Saturday, September 28, 2019

Blog #6 Some Good Things Come to an End

Ukraine Blog #6

This, our last week here in Ukraine, was an overlap week with Alvin and Mary Suderman. They will be staying here in Molochansk until the end of October. Alvin is our Board Chair.

We started our Monday morning with a meeting at the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv. It was our hope to get further information and insight on the reforms that the newly-elected Ukrainian government is planning. Our findings were that the new government members are young (average age in the 40s) and that they are busy passing new laws. For we former bureaucrats who value policy, process and procedures, this seems a bit hasty. But we have to admire their energy and focus to make changes. We did get some helpful information on some changes that could impact our work.

We had a powerful experience in Kyiv while standing at the site where young Ukrainians were shot by Russian snipers during the Maidan revolution. This is becoming the birthplace of a new Ukraine. 

This week we attended a celebration of the 30-year work of Florence and Otto Driedger. They were instrumental in getting schools of social work, victim offender reconciliation, and the Florence Centre, started in Ukraine. Alvin made a presentation on the European history of Mennonites.  He was followed by Ukrainian historians who spoke on the recent gravestone findings in Zaporizhzhya, and the opportunity to use these stones as a way to further tell the Mennonite story and enhance tourism opportunities.

Our meeting with Probation Manager Uriy seemed to bring together our various meetings this week. Uriy just came back from an international conference on Criminal Justice Reform held in Kyiv, and he mentioned a point of interest from the conference; that reforms may raise expectations that may be difficult to deliver. That was also said at our embassy meeting.  He spoke of the ongoing development of victim/offender reconciliation projects for youth; that was  also mentioned at the Driedger celebration. The message of change seems to be getting out.

The week ended with a nostalgic return visit to the former Mennonite village of Vladovka, Waldheim in days past. Here we met with Dr. Troyan, the past chief administrator of the local hospital.  This hospital built in 1908 by the Kornelius and Aganetha Warkentin family is now being transformed into a medical clinic with three family physicians.  Dr. Troyan’s services are no longer needed after 42 years of service at the hospital and he has joined others in the downsizing exercise.  He has been a good friend of the Mennonite Centre and of many Warkentin descendants.  Today was his last day there.  We gave him a small gift, many hugs, and a sincere goodbye.  His loud voice and somewhat gruff manner did not dampen his love for his community.  This hospital was in the eastern side of Molotchna.  The Muntau hospital was its equal on the western side of Molotchna.  Currently these hospitals no longer receive overnight patients but are operating as clinics only.  It really is the end of an era.  We left Vladovka with some sadness, but also with many wonderful memories of the community.  It still looks neat and tidy, even in its decline.

Aganetha and Kornelius Warkentin

It is interesting and exciting while in our retirement years, to be part of ongoing changes in this country. To be in good health, encouraged and supported by you dear friends is indeed something to be very thankful for.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Blog #5 Meeting Ordinary Ukrainians on Their Own Turf


This was a mixed week made up of visiting projects, making new friends, and attending meetings.   We were joined by friends Bernard and Eleanor Harder who came out to explore family roots in the Chortitza area of Zaporizhzhia. On Sunday we went out to the Mennonite Church Harvest Day celebration.  In a generally agrarian country that has had its shares of famines, (some of which were deliberate,) locals take thanksgiving seriously. It is not a national holiday but a time that people set aside to say thank you to God. The simplicity and sincerity of the service of celebration is what particularly struck us. In a gathering of about 50 people, there were at least 10 who came to the front to express thanks. There were ministers opening their well-worn Bibles, mothers who recited poems and told short stories, and young people who had recently come out of orphanages who led in singing. During the nearly two hours, others had to walk up and exit to visit the well-worn outhouse, the only washroom on the premises.  To top off the event we all went to an adjoining room where there was enough food to fill us all up for the rest of the day.  This was good old-fashioned fresh produce and baking; you consumed the calories for the day at the dinner table and then burned them off working the garden. Here the joy of food stems from hard times. It is appreciated for more than taste and presentation; it is remembering.

Early in the week we were trying to confirm the actual house of Bernard’s parents. We were told of a 93 year old man who had been living in this village for a long time.  Victor Penner, a respected Mennonite historian from Zaporizhzhia, was our guide and interpreter. Soon we were joined by a young man who quickly took us to the home of the old man. He walked out of the house with his daughter and it wasn’t long before they started telling stories. This 93 year old still drives the car even though he has never had a driver’s license. The police let him drive in the village. Together with his daughter they maintain a one acre vegetable garden. He left Odessa as a 23 year old and was advised to look for a Mennonite village where at that time, one could claim a well-kept empty house, the yard complete with fruit trees and gardens. The former residents had either been exiled to the Far East or they had fled to the west 5 years earlier. He said he found this beautiful place still looking well kept. At that time he vowed that he would always keep the place in good shape because this is how it was given to him. Here he raised a family and now for the first time he met the son of the Mennonite parents who had lived across the street before the war. And for the last 70 years the house, which has been added on to, remains well maintained in a yard full of trees, flowers, ducks, chickens and a massive garden. As Victor Penner said “He represents the best of our Ukrainian culture.” We felt honoured to be standing with him.

Later in the week we met with Denis, the Director of the Shirokye Amalgamated Community Council. This amalgamated community is made up of 20 villages, many of them former Mennonite villages.  In the short time period of a couple of years, he has accomplished an amazing feat in keeping local tax money in the community. This council has been rated #1 in all of Ukraine for its progressive improvements. Many of these villages are close to the city of Zaporizhzhia and in the past they have seen many people from these villages move to the city. Denis seeks to reverse the depopulation of the villages. He is continually encouraging the development of varying enterprises in these villages and better transportation corridors to the city. They have already had a number of people move back to some of these villages. Based on what we have seen, these quiet locations with clean air, big gardens and quiet streets are more desirable and ideal for many folks, whether elderly or young couples raising their families.

For your interest, here is a picture of one of the oldest former Mennonite houses; a log house possibly going back to the 1830s.  It is in the village of Schoenhorst.  

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Friday, September 13, 2019

Blog #4 Signs of the Past


Towns like Tokmak are growing and show signs of prosperity. On the other hand, former Mennonite villages like Lindenau are withering away into obscurity.  The seemingly endless, massive fields reach out to touch the sky and neighbouring fields afar off.  Beautiful fields of various sorts (many of which are sunflower crops still awaiting harvest) surround these villages in which deserted and empty brick houses with broken windows can be seen. The only things of any value are the bricks, and particularly bricks from former Mennonite houses because of their longevity. Vehicle traffic on these country roads is generally light, but the tandem heavy duty trucks carrying sunflower seeds or grain continually carve up and destroy the pavement, creating great heaves in the pavement particularly in the sweltering summer months.  One’s imagination might liken it to like a child’s fully loaded gravel truck driving on their playtime plasticine clay. Other sections of roads are mostly huge potholes, holes which often overlap one another the whole width of the road.  We think these trucks at least should be required to come back with a load of gravel to fill up these moon-like craters. The only positive thing about these country roads is that you seldom get enough speed to have a serious accident.  Flat tires?  Well, that’s another issue.

On Wednesday, we had a visit from 4 members of the “Restoring Molochansk Together” group.  It is a registered organization that encourages everyone here to help clean up our village. Right now they are very focused on cleaning up what they call “The Molochansk Park.”  We have come to know these as the gardens adjacent to the former Mennonite estate of the well-known Willms house. They have installed lights, cleaned up old junk, garbage, scrubby weeds and undergrowth, made flower beds and generally cleared a lot of these areas to make it an appealing and useable site by walkers and passers-by.  The park will also be used for some outdoor events.  We have provided funding to purchase new flowers for next year. It is difficult to say “no” to a volunteer-run group that wants to restore the gardens that your ancestors once developed and used.

On Tuesday, Ben took a trip down to the villages along the southern stretch of Molotschna.  The stately Reimer castle/house and signs of the Cornies’ Juschanlee farm are still there but one wonders how much longer it can exist in the same way. Rudy Friesen in his very informative book, “Building on the Past,” describes the house as having a “Dutch baroque style common to northern Europe.” Similarly, the brick windmill in Alexanderkrone is an example of a Dutch windmill. This is the last standing windmill in the former Mennonite colonies. A question to ponder might be whether we shouldn’t be advocating to tourist agencies in Zaporizhzhia that these two structures should have heritage protection status, as they are a connection to our Dutch Anabaptist roots.

This week we had lunch with Lilly Buss, the Director of the Kutusovka Seniors Home. This restored former Mennonite Church in Petershagen is currently a nearly full-to-capacity seniors home with 13 residents.  Housing up to 4 women in a room who seem to have more differences than similarities, can present unique challenges. She is very thankful for the medications we provide for her residents.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Intertwining Cultures


We spent most of last week in the city of Zaporizhzhya.  This city is well known for its big industrial plants and its rich Cossack history.  Mennonites first came to this area in the late 1700's, settling in the Chortitza area where they had been directed to go. This included Chortitza Island which had formerly been the home of Cossacks. Chortitza Island is now the home of a living museum of Cossack culture.  Imagine our surprise when touring the museum we spotted a beautiful old chest that appeared to be almost identical to a chest we have at the Mennonite Centre, a chest which we received only recently.  A Ukrainian family living in a former Mennonite house had this chest in their attic and gave it to us.  A Ukrainian guide at the Cossack Museum told us that some old artifacts from other cultures may well be in the Cossack Museum.  Actually, we rather appreciate the fact that different cultures have shared treasures. 

On this island there is a former Mennonite cemetery which is now being used as a Ukrainian cemetery.  Perhaps it can be said that in death, and also in life, the two cultures can mix.

But in the current Ukrainian life, not all of its aspects remain steeped in past ways and traditions. The First Bell ceremonies acknowledge new grade 1 students and the opening of the new school year.  We attended First Bell this week at a 450-student school in the city.  It was an event filled with countless roses, very fashionably-dressed children, proud parents and grandparents, and most amazingly, there were none of the traditional long drawn-out speeches! It was difficult to find parking, kids were everywhere, and there was overflowing and endless energy and enthusiasm. We met with parents of children with autism who have been integrated into this school.  They thanked us sincerely for providing materials for the two new classrooms.

The next day we went to visit the burn unit at a local hospital. We have supplied some specialized bandages and gauze to this unit.  We cannot recall any new hospitals that were built in the Zaporizhzhya Oblast (province) since independence.  They have relied on hospitals built by the Soviets and Mennonites.  It is a daunting task to adapt new and advanced technology to these heavily bricked, concrete-burdened hospitals.  But that is not the biggest of their problems.  When there are new doctors receiving salaries only slightly more than the cleaners, older doctors who pine for the past, and less-than-adequate funds allotted for patients' meals, one would hardly know where to start in the task of "fixing" these situations.  Hospital reform will be expensive no matter which way it is looked at.  We are attempting to help in small ways that make a big difference, and also to assist people in getting necessary medications. 

Towards the end of the week we took a generally good, less-traveled road to the village of Maryevka, a village of about 1600 people.  We have an interest in this village because we have been supporting a family where the father has been bed-ridden for a number of years and the mother who has spent a good part of the fall and winter days taking the wheelbarrow out looking for and gathering firewood to heat their very modest house.  Last January we started supplying firewood to this family during the coldest months.  This year we will likely try to do the same.  The mother is a well-read individual who knows a lot about Canada, including Quebec’s unique history within our country. 

We also had the opportunity to reconnect with Anatoliy Tiessen. The story of Anatoliy and his father Vasily, is remarkable.  One night in 1931, the KGB came to the home of 5-year-old Vasily Tiessen. They took away Vasily's parents, their destination most likely Siberia.  Eventually Vasily and his two sisters were placed in different orphanages; Vasily in one and Frieda and Leanna in another.  At age 16 Vasily was taken by the Germans to Germany to work in a factory.  At 21 he returned to his village, married, and had a son Anatoliy.  In 1957 when Anatoliy was 7, his father was picked up and interrogated by the KGB.  It appears that he somehow slipped through the cracks when he returned to his own village.  The normal procedure would have been that he would have been shipped off to the east because he worked for the Germans.  However, influential people in the community rallied behind Vasily and convinced the authorities to let him stay in the village.  Anatoliy knew he was different than other Ukrainians but he never knew his father was Mennonite.  His father never talked about what happened while he was interrogated in 1957.  Vasily died in 2002 leaving a lot of unknowns from his past that his son Anatoliy will never have the answers to.  But yet, he still offers a quick smile that is reflective of his positive outlook.

The road to the future still has lots of potholes.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, September 01, 2019

In the Groove


Since the election of the new president and the parliamentary changes, Ukraine has been in transition.  Independence Day was on Monday, August 26.  Cities and villages saw people gather in the evening to hear singing and watch cultural dancing, celebrating Ukraine's independence from Russia.  The country has independence but is not necessarily united.  Many people have high expectations from the new government while others feel that it may not have enough previous experience.  We recently had dinner with a local couple, and both of them had very different views regarding the new government.

At the beginning of the week we had a visit from a senior medical person in the area who suggested that by the end of October, the government will announce whether or not the long-standing hospital in Molochansk will remain as a hospital.  He thought it probably would be a day clinic and continue on with the seniors' home on the second floor.  We heard a similar story from someone who suggested that the old Mennonite hospital in Zaporizhzhya would also be shut down.  Not unlike so many other countries, Ukraine is starting to consolidate medical services.

On Wednesday, we had a great visit with our good friend Yuriy, the Probation Supervisor in Tokmak.  Since the Probation Services conferences that were held last fall with BC Corrections Analyst Lisa Crawford, Yuriy has been travelling the country, holding seminars about the changes in Probation practices.  He has received a special award for all his work toward reforming the probation service and having their program accepted into the European Probation Union.

On Thursday we traveled to Zaporizhzhya. To try some different accommodations, we had decided to go into what we thought might be a type of an Air B&B apartment here in downtown Zaporizhzhya.  The apartment was built before WWII in the Stalin years.  The location is fantastic.  The apartment is slightly less so.  It takes a little getting used to accepting and working with half a shower curtain and finding about a half roll of 100 grit toilet paper.  But the bed is comfortable, and if you have enough layers of paint, the walls can be, and have been made very quiet.  The apartment itself is really quite safe; the knives are so dull that you can barely puncture a loaf of bread. But then the breaking of bread is best done by hand anyway. There is a lovely park right across the street and two very nice coffee shops right around the corner.  What else could we want?

On Friday morning we went to meet museum officials at the museum on Chortitza Island.  We wanted to hear from the museum director regarding their plans (and dreams) for the recently discovered Mennonite gravestones.  They had many questions for us as well.  While there are several gravestones that are virtually still intact, by far the most are broken into smaller pieces.  As of Friday they had 150 broken pieces with inscriptions on them.  They should have most of the gravestone pieces including those with inscriptions removed from the old barn site and taken to a storage area for further cleaning and matching.  The museum authorities are very excited about this project, hoping ultimately to use these stones as an opportunity of reconciliation with the Mennonite community.  Saturday morning we went to the site and watched while they excavated more stones and rubble.

About a month ago our organization was approached by a Ukrainian humanitarian organization to see if we could assist them in supplying backpacks for young students most of whom are just starting school.  These are children coming from needy families.  We funded 40 of the 70 backpacks given out. It is not surprising that when we arrive at occasions like this, Ben is asked to say a few words.  He soon had a microphone attached to his shirt, and a reporter there with his filming assistant, was asking him about our work and how and why we help these local kids. It was a public event held in a park in a stage area most often used for theatre and band performances.  It was delightful to see how the children so proudly hugged and donned their new backpacks.

On Friday evening, we went to the apartment home of our friend Yuri, who several years ago had turned his life of alcoholism and drugs around, becoming a major advocate for homeless, alcoholics and drug-addicted people in the city.  We provide some of the food ingredients for meals that he cooks, transports, and distributes to down-and-outers in several of the city parks.  Yuri has also formed a support group of individuals who have successfully gone through rehab and other dramatic life changes, and others who are in the process.  They get together with their spouses and their young children every Friday night at the home of Yuri and his wife to support each other, to have some time of socializing and reflecting on life, including spiritual values.  Some of these people have gone on to receive further schooling and have become chaplains in prisons.  This particular Friday saw a smaller group of about 25, everyone seated albeit a little crowded, into their apartment living room.  They have up to 35 in attendance.  There was plenty of good food spread on the table in honor of a participant's birthday.  Even though some of the sharing during this meeting drew tears, there was an abundance of laughter to be enjoyed as well. That's what defines many in this country - tears and laughter.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: