Ukraine is not just a place on the map to me; it is a land that carries deep, personal meaning. My Grandmother Willems was born in southern Ukraine, in a small Mennonite village on the east bank of the Dnieper River about 200 miles from where that river’s waters empty into the Black Sea. Her family migrated to Canada in 1903 when she was ten years old. My Grandfather Willems’ father and his family were living in a Mennonite community on the Crimean Peninsula when they made the decision to migrate to America in 1875. Neither of my grandparents were Ukrainian; they were Mennonites whose origins were in the Netherlands. They spoke a Mennonite dialect of Low German at home, listened to High German sermons at church, read a German Bible at home and in church.
The story of how my German-speaking, originally-Dutch family got to the steppe land north of the Black Sea is long, complicated and, to me, fascinating. I first learned of it in my early twenties when I read a book on the history of the Mennonites written by C. Henry Smith.* The story Smith told fascinated me, and I decided that someday I would write about my grandparents and place their story in the context of that larger Mennonite story. That decision lay dormant during the long years of child rearing and work on an undergraduate degree in English and graduate degrees in Theology. Finally, in 1994, after completing the dissertation for a PhD. in Religion & the Arts, I felt ready to take up my family’s story in earnest. I interviewed aunts and uncles, taped family stories, gathered all the data my family could give me and took it to the Mennonite archives stored at Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, California. I talked with the archivist, Kevin Enns-Rempel, enjoyed leisurely conversations with historian Paul Toews (1940-2015). For two weeks I spent every hour the archives were open immersed in research and good conversation. I got to ask every question that came to mind, asked about books I should read, built a bibliography for further reading. In effect, I gave myself a crash course on Mennonite history and scholarship. As is the nature of research by those who enjoy it, that list of books grew and grew, expanded exponentially with the development of the internet as primary source after primary source was put on line.
My immersion into Mennonite studies began in the mid-1990s. This was the time of Glasnost. The Iron Curtain had fallen, Stalin repudiated, the Soviet Union dissolved. Soviet archives had been opened, and Mennonite scholars, Paul Toews among them, were spending extended periods of time in the Ukraine, making contact with Ukrainian and Russian scholars, putting Mennonite-pertinent data online. And it wasn’t just scholars who were going to the Ukraine. Ordinary Mennonites whose family roots were in that land were flying there, visiting what was left of what had once been Mennonite villages and churches. Tours were arranged that included Mennonite historians and Ukrainian interpreters, something I would have loved to have taken, but was not in a position to do.
This was such an exciting time. Ukrainian scholars were fascinated by the history of the Mennonites in their land, wrote doctoral dissertations about them. Joint projects were undertaken. And now, this, those lands are again torn by war. All that had been rebuilt after the devastation from two world wars waged on Ukrainian soil has been smashed. Putin has come in swinging his wrecking-ball, smashing and destroying people’s homes and lives, schools and churches.
My heart aches for Putin’s victims. I am angry, deeply angry at Putin and all powerful, ruthless political leaders whose only concern is gaining and insuring more power. Putin’s name now belongs to the list of war criminals who have devastated Ukraine—Stalin, Hitler, Putin. I grieve for Ukraine. I grieve the loss of the wonderful optimism of Glasnost when we thought the Cold War was over. The world is now a much darker place.
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Anthropologist James Urry, who is not Mennonite, has written extensively on the Mennonite colonies in what was then the Russian Empire. The book below is one I highly recommend. It is well researched, well written.
The painting on the cover is by Henry Pauls (1904-95) who was born in the Mennonite colony of Khortitsa, which was on the west bank of the Dnieper River. The village where my grandmother was born was about fifty miles south of here.
*C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites, 4th ed., revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn. (Newton, KS: Mennonite Publication Office, 1957).
© Loretta Willems, March 2022