Demolition of abandoned building in Ukraine uncovers dozens of Mennonite tombstones

The demolition of an abandoned building in the city of Zaporizhia, Ukraine, has uncovered more than 100 tombstones that were used as its foundation — many of them memorials to people whose descendants live in Manitoba.

Tombstones used as building's foundation include memorials to people whose descendants now live in Manitoba

The headstone of Katharina Koop, the great-great-grandmother of ex-Winnipeg police officer Werner Toews. The tombstone was one of more than 100 that recent demolition has revealed were used in the foundation of a barn in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia. (Submitted by Werner Toews)

The demolition of an abandoned building in the city of Zaporizhia, Ukraine, has uncovered more than 100 tombstones that were used as its foundation — many of them memorials to people whose descendants now live in Manitoba.

Demolition workers discovered the rubble that formed the foundation floor of the brick barn was made up of four layers of broken tombstones.

Nearly all the grave markers have Mennonite names on them — they came from a Mennonite cemetery levelled by the former Soviet Union in the 1930s.

"I was just floored," said Winnipegger Werner Toews, whose great-great-grandmother's headstone was among the rubble. "It's something I could touch and see and say, 'Wow, here's my heritage.'"

The discovery, made in July, has triggered an avalanche of emotion among Mennonite descendants like Toews, whose great-great-grandmother was Katharina Koop, nee Paetkau.

"It's very emotional for me. I even get emotional just talking about it," the former police officer said.

Winnipegger Werner Toews holds up a photo of his great-great-grandparents, Abram and Katharina Koop. He has found the headstone for Katharina, who died in 1910, but not Abram. (Submitted by Werner Toews)

Many of Toews's ancestors died under the Soviets following the Russian Revolution 100 years ago. His great-grandfather, Heinrich Epp, was executed after he was taken before a tribunal, where he refused to renounce his belief in God.

The atheist Soviet regime destroyed virtually every Mennonite cemetery in the Zaporizhia area. More than one building in southeastern Ukraine is said to have used tombstones from Mennonite cemeteries in their construction.

'Crusade' to discover tombstones

Mennonites credit one man in particular with the recent recovery of tombstones — a Ukrainian historian in his 20s named Max Shtatsky.

Shtatsky grew up in the area and had always heard rumours about Mennonite gravestones beneath a giant barn built in 1936. It was a symbol of the collectivization movement under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that led to the Holodomor, and millions of deaths. It also wiped out private farms and cost many farmers their lives. 

With the barn's roof having collapsed, Shtatsky undertook the demolition to see if the rumours about the gravestones were true.

"I'm just amazed that this Ukrainian citizen took up almost a crusade to do this," said Toews. "He's often said, 'I'm doing this to rehabilitate the history.'"

Historian Max Shtatsky, seen here being interview by Ukrainian journalist Olga Zvonariova, is credited as the driving force in unearthing the tombstones. (Submitted by Werner Toews)

There have been 85 Mennonite headstones recovered so far, and more are being pieced together by Shtatsky, which will bring the total to well over 100.

The grave markers of five German soldiers from the First World War also have been found, and the German consulate is investigating their origins.

'Obliterate the past'

Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine has contributed funds to the recovery but more donations are required.

The graveyard was in Chortitza, the first and largest settlement of Mennonites in Ukraine. The village of Chortitza is gone, now part of the city of Zaporizhia, on the Dnieper River, which is similar in size to Winnipeg, with a population of about 700,000 people.

In an interview from Ukraine, Friends chairman Alvin Suderman said the story of the Mennonite tombstones is all too familiar.

"It was the deliberate policy of the Soviet Union to obliterate the past. Most locals don't even know the Mennonites ever lived here," he said.

The demolition site in Ukraine where the Mennonite tombstones are being recovered. (Submitted by Alvin Suderman)

The Mennonites were regarded as "kulaks," a term for a class of prosperous peasant land-owners that the Soviets wanted to eliminate.

"The Mennonites were foreigners here and they'd done well, and any sign that things were better in past was not good for the Soviets," Suderman said. 

It was also an attempt to obliterate religion by an atheist regime.

Most of the Mennonites headstones are marked with the image of an anchor to indicate their faith. 

"That was a symbol they used. There's a biblical reference they used that you should have your faith anchored in Christ," Suderman said.

Athletic fields were often built atop the destroyed cemeteries. Today, a school sits over the graves from which the headstones used as the barn's foundation were removed.

Descendants 'just overwhelmed'

Names found on the tombstones include those of people born as far back as the mid-to-late 1700s. 

"Those people finding their great-great-grandparents' graves there are just overwhelmed," Suderman said.

He and other Mennonites are extremely grateful to the Ukrainian people who are working to restore their history, he said.

Plans for the headstones haven't been finalized, but one proposal is to display them at the Khortytsia National Reserve, which is run by a heritage and conservation group that includes Shtatsky.

Mennonites emigrated from Prussia to southeastern Ukraine, at the time controlled by Russia, in 1789, at the invitation of Russian Empress Catherine II. They prospered until the Russian Revolution, which triggered a civil war starting in 1917.

Thousands of Mennonites were arrested or killed under the Soviets, including more than 9,000 German Mennonites arrested in Ukraine from 1936-38 alone, according to scholars. Others were deported to eastern Russia or fled, many to Canada, with the majority settling in Manitoba.

The families of people buried in the Chortitza cemetery immigrated to Canada, the United States and Paraguay. 

There are no Mennonites remaining in their former settlements in Ukraine; the last members fled in 1943. 

List of gravestones 

A total of 85 Mennonite headstones have been recovered so far that were used in construction of the brick barn in the 1930s. 

The numbers assigned in GRANDMA — the Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry — have been included beside the names. The names with no numbers beside them have not been located on the database to date.               

The question marks beside some of the numbers indicate there is less than a 100 per cent match to the name and dates recorded on GRANDMA. Further research will have to be conducted to locate the names and proper dates on various databases or family histories. 

The German word "geboren," which appears as "geb.," means "born" (i.e. maiden name). 

  • Bergen, B. 1812-1861 #529181?
  • Braun, Peter 6.01.1794 – 28.10.1851 #267133
  • Braun, Peter 1858  #753559? or #314171? 
  • Dyck, Agata, geb. Braun 22.05 1823-9.11.1896 
  • Dyck, Elizabeth, geb. Epp 8.08.1849 – 31.12.1886 #509238 
  • Dyck, Jacob 16.03.1804-8.11.1847 #175866
  • Dyck, Helena, geb. Siemens 21.08.1814-13.11.1889 # 505902?
  • Dyck, Maria, geb. Regier 4.03.1830-3.12.1905 #506644
  • Dyck, Maria, geb. Reimer 17.02.1846-14.01.1900 #179970
  • Dyck, Jacob 16.11.1831-19.05.1893 #506645
  • Epp, Abraham 4.12.1830-17.03.1888 #69115?
  • Epp, Elisabeth, geb. Leihle #198741
  • Epp, Gertruda, geb. Hamm #127021
  • Epp, Gertruda, geb. Goosen 1783 – 1848 #64083
  • Epp, Helena, geb. Thiessen 14.08.1797 – 14.04.1864 #77581 
  • Epp, Helena 7.4.1878-10.07.1879 #435594
  • Epp, Johannes 18.09.1880-11.04.1881 #435595 (same stone as Helena Epp)
  • Epp, Marie, geb. Thiessen 11.01.1879 – 13.05.1906 #127006
  • Epp, Elizabeth, geb. Perk 5.04.1830-25.01.1904 #127004
  • Fast, Peter 29.08.1883-24.02.1890 #429335
  • Hamm, Katharina, geb. Wilms 18.08.1817 – 2.02.1887 #199508
  • Hamm, Maria geb Braun 28.08.1865-2.08.1889 #467073
  • Hamm, Peter 18.08.
  • Hamm, Justina 1847-1907 #343347?
  • Hildebrandt, Agatha, geb. Hubert 14.07.1827-12.07.1889 #160905? 
  • Hildebrandt, Gerhard 15.10.1819-4.02.1889 #53087?
  • Hildebrandt, Katherina 15.10.1867-6.05.1877 #265841
  • Hildebrandt, Helena 2.04.1857-08.06.1877 #265837 (same stone as Katherina Hildebrandt)
  • Janzen, Maria, geb. Holzrichter 21.09.1858-09.11.1910 #509263
  • Klaassen, Helena, geb. Hamm 27.12.1837-20.01.1909 #343274 
  • Klassen, Helena 20.03.1883-14.04.1883
  • Klassen, Margaretha 26.09.1892-29.09.1892
  • Koop, Katharina 27.11.1839-12.02.1910 #146874
  • Koop, Peter 18.12.1844- 17.07.1889 #148253 (two stones)
  • Krager, Maria geb Lowen 22.03.1868-17.08.1903
  • Krahn, Gerhard 10.10.8105-10.11.1855 #396292? 
  • Krahn, Katherina 14.07.1806-11.05.1855 #765841?       
  • Lowen, Abraham 28.08.1836-05.06.1908 #353458
  • Lowen, Gerhard 20.05.1821-16.10.1887 #89231
  • Lowen, Helena 25.12.1862
  • Lowen, Katharina 21.10.1838-4.03.1885 #353480 Abraham #353458?
  • Martens, Heinrich 19.12.1819 – 27.02.1888 #451504
  • Niebuhr, Abraham 31.12.1836-22.02.1893 #151861
  • Niebuhr, Anna 19.02.1875-11.03.1881 #175118
  • Niebuhr, Eva, geb. Hamm 6.06.1853 – 3.02.1896 #461749
  • Niebuhr, Gerhard 2.05.1882 – 15.01.1901 #508152
  • Niebehr, Heinrich 24.01? – 10.03.?
  • Niebuhr, Heinrich 10.06.1880-18.12.1883 #508153
  • Niebuhr, Katharina 6.02.1874 – 13.05.1884 #508157
  • Niebuhr, Maria, geb. Lowen 30.08.-10.10. #151872
  • Patkau, Jakob 28.06.1816-12.10.1908 #126987
  • Pauls, Abraham 6.03.1812-9.04.1886 #196189
  • Pauls, Anna 25.07.1886 – 31.07.1886 #459006
  • Pauls, Dietrich 4.02.1844-14.10.1907 #452057
  • Pauls, Gerh. Gerhard
  • Pauls, Kornelius 23.10.1813-29.11.1853
  • Pauls, Margareta, geb. Dyck 5.12.1833-8.08.1907 #452207
  • Pauls, Peter 14.08.1834-06.09.1906 #452198 (same stone as Pauls, Margareta)     
  • Pauls, Maria, geb. Penner 05.05.1811-05.01.1856 #196194
  • Pauls, Helena, geb. Dyck #452058
  • Penner, Helena, geb. Klassen 22.08.1835 #494691?
  • Penner, Jacob 5.05.1831-…07.1911 #494692?
  • Penner, Johann 28.01.1828-25.07.1914 #199527
  • Peters, Franz 19.11.1834 #308843
  • Regier, Abraham 1821-1888 #508242?
  • Sawatzky, Jacob 21.1.1831-21.1.1908 #267380?
  • Sawatzky, his wife Anganetha Sawatzky, geb. Giesbrecht 3.05.1833-5.10.1902 #267381?
  • Schellenberg, Bernhard 2.02.1840-13.02.1888 #127042
  • Schellenberg, David (30.10.1868-18.12.1874) #127048
  • Schulz, Margaretha 1831-1887 #214709?
  • Schulz, Margaretha also Koop, geb. Wiens 22.01.1851-5.02.1909 #119564 
  • Schwarz, Heinrich 1790 #196217?
  • Siemens, geb. ? 16.01.1820-17.01.1887 
  • Siemens, Katharina, geb. Klassen 20 Jan 1768-18.02.1843 #108860
  • Siemens, Peter 16.04.1765-1.12.1847 #136330
  • Thiessen, Helena 26.03.01883-14.04.1883 #353010
  • Thiessen, Agatha 16.08.1895 – 5.09.1895 #353004
  • Toew,s Heinrich 10.09.1869-10.01.1888 #199453
  • Unrau Abraham, Wilhelm 30 04.1813-28.10.1890 # 199042
  • Von Kampen, Katherina, geb. Siemens 10.07.1884-10.04.1890 #452064
  •  Von Kampen, Maria, geb. Hildebrandt 13.08.1864-9.11.1898 #452327
  • Von Kampen, Johann 21.12.1834-14.071855 #452632 
  •  Von Kampen, Jacob 05.07.1793-26.07.1867 #196808 
  • Wilms, Peter 1813-1863 #197298


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