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:

Monday, 31 October 2016


This has been a varied week at the Mennonite Centre and I would like to touch on a number of situations that we encountered.  It is also a wrap up for our trip as we leave for home this coming Friday.

Last Tuesday we were invited to the home of Anatoli and Raisa for afternoon tea.  They are an elderly couple that have warmly welcomed all North American directors to Molochansk.   Anatoli and Raisa are an interesting anomaly.  They know all the programs we have at the Mennonite Centre (free doctors’ visits, eye glasses, seniors’ lunches and individual assistance) but have never come over to use any of them.  When we pass their house on the way to the Mennonite Centre, Anatoli would often present Mary with flowers from his garden and then kiss her hand.  He is a charmer and knows it.

Mary and Anatoli back in Spring of 2014

Anatoli was born in Molochansk in December 1927.  My mother was still living there when he was born and I feel like we are almost related.  I love asking him questions about history.  He is very hard of hearing and one is never sure what question he is answering.  The good part is that every time I ask the same question, he goes off on a different tangent and so I can glean some new information.  I know that his grandfather was a coachman for a wealthy Mennonite family (Franz and Schroeder) in Halbstadt before the revolution.  Anatoli is very proud of this fact.  He was too young to be involved in active combat during the war but remembers the terrible destruction experienced by Halbstadt in 1943 as the German army was being pushed west.  He also remembers the famine that swept the area in 1947 as a result of the disruption caused by the war.  As a young teenager he remembers running through the tunnel connecting the Mennonite Credit Union to the Boys’ School (Central Schule).  He described the tunnel as being 4-5 feet wide with brick walls and an arched brick ceiling.

Alvin, Anatoli, Raisa, and Mary

We had been invited for tea, but Raisa had made a batch of cottage cheese varenecki.  She insisted that we eat all of them before we were allowed to leave.  They were delicious.

Oksana and Mary with Dish of Varenecki

This week we also visited the home of Victor Goncharov in Tokak.  He came to us several weeks ago because he needed assistance paying for hip surgery.  When I first saw him, I judged him to be several years older than I imagine I look.  In fact he is 10 years younger.  Life has been hard.  He used to have his own taxi service but can no longer work because of the pain in his hip.  The doctors have told him that the locally made artificial hips will not fit him and he needs an expensive American made hip.  The total cost of the hip and the surgery is $5000 Cdn ($4000 US). Victor has had a life-long passion for raising fancy pigeons.  At one time he could have sold some of the pigeons and raised the money, but the market in Ukraine has collapsed and he does not have the connections or ability to sell into foreign markets.  His last question for me was, “Is there hope of getting some help from the Mennonite Centre?”  We cannot provide all of the help for his surgery, but if you wish to assist Victor, please go to: and make a donation.

Victor at the Mennonite Centre

Victor's Prized Pigeons

Victor and his Trophies for Pigeons

We have all heard the expression, when in Rome do as the Romans do.  Last Sunday Mary and I decided to apply this locally and said, “When in Ukraine let’s go worship in a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church”.  We did not warn them we were coming and hoped that we would not make some inappropriate mistake that would disrupt their worship service.  We had met their priest, Father Taras, at our event at the Mennonite Centre on October 12.  He had previously given us a tour of their new church the congregation had built in Tokmak and where the Mennonite Centre had provided some assistance in paying for the doors.  Father Taras was delighted to see us and gave a public welcome to the people in the congregation from Canada.  It is interesting to judge a worship service when you cannot understand a single word being said.  There are many ways of judging a service.  One way is to judge it by looking at how engaged the worshippers are in the actual service.  I thought they were all engaged.  There was not a single person looking down at the cell phone to check on messages.  We see this frequently in the local Mennonite church where young people spend a lot of time on their phones as the minister goes on with his hour long sermon. 

Father Taras in Front of Door for Confessional

The service in the Greek Orthodox Church lasted for 90 minutes.  We had to stand most of the time.  This is definitely not something that we are used to.  At the end we were presented with the gift of a small doll made by local children.  These are traditionally presented to soldiers being called up to serve or for visiting dignitaries.  We were given a very warm invitation to come back again.

Special Gift

The Mennonite Centre provides free lunches to the seniors in our town 3 times a week.  This meal is prepared by our staff under the directions of Ira, our cook.  We don’t usually have a program or speaker for the group, so last Friday we were surprised to hear Ira reading something to the assembled seniors.  Oksana, our manager, explained to us that Ira sometimes does this to mark someone’s birthday or some other special event.  She was reading a poem to the assembled.  After she finished reading, she looked at one lady and asked her to prepare a poem to be read at the next gathering.  This lady was surprised by the request and asked why she had to do this.  Ira told her that it would be a good lesson as she could then experience the frustration of reading to the assembled while someone in the group was talking and not paying attention.  Thus endeth another blunt lesson in Ukraine.

Ira and Staff Preparing Seniors Lunch

Mary Serving Seniors Lunch

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:

Monday, 24 October 2016


This week we had the opportunity of exploring one of the local myths about Molochansk (called Halbstadt in Mennonite times).
Molochansk Sports School formerly the Mennonite Credit Union Building

It all started off innocently enough.  We were off to the Molochansk Sports School to look at some completed projects and to talk to them about their requests for assistance.  We have been a faithful sponsor, enabling many of their athletes to attend major sporting events.  Even though they have a relatively equal number of boys and girls in their program, the requests have often favoured the boys.  We wanted to encourage them to give equal opportunity for girls to attend major sporting competitions.  In the process we got to see the steps we had paid to repair as well as an energetic workout by their gymnastics class.  In this class I recognized the daughter of Tanya, one of our employees.  After many years of working for us, Tanya reluctantly acknowledged that she had a Mennonite grandmother with the surname of Peters. 
Top Steps Showing Repair with Ben and Lil in Background
Gym Class with Tanya's Daughter in Front

The Molochansk Sports School is located in a former Mennonite building – namely the Mennonite Credit Union.  The rumours of tunnels always focus on this building and we took advantage of our visit to ask if we could examine the basement to see if there was any sign of tunnels.  The staff was quite obliging and went to get the keys for the basement doors.  We toured every room in the dark basement and heard many stories from the staff.

The main rumour in town was that there was a tunnel from the Heinrich Willms mansion all the way to the credit union building and then on to his flour mill located in what we now call Alt-Halbstadt (Old –Halbstadt).  This seems like a long distance and needs to be illustrated by a map.
Map of Halbstadt in Mennonite Times
The points of interest on the map are:
1.      The Franz and Schroeder machine factory.  This is now the location of a major furniture factory.
2.      The Heinrich Willms mansion.
3.      The Mennonite Girls’ School – now the site of the Mennonite Centre.
4.      The Mennonite Credit Union building – now the Molochansk Sports School.
5.      The approximate site of the seven story flour mill owned by Heinrich Willms.  It has subsequently been used as a milk canning factory.
6.      The site of a former Mennonite House where we went underground to examine some tunnels.

The map was not drawn to scale and distances can be deceptive.  After our tour I decided to get some “accurate” measurements.  I got out the Mennonite Centre van and drove to a location between the Willms Mansion and the old Franz and Schroeder factory.  I set my trip odometer and started driving in as straight a line as I could on the pot-holed roads.  When I got to the Credit Union, I had driven a distance of .8 kilometers (.5 miles).  I kept going and reached the old flour mill at a total distance of 1.9 kilometers (1.18 miles).  That is a long tunnel.

The story from the staff at the Sports School was that many tunnels converged on the Credit Union Building.  There definitely was one that came from the former Mennonite Boys’ School (Central Schule) across the street.  It was big enough to hold a carriage.  The staff told us of an incident in 1982 or 1983 when some young boys decided to explore these tunnels.  The tunnels had already been filled with sand but the boys found a way of digging through the sand.  One boy got lost and was not found for a number of hours.  After that, the local authorities decided to get rid of the potential problem.  The tunnel entrances in the Sports School were sealed with a brick wall.
Ben Standing in Front of Sealed Wall
Sealed Wall that has been Broken with Sand in Behind
The Sports School staff told us of another tunnel entrance that was built as part of a Mennonite house.  It had its own unique gate and entrance.  It was common for Mennonite homes to mark their entrance into their yard with large pillars or even a brick gate.  A large ornate gate gave some indication of the wealth of the individual residing at that residence.  This residence had an old brick gate just marking the entrance to the tunnel.
Gate Marking Entrance to Tunnel
Everybody seems to know everybody else in Molochansk and our guide ran off to get the lady of the house to come and unlock the gate.  She soon appeared with her key but the old large padlock would not budge.  This was not seen as a problem as they summed a man from another residence who came with a large set of pliers.  He gave the rusty old lock a couple of whacks and soon the key did its job and the gate was open.  We stood there at the top of the stairs wondering who among us would be stupid enough to venture down into this crumbling infrastructure.
View of Tunnel from the Entrance

I guess I assumed that I was the most expendable and was the first to venture down the staircase.  I looked back and could see that others were also tempted.  Everyone else in our group soon followed.  Nobody wanted to miss this unique opportunity. 
View of Entrance from Inside Tunnel
The stairway led to large chambers that were totally underground.  They were completely lined with brick - even the ceiling.  One room had a sort of chimney that the local person referred to as an elevator.  One could use that chimney to directly raise or lower goods into the chambers.  It was a large underground storage facility.  We did not explore every room and I cannot say with certainty that this did not lead to other tunnels but suspect it did not.  What amazed me was the expense the owner had gone to in creating this underground storage space.  The large rooms were dry with no sign of flooding.  It was an amazing discovery.
Small Entrances to Other Underground Rooms
Massive Underground Storage Facility

What was most amazing about our exploration that day was the cooperation of the local people in Molochansk.  When the Mennonite Centre opened 15 years ago, we were met with suspicion and some hostility.  Now we are openly welcomed and people accommodate us as best they can.  The lady who owns the former Mennonite house on the property we were exploring was very open.  She claimed to have documents on the house going back to 1905.  I asked to see these and hoped it would give some clue as to who had lived there.  At one time this request would have been met with the suspicion that we were trying to reclaim the house.  Now she just went and got her papers.  Unfortunately she could not find any papers going to Mennonite times in her file but promised to come see me if she did.
Ben, Lil, and Oksana with Vera (second from right) the Owner of the Underground Storage
On our walk home from this discovery, we met Vitally, our former maintenance man.  We told him of our exciting adventure and he started sharing his own stories of tunnels.  He told us of two former Mennonite homes which had stood right bedside the Mennonite Centre but have now been demolished and replaced by a large apartment building.  These homes had been connected by an underground tunnel.  He also told us of a tunnel connecting the Willms mansion and the former Franz and Schroeder factory.  He claimed to have walked this tunnel himself.

Is there a tunnel running from the Willms mansion all the way to his floor mill 1.9 kilometers away?  I still do not know for sure but am starting to believe it could be possible.  I would love to examine the town with ground penetrating radar (or whatever it should be called) and see what we can find.  I would love to understand why our Mennonite ancestors made this large investment in underground structures.  Was this also done elsewhere in Ukraine?  There are many questions still to be answered. The underground existence of our Mennonite forefathers needs to be brought to light.

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:

Monday, 17 October 2016


What a week.  After months of planning from Canada and close to 3 weeks of detailed preparations in Molochansk, we were ready for the Ambassador, Senators, Faith and Life choir and guests for our anniversary at the Mennonite Centre.  Over 60 people came from Canada.  Our beautiful Mennonite Centre, clothed in its fall colours was ready to celebrate its 15th birthday.
The week actually had a number of events.  It started off Monday evening with a surprise “after wedding” party for Ben and Lil Stobbe.  They were married in June and this was their first trip together to Molochansk.  We really did surprise them.  The evening started off with a welcoming dance from the children of the Kindergarten next door.  They were dressed like elegant ladies and gentlemen and danced beautifully.  This was followed by a meal prepared by Ira, our cook, and finished with an informal program which included singing by the Rhapsody choir.  This is a small choir from Tokmak.  That evening there were four Rhapsody singers – one male and three female voices.  They sang some fun songs such as the song “Lollipop”, as well as a number of Ukrainian folk songs.  Their clarity, precision, and eloquent expression made each song a delight.

Ben and Lil surrounded by friends at their party

The Faith and Life choir started their tour of the Molotschna settlement on Tuesday.  They started with a brief stop at the Mennonite Centre.  Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty were touring with the choir that day.  They left the bus for a few hours so I could take them to Lindenau, one of Senator Plett’s ancestral villages. We walked through the trees behind the village looking for the cemetery.  We finally located this and after much diligent searching found some old unmarked gravestones outside the fence marking the boundary of the cemetery.  The stone markers were from Mennonite times.  We then drove to the village of Tiege to rejoin the choir who had just completed a concert in the former Mennonite school for children who were challenged with hearing related problems.
Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty at Lindenau cemetery

Wednesday, our big day of the week, started with a problem.  There was no water pressure in our apartment building and I had to go all day in my dress shirt and tie but without having a shower or shave. 
The first people to arrive were four men in a van.  They were from Ukraine’s National Security Service.  We knew that they had been alerted to the event.  We assume it was the Mayor of Molochansk who alerted them and was concerned that nothing should happen to the dignitaries in his town.  Mary saw them drinking from a small container that is usually not used to hold water.  This was quickly hidden when they realized that they had been observed.  Nevertheless, their sober work was successful as nothing untoward happened to the Ambassador or Senators.

Our invited guests started arriving at 11:00 AM.  Our staff had worked hard to get ready.  We had invited 82 people to our banquet.  The staff had wisely set places for 94.  Ninety people showed up and were seated for our noon meal.  The Mennonite Centre is located in a former Mennonite girls’ school.  No room was big enough to seat 90 people and we were actually spread over 3 rooms in the building.  Ben Pauls and Henry Engbrecht, the conductors of the Faith and Life choir, coordinated their conducting and all three rooms simultaneously blessed the meal with the vibrant harmony of the Doxology.  The meal started off with borscht, like our mothers’ used to make.  The serving staff then brought the main course of kutletten (this is a Russian word but was generally used by Mennonites to describe an oblong meatball), mashed potatoes, and coleslaw.
Ambassador Waschuk in centre with Senator Peter Harder on his left

Five local clergy had been invited to this event.  Right after the meal, these five people were seen having an intense friendly discussion outside.  There was an Orthodox priest with his long gown and tall hat, two Ukrainian Catholic priests in their long gowns, a pastor from an evangelical church in Melitopol in his suit and clerical collar, and the pastor of the local Mennonite church in casual street clothes.  The image of these five people talking together was so strong that it drew everyone out of the building to watch and even join the group.   Even the Ambassador joined in the discussions.  With everyone outside, we were able to start our meeting 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
Local Clergy at the Mennonite Centre

Attendees joining the discussion with the clergy

We had always planned for the event to be held outside in front of the Mennonite Centre.  The image of having the Faith and Life choir singing in front of our building was an opportunity I did not want to miss.  The day had started out cool with some sun.  Unfortunately it got colder in the afternoon.  The meeting started with a welcome from the Ambassador, followed by the choir.  Each of the Mennonite groups was given 5-7 minutes to make their presentation.  There must be an inflationary factor to time in Ukraine as most speakers exceeded their allotted time while the attendees sat shivering in their seats.  By half time, we all went inside for coffee and “blinchkies” (Ira’s famous crepes stuffed with cottage cheese filling and topped with a special sauce). Nobody wanted to risk sitting outside again.  We finished the event inside with people listening from all three rooms as the choir sang in the entrance hallway.
Ambassador addressing the meeting with choir in background
Staff assembling the blinchkies
An elderly lady joined our program when we were outside and desperately wanted to talk to me.  She lives across the street in the former Suderman house – which at one time was the local Opel dealership.  She had something she wanted to present to the Ambassador.  It was something that she had made.  Her story was that at one time, some Mennonites had helped her with food and saved her from starvation.  She wanted the Ambassador to hear this but left before we could make the actual presentation.  Her story was so compelling that we had to go visit her after our event and get her picture.  Her name is Anastasia and she is 80 years old.  She lives by herself.  She had a request.  She feels she does not have long to live and wondered if the Mennonite Centre would assist financially in giving her a proper burial.  We assured her that we would do something to help.

Oksana, Alvin, Anastasia, and Mary
Ambassador with gift from Anastasia

Our afternoon program concluded with remarks from Senator Don Plett and Senator Peter Harder.  They both had an opportunity to connect with their own roots and expressed appreciation for the ongoing work of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine.  After the program, Senator Plett told me that he and Senator Harder had both agreed to make a statement on Wednesday October 19, 2016 in the Senate chambers noting the contribution of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine.  These statements will become part of the permanent record of the Senate.

The meeting with the Ambassador and Senators will have many positive aspects for Mennonite organizations operating in Ukraine.  For example, the ambassador talked to Dr. Art Friesen at length about our initiative for tele-medicine.  He immediately put Art in contact with the Minister of Health in Kyiv and Art spent the afternoon talking to her about the issues.  The Minister of Health in Ukraine is aware of the shortcomings in the delivery of health care and was impressed that the Mennonite Centre had actually bought some equipment and tested this approach.  Everyone else in Ukraine was just talking about it.  There are still many challenges in introducing tele-medicine in Ukraine.  In the past we dealt with the Chief Doctor in Molochansk.  Now we have an opening for ongoing discussions with the minister in Kyiv.

For the evening we had invited the whole town of Molochansk to come celebrate our 15th Anniversary.  We were prepared for 500 people and I worried that because of the cool weather, nobody would show up.  I should not have worried as Ukrainians love a good party.  We had a great turn-out.  The event was held in the town square, in front of the former Mennonite boys’ school.  There were Ukrainian dance groups, our own Faith and Life choir, and other local performers.  The Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, addressed the town in Ukrainian.  This was followed by birthday cake and “goodie bags” for everyone.  The evening concluded with a “fire show” as fireworks are currently illegal.  The sound of explosions causes fears in a society that is living too close to the war zone.
Birthday Cake being distributed
Fire Show
On Thursday, October 13, the Faith and Life choir continued their tour of the Molotschna settlement with an important concert in the former Mennonite church in Schoensee.  This is now a Ukrainian Catholic church and they have done a beautiful job of restoring it.  Their priest, Father Peter, had requested that a Mennonite choir come and sing “Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”.  In English it is “Holy God We praise Thy Name”.  Ambassador Waschuk and Senators Harder and Plett all came to this important concert.  Father Peter had invited his parishioners and everyone in the village who could get off work was there.  The program started with the Faith and Life choir singing.  After a few songs, Aaron Redekop, travelling with the choir, came forward and made a special presentation to Father Peter.  Aaron’s grandfather had attended that church and this was a special occasion for him.  After the presentation, the choir started singing ‘Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”.  As they did, Father Peter rose and motioned to a priest beside him to also rise.  We all followed his lead and stood there with tears in our eyes as the sound of this magnificent song filled the building.  This was the first time in almost 100 years that Mennonite choral music had been performed in this place.  One of the choir members later told me that he had trouble singing because of his emotions.  The experience of standing for the song reminded me of the practise of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus.  Hearing this majestic hymn, which is such a favourite among Mennonite audiences, performed while the choir was surrounded by Ukrainian ikons and symbols was a unique experience.  Mary and I will never forget the concert in Schoensee.
Presentation by Aaron Redekop to Father Peter
Senator Don Plett handing out Canadian flags to local parishoners
Schoensee Church with Choir

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: