Last week the Director of the Probation Office we work with in Tokmak said, “You should visit my wife’s grandmother. She is 93 years old, in good health and remembers taking her early schooling in German from Mennonites”. That was an opportunity I could not pass up and today we had a lengthy visit.
Alexandra Ivanova Romashenko was born in Halbstadt in 1920. Her grandparents, Andrei and Alexandra Romashenko, made the, arduous journey from Kursk, Russia, settling in Halbstadt probably in the late 1890s. They were a mere 18 years of age when they arrived, and for the next 20 years, they worked as servants in Mennonite houses. Alexandra has a fine picture of her grandparents. They had only one child who died at a young age, but later they adopted Andrei’s nephew as their son. She says her grandparents became immersed in the German culture. Their son eventually became a highly regarded furniture maker, trained by a Mennonite craftsman. Alexandra still has a cabinet, table and chairs that he built.
Alexandra’s grandparents insisted that she and her brother attend the Mennonite school and do their studies in German. To this day, she speaks a very fine Mennonite- sounding German. She took her first four years in German, starting as a five year old. Her parents agreed with school authorities that she and her brother would not speak one word in Russian at school. If they did, they were to stand in the corner! She remembers singing German songs and clapping the rhythm. After four years she transferred to the Zentralschule. In my conversation with her, she had only positive things to say about her schooling.
In the late 1920s the village was harassed by a group of thugs who stole their horses, cows, clothes, and furniture. Alexandra’s family was branded as “kulaks” by these local bandits. During this time she said the Mennonites were smarter than the ethnic Russians and Ukrainians - many of the German-speaking population had chosen to leave the country. Eventually her father was sent to Donetsk (at that time known as Stalino), to build a factory. The family went with him. She recalls trying to get more schooling there, but the only documentation she had was in German. To determine her schooling level she was given an independent test in Russian and was immediately promoted to the 7th grade. She was spared the effects of the great famine because her father had a job building a factory. A year later she returned to Molochansk and took grade 8 in a Russian school. Her good friend was a Heinrichs girl whose father was an optometrist in the village. Her friend had the only women’s bike in all of Molochansk. In 1935, at the young age of 15, she was accepted to the Melitopol Pedagogical Institute and became a highly regarded mathematics instructor; teaching in both Donetsk and Molochansk. Alexandra remained there during the war years, and in 1942 she gave birth to a daughter in the German-occupied village. She said a German nurse named Anna helped her during the delivery. She recalls Molochansk having highly-regarded German/Mennonite doctors, including a Dr. Wall.
Alexandra continues to live in her home in Molochansk, together with her grandson. The house is spotless and the yard very well kept. Her surroundings remind me so much of early Mennonite homes in the Abbotsford area. She exhibits a feisty, fun-loving spirit with an ongoing zest for life. She has very few wrinkles, and certainly does not act her age! She remembers meeting some Canadian tourists from the Mennonite Heritage Cruise Tours. Most of our interview was recorded for archival purposes.
To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine you can make your donations to “Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Rd, Beamsville, Ontario, Canada - L0R 1B1.
If you wish to donate online go to the website www.canadahelps.org, key in “Mennonite Centre Ukraine” and click on the search button. Then click on “View Profile” and then “Donate Now”.