


On Tuesday morning we left Molochansk at 7:00 AM for the 2-hour drive to Zaporozhe.   We had been invited to attend a signing ceremony at the Zaporozhe Regional Oblast Hospital.  The signatories would be the Physio/Occupational Therapy Department of the hospital and the U.S. Association of International Development. It is important for us to know what other foreign organizations are assisting in Ukraine.  The meeting was very useful for us as we got an update on how our support is helping the hospital as well as learning more about how the health care system in Ukraine is functioning.

This was the first time that Mary and I got to meet Lesia.  She is a young enthusiastic physio therapist who sees it as her mission to introduce that discipline in Ukraine.  Lesia received her physio training in Winnipeg.  She even spent some time working on the burns and plastics ward at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre, where my wife Mary worked for 30 years.  Lesia described that ward as her hardest experience as she had to deal with burn patients.  Lesia came to Winnipeg with three others for training.  She was the only one to return to Ukraine while the others stayed on in Canada. 

Physio/Occupational therapy is a new part of the health care program being introduced in Ukraine.  At present, there are only three hospitals in the country that provide this service.  They are in L’viv, Kyiv, and Zaporozhe.    Most doctors do not recognize the role of physio/occupational therapy.  The standard belief is that surgery will fix the problem and once people are healed, they can go home and continue with their lives.  We were given the example of someone coming to the hospital with a club foot.  It seemed to us that we heard that they amputated the foot and sent the person home.  Another successful surgery as the person no longer had a club foot.  We may be wrong on what actually happened but we both independently recalled hearing that as part of the translated conversation.

The actual signing of the agreement was a non-event.  The doctor signing the document commented on the many lawyers that had been involved in drafting the multi-page agreement and then formally signed the document.  The agreement provided for financial support for Lesia and the promotion of the physio/occupational therapy program in Ukraine.  The Mennonite Centre has also supported this initiative.  We do not have the funds to provide ongoing support but have helped them acquire equipment and refurbish facilities.  They are well on their way to being accredited by a world organization.
Lesia on Left with Doctors

After the signing, we talked about general issues related to health care.  Ukraine is training many new nurses.  The problem is that Poland is actively recruiting the graduates and most leave Ukraine for better opportunities elsewhere.  They recognized the need to increase local salaries to keep people from leaving.  They talked about another issue which they described as a legacy from Soviet times.  The medical colleges are not connected to hospitals.  Medical graduates leave their place of learning with a knowledge of theoretical medicine.  After graduation they go to the hospitals where they learn what health care is really all about.  In the West, medical students spend a lot of time in hospitals making the rounds with doctors as part of their training.  Integrating medical training with real life practise is still new in Ukraine.

After our meeting we toured the facility and saw the room which the Mennonite Centre has furnished.  There is a large sign over the entrance acknowledging our contribution. 

The room has various equipment including a kitchen.  We provided all this to help train people to cope in their home environment.  An elderly man was at a table learning how to pick up an object and place it in a container.  He was recovering from a stroke.  When we talked to him later, he said that physio was “giving me back the joy of life”.  That was a meaningful thank you.
Physio Patient with Therapists in Foreground

After our meeting at the hospital we drove north to the village of Novopetrovka.  In Mennonite times this village was called Eichenfeld (field of oaks).  There was a terrific massacre here on the night of October 26, 1919 when 83 people were killed. We are planning on commemorating that event 100 years later.  Olga Rubel, our representative in Zaporozhe, has had preliminary discussions with the mayor.  We came to see the possible venue for the event and to meet the local school principal.  She is a colourful lady and promised to help publicize the event at the school and obtain some volunteer children to participate in our service.  The village has been good in looking after the memorial site and we want to talk about the event and thank them with a small “memorial gift”.  This gift is based on the Orthodox tradition of giving friends and neighbours of the deceased a memorial gift of food for them to eat and remember those who have died.
Eichenfeld Memorial

This week we had the opportunity to meet Anatoli.  I will admit that we generally know him as the “turkey man” as he used to raise turkeys on his property.  We always walk past his house when going to the Mennonite Centre.  He cannot speak a word of English, but he and his wife have always been very kind to the North American Directors.  Anatoli’s wife died over a year ago.  He is close to 90 in age and quite frail.  His eye site and hearing are both bad, but he recognized who we were after some loud shouting.  He has always been very fond of Mary.  He embraced her and started kissing her hand.  He knows his connection to Mennonites as his grandfather was a coachman for one of the prominent Mennonite families in Halbstadt before the revolution.  It is always a delight to see him.  He cried when he tried to talk about his wife.  He seems to have people looking after him.  All is right with the local world when one can connect with Anatoli.
Anatoli and Mary 

While Mary and I are still in Ukraine, we are busy planning our Winnipeg fund raising event.  It will be held on Saturday, November 16, 2019 at 7:00 PM at the Douglas Mennonite Church, 1517 Rothesay Ave.  The male Faith and Life Choir will be singing.  Please mark this event on your calendar and we hope to see you there.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/


Sunday 6 October 2019

WEEK 2 THE WEEK OF THE MAYORS


The Mennonite Centre has a history of working closely with local or municipal governments in Ukraine.  An investment by us at that level can benefit many people now living in the villages once occupied by our ancestors.  We have made it a practice to get to know the local authorities. This week we had the opportunity to dig a bit deeper and met with four mayors. 

Chris Goertzen, one of our board members, was visiting along with 5 members of his extended family.  Chris is the former mayor of Steinbach and under his leadership, Steinbach had signed a twinning agreement with the city of Zaporozhe.  The original Mennonite settlement of Chortitza in Ukraine is now part of Zaporozhe.  This gives both cities a common Mennonite heritage.  The City of Zaporozhe is about 30 times larger than Steinbach and ironically, the twinning arrangement appears to be more important to Zaporozhe than it is to Steinbach.  Chris’s presence was a great opportunity for the Mennonite Centre to get to know some mayors just a little bit better.

I had the opportunity to accompany Chris to a meeting with Valerii Edeliev, the deputy mayor of Zaporozhe.  Chris was here in an informal capacity as he is no longer the mayor.  There was a very friendly exchange of gifts, along with the obligatory handshake and photo op.  The talk centered around the famous 700-year-old oak tree growing in Chortitza which is remembered so fondly by many Mennonites.  An acorn from the tree in Chortitza was brought to Canada many years ago and is now growing at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Steinbach.
Chris Goertzen and Deputy Mayor of Zaporozhe

On Thursday, Chris and his family toured their ancestral village of Waldheim located in the Molotoschna settlement.  They were warmly greeted by the local mayor and had the opportunity of having a picnic lunch on their ancestral land.  The picnic, arranged by my wife Mary and Oksana our manager, consisted of fleisch perischkie (meat buns), fresh vegetables, and arbuse (watermelon).  The family enjoyed the local foods and reminisced about their ancestors.

Chris spent 2 nights at the Mennonite Centre.  On Friday morning we visited the local mayor of Molochansk (Halbstadt).  He was obviously pleased to have a mayor from a Canadian city in his office.  I learned a lot about the issues in Molochansk.  The biggest issue for the mayor is that 80% of his budget goes to support 2 day-care facilities in town.  He only has the equivalent of $50,000 Cdn to pay for all other staff salaries as well as roads and general maintenance for an area with over 5000 people.  Now I know why the roads are in such disrepair.  There are so many exclusions to the paying of property tax, that only four properties in Molochansk are liable for this tax.    The property tax ironically is not paid by the homeowner, but rather by the employer of the homeowner. 
Chris Goertzen and Mayor of Halbstadt

On Friday afternoon we drove to Svetlodolinskoya (Lichtenau) to meet another mayor.  We had another lengthy and interesting discussion.  The issues were a bit different than Molochansk.  Here a higher level of government is responsible for daycare and the mayor had a budget of $75,000 Cdn for a population of 2000.  However, there are other problems.  The higher level of government had just run out of funds to pay the local daycare workers and there was pressure on the mayor to step in and cover these costs.  That is unlikely to happen.  The most likely resolution will be for the daycare workers to continue working at no pay in the hope that their salaries will again be paid at some time in the future.  This has obviously happened before.  When I asked for a photo op, the mayor responded by giving Chris a hug rather than the formal handshake in the photo.  He had enjoyed the conversation.  For me this was a special event.  My great-grandfather had been the mayor of Lichtenau in the 1870's and he built the house that is now used as the mayor's office.
Mayor of Lichtenau, Chris Goertzen and  my great-grandfather's house in background

There is an initiative in Ukraine to amalgamate local authorities into larger areas.  These are given a larger budget but also take on added responsibility for their areas.  On Saturday we met with Denys Korotenko, the mayor of one of these new amalgamated communities called Shiroke.  He lives in the northern area of the Chortitza settlement including the Mennonite village of Neuendorf.  While the other mayors are resisting the drive to amalgamate, Denys has embraced it. He has made some progressive moves including reducing redundant staff and utilizing the savings to fund more urgent programs.  For example, he has replaced all night watchmen in the schools with automated remote monitoring.  It has taken a toll on Denys, but he is young and determined to make his area a place that people want to move to.  The Mennonite Centre will continue to support him.
Mayor of Shiroke and Chris Goertzen

There were some stresses this week.  On Wednesday I was driving our vehicle toward our apartment.  A motorcycle came out of a side street without stopping and hit the van in the front fender.  By the time I stopped and ran around the vehicle, the driver was lying on the road, holding his knee and groaning in pain.  Suddenly the pain seemed to stop, he jumped up, picked up his motorcycle and drove off. He knew he was at fault and thought it best to leave the scene as quickly as possible.  I was in shock and did not even get the plate number.  Our vehicle had a slight dent in the fender and the front bumper was totally dislodged.  An inebriated pedestrian stopped to offer some kind advice in Russian.  Of course we called Oksana and she came to console us and deal with the mess.  A passing trucker helped her put the bumper back on temporarily.  In the morning she took the vehicle to a local garage where an accommodating mechanic gave her priority service and spent an hour re-attaching the bumper.  He refused to accept any payment, saying he was doing it for Canada.  Our country is viewed very favourably in Ukraine. 

Friday morning we were having breakfast in our apartment with Chris Goertzen.  There was loud pounding on our door and Mary went to answer.  An aggressive lady came rushing in and pointed at our washroom.  A pipe in the washroom had burst and was flooding her apartment below.  It took me a few minutes to find and activate the shut-off valve. My clothes got soaked and the washroom floor was flooded.  Chris just took off his shoes and socks and went to work with Mary to get rid of the standing water, while I changed my clothes.  I believe they managed to limit the damage in the apartment below us.

Mary and I are looking forward to an uneventful week where we can focus on our work.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/


Saturday 28 September 2019

WEEK 1 START OF OUR EIGHTH TERM

Every time we leave Ukraine, I silently ask myself - do you think you will be back here again? I know that we want to come back because Mary and I have fallen in love with the people.  Consequently, I am always pleasantly surprised when health and circumstances have allowed us to return.  Yes, Mary and I are back for our eighth term as North American Directors at the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. 

Our overseas flight went well for us but there were 2 medical emergencies on board which distracted the staff considerably.  What was memorable aboard the Brussels Air flight was that they liberally plied us with drinks and coffee and then went and locked the washroom doors for over an hour because of some slight turbulence.  We landed in Kyiv on time, were met by Denys, the husband of our manager, who took us to our hotel for a long rest. The next morning Oksana, our manager, and Denys joined us for breakfast at a restaurant.  While we were eating, Oksana was approached by a tall elderly man with a large backpack.  He explained that he had just arrived in Kyiv from the war zone in the east and had not eaten for a while.  Could she get him some food?  Oksana has a toughness about her that lets her say no quite quickly.  There was something about his demeanour that made her look at me, and I nodded yes.  As Oksana was getting the food at the counter, another patron approached her and gave her some money to contribute toward the cost of the meal.  It was our first cost-shared project and reminded us that Ukraine is still at war.

We started our trip in Kyiv because we had arranged a meeting at the Canadian Embassy.  Ben and Lil Stobbe are just completing their term in Ukraine and joined us for the meeting.  Events in Ukraine are changing fast and we wanted to be current on where the government is going with its reforms.  In July, Ukraine held parliamentary elections and for the first time in its history, the winning party got a majority of the seats.  The current government is their first ever that is not a coalition.  Since the July election, they have used their majority to pass over 200 new laws.  The problem is that they have no idea of the costs of these new laws or have done no analysis to understand what implications these laws will have on the country.  The Canadian Embassy is taking a wait and see attitude.  We will also wait and see but we know that reforms are coming in many areas where we are involved such as education, health care, and local government.

We took the train from Kyiv to Zaporozhe with Oksana. I always enjoy seeing the Ukrainian countryside.  At one point I saw a beautiful white swan on a small stream.  We were in the part of Ukraine that suffered terrible starvation during the Holodomor.  All birds including the swans would have been hunted to provide food.  Many species of birds are just starting to recover from those terrible times.

The Mennonite Centre was invited to participate in the 30th anniversary of the work of Otto and Florence Driedger.  Please read Ben Stobbe’s blog at: http://benstobbe.blogspot.com/ for a description of their work.  I was asked to make a short presentation on Mennonite history and the Mennonite connection to Ukraine.  A young lady was my translator and I sensed that she was struggling to find the right words.  I wonder what was lost or added in her translation.  Subsequent speakers talked about their work in researching the Mennonite history of their own area.  It was great to see their enthusiasm for the subject.  It was both fascinating and difficult for me to reconcile my understanding of my history with the facts as they perceived them.  One of them even tried to pronounce the word “Plattdeutsch” (low German).  This was translated as “down German”. 

I met Max Shatzky at this event.  This is a young man who has been very active in uncovering Mennonite tombstones in the Chortitza area that had been used as the foundation for a building during Soviet times.  He was happy to receive some books on Mennonite history that I had been asked to bring to him.
Max and Alvin

On Friday we drove to Waldheim.  We met the current mayor.  She is very warm lady who made us feel at home in her office.  We were offered some tea and were glad to accept the offer.  When the tea arrived, it had miraculously turned into some very strong coffee.  Ben was delighted and I was somewhat dismayed.  Flexibility in adapting to changing circumstances is the norm in Ukraine.  We discussed issues of operating a local government that is experiencing a declining population.  For example, they see the need to transport children to larger schools, but the local roads are so poor that this is impossible.

As we were leaving her office, she gave us each a gift prepared by the local children.  She then turned to me and said, “You have a very lovely wife”.  She was struck by Mary’s warm and welcoming smile.  I am generally recognized as a foreigner, but the locals see Mary as being one of them.  They are drawn to her.  We have each been able to find a way of being accepted.
Oksana, Mary, Mayor of Waldheim, and Office staff

Mary and I feel that we are back home.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/