Mennonites once again respond to conflict in Ukraine with support – Smithers Interior News

The Canadian Mennonite community, including in Abbotsford, has strong ties to Ukraine.

Thousands of Mennonites fled their settlements in Ukraine (Chortitza being the largest) during World Wars I and II, fleeing to Canada, the United States and Paraguay.

They therefore reacted quickly to the current crisis in Ukraine.

“The parallels to what is happening now in Ukraine are striking,” says Richard Thiessen, executive director of the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford.

The museum has just reposted a series of video interviews of World War II survivors who settled in Abbotsford. At that time they were fleeing Joseph Stalin, but many were killed throughout the war.

The videos were shot a few years ago but are still as relevant as ever. They feature people like Helen Loewen (Löwen), who was born in 1925. Her father was taken to a Soviet labor camp in 1938 and died there. Three of his siblings died of starvation and disease.

Loewen tells the remarkable story of his escape first to Germany, where a family hid their entire family in the small attic of their house. It was near the train station. The plan was to rush to the station and evade capture by the Soviet guards.

“What the Russians did to the German people, you had no idea,” she said. “They were let go, they could do whatever they wanted. You were looking out the window and people were lying dead in the street.

Their opportunity presented itself on November 7, the day of the celebration of the Russian revolution. With the soldiers busy “eating and drinking”, Loewen said, the station was unguarded. They piled into and onto a carriage to the station, piled into a train, and escaped to freedom. His family has completed their trip to Canada.

Many Mennonites were trapped in Germany and driven out by the Soviet army to be sent back to labor camps.

Vic Ewart, born in 1938, was just a young boy sent on a ship to Paraguay.

In his video, he cries remembering the first time he tasted an orange and ice cream, and realized there was a place in the world without bombs.

“Being free. That was the most important thing,” he said. “It was amazing that there were no bombs or anything. Without fear.”

Ewart and Loewen were rescued with the help of MCC. And their stories are among thousands of similar ones, many of which are told in exhibits at the Mennonite Museum in Abbotsford, as well as the Mennonite Heritage Center in Winnipeg. Currently, the Abbotsford Museum presents an exhibition of art by Winnipeg artist Ray Dirks titled On the way to freedom.

Many paintings feature stories of Mennonite families fleeing Ukraine at this time – mostly women and children.

In art and words, the exhibition tells the dramatic stories of women and their families who fled the Soviet Union in the decade following the Russian Revolution and during World War II. Despite the despair, horror and loss each of these families faced, this exhibit is all about love, courage, humility, determination and faith.

And the MCC has responded to the conflict by using its established relationships to send aid to the country.

“Ukraine is experiencing major upheaval, but our partners have supplies ready to help vulnerable and displaced people,” says Rebecca Hessenauer, MCC’s representative for Ukraine.

MCC says it will work with local partners to expand existing programs that support vulnerable people and extend those services to internally displaced populations.

The long-term response will likely include psychosocial support and trauma healing, temporary emergency accommodation, emergency distributions of locally purchased emergency supplies such as blankets and distribution of food parcels.

“One hundred years ago, we responded to the crisis in Ukraine,” says Rick Cober Bauman, Executive Director of MCC Canada. “A century later, we find ourselves walking alongside the Ukrainian people in crisis once again. They ask for our prayers and support – and a reminder that they have not been forgotten during this time.

MCC has worked in Ukraine since the organization began, opening soup kitchens to help thousands of starving families. In the early 1990s, MCC renewed its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in Ukraine. On February 13, MCC transferred all international staff from Ukraine and continues to monitor the situation of staff still in the country.

To learn more about MCC’s work in Ukraine or make a donation to support MCC’s response in Ukraine, visit

[email protected]
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.


Betty K. Park