Tuesday, 15 April 2014

WEEK 3 COMING OUT - UKRAINIAN STYLE

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

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