This week we had the opportunity of exploring one of the local myths about Molochansk (called Halbstadt in Mennonite times).
|Molochansk Sports School formerly the Mennonite Credit Union Building|
It all started off innocently enough. We were off to the Molochansk Sports School to look at some completed projects and to talk to them about their requests for assistance. We have been a faithful sponsor, enabling many of their athletes to attend major sporting events. Even though they have a relatively equal number of boys and girls in their program, the requests have often favoured the boys. We wanted to encourage them to give equal opportunity for girls to attend major sporting competitions. In the process we got to see the steps we had paid to repair as well as an energetic workout by their gymnastics class. In this class I recognized the daughter of Tanya, one of our employees. After many years of working for us, Tanya reluctantly acknowledged that she had a Mennonite grandmother with the surname of Peters.
|Top Steps Showing Repair with Ben and Lil in Background|
The Molochansk Sports School is located in a former Mennonite building – namely the Mennonite Credit Union. The rumours of tunnels always focus on this building and we took advantage of our visit to ask if we could examine the basement to see if there was any sign of tunnels. The staff was quite obliging and went to get the keys for the basement doors. We toured every room in the dark basement and heard many stories from the staff.
The main rumour in town was that there was a tunnel from the Heinrich Willms mansion all the way to the credit union building and then on to his flour mill located in what we now call Alt-Halbstadt (Old –Halbstadt). This seems like a long distance and needs to be illustrated by a map.
The points of interest on the map are:
1. The Franz and Schroeder machine factory. This is now the location of a major furniture factory.
2. The Heinrich Willms mansion.
3. The Mennonite Girls’ School – now the site of the Mennonite Centre.
4. The Mennonite Credit Union building – now the Molochansk Sports School.
5. The approximate site of the seven story flour mill owned by Heinrich Willms. It has subsequently been used as a milk canning factory.
6. The site of a former Mennonite House where we went underground to examine some tunnels.
The map was not drawn to scale and distances can be deceptive. After our tour I decided to get some “accurate” measurements. I got out the Mennonite Centre van and drove to a location between the Willms Mansion and the old Franz and Schroeder factory. I set my trip odometer and started driving in as straight a line as I could on the pot-holed roads. When I got to the Credit Union, I had driven a distance of .8 kilometers (.5 miles). I kept going and reached the old flour mill at a total distance of 1.9 kilometers (1.18 miles). That is a long tunnel.
The story from the staff at the Sports School was that many tunnels converged on the Credit Union Building. There definitely was one that came from the former Mennonite Boys’ School (Central Schule) across the street. It was big enough to hold a carriage. The staff told us of an incident in 1982 or 1983 when some young boys decided to explore these tunnels. The tunnels had already been filled with sand but the boys found a way of digging through the sand. One boy got lost and was not found for a number of hours. After that, the local authorities decided to get rid of the potential problem. The tunnel entrances in the Sports School were sealed with a brick wall.
|Ben Standing in Front of Sealed Wall|
The Sports School staff told us of another tunnel entrance that was built as part of a Mennonite house. It had its own unique gate and entrance. It was common for Mennonite homes to mark their entrance into their yard with large pillars or even a brick gate. A large ornate gate gave some indication of the wealth of the individual residing at that residence. This residence had an old brick gate just marking the entrance to the tunnel.
Everybody seems to know everybody else in Molochansk and our guide ran off to get the lady of the house to come and unlock the gate. She soon appeared with her key but the old large padlock would not budge. This was not seen as a problem as they summed a man from another residence who came with a large set of pliers. He gave the rusty old lock a couple of whacks and soon the key did its job and the gate was open. We stood there at the top of the stairs wondering who among us would be stupid enough to venture down into this crumbling infrastructure.
|View of Tunnel from the Entrance|
I guess I assumed that I was the most expendable and was the first to venture down the staircase. I looked back and could see that others were also tempted. Everyone else in our group soon followed. Nobody wanted to miss this unique opportunity.
The stairway led to large chambers that were totally underground. They were completely lined with brick - even the ceiling. One room had a sort of chimney that the local person referred to as an elevator. One could use that chimney to directly raise or lower goods into the chambers. It was a large underground storage facility. We did not explore every room and I cannot say with certainty that this did not lead to other tunnels but suspect it did not. What amazed me was the expense the owner had gone to in creating this underground storage space. The large rooms were dry with no sign of flooding. It was an amazing discovery.
|Small Entrances to Other Underground Rooms|
What was most amazing about our exploration that day was the cooperation of the local people in Molochansk. When the Mennonite Centre opened 15 years ago, we were met with suspicion and some hostility. Now we are openly welcomed and people accommodate us as best they can. The lady who owns the former Mennonite house on the property we were exploring was very open. She claimed to have documents on the house going back to 1905. I asked to see these and hoped it would give some clue as to who had lived there. At one time this request would have been met with the suspicion that we were trying to reclaim the house. Now she just went and got her papers. Unfortunately she could not find any papers going to Mennonite times in her file but promised to come see me if she did.
On our walk home from this discovery, we met Vitally, our former maintenance man. We told him of our exciting adventure and he started sharing his own stories of tunnels. He told us of two former Mennonite homes which had stood right bedside the Mennonite Centre but have now been demolished and replaced by a large apartment building. These homes had been connected by an underground tunnel. He also told us of a tunnel connecting the Willms mansion and the former Franz and Schroeder factory. He claimed to have walked this tunnel himself.
Is there a tunnel running from the Willms mansion all the way to his floor mill 1.9 kilometers away? I still do not know for sure but am starting to believe it could be possible. I would love to examine the town with ground penetrating radar (or whatever it should be called) and see what we can find. I would love to understand why our Mennonite ancestors made this large investment in underground structures. Was this also done elsewhere in Ukraine? There are many questions still to be answered. The underground existence of our Mennonite forefathers needs to be brought to light.
If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/