WINNIPEG, Man. — John Ens was just 9 years old when he boarded the Dutch passenger ship Volendam in 1947 for a voyage to freedom and safety.
Right from birth, Ens, a member of McIvor Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, lived through a tremendous amount of fear and danger while growing up in a Mennonite family in Soviet-controlled Ukraine before escaping Europe.
Before he was born, his father was taken by Soviet authorities and executed. The family faced poverty, hunger and persecution.
Then the war came. For the Mennonites, the advancing and victorious German soldiers were greeted as liberators from Communist oppression.
When the war turned against the Germans, they retreated west. The family fled with them — mother and five children — by train and on foot, ending up in Munich after the war.
Ens didn’t fully understand the danger. But he still remembers the hunger — having nothing but a handful of beans to eat each day.
The greatest fear was being forced to return to the Soviet Union, due to an agreement between the western allies and the Soviets that required all former citizens of the Soviet Union to be repatriated without choice.
Ens and his family were able to escape being returned to exile and maybe death through help from Mennonite Central Committee. In 1947 they boarded the Volendam together with more than 2,000 other Mennonite refugees and made their way to a new home in Paraguay.
“It was a miracle,” said Ens, 81, who emigrated to Canada in 1954. “God was with us.”
Before they are gone
Ens’ story is one of many told in Volendam: A Refugee Story, a new documentary from Winnipeg filmmaker Andrew Wall of Refuge 31 Films.
The documentary, which premiered Feb. 20 in Winnipeg, tells the story of Mennonite suffering in Ukraine before the war, their flight to the west and how MCC helped almost 4,000 of them escape to Paraguay after World War II. This included more than 1,000 Mennonites trapped in Berlin in the Soviet zone.
“I wanted to give a voice to the Mennonite refugees who went through that experience,” said Wall, a member of Westwood Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation. “The starvation, the terror of Stalin, the war, the flight to safety. And I wanted to do it before all of them were gone.”
He also wanted to chronicle what was lost.
“Tens of thousands of Mennonites disappeared into exile and death,” he said. “That story needs to be told.”
Wall shot the 84-minute documentary in Manitoba and Paraguay.
He regrets he couldn’t include more stories.
“I didn’t anticipate how much people would want to talk about those days,” he said.
He hopes people will come away from the documentary with a deeper appreciation for what those people went through and also a better understanding of what refugees today are going through around the world.
“Maybe it will help some become more sympathetic toward refugees today,” he said.
Volendam: A Refugee Story will be distributed by Vision Video.
More information is online at refuge31.com.