My husband Dave stands on the porch of his father Cornelius Driedger’s birthplace in Tiege Ukraine.
The sign by the front door says the building was a cultural centre for the people of Tiege, but when Dave’s grandparents Abram and Margaretha Driedger lived there at the time of his father Cornelius’ birth in 1921, it was an abandoned School for the Deaf and Mute which had been operated by the Mennonites.
Dave’s Oma and Opa Abram and Margaretha Driedger 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.
Abram had already escaped the bandits’ bullets twice and so when a farmer in Tiege offered him a job he and Margaretha decided to move there. Along with a number of other families they lived in the Mennonite School for the Deaf. With its kitchen and dormitories it was a suitable place for homeless Mennonites to find refugee and shelter.
It was while Abram and Margaretha were living at the School for the Deaf that Dave’s Dad Cornelius was born in February of 1921. Sadly it is also where Oma and Opa’s first little daughter Kaethe died of pneumonia.
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 became worthless.
The school where Dave’s Dad was born was actually called the Mareintaubstummenschule. It was named after the Tsar of Russia’s mother Maria, a former Danish princess. ‘Taub’- means ‘deaf’ in German ‘Stummen’ means ‘mute’ and ‘Schule’ is ‘school.’
In an article in the Mennonite Historian published in September of 1982, Jacob Driedger writes 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 learned that the Marientaubstummenschule, was granted a patent on December 21, 1881 by Alexander II during the 25th year of his reign.
The school did not actually get started until 1885, and did not have its own building until 1890. Before that classes were 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 and later joined by the Gnadenfeld district. The institution received moral support from the churches and the board of directors included a pastor or church elder.
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 Mute 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 one is the former School for the Deaf in Tiege which just happened to be my father-in-law’s birthplace. I am so glad we were able to visit it and see it for ourselves.