Monday, 16 May 2011


Our time has come to leave Molochansk.  We could not have imagined how difficult this was going to be.  We are looking forward to seeing our families in Canada but feel guilty for leaving our friends in Ukraine.  This final blog is a random compilation of incidents, events and thoughts that occurred during our time at the Mennonite Centre.
My mother told me many things about the Molotschna area.  I am surprised at some of the things she never mentioned.
·         There are poisonous snakes in the area.  I did not see any but was warned about going through deep grass as that is where they like to hide.
·         The summer is unbearably hot.  The daytime temperature is often at 40 degrees Celsius.  People feel they cannot survive without air-conditioning.
·         There is a beautiful view from my mother’s village (Lichtenau) across the Molotschna River to the hills beyond.  It is especially green right now and beautiful.

Burial Mound

·         The land along the Molotschna River contains many burial mounds.  These are from the Scythians, an Iranian nomadic group that was here even before the Mennonites.  The mounds are at least 2000 years old.
One of the high points of the trip was attending the Orthodox Easter service at mid-night with Art and Marlyce Friesen.  We could do this in Winnipeg, but would never have contemplated this so close to home.
During our trip to Kiev, I made a special test of my decoy wallet.  I carried it in my most conspicuous bulging pocket and took a trip on the subway.  I have to admit, that I was a bit disappointed that no one tried to steal it. 

Picnic on the beach in Berdyansk

Made a trip to Berdyansk on our last Saturday.  This is a vacation resort on the coast.  It is a place I heard my parents reference as a vacation destination for rich Mennonite families 100 years ago.  We had to pretend to be rich Mennonites for one day and yes I (Alvin) have gone swimming in the Sea of Azov.  The water was cold.
Almost got stopped by police armed with a machine gun on our last Sunday in Molochansk.  Turns out they were just waving us through but I did not want to have any misunderstandings when they were so heavily armed, so I slowed down and looked back at them until they actually smiled at me and waved me on.  It is reassuring to get a smile from a policeman carrying a machine gun.


We have tasted many delicious foods in Ukraine.  Salo is not one of them.  It is salted pork fat.  I have tasted it but know it will never rank as one of my favourites.
I am amazed at how “Russian” my upbringing was when it came to food.  My mother’s borscht was straight from here.  If someone had asked me for the German word for meatballs, I would have said kutletten.  That is actually a Russian word.  They are even made in the same shape and size that my mother made.  When my mother made apricot jam, I always had to crack open the pits and take out the kernel which my mother blanched and added to the jam.  That is how they make apricot jam in the “Molotschna”.   Of course cabbage rolls with meat, varenyky with cottage cheese or cherries, and paska all come from here.  Makes me wonder if there are any unique Mennonite foods.
On a trip home from Zaporozhe, we were warned by flashing lights on approaching cars of a police radar check ahead.  After passing the police, the flashing lights continued and we were in for a series of police checks.  In fact, there were five traps in a row, each separated only by a few kilometers.  Drivers in Ukraine can on occasion be quite rude and drive as if they owned the road.  When police are present, all drivers have a common enemy (the police) and go out of their way to help each other.  Drivers were even signalling each other with fingers as to how many more police checks there were ahead.
Spent Friday morning in Melitopol at a talent contest.  The rock band that practices at the Mennonite Centre was one of the contestants.  There were a variety of performers from soloists (most of whom got buzzed off the stage) to dance groups and instrumentalists.   One “mature” sized lady brought the house down with a spoof on the actions of the young female dancers/singers.    Our group performed well and got a good response from the audience.  They did not win.
Many things in Ukraine are judged on a basis of fairness.  For example, the prices in stores should be fair, regardless of the cost to produce.  I have my own complaints about fairness.  On two separate occasions, Mary received a bouquet of tulips and a kiss on her hand from men she had just met while we were out for a walk.  All I got was a kiss on the cheek from a veteran who had not shaved that closely.  Life is not fair.
Mary and I went to the Molochansk town centre on the evening of the victory celebrations to watch the fireworks display.  We were quickly recognized by some young people because of our participation in the program that morning.  They surrounded us and tried to strike up a conversation in English.  One young teenage girl was searching for the correct words and said, “You are such beautiful people”.  That alone made the trip to Molochansk worthwhile for us.
We do have some unfinished personal business in Molochansk.  I would like to make a trip to Melitopol from Molochansk by train.  It would take me along the route that my mother travelled when she left in 1928.  Mary and I would also like to arrange for a ride in the side-car of a motorcycle.  We have seen a few around and it would be a great experience.  Yes we want to return.  The experience has been life changing.
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:

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:

Thursday, 5 May 2011


Mary and I attended church in Melitopol on Sunday and met an American citizen, Chip Taylor.  He is an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist church but was invited by the Orthodox Church to work in their monastery.  He is instructing local people to be counsellors for those dealing with alcohol addiction.  According to him, the alcohol addiction rate in Ukraine is 60%.  In the west, the comparable number is 10%.  We knew the alcohol problem was bad but would never have guessed that it would affect over half the population.  The local authorities and churches do not know how to cope with the epidemic.  Even Chip Taylor had to smile at the desperation of their situation in inviting a Southern Baptist to work in an Orthodox Monastery.

Molochansk is not immune to the problem of alcohol addiction.  The ground is always littered with empty beer containers.  Alcohol is openly consumed in public and it is not unusual to see someone passed out on the street.  After dark, it is not safe to walk the streets of Molochansk due to concerns about unpleasant encounters with the inebriated.  Because of this, Mary and I were prisoners in our apartment in the evenings during the first few weeks of March.  With the coming of day light saving time and generally longer daylight, we can now venture out for a walk after dinner.

Dina and Mary

A lovely young lady from the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church by the name of Dina has befriended us.  She can speak English quite well and Mary has gone for some walks with her.  Dina wants to be a missionary and is showing the zeal that is needed for that difficult job.  She was drawn to talk to a man who was sitting on the curb drinking.  She told him he needed to stop drinking and come to church on Sunday.  She even gave him a written note that she put in his pocket telling him the location and time that a bus would pick him up to take him to church on Sunday.  Most of us would be reluctant to take such an aggressive approach to dealing with alcoholics or inviting people to our church, but Dina is not easily discouraged.
In one of our early visits to a former Mennonite village, Mary witnessed an alcohol fuelled encounter.  She saw a young teenage girl running screaming down the road pursued by someone, most likely her father, swinging a large pole.  She outran her pursuer who then threw the pole at her and missed.  Neighbours soon came out and the situation seemed to calm down.  Everyone shrugged as if to say, that’s life in Ukraine.  The country needs more Chip Taylors and a fundamental shift in determining acceptable behaviour.

Mary and Marlyce making Paska

Last Thursday was a special day in the kitchen.  Ira, the cook in the Mennonite Centre, had invited Mary and Marlyce Friesen to join her in the kitchen and help bake 70 paskas.  Easter was over but the Mennonite Centre was going to present each senior attending the Friday luncheon with a paska.  There was so much laughter and such an air of excitement in the kitchen, that everyone else was drawn to the place.  I got in only when they requested the “paparazzi” to come and take pictures.  Mary and Marlyce got to learn all the secrets of making paska.  They even learned the secret ingredient to help the paska stay fresh longer.  The final product was delicious and I have to admit tasted better than anything my mother ever made.  The secret ingredient was vodka (used in moderation of course).  No wonder my mother did not know about it.

Making Cherry Varenyky

Cherry Varenyky
Ira is the stereotypical multi-tasker.  While supervising the paska operation, she started making something else as well.  It was a large batch of cherry varenyky.   We had them for lunch.  It was a powerful reminder of something my mother used to make.  They were absolutely delicious and I cannot understand why someone would make any other kind of varenyky.
We said goodbye to Art and Marlyce Friesen on Friday at the train station in Zaporozhe.  We had stopped for lunch at a Ukrainian restaurant and sat there watching the royal wedding in London on television.  It felt like a normal thing to be doing.  I probably would not have bothered watching that event if I was home.

Ruins of my grandfather Suderman's church

Original Suderman farm site 2011

Original Suderman farm site 1910

Saturday was a special day as we drove off to explore my father’s roots in the village of Alexanderthal.  We found the village and needed a few minutes to get oriented.  There are very few original Mennonite buildings left in town.  The ruins of my grandfather’s church are still visible.  The school he would have attended is now a home but easily recognized.  The original Suderman farm site cannot be clearly identified but one can guess pretty closely as to where it stood.  It was a rainy day and we did not spend that much time exploring outside.  It was the longest trip we made where I was driving.  The round trip from Molochansk was 140 km and I did not get stopped by any police.
Monday and Tuesday were official holidays in Ukraine as they celebrated the International Day of Labour.  I found out I had something in common with my co-workers.  They were surprised that we do not celebrate this day in Canada and I was surprised that they still celebrate what to me is an old Communist holiday.

Equipment at Construction Site


There is a businessman with a construction company in Molochansk who has told Dema Bratchenko, our manager that he would like to someday build a church.  Most likely he assumed that he would be building an Orthodox church as that is his personal faith.  God sometimes challenges our assumptions as this businessman is now helping the Kutuzovka Mennonite congregation build their new church in Molochansk.  What happened was that the Kutuzovka congregation had a large group of volunteers   working on demolishing an old structure on property that they have purchased.  It was obvious to Dema and myself that they needed some proper equipment to help load and haul the old concrete away.  Dema contacted the businessman with a dream for building a church.  The next day a tractor with a front end loader and a dump truck were on site helping the demolition.  The businessman gave the church very favourable rates for the equipment which basically will only cover the costs of fuel consumed by the job.
It has been beautiful to watch the volunteers work on the site preparation for the new church.  The volunteers have consisted of church members as well as a number of people from Molochansk with no connection to the church.  The spirit of enthusiasm is obviously contagious.
Mary and I are very aware that our departure date is rapidly approaching on May 17.  We have a week planned in Germany before we head home to Canada.  It is going to be very hard to say goodbye to this place and the many friends we have made here.
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: