What am I doing kneeling down in a pile of sand? It is 2011 and I am in Petershagen Ukraine on the grounds of a Mennonite church in a village where my husband Dave’s grandparents, Margaretha and Abram Driedger and his father Cornelius Driedger lived in the early 1920s. I noticed a pile of beautiful white sand that Victor our guide said has been hauled to the church yard for a building project. He tells me there are many pits all around the former Mennonite settlement of Petershagen with this nice white sand. I am excited because my maternal grandmother Margareta Sawatsky Peters has talked about this kind of sand in an interview with my aunt Mary Fransen.
Grandma is describing her paternal grandmother – Anna Wiebe Sawatzky. “My Grandma was a very neat housekeeper- and her clay floors, carefully swept were always sprinkled with sand- very white sand. The sand which was swept together during the week would be washed and used to spray a pattern on the sidewalk from the house to the street. The sand sprinkled on the floors in the house was dry, but the sand on the sidewalk was wet. The sand added to the beauty of the house. Once the whole house and yard was swept and adorned with the white sand it was just lovely!!”
Victor is very familiar with this custom and says decorating the sidewalks with sand patterns was especially common in Mennonite homes in the Ukraine for holidays like Easter.But we have come to Petershagen not to see sand but to see the village which provided salvation to Dave’s grandparents Margaretha and Abram Driedger and his father, Cornelius Driedger when they were sure they were all about to die of starvation. Dave is pointing to the date near the roof top of the Mennonite Church in Petersagen which informs us it was built in 1892.
Dave’s Oma and Opa Driedger, Abram and Margaretha Driedger moved to Petershagen in February of 1922 and lived there for two and a half years until they left for Canada in 1924. Dave’s Dad was born in February of 1921 so he could have attended this church with his parents as a little boy although around the same time the Soviet government banned church attendance, so the church may have already been closed.
Victor our guide has a map of how Petershagen would have looked at the time Dave’s Dad and grandparents lived there. Across the street from the church is the property of some Friesens. Could it be Dave’s Great Grandma and Grandpa Cornelius and Agatha Janzen Friesen?
We know that Dave’s great grandparents fled to Petershagen when they had to leave their home in Schoenfeld, because it was too dangerous there with all the gangs of bandits roving the countryside and terrorizing the outlying Mennonite villages. Victor tells us that the Schoenfeld church was a daughter church of the Petershagen Church so the fact that Dave’s Friesen great grandparents took refuge there makes sense.
Oma and Opa Driedger didn’t join Oma’s parents immediately but tried to make it on their own after they fled from Schoenfeld. They had jobs in various places but the famine of 1921 came and their oldest child, Dave’s Aunt Kaethe had died of pneumonia and little Cornelius, Dave’s Dad was sickly and weak. So they went to live with Oma’s parents, the Friesens in Petershagen. Oma says in the notes of an interview with Dave’s cousin John Braun that if her parents had not taken them in at Petershagen she thinks all three of them would have died of starvation.
The Mennonite Church in Petershagen was still an active congregation when we visited it in 2011. Nine elderly women from the village who had no one to look after them lived there and were cared for by the congregation members. We peeked into the church and the pastor’s wife came to talk to Victor. Some of the church members were planning a summer camp experience they were going to offer to the children of the village. It appeared a form of salvation for the very old and very young was still being offered in Petershagen.