About 7 kilometres outside of Molochansk on Colonitza Hill (on the "Lutheran side" of the Molotschna River) sits a new Ukrainian war monument. Unlike Soviet-era monuments which tower like fir trees among junipers, this one is built into the hill, unimposing and reflective. It honours Ukrainians and Russians who fought for liberation and makes special mention of women who fought. In fact, one of the reflective sculptures is a broken rose. The view of the former Mennonite colonies along the Molotschna is dramatic. Here, looking down on Halbstadt, Muntau, Tiegenhagen, Schoenau, Fischau, Lindenau, and Lichtenau, some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought as the Soviet troops struggled to regain Colonitza Hill. Shell fire rained on Mennonite schools, flour mills, hospitals and houses.
And on this hill someone recently dug up the bones of three Soviet soldiers who, like so many, never had a proper burial. From his watch and cigarette lighter they identified one of the soldiers, and then discovered that his son still lives in the area. And so, last Monday we gathered on the hill along with school children, military brass, soldiers, veterans, politicians and a son to bury two unknown soldiers and one father. It was a simple service, with a few short speeches, a prayer and song by the Orthodox priest, and some war songs on a PA system. Then soldiers smartly moved up, lifted a coffin covered with a red cloth, and lowered it into the ground. It was very moving to see the son, now himself a Senior, throw reddish brown dirt onto the coffin carrying the remains of a young man – his father.
What was this Mennonite doing at a WWII burial service? I confess I arrived somewhat by accident. One of the schools we support had brought a busload of high school kids to the service and first stopped in to visit the Mennonite Centre. The bus driver didn’t know the way to the memorial site and so Slava and I escorted the bus. Only when we arrived and saw the crowd did we realize something significant was going on.
The interesting thing is that the Mennonite Centre did have a role to play in this drama. Band music was provided by the Molochansk music school and we have, through the good efforts of Rudy and Hildegarde Baerg, given trumpets and a French horn to the school. Could anyone have predicted that a discarded MEI trumpet would be playing at the funeral of WWII Soviet soldiers? And had anyone been so foolish as to make such a prophecy, would anyone have believed it?
And while I was standing on the brick surface with my back to the biting wind, a young high school girl standing right next to me suddenly fainted and fell backwards on the brick surface with a scary thud. She was immediately carried to the nearby ambulance, which of course had been provided through the Mennonite Centre by generous North American donors.
The most decorated soldier was not a Soviet veteran—he was a veteran of the rogue Ukrainian National Defence army who fought for the liberation of Ukraine against Soviet and German forces. When we spotted each other he marched proudly to me, gave me a bear hug and fighting tears said, "spasiba" –"thank you." You see, he is now staying in our respite centre at the Molchansk (Muntau) hospital. Like those who served in the WWI Medical Corps we may be in the background, but we are there and will continue to offer aid to young and old.
This is our last weekly report, as I am joining Linda at home in Canada on Tuesday. Look for photos later in the week, as we would like to publish some of our favourites on our blogsite – http://www.lindaandben.blogspot.com/
Thanking you for your prayers and support,
Ben and Linda Stobbe