Friday, 13 May 2011


Early in our stay in Molochansk we encountered a very friendly elderly lady on her way into the Mennonite Centre.  She recognized that we were the new North American Directors and greeted us with a smile and the phrase “Guten Tag (Good day in German)”.  We stopped to talk but found out her German was even more limited than ours.  In answer to my question, she told me that she had learned German during the 2 years (1943-45) that she had “worked” in Germany.  From my own knowledge of history, she most likely was part of the forced labour that was brought to Germany to keep the war machine going.  Her circumstances in those years most likely were not pleasant.  However she had such a friendly manner that one could not help but feel that she had come to terms with her past and forgiven the wrongs that happened to her.

 The May 8 victory celebrations (held on Monday May 9) commemorating the end of World War II are a big deal in Ukraine. Mary and I were there for the official celebrations in Molochansk.  We had no choice as I was one of the speakers. 

Band in front of
Zentral Schule
(Mennonite Boys School)


The parade and dignitaries assembled in front of the former Zentral Schule (Mennonite Boys School).  The band played on instruments supplied through the Mennonite Centre by the Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford. The new ambulance (also paid for by the Mennonite Centre) was in attendance in case of medical emergencies.  It was parked in front of the building in which Mennonite men (including my 2 uncles) were held in 1937 before being shipped out to the gulag.  The Mennonite Centre also provided the goodies (cookies and bubble gum) to be handed out to the children as part of the celebration.  Along with some other support for veterans associations, it is hard to imagine how the victory celebrations could have occurred without the Mennonites – both past and present.

My friend the veteran

Another veteran receiving flowers

Parade Route with girls
handing out flowers
to veterans

It is an understatement to say it was an interesting day.  I was greeted with a kiss on my cheek from a decorated veteran on my arrival at the parade assembly point.  This is considered to be a sign of deepest respect.  I had talked to this veteran earlier and found out his story.  He had fought as a 14 year old with his brother and father as partisans during the war.  His brother and father were killed.  This same veteran invited Mary and I to walk in the parade with the veterans.  We were a bit uncomfortable with that and walked behind them with the other dignitaries such as the mayor.  The parade route was lined with young girls holding flowers.  These were presented to the passing veterans.  Mary somehow ended up with a bouquet of tulips.  I guess they thought she had fought in one of the Mennonite wars.  The route took us past the Mennonite Centre to the official war memorial site.  The flowers were all placed at the war memorial and the dignitaries were escorted to the front.  There were surprisingly for us, at least 300 people in attendance.  There were six speakers.  The most important such as the mayor, town councilors and veterans spoke first.  I was the fifth speaker.  The last speaker was the representative of the Communist Veterans Association.  At least I outranked him.

As I stood with the dignitaries listening to the speeches (through my interpreter) I realized that my prepared speech was on a different theme than the other speakers.  They were all thanking the veterans for their sacrifices.  I wanted to talk about forgiveness.  I thanked the many people, including some of the veterans, who had shared their stories of the war with me and commented on the fact that I felt that many had forgiven the past and that this gave me hope for peace for the future.

Women who lost all men in their lives

The impact of World War II on Ukraine and Russia is hard to ignore.  There are monuments everywhere.  In our visit to Kiev, Dema Bratchenko had taken us on a tour of the Great Patriotic War Museum.  He wanted to show us a montage of pictures.  They were drawn during the 900 day siege of Leningrad (1941-44) when many people died of starvation.  The pictures were personally meaningful to Dema, because his grandmother was one of those victims.  Another display in that museum was a mass picture of women who had lost all the men in their lives (husbands, sons and fathers).  The picture is very moving and gives some perspective on how much there was to forgive.

While not a war story, I was reminded of another Mennonite story involving forgiveness.  Sometime in the early 1860’s, a beautiful young Mennonite girl was in one of the seaports on the Crimean Peninsula.  The Russian naval fleet was in harbor and one of the officers on board was a prince in the Romanov family.  They met, things happened, and the young girl ended up back in her Mennonite village, pregnant and in disgrace.  She gave birth to a boy and experienced an emotional breakdown soon after.  The boy was placed for adoption with another Mennonite family and given a new surname to distance himself from the disgraceful events of his birth.  The result is that there are Mennonites with Romanov blood. 

I have a friend in Winnipeg who is a direct descendent of that fateful event in Crimea.  Last summer he was touring Europe with his family.  When they got to St Petersburg, they took a tour of the Winter Palace.  While walking through this beautiful palace, his teenage daughter looked around approvingly and commented, “You know mom, it’s nice to be home”.  Her great-great-great-grandmother would be pleased to know that she has been forgiven.

Our work at the Mennonite Centre is getting busier as we try to wind down our time in Molochansk.  There are more petitioners every day with their heart wrenching stories.  We listen to their stories and decide if we should refuse their request, help them within the discretionary guidelines that we have for making decisions, or document their request and submit it to the Board in Canada for their consideration.

Alvin Sasha and Mary
 A difficult task this last week was to visit Sasha and deliver a hamper of food to their family.  The story as I heard it is that Sasha came home from school one day, was hungry, and asked his mother for some food.  She told him there was nothing in the house and he would have to get some funds.  He went out looking for some scrap metal that he could sell.  He saw some copper wire connected to an electrical box and tried to take it.  The wire was live with electricity and he lost both arms.  The Mennonite Centre is trying to work with him to obtain some proper artificial limbs in Western Europe so that he can have a better quality of life.  His face lit up when we unpacked the hamper of food we had brought.

Orphans receiving picture with
small boy in front wondering
if we will adopt him

In our first week in Molochansk, the Mennonite Centre had sponsored a concert in town by the local orphanage.  They had put on an excellent performance and I had taken a number of pictures.  I knew the orphans would love to have a few prints of themselves as they obviously have no parents to do this for them.  I had been procrastinating with printing the pictures in the office because I dreaded the trip to the orphanage to deliver them.  Misery is easier to cope with if it is kept at a distance.  I finally printed the pictures this week.  It was quite a stack as I wanted each child in the picture to have a print for themselves.  If there were 10 children in a picture, I made 10 prints.  They were warmly received and yes I had to endure that painful look from one boy that said, “Please take me”. 

We have just returned from a short walk to the local grocery store.  It is amazing how the townspeople have changed since our arrival.  When we first got here, nobody would look at us or acknowledge us as we walked down a street.  Now we can’t go out without a greeting or even a cautious attempt to talk from people we meet.  Teenagers are the worst.  They recognize us and we hear a deliberate “hello”.  It is an invitation to talk and we always make the time to do that.  We have never before been so popular with teenagers.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:

For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:

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