Sunday, 15 October 2017


This has been the week for celebrating Thanksgiving in Canada.  There is not quite the same tradition in Ukraine though they have a harvest celebration sometime in August.  Mary suggested that we thank our kind staff at the Mennonite Centre by having a party for them where we (Mary and I), would prepare a traditional Canadian Thanksgiving meal for them.  All I had to do was agree with Mary’s idea, cook the turkey, make the cranberry sauce, and prepare the cherry sauce for dessert.  Mary would look after the rest.  This is our natural division of responsibilities for dinners at home and naturally I agreed.  As usual in Ukraine, things happen along the way that make you shake your head saying, “I did not see that coming”.

Our first problem was buying a turkey.  We have seen them in villages roaming around with the other fowl.  However we have never seen one for sale in a store.  We were planning on spending several days in Zaporozhe with our representative Olga Rubel.  She knew a farmer in one of the villages that raised turkeys and as we were already scheduled to visit that village, we could stop at the farm and pick up the turkey at the same time.

The village we were going to is called Shyroke.  It was called Neuendorf in Mennonite times and is one of the villages in the north end of the Chortiza settlement.  Over the years the local school has received help from the Mennonite Centre in buying new doors and windows, chalk boards, and desks.  A recent donation had supplied them with four sewing machines and some embroidery thread. They enthusiastically showed us the room with all the equipment.  What struck us most was the warm bond between the teacher in the sewing room and her students.  Apparently even the boys try to sign up for sewing instruction so they can interact with her.  The school administration gave us a thorough tour of the school with many expressions of thanks for making their school a better place for the students.
Sewing Room with Teacher and New Sewing Machines in Background
Classroom with new windows, chalkboard and desks

When we left the school, the sewing teacher skipped a class and came with us as we were buying the turkey from her.  On our drive to her house, she started telling us her story.  Her grandmother was originally from the Kharkov region.  She had fled west during World War II as the front had come through her area.  She walked for several 100 kilometers and ended up in Neuendorf in 1942.  The German front had passed this area quickly in 1941 and the place was largely undamaged and still inhabited by Mennonites.  Her grandmother found shelter in this village and was given food by the Mennonite inhabitants which allowed her to survive.  With the advancing Russian front in 1943, the Mennonite population fled west in the fall.  The teacher’s grandmother stayed and became a permanent resident of Neuendorf.  Despite the negative press from Soviet authorities after the war, she remembered the kindness of the Mennonites and thought of them favourably.  It was a touching story.
Mary being presented with Embroidered Runner from Sewing Teacher

When we got to her house we realized that it was a former Mennonite building.  It was well maintained and she told us that next time we came we had to come to her house for a cup of tea.  While Olga Rubel went inside to pay, we loaded up the turkey in our van.  We then took the teacher back to school to complete her teaching for the day and started our drive back to Zaporozhe.  Once we were on our own I asked Olga about the price of the turkey.  I am naturally curious about many things and I just wanted to see how it compared to Canadian prices.  To our surprise, Olga became rather emotional and in a halting voice she told us that the teacher had refused to accept any payment.  This was the teacher’s opportunity to thank the Mennonites in Neuendorf for saving her grandmother’s life.  We were all shocked and drove on in silence.   We are accustomed to seeing Thanksgiving as a time to be thankful.  We are not used to receiving thanks in such a powerful and surprising way. 

The Thanksgiving party for our staff was a great success.  The 25 pound turkey (weighed it with my luggage scales) actually fit into the oven and was done on time.  All family members of our staff were invited and we had 16 people in attendance.  I started off by talking about Canadian Thanksgiving traditions with Oksana translating.  To avoid having to translate the blessing for the meal, I asked Oksana to do this in the local language.  Ira (our cook) had brought her partner and he objected.  We could not eat till I had said the grace in English.  I was glad to oblige.  The people were willing to give the strange looking dressing a try.  The cranberry sauce got a few tries but was not their favourite.  They really went for the turkey.  For a number of them, this was the first time they had ever eaten turkey.  Mary and I did not understand this, but for local people to have access to as much meat as they wanted was a real luxury. 
Party Room Decorated by Mary
Alvin Carving theTurkey
Group Photo of Participants

We sat around the table and talked as a group.  They asked a lot of questions about our lives in Canada and probed into our historical links with their town.  They were surprised to find out that my mother had lived in Molochansk (Halbstadt) and had left here in 1928 to go to Canada.  We asked them all to share what they were thankful for.  It was the first time that we had a party for our staff where we were together and not segregated by language groups.  Oksana was so busy translating that she almost did not get to eat. 

I would like to briefly continue my exploration of the book “A Mennonite Estate Family in Southern Ukraine” by Nicola Fehderau. When writing about events in Halbstadt in 1922, the author mentions the name “Bagon”.  He was the top Soviet official in town.  I reacted to this name because, as a youngster, I had heard this name often when my parents were visiting with relatives who also came from this area.  I even know the correct pronunciation. It is pronounced ba-gun, with the accent on the second syllable. He was always mentioned with a sense of fear with reference to different people he had sentenced to be executed including my mother’s cousin Aaron Wiebe.

The story in the book begins with Nicola’s mother hearing that they are about to be evicted from their house.  She would like to confirm the story with Soviet officials but it is dangerous for a man to walk into their offices.  His mother bravely takes on the task and walks into Bagon’s office.  He receives her courteously but gives an evasive answer regarding his intentions on evicting them.  Three days later they receive the eviction notice.

My interest is in understanding Bagon.  Very little is known about him.  According to other sources, he was of Latvian ancestry but had worked in a Mennonite publishing house in Halbstadt before the war.  He therefore knew the Mennonite people.  At the time of this story, Bagon was living with a very pretty girl who used to be a servant in the Fehderau’s neighbours home.  It is always interesting as to what the author observed and commented on.  It is my speculation that Bagon fell out of favour with Soviet authorities sometime after the revolution and was marginalized in the new communist society.  I base this on a story my mother told me.

My mother, her three sisters and parents left Halbstadt in 1928 to come to Canada.  They left behind her two brothers, who could not get the documents to travel.  My mother and her parents stayed in touch with her brothers by mail and sent them money during the Holodomor (the forced famine by Stalin of the Ukrainian people in 1932-33) in order to buy food.  One day in Canada they received a letter from Bagon demanding money.  He had become aware that her brothers’ were receiving money from Canada and extorted my mother’s address from them.  In a separate letter, her brother told them not to send any money.  Bagon tried to use his fierce reputation to gain a personal advantage but he no longer had any power to cause trouble.  No money was sent from Canada and as far as we know, there were no consequences for my mother’s brothers.  I remember feeling some satisfaction that Bagon would be reduced to a form of begging in order to get food. I don’t know if he survived the Holodomor. I would love to see the letter that Bagon wrote but it no longer exists.

One day at the Mennonite Centre I asked if there were any people by the name of Bagon living in the area.  Our staff had never heard of anyone with that name.  I sometimes ask myself what I would do if someone with that name came looking for assistance.  I do not have an easy answer but hope that I would judge the situation with Christian care and compassion.  On the other hand, we will not be erecting any monuments in his honour at the Mennonite Centre.

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