Looking back at the 1930`s in Europe the days were dark and covered with the shadow of war. Millions of people died and disappeared during those years. Most of them were the victims of war, but many also were victims of other dark events. History hides many secrets, but sometimes, if you try hard enough, you can find a trace of what you are looking for and reveal the secrets that were hidden for decades to uncover the truth.
From 1936 to 1938 thousands of men disappeared in Ukraine. They were victims of what's known as the Great Purge, some of the more than 9,000 German Mennonites arrested in Ukraine from 1936-38, during Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's ethnically motivated persecution. Taken from their beds in the middle of the night by the Russian NKVD, the predecessor of the Soviet KGB, the men were arrested on the pretense of treason and never heard from again. Their families fled to countries like Canada to begin new lives. But of course, they had kept the memories of their loved ones and had always wondered what really happened.
This summer, some of them traveled to Ukraine on a Mennonite Heritage Cruise that was organized by historians Walter and Marina Unger of Toronto. Three families gained access to recently opened KGB archives. Two shared with the CBC what they learned — and how it felt to get answers to questions their families have lived with for generations.
The dossiers contain a mugshot of each arrested person. They include documents that list charges, a transcript of the interrogation, and information about where the person was executed and buried. They might also include the identity of an accuser. The cruise ship docked in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, for five days. On July 28, the three families were taken to the state archives, where their relatives' files had been moved. The government office building was set up like a classroom with desks and chairs. Bookshelves and filing cabinets lined the walls. The families were greeted by the supervisor and three female translators.
There were going thru big binders of old paperwork from that time, translator walked them thru each page. The facts were showing the scary reality of that time, like “all of the men questioned during that time were sentenced to be shot to death, and all their property was appropriated.” All the men accused were found guilty by the Troika War Council, which had the right to execute people without evidence.
Page by page the families were getting a first-hand information of what really happened to their family members during those dark times, not just family tales and stories but real facts written down by real participants.
For example, Abram Kroeger, the grandfather for one of the Cruise participants, was executed by shooting on Nov. 14, 1938, and all his property confiscated. Later he was exonerated in 1989.
"Learning that my grandfather was executed, and then exonerated 51 years later, was heartbreaking. It brought tears to my eyes". "I felt anger. But I also felt relieved to finally have the truth. I am grateful that the government of Ukraine made these files available, that they had the courage to exonerate my grandfather", said Bernie Neufeld, 71, who came on a trip with his brothers looking for a truth to what really happened to their grandfather.
The search for the truth of what happened to those who vanished a long time ago but still in your heart is a hard way to go along. This is just one example of great burden taken of peoples shoulders when they revealed the truth to the dark family history and how you can find them, what appeared to be lost, information to help you overcome the unknown and to get closure and peace.