Tuesday, 27 May 2014


Our time in Ukraine is over.  We cannot comprehend how fast our term here has past.  Each time we come, we learn or experience something new.  The following will highlight some of our new knowledge or experiences.

·         Police in Ukraine can spot a drunk driver by the simple fact that they are driving straight.  Everyone else is weaving their way around all the potholes in the road.

·         I have finally learned proper Ukrainian table manners.  We were invited to join a local group from the church for an evening meal.  I caused great consternation by the simple fact of passing on the food after I had helped myself.  People around me did not know what to do with the dishes I was passing them.  I was informed that Ukrainians have long arms and can reach for themselves – thank you very much.

·         The food that evening had been cooked over a wood fire.  The logs had come from the Alt-Berdjansk forest.  This was a Mennonite forestry station where my grandfather had worked in 1904.  I counted the rings in the log to determine its age in order to find out if my grandfather could possibly have planted that tree. I was disappointed to find out the tree was only 70 years old.
My Uncle Victor Suderman Standing in Front of Old Barracks in Alt-Berdjansk

·         One Saturday morning we had 2 teenage girls over for breakfast.  They could speak English and were curious about Canada.  We showed them a picture of our house in Winnipeg from the street.  They saw the design flaws immediately.  Where was our front fence and gate to provide privacy and security? 
Typical Front Yard in Molochansk
·         On our trip home from Kyiv, we were picked up at the train station in Melitopol early in the morning.  As we drove through one of the villages near Molochansk before 7:00 AM, we saw the cows being collected by the shepherd and going down the road to the pasture.  This is identical to what occurred during Mennonite times.  If a Mennonite family was late in the morning milking and their cow was not ready when the herd passed, the whole village would know about it.  Oh the shame of having to walk your own cow out to pasture and be seen by everyone.
The Cows Coming Home

·         The railway station manager in Molochansk called to ask when their station had officially opened.  They suspected they were nearing the 100th anniversary of the event and wanted to honour it in some way.  I turned to the books in our library written by my neighbour Helmut Huebert to find the answer.  His book on Mennonites in the Cities of Imperial Russia Volume II described the construction of the railway headed by two brothers, Gerhard and Johann Wall.  While there was no date for the official opening of our local station, I gave them the date of December 20, 1913 as that was the date for the first scheduled train service.  The station was already past its 100th anniversary but I was pleased that local people were interested in their own history and that they would approach us for information on the subject.

·         At one of our usual stops at the Lichtenau train station, we were invited inside the office of the station manager.  He had 4 beautifully preserved and framed pictures of the Mennonite migration of the 1920’s mounted on the wall.  Most of the pictures I had seen before but I took a picture of one that was new to me.
Mennonite Emigrants Boarding a Train in Lichtenau 1920's

·         There is a large hydro-electric dam on the Dnieper River at Zaporozhye.  At the time it was built in the 1930’s, it was considered one of the marvels of the modern world.  I had driven over it many times, but had a desire to walk across it.  It is almost 2 km in length.  I managed to walk it this year and then for my return, I walked it again.  It gave me a sore throat from the diesel fumes of passing vehicles as well as a real respect for its immense size.
Dam in Background being guarded by Cossacks
·         This dam was blown by the retreating Soviet army on the night of July 18, 1941.  They misjudged the amount of explosives required and used too much.  In the morning, pieces of human bodies could be seen hanging from nearby trees and poles.  The release of water was also more rapid than anticipated.  According to a television program in Ukraine, a Soviet army of 200,000 men stationed at a downstream village of Belinkoje perished in the rapidly rising water. 
Blown Dam in 1941 (Private Collection of Vic Ens)

·         This trip marks the first time Mary and I have heard a nightingale sing.  We have also heard the cuckoo.  They are both amazing sounds and are important as any novel about the area always references these birds.  The most common bird we hear is the mourning dove.

·         We were also privileged to see the blooming acacia trees and to appreciate their sweet fragrance.  The highway to Zaporozhye was lined with blooming acacia trees.  A photo just does not do it justice but we keep trying.

       On Sunday May 25, we became unofficial Canadian observers for an important election in Ukraine.  If successfully concluded, this election would give Ukraine its first legitimate government since the overthrow of the Yanukovich government last February.  There were 21 candidates for President on the ballot.  The winner has to achieve a clear majority of over 50% of the votes.  This could take a number of run-off ballots.  However it appears that the “Candy Man” has achieved a true majority in the first ballot.  We hope that this will bring peace and stability to our friends in Ukraine. 
Oksana Registering to Vote
The Ballot with 21 Candidates

Mary and I feel it has been a tremendous privilege to be the North American directors at the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk this year.  The support and prayers from friends back home has been felt and appreciated.  The near wartime circumstances have made this a unique experience.  We never knew if we would be able to complete our term.  We are thankful that we were able to do that.  At a staff farewell party for us on Saturday evening, the outspoken spouse of one of our employees said, “Thank you for having the courage to come. Thank you for not running away”.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/

Tuesday, 20 May 2014


Mary and I have returned from our trip to Kyiv and are glad to be back in Molochansk.  The trip to Kyiv was great.  We had to make contact and provide funding for several Mennonite Centre projects in Kyiv.  We had also booked a meeting with the Canadian Ambassador, Troy Lulashnyk.  He is a former Manitoban from the town of Selkirk with his own Ukrainian roots.  It is reassuring to know that there is someone who is looking after our interests in a foreign country.  We also had delightful visits with Anne Mattson and Clint Martin – staff members at the Canadian embassy with personal connections to family and friends.

In Kyiv, we did become tourists for an afternoon and toured the devastation that took place on the Maidan square.  Most of the barricades are still in place.  The site has become a tourist destination as well as a shrine for Ukrainians.  The protestors in their tents are used to sight seers and having their pictures taken. It was touching to climb the area where most of the fatalities occurred.  Dema bought flowers and laid them at selected memorials as we made our way up the hill toward the location where the snipers had hidden behind trees.  From pictures and descriptions on the memorials, we could see that the fatalities were of many ages – not just young people.
Downtown Hotel Used as Hospital During Demonstration
Dema Placing Flowers at Memorial
Memorial for 18 Year Old

 There was another Kyiv destination that was on my personal bucket list.  I wanted to climb the “Motherland” monument.  This was built in 1981 to celebrate the end of the Great Patriotic War or WW II as the rest of us call it.  I first saw this monument in 2006 when our cruise ship neared Kyiv.  It towers above the city.  It was in 2011 that Dema, our Mennonite Centre manager told me that it was possible to climb it.  I was informed that it was an arduous climb and very expensive.  For the equivalent of $5.00 you could take an elevator up to the base.  The fee for manually climbing to the top was $20.00.  The Motherland Monument is 203 feet (69 metres) in height and towers above the Statue of Liberty at 151 feet (46 metres).  It had become my Mount Everest.
Motherland Monument with Cage Behind Shield

The pursuit of my goal did not start off well.  The lady at the box office took one look at me and shook her head.  I did not even need an interpreter to know that the news was bad.  She summoned a guide, who also looked at me cautiously, asked for my age, and then announced that there was no way that he could accept responsibility for my safety.  I tried arguing that if I bought the ticket and did not make it to the top, it would be my responsibility and no refund would be requested.  That was not good enough.  Eventually I had to concede defeat and bought a ticket taking me up to the base.  Dema was allowed to purchase the prize ticket taking him to the top.  As we left the office with our guide, Dema started a conversation with our guide.  He discovered that that there was an additional “insurance policy” that only the guide could issue that not only reduced my age but also made me an acceptable risk.  For a mere payment of only $30.00, I was also going to reach for the top.

As soon as I had made my payment, we were given the rules.  We had to strap on a climbing harness which was attached to a rope extending up to the top.  The ascent went straight up an iron rung ladder.  After 20 feet of climbing I had to transition to another ladder about 90 degrees to the left.  The climb became a 45 degree climb as we worked our way up the arm of the monument.  After another steep climb I had to crawl around some sharp corners as we entered the palm of the hand.  Another 6 feet straight up and I had to boost myself up through a trap door to the platform directly behind the shield.  The climb was not challenging in terms of physical endurance but rather required an agility to cope with tight maneuvers.   Dema and I were soon standing in the cage behind the shield, very proud of ourselves and grinning like Cheshire cats.

Our guide looked at me in amazement and said, “I never brought such an old man up here before”.  I was proud to be called an old man.  I just could not stop smiling.  After viewing the scene for a few minutes, the guide had one last surprise for us.  He unlocked another compartment and one at a time we were allowed to climb up another 10 feet above the cage where we got an unobstructed view of the city.  We could look right over the top of the shield.  The best part was I got a bird’s eye view of Pechersk Lavra – the most beautiful Orthodox Church in Kyiv with its famous underground caves.
Pechersk Lavra from Motherland Monument

For those considering making the climb, do not do it if you are claustrophobic, your agility is less than mine, or you do not like heights.  In strong winds, the statue can sway as much as half a metre.  It does have its challenges.

Last week I wrote about Oksana Donets and her desperate need for hip surgery.  Today, Mary and I had the pleasure of driving back out to her place and informing her that the board had authorized funds for the surgery.  The board authorized this because of the generosity of the supporters of the Mennonite Centre and people on Facebook.  What the board found really moving was the generous support of donors in Ukraine who became aware of the appeal on Facebook.  They truly sacrificed in order to help Oksana.
A Big Smile From Oksana
Oksana'a Mother Thanking Mary (she did not want to let go)

Both Oksana and her mother broke down with tears of joy when we gave them the news.  This has given them hope where previously they saw only despair.  I told Oksana that I want to see her walking next time we come to Ukraine.

Mary and I have one week left in our assignment.  In these unsettled times, we never knew if we would be able to complete our term.  Right now we are hopeful that we can. 

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/

Tuesday, 13 May 2014


As I start writing this blog, we are in a hotel in Kyiv (Kiev for those of you that are Russian speaking) and are listening to BBC world news.  A referendum is being held in eastern Ukraine to determine its ongoing relationship to Ukraine.  We do not know the results yet and do not know what impact that will have on events in Ukraine.  We recognize that there is some danger in being in this part of the world.  My mother (bless her soul) always warned me about coming here.  Obviously I did not listen to my mother.
My mother’s fears were based on her own experiences in Ukraine during the troubled times of the Civil War following World War I.  She had heard of an MCC worker who came to their area in 1920 and who disappeared. It was presumed that he was killed by the Communists.  I came across some information on that incident this week.  

During the unsettled times in Russia during the Civil War, the Mennonites in North American became aware of the suffering of their co-religionists and wanted to help.  Organizing this help was a problem as there was no Mennonite institution that could act on behalf of all the diverse Mennonite groups.  The driving force for this initiative came from the “Swiss” Mennonites of Pennsylvania.  It resulted in the creation of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC as it is known today) and its objective was to mobilize the assistance of all Mennonites in North America and provide humanitarian aid to the areas where the Mennonites were living in Ukraine.  This was a very difficult task as times were unsettled.  Three MCC workers were dispatched to reach the Mennonites of southern Ukraine.  They came via Constantinople (Istanbul) where they landed on September 27, 1920.  One of them by the name of Clayton Kratz from Pennsylvania reached Molochansk (formerly called Halbstadt) and was based there.  This is where the present day Mennonite Centre is located.  Clayton arrived at a time when the White Army under General Wrangel was in control of the area.  His immediate assignment was to establish the headquarters to enable MCC to provide food relief in the area.  As the Red army (communists) gained strength and started advancing, Clayton Kratz was warned that he should evacuate to the south with the retreating White Army.  He chose not to do this.  He felt that as a neutral American relief worker that he would be safe.  He was wrong.  He was last seen in the Mennonite village of Fuerstenwerder (now called Balkavoya) where he was arrested by the Red Army.  After that he simply vanished.
Clayton Kratz (1896-1920)

Despite the setback of losing one of their workers, MCC was successful in setting up a number of soup kitchens which fed the surrounding population, regardless of religious affiliation.  My mother has frequently acknowledged that her family would have starved without that assistance.  I recall my mother telling me of the attempt by herself ,as a 10 year old, to approach the MCC workers in her area and request an undergarment for her mother.  It was her mother’s birthday and she wanted to give her something.  When I inquired if she was successful, I still recall the resigned shrug of her shoulder as she said, “Well I guess they just could not help everyone”.

The Mennonite Centre today also cannot help everyone.  We also have to establish priorities and use discernment in providing assistance.  A request that I referenced in an earlier blog is that of Oksana Donets.  She is the 35 year old mother of a lovely 8 year old girl.  Oksana fractured her hip at the age of 12 in what appears to have been a karate match.  This was initially misdiagnosed in the Tokmak hospital.  She has since undergone 6 surgeries to correct the problem.  The situation was aggravated 8 years ago in a car accident where Oksana broke her leg and had her daughter delivered by emergency C-section.  Recently there has been a considerable deterioration in the hip.  Oksana is in constant pain and cannot walk.  She is a virtual prisoner in her mother’s second floor walk-up apartment.  We visited her there and took some pictures.
Oksana Donets with her daughter Valerie in Better Times
Oksana and her daughter Valerie now

Oksana lives in a village (Juschanlee) which used to be the site of an estate owned by Johann Cornies (for those who do not recognize the name, he is the closest the Mennonites in Russia ever came to having their own czar). The cost of the artificial hip is $7100.  This is well beyond the usual level of assistance that we provide to individuals. The board of the Mennonite Centre has authorized that we do a special fund-raising for Oksana.  If you wish to help, you can go to: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/Fundraising.html for specific instructions.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


We are spending the week in Zaporozhye at the home of Olga Rubel.  She is the Mennonite Centre representative in this area.  The west bank of the Dnieper River at Zaporozhye was the site of the first Mennonite settlement in Ukraine in 1786.  It was called Chortiza, after the name of a local river that flowed through the settlement.  Many Mennonites in North America trace their origins to this settlement.  With the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk located east of the Dnieper River in the settlement that was known as Molotschna and our representative Olga Rubel in Zaporozhye, we can provide support to both original Mennonite settlements.  (All other Mennonite settlements in Ukraine were daughter colonies from these two original areas.) 

We arrived at Olga’s place on Saturday and spent the evening planning our week.  Our objective was to obtain a better understanding of the work in the Zaporozhye area.   It wasn't long before we had the week filled with at least 2 meetings per day.  Tuesday morning we left on an inspection trip to Dolynske, which covers the former Mennonite villages of Neu-Osterwick and Kronsthal.  Ostensibly this trip was to look at the former Mennonite school which was still in use after 100 years and where the Mennonite Centre had provided assistance in obtaining new windows, desks, and chalk boards.  In reality, this destination was a highly personal choice on my part. 
Hundred Year Old Mennonite School Building in Dolynske

One year ago, a good friend of mine, Reg Litz, was going to visit us in Ukraine and we were going to explore these villages as they were his ancestral home.  Instead of arriving last May as planned, we received an email that he had a very serious type of cancer and would be undergoing surgery.  Reg passed away last December at the young age of 55.  On one of my visits with him in the fall, he acknowledged that he was not going to get to Ukraine and he asked me to make the visit to his ancestral village and take a picture of the location where the church stood where his grandparents were married.  That was the real reason for my trip that day.  While we had the original maps of the village, it was hard to determine the precise location of the church.  I believe he would have been pleased to see that there is a beautiful Orthodox church very near the site of the church where his grandparents were married.
Original Site of Church

Nearby Orthodox Church 

Mary and I both felt Reg’s presence on the trip that day.  On our tour of the school we got to see every classroom with the students and teachers present.  I could just imagine Reg, with his high level of energy and enthusiasm, taking over each class and starting a discussion with the students.  He would have found a way around the language barrier.  In one class with a teacher and 2 students (they claimed 3 people were sick that day), I imagined Reg with his crazy sense of humour suggesting that the class break up into discussion groups and resolve some unique world crisis.  It was healing for us to travel with the memory of Reg that day.
Class With 2 Students
There are many things I do not understand about Ukraine.  The country claims to be poor when it comes to furnishing their schools with needed equipment and supplies.  On the other hand, in this school they had a student/teacher ratio of less than 10 to 1.  This is not the case for all schools but obviously there is no one setting overall priorities on how to spend education dollars.  The people responsible for the budget for salaries obviously have no responsibility for other aspects of education and do not make trade-offs between these areas.

Another day we drove north to visit a dairy farm started by a Manitoban named Garry Verhoog.  His children are operating the original dairy farm in Canada, located south-east of Steinbach.  He has come here as part of his Christian ministry to establish a self-sustaining dairy operation and trade school where he can teach orphans a valuable skill while providing employment for many locals.  Through good feeding and genetics, he has managed to double the milk production over that of local farmers.  I admire Garry for undertaking the difficult challenge of learning a new language and deciphering the culture so as to successfully operate a business in Ukraine.  You can read more about his work in his blog at: http://moo-oosings.blogspot.ca/.    He is currently expanding his operation and will soon have a barn for 100 milk cows.  The cows will be free roaming with a separate milking parlour.  They are even building classrooms in the barn to properly instruct the orphans on site.
Garry Vehoog in New Dairy Barn

I like Garry’s practical approach to ministry.  With increased security in the area marked by road blocks, Garry has responded by providing the nearest security checkpoint with a weekly supply of milk.  One time he bought out all the hamburgers at McDonald’s and dropped them off as he went through the security roadblock.  This would have been a gourmet treat for the police and military staff.

Others are also reaching out to the military in this unsettled time.  Last Sunday at church in Zaporozhye, we heard a report from people in the church who had made a special trip to deliver humanitarian aid to a group of soldiers camped out in a field near Mariupol.  This is in the eastern part of Ukraine on the Sea of Azov.  They brought essential items such as toilet paper, flashlights, and food.  They were in cell phone communication with the soldiers as they approached and were guided in with special instructions.  The area surrounding the encampment is mined and getting off the path could be dangerous.  The group of civilians was thanked for their assistance and given a ride on an armoured troop carrier.  Another emergency supply convoy is planned for the coming week. 

Obviously the situation in Ukraine is not stabilizing.  I have been warned by some readers not to take pictures of any military activity and definitely not to post it on my blog as they are concerned for our safety.  I would like to respect this request as much as possible but some exceptions will have to be tolerated.  The next picture you see is a military vehicle from another era.  It is located in the museum in Dnepropetrovsk and shows a buggy built by Mennonites, captured by the Red Army (communists) who mounted a machine gun on the back seat.  The message written on the back says, “Death to General Wrangel”.  This general was in charge of the White Army fighting the communists.  He fought a number of battles in the area occupied by Mennonites.

Mary and I would like to complete our term in Ukraine and go home as scheduled on May 28.  We realize that this cannot be guaranteed and that our plans have to remain flexible.  Your ongoing prayers for our safety are much appreciated.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/

Wednesday, 30 April 2014


I have just finished reading a book titled, “Calm Before the Storm” authored by Janice Dick.  It is a historical romance novel based on events occurring exactly 100 years ago in the geographic area where Mary and I are right now.  The main character is a Johann Suderman who finds faith and love during the turbulent times leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917.  I have owned the book for 11 years and since it is about a Suderman, I decided that I should actually read it.  The parallels with our circumstances here today are uncanny.  There are political storm clouds on the horizon.  We do not know if the storm will hit with all its fury or dissipate without a whimper.  There is an underlying tension in Ukraine which you can feel in Molochansk.  It has made our stay here a unique experience.  It does affect our work and I would like to describe one day’s activities to show how all issues are inter-mingled.

On Friday April 25, we were scheduled to make a presentation to representatives from the Zaporozhyian Oblast (province) on how to improve tourism in the area.  We were selected because the Mennonite Centre had won a tourism award last year for attracting foreign visitors.  With typical western thinking, we set up a “PowerPoint” presentation outlining the background, issues, and proposed recommendations.  It had been our original intension for Dema (our manager at the Mennonite Centre) to make the presentation as we had only 5 minutes and I could not speak Russian.  As we drove to the event, we discussed the optics of the presentation and decided that it would have more impact if I made the presentation and Dema translated.  We only had 5 slides and knew we could make the 5 minute deadline (which was rigorously enforced).  We knew that there would be a significant audience and at one time in my life having one hour to prepare a major presentation would have thrown me for a loop.    Now I have progressed to the point where you just go with the flow and cope as best you can.  As I was thinking about my presentation, I was distracted by a military convoy on the highway.  There were 5 large tanks being transported west.  They were on large trailers pulled by multi-wheeled vehicles moving slowly down the road.  I did take a picture from the rear of the convoy where I would not be seen.  It was a stark and scary reminder that war is imminent.

As we approached Zaporozhye, we had to pass the police checkpoint I referenced in my previous blog. The forward observer with his binoculars was focused on our vehicle until we were within 10 feet of his position. I had my camera on my lap but let it slide to the floor where it could not be easily seen as I did not want to take a chance on having my intentions misinterpreted.  We were directed to stop at the checkpoint.  Dema provided his requested identification; they looked into the vehicle and then let us proceed.  We suspect they were looking for pro-Russian demonstrators who would like to enter the city and seize government buildings. 

Life returned to normal after passing the checkpoint.  We arrived at our meeting on time, registered at the front desk and entered the hall holding 250 people.  After the official welcome, the presentations started.  You could categorize the presentation as blatant commercials for an area or facility, complaints about the supply of electrical power, or allegations of corruption.  None dealt with any policy issues that the area could implement to improve tourism.  Just before we were to speak, Dema checked his smartphone and got some disturbing news.  A helicopter had been shot down in eastern Ukraine and tensions were rising.  Dema’s immediate assessment was that we might have to evacuate that day.  With that disturbing news ringing in our ears, we got up and made our presentation.  Our recommendations for increasing Mennonite tourism into the area were to establish a program that would encourage the preservation and restoration of historic Mennonite buildings as many are being demolished and to start a “cottage” industry that would enable Mennonite tourists to actually spend a night or two in a historic Mennonite house.  We received a spontaneous applause for our presentation.  We did get their attention.

The presentations after ours started including the word “Mennonitesky” as they also wanted us to know that Mennonites had also lived in their area.  The addition of the letters “sky” or “ski” to a word begs an explanation.  The addition of these letters changes a word into an adjective.  That is why the Mennonite Centre is referred to locally as the “Mennonitesky Centrum”.  It also explains why many surnames in Ukraine end in these letters.  In Ukraine, you always write or state the surname first followed by the given name.  The surname in effect becomes the adjective describing or qualifying the given name. (Just thought you had forgotten to ask but really wanted to know.)

After the great feeling about our presentation, it was back to the political reality in Ukraine. As we sat eating lunch and contemplating our next move, Dema received great news from his wife Oksana.  The whole dance class at the Molochansk School of Music had received their visas to go to Greece and participate in a prestigious dance competition.  Oksana and their daughter Katya would be off to Athens in a few days.  While I am sure Dema’s response would have been quite diplomatic, the bottom line was, “That’s great, now can you check our emergency luggage in case we have to evacuate tonight”.  On the way home I started mentally thinking about what I should pack.  I knew I had to assemble my camera bag, computer, toiletries and the book I was reading.  War or no war, I had to know how the romance novel “Calm Before the Storm” ended.  As an afterthought, I realized I should also pack a change of clothes.  I was mentally ready to go.

On arrival at home, we checked our emails.  There was no evacuation warning from the Canadian embassy.  Other news sources also were not alarming.  All was still calm in Molochansk and we thankfully spent the night in our own bed. 

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/

Thursday, 24 April 2014


Easter is always special in Ukraine.  This year Ukraine celebrated it the same time we do in the western world.  Mary and I have adopted the philosophy of “When in Rome ….”.  Well when in Ukraine, we attend the Orthodox Easter service as well as our regular service at the Kutuzovka Mennonite church.  The Orthodox service starts Saturday at midnight and continues on till sun rise, at which time all the paska and decorated eggs have been blessed and people can go home, break their 6 week long fast and eat the forbidden eggs and paska.  In the past we have gone to the Orthodox service at midnight, stayed for one hour and then went home to sleep.  This year with better coaching from an Orthodox believer, we now realize the real program does not start till 1:00 AM.  We went there with my camera, ready for the action.  Again we only stayed for one hour but we did see the first procession with the priest leading us outside and around the church.  There would be 2 more processions during the night. The number 3 is very important in the service as it represents the Trinity.  After the procession, we went back inside.  With the choir chanting in the background, the priest came out 3 times and walked back and forth with his smoking thurible (a device in which incense is burned during a worship service).  He concluded each walk with 3 chants of “Christ is risen”.  The congregation would respond with “Christ is risen indeed”.  They would then cross themselves with the Orthodox cross (top to bottom and right to left) with some also bowing quite deeply.  It was a very worshipful environment even though we really did not understand what they were doing.  I did take a few pictures (with their permission) but felt it was an intrusion on their beautiful worship service.

Easter Basket with Paska waiting for Blessing

After a short night, we were at the Kutuzovka Mennonite church at 8:30 AM for their Easter breakfast, followed by the usual 2 hour service.  Brevity is not a Ukrainian trait.  I was thankful that the sermon was a bit shorter and they had more variety in their service, including pageants involving the youth and young children.  We did have a nap in the afternoon to catch up on our sleep.

Good Friday is a regular working day in Ukraine, (Easter Monday is a holiday) so we showed up for work.  It was a busy day as we had to deal with three petitioners.  They represented a typical cross section of the issues that we deal with.  The first one was a lady requesting assistance in purchasing medication.  We typically give a one-time assistance of $20.00 worth of medications for such a request.  This lady had already received such assistance from us through one of the medical doctors who act as agents for us.  Consequently, her request was denied.  The second lady had a request which was much more difficult to deal with.  This lady has a 35 year old daughter who is in desperate need of an artificial hip.  The daughter is in so much pain that she cannot walk.  They have tried numerous means of fund raising without success.  The artificial hip has to be purchased from Germany, and with the decreasing value of the Ukrainian currency, this has become impossible for them to pursue.  The problem for us was that the value of her request greatly exceeded the amount that we typically provide.  We sympathized with their dilemma and agreed to document the request and submit it to our board in Canada for consideration.  The board will then have to look at the budget, consider the precedent that we may be setting, and discern the collective will of our supporters in making a decision.  The third request was from the local psychiatric hospital requesting assistance in buying a lawn trimmer in order to maintain their extensive grounds.  We have had a good relationship with the individual making the request as well as the organization itself and were able to approve their request from our discretionary funds.  Yes it was a “Good” Friday for us at the Mennonite Centre.

I guess I could describe myself as an amateur historian.  I am always trying to get a better understanding of the Mennonite story in Ukraine.  I recently talked to a local Ukrainian who mentioned that his mother was born in Lichtenau (now called Svyetlodolinskoye) in October 1941.  This is a former Mennonite village which was evacuated by the Soviet authorities in August 1941 as the German army approached the area.  His grandmother has since passed away but I was eager to know if she had ever talked about the events of August 1941 when at least 90% of the population in her village and the surrounding area was forcibly shipped to Kazakhstan.  I was looking for an eye witness account from someone who was not directly involved in the event.  I was amazed when he told me that his grandmother had never spoken of the event as she must have been aware of suddenly losing all her neighbours.  She had talked about their precautions of hiding in the woods nearby with her family as the military front approached their area.  This would also have been very traumatic and I just have to accept the fact that it was more important in her mind than the sudden loss of her neighbours. 

Speaking of traumatic events, we were shocked on Tuesday to see military barricades on the highway as we approached the city of Zaporozhye.  We were on our way to participate as judges in an English public speaking contest sponsored by the Lithuanian Christian Collage. It was an enjoyable event that was overshadowed by the increasing military presence we saw that day.  We had seen a number of military vehicles on the road but were shocked to see the barricades.  There were strategically placed concrete dividers that forced traffic coming into the city to slow down and move onto the shoulder.  These were supplemented by sand bag bunkers holding machine guns.  On reflection, I have been able to determine that these were police barricades and not necessarily military ones.  They are designed to provide a choke point if the authorities feel the city is going to be invaded by pro-Russian protesters.  I had my camera ready as we left the city and neared the barricade.  We discussed the wisdom of pointing a camera at people who might be pointing a gun back at you.  As we approached, the police were focused on incoming traffic and since we were ignored, I decided to take a risk and took a number of pictures through the car window as Dema slowly drove by.  It will be something to remember when I get old.
Sandbag Bunkers alongside highway
Machine Gun Post with Forward Viewing Location

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


The area in Ukraine where we work was once the home for many Mennonites.  These all left in the many migrations from the area but mostly during the forced evacuation of the area in World War II when they were either sent east to Kazakhstan by the Soviet authorities in 1941 or moved west with the retreating German army in 1943.  I have often wondered if there was a small remnant of Mennonites left in the area.  It turns out there were but they are hard to identify.  After the war there was understandably a strong anti-German feeling in the area.  This made any German speaking Mennonites in the area hide their former identity.  They were very reluctant to talk about this for many years.

One of the best known Mennonites left living in the area was Rita Pankratz.  She had married a Ukrainian and was allowed to stay when the Soviets were evacuating other Mennonites.  She also chose to stay when the Mennonites had a chance to move west with the retreating German army.  It became a tradition for recent Mennonite tours in the area to stop at her place and hear her story.  Mary and I met her on our tour through here in 2006. She has since passed away.  There were other Mennonites also.  One of our staff revealed a few years ago that she had a Mennonite grandmother.  Several years ago one of the seniors attending our lunches at the Mennonite Centre acknowledged that his real name was Heinrich Neufeld.  He had taken his wife’s Ukrainian name in order to hide his real identity.  He has also passed away by now.  In my last blog I reported that one of the ladies attending the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church revealed to my uncle that she was also of Mennonite background. We have followed up on the story.

My aunt and uncle from Edmonton, Victor and Helga Suderman, are interested in Mennonite history.  My uncle in particular is actively working with the Grandma database, which is recording Mennonite genealogy records.  They were very interested in connecting this lady’s ancestry with the data base and determining if she had relatives in Canada.  Wednesday afternoon we drove out to her place.  Her name is Suzanna Shranko.  Her maiden name was Janzen.  She greeted us warmly and we were invited inside to talk.  She had a unique story.  She was born in 1935 in the Mennonite village of Ladekop, which has now been absorbed by the city of Tokmak.  Her area was not evacuated by Soviet authorities in 1941 and lived there during the German occupation.  In 1943 she fled westward with her family into Germany.  As happened to many others, her family was re-captured by the advancing Soviet army and her family was forcibly repatriated.  Here her story differs from many others.  Instead of being loaded onto cattle cars and shipped to Siberia or Kazakhstan, her family was forced to drive a herd of cattle from Germany to a country we now know as Belarus. She would have been 10 years old at this time.  On completion of this assignment, there were no further orders and her family managed to slip away and make their way south to their former home in Ladekop.

They were immediately recognized as German speaking people and life was not easy for them in their home village.  Their original house was still standing but had been occupied by another family brought in from western Ukraine.  They were not allowed to reclaim their house but had to rent a place in which to live.  She also talked about barely surviving a local famine which lasted from 1946 to 1948.  In 1959 she married a Ukrainian.  They had 4 children.  Her husband has since died and the children are all grown but live close by.  She has not had anyone to talk to in Low German for over 40 years.  She has maintained her language skills by talking to herself.  While my Low German is quite limited, I found her easy to understand.  The current political crisis was also disturbing for her.  She started crying when she talked about it.  She had an irrational fear that all German speaking people would be the first to be shot if Russia took over.  This fear obviously came out of some trauma from the past.

I was interested in knowing why she revealed her Mennonite background to my uncle.  She explained that when my uncle and aunt were introduced in church and it was mentioned that they had been exploring the area to find their ancestral home, she thought they might have something in common.  I did not find this explanation totally satisfying as the same thing would have applied to any of us Canadians working at the Mennonite Centre.  My uncle however was quite touched by her story.  As we were leaving, he gave her a lengthy hug which she readily accepted.  She followed us out to the van.  My uncle was sitting in the front passenger seat with his wife directly behind him.  She stood by his window continuing the conversation in Low German.  At the end she gave my uncle a coy smile followed by a wink.  Suddenly I knew why she had revealed her identity to my uncle – she thought he was kind of cute.
Victor & Helga Suderman wih Suazanna Shranko (Janzen)

The work at the Mennonite Centre continues.  Last Friday we had a distraught lady applying for assistance in purchasing medications.  Her husband had been diagnosed with a tumour of the spine.  He had undergone 3 operations and was now bedridden.  They have been prescribed medications that cost 1200 UAH per month (around $100US at the current rate of conversion) while they have a monthly combined pension of 1140 UAH.  We agreed to provide the medications for one month, but the family does have some very difficult decisions to make in the future.

On Sunday as we came out of church we were greeted with the news that there had been gun fire in one of the cities of eastern Ukraine.  The local news media was reporting that Ukrainians had been killed.  One could immediately sense the heightened concern on people around us.  The Mennonite Centre has been preparing to assist the local area if the political situation deteriorates.  If supplies of natural gas are cut off by Russia, many local people and institutions will be unable to prepare food.  This week we finalized and tested the installation of a stand-by generator and electric stove.  All food preparation is usually done by natural gas.  In emergencies we can now prepare meals for all seniors in town and also help out with supplying hot meals for the local hospital and senior’s home.  As Dema our manager said, “The Mennonite Centre is ready for Putin.”
Dema with diesel generator
Electric Stove at Left

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Week 2 The Work Continues

Last Friday was one of those days when you suddenly feel really glad to be working at the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine.  An elderly lady had come into our office at the Centre and started a very animated conversation in Russian with Dema, our manager.  He started smiling and requested that she speak to us directly.  She was happy to oblige him with this request and spoke to us so rapidly and passionately that Dema had trouble keeping up with his simultaneous translation.  Her name was Tamara Sedova and she was thanking the Mennonite Centre for paying for the cost of cataract surgery for one of her eyes.  I gather she must have been fairly blind before the operation.  Her eye sight had been restored to such a degree that she could almost not believe it.  To her it was a miracle.  She kissed me on the hand and kissed Mary on the cheek.  It was the most enthusiastic thanks I have ever received in my life.  It was one of those moments that you later realize should have been captured on video, but had occurred so quickly that the spontaneous part is over before you think of looking for a camera.  We did get a picture of Mary being surprised with a kiss.

The tele-medicine pilot project has been moving along slowly since it was approved last year.   The purpose
Dema with Nurse at Liebenau
of this project has been to improve access to medical care in the former Mennonite villages.  Many villages are staffed with a nursing station or nurse practitioner, known as a feldsher in Ukraine.  Doctors are only stationed in larger towns or cities.  The tele-medicine project is going to use computers, video cameras, and electronic communication to provide a direct link from the nursing station to doctors in larger centres to assist with diagnosis and consultation on more complex medical issues.  It requires solving a number of technical issues.  The biggest problem however is finding doctors and staff in the nursing stations who are comfortable working with the technology.   The doctor we are working with recently had a new nursing station assigned to her care.  We decided to check out the nursing staff at this new location regarding their enthusiasm for this project.  We drove to the former Mennonite village of Liebenau (east of Tokmak for those that are into the geography of the area) and talked to the staff.  They were quite enthusiastic and seemed to have some computer knowledge.  They explained that they had just had a patient that morning that they could not diagnose and would have appreciated a doctor’s opinion.  Dema can now work on the technical issues and hopefully the project will be operational in the near future.

On the way home from Liebenau, we had to drive through the former Mennonite village of Schoensee and
had a chance to check out the progress on the restoration of the former Mennonite church by the Greek Catholic church.  The Mennonite Centre has provided some assistance with purchasing supplies for the renovation.  There was a crew on the premises hard at work plastering the inside.  Last year, the church had a dirt floor and no ceiling.  Now a concrete floor had been poured and the ceiling was complete.  The church is already being used for worship services.

I have often wondered how much the new residents of the former Mennonite villages knew or even cared to know about the history of their village.  We had an interesting incident this past week that shed some light on that subject.  My aunt and uncle are visiting from Canada and of course we had to take them to Alexanderthal, the former home of the Suderman clan.  The original Suderman farm site was no longer in existence and it was difficult to determine its precise location as I could find no specific markers.  Three years ago when touring that village, I had a chance to talk to one of the inhabitants who lived in a house that I assumed was close to the original Mennonite farm site.  I even gave him a printout of what the original farm looked like with all its buildings.  On our visit this past week, we were recognized by this individual who came out to invite us onto his property.  He had something specific that he wanted to show us.  He brought out my original printout of the Suderman farm and pointed to a structure built on top of a well.  He then showed us that this structure had survived and was located right beside his house.  We finally had confirmation of the precise location of the original Suderman farm.  I was amazed that this current resident of Alexanderthal had studied the picture carefully and even preserved it.  The photographs show the well structure circled in red on the original picture as well as how it looks today.
You can click on the pictures to enlarge.
Original Suderman farm-site

Present Day Farm Site

We went to the Kutuzovka church on Sunday and sat through the usual 2 hour service.  As we were leaving, one of the regular attendees at the church spoke to my uncle in low-German.  We were amazed as we had never before had any contact with this individual.  We knew that her ability to speak low-German indicated that she was of Mennonite background.  She did volunteer that her maiden name was Janzen.  We will follow up with her and try to get her story.

In my first blog I started off talking about the volatile political situation in Ukraine.  The sense of tension has eased considerably from when we first arrived.  However, there are more protests in the extreme eastern part of Ukraine and one can feel the sense of unease rising again.  We have seen some military vehicles on the road carrying soldiers.  Our immediate area is very safe at the moment and we continue to pray for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Our Third Term at The Mennonite Centre in Molochansk

Yes Mary and I are back in Ukraine.  We arrived in Molochansk on Wednesday March26.  The political uncertainty hanging over Ukraine has made this the most difficult trip we have undertaken.  The travel itself was no more difficult than any other trip overseas, but the decision as to whether or not to go was agonizing.  We have never traveled into a potential war zone before, and yes it is a very different experience.

One year ago, Mary and I had accepted an appointment for a 3 month term as North American directors at the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk, Ukraine.  We had completed two previous terms here and felt we understood the challenge we were accepting.  In early January we purchased the tickets for our flights.  We were scheduled to leave March 19.  In that short interval, major events took place in Ukraine.  There were large protests in Kyiv by people wanting closer ties to the West, resulting in the overthrow of the Russian leaning Yanukovych government.  This did not please the Russian government lead by Vladimir Putin, who was busy show-casing his country to the world by staging the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.  Russia retaliated by invading Crimea as soon as the Olympic Games were over.  A referendum in Crimea to legitimize the Russian takeover was scheduled on the Sunday just before we were to leave.  After delaying our departure for a week, we decided that if there was no further immediate military action, that we would board our flight on Tuesday March 25.  We did this with a heavy heart as there were many anxious emails from our immediate family.

Mary and I knew that there were many people praying for us.  We heard of this prayer support from many surprising sources.  The most unexpected came at the Winnipeg Airport.  We had to clear US customs in Winnipeg as our flight to Dnepropetrovsk was via Chicago.  The American customs agent asked us for our final destination and was visibly surprised by our declaration of Ukraine.  It quickly became clear that his examination of us was over and we were having a personal conversation. He wanted to know why we were going and what organization we were working for.  His response of, “This may sound redundant, but I am sure there are many prayers going with you” was something I had not expected from a usually hardnosed customs official.

We arrived on schedule in Dnepropetrovsk to see the smiling but apprehensive faces of Dema, our manager at the Mennonite Centre, and his wife Oksana.  We have worked closely with them in the past and they have become friends.  Their level of fear of a Russian invasion was much higher than I had anticipated.  Their first request was to ask us not to unpack our suitcases and to be ready to move with 10 minutes notice.  My first reaction was that we had made a terrible mistake in coming to Ukraine.  Not only had we placed ourselves in some danger but we were adding to our hosts responsibilities of looking after our safety as well as their own family.

Fear can have its own contagion.  Our first night in Molochansk was memorable.  We were dead tired from our overseas travels.  Our apartment had been a bit warm and I opened a window.  After first falling asleep, I woke up in the night to hear the distance rumble of moving vehicles.  I tried to recognize if they might be the sounds of military vehicles.  Eventually I figured out that it was a train approaching Molochansk.  I heard it slow down as it approached the local station.  There were a surprising number of trains that came through Molochansk that night.  I heard them all.  Eventually my mind moved on from the fear of military vehicles to thinking about the day in November 2, 1928 when my mother boarded a train at this very station for the start of her journey to Canada.  I fell asleep at that point knowing my mother would have done all my worrying for me.

The next day we realized that there was a significant disconnect between the international news from the west and local news.  Without meaning to disrespect our local hosts, we decided to take our cues from the international news media with regard to the situation in Ukraine.  On Saturday we read a report from Reuters that there had been discussions between President Obama and Vladimir Putin as well as a statement from the Russian foreign minister that there would be no further invasions of Ukraine.  While nothing is guaranteed in life, it was comforting enough for us to unpack our suitcases.  In case of an emergency evacuation, Mary and I decided that everything we had was just “stuff” and our lives did not depend on it. 

Enough of politics.  Our reception at the Mennonite Centre was beautiful.  I have never had so many hugs from the staff before.  They were glad to see us.  We felt that our arrival was reassuring for them. The weather was also welcoming.  On our arrival the temperature was 24 degrees Celsius.  It has since cooled a bit but it is much warmer than Winnipeg and absolutely no snow.  The apricot trees are in blossom and even the daffodils are in bloom.  The tulips should be out in a week.

How well we remember the church services in Ukraine.  The services are about 2 hours in length.  If it is shorter, the people feel they have not received their money’s worth.  The sermon has to be at least one hour in length.  The church also prayed for 2 young men who were being called up for military service the next day.  The best part of the service for us was being warmly welcomed by so many acquaintances.

Monday morning we had a number of petitioners with their documented requests.  They both were for cancer surgery.  Life continues to be difficult for many people, especially the seniors.  Food prices are rising because of the current difficulties.  Heating homes for some is a luxury. We saw this elderly lady crossing the local soccer field with some scavenged wood.  Mary and I are glad to be back in Molochansk.