Among the lists of those disappeared during the dark times of the 1930s and ’40s in what is now Ukraine, researchers have found roughly 400 pages of Mennonite names, with five or six names per page. That is just for Zaporizhzhia province.
Each name a tragedy. Many a mystery. A husband, a father, occasionally a mother or wife, all taken, nothing more known. Families splintered. Communities shattered. Grim mysteries lingering, as mysteries do.
And of course, disappearances fueled dislocation, as violence drove Mennonites to new lands.
How did these gaping horrors shape families? How did the accumulation of thousands of such stories shape a people? How do legacies of disappearance and dislocation influence our response to the many other such stories continually unfolding in our world, including among Mennonites in the Global South?
Last February, the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg announced an initiative to dig into the now-open former-KGB records in Ukraine, uncovering trauma and mysteries of the Russian Mennonite past.
Aileen Friesen, who is coordinating this effort as it takes shape, hopes this look into a specific past will generate consideration of the broader present.
Starting in 2006, Ukrainian authorities published thick books, separated by province and available online, containing lists of names of the disappeared, along with a brief summary of each case. The center’s initiative has begun to translate these descriptions, starting with the book for Zaporizhzhia province, picking Mennonite names out of the lists.
Friesen, the center’s co- director, said thus far roughly 100 descriptions have been translated by two part-time translators. She expects a first batch of translated descriptions to be posted on the center’s website this month.
The descriptions typically include a name, date of birth, place of birth, charge against the person, the sentence, indication of whether the sentence was carried out, date of execution when applicable and location of burial site or indication that the place of burial is unknown. Some descriptions include a photo of the person.
The descriptions also include file names of the fuller files for each person. These files — held by state archives or the Security Service of Ukraine (known as the SBU, successor to the KGB in Ukraine) — contain things such as interviews with witnesses, records of interrogations and records of how these cases were reviewed years later. Sometimes they include records of the reversals of original sentences.
While certain Mennonites will be interested in discovering more about loved ones who went missing, and while Friesen willingly responds to such queries to the extent she can, she said the overall goal of the project “is to bring us beyond our own stories.”
She hopes that the project initiates a broader conversation about trauma and community and that Mennonites will see their collective story in the broader context of dislocation in the world.
“Our story is part of a broader story of dislocation,” she said.
Friesen’s personal interest includes questions of how the disappearance of men influenced communities. How did women deal with the pain of loss, the pain of not knowing what happened and the tasks of managing a household shorthanded?
She is also interested in the effect of neighbors sometimes reporting each other to authorities, often under harsh threat. How did resulting animosity, or, conversely, guilt of informers and their families, play out and shape communities?
For Friesen, the initiative is not about making this specific story sacred but drawing on history to ask bigger questions about the world.
For that to happen, the history must be known. The KGB research follows the center’s publication of The Russian Mennonite Story in 2018, which brings that history back in an illustrated coffee-table volume.
The book was recently reprinted following swift sales of the first 1,000 copies. Proceeds of book sales go toward the KGB work, which is linked to the establishment of the Paul Toews Professorship in Russian Mennonite History.
Friesen and her colleagues want to build that fund to enable the translation work to progress. For her, the goal of both the book and KGB research is to re-engage with history and to use that history to raise awareness in the world today as stories from the Mennonite past sensitize us to the stories of others.