Ep. 25 We must make a confession: we have sinned

The worst killings occurred in Zagradovka colony, a group of fifteen villages lying 200 kilometres west of Molochna. In three days over 200 Mennonite men, women and children, were hacked, shot and beaten to death between November 29 and December 1, 1919. Münsterberg [47°32’1.38″N, 33°16’8.63″E] suffered the most with the death of 86 individuals including 18 women and 36 children.[1] Only one of thirty farms was not burned to the ground; it was destroyed by Ukrainian neighbours when they dragged off the roof and floor. Thirty-three-year-old Dietrich Neufeld documents the grisly details in his first person account in A Russian Dance of Death Revolution and Civil War in the Ukraine and they need not be revisited.

This massacre had a distinctly personal characteristic because of the stout resistance of the Zagradovka Selbstschutz and its strong opposition to the new land distribution policies. “Needy Russians laid claim to clothing, horses, machines, and above all, to land, since land had been nationalized. The word was that the land now belonged to the public and everyone who wished to live by farming could have his [or her] share.”[2]

Because the colonists had refused to relinquish their land holdings close to the villages, Ukrainian peasants were forced to travel ten miles to work their six-acre plots passing by the better land Mennonites had kept for themselves.[3]

Neufeld describes the relationship between the Ukrainians and the Mennonites thus:

They [Mennonites] did not like their new farming neighbours. Relations grew deplorable. It could only be called an atmosphere of mutual hatred.[4]

The social, religious, political and economic system built up under the tsars, in which Mennonites and thousands of other foreign colonists played a part, didn’t satisfy the aspirations of impoverished peasants and workers. Revolutionaries regarded the system as incapable of reform; it should therefore be destroyed, and replaced by a new, revolutionary communist system. Their tactics were cruel and violent, but rooted in fundamental grievances not resolved in tsarist times.[5]

The peasants’ expectation of the revolution can be summed up by one word: land.  Since the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the peasant mind was consumed by a burning desire for land.  The peasantry’s land hunger was not petty-bourgeois greed as the Bolsheviks argued, but rather a matter of survival.[6]

B.B. Janz, who assisted over 8,000 Mennonites to leave Russia in the following years, was also one of the first Mennonite ministers to assess Mennonite responsibility for the massacres. “We must make a confession: we have sinned – and not only in this particular case. In this instance, however, all the murders of those days, all the conflagrations, all the rapes resulted from Mennonite armed resistance. Former members of the Selbstschutz as well as later members of the German battalion were directly responsible. We’ve usually kept silent about this bitter fact.”[7]

In the end, Makhno and the Bolsheviks became enemies again, and the White army never recovered from the knife Makhno had driven into its flank at Perehonivka. The Red Army gained a measure of control over Ukraine, though the battles would continue, and Mennonites faced a bleak future.

More Mennonites were murdered at other colonies such as Borozenko and Schoenfeld-Brazol. About 1,230 Mennonites were murdered or executed between 1917-23 and 96 per cent of the victims lived in Ukraine.[8] The murders subsided but the deaths from typhus[9] soared. The civil war spread typhus throughout the countryside and killed over three million people.[10] In Mennonite villages it killed 1,452 in the epidemic of 1919-1920[11]: increasingly nurses had to care for those already sick – friend and foe alike – and when the nurses became ill, they returned to their villages and brought typhus back to their home communities, including to Gerhard’s home where his father suffered from typhus for lengthy periods.

golden nestor makhno

In his home town of Hulyaipole, “batko” Makhno is still fondly remembered as a warrior who tried to raise up Ukrainian peasants against unbeatable odds.

The Red Army now ruthlessly hunted down Makhno men with the same vigor the Makhno men had hunted Selbstschutz men. In August 1921 the last 83 Makhno men disappeared into Romania, and Makhno himself died alone in Paris in 1934.[12] “In his last days, he frequented the Vincennes racetrack: some say he went there to drink and gamble; others maintain it just lifted his heart to see the horses run.”[13]

* * * * *

As the Soviet army pushed further south, it arrived at Gerhard’s house. Now Gerhard’s mother had to cook and accommodate Red soldiers and look after her own children.

GERHARD During the Red Revolution they took all our horses and gave us the sick ones to care for. The horses lost all their hair and the skin was scabby. The Reds took whatever they wanted. In our house we had to care for wounded soldiers who were sick with typhus. They were so sick they couldn’t clean themselves. Then a few days later they had to leave and escape as the soldiers from another government were coming.
On one occasion an officer saw my mother crying because there was no food for the children and he ordered the soldiers to eat elsewhere. My father was also delirious with typhus for a long time, but recovered.

Gerhard was 8, Lydia 7, Katja 3, Nikolai 2.




[1] Neufeld, Dietrich (Navall, Dedrich) A Russian Dance of Death Revolution and Civil War in the Ukraine, Hyperion Press, Winnipeg, 1977. Actual numbers vary, I have used Neufeld’s numbers.

[2] Neufeld, op. cit., page 71.

[3] Ibid., page 78, footnote 16.

[4] Ibid., page 71.

[5] Eichenfeld – by Theodore Regehr, quoted in http://home.ica.net/~walterunger/ Eichenfeld.htm

[6] Patterson, Sean David, Makhnovists and Mennonites: Intersecting Histories, Unacquainted Narratives, Lezing Katherine Friesen Centre, 2013.

[7] Janz, B.B., “We have Sinned” (B.B. Janz Papers, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba), Group I, 15, d. quoted in ‘No Songs Were at the Gravesite’ The Blumenort (Russia) Massacre (November 10-12, 1919) Translated and Edited by John B. Toews, Regent College, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 13, 1995, pages 62-66.

[8] Letkemann, P. (June 1998) ‘Mennonite Victims of Revolution, Anarchy, Civil War, Disease and Famine, 1917 – 1923’, Mennonite Historian, Vol. 24, Issue 2, [online], Available from: <http://www.mennonitehistorian.ca/24.2.MHJun98.pdf&gt;, Accessed: October 18, 2016, pp-1-2 & 9.

[9] Signs and symptoms begin with sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and other flu-like symptoms about 1–3 weeks after being infected. Five to nine days after the symptoms have started, a rash typically begins on the trunk and spreads to the extremities. This rash eventually spreads over most of the body. The rash indicates a lining of the brain has become infected and within two weeks victims become progressively sensitive to light, delirious and finally comatose. It can be treated with antibiotics.

[10] David G. Rempel, A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789–1923. University of Toronto Press 2011, p. 249. Quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typhus. Accessed October 16, 2016.

[11] Letkemann, P., op. cit., pages 1-2 & 9.

[12] Skirda, A. (2004) Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack, Trans. P. Sharkey, Edinburgh & Oakland, CA: AK Press pg 286. Quoted in Foster, Wayne, The Makhnovists and the Mennonites.

[13] Foster, Wayne, op. cit.

4 thoughts on “Ep. 25 We must make a confession: we have sinned

  1. Ed,
    It is good to hear your voice again. Your sister recommended this blog to me and I have really been enjoying Eds’ tour of Mennonite history. “Gerhards journey” and my family’s journey have much in common. You have added significantly to the oral history I received from my grandmother, great aunt, and parents. As well as the limited reading of Mennonite history I have done. Thanks, keep it up,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your writing came along when I took an interest in modern Russia. These on-the-ground accounts are different from the machinations of the big wheels in other accounts. The horror and bloodshed are a bit difficult to read. My own family got burned out in another conflict in another place. I suppose it takes effort to be more than just killer apes.

    Liked by 1 person

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