Memorial to Victims of Soviet Terror Unveiled: Ukraine Monument Honors 30,000 Who Died During Years of  Stalin’s Persecution

Konrad, Paul. "Memorial to Victims of Soviet Terror Unveiled: Ukraine Monument Honors 30,000 Who Died During Years of  Stalin’s Persecution."  Mennonite Weekly Review, 14 December 2009, 7.

Photo by T. Dyck Harvey Dyck of Toronto, project organizer, speaks at the dedication of a monument to victims of Soviet oppression. Zaporizhia city officials are to the right, and Peter Klassen of Fresno, Calif., is in the background.

Zaporizhia, Ukraine — Susanna Hildebrand’s husband disappeared in 1929. During the 1933 famine, she picked up a few cobs of corn on the road and was arrested. Sentenced to seven years in jail, she died in prison.     Paul Ens of Khortitsa village was at home recovering from an operation in 1937 when he was arrested at 3 a.m. Hustled onto a truck filled with Mennonite men, he was never seen again.  Hildebrand and Ens were two of 30,000 Mennonites who perished in the Stalinist terror.

On Oct. 10 in Zaporizhia, about 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 quotes the words of Scripture, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Inscriptions are in English, German, Russian and Ukrainian.  “This monument bears enduring witness to the suffering of many thousands who cannot speak for themselves,” said Peter Klassen of Fresno, Calif., co-chair of the International Mennonite Memorial Committee.  Harvey Dyck of Toronto, committee co-chair and project organizer, recalled Martyrs Mirror author Thieleman van Braght’s admonition that stories of the martyrs should not be lost.  “The story of 30,000 Soviet Mennonites should not be lost,” Dyck said. “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.”

Generation’s heartache The monument symbolizes the heartache of a generation of survivors and the worldwide commemoration of the Soviet Mennonite tragedy. It is the first within the former Soviet Union to memorialize all Russian Mennonites. A place to mourn and contemplate, it draws attention to the human costs of a totalitarian system.  For 140 years Mennonites spread into villages, towns and farms across the Russian empire.  After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Mennonites came under persecution because of their religion, German language and resistance to Sovietization.   In the 1920s many immigrated to Canada, but thousands remained and were treated as enemies of the state, religious fanatics, counterrevolutionaries and fascists.  Preachers and religious leaders were arrested. Families were dispossessed, exiled and forced into collective farms and prison labor camps. Many died of starvation, disease and overwork. Many others were executed.   To remember these events, the British Columbia Mennonite Historical Society and Mennonite Heritage Cruise worked with the international memorial committee during a decade of planning for the monument.  The memorial was funded by donations from Mennonite conferences, historical societies, individuals and groups.  Designer Paul Epp and project organizers Harvey Dyck and Walter Friesen of Canada were helped by engineer Boris Letkeman and interpreter Ludmilla Kariaka of Ukraine. The granite monument was made in a former Mennonite quarry. The site is a public park in the heart of the one-time Mennonite village of Khortitsa, the cradle of Mennonite life in czarist Russia. In 1789 Mennonites from today’s Poland, invited by Catherine the Great, founded the village.  Now part of the city of Zaporizhia, the Khortitsa park is surrounded by buildings erected by Mennonites and still in use by Ukrainians: schools, a teachers college, a hospital, municipal office, factory buildings, houses and a one-time Mennonite church now rebuilt into a cultural center.  At that former church, historian Paul Toews and Alan Peters, both of Fresno, Calif., conducted a candle-lighting ceremony. Toews recalled Mennonites who came to the Ukrainian steppes full of hope, seeking refuge. Almost none remain, and many lie in nameless graves in unknown places.  Visitors lit candles for grandfathers and uncles killed during the Purge Years of 1937 and 1938. One man told of 14 missing relatives. 

New page of history Members of Mennonite churches in Zaporizhia and Kutuzovka (Molochna), the Ukrainian Tokmak Rhapsody Chamber Choir, a Mennonite Heritage Cruise choir, local city officials, residents and guests participated in the dedication. Local schoolchildren had planted flowers. “Let those who see this monument remember the paths of faith and suffering of the Mennonites of the U.S.S.R.,” said Jakob Tiessen, pastor of Kutuzovka Mennonite Church. Valeri Kozyrev, chair of the Zaporizhia Oblast Committee for the Protection of Monuments of History and Culture, said the monument is of great importance to Ukraine.    “Today we open a new page of history,” he said. “We can openly speak today of those times of religious persecution.”  Fedor Turchenko, a Ukrainian historian, spoke of a “sacred duty of remembering the past . . . ensuring it never happens again.”

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