By Robert Goertzen
Ukraine Connections – a travelogue series on Mennonite places
Have you ever been asked to fill in your nationality or ethnic identity for a survey? It makes me think, “How many generations of a family are required to live in a geographical location before it can be called home?” Mennonites in southern Manitoba might feel uneasy about these identity questions.
In my case, I was born in Canada, but my Goertzen grandparents settled in Manitoba in the 1920’s. They came from the Molotschna Colony in South Russia, an area that is part of modern day Ukraine. Curiosity and a desire to learn about the place that my ancestors called home led me to join a small group of the Goertzen clan for a visit to Ukraine in September 2019. The six of us were fortunate to be linked with a Canadian humanitarian organization, Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. They assisted us with arrangements for guides, drivers and accommodations.
Our trip was filled with sightseeing excursions to the rolling countryside where the Mennonite villages had been established over two hundred years earlier. We experienced Ukrainian culture, food, and a welcoming people. We learned about the history of the region, including the Soviet era accomplishments and the struggles of nation-building since Ukrainian independence in 1991.
One of the highlights for our group was spending a day in the village of Vladivka (Waldheim), where my grandparents grew up as children. This was the place they left as a newly married couple in 1926, travelling to North America, never to return. We met the local mayor, we visited a recently established museum, highlighting the community’s agricultural heritage, its historically important industries including some Mennonite owned manufacturing plants, and we saw the medical centre that was receiving financial assistance from Canadians.
We also explored the homestead lot where my grandfather had lived. Though none of the Goertzen buildings remained, the plot was easily identified and the community had planted trees to
create a park. This was where we settled for a picnic lunch. My dad and my aunts remembered stories that they had heard as children, about the orchards and gardens that had been on the properties and the “scheene Tjoasche” (delicious cherries) that grew abundantly in the region. We also visited the community cemetery, where miraculously, the tombstone of my great grandfather, David Goertzen, had been found 25 years earlier under soil, now standing in restored condition. What an emotional day! Surely, grandma and grandpa had loved their home in Waldheim.
The stories of my grandparents’ experiences connected my dad and my aunts to this place. There was an appreciation for the life that had been left behind in Ukraine, but also an understanding that the experiences of hardship, joy, perseverance and church community in Canada had benefited the descendants of my grandparents, Isaac and Maria Goertzen.
What about the following generations? How do we connect to Ukraine? As a place that was home to Mennonites since 1789, all of us with Russian Mennonite background have a little bit of Ukraine in us, if not in our DNA, certainly in our psyche and in our faith perspective. Family favourite foods like Borscht and Vereneke are not the only reminders of our ancestral journey. Family practices and traditions often have roots in previous generations as well. My wife Monica’s ancestors arrived in Canada fifty years earlier, in the 1870’s, so her story is different than mine, but it was very interesting to find villages where our family stories intersected. If we get another opportunity to go to the Ukraine, we will still have much more to explore. If you want info on a Poland/Ukraine tour this September email Len Loeppky at: firstname.lastname@example.org.