Sunday, October 28, 2007

It has been 65 years since the Great Patriotic War ended, but sometimes you would think it ended last year. There are fewer and fewer veterans at the parades, but cities still celebrate Liberation Day; the local TV seems to have a WWII movie every night. This week I got a very graphic reminder how real the war still is.

About 7 kilometres outside of Molochansk on Colonitza Hill (on the "Lutheran side" of the Molotschna River) sits a new Ukrainian war monument. Unlike Soviet-era monuments which tower like fir trees among junipers, this one is built into the hill, unimposing and reflective. It honours Ukrainians and Russians who fought for liberation and makes special mention of women who fought. In fact, one of the reflective sculptures is a broken rose. The view of the former Mennonite colonies along the Molotschna is dramatic. Here, looking down on Halbstadt, Muntau, Tiegenhagen, Schoenau, Fischau, Lindenau, and Lichtenau, some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought as the Soviet troops struggled to regain Colonitza Hill. Shell fire rained on Mennonite schools, flour mills, hospitals and houses.

And on this hill someone recently dug up the bones of three Soviet soldiers who, like so many, never had a proper burial. From his watch and cigarette lighter they identified one of the soldiers, and then discovered that his son still lives in the area. And so, last Monday we gathered on the hill along with school children, military brass, soldiers, veterans, politicians and a son to bury two unknown soldiers and one father. It was a simple service, with a few short speeches, a prayer and song by the Orthodox priest, and some war songs on a PA system. Then soldiers smartly moved up, lifted a coffin covered with a red cloth, and lowered it into the ground. It was very moving to see the son, now himself a Senior, throw reddish brown dirt onto the coffin carrying the remains of a young man – his father.

What was this Mennonite doing at a WWII burial service? I confess I arrived somewhat by accident. One of the schools we support had brought a busload of high school kids to the service and first stopped in to visit the Mennonite Centre. The bus driver didn’t know the way to the memorial site and so Slava and I escorted the bus. Only when we arrived and saw the crowd did we realize something significant was going on.

The interesting thing is that the Mennonite Centre did have a role to play in this drama. Band music was provided by the Molochansk music school and we have, through the good efforts of Rudy and Hildegarde Baerg, given trumpets and a French horn to the school. Could anyone have predicted that a discarded MEI trumpet would be playing at the funeral of WWII Soviet soldiers? And had anyone been so foolish as to make such a prophecy, would anyone have believed it?

And while I was standing on the brick surface with my back to the biting wind, a young high school girl standing right next to me suddenly fainted and fell backwards on the brick surface with a scary thud. She was immediately carried to the nearby ambulance, which of course had been provided through the Mennonite Centre by generous North American donors.

The most decorated soldier was not a Soviet veteran—he was a veteran of the rogue Ukrainian National Defence army who fought for the liberation of Ukraine against Soviet and German forces. When we spotted each other he marched proudly to me, gave me a bear hug and fighting tears said, "spasiba" –"thank you." You see, he is now staying in our respite centre at the Molchansk (Muntau) hospital. Like those who served in the WWI Medical Corps we may be in the background, but we are there and will continue to offer aid to young and old.

This is our last weekly report, as I am joining Linda at home in Canada on Tuesday. Look for photos later in the week, as we would like to publish some of our favourites on our blogsite –

Thanking you for your prayers and support,
Ben and Linda Stobbe

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Weekly report October 21

In a little over a week I will be putting my faith into the pilots and planes of Air Austria, first overnighting in Vienna and then home. I am looking forward to speaking good English with someone other than myself. Yesterday I went to a photo shop to get a few pictures printed. I realized again how limited my Russian is and how dense I must appear when trying to say something. Fortunately with the few German people here I can converse reasonably well and that is a real social help (when my parents insisted on my attending German School classes despite my reluctance, they did me a much larger favour than I, or they, could ever have imagined).

The highlight of the week was going back to one of my favourite villages – Udarnik, formerly Neukirch. Udarnik is a small, end of the road, village on the edge of the Juschanlee stream that has two things going for it – a school leadership team which is committed to studying their Mennonite history, and a former Mennonite church that has essentially kept its exterior look. However, the village has a major drawback - no water.

The Director of the school has a vision for the rebuilding of his community. He is a Deputy and represents the community in the Oblast as a member of the Our Ukraine (Orange) party. He says he is assured of getting 2 million grievna ($400,000 Cdn or $398,000 US) to bring water to his community. He personally bought the Church to prevent it being destroyed for the paltry sum the bricks would bring in, and is spearheading a project to build a monument in a school garden to recognize the suffering of Mennonites during the Holodomor (the Soviet-imposed famine of 1932/33). We discussed the design of the monument; they are leaning towards a design with a broken sheaf of wheat with a hand grabbing it. He wants our support to give 1000 grievna ($200 US) for the monument and another 200 grievna for a high school class field trip to view another Ukrainian monument.

Upon leaving the village we told the school Director that we were off to Balkovo – formerly known as Fuerstenwerder. He showed us where to take a shortcut on a country lane. We took the well grooved, one lane dirt road that “pryammad on” (straight ahead) for 7 kilometers. On our left were tall, sentinel-like trees, on our right a quilt of bright green winter wheat, broken up by freshly ploughed brown fields with a tractor which appeared as a annoyance on the horizon. In fact, one speculated whether you couldn’t see the curvature of the earth. I was reminded that this was the land our grandparents could not forget, a land that produced so much and yet brought starvation for millions. And then we came upon the village of Rueckenau nestled in the valley, with only the tile and concrete roofs showing amongst all the trees. That is the scene I am sure many would have observed over 100 years ago when they came via horse and buggy on a similar path to the Saengerfests at the Rueckenau Church. I asked Slava, our Ukrainian Director, to stop as I got out to imagine the sounds of the choirs rehearsing. An inspiring thought.

This is a complicated land, at times so close to heaven - and then reminders of too much hell.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekly Report October 14, 2007

Ukrainians may have embraced electronic communications devices such as cell phones and computers, but when it comes to doing business they seem to prefer doing things in person. They suggest that unless you deal directly with someone you don’t get results. My recent experience is that dealing directly with a person is no guarantee of getting results. This can best be illustrated with the saga of our hooking up to natural gas.

Science tells us that it takes eons of time to compress vegetation and other fossilized products into gas or oil. It appears to take an equal amount of time to get approval for hooking up the natural gas to our boilers at the Mennonite Centre. We have gas lines running on our property, we have lines running into the Centre, and we have lines connected to heat registers. What we don’t have is signatures and stamps. Since August we have done the following to get an inspection and approval to turn on the gas: made application to the gas authorities in Tokmak, brought the chief inspector from Tokmak here for approval, filed our gas reporting forms with another office in Tokmak, submitted a request for inspection from the authorities in Zaparozyhe only to be told later they gave us the wrong form, returned to Zaparozhye to fill out the correct form, offered to drive the Chief Inspector from Zaparozhye to Molochansk to do the inspection, returned to Zaparozhye to ask why the delay only to find out they lost our application and we must submit again. Each trip to Zaparozhye takes close to 2 hours one way. Vitaly, our maintenance man is known for getting things done, but yesterday after coming out of the gas office he seemed a beaten man. I took him to a place where all good men go to renew themselves – a shop filled with cuddly Bosch tools! After getting a small screwdriver set he was ready to resume the fight.

And so we have had to order a bit of coal just to ensure we can start heating the building. I have spoken to Victor Penner, the legendary bureaucratic ferret who knows how to work the system. He says, “Ben, remember you are in Ukraine,” (as though I forgot!). Apparently the authority for granting approvals has been given to a private company and there is a backlog of requests...

Actually, the rate of change here is quite amazing. If some of these approval-granting people ever became service oriented it would be scary, probably dangerous. Fortunately we have had a warm fall. Older people spend the late afternoons sitting on rough, backless benches, taking in the sun and visiting. At times I feel quite warm here but not necessarily from the sun.

I am also at a vulnerable time in my stay here. I delight in handing out the gifts we have received from the Heritage Cruise passengers; in my zest to give out stuff I will sometimes go off without Slava, our Ukrainian Director and translator. That was the situation when I boldly went out to the Molochansk Music School to take pictures of the band director with the new french horn. Rudy and Hildegarde Baerg got enough support from friends in Abbotsford to buy the instrument which was then brought over by people on the Heritage Cruise. Now the band instructor, like so many of his kind, is an enthusiastic man, given to much talk and waving of hands. I tried to explain to him that I knew very little Russian, he responded by talking louder. Every so often he said a word I recognized like “doma” which means “home.” I immediately said “da,” which means “yes,” or “I agree.” I think I agreed to having students take these instruments home to practice, but on second thought I may have agreed to a) teaching students at home, b) selling the instruments to buy a better home, or c) selling our homes in Canada to buy more instruments!

Keep me in your prayers. Linda is not here to give words of wisdom. By the way if you want to see pictures look up our blogsite at and visit our website at

And finally we also appreciate financial support for all the activities we undertake. Donations are tax receiptable in Canada and the U.S.
Canadian cheques are payable to "Mennonite Centre Ukraine" or "FOMCU", Checks from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU", and all should be mailed to the address below (making sure you have appropriate postage)
Paul Siemens, Treasurer, 5 Monarchwood Crescent, Toronto, ON, Canada, M3A 1H3


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Weekly Report, Oct. 7

Most Mennonites coming to visit the Molotschna area use the services of the Mennonite Heritage Cruise. They get the opportunity to sail on the Dnieper River and visit the specific villages of their ancestors. For many it has been an opportunity to see the roads, fields, rivers, schools, and homes of their parents/grandparents. It brought reality to the many stories they heard in the kitchens and living rooms.

This year participants on the cruise were given the opportunity to not only go to their villages but to see the programmes supported by the Mennonite Centre Molochansk (MCM). Three buses full of North Americans came to the villages of Lichtenau (Svyetlodolinskoye), Schoenau (Dolina), Ohrloff (Orlova), Halbstadt (Molochansk), Prieschib (a neighbouring Lutheran village), Petershagen (Kutuzovka), and Rueckenau (Balkovo). But they didn’t just drive through the villages and see the remaining Mennonite houses. Students in Svyetlodolinskoye and Dolina put on school concerts, children in the Sanitorium school in Molochansk demonstrated their crafts, and the orphanage in Prieschib took many by the hand and showed them their crafts rooms, gymnasium, and put on a concert. Gymnasts who receive some travel funds from MCM put on a wonderful display of acrobatics in the sports school (formerly the Credit Union building), and the Rhapsody Choir, an award-winning choir from the Orthodox Church sang spiritual, folk and Christmas songs in the “Zentralschule.” In fact, not since the increase in the savings account funds in the Halbstadt Credit Union at the beginning of the last century, did you see so many cartwheels and flips! At the end of the day Pastor Jakob Thiessen explained the programmes at the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church,. We also had two farmers proudly displayed the equipment they purchased with loans from MCM. One group even had the benefit of having the wife of the farmer demonstrate her accordion skills! It couldn’t get any better.

This was far more than visiting the past—this was a tour which also showed the future. And the children and adults of these former Mennonite villages were proud to lead us into the future. The future is much brighter in these villages since Mennonites have shown an interest to come back.

This was our 1st experience at trying to coordinate and shepherd a tour. We had the benefit of the good services of Intourist to provide translation services. We also gained a fresh appreciation of their skill in trying to deal with enthusiastic North Americans who want to talk to every child, visit every class and take lots of pictures. And who can blame them, for the kids were in performance mode, sometimes decked out in costume. At times we realized that when the interests of the kids and the enthusiasm tourists intersected, we were no match, and had to go with the flow.

Ben and Linda

PS The North Americans have gone downstream and Linda soared out of here this afternoon. It’s a bit quieter now but maybe this week I will slip out to one of the orphanages, give them a thank you letter, and let the kids re-charge me. Ben