Detail of "Katherina Dirks Peters" by Ray Dirks (courtesy Ray Dirks)
Artist Ray Dirks has a new exhibit paying tribute to Mennonite parents -
mainly women - who fled Russia under Stalin for the safely of Canada.
SCENE asked him to tell us about his family connection to the work.
Dutch Anabaptists (Mennonites) established settlements in West Prussia and Danzig in the 16th Century. Beginning in the late 18th Century, at the invitation of Catherine II, Empress of Russia, many of their descendants moved to south Russia (Ukraine).
The Russian Revolution and its chaotic aftermath brought great horrors to Mennonite communities. Many families lost everything. Murders were common -- a great grandfather of mine among the victims. Significant numbers were able to leave Russia for North America in the 1920s. Among those who did not leave were people who thought it could not get worse, so, stayed in the land they loved and where they had often prospered.
Under Joseph Stalin it did get worse.
Katherina Dirks Peters, my grandfather Dirks' sister, was unable to leave in the 1920s. In Stalin's hell, her husband was arrested and murdered. Katherina struggled to survive with her two sons - three daughters had died earlier. In the midst of World War II, in 1943, she and her sons were among the 35,000 Mennonites who fled west from Ukraine towards Germany, praying their final destination someday would be Canada. While she fled, both her sons were taken from her by pursuing Russian troops.
Katherina managed to get to Germany and survived through the remainder of the war. At the invitation of my grandparents and with the help of the Mennonite Central Committee she managed to finally find safety in Canada in 1948. Of the 35,000 Mennonites who tried to escape the Soviet Union in 1943 only 12,000 succeeded.
Katherina eventually moved into a tiny one bedroom house in Yarrow, B.C., not far from where I grew up. In 1956 she learned her sons were alive in Russia. She begged Soviet authorities for years to allow her sons to visit her. Request after request was declined. In 1974 Katherina received a letter telling her to give up. Visits would never be allowed. She died a few months later.
How do I remember my great aunt? As one of the loveliest, most gracious, peaceful and humble people I've ever had the honour to have known. She held onto no hate, did not seek revenge. She harboured a great sadness but it did not bury her love or her faith.
My current exhibit, Along the Road to Freedom, at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery honours Katherina and more than two dozen other women like her, whose stories should not be forgotten.
The exhibit runs until January 26, 2013.