Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Backing up village memories

Dema Bratchenko, our Ukrainian Director at the Mennonite Centre, has a desire to tell the youth in this area the story of Mennonites in Ukraine. This winter he developed a detailed story of Mennonite villages based on Rudy Friesen’s book “Building On The Past.” Several youth from Molochansk attended the weekly classes. After taking the course, youth go out in summer on a Friday to Saturday overnight field trip focusing on one or two villages. 
Last Friday I joined Dema and five boys on a visit to Udarnik, formerly called Neukirch. We decided to first go to the virtually non-existent village of Friedensruh, later called Malarovka. Eleven years ago there were six distinctly Mennonite houses in the village. In the book Rudy says “The steep roofs, many still covered with clay tiles, and the brick gables with large flat arched windows gave an impression of what the Mennonite villages once looked like.” Now only one of those houses stands as reminder of a previously thriving community.      
 We met the owner of the house who dreams of restoring it, but in reality, it houses old furniture and bee keeping equipment. All the other houses have disappeared, the land swept clean of bricks and tiles. In the short lifetime of these boys the village has disappeared. There is a cemetery where we discovered two Mennonite tombstones.

 Dema and the boys joined another Ukrainian in waving a Geiger counter and finding a rusted cultivator blade, an axe head, and a coat hook.

After several hours of wandering about in the 37 degree heat it was time to find a camp site. Several years ago an earth dam was built on the Juschanlee River just upstream from Udarnik. The small shallow lake, located close to the former Mennonite village of Prangenau, offers some local fishing and many marshy reeds along the shoreline. We found a quiet site in the woods close to the lake. By sundown we realized we realized we were in the middle of a crow party where someone gave every bird a noise maker. The crickets were not to be outdone. The crows were flat and the crickets were sharp and we were tired. By morning the crows were gone, the crickets were quiet and we were happy.

Filled with a breakfast of bread, cheese, tea and biscuits the boys went into Udarnik to do the village survey. They went from house to house asking if anyone could recall the Mennonites who once lived in this village.

 Soon all the boys gathered around the village grandmother who clearly remembers living with Mennonites before and during the Great Patriotic War. We asked her to tell her story. She said, “how can I talk without a loaf of bread?” A lad was dispatched to buy a loaf of bread. He came back with two. Then she regaled us with complimentary stories of Mennonites which had been told to her by her father. Once their cow broke its leg and had to be put down. The Mennonites butchered the cow, shared the meat with the village and then gave her family another cow. Another time they lost many chickens to a wild animal. The Mennonites took from their own flocks and gave the family, birds to start again. She said, “I never have had such neighbours that took care of the people here.” 

These are the stories given to the younger generation by older Ukrainians. I felt like I was back on the Mennonite Heritage Cruise visiting the former Mennonite villages. But this time it was Ukrainians telling their story, not to tourists, but to their own children. A fitting epilogue to the cruise visits.

Ben 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.


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