I saw the Heaven of my Forefathers

Ich sah den Himmel Meiner Vaeter

"I saw the Heaven of my Forefathers." Volk auf dem Weg, August 2006, 21.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


There is much that still needs to be restored. Odessa is a case in point that shows that the Tsars had a sense for art and that they invested enormous amounts of capital for it. All the while one must keep in mind that the serfs provided a rich source of income for the nobles.

It is in the former Jewish synagogue where the City Archives are housed today. There, the Mennonite researcher and historian Georg Epp of Winnipeg discovered a previously lost Mennonite archive comprising 100,000 pages. It has been securely transferred to microfilm. What a source for research into Mennonite history!

Ten Days in Ukraine

We have indeed changed our lives. We are grateful for God's guidance, even if our paths have often ended up in the wilderness. We are also grateful that our fathers delivered to us our awareness of God, also for our Christian upbringing and schooling. We are likewise grateful for those who did not shrink from accepting responsibility. Grateful are we for the vision of our parents that Jesus is the center of the community. At the homes of some grandmothers we visited we were able to read on their walls some Biblical sayings, and it became clear to us that piety is indeed a blessing!

How were our Forefathers able to Manage?

Out of nothing they fashioned the possibility for existence. They were assaulted and robbed by nomads. Our people's secret consisted in their unity in action - one for all and all for one! That kind of village community made it possible for them to defend themselves; it was thus that they had the necessary strength and were able to exist and survive until an even darker power of the underworld (the Soviet State) rolled over them in order to destroy them.

God desires peace. He desires peace of the heart and peace between peoples and nations. We all desire this banner of freedom, always and everywhere where the sons of Menno live, lead upstanding lives, and proclaiming the Christian message in the spirit of the love of Christ Jesus.

The Three Grandmothers

We are in search of our brothers or - put in a better way - we are searching for the traces and roots of our brethren in the faith.

In Chortitza, a few meters beyond an oak tree, we discovered Tintye Plett. She was no longer capable of speaking much German, but as we were searching for various ways of trying to communicate, she burst into song: "Gott ist die Liebe, laesst mich erloesen. Gott ist die Liebe, er liebt auch mich! [God is love, he allows me to be saved. God is love, he loves me, too!]"

Together we sang all four verses. And then she prayed as follows: "Lieber Heiland, mach mich fromm, dass ich in den Himmel komm! [Dear Savior, help me to be pious so that I may go to Heaven!]"

It was a very touching scene. Even though she could no longer speak our language, the basis of our common faith was still there.

In the village of Hierschau we visited another grandmother, one 85 years old. She told us how she had been exiled for ten years, and when she returned to her village, everyone she had known was gone.

"Aunt" Grete Plett has a Russian husband. We conducted a brief devotion in her home and prayed. On the wall we were able to read pious sayings. The house looks extremely well taken care of, the yard is swept clean, and the small water container (rakomonik) has held water for washing hands for at least 100 years. In the yard I observed three chickens scratching and leading a satisfied life.

Well, that is genuinely Mennonite! Did time perhaps stand still here?

At Alexanderkrone

The bus stops and we see a well-cared-for home at the edge of the village. Next to it there is a burned-out former collective farm.

Margarita Pankratz greets us in front of the house. She, too, has a Russian husband. She tells us stories and is so happy to be able to be with her people. We give this grandmother small gifts, sing, pray, and then say our good-byes.

Margarita could easily be our own grandmother.

The Fate of a Martyr

Before I end my travel report, I wish to report on a particularly tragic life of one of our brethren in faith. About preacher Martin M. Hamm the following (excerpt) is reported:

"Who could have foreseen that one's life and actions might come to such a quick end. Not even 50, he had to give up his life at the hands of a murderer. It happened on December 1, 1919, as the assaults of the infamous Machno gang visited our village of Schoenau.

The day before, other villages in our settlement area had been attacked, costing many lives. A rumor had spread in our village that the Machno gang had retreated and that the danger might have passed. On the Saturday before his death, village teacher Jakob Peters had seen my father and had asked him whether services might still be held Sunday morning, despite the unrest. And my father had replied: "Yes, if the Lord wishes to plow so deeply, then we must so put out, even more so, the seed of God's Word."

Then, very early on Sunday, the attack came. Father and many others fled the village, but outside of town they fell into the hands of the murderous gang.

Even in the hour of his death, he was still thinking of the welfare of others' souls. And at this, his last hour he witnessed the fact that his son Franz, who had been captured along with him and had been an eyewitness to everything that was happening, had converted to the Lord. In some miraculous way, he would even escape death after giving solace to those who became candidates for death: As the robbers were about to kill him with their sabers, he witnessed to the Lord with an open Bible in his hand: "Christ is my life and dying is my gain." He did not fear his gruesome death. [I believe the author has switched subjects at this point -- Tr.] Soon after, his spirit left his body, and the bloody corpse lay on the ground.

Was this Trip to Ukraine Worth All the Effort?

Was the far, far trip worth it all? All of our colleagues were unanimous in concluding as follows: We saw the soil, the prairie, the villages of our forefathers, and we were struck silent when we thought of their suffering and their history, which was written in blood and tears.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller