Wednesday, 30 October 2019


On the night of October 26-27, 1919, eighty-three people were murdered in the Mennonite village of Eichenfeld (now called Novopetrovka), a small village located on the west bank of the Dnieper River between Zaporozhe and Dnipro.  Thirty-seven of these people were related to one of our board members, Anita Toews.  The atrocities were committed by the followers of Nestor Makhnov, a local anarchist who was active during the time of the Civil War.  When we realized that both Anita and Dave as well as Mary and I were going to be in Ukraine at that time, we knew we had to do something to honour the 100th anniversary of that event.

We had the option of making it a small private memorial service or we could try to involve the local community in the event.  While it is a lot more work to involve the local community, we thought it was worth the effort to do this as they are part of the story.  Three weeks ago, we drove out to the village and met with the manager of the local “House of Culture” (auditorium) as well as the local school principal.  This gave us a strategy for the venue, participation of locals in the program, and an agreement to advertise the event.  I asked Olga Rubel, our representative in Zaporozhe to be the Master of Ceremonies and she really took charge of the program and worked out all the details.

House of Culture in Eichenfeld

We left Molochansk early Saturday morning for the 3-hour drive to Eichenfeld (Novopetrovka).  We got there by 11:00 AM and got ready for the event which was to start at noon.  Several representatives from various Mennonite organizations came as well as about 70 towns people.  A local choir dressed in traditional Ukrainian attire started the program with several songs.  One of the songs was a mother’s lament for the loss of a loved one.  Two young girls from the local school sang solos.

Local Choir

In my address, I tried to give the historical context of what happened.  My full speech was as follows:

On the night of October 26-27, 1919, a terrible event happened here in Novopetrovka.  83 people died that night in this village.  What were the circumstances that lead to this tragedy?  There were two separate events that converged on this village that day.

In the summer of 1919, with the Civil War still raging in the countryside, the Red Army established control in this area.  The anarchist forces under Nestor Makhnov were pushed north and west from here to the city of Uman where they were encircled by the White Army.  On September 25-26, 1919, Makhnov counter attacked, broke through the encirclement and defeated the White Army.  Their narrow escape may have enraged and emboldened the Makhnov supporters. Within a week, the Makhnov forces had swept back south-east and were closing in on their traditional turf, the area once occupied by my Mennonite ancestors.  That is what brought the angry Makhnov forces to Novopetrovka on October 26, 1919.

The other event that is important is what I will call the tent mission.  At the end of the war, there were some young men and women who became concerned about the spiritual life of the people living in Ukraine and Russia.  These young people were predominantly from Mennonite families but there were others who came from an Orthodox tradition and even a convert from a Jewish tradition.  They received 5 tents from the Red Cross and started what they called a tent mission.  They would travel the country, holding meetings in their tents, and encouraging people to commit to a deeper Christian faith.  They had done this all summer and with winter coming, they decided to head south to their home base in Molochansk.   They conducted tent meetings along the way as they made their way south.  This is what brought the tent mission to Novopetrovka on October 26, 1919.

The details of that day are not clear.  It is known that the Makhnov forces disrupted the actual tent meeting.  The five leaders of the mission were soon killed, and a general slaughter began of the village population.  It was mainly the men who were killed but there are also some names of women on the list.  Many of the surviving women were sexually molested.  The next morning the village was in shock.  There were bodies lying in the street.  Some had been cut to pieces.  The surviving women and children walked around in a daze.  Over the next 5 days, the survivors and others from surrounding villages began to gather the bodies and bury them in 12 quickly dug graves.  The names of people in each grave was recorded.  There was no time or energy for other traditional preparations.  Traditionally in a Mennonite funeral there is a viewing of the body in the coffin.  That was not possible as there was no time to make coffins.

The memorial that stands in this village is in the shape of a coffin, representing the coffins that were missing from the funerals.  It is slightly tilted to enable the viewing of the body that the deceased should have had.

We come today to remember the names of those who died that day.  We would like to also acknowledge the terrible suffering of the Ukrainian population who lived in the villages surrounding Novopetrovka during this period.  We specifically would like to thank you, the people who now live in Novopetrovka.  We thank you for maintaining the memorial site.  We thank those in the community who continue to promote the values of faith and life that were the mainstay of so many Mennonites at that time.  We thank the local pastors and priests for encouraging the life and faith of those who have lived and died in this village.  Specifically, we would like to thank Lubov for her faithful work in this village in administering the emergency medical fund that is financed by the Mennonite Centre.  We, the Mennonite Centre, would like to continue our relationship with Novopetrovka.  You have been a blessing to the descendants of the people that died here 100 years ago, and we would like to be an ongoing blessing in your daily lives.

Alvin Speaking and Olga Translating

In her speech, Anita Toews was very poignant and personal as she related the event through her father’s eyes.  Her speech was as follows:

One hundred years ago today, my father - Henry Regehr - was 14 years old. He lived in a small village named Reinfeld not far from here. Johann Schellenberg and his wife Helena Pauls, my father's cousins also lived in Reinfeld, just a few houses away.

During the week before October 25, 1919, some missionaries came to these villages to preach God's word. On Friday, the missionaries arrived here to Novopetrovka. Johann Schellenberg also came here to meet the missionaries and to ask them to come to Reinfeld on Sunday.  He wanted to invite them to his house for a rest, a good meal and good conversation.  Today we know that they never went to Reinfeld. We know that terrible things happened to them before they could leave this place. But Helena his wife did not know what happened to her husband.  She knew he didn't come home on Saturday night. And then he didn't come home on Sunday.

Soon the family was hearing reports of murders going on in Novopetrovka. On Tuesday morning, Helena asked her son to see if he could find out what happened. So her son Johann took the wagon and went to look for his father. Here, in this village he came to the barn of Isaac Warkentin. When he went inside the barn, he found his father wearing only a shirt and underwear lying dead in the straw, covered with blood and dirt. His head had been cut from the back with a sword. Young Johann picked up his father's body and took it back to Reinfeld. When he arrived in Reinfeld with the wagon, my 14 year old father watched as the family washed the body, dressed him in his clothes and laid him straight in the wagon. The body of Johann Schellenburg was the only body removed from the village and given a proper burial.  The other 82 people were all quickly buried in 12 mass graves over the next 5 days without the dignity of a proper burial.

On that weekend of October 25 and 26 there were 83 people killed in Novopetrovka, 8 more in Dolinovka, 18 people in Morozovka, and 10 people in the German villages of Petersdorf and Paulheim.  Of those 119 who died on that weekend, I was related to 37. I mourn when I think of how they suffered and how they died. I know what my father saw when Johann Schellenberg's body was brought home in the wagon. And I know it was something he could never forget.

But I also remember how Helena Pauls said in her story, "God is merciful." And I remember how my father learned to believe that God is good. He never forgot the things that he had seen and heard, but he learned to forgive.

In 1923, when my father was 18, he left this country with his family. He lived to be an old man, but he never came back here.  It wasn't possible and he had too many memories. Maybe that is why I like to come here. It feels as if I am coming home, that these are my roots and this is where I belong.

Eighteen years ago, in 2001, I came to Novopetrovka with many members of my family for the dedication of this memorial.  I remember walking through the town that day to the holy ground near the monument. Many people in the village came out of their houses and walked with us down the middle of the street. I remember women with large bouquets of peonies joining us as we walked. I will never forget how grateful I was for all of you that were here that day and I felt your love.

We cannot change the things that happened 100 years ago. We can only honor those who died and remember the survivors who moved forward so we can live. There are thousands of people - in Canada, United States, Germany and Ukraine who know this story and were affected by it. I want to light a candle today in memory of all those who died and all those who lived. May their light shine and never be put out.

Anita Speaking and Olga Translating

The program concluded with several songs by the Rhapsody Choir from Tokmak.  They are a small choir that sing with a precision and beauty that is captivating.  Their final song was the Orthodox version of The Lord’s Prayer.   We all stood for that song.

Rhapsody Choir

At the end of the service in keeping with Orthodox tradition, my wife Mary handed out a memorial gift of food for people to take home and eat while remembering those who died.  In addition, people were encouraged to walk with us the half mile to the memorial marker.  We had expected very few to join us in this endeavour but almost everybody came.  I was in the vanguard to get the procession started and walked ahead with 4 young girls.  They giggled and practised their “hello’s” on me.  I enjoyed the walk with them, and they were the first to place their flowers on the memorial.

A local lady joined me, and I was told that she knew the exact location of the 12 graves.  I followed her through the cemetery and into a bush where she gave me more directions than I could follow without an interpreter.  

By the time I got back to the memorial site, the service had already started.  Two local men gave short talks.  One was Borys Letkeman who gave a devotional.  Another, Victor Penner talked about the Makhnov anarchists and lamented that no one had ever been brought to justice for this event.  We concluded the service with Anita Toews reading the names of the 83 people killed and I said a short prayer.

It was a beautiful touching service that we and the local people will long remember.

As a result of the memorial service, Anita Toews was asked to share her speech the next day at the New Hope Church in Zaporozhe.  Mary and I attended the local Greek Catholic service in Tokmak as we had promised the previous Sunday.  Leanne Barnovskaia, one of the members of the Rhapsody choir, also attends there.  She shared the story of our memorial service with the parishioners.  They were totally unaware of the story.  It was good to see their interest.

Anita Toews was at the event in 2001 when the Eichenfeld memorial was first erected.  She told us of that experience. The local people had been invited to participate at that time.  She noticed an elderly local man in his mid-eighties, who seemed to be eager to engage with the group.  He told Anita, that 82 years ago as a very young boy, he had visited the village with his mother right after the event.  The village was deserted as the survivors had fled after the massacre.  He and his mother had entered some of the houses and removed items which they brought home to use.  Over time these items had broken or been discarded.  The only item left was an old teacup.  He had brought it along as he wanted to restore it to the rightful owners in the best way he knew how.  He gave the old teacup to Anita.  It was a symbolic but significant step in reconciliation.

There were similar events in the village of Ebenfeld in the Borozenko settlement as well as in the Sagradovka settlement later in November of 2019 where many people in a village were killed. These were also acknowledged and remembered at our event. 

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1 comment:

  1. Amazing report on the memorial service in Eichenfeld. I read it with great interest. Thank you for reporting on this very important event and all the work you do. Will see you at the Douglas church in November