Migration Tour Leg 3, (Warsaw, P – Vienna, AU), August 1 – 21 August, 2014
By Marijke Koeman
In Warsaw team 3 (Hylke Bergsma, Sjoukje Halbertsma, Marijke Koeman, Mieke Krebber, Puck Yntema, Elma Laan) took over from team 2. We were given a warm welcome at the Dutch embassy and attended an impressive remembrance of the Polish uprising of WWII. Some of our Polish contacts were present as well.
From the ‘old’ war to the present
Then we had to make a quick switch from the war of the past to the war happening in the present. The conflict in eastern Ukraine had been on our minds for quite a while already, and had created some doubts about the exact route that would be taken for the third leg of the tour. But now a Malaysian plane was shot down, and 198 Dutch people had died. And it’s true what they said: every Dutch person knows someone – or knows someone who knows someone – who died in that crash. This was also true for our team.
After much deliberation, two members of team 2, who had planned to travel the third leg of the tour as well, decided to go home early because of the circumstances.
Five new travelers had arrived from the Netherlands, and decisions needed to be made about the route to be taken. We had already abandoned the original plan, which was to travel via western Ukraine, visit the capital Kiev (to visit the embassy), and then go south to eastern Ukraine to visit the well known mennonite settlements in and around Chortitza and Molotschna. Some of these settlements were in an area for which the Dutch government had announced a travel warning. So what to do instead?
We chose to focus all our attention on western Ukraine – where there’s still a lot to explore – and drop Kiev.
Confusion about history and words
Thus started a journey filled with a lot of confusion about history and words. Are ‘Holendry’ always Dutch people – or are they also Germans who worked with a ‘Holendry’ land tenancy agreement? Is ‘reformiert’ also mennonite, or not, and lutheran instead? Were (all) ‘Germans’ really mennonites, or not?
Was that ‘last Holendry’ we met in that village really Dutch? She didn’t know herself, she was still there because she had never owned any official documents…and her name was Elsa (photo). Elas Tichler, or Tigler, or Tichla, or Tichelaar or something like that. Which sounds very Dutch.
From Ukraine Magazine, Spring 2004: “The communists only wanted to give exit visas to the people who could prove their Dutch (and non-German) background. The pivotal question, which would come back time and time again all through the 20th century, was: Are the mennonites in Ukraine and Russia of Dutch or of German origin?
Many Dutch and German specialists had heated debates about this, and other, similar questions. Is the language of the mennonites – Plautdietsch – A Dutch/Frisian or a German dialect? After 1918, did the mennonites call themselves ‘Dutch’ purely for survival, or are they truly Dutch? In 1920 it was decided to use the 1913 thesis of the Polish Felicia Szper as a starting point to decide who was mennonite or not.. Published in the Netherlands, her thesis mentioned a list of names of Dutch mennonites. This enabled 20.000 people to emigrate to Canada, where they were warmly received by their fellow mennonites.”
We met Elsa in Oleshkovychi, in a (now) baptist church, once an evangelical-lutheran church. Our guide Michailo Kostiuk (photo) knows a lot about the lutheran history in western Ukraine, or Volhynia – once Polish. Michailo had just returned from a visit to Siberia.
He and the man who started the Umsiedlermuseum in Lintow near Berlin – completely dedicated to Volhynia, which we visited too, went there together to write down the stories of those exiled by Stalin.
One night in 1939
And time and again we were confronted with the phrase ‘one night in 1939’. Which was the night when all ‘Germans’ (i.e. Mennonites) ‘disappeared’ – this was a consequence of the Ribbentrop-Molotow-Pact, the non-aggression pact between Nazi-Germany and ‘Stalin’s’ USSR. In this pact new borders were drawn and all ‘Germans’ would allegedly be evacuated to German territory.
We also visited places where we hoped to find traces of a mennonite past: intact graveyards, but also graveyards where the stones had been used as foundations for new houses. Sometimes these places were only recognizable (by the locals) because of special fruit trees or shrubs – which grew nowhere else in the area. We were given a warm welcome – but they saw us as yet another group of Germans who, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, had come looking for the roots of their ancestors. There is no religious link.
And then…suddenly: a graveyard that is a protected memorial site. Beautifully maintained, managed by the principal of the elementary school of the Einsiedel village! (written phonetically as Ansiedel).
Names on the gravestones that sound familiar to us: Rupp, Friesen, Muller.
The village consists of one long, wide road, farmhouses on either side, farmland behind the houses. In the middle of the street, in the centre of the village, there is a still-working well…
This is a place we should connect with.
Close to three hundred!
These villages are not 30 kilometres away from Lviv (or Lvov, or Lemberg). Later in Lviv we spoke with professor Viktoriya Lyubaschenko (photo). We told her about visiting the three settlements and she said: “Three? There were close to three hundred!” Lyubaschenko knows what can be found in the archives – and warns us: ‘They’re disappearing! A Ukrainian archivist doesn’t get paid much, and there are enough people who like to pay good money for old, historical documents…”.
We have promised her to send help from the Netherlands to make an inventory and to digitalise the archives. The first volunteer already came forward during the conversation… It turned out there are only very few people in Lviv who can still decipher the documents written in old-German. But that shouldn’t be difficult for us, right?
When you travel on a Sunday you see how religious this country is. The Orthodox churches were filled to the brim – people were even attending the service standing outside.
We’ll never forget the chipper, happy expression on the face of the hotel manager at one of our stops. He had read our popular brochure (photo) thoroughly, and returned enthusiastically. Especially the part about the separation of church and state made him happy. His country needed that too.
If we had been willing and able, he would have agreed to being baptised right there and then.
Though we didn’t notice it much in everyday life, Ukraine is suffering a lot from the civil war in the East. Talking to the residents of a village that supposedly once housed mennonites, a woman told us about the death of one of the younger villagers. He was in the army – and last week he had returned in a coffin.
The Interpreter, our guide, other bystanders, they all were in tears. The woman said she hardly left her house anymore. She never went far from her TV and almost lived in her radio.. In every conversation we could feel the tension. Everybody feared that their father, brother or son would soon be called up for active duty: the men themselves were raring to go. Our pacifist ideas didn’t go down well, they were met with scorn.
To Taüfer country
Via Krakow in Poland, where we were reminded of the horrors of war during our visit to the permanent WWII exhibition in in Oskar Schindler’s factory, we arrived in the south of the Czech Republic – Moravia.
We visited the open air museum in Niedersulz and to Falkenstein Castle in neighbouring Austria. Here we got to know the very active Austrian ‘Taüfer’ who brought Anabaptist history to the fore again. Both places have exhibitions about Anabaptists in this part of Europe – not Mennonites but Hutterites – which are well worth a visit.
In Vienna we met a lively and very ‘alive’ mennonite congregation. A ‘Taüferische’ tour of the city, with Alexander Basnar as our guide, made us realise that Vienna is wrongly known as the catholic capital of Austria. That might be so today, but…
On the website ‘Welcome to Mennonite Europe’, a few themes are being highlighted. Whilst traveling we (all teams) asked ourselves if we recognised them in our journey, and if so, how?
We try to summarize the answers below…
… in the heroic history of this last Christian stronghold during the siege by the barbaric Ottomans, the radical ‘reformers’ could boast an impressive past.
We were deeply impressed by the stories of the Taüfer who, even in the face of Islamic barbarians coming straight at them, refused to take up arms – and thus lost their lives. You’ll never find that attitude in these times, now that IS(IS) – according to the media at least – is standing at Europe’s door.
In the Ukrainian village of Kiernica, one very old eye witness (photo) still got teary-eyed when recounting the story of an old grandma left alone in the village. During the sudden evacuation of the ‘Germans’ the old grandma’s family left her behind, thinking they would return. She swore to us that the grandma was very well taken care of by the entire village until the day she died.
We were also told more than once that there had been a difference between living together with the ‘Germans’ of (presumably) mennonite origin, and other ‘Germans’ – those who had emigrated for financial reasons. The religious group was talked about with much love, whereas living with the other group had created more tension.
In Krakow we met Wiktor Szymborski, teacher at the faculty of history of the Jagiellonian University – a specialist on the reformation in the 16th century. Wiktor was an excellent and nuanced narrator. He managed to explain quickly which sensitivities exist between which religions and groups in Polish society (Polish, German, Russian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Anabaptist, Hussite) when they arose, and why. He gave a scientific foundation to our historical journey…and he made us understand why it took us almost four hours to cross the border between Poland and Ukraine – and why we saw such sour, grim and bored faces.
War – and nationalism – does much more damage (and for much longer) than you might think.
We noted that the disappearance of the Iron Curtain seems to have created a space for a new way of dealing with the past: history, especially WWII, is being looked at from a new, fresh perspective, stripped of ideological, centrally imposed rules.
For instance, a group of friends in Mikulov (Nickolsburg) have taken it upon themselves to preserve the town’s Jewish history through a permanent exhibition in the large synagogue, and a thorough cleaning-up of the enormous cemetery. Peace gives you more space than you think – it’s more than a time between two wars (Free after Jan Terlouw, writer and politician).
Traveling through Ukraine was pleasant: it’s a warm (and in summer hot) country, with a very hospitable population.
But crossing the border from Poland into Ukraine makes it very clear why the country wants to join the EU. Once you’ve crossed the border, you travel 20 years back into time – 40 years in the countryside.
Traveling through Poland, and later through the Czech Republic – after having experienced Ukraine – gave a sense of ‘European brotherhood’ (although that might not be the idea behind the mennonite theme of fellowship).
All the way till Moravia, where the ‘Taüfer’ arrived straight from Switzerland instead of via the Netherlands, we traveled through a ‘Dutch landscape’. Flat, rivers, dikes, ditches, and every now and then a lock or a windmill. We felt at home there – and were happy with the progress we saw.
We found a lot of resilience in the mennonite congregation of Vienna. For a long time non- catholic denominations in Austria faced a lot of difficulties and were not recognized by the state. A year ago that changed. The Mennonitische Freikirche Österreich (Mennonite Free-church of Austria) became part of the officially recognised Religious Union of Austrian Free Churches.
Austrian mennonites do not spring from the old tradition, but instead have grown out of the activities of North-American mennonites who came to Austria to help rebuild the country after WWII.
However, when we met the congregation we didn’t feel that they were ‘new’ : everything felt so familiar….so mennonite.
The desire to live in a spirit of reconciliation was always present in the conversations we had in the Ukrainian countryside. Often the population had lived together with the ‘Germans’. And more and more these ‘Germans’ came back there, looking for the roots of their ancestors. We were often perceived that way too: ‘Germans’ searching for their past. If you know the history this area has with the country Germany, you can’t be anything but pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome we received.
We had confidence in each other, and in the project. The third leg of the tour didn’t start under favourable circumstances… Even during our journey we had to find local guides, (new) places to stay – in the middle of the holiday season as well. Sometimes it was difficult to find a place to stay the night.
Still, looking back, we have seen and discovered a lot: enough to work with and expand on in the future.