Monument to victims of Soviet inferno unveiled

Susanna Hildebrand’s husband disappeared in 1929. During the 1933 famine, she was arrested picking up corn cobs on the road. Sentenced to seven years jail, she died in prison.

Paul, son of Helena Ens of Chortitza village, was home, recovering from an operation in 1937 when he was arrested at 3:00 a.m. Hustled onto a truck filled with arrested Mennonite men, he was never seen again.

They are two of 30,000 Mennonites who perished in similar ways.

On October 10, 2009, in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, 300 Ukrainians and foreign visitors dedicated a monument to “Soviet Mennonite Victims of Tribulation, Stalinist Terror and Religious Oppression.” The memorial consists of three life-size silhouettes: a woman, a man and two children. The base, inscribed in English, German, Russian, and Ukrainian, quotes Scripture: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).

The monument, a symbol of the heartache and emptiness of a generation of survivors, is the first within the former USSR to memorialize all Soviet Mennonites. It draws attention to the human costs of a totalitarian system and tells the larger story of tyranny, suffering, and oblivion.

After a decade of planning, the monument was erected by the International Mennonite Memorial Committee for the Former Soviet Union (IMMC-FSU). The city of Zaporizhzhya was a full partner in the installation. Others assisting were the B.C. Mennonite Historical Society and the Mennonite Heritage Cruise. The memorial was funded by donations from Mennonite conferences, historical societies, private individuals, and groups.

Designer Paul Epp and project organizers, Harvey Dyck and Walter Friesen of Canada collaborated with engineer Boris Letkeman and interpreter Ludmilla Kariaka of Ukraine on the granite monument created locally in a former Mennonite quarry.

Paths radiate from the monument in a public park with a newly built children’s playground. Symbolically, it is in the heart of the one-time Mennonite village of Chortitza, the cradle of Mennonite life in Tsarist Russia, founded in 1789.

For 140 years, Mennonites spread into villages, towns, and farms across the Russian empire. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Mennonites came under increasingly harsh persecution because of their active religious life, German language, and steadfast resistance to Sovietization and religious athieization.

In the 1920s many immigrated to Canada, but thousands remained to be treated as hostile enemies of the state, religious fanatics, counter revolutionaries and fascists. Preachers and religious leaders were arrested. Families were dispossessed, exiled, forced into collective farms and prison labour camps. Many died of starvation, disease, and overwork. Many were executed.

Participating in the event were members of Mennonite churches in Zaporizhzhya and Kutuzovka (Molochna), the Ukrainian Tokmak Rhapsody Chamber Choir, a Mennonite Heritage Cruise choir, local city officials, residents, and guests.

Harvey Dyck, co-chair of the IMMC-FSU and main project organizer, recalled Anabaptist Thieleman van Braght’s admonition that the heroism and sacrifice of those in The Martyrs Mirror should not be lost to the community and the world, but be a remembrance and example. Equally, “the story of 30,000 Soviet Mennonites should not be lost,” said Dyck. “It chronicles a tragic past and opens us more fully to the suffering and heroism of Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, peoples of Siberia and Central Asia and people around the world.”

—Anne Konrad

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