by Anna Kozlova
Trains have been an important part of my life. When I arrived in Canada as a nine-year-old with my parents, one of my first experiences was taking the VIA Rail from Toronto to Ottawa to start our new life. Throughout the years, I spent a lot of time on trains, whether it was taking the overnight train from Kyiv to Kherson to visit family in Ukraine or making the frequent trip between Cottbus—where I studied during my master’s—and Berlin to explore the German capital.
Being on a train allows one to have time to disconnect and reflect on life. Long train rides also provide passengers with the opportunity to get to know their fellow travellers. This is exactly what happened during my experience of having a sponsored seat on the Toronto to Saskatoon leg of the Memories of Migration Tour commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Russlaender Mennonite migration from Ukraine to Canada. The tour consisted of three legs, the first one of which started in Quebec City and concluded in Kitchener. The second one, which I took part in, started in Toronto and finished in Saskatoon, with the last leg taking travellers from Saskatoon to Abbotsford, BC. The whole trip took 20 days and had 126 passengers, 20 of whom were on all three legs of the tour.
Although I have no ancestral connection to Mennonite history, I research it as part of my doctoral work, which is an oral history project examining the idea of home and belonging amongst post-Soviet German and Jewish migrants who migrated to Canada. The German aspect of my research is focused mainly on Mennonites because the majority of the individuals of German descent who migrated to Canada have Mennonite ancestry and have settled in parts of Manitoba that have historic Mennonite settlements.
Being one of only two non-Mennonite passengers on my leg of the tour, I learned how to field questions about my ancestry and last name as I got to know that this is part of the “Mennonite game,” where Mennonites try to see if they might know your relatives or if you might be related, something that turned out to be a common occurrence for the participants on the trip.
The trip attracted individuals from all over Canada and the US, and even one participant from Japan. Sisters Pat Stutzman and Lynette Plank travelled from Idaho and Pennsylvania to take part in this trip.
Lynette Plank on the left, pictured with her sister Pat Stutzman on the right aboard the train.
“I have Swiss Mennonite background on my father’s side of the family, but my mother was a Klassen and is Russian Mennonite…my sister, my son and I are on the trip to experience my maternal grandparents’ train passage into Saskatchewan where they settled when they immigrated from Ukraine in 1925,” Plank Said.
Although both Lynette and Pat were born in and grew up in the US, they had a strong connection to Canada because of their mother.
“She loved Canada, and her parents, I don’t think that that generation ever really felt like they belonged to Canada. It provided them a refuge, and they were grateful for it, but home was Ukraine because when you grow up somewhere, you think of it as home,” Stutzman said.
Anyone familiar with the history of Mennonites knows that it is one of constant migration and movement, which can prove to be challenging when it comes to thinking about one’s sense of belonging.
In addition to myself, there were 29 young adults who were sponsored to take part in the trip. Some, such as Lynette’s son and Pat’s nephew Nathan Plank, came with their families, while others came by themselves but ran into family on board.
Heidi Derksen, who is from Rosthern, Saskatchewan, got a chance to catch up with her father’s cousin, Lenore and her husband, Dennis Dueck, whom she does not get the chance to see so often because they live in Ontario.
“The tour is very significant to me because my grandparents arrived in Rosthern from Ukraine one hundred years ago. I am glad that the trauma that many of the Russlander people went through is being discussed, as this was especially significant in my grandmother’s experience,” said Derksen.
Amidst the family reunions and discoveries of new relatives on the trip, there was another common thread connecting the passengers. Every individual that I spoke to had recollections that were passed down to them of the horrific ordeals experienced by their ancestors during the Russian Civil War. The intergenerational trauma was present in the memories of their families’ stories of those who managed to come to Canada. The stories of trauma were overlayed with those of resilience as Mennonites overcame various obstacles and challenges through their numerous moves.
It is one thing to read about history in archival documents, it is another when that history is recalled to you by individuals who are connected to it. This is exactly what it was like for soprano and piano teacher Karis Wiebe from Winnipeg, who coordinated a number of the musical events on the tour, which included putting together the hymn book from which the participants sang hymns while onboard the train.
“I’m at that stage in my life where I really want to know about the history of my ancestors. There are so many books out there, and there seems to be so much information and this seems to be the most meaningful way to understand and meet other people…not just to relive but to reconnect to some of the stuff that we don’t think about,” said Wiebe.
This is exactly the reason why I study oral history. For me, this once-in-a-lifetime trip was truly a dream come true. I felt privileged to have been provided with this opportunity and incredibly grateful to have been welcomed by the individuals on this tour and to have them share their stories with me.
Anna Kozlova is a PhD candidate in History at Carleton University. She is currently conducting oral history research in Manitoba under a Plett Foundation grant.