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/