Saturday, 21 October 2017

WEEK 4 SCRATCHING THE SURFACE

I feel that I should start off this blog with a warning.  It is more about my interest in local Mennonite history than it is about the ongoing work of the Mennonite Centre in providing assistance to the people now living where our Mennonite ancestors once lived.  It is based on many conversations and experiences that came at surprising times during our regular work here at the Mennonite Centre.  I ask for your tolerance as I feel compelled to write this blog as it is what is on my mind.

On November 7, 2017, Ukraine will pass the 100th anniversary of a very important event in their history and nobody cares.  On October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg.  This date is based on the old calendar.  On January 31, 2018 the new government moved to align their calendar with the rest of the world.  The following day after January 31 in the new Russia was February 13.  When you adjust the date of October 25 to the new calendar, you come up with the new date of November 7.

I mention this fact because on November 7, 1967, there was a large celebration in Halbstadt (now called Molochansk), celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bolsheviks coming to power.  The Rozhman family of Halbstadt came out to celebrate that event with their two little boys and to see the big parade come down the main street.   It was important enough that it was recorded on a picture.  Alexandre Rozhman (one of the boys in the picture) remembered exactly where the picture was taken.  Naturally I had to go out subsequently and capture the view as seen today. Note that you can enlarge the pictures by clicking on them

Rozhman Family 1967

Same StreetView 2017

The importance of the picture to us is not the family but rather what else one can see in the picture.   The building on the right is the former Mennonite municipal office (Gebietsamt).  On the left in the background and covered very much by the trees is the former Mennonite credit union.  The house on the left that is most visible is standing in the location identified in Mennonite maps as the Thiessen residence/store.  It is not the original Thiessen building and it has since been demolished.  The roof line of the Mennonite Credit Union is different than today.  Alexander Rozhman grew up attending an open air theater in the former credit union building.  Most likely it lost its roof during the war.  The roof line was changed when the roof was restored and the building is now used as a sports school.

As an aside, Alexandre shared a picture of the old Willms mansion taken in 1957.  The picture has been damaged by being cut, but one can see the building with no roof and part of the second floor missing on the left.  I can look out of my bedroom window and confirm that the roof has been replaced but there is no one using the building at the moment.
Damaged 1957 Photo of Willms Mansion


The reason Alexandre came to the office was to help me with my ongoing research into tunnels in Halbstadt.  I wrote a blog last year about the start of my investigation into tunnels.  The stories all focused on the former Credit Union building and we toured the basement and saw where the entrance to tunnels had been closed by bricks.  Last year we also toured an underground storage facility that is part of a Mennonite house.  It is now privately owned and the lady who let us in a year ago has since died.  This can complicate further access.  Her grandson did tell us that the entire population of Halbstadt hid in that structure during the artillery bombardment in October 1943.  He told us there was a well inside the underground structure to supply the people with water.


Alexandre has had a lifelong fascination about the history of Halbstadt.  He expressed this to a history teacher in school who cautioned him not to go there.  It was official communist policy to suppress and eradicate the history of the Mennonites living in this area.  I suspect this caution just raised Alexandre’s curiosity.  He told me of his exploits in exploring the tunnels underneath the former Mennonite boys school (Zentral Schule) which is right across the street from the credit union.  He talked about walking through wide tunnels.  When he came to the end, there were smaller openings on the side.  He crawled through these and came to other wide tunnels.  There was even an underground well in one location that had a device you could turn to open or close to control access to the water.  He stopped his exploration when he started running out of candle power.

Alexandre provided me with a hand written map of where he believes the tunnels exist.  He drew this up with the help of another lady who he assured me had personally walked all the way from the Willms mansion, through the credit union and on to the Willms flour mill and beyond.  I have been promised that I will personally meet this lady before I leave Halbstadt.  Alexandre expressed his appreciation at being able to share his information with us and told us what a delight it had been to meet us.  He then kissed Mary and Oksana goodbye and left with a smile.
Alexandre Rozhman


He left us with a lot to think about.  According to the map, the tunnel went from the Willms mansion through a number of houses, the former Mennonite girls’ school ( now the Mennonite Centre), on through the former Mennonite orphanage, under the former Mennonite Brethren church, under the Raduga publishing house and into the Zentral Schule on the way to the Credit Union.  For those who know at bit about Mennonite history and politics, that is a strange assortment of conspirators - if you wish to read something sinister into all this.

The easiest place to start my further research was right at the Mennonite Centre.  There is an opening at the side that leads into the basement.  I had been there before but had never looked up.  Sure enough, I was in a tunnel with a curved brick ceiling that ran parallel to the street.  My problem was that I was not that deep underground.  I went outside and looked at the place where the tunnel would have exited the building.  There were some interesting clues outside.
Tunnel Under Mennonite Centre used as Storage
Tunnel Exit Covered by Brick


The tunnel left the building with the top part above ground level.  The exit of the tunnel has been sealed off by bricks but it was not done by Mennonites.  I know this because the bricks sealing the exit are not done in the traditional Flemish bond pattern (alternating long and short) which you can see in the other part of the building.  Mennonites used that brick pattern religiously in all their construction.  If a tunnel existed here it would have been partially above ground level.  I have looked at old photos of our building but cannot find one that confirms that.

For further research we went to the top and got a meeting with our Mayor.  He was interested and quickly arranged to get access to the tunnels under the Zentral Schule.  We entered the back yard of this old school building with the Mayor’s assistant breaking down some small trees to ease our access.  We also had to scramble over some piles of rubble, go down some decrepit steps where they pulled open an unlocked door.  Once inside the basement we soon entered the tunnels.  They were wide and high, just like Alexandre had told us.  It had a curved ceiling made of brick.  There were a number of ventilation ducts built of brick giving an opening for fresh air.  At the end of some tunnels we saw the smaller access places described by Alexandre.  If one were younger and so inclined we could have tried crawling through them.  There were a few places where large opening had been sealed with bricks.  You could easily spot these as they do not have the Flemish bond brick pattern which is visible throughout the tunnel.
Zentral Schule Tunnels with Mary Oksana and Mayor

Small Connecting Tunnels

Close-up of Connecting Tunnels

After leaving the tunnels we were approached by some local women.  They knew about the tunnels and correctly guessed as to where the mayor had taken us.  They started sharing their stories.  One of them had worked at a collective farm in the 1980’s.  She had a key to the tunnels at that time as it was used by the farm to store produce.  She told us about wandering around the tunnels.  She claims to have walked most of the way to the mill but turned back because of time constraints.  The group talked about how great it was to finally share their information with us as it no longer had to be kept secret.
Ad hoc Tunnel Committee Meeting with Mayor on Left


There is no doubt in my mind that the tunnels were built by Mennonites.  I also believe that they were built before the events of 1917 as they are such an integral part of the buildings they pass through.  What is puzzling is that there is no reference to them in any literature that I have read.  I can only conclude that the process of building and using the tunnels was so mundane that it did not need to be mentioned.

Word of my interest in tunnels is getting around town.  We had one man stop by the Mennonite Centre when we were out to tell us about tunnels in his village.  He lives south of the Molotschna settlement area and about 6 miles from Melitopol.  We go to his town on a Sunday afternoon as there are some springs coming out of the hills and it is a lovely place to have a picnic.  He claims to have tunnels in his village and someday I may have the opportunity to visit them.

I named my topic today “Scratching the Surface” because that is what I feel I have done with this topic. It needs some diligent and organized research and I am open to getting some help.

Next week Mary and I are off to Kyiv.  I am scheduled to give a short opening address at a Christian Education conference. We also have a meeting with Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine.  We want to thank him for coming to the Mennonite Centre last year and participating in the celebration of our 15th anniversary.

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/

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