Saturday, 7 October 2017


We have now been in Molochansk Ukraine for almost two weeks and continue to come across small incidents that provide validation as to why the Mennonite Centre is so important to this area.

I was walking to the local train station to get tickets for our planned trip to Kyiv, when a young man came by on a motor scooter.  He slowed down when he recognized Oksana and gave her a big smile and wave.  Oksana told me that he was a graduate of the local orphanage and was studying to become an electrician at a trade school.  This was only possible because of a scholarship from the Mennonite Centre.  That was his connection with Oksana.  He was wise enough to know that he should maintain a good relationship with the Centre but the depth of his smile really spoke to his thankfulness.

Last spring I recall that as a board member of FOMCU, I received a copy of an application for a woman in Molochansk to have some surgery.  The request looked okay to me and I voted in favour of the request as did other board members. The request was approved.  Last week Oksana was at the post office and was approached by this woman.  She had just had the surgery and in tears she stood there and thanked Oksana, the Mennonite Centre and sent a special thanks to all the donors overseas for making this possible.  It is usual for people to give their thanks to Oksana and ourselves if we are in town, but to recognize that this money comes from individual donations in Canada and the United States was unusual. 

Sometimes we come across stories that make us recognize the depth of the social problems in Ukraine.  In the last few weeks in Molochansk there were four attempted suicides, with three of them successful.  It speaks to the level of hopelessness due to a high rate of unemployment as well as substance abuse.  I understand that almost 60% of adults in Ukraine suffer from some level of addiction to alcohol.  This compares to about a 10% rate of alcoholism in the west.  This will explain to our supporters why the Mennonite Centre does not give out cash for any assistance.  If you require surgery, we will pay the hospital directly and deposit the money in the hospitals bank account.  This way all transactions can be audited and it provides better transparency.

I have heard the joke that if a Mennonite won a $1,000,000, they would blow it all on rum and Mennonite history books.  I have to admit that since getting involved in the work of the Mennonite Centre, I have blown lot of money on Mennonite history books.  This last winter I read a book that has fascinated me.  It is entitled, “A Mennonite Estate Family in Southern Ukraine”.  The book is written by Nicholas J. Fehderau.  It is the personal account of a young boy growing up in Molochansk (called Halbstadt in Mennonite times), who lived through the revolutionary times and came to Canada in 1924 as a young man.  He records some fascinating details including quotes from his parents, who now probably wish that he had not been so attentive.  In the next several weeks, I would like to take my readers on a tour of Halbstadt, exploring the present day town through the eyes of Nicholas Fehderau.

When I come out of the front door of the Mennonite Centre, I find myself looking across the street and imagining a large haystack behind all the current houses and high fences.  This is because of the book by Nicholas Fehderau as well as a chance encounter I had back in 1998 at a Suderman reunion in Abbotsford. The reunion was the usual assembly of aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins.   Another person by the name of Suderman heard about the reunion dropped in just to greet us and give us his story.  His parents/grandparents had lived in Halbstadt and owned a car dealership.  They imported Opel cars from Germany.  In traditional Mennonite naming fashion, they were known as the Opel Sudermans.  In 1913, Nicholas father bought a brand new car from the Opel Sudermans.  The garage for their dealership is located right around the corner from the Mennonite Centre and it is in their back yard that I see my imaginary haystack.

With the overthrow of the Czar in November 1917, there was a gradual descent into anarchy in Halbstadt.  It started with some bizarre legal charges from the new local authorities. One charge was that the son of one of the local wealthy Mennonite families had shot their maid.  Her body was found in their garden.  Nicholas mother gave an interesting line of defense for the accused when she said, “Surely (he) would never do such a thing.  That fat blob is much too lazy to shoot anybody”. (It probably sounded a bit more polite in the original German.) I have withheld the name of the individual, but if you wish to know, you can read the book for yourself. The charges were eventually dismissed but it was a sign of trouble ahead.

In February of 1918, Halbstadt was fully controlled by a Bolshevik army.  There was much looting and any means of transport, including horses and cars, were confiscated for use by the army. There were two men murdered in their homes and 30 men were arrested and held in the small municipal jail, just down the street from the Mennonite Centre.  On February 18, 1918 the summary executions started.  The first to be dragged out of the cell was the young man accused of shooting their maid.  He was placed up against a building in full site of the other 29 men and shot.  Five other men were also brought out one at a time and shot.  For some reason, the executions stopped at that point.  It may be that a more senior Bolshevik officer appeared on the scene and ordered an end to the executions.  The surviving 24 men were eventually released, but as Nicholas notes in the book, the town was in shock.
 Mennonite Municipal Building

On March 3, 1918, Germany and Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty which took Russia out of World War I.  Among the many conditions Russia had to accept was the fact that Ukraine would be recognized as a separate country and that Germany had the right to occupy it for 15 years.  This news only reached Halbstadt gradually.  The Bolshevik army continued to occupy the town and cause trouble.  Sometimes the trains would stop and Bolshevik troops would come into town 
“requisitioning” food for themselves. By mid-April, people in Halbstadt heard that the German army was in Melitopol, about 45 miles to the south. It was hoped that they would come to Halbstadt and restore some order to the place.  There was just no way of contacting and inviting the German army to come to Halbstadt as all means of conveyance had been stolen.

By early April it was apparent to the locals that something was changing as the Bolshevik’s looked increasingly agitated.  They were starting to withdraw their armies.  On some days the local people counted close to 30 trains passing through Halbstadt loaded with Bolshevik soldiers and supplies.

To everyone’s surprise in Halbstadt, there was suddenly a red car on the road.  It was driven by Willy and Jasch (Jacob) Suderman of the Opel Sudermans.  Their property had been thoroughly searched by the Bolsheviks but the Sudermans had succeeded in hiding a car.  They had simply built a haystack around it. This must have been behind their garage, right across from the present day Mennonite Centre.  Willy and Jasch managed to make contact with the German army and a train carrying German troops arrived in Halbstadt on April 18, 1918 shortly after 4:30 PM.  Willy and Jasch were the heroes of the town as some sense of stability was finally restored.  The surrounding population however noted the collaboration with the German army and bided their time.
Current View Site of Opel Garage

Typical Haystack Today

With the signing in the west of the Armistice agreement on November 11, 1918, the Russian government abrogated the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and moved to reoccupy Ukraine.  Germany decided not to make an issue of it and withdrew its troops.  The Civil War erupted in full battle with Halbstadt being variously occupied by opposing White and Red (Bolshevik) armies.  During one of the times that the Red army was in control, Willy Suderman was arrested and sentenced to be executed.  Willy was married with a family.  There were some quick and anxious negotiations and it was agreed that Willy’s younger unmarried brother (name not given in the book) would take his place.  The younger brother was shot.

I am left looking at my imaginary haystack and wondering what survivor guilt was carried by Willy Suderman.  I also wonder about the man I met in 1998 at the Suderman reunion and if he was a descendant of Willy Suderman.  History is so different when you know the story.

Maybe this story can help explain why we are connected to the work of the Mennonite Centre.  It is part of our own reconciliation process.  Mary and I have come to love the people that are here. They are still hurting from the events that occurred 100 years ago and we are glad to help.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

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