An index to this 16 page reminiscence -
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Notes about the ship
Ballet and Opera
Sundays and special occasions on the cruise
My Special Day
What was it that suddenly created this desire in me to touch base with my past, the home of my forefathers, to see, yes to feel the pulse that probably shaped my destiny? It had never been this strong ever, but something grew inside me, would not let me go. I must go - I must touch - I must come to terms. With what, you ask? It wasn’t until I stood in the house, yes the room where I was born, that it came to me. Now I know why I came. I came to say goodbye to my father. A father I had never known. But hang on with this until we arrive in the little village of Chortitza, in the southern Ukraine.
It was Ukraine that my whole self was being drawn to. Ukraine, which for centuries had been a part of the former U.S.S.R. and became an independent state of Europe in August 1991, was the size of the country of France, flew a blue and yellow flag and was the home to millions and millions of people.
Ukraine also had been the home to many, many Mennonites after the 1789 emigration from Prussia and western Europe, some of whom I could call my forefathers. It was also the land from which many of these forefathers had left to start a new beginning in the Americas, to which I could identify to.
Yes, I would go to the Ukraine. The fact that my friend Olga Friesen and her two daughters, Lucille Evans and Louise Spafford, were planning to go only made this desire more appealing.
Whom would I go with now that Herman could no longer escort me? I had gone with Barbara to Spain in 1996. Whom could I entice this time? It was a toss up between my son and my “friend/daughter” Irene Rempel. Both, I assure you, had my shelter and welfare in mind before their own pleasure. It was Irene who won out. Just wait son, I’ll get you another time. And after having gone with Irene, I must recommend it highly. It’s an experience you’ll never regret. In fact she did it with enthusiasm, efficiency, flavored with lots of love. Try It!
With lots of encouragement from my family to spend their inheritance, I signed up. But my first connection with the travel agency went down the drain when the company dissolved. So, after a few anxious moments I signed up with First National Travel in Toronto. All ran smoothly, we were off September 17, 1997, on a clear, cool day in this beloved Canada of ours.
We were eighty people in the group coming from different points
in the Americas, like British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario,
Colorado, California, Washington, Kansas and of course Manitoba.
We were shepherded by our tour organizers, Walter and Marina Unger from
Toronto, historian Rudi Friesen from Winnipeg Clarence Hiebert from Hillsboro,
Kansas and Rudi Baerg musical influence from Abbotsford, British Columbia.
We were in good hands.
After a 6:30 a.m. alarm clock, we left home at 7:30 via Wally Rempel on his way to play a ball tournament, breakfasted leisurely with Irene’s sisters Sylvia and Theresa and her daughter-in-law Anne at the airport before catching the 11:00am Air Canada flight to Toronto. The flight, as were all subsequent flights, was smooth as silk. It should be with gratitude to our pilots and mechanical experts and not “take it for granted” attitude that we attribute our safety and pleasure to. In Toronto
we were joined by a few more fellow passengers of our tour, even though at this point we were strangers. A long, long walk to the international airport connected us with the 747 aircraft that was to take us across the Atlantic Ocean to Frankfurt, a very popular connecting airport for international flights. If we thought the Toronto airport walk long, just you wait till we tried this one. When we finally got to the other end, we found a mini airport bus there to take us to our “big Bird.” Many a day during this and the 12 days to come did I thank my god for healthy legs and good feet that still carried my near 80 years old body from spot to spot, even though the speed was not quite on par with many of my passenger friends. But I did always get there on my own speed, no not quite my own. Irene’s arm was always there “to schlep” me along. Thanks for that solid and comforting support, Irene.
After a five or more hours flight on Lufthansa, we arrived in Frankfurt
to find some more “soon to become new friends” of our tour. Rudi
Friesen had herded us from Winnipeg to Frankfurt and he was now joined
by Clarence Hiebert, our Mennonite historian from Hillsboro who helped
shoulder this responsibility. By now fatigue was beginning to set
in as we fought the body clock against the far too quickly setting sun.
After a near three-hour flight, we arrived in Kiev, not only the capital
Ukraine, but also the biggest city next to Moscow and St. Petersburg of the former Soviet Union. It was morning far too soon and a new day was beginning before we thought we were through with the day we had started in Winnipeg. We cleared customs and immigration with our especially purchased Ukranian visa, were given the opportunity to change some of our American currency cash into Ukrainian grievna. No visa, master cards or travelers’ checks would be accepted they told us.
Now we know that the places tourists frequent most love the “American dollar”, especially the new crisp kind. They of course have no American change to give back, so that is why we were encouraged to bring small denominations. Prices at the street vendors, and that is where we did most of our shopping, were always rounded out to two grievna equated to one American dollar. A bus was waiting to take us to our new home for the next 13 days, the MS Viktor Glushkov. A new day, a new experience had dawned and was waiting for us.
Our floating home was no little row boat. It was the MS Viktor Glushkov, a 30,000 ton cruise ship with five levels. We slept on level 3, ate on level 4, were entertained on level 5 and sat on deck if and when weather was kind to us. We embarked at Kiev, docking four times, at Kaniv, Kremenchuk, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye and then the port of Odessa nearly 1000 km away. The last 100 km or so was crossing one corner of the Black Sea, the only time we were warned choppier waters could be expected. We even got life jacket instructions. But we were lucky none were needed, the Black Sea as well as the whole stretch down the Dnieper River was smooth as silk. Very delightful to say the least.
The boat, 129 meters in length (about 400 feet), sailed the length up
to 25 km per hour, going through four locks. The deepest was in Zaporozhye.
A few of us, by coincidence, stood at midnight, a moonlit night, watching
the expertise of our ship’s captain taking it through those locks just
a few feet on either side of boat space in which to manoeuver it through.
We sailed mostly at night, the first stretch, Kiev to Zaporozhye, being
the longest. The weather was that typical Manitoba fall weather,
cool and sunny but also interspersed with clouds and wind. It was
the clouds and wind that made those days unpleasant. Only one out
of the 13 could be called rain all day. But the same moon I had just
seen shining over Manitoba in round fullness met me in slightly waning
form. But it was there – I recognized it – it felt good. And
we had an opportunity to visit the captain’s bridge, meet the captain and
with our “prairie eyes” inspect the mechanics of sailing a ship.
That experience reminded me of
the time I was called into an airplane cockpit. About as many confusing buttons met my eyes. I would leave the judgment and expertise in the captain’s hands.
But more about the physical layout of the ship. We spent the first
few days of our journey in cabin #340, just across the hall from Olga Friesen
and her daughters, then were moved over a few doors to 350 because of unpleasant
bathroom odors. The cabins on the 300 level, I think, were all very
similar. They had two army sized cots(with mattresses that I knew I couldn’t
sleep on) but turned out quite comfortable, one bedside table separating
them. The aisle was wide enough for one person at
a time. So we had to learn sharing and taking turns. There was a small window overlooking the promenade deck. The cabin was furnished with two roomy clothes’ closets, twice the width of the clothes hangers, a wall of shelving extending over bed and beyond. “OUCH!” Watch your head, Frieda. It had one chair and a private, tiny bathroom, big enough to cover jobs to be done. The shower was somewhat different, no special cubby hole. All you had to do was pull a shower curtain
in front of the toilet facility, pull out the shower head from the small sink, turn on taps and presto there it was. The floor you stood on (it was sort of stamp sized) held the drain to lead the wetness away. Little boys would have loved it. Mothers couldn’t yell “Be careful, son, don’t get the floor wet”, it was always wet. But all of it sufficed and did the job.
The stairs leading from level to level were steep and narrow, but solid, smooth railings to help pull you along. And we had to manipulate from level to level several times a day. There was an intercom that helped Walter, our tour chief, get us all up in the morning, get us to the tables on time or in general, herd us and hold us together.
Besides sleeping in our aquatic home these thirteen days, we also, with
very few exceptions, had all our meals on board. The meals were all
enjoyed on the fourth level dining room with a very efficient and friendly
staff hovering over us and keeping our stomachs happy. A big bouquet
is probably in order to our chef. Tables were set for four, eight
or ten. Tablecloths , serviettes, floral centerpieces graced each
table and received well-prepared nutritious, well balanced and pleasing
food served in attractive china. It must have taken an acre of parsley
to dress up each plate. If I may say so, the very simple but common
food we north Americans probably missed most was the ordinary buttered
toast. Each country, each people has its own regular fare on its
menu and so we often saw Swiss cheese, a certain bread or roll, red cabbage,
corn, eggplant, zucchini, cutlet, cooked porridge and lots of peppers both
red and green. The soups as well as the light desserts deserve special
mention. They were indeed delicious. I can’t speak for anyone
else, but it might be relatively safe to find myself
saying at the end of the trip “How nice to be back to my ordinary back at home food”. But it was heavenly for 13 days to have your bed made and your meals cooked and served. The bag lunch we received for our day excursions certainly was adequate but also interesting. It contained without fail 2 rolls, the fillings consisted of Swiss cheese and cold cuts, one tomato, one raw cucumber, an apple or banana and a bottle of mineral water.
Several times we were entertained with a table laid out in white tablecloth, floral arrangements, candles and bowls of mouth-watering fruit plus goodies and dainties. One night it was “rollkuchen and watermelon”. Uncle Peter where were those heavenly “only grown on Russian steppes” watermelon you always raved about? These were all the kind we ship in from Texas. Maybe next time. They did explain to us it had not been a hot watermelon summer.
The Captain’s Dinner, two days before we left, was a time that found all of us in Sunday best or women’s gilded finery. The tables were laden, ready to break from the weight they held. All dining trim, skill and finery had been used to dress up the serving tables as well as the many tables for four. The chef got a special applause for the scrumptious meal.
Here too, our chief Walter, held us in good spirits with words of wisdom and laughter. A few contributions came from the audience. John Giesbrecht, from Vineland, Ontario, an expert in the low German language again paid tribute, as he had done already an evening earlier, to Arnold Dyck Canada’s well known author of Low German books. He presented the group with a “Mennonite flag” his wife has specially designed for the occasion, depicting a large juicy cut watermelon in mouth watering color on a white background stating “Mennisch ess aeva aulis” translated means being Mennonite exceeds all.
Our two oldest and most contributing members of our group, Jake Letkeman (92) and Olga Friesen (86) were honored with a gift and words of appreciation. Both had been a bit older on emigration, could still remember places and incidents, could still converse in basic Ukranian and certainly showed spunk and sportsmanship in their participation. Bravo to both! You are our heros. They in turn favored us with an old time waltz
Our cruise ship was well equipped for small and larger gatherings and
our group certainly made good use of the facilities. There was the
smaller music room, the Kiev room, lined with soft sofas and room for 60
chairs in the center. The Dnieper Bar also had the perimeter lined
with soft sofas plus room for enough chairs to hold all of us and more.
All rooms were constantly in use, be it the group that, under the leadership
of Rudi Baerg, Abbotsford, B.C.,had a small inspirational choir that loved
to sing, or the many that attended the sessions on the impact of Mennonite history into our repertoire of knowledge. Enhancing these hours was not only our tour director, Walter Unger, but also historian Clarence Hiebert, Hillsboro, Kansas, as well as architect Rudi Friesen, Winnipeg. Wasn’t this part of the reason most of us were there for? We were looking, finding, enhancing our “roots”. It seems every person in the group had some background in these Ukranian steppes although some
already two or three generations ago.
We had already been entertained by a Ukranian song and dance group on the ship. While in Zaporozhye, a Cossack Show with riders on horse back showing stunt riding, put some zip into our life. The lead entertainer used some of his expertise in whip snapping, snapping articles from outstretched arms or balanced on someone’s head. It was indeed a William Tell experience, especially to those two or three who were pulled out of our audience to be participants. OUCH!
For entertainment with class and style, we were privileged to buy tickets and attend a ballet and an opera in world renowned theaters. In Kiev we saw the ballet “La Bayaderes” by L Minkus. The performance was excellent and of course being in such a grand gilded theater with such high ornate ceilings and triple loggias with chandeliers too beautiful to describe. It gave us an awesome feeling, a perfect setting for such a grand performance.
It seemed like a repeat treat when near a week later we were in Odessa,
a seaport on the Black Sea and a city of many millions. It’s called
a city of students. It houses many, many universities and is
indeed a center of culture. Although situated in the Ukraine, there
is more Russian than Ukrainian language taught there. It is here we were
treated to the opera “Carmen”. This too was a super production and
the theater is rated one of the top five in the world and truly only really
by people with an eye for art and architecture and an ear for the best in music the world can offer. I felt very small and insignificant in these buildings, seeing and listening to such great music, as though I didn’t belong. So wished you, Barb, had been here.
May I end the theater experience by mentioning the state of the women’s washroom in the same breath? I really shouldn’t as it was capable of breaking the magic of the performance. Americans call these standards of sanitation “a hole in the floor”, unforgivable, a situation completely void of dignity. Let’s forget the latter and ponder on the former experience.
Our organizing crews must
really be commended for the excellent filler in our trip. No, they
shouldn’t be called fillers, they were the parts that pulled each one of
us into the fold - for us to take and for us to give. As we had hoped,
even expected, Sundays were observed with a church service. The first
Sunday was an “at home” kind, held in our Dnieper Bar. (Not very
Mennonite sounding, you say) But it was a very meaningful hour! Clarence
Hiebert, our historian, brought the message
and Rudi Baerg’s choir supplied the music.
The second Sunday we were given the choice of attending church service at an Orthodox church, a Baptist church or assemble on board the ship for an hour of singing and sharing. There were people for every direction. Cabs were ordered and everyone went to the one of their choosing.
One evening was spent as a group in our now familiar Dnieper Bar and all became serious as they joined for an hour or more remembering. Everyone became silent within as together they remembered many of our people who were victims of the terror that followed World War I, The Revolution, the 1930's, especially 1937 purging, when men were shot, killed or sent to exile, never to be heard from again. Women were molested and raped. As we looked within our own or extended ranks, names were quietly and reverently spoken, as a candle for each victim was lit. Jay (cruise genealogist) and Mayme Hubert of California, were in charge of the candle lighting. It was indeed a reverent hour.
Another evening of togetherness and tenderness was an evening of sharing.
People were invited to share with their cruise friends special times, special
moments and special stories that were relevant to the times. They
were stories of the past, stories of reasons why they were making this
trek into their Mennonite roots, stories either they or their families
had experienced. It was an hour of compassion for those victims,
but also the families that were affected and were hurting. It seemed
that even after so many, many years, people were understanding, were healing.
Everyone forgot about the clock as we bonded as a family, as a people.
But let’s go back to the basics of why we, in this group of 80,
had come to southern Ukraine this September of 1997. There was a
common denominator but still we were all individuals, unique in our need
to search, to find, to come to terms with our past as a whole, but also
for each individual person to find what he was searching for. Again
I must say thanks to our organizers, Walter and Marina Unger, for their expertise in organizing such a search and especially for the sensitivity they showed for each person’s individual need or desire.
We were looking for our Mennonite roots, some of which we found, some only in part, some we realized had been erased through time or ravage of war and destruction. There was so much to see, to know, to feel, to come to terms with! So buses were engaged to take us to certain areas, along certain routes to search and to see.
As was mentioned before we had three main docking sites, Kiev, Zaporozhye and Odessa. The first and last docking we’ll address later for its historical, cultural and geographic significance, but it was while at Zaporozhye that we did our main Mennonite past search. There were structural reasons for not docking at Dnepropetrovsk for this stepping into the past, so we waited till day #4 to make that plunge.
So on Monday, September 22, one tour bus took some of us to Molotschna
East and one to Chortitza/Yazakovo on the west side of the Dnieper River.
Olga Friesen and her daughters hired a car and interpreter to take them
to Dnepropetrovsk for a streamline to their family tour. It was the
city in which Olga had been born and received some of her elementary education.
It was the city her parents had been born in, worked in, built and operated
a large flour mill until the revolution and the terror came. The
family had been forced to flee first to southern Ukraine, then on to Moscow,
finally receiving permission to leave for Germany and eventually emigrating
to Canada. Olga, now in her 80's, wanted to find familiar spots she
remembered as a child. She found and was told how their mill, their
home as well as many more in that area had been destroyed by fire as a
result of a military air crash. But she did find some familiar spots
and streets. Especially exciting was finding her maternal
grandparents home in recognizable condition. So the three of them spent the better part of the day in that city.
The bus going to Molotschna East wasn’t going as far east as Alexanderthal,
the home of the paternal side of the Neufeld family, so I chose to go to
the Chortitza colony villages. Irene was always at my side.
What a beautiful support.
We left by bus at 9am, drove up through the west side of Zaporozhye to the big bridge separating it from the Chortitza colonies. Just by-passing the Island of Chortitza, we headed west. Our interpreter today was Ludmilla Karyaka, a pleasant, friendly guide well versed in Mennonite history. The city of Zaporozhye, that we were leaving behind by now, has near 1,000,000 people with three Orthodox churches and seven Baptist churches again reopened and functioning. Most of the people live in flats (small suites) in large, similar looking apartment blocks. Families usually shop in open markets, but
must in some corner grow their own vegetable garden. Pensions run only 25 grievna (their dollar) per month. Rent is low.
Driving west and south through Rosengard, Kronsfeld, Shoeneberg and
on to Osterwick the road is very rough And narrow and
winding as we pass fields of sunflowers (which could have been a pretty
sight while in season - but now late September look brown and drab).
It is bound to produce a good yield of oil. Corn and beet fields
run plentiful too. The countryside is Manitoba flat with patches
of bush land. Every village, however, has beautiful tall trees, some
orchards, all planted. Sugar produced from beet fields is exported
to other parts of Russia. The homes laid out along this road, which
becomes the main street of the village, can easily be differentiated as
to Mennonite or Ukranian families. The former is always larger (also
often house two families) and are made of brick with tile roofs, while
the latter is a clay with a thatched roof. There are no lawns, front
or back of the house, all are gardens that are edged by unkempt grass kept
short as far as the tethered goat can
reach, therefore no need for lawn mowers. Of course, there are geese, sometimes ducks, but also chickens wandering on every farm yard.
As we come to Osterwick (it is the former home of Helen Wiens, Abbotsford, B.C.) we see it is more flourishing and bigger. It was started already in 1812 by 20 families moving south from Chortitza. There were two flourishing factories here through the years, the Rempel (Helen W.) and the Schultz factory. Today, there is little activity – the factories are now used as granaries. The old “Zentralschule” built in 1912 still stands. An old “Baba” we meet on the street still remembers the Letkeman and Rempel names. The little unkempt cemetery, overgrown with weeds, still shows a few familiar names on headstones. One says Margaret Rempel 1840-1904. The state is not responsible for cemetery upkeep, families must maintain cemeteries. Of course, all next of kin are long gone from this desolate patch of Gods earth. On the way out of the village, we see a black hen herding a flock of white chickens. One passenger pipes up, “I wonder who the rooster may have been to produce such lovely white chickens?”. We all agree this is a good observation!
After a “bush break” (men to the right and ladies to the left) we eat our bag lunch of 2 buns, 1 tomato, 1 cuke, 1 apple and bottle of mineral water, we drive onto Schoenhorst. By the way, Irene and I decided that as far as bush breaks, we’ll go tomorrow or at least after we get home. Schoenhorst is also the home of some of my “Wiens” roots. But very vividly it was the home of Frieda Pankratz, one of our passengers, from Langley, B.C. So her memory is very vivid. She hadn’t seen it since childhood. She is very excited and is off the bus nearly before it stops. She skips from place to place, looking, searching, finding. Ones heart warms to see such joy of a finding. There is her school, there is her house. Where is the past? She meets an old Baba and is able to converse in a few words. Baba remembered some of Frieda’s siblings who went to school there. What joy! But again as last time she must let go, leave the past behind, move forward.
The lunch break we spend eating our packed lunches in the bus and using
the men to the right, the ladies to the left personal facilities.
We must go on, see more, find more. Many memories are awakened by
scenes, by people we meet. This is how it was, as it could have been.
At Neundorf, we again stop at a cemetery, meet friendly children on the
street. They are curious to
know who these strangers are. Words fail from both sides but smiles, kind touches and reaching out are universal languages and know no boundaries. Many of us hand out little gifts or trinkets we have brought from the western world. It produces many smiles.
As we drive through Eichenfeld, we slow down, we stop. There are
too many memories here, for so many of us for the name Eichenfeld awakens
in us all the stories of the past our parents have passed on. They
are stories everyone wants to forget. They are too terrible, too gruesome.
But hiding your head in the sand does not take its reality away.
I personally remember the story that was told at our house, even
though reluctantly, by my mother. It had been October 24, 1919 when
gruesome massacre took place. It was during the night that bandits entered brandishing sabers and thrusting them this way and that. Men and boys fell as limbs and heads were severed from their bodies. No questions were asked, being a male was the only prerequisite. By morning, no male over the age of 15 was alive. Blood, limbs, and heads lay everywhere! Wives, mothers who tried to protect just fell victims themselves. The night left 81 dead. Mother’s brother, Heinrich Wiens, then
about 40, was one of the victims. It was a night too terrible to talk about, but it could not be forgotten. What a scar it must have left on those who witnessed the procedure. Next morning some 45 women and children were taken to the neighboring town of Adelsheim before being permitted to return. The scars would stay forever.
Now, in 1997, as we passed into the village the spirit of many seemed
to linger like a fog. The guide took us to the home of a 95-year
old Ukranian man who lived there and still remembered. He had been
a young lad. He remembered names like “Dyck”, “Letkeman”and “VanKampen”.
He remembered these names with fondness, had always been treated with kindness
and respect. Our 92 year-old Mr. Letkeman could converse with the
old gentleman and not so young daughter with whom
he lived. The 95 year-old Ukranian remembers being one of the lads who had helped dig such a mass grave. We were shown the sight of the unmarked forgotten mound. Pictures were taken of our two 90 years old men today. The daughter in her Ukranian tongue said “If you had stayed and not emigrated you wouldn’t have had to take photos now.” How very true. We had to move on and again we were tempted to hide our heads in the sand.
We move on to Nikolaipol then to Franzfeld, roots to many Wiens families. A certain warmth overcomes me. Being pointed out the school in Nikolaipol I remembered having been told my above-mentioned Heinrich Wiens had been a teacher there at the time of this untimely death. It was also the school my uncle(by marriage) Arnold Dyck, the author, and his good friend G.S. Derksen (father to Eugene) had taught at one time..
Winding south again, we pass through Neuenburg, Kronsweide, Bethania and what was once Einlage. The last was obliterated and flooded when the power dam was built. Everything that was, especially the cemeteries, is a victim of such changes.
Another day the bus takes us to the big
industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk. It is a city of flour mills, factories,
apartment blocks and people. It’s biggest industry during World War
II was missile production. That explains why this city experienced
a constant series of bombing attacks. Half the city had been destroyed.
Much restoration has taken place. It is said that 78,000 people lost
their lives in this city during World War II. For two years it was
occupied by the Nazis. But it remained
a closed city until 1989. It was built-in the 1770's, named Ekaterinaslav for Katherine II, but renamed Dniepropetrovsk in 1926 after the fall of the czar. It now counts some million and a half people.
As mentioned before, the Heese mill was gone but the J.J. Thiessen mill was still standing. That interested me as my mother was governess to the three Thiessen (the owner) children for seven years. The mill produced about 5 tons of flour a day. The residence which had been in closer proximity was gone. The Fast Bros. mill was still visible too, as was the University which my father attended. The Red Cross Hospital where many Mennonites were treated while in alternative service stood in close proximity.
The Esau Brothers, both millionaires were mentioned often for their involvement in the community and their generosity to their people’s cause. One was the mayor of the city at one time, the other a medical doctor. The classy hotel where Machno (the terror bandit) had his headquarters at one time was pointed out to us. No one had the desire to see more.
While here, we lunched in a high class restaurant “The White Piano”. The beautiful classical piano music made the food go down real smooth. We were also pointed out the “Toews “ residence (Olga’s grandparents), indeed a gracious big three story mansion. The ground level had been converted to commercial stores.
We also had opportunity to tour the Molotschna west villages. It again was a long day with bag lunches and bush breaks, but the weather was beautiful and it was a most delightful experience. It didn’t take long for us to “catch” the flavor. Again we drove miles and miles of flat grasslands with patches of bush land. But, as on the west side of the Dnieper, all villages were beautifully treed. Again as you come into the villages you could tell the Ukranian homes from the Mennonite, the former were clay huts with thatched roofs, the latter brick with tile roofs. All had wooden fences, mostly picket plus a wood picket gate. There were really no driveways as in the country very few people owned cars. Whenever you saw decorative stone gate posts, you knew the purse must be bigger. Most homes had a wooden bench outside. The yard, fence next to the sidewalk. And so often a baba or maybe a “dedishka” sat there pondering as we in America say, “Watching the world go by” or “Watching the grass grow”. A very tranquil lifestyle. Often a small rounded haystack graced the front lawn. A narrow dirt sidewalk cordoned off each home.
We rode, often stopping to see major buildings like schools or churches, through villages like Ladekopp, Petershagen, Halbstadt, Tiege, Altonau, Alexanderkkrone, Landskrone as far as Waldheim, then turning sharply west we drove, with only very few stops, to our base, the Glushkov, docked at Zaporozhye. At Waldheim we were shown the small country hospital of 50 beds. They had the services of 4 doctors and an ambulance, but it did look very primitive. We wondered about inside facilities, labs etc., but remained ignorant. A Dr. Cornelius Warkentin was the chief surgeon. When in Halbstadt, I inquired about the School of Commerce where Herman’s father had his schooling in accountancy, but was told it was destroyed. It was here we saw the home of Heinrich Willms. His house certainly was evidence of wealth. It was here we bought our “Mennonite beer” as they call the spring water from which they do process beer. Halbstadt also prides itself with a very impressive credit union.
Finally my day came.
We were going to visit what had been my village, the first one to be settled
in 1789, “der ort we meine wiege stand” (the spot where my child’s crib
stood) . I woke with butterflies in my tummy. It was a strange
feeling. I felt sort of lost, listless. It was probably good
that we approached it from the other end. We went to see the
700 year-old oak tree which today, except for two small branches is totally
dead. It stands sort of forsaken and alone. I wonder where
was planted, by whom and where all its neighbours have stayed. I so would have liked to have sent a landscaper there to highlight its existence. I picked up a few acorns, leaves and a small rock that lay at its feet. The story has it that the tree started dying in 1932 when the power plant was built. Again we see a friendly baba picking underbrush. Again she befriends whom? Yes, Jake Letkeman (92)! Is it his age or his beguiling smile that always catches him? A photo seals the visit.
We’re shown the Niehbur bank, then visit the village church. I’m sure it’s the one my parents and I as a baby frequented. It is no longer used for worship, instead serves as a cultural center with a few pool tables. We find this sad. We stop to sing “Gott ist die Liebe” and #606 hymn. In 1995, the anniversary of M.C.C., coming to the Ukraine was celebrated in this little church. We take a photo of the teachers’ college in close proximity.
Then I see it, “my school”. Oh how desolate and neglected, having
seen photos of it through it’s flourishing years. But again we must
accept the passing of time and the changes that go with it. It was
here my father, the late Andreas (Andrew) Vogt spent his energy, his enthusiasm
for learning, those first years 1913-19. He was a promoter of education,
he loved life. Again I ask, “God why did you take him so early (at
34)?” He had so much to give.” The clock tower that once graced
entrance has been torn down, the walls lack paint. No! Let’s go on. Attached to the school is a connecting entrance that leads into the residence. It’s hard to visualize my mother coming there as a bride with dreams and hopes. Dreams that shattered forever in just six years. It was here they brought Mary, at three years of age, their first chosen child to live. It was
here where, then just over a year later, I, a biological child, made my appearance. Again dreams, dreams shattered just 2 years later. When I saw the house, I hesitated - no, I had to go in - I must, so I went into the room where I was born, then I knew why I had wanted to, no, needed to go to the Ukraine, to Chortitza to be exact. I had to come to terms, to make peace with myself and the past. I wanted to say goodbye to my father. I had never said goodbye to him. I was not yet two, just one
year, eight months and seventeen days to be exact, when my father died. How does a two-year old say goodbye? That concept is not yet developed in such a young mind. A two-year old does not know how to grieve. Now at near 80 I must do both.
My mother often told me when I was older and could understand somewhat,
but also not in totality as my mother passed away before I was eleven,
how as a near two-year old I had searched for my father. Certain
sounds like the opening of the front door had found me scampering to see
if my “daddy” had finally come home, then slowly retreat as I realized
it was another person. I’d looked for him in the bedroom, again to
no avail. Once when a cousin of my dad, who had very similar
physical features, had come to visit I had gleefully shrieked “papa”, but on closer view, pulled sadly back. Slowly and steadily these searches diminished and finally vanished from my memory. How very painful this must have been for my mother. Now as an adult, I know. This room I now was in must have also been the room my father died in at age 34, suffering from the typhus virus as an aftermath of the war. Was this his spirit I could feel still floating around me in this room today? I’m
not sure, but something stirred within me, warmed me, touched me. “Goodbye” I silently whispered. A quiet peace came over me. I had said goodbye, I could walk on, just as I did at the time my mother died before I was eleven, or my two sisters, a brother and a stepfather later as an adult. Then once again I experienced the hurt of separation in 1995 when God took my Herman home. Even there I had to and I think have been able to say goodbye and go on. But in these others I was visibly there, I could tangibly say goodbye. I could move on.
Today, September 25, 1997, as I stood and pondered the thought came to me: “What were your expectations of your little girl, father? Have I fulfilled any of them? How often have I maybe failed you? Forgive me, if I have. Until we meet again, father - goodbye.” We had to go on. I so would have liked to linger to touch, to feel. In hind sight today I say, “Why didn’t I rent a car and with Irene go back once more?” But life goes on - maybe this was better.
We see the “Muster Schule” model school beside the teachers college (Lehrer Seminars). Both must have been impressive buildings conducive to learning. This indeed was the center of learning in this part of the world. And there is the “Maedchenshule” (girls school) that sister Sara and sister- in-law Agatha always talked about. It too makes you stop and ponder.
Before going back to Zaporozhye, we enter the Kroeger clock factory, that together with the Hildebrandt (Uncle Raymond’s family) were then renowned manufacturers of what later became a sought after clock of such precision. Some can still be found today in some Mennonite homes, but certainly preserved in Mennonite museums. (Like the one in Steinbach, Manitoba ) Not far from this point is the Wallmann estate. That name during my early childhood was tossed around in everyday conversation. I never dreamed I’d ever see it. The Wallmanns were wealthy estate owners, very influential and certainly liberal with their money for cultural causes. It is said that Katharina Wallmann donated ever 10,000 rubles (their dollar) to the building of the Maedchenschule.
But let us move on - there is still one corner of my trip mission missing.
Yes, it is Schoenwiese as it was called in the days of both my parents’
childhood days. It was a suburb of Alexandrovsk, the now near one
million people city of Zaporozhye. The Dnieper river ran within reach
and easy access on its west side. It was the Dnieper that was at
the core of so many swimming, picnic and boating stories. How I
wished my Uncle Peter to be with us now. There would be so
much to share, yes
even to debate. Did you know there wasn’t a greater fun loving corner for young folk than these beaches along the river. I saw them and certainly agree that for teenagers without cars, television, arcades, or even bicycles, it must have been a little bit of heaven. How I would have enjoyed giving Uncle Peter this little bottle of “NIPPA VOTA” (water from the Dnieper). He so would have enjoyed that. Did you also know that those beaches for our Mennonite teenagers were “NUDE” beaches.
WOW! He bragged how they could swim across the Dnieper. The Dnieper River is wide, wider than Manitoba’s Red. And they were strong swimmers. But I would have loved to argue with him about the sweetness of the watermelon grown there. Apparently there was none sweeter on God’s good earth. Some of God’s favour must have slipped, Uncle Peter, the 1997 watermelons were no better than our Texas grown. Well, folks there said 1997 had not been a watermelon sunshine year. So be it.
But I did have to see this “God’s fair land” for myself. Irene
and I together with Hank and Katie Neufeld from Kelowna, B.C. rented a
car and a guide for two hours. They took us exactly to what we asked
to see. One is amazed how well these guides know their Mennonite history.
They took us past the Lepp and Wallmann factory where Herman’s dad had
worked as an accountant. We couldn’t go in to see and there were
many buildings now hiding it from view. We went to the corner of
Tavonius Apothecary (that our people always talked about) and down Datschnaya Street. The buildings on the whole (or most) of the block were demolished, like the church, my grandparents home (A.A.V.)and many more. In its stead stood a long three storey apartment block. The cemetery where my grandfather probably is buried had also been demolished. But across the street from this apartment block stood as big as life Herman’s grandparents’ (Julius Siemens) house. I recognized
it immediately from the photo we have. It too looked desolate and forgotten in overgrown grass, weathered paint and a roof in disrepair. But the stone fence with all the pillars was intact. It was not occupied as a residence, someone had a small office inside. The iron gate to the street looked quite impressive. There were two other buildings in back forming a courtyard. One of those buildings had a huge tunnel leading to the basement and beyond that had been used as a shelter during the war, it seems. Even though it was the home of my in-laws, it emitted a spirit of both sadness and warmth. I was glad to have come.
Before we left Zaporozhye we drove for a short bit to the Island of
Chortitza. This island was smack in the Dnieper River just opposite
Schoenwiese. It was the place where Raymond Hildebrandt was born
and grew up, as well as Uncle Isaac Klassen. Knowing Raymond had
been there in 1995, had taken many heritage pictures, then passed away
before these were developed thus never seen. I was especially interested
in stepping on this part of God’s earth. It seemed I was meeting
every bend of every headstone that had inscribed the name Hildebrandt. So I had to take a picture regardless that it was at random. I so wished Raymond would have been at my side. He would have made it all so alive.
Besides Mennonite roots they also showed us many historical places, old structures, old cathedrals, theaters, monuments, schools, universities and points of interest that made the Ukraine unique and memorable.
Our first impressions of this new world many of us had never seen started in Kiev, not that far south of Chernobyl, the spot of the grand nuclear explosion in the late 1980's. It is also the capital of the country of Ukraine. We had settled in nicely into our new home, the MS Viktor Glushkov, had been welcomed aboard by a neatly laid out dinner and a concert on board ship to orientate us and set the tone for a delightful Ukranian experience.
With Ludmila as interpreter guide, we were shown the St. Andrew’s church,
in Kiev, an eighteenth century building again a practicing church after
years of closure during communist years. With it’s Baroque style,
it had been used as a museum during these years. Fifty percent of
Kiev was destroyed during World War II. Much has already been
rebuilt, but this industrial educational center still needs much more housing.
This rebuilding is in turn creating much work. Also saw the first
Church of the late 900's. Prince Vladimir introduced Christianity to the Ukraine. Only the foundation is left as evidence. The people of the Ukraine are still very unsettled after the demise of communism. It takes some getting used to the new commonwealth of states. It probably will take several generations before people will be able to handle this freedom. The standard of living had dropped dramatically and people sometime question if the new way will be better. The communist Party still retains top status in power. Kuchma is the president of this new independent country, Ukraine. They quote us wages like this: teachers 200 grievna per month, factory workers 100, pilots 120, pensions 25. (1997 found 2 grievna to approximately equate $1.00 US) To our questions our guide continues -for Kindergarten (parents pay) elementary and secondary education is free, gas costs 50 Kopecks or ½ grievna per liter, speed limit is 90 km per hour, a new Lada $6.000.00 US, a Ford ( 7 to 8 years old) $20,000 US. We see a lot of local fishermen either on small boats or off our dock as our ship sits anchored. Most of the fish they catch in these areas are carp or catfish. Most homes have electricity, fridges are common but freezers only sparse.
In Kiev, often called the garden city because of it’s trees and parks,
we were shown the KGB building. Here also we find the world famous
St. Sophia Cathedral. Its name means wisdom and the original dates
to the eleventh century. Now it was no longer a functioning church
but a museum of political, cultural as well as religious center, housing
a large library. The mosaic of the virgin Mary as portrayed
on the front wall was so intricate, it was said that the head and halo
alone contained over
10,000 pieces of glass. Our group feels worship led and sings “Holy, Holy, Holy”!
There seemed to be a monument to Taras Shevchenko in every Ukrainian city. This one on Shevchenko Street is the first one we see on Tolstoy Square. We see a statue of Lenin. That too is in every city it seems. That one we recognize by the familiar goatee. Also in Kiev is the 1941-45 war memorial with the eternal flame. The revolutionary buildings still have the bullet holes of the 1917 revolution. The Kiev monastery we pass was built in 1051. It too suffered damage in the last war and is now in a process of restoration. Kiev certainly is a city of monuments, as we’re directed to the Pushkin Monument as well as the Ukranian Cultural Center.
Yes, Kiev is old and so historical and it has lived through so much terror and destruction, of breaking down, of rebuilding and restoration. But there is one spot that stands as a memory of terror, such terror that one finds words hard to speak or fathom, that man could be so cruel, so utterly void of compassion. This desolate spot of sorrow is the 2 km long stretch of ravine now filled with soil hiding underneath its darkness human bones, not one or two but 100,000 bodies, innocent bodies, victims of circumstance and human madness. It is called BABI YAR . It was September 1941 when people in herds of hundreds and thousands were lined up naked on the edge of the ravine and shot by shot they tumbled down meeting their dead comrades. At first there were only Russians Jews, later others were added. Later a fire was set to them, then covered by soil. The mound, enclosed by barbed wire, still sits witness to such atrocity and madness.
The story is told of how a Jewish actress too was lined up waiting for the firing squad, but fell in before the bullet hit her. Somehow, someway she escaped and lived to tell about this horror. Today a Minorah monument graces this eerie mound, put up on the 50th anniversary of its happening by the Hebrew community.
As the ship Glushkov docks for a few hours at Khanev we are escorted
on shore to the Shevchenko Memorial and Museum.
The crossing of the north western tip of the Black Sea is smooth and uneventful. It docks just as we finish breakfast. We are eager to see this well known seaport which is some seven kilometers long. We see the 10 international flags and are pleased to see our familiar Canadian flag among them. Our ship docks just in front of the 192 steps taking us up to the main street level, a panorama built by Katherine II in 1794. We all feel a challenge to try these 192 steps. And many of us take on the challenge. But to get to the bottom of this set of stairs one must from dock level go down and down, then under first street level and up and up again (another 88 steps in total) to get to the start of this climb. Frieda did it with relative ease, in spite of no railings, but that was because of the perfect rise and tread of the stairs. You hardly knew you were climbing. Also after every twenty steps there was a platform, quite big, that helped you catch your breath, forget the steps you had already done.
The top of the stairway took us to a wide, wide street with a few craft
vendors showing their ware and leading out to spots of more street shopping,
outdoor cafes and what have you. We just had to try an outdoor coffee
spot. My cappuccino coffee was 3 grievna (about $1.50 US).
Now I felt I was in a different land. Odessa is also known for its
many beautiful trees. It is said every street is treed except this
one approaching these 192 steps. Again there are high impressive
statues. This one is
of Katherine the Great. Here too in Odessa is the statue of Alexander Pushkin with its spreading fountain. The sycamore trees, many of which are over 100 years old, grace many streets as do the white acacia trees whose white blossoms and their beautiful aroma in the month of May are out of this world. We even see a 5 star London Hotel, overlooking the Black Sea. Its price tag of $300.00 US per night help us turn our heads quickly and retreat to our 8 by 10-cabin on the Glushkov.
So often during our stay in the Ukraine we ran into bridal parties trying
to find a pretty spot to take memorable photos. They looked just
like Canadian brides in all t heir finery, the bride in white dress and
veil, the groom in a black tuxedo, attendants etc. Seems love and
marriage is a universal language. All weddings must be state weddings
first but by now church weddings are permitted but optional. There
was a time (I don’t know exactly what time our guide was talking
about) that the
bride wore red. It certainly was not customary among our Mennonites during our parents’ times. The age of majority is also 18 but with parental consent may be 16. Divorces are easy to get and the rate is very high(nearly 50%). Abortions too, are very common, three per woman is common. You do have to pay the doctor for such services.
Odessa has a moderate climate because of the Black
Sea. Many people come here for health reasons. Summers (July
and August) may run as high as 25 degrees Celsius while January hits a
2 degrees Celsius. It is sort of a thrill to find yourself standing
just at this well known Black Sea. Why is it called black you ask?
Our guide explains the bottom of the sea is black with little life. Here
at this spot is the Avenue of Glory, named after Taras Shevchenko again.
And just overlooking the Black
Sea is the huge, huge monument to the unknown soldier. During a certain part of the day this statue is watched by volunteer grade eleven students who march around it for twenty minutes at a stretch. The base is stone tiled for quite a distance and no one is allowed to step on it, including tourists. Odessa was occupied by the Nazis for three years. Also, 25% of the city was destroyed. The railway station was rebuilt in the 1950's after the Nazis had destroyed the old one as well in World War II.
The Odessa square, also named the October Revolution Square, holds a huge statue of Lenin. The square is totally surrounded by spruce trees, imported from Canada. Transit buses charge 60-70 kopecks a ride. The trolley bus is free and they are “sardine style” full and take ages to get from A to B, with never a guarantee or schedule as to how long it will take. Needless to say it can take hours to go just a few blocks. Parking is similar to Spain. You park where you find room at whatever angle, be it beside or on the boulevard. If all else fails, try the sidewalk. Pedestrians can always walk around it.
At the archaeological museum, built in the mid 1880's we are directed towards the brick layout on the street surrounding it. They are all yellow bricks, imported from Italy and because many Italians have settled in this area, the street is called “Italian Street”. It is a very interesting and unique museum and they pride themselves that all artifacts are authentic and not replicas. One only wished they didn’t use light quite so sparingly. This latter statement could be said about many places in Ukraine. Street lights are sparse and hardly any lights on walkways, tunnels and steps. We strangers had to tip our heads way forward and down. This is where Irene’s arm came into great use. Thanks Irene, you saved the day, maybe also some bones, many a time. Remember the concrete steps to our ship when were docked at Zaporozhye?
All things have a way of coming to an end, and so did our 13 days in
the Ukraine. On September 29, 1997, having packed our luggage, checked
our rooms, we bade goodbye to this land of our forefathers. We had
met many new people, some shoulders we only touched somewhat, some will
be people we’ll remember for some time. Irene and I found a special
bond with Olga and her two daughters. Even while on the ship we often
slipped up to the bar for a tea, coffee or just a “night
cap” for relaxation and bonding at the end of the evening. It had been a great experience for us all.
We got to the airport in Odessa. Now
that’s an experience all of it’s own! It’s old, small, dark and the
most inefficient place I’ve ever been pushed through. The lineups
were long and slow. It took forever just to first show our passport
and ticket at the first lineup. Then came the customs. We had
to again produce our special Ukranian Visa, our list of purchases, how
much money we had brought into the country and how much money we were leaving.
Here J.G. got caught with a pocket knife
in his pocket. He got searched from front to back and back again. Every corner of his suitcase was searched. Finally they confiscated his very fond “Arbuse Massa” (watermelon knife). L.S. received similar treatment because of a pewter ashtray she bought for her son. Maybe it was because it was shaped like a missile. It took a long time before they let her through. The ash tray had to stay behind. . Same results happened to someone taking soil across. Why did your spice bottle of soil from
Chortitza go unnoticed, Frieda?
Finally we were in the holding room, made to hold 50 people(seating capacity of maybe 25) . Today we were about 200 people standing shoulder to shoulder like sardines waiting to board. The plane was standing there but we waited an hour past departure in this room with no air.
Finally it was another show of passports and we were off, flying over Budapest and Vienna(as announced) to Frankfurt on our Lufthansa plane. Having left an hour late, it canceled out the hour of waiting at Frankfurt airport. Instead we had to hurry on to make our flight. Thanks to Lufthansa they held the plane for us Toronto bound people.
We left the desolate, once so flourishing villages of the steppes of
the Ukraine. We had said goodbye to the people of our past, the people
and places that had molded our destiny, the people who had dreams, dreams
that had been torn apart by war, terror or destruction, dreams that had
died a slow death. There was a tug at my heart strings about what
had been and was no more. But even a bigger pull beckoned me home,
home to my family, home to my beloved Canada. This chapter of my
was closed, I must and I can move on.
A giant 747 Lufthansa plane took us further west and closer to home. This 747 is certainly roomier than the one that took us east. It is smooth and comfortable but fatigue not necessarily sleep, overtakes us. We eat, we chat, we read, we get up and stretch, we try to nap, we eat again and the cycle repeats itself. Following the map on the screen, we know where we are. As we reach Newfoundland we already experience a homey feeling. It feels good. Finally after circling Toronto for more than half an hour waiting for landing permission, the pilot sets down the “big bird”. Here in Toronto as we repeat the boarding procedure including customs we find Air Canada had over booked. But nothing matters now. We are on Canadian soil. Irene and I even offer to stay back for a night, but at the last minute they find a spot for us to sit. We’re on our last lap. Our 737 lands in Winnipeg half an hour late.(11:30pm) Wally is there (plus half of Irene’s family). Oh, how good to see familiar faces. We pick up our bags. We’re on our way home. Olga is going home with us too. We are all tired as we roll into Steinbach at 1:15 a.m.. Home sweet home!
Again I say thanks to my God for giving this opportunity to see this land so far away, my land, no Canada is my land. Thank you for keeping my health as I traveled and for keeping my family safe while I was away. Again I say “God is so good to me!
Elfrieda Neufeld, Steinbach, Manitoba Late Autumn 1997
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