Category Archives: Ukraine

Ten Things I Can Do About The War in Ukraine

1. Stay informed. Keep up to date with what is going on by reading the newspaper and listening to trusted media outlets. In this way at the very least we bear witness to what is happening to the people of Ukraine.

I volunteer at a Mennonite Central Committee Thrift Store and some of the income it generates will go to Ukraine.

2. Donate to a charity. Dave and I have been donating through Mennonite Central Committee a charity we know and trust but there are many reputable agencies providing relief in all kinds of ways to Ukraine.

Canada’s Deputy prime minister who is of Ukrainian descent addressing the country

3. Support the Canadian government. Although there are times to pursue political differences and doing so is very healthy, this is a time when we as a country need to stand behind our leaders as they work with other nations to stop the war in Ukraine.

Dave and I taking our granddaughter for a walk last week

4. Carry on with daily routines. Despite what is going on in the world and the possible threat of a nuclear war it is important for us as individuals, as families and as communities to carry on with life, especially so our children can have a sense of normalcy, well being and safety.

5. Pray. When I pray about the situation in our world I use a prayer I learned from political activist Stacey Abrams…….. “that good people, with good hearts and good intentions will rise up in positions of power to move humanity forward in a positive direction”

In Ukraine with the woman who now owns the house in the village of Rudnerweide where my mother-in-law was born

6. Make personal connections with Ukraine. There are two members of my church who have family in Ukraine and our congregation is being kept up to date on their situations. I have also been remembering my own travels in Ukraine and revisiting the history of my family which is closely connected to Ukraine.

7. Work at creating peace within your circle of influence. Peace begins within each of our hearts, extends to our families, then to our neighbourhoods and communities, then to our country and finally to the world. Creating peace within our circle of influence can make a difference.

8. Start thinking and planning for how you might support refugees who will come to Canada from Ukraine. Many people are already doing that.

9. Show interest and care by writing about Ukraine on your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter page, or in other places where you have an online presence.

10. Wear a ribbon. My father is a resident in a Ukrainian Catholic nursing home and they are handing out ribbons when you visit. I have mine on my purse so I don’t have to move it from outfit to outfit.

Other posts………

Checking Out- The Ultimate Privilege

In Praise of Sensible and Human Things

Ukraine- Exploring the Past- Mourning the Present

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Ukraine

Ukraine Exploring the Past- Mourning the Present

My husband’s grandfather (third from right) with family and friends on the lake in front of his family estate in Ukraine in the early 1900s

A decade ago, we made the trip of a lifetime to Ukraine.  My husband’s parents were both born there as were my paternal grandparents. Dave and I grew up hearing stories about life in Ukraine. Family narratives about the years just prior to immigrating to Canada in the late 1920s were filled with terror, death, famine and loss of property and possessions.

But there were also stories of a previous golden age; tales of flourishing estates, large close-knit families, industrial success, community celebrations, educational opportunities, and religious freedom, including respect for our family members’ conscientious objector stance as Mennonites. 

Having a picnic on my great grandparent’s farm in the former Mennonite village of Gnadenthal in Ukraine

We spent much of our time in Ukraine around the city of Zaporizhzhia. Our excellent guide Victor Penner helped us find the buildings, still miraculously standing, where each of my husband’s parents had been born. We visited my grandparents’ village, discovered the school they attended, saw the church where they were baptized and had a picnic on the land that once belonged to my great grandparents.

My husband Dave in a wheatfield growing on his grandparents’ former property

I photographed my husband in a wheat field on his grandparents’ former property and by the artificial lake that stood just in front of his great grandparents’ large estate. I also photographed little boys swimming in the village pond where my grandfather swam when he bathed his family’s horses on Saturdays. We found the tombstones of numerous ancestors.  As a pilgrimage to discover our family roots the trip was everything we could have dreamed of and more. 

We travelled from place to place in Ukraine via train.

We travelled through the rest of Ukraine via railroad, viewing the country’s magnificent scenery through the window of our private rail car while sipping tea from a samovar kept filled by a tiny woman in a crisp navy-blue uniform who popped in regularly to serve us. We visited Yalta, Odesa, Lviv, and Kyiv spending several days in each city exploring its architecture, art, culture, history, and food.   

I was sad last week when I looked at maps online and saw that most of the cities we had visited were being bombed or attacked. I thought of all the wonderful people we met during our weeks in Ukraine.

The articulate young men and women, many of them university students, who guided us on tours through city streets and wineries and art galleries and historic sites.  The restaurant staff members who served our meals, including three laughing waitresses who had a lively discussion with Dave about where to find the best cabbage rolls in Ukraine.  

Listening to folk singers at a concert in Lviv Ukraine

The ballet dancers and musicians and singers, who entertained us in opera houses and concert halls and on seaside promenades. The women we watched doing the delicate work of pysanka egg-decoration or the street artists painting portraits. The sunbathers who shared the beach with us or the television reporters who interviewed Dave about our visit to Kyiv for a segment on the evening news.  

My husband Dave stand with the sculpture called The Disappeared by Paul Epp

Two sites we visited in Ukraine haunt me.  One was an artwork in Zaporizhzhia called The Disappeared. It looked like a family portrait set on a mantelpiece only the bodies of the family members were missing- they were empty cutouts.  They represented the countless Ukrainian citizens, in particular Mennonites, who disappeared due to famine, war, execution, overwork in prison labour camps or being sent into exile in Siberia. It is heart-breaking to think that the current conflict in Ukraine will add to the number of the disappeared.

My husband stands beside the tracks at the Lichtenau Train Station in Ukraine where his grandparents began their long immigration journey to Canada

We also visited The Station of Tears, a train depot where thousands of Mennonites departed Ukraine for a new life in North America, weeping because they were leaving family, friends, and homes behind. We know that the current conflict in Ukraine will also result in many people being displaced, fleeing their homes to find safety.  Hopefully, other countries will welcome them with open arms just as our family members were welcomed to Canada a century ago.

Other posts………

The Enns Family Story

Thinking About the People In Ukraine

The Station of Tears

The Disappeared


Filed under Ukraine

Thinking of Kyiv

Waking to the news that Russian troops had entered Kyiv made me think of the time we spent in that beautiful city. How will the fighting impact all these places and people?

St. Michael’s Cathedral and Monastery. The original, constructed in 1108, was destroyed by the Soviet regime in the 1930s for having no historical value. The reconstructed cathedral was completed in May 2000. 
Dave was interviewed on national television about our impressions of Kyiv. Where are those television reporters today? Can they still do their job? Are they safe?
A man feeding pigeons in a city square
Kyiv is full of unique and interesting public art
The Uspenski Cathedral built in 1073
Dave points to Ottawa on an art piece in Independence Square that shows the distance from Kyiv to other major places in the world. Especially today it is important to remember that in the global community we are all neighbours
A street musician who entertained us
Monument to the victims of the 1932 famine in Ukraine
The beautiful and intelligent university student who served as our guide on a walking tour through the city.
Museum in Kyiv that honours the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Russian troops captured Chernobyl yesterday.
We light candles and pray for our family in St. Michaels Cathedral

Today I will light a candle and pray for the people of Kyiv.

Other posts………

Thinking about The People in Ukraine

Dad’s Samovar

The Disappeared

Leave a comment

Filed under Ukraine

Thinking About The People In Ukraine

I am thinking about all the people we met when we spent several weeks in Ukraine. I hope they will be okay.

This farmer in a field just outside the former Mennonite village of Tiege where my father-in-law was born.
The three waitresses in Yalta who laughed at my husband Dave when he asked them for help in his search for the best holopchi in the city.
The woman protesting in Independence Square in Kyiv
The friendly woman who now owns the home where my mother-in-law was born in the former Mennonite village of Rudnerweide.
My husband Dave with the vivacious university student who acted as our guide on a tour of Kiev
The military men on leave we saw in many different locations in Odessa

The folks we shared the beach with in Yalta.

The congenial couple who helped us find the location of the large estate in Kowalicha once owned by my husband Dave’s great grandparents and their children.

The woman selling poultry in Odessa.

The women’s string quartet we listened to on the Promenade in Yalta

The man who was living in what had been the schoolhouse my grandmother attended in the Mennonite village of Gnadenthal.

The bird lover who turned up every day to feed the pigeons in Independence Square in Kiev.

The women who lived in what had once been the high school in the Mennonite village of Schoenfeld where my husband Dave’s uncle was a teacher.

The ballet dancers who entertained us in Lviv.

These women near the former Schoenfeld Mennonite settlement who let us watch them milk their cows.

A knowledgeable young man who gave us a tour of the Massandra winery in Yalta.

We had an unforgettable time in Ukraine. We met so many wonderful people who helped to make our time there rewarding and enjoyable. What is happening to them now?

Other posts………

Thinking of Kyiv

A Station of Tears

Feeling Sad About Odessa

Introducing Visitors from Hong Kong and India to Mennonites

Leave a comment

Filed under Ukraine

My Father-In-Law Was Born in A School For the Deaf

school for the deaf tiege ukraine

My husband Dave stands on the porch of his father Cornelius Driedger’s birthplace in Tiege Ukraine.

school for the deaf and dumb mennonites tiege ukraine

cultural centre tiege

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.

Opa Driedger AbramOma Driedger Margaretha Friesen

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. 

margaretha and abram driedger

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.

school for the deaf tiege ukraine

Marien School for the Deaf, Tiege, Molotschna. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, KS

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.

Mennonite School for the Deaf

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.’

school for the deaf ukraine

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. “

school for the deaf
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.

students at the Mennonite School for the Deaf Tiege

Students at the Mennonite School for the Deaf in Tiege – Photo Source Mennonitische Geschichte und Ahnenforschung

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. 

children at school for the deaf ukraine

Children in the playroom at the Mennonite School for the Deaf- Photo Source Mennonitische Geschichte und Ahnenforschung

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.”

dave and victor orloff

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.

He Would Have Been 100

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, History, Ukraine

My Mennonite Great Grandmother Was Born in A Hebrew Colony

One of my pandemic projects has been working on a genealogy that traces my family and my husband’s family back for five generations. As I do my research I am discovering all kinds of interesting things.

My great grandmother Margaretha Schellenberg Sawatzky (1873-1943) and her husband Franz Sawatsky (1869-1936)

One thing I’ve learned is that my great grandmother Margaretha Schellenberg Sawatsky was born in a village in Ukraine called Kamenka. It is referenced as being a Judenplan village. I was curious what that was.

According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Judenplan was a name the Mennonites gave to a project the Russian government initiated in Ukraine. Mennonite farmers were sent to Jewish settlements to provide training in agriculture. Six Mennonite villages were established for this purpose and one was Kamenka.

Margaretha’s parents, my great-great-grandparents Johann Schellenberg (1836-1914) and Helena Andreas (1835-1904)- photo source Mary Fransen

I found a map of Kamenka online and could clearly see the property that once belonged to my great-great-grandparents Johann and Helena Andreas Schellenberg. It appears the Mennonites lived at one end of the village and the Jewish families at the other end. The Mennonites had a school (Schule) and a cemetery(Friedhof) and a wood lot (wald) but there appears to be no school or cemetery or wood lot on the Jewish side of the village. The Mennonite homesteads all look much bigger than the homes of the Jewish families.

Source of MapChortitzu website

According to the encyclopedia article, the Jewish farmers were inexperienced in agriculture and the master farmers from the Mennonite colonies were tasked with teaching them how to cultivate their land, plant trees and properly pasture their cattle. I found a couple of articles online that made it seem like the Mennonite master farmers were well-received and benevolent. I find it hard to believe that there weren’t some problems with this plan. Weren’t the Jewish farmers resentful of being told their agriculture skills were inadequate? Would the Mennonite farmers not have appeared patronizing? I wonder if the program was successful in the long run?

I found a reference to the autobiography of Joseph Epp who apparently lived in what is called the “Hebrew Colonies” from 1860-1880 as a model farmer and advisor. He was in charge of Jewish-Mennonite relations.

The Epp autobiography is still in print and in his review of it Tim Fleming says of the Judenplan  “Epp lived in the Judenplan where the Mennonites were to live as examples and model colonists to their Jewish neighbors. The Jewish settlers resented this greatly and relationships were often very difficult with fault on both sides.”

I find it interesting that my Mennonite great grandmother was born in what has been referred to as a Hebrew Colony. I wish I knew more of her family’s story there.

I have already written a story about my great grandmother Margaretha’s Sawatsky’s death which was unusual but it seems her birth and early childhood home were unique as well.

Other posts………

Marc Chagall and The Fiddler on the Roof

Hyphenated Lives

De Ja Vu At The United Nations

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, History, Ukraine

He Brought the Past to Life- Thank You Victor Penner

My husband Dave and Victor Penner look at a map

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 Dave stand at the train station in Lichtenau where Dave’s grandparents Margaretha and Abram Driedger and my grandparents Diedrich and Margaretha Peters began their journey to Canada

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 got directions from this couple and that led us right to Kowalicha where Dave’s maternal great grandparents Margaretha Thiessen Enns and Peter Enns owned a huge estate

Victor had found this photo of my husband’s grandfather Heinrich Enns and his family on the lake in front of their estate in Kowalicha. 

With Victor’s help, we found that lake

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, his son Paul and my husband Dave. The woman in the photo lived in the former high school in Schoenfeld where Dave’s great uncle Dietrich Unrau was a teacher. 

Of course, Victor had a photo of the former high school to show us

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. 

Many years ago Victor had found the tombstones of Dave’s two great uncles Johann and Jakob Enns in a stand of trees. Using Victor’s maps and detailed notes we found them again and the dates and names matched exactly with the information I had about Dave’s mother’s side of the family. 

Victor was delighted that he could show the tombstones to someone from the Enns family.

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.

Dave and Victor enjoying lunch in a graveyard in Orloff.

 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. 

With Victor’s help, I found the tombstone of my great, great grandfather Daniel Peters in Nikolaipol 

Victor rubbing the inscription on my great-great grandfather’s tombstone with a leaf so I can read it

Victor consulting a history book and map with a couple in the village of Rudnerweide where Dave’s great grandparents Peter and Anna Unrau lived and where his Enns grandparents took refuge during the Revolution

Victor’s detective work led us to the house where Dave’s mother Anne Enns was born and where his grandparents Heinrich and Gertrude Enns and their four small children hid in the basement from bandits for many days as they terrorized the village of Rudnerweide

Victor and Dave stand in front of the former Mennonite School for the Deaf in Tiege where Dave’s father Cornelius Driedger was born. Victor knew all about this world-renowned school where Dave’s grandparents took refugee when bandits chased them from their farm in Schoenfeld.

Victor in front of the high school in Nikolaipol where my grandfather’s older brother was a student. The revolution prevented Grandpa from attending, something he always regretted. 

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. 

This was once the schoolhouse in Gnadenthal where my grandparents attended classes

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.

Victor took us to the church in Petershagen that Dave’s grandmother’s parents Cornelius and Agatha Friesen attended.  Here Victor is with the plaque that indicates it was a Mennonite Church built in 1892

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.”  

Victor always brought along water, so we could wash our hands before we ate

Yes with Victor as your guide you got it all.  Personal hygiene, historical information, politics, culture and theology.

Victor and his son prepare one of our lunches

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.

Victor shows us a well built by Mennonites in one of Molotschna Mennonite villages

Other posts………..

School For The Deaf -My Father-in-law’s Birthplace

Station of Tears

The Disappeared


1 Comment

Filed under Ukraine

Dad’s Treasures – Part 7

My brother and I were visiting my Dad yesterday and we both left with some treasures as a result of Dad’s continued efforts to downsize in preparation for a move.  My brother took home several boxes of tools, nails, screws, wires, cords and other items Dad had been keeping just in case he needed to repair something. I took home a samovar.  Dad said he wanted me to have it because I am the only one of his children who has visited Ukraine and that’s where he got it.  In 1971 my Dad made a trip to Ukraine with my grandfather.  They travelled with a tour group of other Mennonites and the emphasis was on visiting sites that related to the history of the Mennonites in Ukraine.  My grandfather was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Canada in the 1920s.

This is the only photo I have of  Dad and Grandpa on their trip to Ukraine. Grandpa is second from the left and Dad is second from the right and I imagine the others are local residents of Ukraine. 

In 1971 travel in Ukraine was still fairly restricted. My Dad said although he and Grandpa were offered a chance to travel with a guide to the small village of Gnadenthal where my grandfather’s family had lived, Grandpa was leery about leaving the larger tour group.  He wasn’t sure it would be safe. His experiences prior to leaving Ukraine had been so violent and his escape so narrow that he still felt a sense of risk being back in the country.  My grandmother who also immigrated with her family in the 1920s had absolutely no interest in going back to a place she had left amid a time of conflict, famine and terror and I think she worried the whole time my father and my Grandpa were gone that they might not come back. By the time Dave and I visited Ukraine in 2011 we traveled freely and even had a picnic on my grandparents’ farmyard in Gnadenthal.  

Having the samovar in my home will be a good reminder of my family’s roots in Russia and the trips both my father and I made to the country that was our ancestors’ home for over a century. 

Other posts………

Dad’s Treasures Part 5- A Tender Photo?

Dad’s Treasures Part 1- The Cowbell

Dad’s Treasures Part 6- My Polio Vaccine

Dad’s Treasures Part 2-Medical Bag

Dad’s Treasures Part 3- A Hymnal

Dad’s Treasures Part 4- A Fern

1 Comment

Filed under Family, Ukraine

A Station of Tears

When I visited the Russlander exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach I saw this photo of Mennonites leaving Ukraine for Canada from the Lichtenau Train Station in the 1920s. It reminded me of the visit we made to that train station on our trip to Ukraine.

Both tragic and hopeful journeys began at the Lichtenau train station in the former Molotschna Mennonite colony.

My husband stands beside the tracks at the Lichtenau Train Station in Ukraine where his parents and two sets of grandparents began their long immigration journey to Canada

On our trip to Ukraine, we asked our guide, Victor Penner, to take us to the Lichtenau train station. It was from this station both my husband Dave’s mother Anne Enns and his father Cornelius Driedger set off for Canada with their families.
The Molotschna Mennonite Atlas says the original Lichtenau train station was blown up in September of 1943 by retreating German troops but it has been rebuilt. The first station house erected in 1912 was one of the eight stations on the very profitable Tomak Railway Line built by a group of Mennonite investors who wanted a way to get their agricultural and industrial products to market.

My husband’s grandparents and his father just before leaving  Ukraine

On June 23, 1924, one of the first groups of Mennonite emigrants leaving from Lichtenau, included my three-year-old father-in-law Cornie, his parents Abraham and Margaretha Driedger, his maternal grandmother Agatha Friesen and his little sister Agatha. They crowded into one of the 45 boxcars waiting for Mennonite emigrants at the Lichtenau station. 

My husband’s mother’s family just before leaving from Lichtenau. His mother Anne is the little girl on her mother’s lap.

It would be two more years before my mother-in-law Anne, her parents Gertrude and Heinrich Enns, her sister and brothers would also leave from the Lichtenau station for the long trip to Canada.

My husband stands on the railway tracks at the Lichtenau Train Station in Ukraine where his grandparents began their long journey to Canada

Victor, our guide, pointed out the direction the trains with Dave’s family aboard would have traveled and my husband walked out onto the tracks to stand for just an imaginary minute ‘in his grandparents’ shoes’ as they would have faced the new direction their lives were taking.
There are two granite benches on the side of the station facing the tracks. Paul Epp of Toronto designed these functional works of art. His family also left for Canada from the Lichtenau Station. One bench recognizes the thousands of Mennonites who voluntarily departed from Lichtenau for a new life and freedom in North America between 1924 and 1929.

My husband and I sit on a bench outside the train station in Ukraine where our grandparents began their long journey to Canada

The other bench is in memory of the thousands of Mennonites who left from Lichtenau between 1931 and 1940 because they were being sent into exile in Siberia, an exile from which many never returned. 
Apparently, the Lichtenau railway stop was nicknamed The Station of Tears and I imagine it was. The travelers leaving from this station knew they would probably never return to this place and way of life and in many cases they were leaving friends and relatives who they might never see again. 

A newsletter published by the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta has a poem written by a teenage girl named Susan Penner whose family left from Lichtenau on July 13, 1924. Here are some lines from her poem…………

The train is ready to depart,
Folks are coming from near and far,
On foot in carriages or wagons
The air is dusty, the heavens grey
At the station at Lichtenau.

The wind whistles and sings and whines,
A mother cradles her weeping child,
A samovar is set up for tea,
At the station at Lichtenau

The iron horse whistles;
Composure threatens our control,
We groan and sob, press loving hands,
One more glance towards our homes,
From the station in Lichtenau.

The bell rings out the first call,
The steps are lifted, the door
Is sealed, secured and barred.
The bell rings out a final time
With a jerk, the train leaves – as people sing
“Go Thou Ahead, Oh Jesus Mine!”

Those left behind now wave goodbye
But cannot see through tear-filled eyes,
And deserted soon lies Lichtenau


Filed under History, Ukraine