It has been a week of new adventures. While we might have a basic plan for the day, the events often unfold in surprising ways. This week was no exception to that rule.
Last Sunday we were invited to attend the service at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Tokmak. After the service, they were going to have a light lunch for everyone and then have a “round table” discussion with us. There was no clue for us as to what the topic of the discussion would be. It turns out they were just curious about us and had many questions. The questions included: what are Mennonites, what were our ancestors doing in this area of Ukraine, and why did they leave. They were all reasonable questions from people who had limited knowledge of their local history but were curious as to why the Mennonite Centre exists. I have gotten used to giving a two minute history of Mennonites including why our ancestors moved to Ukraine.
The question as to why the Mennonites left Ukraine gets into a delicate area. History has many changing perspectives in defining who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”. My parents knew exactly who the “bad guys” were. They were the bandits that plundered, murdered and raped the Mennonite villages during the unrest of the Civil War in 1917-1921. The bad guys were also the communist authorities that destroyed the Mennonite way of life. The current local population will have had a life time of learning in schools that the bad guys were the “kulaks” (rich people) who got their wealth by stealing from the poor. As there is no common understanding of who the “bad guys” are, there is no point in using labels in describing anybody. I did acknowledge the disruption and hurts of the Civil War without trying to pass judgement on anybody and how that resulted in 20,000 Mennonites leaving Ukraine for Canada in the 1920’s. I also described how the events of World War II resulted in all remaining Mennonites leaving the area, either voluntarily or forcibly.
|Deep in Discussion|
I also had a question for them. For people who had grown up under communism, which actively promoted an atheist way of life, I asked them why they were attending a church and if they could give me a glimpse into their faith journey. Most answers were a bit of a cop-out as they described why they left the Orthodox Church to join the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church. A few did attempt to address my question of why they had a faith life. For some there had been a parental influence, one person referenced a radio program that got her started, and a number commented on the warm influence of Father Taras, their young priest. It was a beautiful warm conversation that we all enjoyed.
|Group with Father Taras at the End|
On Sunday afternoon we took a drive with George Dyck out to the south-east area of the former Molotschna settlement to look at some Mennonite villages. This included the village of Alexanderthal, my father’s ancestral village. I had been there a number of times and was recognized by one of the locals. We continued on to the site of the former Steinbach estate where we turned around to retrace our steps back to the highway. As we drove back through Alexanderthal we were waved down by a man I had never seen before. He must have heard that there were Mennonite tourists in the area and desperately wanted to show us a photograph. It was an old picture of a class of children posing with their teacher. We took a picture of his photo. George Dyck posted the picture on Facebook on a site dedicated to Mennonite genealogy and within an hour the photo had been identified. It was the 1938 class in the Alexanderthal School. As the entire population of the village was forcibly moved east to Kazakhstan in October 1941, one has to wonder about the irony of the children with smiles on their faces. Many of them would not have survived the forced relocation. Now I must go back to Alexanderthal someday with an interpreter to find out how that man got the picture.
|Class of 38|
On Tuesday morning we had an appointment to explore the tunnels under the former Mennonite Credit Union building. A number of people from town had expressed an interest in joining us. Mary had that look of quiet apprehension about my joining the group. Oksana was busy asking if anybody in the group had training in CPR. The director of the Sport’s School (the Credit Union Building in Mennonite times) wanted us all to sign a statement releasing her from all responsibility. Otherwise everything else appeared normal. The entrance was quite small and I can admit that I felt a bit apprehensive. I decided to deal with my apprehension by crawling in first. It was a fairly tight fit but I was assured that the tunnel would be larger than the initial opening.
Yes the tunnel was larger than the initial opening. While others could walk in a very stooped fashion, I was too tall and lacked the flexibility to move around as quickly as the others. A more straight forward way of describing it would be too say that I was too old to be exploring tunnels. I did manage to crawl and see some parts of the tunnel including a well located inside the tunnel. I was the first to emerge from the tunnel and did see a look of relief on Mary’s face.
Well in the Tunnel
The rest of the crew did a thorough examination of the tunnels and emerged from the depth with great smiles on their faces. There were 3 parallel tunnels under the Credit Union building. The disappointing fact is that despite all the local folklore, we have not seen any evidence that the tunnels really go beyond the buildings. Further exploration (by others) is required.
We have less than a week to go before we leave Molochansk. The time has gone by too quickly and we sit here wondering if there is some way we could extend our stay. That would get too complicated, but it reflects our feelings about the work of the Mennonite Centre.
|Contemplating our Future with some Ice Cream|
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