Left with a void: the new Mennonite memorial in Ukraine

Monuments often bear witness to those who are missing, but the design of the granite monument unveiled to “Soviet Mennonite Victims of Tribulation, Stalinist Terror and Religious Oppression” in Zaporizhia, Ukraine on October 10, 2009 is particularly poignant about absence. Designed by Paul Epp, it consists of three life-size silhouettes: a woman, a man, and two children. The base is meant to represent a mantel upon which we keep pictures of those who we want to remember, says Epp, except that here “we are left with a void, with all of what that can represent.”

The International Mennonite Memorial Committee for the Former Soviet Union, has erected a number of memorials in the former Soviet Union, but according to a report of the event by Anne Konrad, this is the first one within the former USSR to memorialize all Soviet Mennonites.

Mennonite memorial (photo credit: T. Dyck)


Committee co-chair Peter Klassen (left) said, “This monument bears enduring witness to the suffering of many thousands who cannot speak for themselves,” and co-chair Harvey Dyck (at mic) said, “The story of 30,000 Soviet Mennonites… chronicles a tragic past and opens us more fully to the suffering and heroism of Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, peoples of Siberia and Central Asia and people around the world.” 

My grandparents were among those fortunate to escape what World War I and then the Russian Revolution unleashed, not to mention World War II and the long terrors of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. But as was the case in so many families, others in their family were not. The difference in the fates of those who left and those who stayed were often literally the difference between life and death.

I can’t get my head around how arbitrary it all sometimes seems, except to engage in the linked theological practices of thanksgiving and lament, but let me raise to the void of the new memorial just a few faces and names that belong there.

Tina Woelk and children, 1917


My grandmother Helena (Harder) and her family came to Canada. Her older sister Tina (Woelk) did not. Here is Tina with her 9 children, photographed at the burial of her husband in 1917. The oldest son, David, third from the left, was murdered in the political turmoil of 1919. As for the three boys on the right: Jakob reached Germany during the Second World War and did not return to Russia; Gerhard disappeared in that same war; Kornelius simply disappeared. Helena, second from the left, died of cancer in Siberia in 1956, Siberia being shorthand for the family’s exile to the work settlements of the north. Peter, on the left, died in Karaganda, that name shorthand for exile to the coal-mining southeastern region.

This is about all I know about these relatives of mine, told by the daughter of Katharina (standing at her mother’s shoulder), who grew up in the Soviet system and eventually, after the Cold War ended, moved to Germany with her husband.

So many empty spaces, children and youth without descendants. Just faces on a photo and names on a scrap of paper.

4 thoughts on “Left with a void: the new Mennonite memorial in Ukraine

  1. This topic has been floating in my mind for a while now. At first, I wanted to focus on how people can express their grief when they have experienced the loss of a loved one. However, I realized expressing grief is not always the emotion a person is trying to release. When you think of the person who has passed on, you shouldn’t simply dwell on the present situation, but express and reminisce about the fond times you’ve had together as well.

  2. The history of Ukraine and Russia is full of tragedy. It is always interesting to get to know more obout your roots. And it is even more interesting and pleasant to help people to find those places, that are only names on a scrap of paper and mean nothing to you, but mean much for someone’s family memory… I helped a woman from Canada to find place in the village of Nova Chortiza where her mother was born. She had a chance at least to imagine how her mother’s life was at the pre-soviet time. I was almost as happy as she.

  3. Dora, I imagine that you must know about Connie Braun’s memoir, The Steppes Are the Colour of Sepia? I reviewed the book for MQR and expect the review will appear in the next volume. The sculpture you depict above is one of the best representations I have ever seen of the presence of absence. I am indebted to writers and artists for powerful stories of Mennonite life I would otherwise not know.

    • Hi Shirley, I read an earlier version of Connie’s memoir (then called Stories in Sepia), and enjoyed it very much. And I quite agree with you, the memorial is powerful on “presence of absence.” In a later post I raised a few questions about the monument, not critical I trust as much as wanting further reflection on what we are doing when we “memorialize.” This topic comes close to many of the issues to consider around “memoir,” doesn’t it?

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