Wednesday, November 16, 2011


These are grey days.  Trees have become bare and the air is filled with the acrid smoke of smoldering leaves.  At the Centre, instead of burning we are trying to set an example by composting, a practice not implemented yet in our area of Ukraine. For us these are also days of reflection - looking back over the past three months, recalling people we've met and projects undertaken.  Most memorable are times when we've been able to make personal connections. It's amazing what can happen despite language barriers.

Early on we visited Sasha, the 16 year old boy without arms. (for background information see  May 8, 2007 blog).  Since his tragic accident we have kept in touch with the family and have considered ways of helping him.  For major assistance we were advised to wait until he was grown.                                                  

Recently we were surprised to see him with a friend, whizzing by on a bicycle. They were going so fast we almost missed seeing that his friend was steering and Sasha peddling. This boy isn't sitting on the sidelines feeling sorry for himself and his mother refuses to pamper him. The family lives in a little village in dire poverty, no father in the picture. Sasha's mother had work on a cooperative farm, but unfortunately this is seasonal. We plan to provide a computer for Sasha which will enable him to complete school assignments. Until now his education has been exclusively on an oral basis. The computer is ready - we're just waiting for a foot-operated mouse from America. Other issues under consideration are where to put the antenna and how to minimize risk of theft. The computer is going to be linked with our computers at the Centre and Dema will be able to monitor its use. We are so fortunate to have a manager who is also a computer whiz. The other idea we're exploring is adapting a bicycle or tricycle enabling Sasha to steer with his shoulders - hopefully set to go by spring.

Dmitri is young man in a very different dilemma.  He is a fifth year medical student. Last year he had the misfortune of being ill and missing three weeks of lectures. Consequently he was told that he was ineligible to write examinations even though he had studied and knew the material. At the end of the year he received a failing grade. Before the new term began he was informed that he would be admitted on the condition that he repeat the fifth year and no longer be eligible for the State Budget which meant paying much higher fees. What we would call extortion happens too often here. For a time it seemed that Dmitri would have to forfeit his dream. He is an orphan with few resources. For the past year his grandmother has sent him her pension; she survives on the equivalent of $2.50 weekly (earned by doing a little tutoring). We discovered that Dmitri had been living on a shoestring - his clothes and shoes falling apart, his rent in arrears. Then a series of miracles happened. Through a new financial arrangement he has been offered assistance with his studies and a big-hearted donor is covering his living expenses.

It's been a pleasure to connect with women in our little English class and in the Mom's group.  Last week they learned to make "Crustless Quiche", a recipe that uses ingredients that all of them have in their kitchen. Since then, they say, this recipe has been served in their homes with many variations.


Each month we invite a guest for an inspirational or devotional meeting. Here you see Olga Rubel, our staff representative in Zaporozhye, teaching the importance of building life on a sold foundation of faith in Christ.  Several women in the group have very difficult life situations and find this women's group a safe place to confide and to find support.

Last month we made a little craft project - could be a pincushion or a Christmas ornament. Someone had the brilliant idea of making enough to these little treasures as Christmas gifts for all the seniors coming to our lunches. Thursday evening we held a work bee. Thanks to a friend  in Canada we have wonderful fabrics to work with.  Since all the stitching is done by hand it takes more than half an hour to make one - producing another sixty will be a labour of love.    

It's the place, but more so the people who will hold a special spot in our memories - those we've been able to help, those we've had the joy of working with, those we've learned to know and love, and the many who are making this work possible.  We thank you!                                                                                                                                                                                                            

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre visit our website at                                                        
Check out the December Newsletter for "gift options".
Don't miss the latest YouTube videos - Polonski Family - east of Kiev
                                                               - Two Mennonite Women - Stories of Survival

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Winter is on its way - snow flurries are wafting through the air. It is crisp and cold, very different from our first autumn here in 2005.  Then, we left for home the middle of December and it hadn't snowed yet. Our time is rapidly drawing to a close. Even though we think of ourselves as seasoned directors we still often find ourselves observing, making deductions, drawing quick conclusions and then "surprise",  things aren't necessarily what they seem.  A few examples.

Known as "the villa" to our friends and neighbours, the ruins of this once grand residence is situated next door to our apartment.  It was built in 1908 by Heinrich Willms and at that time was referred to as a "palace".  The ground floor alone measures over 650 sq.m.  It had a large space which was used as the Molochansk concert hall as recently as 15 years ago.  Sadly there were no funds for upkeep so it fell into ruin and has become a hangout for kids, as well as alcoholics and drug-users  So upset was the lady living upstairs, she threatened to make a personal phone called to President Yanukovych to have this situation addressed.

Last month we noticed unusual activity next door. The roof was being demolished, the interior torn apart and debris thrown outside. We felt greatly saddened as we saw the demolition continuing, feeling that no value was being placed on this once-beautiful heritage building. The yard was becoming a building supply headquarters; each day we saw people coming and hauling wood away. Then, to our surprise a crane appeared. Steel beams had been unloaded and were being hoisted up to brace the walls.  Windows and door have been bricked up.  It seems the building is being preserved after all.

Nobody can tell us what is happening.  The workers themselves don't know.  Rumours are flying around  that perhaps it is going to be a hotel.  We're prepared to be surprised again.

It's always a joy to host friends and to acquaint them with our work. Last week  Henry and Leona Thiessen, who are currently teaching at Lithuania International University (formerly LCC), visited for several days hoping to trace their ancestral roots. For starters we thought they should experience an authentic Ukrainian dinner, so we took them to Domashnya Kuhnya (home cooking), which offers a buffet with an array of dishes from vereniki to pilmenye, blini to siriniki.  Our friend Henry thought he should conclude the meal with something more familiar. Why not a piece of pie?  To his surprise the pie-shaped wedge turned out to be another Ukrainian delicacy. Liver blini - layers of crepes alternating with layers of liver, a common Ukraine party dish. Yum-m!

After a crash course in the history and geography of the Molotschna colony we set out to explore - first a walking tour through Molochansk, then a drive to the train station where Mennonites left either for a future in the West or banishment to Siberia, and on to the southern villages, from Jushanlee and Alexanderkrone to an adventure filled cross-country trip all the way to Alexandertal, following the footsteps Henry's father would have taken to court his sweetheart.
Finally we found the ruins of the MB church in Alexander-tal where they married. Henry picked up a souvenir brick.

It took a pioneering spirit because maps showed no roads for parts of this trip.  Luckily Dema was driving and stopping periodically questioning "Gde Alexandrovsk"?  He was always pointed east. We took the risk of  hoping "things would be better than they seemed" and indeed the roads, as bad as they appeared, were better than driving to Tokmak.

We've often wondered how people manage with their meagre incomes.  We know that many rely on their gardens and root cellars, but there are staples they must buy. We think we've discovered an answer - the Molochansk mall. Going down a maze of streets from the Mennonite Centre we find businesses hidden behind residential gates. On one side of the street is an unmarked gate with a doorbell.  Part of the house has been converted into a bulk food store - it is possible to buy sugar, flour and other staples by the kilo at much cheaper prices than in the market or the little shops.

Across the street is another larger gate, it is boldly marked "Second Hand", a term that has become part of the Russian vocabulary. Here is a regular department store - a clothing section, shoe department, lingerie deparment, linens and kitchen-ware . It is possible to get designer clothing here, sometimes even new, at unbelievable prices and if you have an "in" with the proprietor, she will call you when a new shipment comes in. Apparently containers are still being shipped from western Europe and the UK. This explains why many women look so surprisingly up-to-date.

Impressions of a more serious nature and updates, on our final blog next week.,

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Florence, Zena and Lucy
Recently we've been encouraged as we've had opportunities to hear from others in our region who are working to make a difference in the lives of  the poor and disadvantaged.  Delegates of various Mennonite charitable organizations in Ukraine have been meeting annually for mutual support and sharing. This year it was our privilege to host this gathering at the Mennonite Centre.  It was also an opportunity to increase our understanding and broaden our perspective on many different facets of involvement.  For example we heard Zena, a young social worker from Zaporozhye report about the Florence Centre, which was begun 15 years ago by Florence and Otto Driedger, social work professors from Regina.  Today this centre is operating twelve programs, concentrating mainly on providing support for children with disabilities and their parents. Lucy Romanenko is directing a social work program at the university which involves student practicums and supervision. They are also working on creating a volunteer base, a concept that is just beginning to take root in Ukraine.

Representatives from the First Mennonite Church shared about some of their struggles in recent years and how they have changed from being inward looking to focusing on reaching out to needy people in their community and looking ahead with optimism.

Boris Letkemann, director of the Family Centre in Zaporozhye spoke about their objective, introducing people to faith and life by focusing mainly on those who cannot take care of them-selves without some assistance. This centre operates a small respite program for elderly and incapacitated persons as well as providing home support to ninety people in the city.

John and Evelyn Wiens told us about the New Hope Centre - a recent church plant in Zaporozhye that is attracting many young people. They also shared their vision to begin a trade school in the village of Nikolaipole, offering opportunities to orphans who must leave the orphanage at age sixteen. Survival statistics for these young people are dismal to say the least, many going into a life a drug abuse, crime and prostitution. They plan to begin next September by offering programs in dairy farming/agriculture, operating a bakery and possibly a welding course, hoping to house these young people in three group homes.

A farmer in training
A dairy farm begun last year by a missionary couple from Steinbach Manitoba is expected to help fund this venture as well as providing educational training. Last Friday we were able to visit this place. It is already a thriving business, Garry Verhoog has no problem selling milk and plans to expand into varieties of cheese making.

Garry and Teresa live in a house that closely resembles the house my grandmother and her seven children moved into when they were driven from their estate in the early 1920's. Many former Mennonite buildings still exist in Nikolaipole, however we've searched in vain for this house, nothing to match my photograph. A short distance down the road is the school my aunts and uncles attended.  It is still the village school.  The
Olga Rubel below, school director on stairs
Mennonite Centre has been able to provide assistance with classroom equipment. The director recognizes us and welcomes us in. Much of the interior is still in original condition and we once more mount the staircase. A century after construction some ornate sections of the railing are still intact. It's always an emotional experience as our thoughts go back 90 years to those very difficult times.

We've spent this day with Olga Rubel, our capable staff member in the Zaporozhye area.  Together we've visited some of our projects, made deliveries, then met with our medical emergency aid representatives in two villages thanking them for the volunteer efforts they've provided through the years, faithfully distributing medications to those with few resources, keeping meticulous records and reporting back punctually. Through the generosity of our donors it's a privilege to carry on this work and to increase our presence in the former Chortitza and Yazykovo colonies.

The link to a new video on "Care for the Elderly in Molochansk" can be found at

For more information on the Mennonite Centre visit our website at

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Over the past month we have had the opportunity of celebrating Thanksgiving with two different Mennonite congregations.  On both occasions it was a delight to see young and old participating in a variety of ways. A skit acted out by children at the Bolkovoya church was particularly memorable. The setting is a discussion about a needy family in the neighborhood.

Two children dressed as hens are listening in. They hear that true living faith looks for a way to lend a helping hand, so the question arises, "Can we spare a hen?"  Then the dilemma of which  to choose - the big one or the little one?  (A much bigger issue here than for those of us who have so much.)  After a bit of agonizing the tension is resolved - the bigger one has to go.

Almost daily people with various needs come to the Centre asking for help.  It's not uncommon to have two or three waiting. We see them sitting in our entry foyer writing out their applications. So one day when two women arrived with three children in tow, we didn't pay much attention until they had been here for about half an hour writing and consulting with each other.  What long list were they planning to present?  Here is that list:
We  want to express our great gratitude for:
  • In your Centre there is always a peaceful atmosphere.
  • People can come only to keep warm
  • The staff is always so helpful and respectful
  • A big thank you to all the doctors who listen to our health problems and always understand us.
  • A special thank you to Dr. Chernova for the professional great care with which she treats her patients.
  • A big significance is the financial support in people's difficulties, things are getting more expensive every day 
With gratitude and respect                                                      

A few days later another woman, bearing a bouquet of beautiful roses, came to thank us for helping fund her husband's surgery.  He had been in so much pain and unable to eat.  The operation was a success.  We aren't always aware of outcomes, although we do make attempts to follow up on our giving.  All the more gratifying when people report back on their own.

A week ago we visited Alyona, the twelve year old daughter of one of our night watchmen. When she was a year old it became evident that she was profoundly deaf.  We have been assisting this family for many years. by providing hearing aids and batteries. Since she was four years old Alyona has spent week days at a residential school for hearing impaired children, coming home only for weekends. Last year when we were here they requested assistance in providing a private tutor.  She was at that age of maturity where she would receive optimum benefit. Now we were able to see the results of this expenditure.

Alyona is very proficient in sign language, and she is also speaking. With a little bit of coaxing she read us two pages from her reader and carried on a conversation with her mother. She also counted off on her fingers and gave us the names of eleven friends. At home the family is trying to encourage verbal com-munication although Alyona prefers to sign, because it requires much less effort on her part.  At this point her speech is on a monotone level, however it is intelligible enough that with my very limited Russian I was able to pick out a few words. What a joy and a privilege to see lives of individuals and families being changed. This family is very grateful, as are we, for the many donors who are making this work possible.

If you wish to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine make your Canadian cheques to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine" or "FOMCU".  Cheques from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU".  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer,  3675 North Service Rd.  Beamsville Ontario, Canada  L0R 1B1  Check our website at for information on credit card giving.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Day after day we keep being challenged by people around us who are able to do much with very little.  Many of the things we take so much for granted at home either don't work here or are in deplorable condition. For instance, having constant running water is a luxury reserved for those who have their own wells. Last week without warning the water went off, fortunately we had a little stored away, but not much.  Next day we get up - still no water.  We look out and see people on the street hauling large containers of water.  All Molochansk is without water. We better get to the store fast before the supply runs out. By afternoon the water is back - twenty-four hours; not so bad after all.

For the past few months the water at the Centre has been more off than on.  We're amazed that our staff does what they do under these circumstnces, keeping the place clean, cooking for seniors and guests with hardly a complaint. The good news is that a well is in the planning for the next year.
Ira washing dishes with very little water

Despite water shortages wonderful things come out of the kitchen. This morning Ira surprised us.  She said she just cleared her fridge of leftovers and "voila" a cake. A gift to the staff - it tasted even better than it looked. Ira puts on a brave front but she is in mourning having recently lost her husband.  We try to be supportive as best we can.

Recently we've become acquainted with two young entrepreneurs. Last year Denis and Vitaly started a business digging wells and fixing doors.  This year they are branching out into farming. With the aid of a small loan they've leased two hectares of land and have planted strawberries and garlic.

Several weeks ago they took us out of town to show us their accomplish-ment.  We saw the huge field of seven thousand strawberry plants, planted in raised, plastic-covered rows, with drip irrigation in place. To maintain and assure watering they have dug a well 36 metres deep yielding fresh clean water. So far they've planted half an hectare and next year they hope to do the rest. One hectare is almost 2 1/2 acres. They plan to do all the berry picking themselves - strawberries fetch a good price in spring.

We applaud and encourage these enterprising young people for undertaking such a project. In this part of Ukraine it is rare to see men taking initiative and being willing to work hard. Perhaps these men and their families can be an inspiration.

Denis' wife Svieta is another example of a hard worker.  For the past several days she has been busy scraping the plaster off the walls and replastering the kitchen below our apartment.  The Centre owns this studio apartment and has made it available to Lilia, a missionary from Germany who is responsible for the senior's home at the church.  This kitchen was in very poor shape, rotting cupboards and mildewed walls.

When the cupboards were moved out a mouse "graveyard" was laid bare. Again we see young people willing to do hard dirty work. Svieta is more than grateful for her reward - she can have the old cupboards  - Denis will restore them to use in their little home that doesn't yet have indoor plumbing.

Two formidable females arriving at church in style!

On Sunday we had another opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving. The Bolkovoya Mennonite Church, situated no more than a kilometre from Ruekenau, the location of the first MB church, invited our congregation as well as others to join them for this service. Their creative display symbolized the life-
giving fruits of the soil and their toil, truly what keeps these villages going.  For 2 1/2 hours people sang, spoke and recited their gratitude. Then this twenty member congregation hosted over a hundred of us for dinner!

As I prepare to post this blog the water has gone off again.

Our ongoing gratitude to the donors that make the work of the Mennonite Centre possible.

If you wish to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine make your Canadian cheques to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine" or "FOMCU".  Cheques from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU".  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer,  3675 North Service Rd.  Beamsville Ontario, Canada  L0R 1B1  Check our website at for information on credit card giving.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


As far as we know there are only two people still living in the former Molotschna colony with direct ties to our Mennonite past.  Each time we return we wonder, will they still be there. Both women are in their 90's.  Both women survived the sufferings of the Stalin years. Both women live at home, looked after by family that care about them. Last week we decided to take a day and look them up, heading first of all to Vladovka, the village that now encompasses both former villages of Hierschau and Waldheim. To get there we pass through Landskrone - there is nothing left to identify this former Mennonite village. When we first came to this area of  Molotschna in 1997 a landmark stood out on the landscape; a lone brick wall, the remainder of the church Rudy's mother attended in her childhood. The outline of Gothic-shaped windows with buttresses between testified to a grandeur that once was, the architecture so different from anything else in the area.

This day we look for a knoll on the flat landscape.  It's not the first time we've dug around in the overgrown rubble.  Sure enough, we find what we're looking for - more tiles, adorned with a distinctive floral pattern once composing the floor of the church. We take them with us to place in the museum room at the Mennonite Centre.

Another kilometer down the road and we pull in to a little driveway. As we walk to the door we see Margareta Krivetz, nee Plett, looking through the window. She's still alive and recognizes us immediately - a joyful reunion with Rudy's second cousin.

Previously, Margareta had told us her story - how she and her mother had made their way to Moscow in 1929; how they with many others had been denied emigration and been forcibly sent back.  Margareta married a Ukrainian and they had four sons.  All have died, two sons as a result of  the Chernoboyl.disaster.  She feels blessed that a daughter-in-law has taken her in.  Margareta struggles a bit to communicate in German, but gradually the words come back.  Recalling life with her husband she said, "Ich hatte einen goldenen Mann."  I had a golden husband.  We sing "Gott ist die Liebe" together and there are tears.  Perhaps we can see her one more time before we leave Ukraine.

We now head southwest, passing the first MB church building in Rueckenau, and then on through other villages to Alexanderkrone and the home of Rita Pankratz.  She is out in her yard, greets us warmly and tells us that she will soon be 93.

As we sit outdoors for the next half hour, she reviews her life in fluent German. She recalls how her husband was taken away in the latter 1930's and how she and her two young children were sent to Siberia.  She told us it was so far north that there was snow year round, and how hard she had to work outdoors those long and difficult ten years.  Miraculously one day word came that her husband was still alive.  He had been released and able to return home.  He was hoping that she hadn't remarried and would she want to rejoin him. Returning home again to the same house she lives in today was beyond her dreams.

In recent years the family has been greatly helped by donations from Mennonite tourists that have come by.  She is deeply grateful for this and also that her grandson is able to study aided by our scholarship program. Again we couldn't leave without singing - we joined her in four stanzas of "Wir warten auf den Heiland bis Er kommt."  Both these dear women have a faith that has sustained them through all the difficulties of the years.

One more short stop before we head for home. Just around the bend of the road leading from Alexanderkrone is the remains of an old Dutch-style windmill built long ago by Abe Konrad's grandfather who was a skilled mill builder.  It operated until 1952 and still stands as a sentinel on the steppe land.

This has been a day of immersion in Mennonite history.  We are reminded that it's because of our history that we are here and we feel a strong personal reconnection to our past.  Though sadly we see tangible evidence of our ancestral civilization gradually fading away, it is the people we have come to help.

Had we not been in Kiev last weekend we would have attended a Ukrainian Mennonite conference gathering at Kutuzovka.  Six out of eight congregations sent members to this celebration - some 150 people came together.  Though not ethnic Mennnonite in origin, it is very encouraging to know that these people are making positive contributions to their communities. There is new history in the making.

A video of our 10th Anniversary Celebration has been posted on YouTube.
Search   youtube/Mennonite Centre 10th Anniversary 

If you wish to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine make your Canadian cheques to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine" or "FOMCU".  Cheques from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU".  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer,  3675 North Service Rd.  Beamsville Ontario, Canada  L0R 1B1  Check our website at for information on credit card giving.   All contributions are greatly appreciated

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Shortly after our arrival in Ukraine we were told that we should try to visit Gulyaipole, a town situated about 100 km. from Molochansk. The Ukrainian tour guide who was telling us this also mentioned that the town has either an ignominious or else a proud history, depending on which person there, you might be talking to. Apparently the town is divided in this matter. 

Last Thursday we decided, would be the day.  The way there wove through beautiful farmland.  Trees along the roadside were beginning to change colour. The town of Guyaipole is on the eastern edge of the former Schoenfeld Colony, unfamiliar territory and the history unknown to us.  We find out that Mennonites first came to this area from Molochna in 1868 and remained until 1919.

Gulyaipole is the birthplace of Nestor Makhnov and was also for a number of years the headquarters of his army of insurrectionists. It is doubtful that there's a person of Russian Mennonite heritage who hasn't heard this name. Years ago his name struck terror in the hearts of our parents and grandparents because there was hardly a family that hadn't been affected in one way or another by the lawlessness and anarchy that erupted in 1918. Extreme atrocities were committed by Makhnov and his guerrilla bands, pillaging, murder and rape. In 1919, at its peak, he had an army of close to 100,000 men. Houses were destroyed, fields devastated and land seized and redistributed. At first, large rural landholdings were the primary targets. Personally, my grandparents were driven from their estate not too far from the Schoenfeld Colony, buildings were burned to the ground and grandfather died somewhere in flight.

Gulyaipole has a museum named in honour of Nestor Makhnov. We walk into the building and are greeted by the director who gives us an extensive tour. On display are artifacts dating from antiquity to the present time. We come to the section that deals with the period of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War.

It is jolting to see a wagon, which we are told is a Mennonite wagon expropri-ated by Makhnov.

Mounted on the wagon are guns and the black flag of death. The inscription reads "Death to all who stand in the way of freedom for the working people." For many here Makhnov remains a folk hero.

The museum also covers the Soviet period. We are told that Gulyaipole flourished during this time - that it had sixteen industries and employment. Today, she says, the town has only two. One is a bakery, owned and operated by a Turk. She didn't divulge the second though asked, which leads me to think that it could perhaps be tourism. The name of Nestor Makhnov lives on and the museum is impressive.

In the neighborhood of  the museum is another impressive building. We are told that in Mennonite times this was the Kreuger implement factory though Victor Penner tells us this hasn't been historically substantiated. Architecturally it looks similar to other Mennonite buildings.

On display in the museum we had seen sets of cutlery, purported to have been manufactured in this building, perhaps by Mennonite craftsmen. Today the building appears to be standing idle.

The visit leaves us emotionally shaken. We had decided ahead of time that we would come to listen without being confrontational. We leave a copy of the Ukrainian translation of Rudy Friesen's book "Building on the Past". It was gratefully received.  We hope this can help to broaden understanding of this difficult period of history where anarchy and destruction held the upper hand.

At the Centre not a week goes by where we do not have international visitors.  It is a pleasure to show people around and to tell them what we do and why we are here. So we try to keep on increasing our historical knowledge in order to wisely interpret our past.

If you wish to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine make your Canadian cheques to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine" or "FOMCU".  Cheques from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU".  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer,  3675 North Service Rd.  Beamsville Ontario, Canada  L0R 1B1  Check our website at for information on credit card giving.