I was so sad to learn that Victor Penner had passed away on June 30th. A cousin of mine shared an announcement from the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk, Ukraine that reported the news. Victor was our guide when we visited Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine and with his expert help, we were able to make so many connections with our families’ pasts. I had sent him the information I had about our grandparents’ lives and Victor took it from there. He knew all about the Molotschna Mennonite colony area where Dave’s family had lived as well as the Chortitza area of Mennonite settlement where my family made their home.
Victor and his son Paul met us our first day in Zaporizhzhia armed for the detective work ahead- with maps, books, atlases, photographs and of course Victor’s own personal storehouse of knowledge about the Mennonites in Ukraine which was so vast and detailed that you couldn’t mention a topic or person without Victor launching into a lively description, entertaining anecdote or keen observation.
Victor was the grandson of a Mennonite pastor and teacher. He had degrees in engineering and linguistics and had worked as a translator. At the time of our tour, he was buying and selling automobile parts. One of his sons was a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and his son Paul, who had just been accepted as a student at Waterloo University in Ontario, came along with us the first day of our tour. He shared his father’s interest in Mennonite history.
Victor began taking Mennonites from North America on tours in the early 1990s and was considered an extraordinary expert on the 446 Mennonite villages that once existed in Ukraine. His knowledge was sought by authors, historians and so many Mennonites who came to Ukraine wanting to connect with their family history.
One of the highlights of touring with Victor was that every day his wife packed us a lunch. There was always a huge basket filled with cheese, meat, cucumbers, tomatoes, butter and several kinds of homemade bread. Somedays we had cold verenki filled with potatoes we slathered in sour cream and we ate sushkas or bubliks. These were like little sweet bagels you dipped in your hot beverage to soften.
We had lemonade and hot tea to drink. Dessert might be halva, homemade ginger snaps, sesame seed honey bars or cherries. Before each of these feasts Victor would say a prayer in Ukrainian giving thanks for the day, the food, his visitors and our families who had once lived in this place.
During these meals, Victor might talk to us about his father’s memories of World War II, the difference between communism in China and Russia, Canadian politics and sports, the beauty of Russian opera, the Ukrainians’ love of firecrackers, European soccer, hybrid poultry, the dangers of smoking, the lack of social services for the elderly, the history of the Mennonite Brethren Church, a letter to the editor he wrote to a major newspaper about preserving historical buildings, the Russian mafia, mandatory military service or the 17 million dollar helicopter owned by the Ukrainian president. Victor was interested in so many things.
The day we went out to Gnadenthal where my grandparents Diedrich and Margaretha Peters had lived Victor’s car was overheating and the road was in awful condition, like a washboard and full of potholes. Victor thought we should turn back. But I told him this was my only chance to ever see my grandparent’s village and so he gamely forged ahead stopping every few miles to let his car cool off.
Thanks to Victor we made it to Gnadenthal and I saw the school my grandmother attended, the pond where my grandfather bathed the family horses, the church where my grandparents were baptized and I had a picnic on the farmland owned by my great grandparents. It is something I will never forget and without Victor, it wouldn’t have happened.
Our last day of touring was a Sunday. I asked Victor if we were keeping him from going to church. He told me his 84-year-old mother went to church every Sunday to see her friends and drink coffee with them and that was very nice for her. He said he didn’t find church very interesting because every Sunday they just told you to love Jesus. He said he had little use for people who spent all their time talking about loving Jesus and then had no time left to help others or do all the important work in the world that needed doing. Victor said he only went to church on holidays. “I don’t need to go to church to talk to God or believe in God.”
Yes with Victor as your guide you got it all. Personal hygiene, historical information, politics, culture and theology.
Dave and I were only two of the hundreds of Mennonites from North America that Victor helped connect with their family roots in Ukraine. He often mentioned that the physical evidence of the Mennonite presence in Ukraine was rapidly disappearing but Victor knew exactly how to find those remnants that did remain. Victor was an invaluable resource, a veritable walking encyclopedia of Mennonite history. He was humorous, intelligent, forthright and ambitious. What a loss his death is for his own family and for the larger Mennonite community as well.