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:

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:

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

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.