My Mother Was a Ukrainian Refugee

Let me start by encouraging you to support the Ukrainians in any way you can. I gave money to AmeriCares, a relief outfit that is sending medical supplies and personnel to help refugees in Poland. The International Red Cross was organized to do exactly this on a grand scale. If you would prefer a purely Ukrainian organization, there’s RAZOM, which supports democracy and relief in the country itself. My employer is doing a 2:1 match for any donations, so check if yours does as well. As individuals we can’t do anything about the military actions there, but there are now over a million refugees that need help.

My mother, Louise Unger Redford, was born in Ukraine in 1928 in the German Mennonite village of Einlage. It was near Zaporizhzhia, an industrial city on the Dniepr River about 400 km southeast of Kiev. Her people had come to Ukraine in the late 1700s from the then German city of Danzig. They were offered farmland and freedom from conscription (they’re pacifists) by Catherine the Great. She wanted to settle the land as a buffer against marauding Cossacks.

The Mennonites did very well in the 19th century. They founded new towns, bought more land, and then started industrial businesses. My great-grandfather Abraham Unger introduced the stainless steel plow to Ukraine and had the first car in Zaporizhzhia.

They lost all that in the Revolution. Many of them were killed in the turmoil, and their property was seized. They were thrown back on their educations. My grandfather, Leonhard Unger, was an engineer, and designed and built the first native tractor in Ukraine in the 1920s. He managed a local factory and taught at the local technical school.

Then the purges began. Leonhard was arrested in 1933 and sent to work as an engineer on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the far east. He became a zek, an imprisoned worker, as described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle (1968). His wife Margarete took my mother (then age 6) off to Siberia to be with him. It was a camp in the woods, and no place for women and children. Here they are in 1934:

Margarete, Louise, and Leonhard Unger, 1934, Magdagachi, Siberia

Note how the bare planks belie the painted backdrop of the photographer’s studio. Margarete and Louise returned to Zaporizhzhia, and never saw him again. He died there some time around 1940; they weren’t sure when. Margarete had been a school teacher, but was not allowed to work, since all Germans were suspect. All the men in the village were arrested and taken away. Their house was requisitioned, and they lived in one room of it with other families in other rooms. They got by with the help of Margarete’s sisters and their backyard orchard.

In 1941 Germany invaded the USSR. They swept over Ukraine, and were initially greeted as liberators. The retreating Soviets blew up the dam on the Dniepr, and killed thousands downstream in the flood. The Ukrainians would have loved to help them against Russia, but they were Nazis, and thought of Slavs only as slave labor. In 1943 the Red Army re-captured the city, but by then the Germans had evacuated all the Mennonites.

Leaving Ukraine, 1943. Refugee trains still look like this.

Margarete and Louise were initially sent to Romania, and then Poland, and finally Wittenberg, a town on the eastern edge of Germany. That’s where the Red Army caught up to them in 1945. Horrible things happened in a town full of women and children. All of the Soviet refugees were due to be shipped back to gulags, but Margarete had been working as a translator for the Soviet colonel, and he intervened. “You don’t want to take that train going east. You want to take that other train going west. I’ll give you the papers.” That one kindness saved their lives.

They ended up in Friesland, a cold and wet province bordering the North Sea. Margarete came down with tuberculosis, and they were moved to Bremen. There they met an old school mate of Margarete’s who was running a Lutheran hospital. She took in Louise as a trainee nurse, to Margarete’s great joy. “I have been praying for a long time for God to show me how to help you find your way after I am gone. Now I know. This will open the world to you, for nurses are needed everywhere.”

Margarete died of TB in 1950, and made Louise promise to get as far from the USSR as she could. The Mennonite Central Committee of Canada had already arranged for a lot of her relatives to emigrate, so she went too. She lived in Winnipeg until she could speak English, and then worked in hospitals. At a stint in Vancouver she met my father, John B. Redford, and they were married in 1954.

They had six children, and ultimately ended up in Kansas City:

John, Tom, Louise, Peter, Marguerite, Paul, and Drew Redford, Kansas City, 1974

She did go back once to the USSR in 1973. She managed to connect with her cousin Netje Martens in Novosibirsk. Netje and her family had been forced to take that train east. Here’s how Louise tells it in her memoir “In the Arms of the River”:

Here is their story. I tell it because it happened to so many of us.

All the “repatriated” ethnic Germans forced to go back to the Soviet Union after the war were sent to Siberia. There they were given the worst jobs. Some went to the mines. Some were given dull axes to cut down the taiga. Netje and her sister chopped trees for ten years.

In 1956 Krushchev pardoned many such prisoners. Each was given 25 rubles and told to leave the camp. They were free to go anywhere except for their homes back in Ukraine. Twelve young people from the logging camp went to the train station and asked the station master where they could go for 25 rubles. He looked at a map but could only offer three suggestions, all remote specks in Siberia. They picked one of these, a dot along the river Ob.

Netje told me, “It made sense because we are river people. Just as our forefathers picked a spot on the Dniepr, so now we chose the Ob. When we got there, we built a raft and set out to find the right place to settle.”

“What did you do first when you found your spot?” I asked. “We unloaded our things and prepared a meal. Our appointed leader, Peter Kroeker, read a Bible passage, and then we all got married.”

“Just like that?”

“Well, not just like that. We had planned this before we left the camp. It was not romantic in the usual sense. In the Gulag it was not moonlight and roses. None of us were handsome or pretty, but we were all willing to put our trials and tribulations behind us and make a decent life. Our husbands are good men. Too bad they are not from Einlage. I think our people knew how to have a good laugh, more so than the people from the other villages.”

After these preliminaries, the next thing to do was to cut wood. “Boy, did we know how to do that,” laughed Netje’s sister. They built a log cabin for each couple. The Chukchis (natives of Siberia) brought them furs to line the walls. They fished and hunted and took their harvest down the river to trade for flour and sugar.

Now, 17 years later, they had built a thriving settlement. They had a dairy farm with 40 cows and made butter and cheese. They had sheep for wool and were starting to make beautiful coats from fur and knitted wool.

“How do you manage to do all that?”

“It is not just the twelve of us anymore. Between us we have 21 children, and they are a big help now. Our school turned out to be a prime attraction for the Chukchi. They winter near us, and, in exchange for teaching their children, they help on the farm and bring us furs.”

We talked far into the night. There was a knock on the door, and the hotel manager looked in and offered us tea. “You have not seen each other for 30 years! Stay as long as you like. I will hold the rooms,” he told us. This experience was typical. The further away we went from Moscow, the friendlier the people became.

The next day my two friends had a surprise for me: tickets to the Novosibirsk Opera. I was touched and asked what I could do for them. “Just to see you after so long is the greatest gift you could have given us. We have everything we need. Most important, we are free. We live so far from anywhere that nobody bothers us. If somebody should set out to do us harm, we would hear about it long before they got to us. We would not sit and wait.”

There are now no Mennonites left in that part of the world. When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, Germany offered citizenship to all the ethnic Germans there. Netje and the others returned to Germany. They were the last of the Mennonites in the Russian empire. My mother died in 2014, and all of her generation have now passed. They have become a lost people. The only thing left is one of their graveyards, the Khortytsia Mennonite Memorial.

Memorial dedication, 2021, (credit: T.Dyck)

About 200 headstones were discovered beneath a Soviet sports field by a Ukrainian researcher, and a Canadian Mennonite organization raised funds to set them back up and put up a memorial. It has gotten a lot of support from locals, whose ancestors had their own bad experiences in the 1930s and 40s.

Now the old bad times have come back. Let’s hope that a similar memorial will not be necessary in another 90 years.

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1 Response to My Mother Was a Ukrainian Refugee

  1. bchandler2 says:

    Fantastic synchronicity that many of the bleaker parts of this beautiful family tapestry you weave are a perfect example of what I was literally telling a friend four hours ago:

    Context: I’m one of the moderators for the main Facebook My Little Pony shit posting group, and in our messenger chat we were talking about someone that a fellow left-leaning but occasionally a bit brash mod had banned from the group for threatening violence against communists, and one of the other moderators pointed out that the person’s family had apparently suffered under communism, to which the first guy said that that still doesn’t make threats of violence okay or justified.

    People say lots of unjustified things. And there have objectedly been many atrocities and injustices under various (mostly more authoritarian) communist regimes just like under all government systems, the nuances of which are beyond the scope of this discussion.

    If the dude was like advocating murder of communists un a My Little Pony group or something,, yeah that’s not appropriate.

    But regardless of who’s wrong or right about what, lately just in general I’ve been trying to give people more grace and approach them as fellow humans rather than enemies,, and so regardless of how much of this person’s views are from propaganda, or whatever, I’m cognant enough to recognize it would be the height of hubris for me, a random millennial American leftbooker, to claim I know more than people’s past lived experiences and am the definitive authority on what their lives were like.

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