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Mennonites once again responding to conflict in Ukraine with support

Abbotsford Mennonite Museum shares video interviews of Second World War refugees

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

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

So they’ve been quick to respond to the current crisis in Ukraine.

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

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

The videos were filmed a few years ago but remain as relevant as ever. They feature people like Helen Loewen (Löwen), who was born in 1925. Her father was taken away to a Soviet work camp in 1938 and died there. Three of her siblings died due to starvation and disease.

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

“What the Russians did to the German people, you had no idea,” she said. “They were let loose, they could do what they want. You would look out the window and the people was lying dead in the street.”

Their opportunity came on Nov. 7, the celebration of the Russian Revolution. With the soldiers occupied with “drinking and eating,” Loewen said, the train station was unguarded. They stuffed in and on top of a wagon to the station, and crammed into a train, and escaped to freedom. Her family ended their journey in Canada.

Many Mennonites were trapped in Germany and being hunted out by the Soviet Army to be sent back to work camps.

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

In his video, he cries at recalling the first time he tasted an orange, and ice cream, and realized there was a place in the world with no bombs.

“To be free. That’s what the biggest thing was,” he said. “It was incredible that there was no bombs or anything else. No fear.”

Both Ewart and Loewen were rescued with the help of the MCC. And their stories are among thousands of similar ones, many of which are told through displays at the Mennonite Museum in Abbotsford, as well as the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg. Right now, the Abbotsford museum is showing an art exhibit by Winnipeg artist Ray Dirks called Along the Road to Freedom.

Many of the paintings feature stories of Mennonite families fleeing from Ukraine during that time — mostly women and children.

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

And the MCC has responded to the conflict using their established connected 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 representative for Ukraine.

MCC says they will be working with local partners to scale up existing programs that support vulnerable people and extending those services to internally displaced populations.

The long-term response will likely include psycho-social support and trauma healing, temporary emergency housing, emergency distributions of locally purchased emergency supplies such as blankets, and distribution of food packages.

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

MCC has worked in Ukraine since the organization’s beginnings, opening soup kitchens to provide relief to thousands of starving families. In the early 1990s, MCC renewed efforts to offer humanitarian assistance in Ukraine. On, Feb. 13, MCC relocated all international staff from Ukraine and continues to monitor the situation for staff still in country.

To learn more about MCC’s work in Ukraine or donate in support of MCC’s Ukraine response, visit

READ MORE: Mission shifts focus for former Abbotsford man and Ukrainian wife as invasion continues


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Jessica Peters

About the Author: Jessica Peters

I began my career in 1999, covering communities across the Fraser Valley ever since.
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