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COLUMN: Reflecting on a massacre, 100 years later

Families have been affected by wartime experiences

On Monday, as we observe Remembrance Day, many Canadians will recount stories of how war has affected them or their families.

Some will remember serving during a time of war or during one of Canada’s peacekeeping missions. Others will remember the terrible day when news arrived that a loved one died in battle.

Some will remember how it felt during the months or years when a father or uncle was away from home during a war, and how it felt when the family was reunited after the war.

Some will have stories of how they or their families were civilians in a war-ravaged nation, how their mother or grandmother came to Canada as a war bride, or how their family arrived as Displaced Persons after the Second World War.

My family’s direct experience with war happened in a small Mennonite village in Ukraine 100 years ago, on the night of Saturday, Nov. 8, 1919.

It was a cold, rainy night during the Russian Civil War.

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This was a period of unrest and upheaval in the years immediately following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

During that time, armed bandit groups plundered and ransacked the area. These raids were threatening and at times they became violent.

Landowners and German-speaking people were among those targeted. This included the Mennonites — German-speaking pacifists who had lived and farmed in the area since the late 1700s.

My grandfather, working as a school teacher in a neighbouring village, experienced at least two earlier incidents when bandit groups raided the village.

He recalled one incident, where he returned to find his home ransacked and his belongings taken.

There was a heightened level of tension during that time, and a growing fear that the raids would become increasingly violent.

The worst attack was in the village of Eichenfeld on Saturday, Nov. 8, 1919.

A bandit group raided the village and left more than 80 people dead, one-third of the village’s population.

Most of the dead were male landowners, but others included children, adults, visiting missionaries and a 65-year-old blind woman.

The dead were hastily buried in several mass graves.

If the weather had been a little different on that weekend, my grandfather likely would have been among those massacred.

The village where he worked was less than 10 kilometres from Eichenfeld and he had arranged to visit a friend in Eichenfeld for the weekend.

Because the weather that weekend was cold and rainy, he chose to stay home. As a result, he survived that horrible night.

His friend was among those who had been killed.

This happened a century ago. Today, I live in a different time and a different place.

We in Canada live in a peaceful country, and we are not experiencing a civil war or the aftermath of a revolution.

I am grateful for the life I am able to enjoy here, and for the fact that events such as the Eichenfeld massacre are part of my past, not my present.

In 2001, a memorial was set up at the site of the Eichenfeld massacre.

The memorial is a black slab, in the shape of a coffin, as a tribute to those who died during this massacre and during other massacres in the area from 1918 to 1920.

I will not be at this memorial marker on Nov. 8, but I plan to take some time to solemnly reflect on the massacre and on those who died that night 100 years ago.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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