Sunday, August 21, 2011

For the first 9 years in the life of the Mennonite Centre, donations were primarily spent in the former Molotschna colony. Molochansk was the point of distribution and contact for most of the southern villages. In this, our tenth year, the Board has decided to increase our presence in the Zaparozhye/Chortitza areas.

In order to better understand the Chortitza areas we took a tour of the former colonies of Chortitza and Yasekovo. Our tour guide was Victor Penner, a recognized local authority of Mennonite life in the former colonies. Victor is neither quiet nor restrained when conducting a tour—he speaks with the intensity of one giving his last tour. He gives you gigabytes of facts, fascinating vignettes, and a critical overview of the impact of the Soviet system. Like Alex Trebek of Jeopardy! he gives the answer first but then asks Why? His is a powerful presentation.

Victor's front-wheel-drive Opel four-wheeled its way through back alleys, roads that resemble horizontal moguls, with Victor asking, Why can't these be fixed?

Comparing these villages with those of Molotschna, one notices several differences. Villages of Chortitza and Yasykovo have older buildings which appear to have suffered less damage during the WWII. Victor explained that the front went through this area more quickly—the longer the battle, the more damage. He showed some fascinating original log houses which seemed reminiscent of the ones we saw in Poland. He showed the skeleton of a Mennonite house illustrating how timbers were connected to the brick work. We found several house-barn combinations. In fact, the Mennonite houses in this area seemed to have a common design—perpendicular to the road, main entrance on the side, and two windows in the front gable. The houses in Molotschna appear to show more diversity.

Victor also showed houses built after the civil war in 1917-1923. These houses were smaller and reflected the state of poverty that was already taking over in the Mennonite areas.

However, the most significant difference between the two areas is the topography. Villages in the Chortitza/Yasykovo area are set in valleys, with pretty big hills on either side. These deep valleys make the Chortitza/Yasykovo area very picturesque, with large sweeping landscapes. A counting of the clay tile roofs of the villages from the top of the hill is inspiring. We suspect that children in these areas would enjoy tobogganing in winter—in Molotschna they would have had to be pulled by horses or cross the Molotschna River and for the climb to the top of Colonista Hill, the ridge which sweeps from Melitopol north, past Molochansk.

At this point in 2011 we have given about 20% of our project-giving to the Chortitza/Yasekovo area. We have helped schools with new desks, chairs, and sports equipment; we have given support to camps for handicapped and other children; we are supporting a promising young artist from a very poor family; we continue to give support to medical clinics in some of the smaller villages.

One of the major influences separating Chortitza and Molochansk villages is the impact of Zaparozhye, a major city that encompasses much of Chortitza. The continued growth and increased wealth in Zaparozhye has resulted in the nouveau riche buying up much of the land in Nieder Chortitza. These are the new “estates”, but as Victor points out, unlike previous estate owners they appear to give little concern to the development of the surrounding community. While these houses are hidden behind fancy copper-sculptured gates and 10-foot brick walls, the public roads in front of them are as bad as all the village roads. They exhude wealth but show fear, their brick walls so tight to the roads that there is no room for friendly neighbourly visiting-benches.

This is our final blog for 2011. We will be coming out with a fall newsletter which will report on the projects that we have been undertaking. Hopefully our reports have given you a picture of our lives here.

Ben and Linda Stobbe
If you wish to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine make your Canadian cheques to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine" or "FOMCU." Cheques from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU". All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Rd, Beamsville, Ontario, Canada - L0R 1B1. Check our website at for information on credit card donations.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Gift giving in most cultures can be a challenge at best. Gift giving in response to an invitation or an act of kindness or thoughtfulness can be an added complication. During Soviet times you appeared to have more options--a Bic pen, a T-shirt, or a pair of jeans was greatly appreciated. Now with the vast array of consumer goods in Ukraine you have to be aware not only of cultural differences and finding something that is unique and truly valued. Our task in this regard has been made easier by a Mennonite organization and many people in Canada.

The Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia regularly receives donations of old Mennonite songbooks which were originally published in South Russia (now Ukraine). The Society often has several copies of the same book.  There were books from Halbstadt, Alexanderwohl, and Odessa; some have the handwritten names of the villages written inside the front cover. These Liederperlen and Gesangbuch were among the items that families could not part with when they fled, providing encouragement and comfort to their owners.

Some of these books have been taken back to Ukraine and offered as gifts to local schools, universities, libraries, museums, and churches. This week we gave a Gesangbuch dating back to the early 1900s to the library in Molochansk. When we pointed out that this book was published a mere 25 metres from the current library, the librarian was astounded. She exclaimed, “I am going to phone the newspaper to tell them what we just got!”

Thank you families, and thank you Mennonite Historical Society.

These aren’t the only books that we give out which were published in Ukraine. The Ukrainian translation of Rudy Friesen’s Building on the Past was recently published in Melitopol. People regularly come to the Mennonite Centre to buy the book at an affordable 50 UAH ($6). Several months ago a pastor bought several books for his congregation. We also give these books away as gifts to schools, universities, libraries, museums, and influential leaders. We are still looking at how to make it available to Ukrainians for purchase online. One person who received the book in Melitopol this week simply said, “I never knew this story.” This week alone the book went to a group from Lviv, the Ministry of Culture in Kiev, the library in Molochansk, a museum in Vasilievka, and the Director of the Social Care Centre in Tokmak.

Here, as in so many countries, villages are dying. It is interesting to see what they once were, as well as the spirit of the people who once lived there. The Gesangbuch and Liederperlen speak of a spiritual home; Rudy’s book illustrates the architecture of our earthly homes. The old books talk about our future and the new book talks about our past. A church songbook placed in a school museum, or Building on the Past given to a village mayor, show that people with common values and a sense of God’s leading could forge a very productive and satisfying life in this grassland.

In describing the historical context of the Mennonite experience in Ukraine, Rudy says that Mennonites who are now coming to visit this country are doing so “neither to glorify nor mourn the past, nor to reclaim what they once owned, but in a spirit of mutual embrace.” It is a wonderful experience to give a book, a kiss on the cheek, and a warm embrace.  This truly is gift-giving.

Ben and Linda

If you wish to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine make your Canadian cheques to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine" or "FOMCU." Cheques from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU". All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Rd, Beamsville, Ontario, Canada - L0R 1B1. Check our website at for information on credit card donations.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

This week we visited the Sanitorium school in Molochansk. It is located on the grounds of the former Mennonite hospital in Muntau. Sanitorium schools basically are longer term residential schools for children who have long term respiratory or cardiology problems. The school in Molochansk has students from the Zaporozhye region.

Students in this school have developed a pen pal relationship with students from Menno Simons Christian School in Calgary. Each year we take letters from children in the Sanitorium school back to Canada and send them to Menno Simons School.

Lydia Petrenko, the somewhat stern looking principal, has a warm matron-like style. For 45 years, through Soviet and independence times, this school, its students and staff have been her passion and her purpose. She bears a strikingly resemblance to Mrs. Slocombe in the British TV comedy series, “Are You Being Served?” She always gives us a thorough tour of the school pointing out all the improvements funded primarily by students from Menno Simons. In addition Rebecca from Calgary has sent a donation to the school on her last three birthdates. With support from the students, Rebecca, and a few other donors, we have been able to tile the hallways, put linoleum and new desks in several classrooms, put new chairs in the assembly room, give the only two computers and a printer to the school, and now give money to paint the gym and classrooms and provide new plumbing for the washrooms.

Someday we hope that students and teachers from Menno Simons will have the opportunity to come and see the difference their support means to the school. We would like to provide more computers in the near future and ensure that the school has internet access. It would be wonderful if the students from both schools could connect through the internet. We would love to see other schools adopt a school here.

This week we were busy interviewing students who are asking for financial support to attend university. Of the sixteen students we have interviewed, only three have both a father and mother living at home. In virtually all cases a father is not present. In a few situations dad has passed away, but in most he has left the family home. In spite of the challenges this presents, it is amazing how many students and their mothers are committed to getting the best education possible. For these, time is too short to nurse regrets.

Today we drove south to Alexanderkrone to visit 90 year-old Margarita Pankratz. She is somewhat weak but very alert. She loves the opportunity to speak German, the language of her childhood, and tell stories of her incredible life. She is so thankful that she has been able to spend the last 51 years in the very house she was married in as an 18 year-old. Now she is cared for by her granddaughter and great-grandchildren. Next week we plan to interview her 18 year-old great-grandson Denis to provide him with student financial aid. He is hoping to be admitted into medical school in Zaporozhye. It’s fascinating to think that in this home an 18-year-old married the love of her life, and 72 years later another 18-year-old is moving out to chart his new course. This visit best illustrates what the Mennonite Centre is all about—we want to share the past and help build the future.

For more information on the Mennonite Centre, visit our website at:

Ben and Linda