My husband Dave stands on the porch of his father’s birthplace in Tiege Ukraine. The sign by the front door tells us the building was a cultural centre for the people of Tiege, but when Dave’s grandparents lived there at the time of his father’s birth, it was an abandoned School for the Deaf and Dumb which had been operated by the Mennonites.
Dave’s Oma and Opa had been living on a farm in Schoenfeld but were forced to abandon it in 1920 because of the danger from roving bands of criminal outlaws led by a man named Nestor Makhno. Opa had already escaped the bandits’ bullets twice and so when a farmer in Tiege offered Opa a job he and Oma decided to move there. Along with a number of other families they lived in the Mennonite School for the Deaf and Dumb. With its kitchen and dormitories it was a suitable place for homeless Mennonites to find shelter.
It was while his parents were living at the School for the Deaf that Dave’s Dad was born. Sadly it is also where Oma and Opa’s first little daughter Kaethe died of pneumonia.
Oma told a story about something that happened at this school when they were living there. Dave’s Dad Cornelius was a very small baby and there was a real danger that he would die after he was born. Oma had just lost her little sixteen month old daughter the month before and she couldn’t bear the thought of losing another child. She took her baby outside of the school and broken-hearted stood on the grounds crying out to God to save her child, promising that if God did, she would dedicate her son to God and the work of the church. Perhaps having his mother tell him this story influenced Dave’s Dad in his decision to become a pastor.
The Mennonite community had a well-developed infrastructure in Ukraine to care for vulnerable people in their colonies. There were orphanages, institutions for the mentally and physically handicapped, elderly homes and hospitals. The Russian Revolution forced the closure of most of these facilities because the ruble was devalued by the new Soviet government. The money that had been deposited in the bank to maintain Mennonite institutions like the School for the Deaf and Dumb became worthless.
The school was actually called the Marein Taubstummenschule. It was named after the Tsar of Russia’s mother Maria, a former Danish princess. “Taub”- means deaf in German “Stummen” means dumb and ‘Schule’ is school.
In an article in the Mennonite Historian published in September of 1982, a Jacob Driedger writes an article about visiting the village of Tiege in 1917. He says,
“There was a stately two-storey building, a school for the deaf and dumb. It was a large complex with a number of auxiliary buildings. The students here not only learned to talk but were also taught a trade. The school drew its students from a wide range of communities. ”
In an article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia I found this entry ……
Marientaubstummenschule (Mary School for the Deaf), at Tiege, Molotschna, South Russia, was organized in 1881 and named after Czarina Maria on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the reign of Alexander II, who granted the patent for the school on 21 December 1881. The school did not actually get started until 1885, and did not have its own building until 1890, having been conducted in a house in Blumenort owned by Gerhard Klassen, a great friend and supporter of the school. A Protestant Armenian, A. G. Ambartsumov, trained in Switzerland, was largely responsible for the idea of the school and was the first teacher 1885-1891. The school was established by the Halbstadt district civil government (later joined by the Gnadenfeld district), with the moral support of the churches, and the two representatives of the two districts on the board of directors (a total of nine directors) always had to include one elder or preacher. The school in its full development had a nine-year course equal to the regular elementary school curriculum with five teachers and 40 pupils. It was supported by freewill offerings coming from all Mennonite groups in Russia, and had a small endowment fund. The school was a great success. P. M. Friesen said of it, “This first charitable institution of the Mennonites of Russia is a precious jewel and deserves all love and zealous support.”
In a blog post Rudy Baerg who worked for a number of years at The Mennonite Centre in Ukraine says, “In its time the School for the Deaf and Dumb in Tiege was a state-of-the-art institution and had the reputation of being the best school for the deaf in all of Russia. Teachers were trained in places as far away as St. Petersburg and Frankfurt.”
Much of the evidence that Mennonites once made their home in Ukraine is disappearing. There are still some buildings left however, and we were fortunate that one of them happened to be Dad’s birthplace and we were able to visit it and see it for ourselves.
Other posts about Mennonites in Ukraine………