Justina Neufeld of North Newton spoke at The Cedars in McPherson on Monday, relating to the audience her history as a refugee during World War II.
"My earliest memories are hunger, cold and fear," Neufeld said.
Born in 1930, Neufeld was the youngest of ten children born to a family living in Gnadental, Ukraine. Forced onto a collective farm, food became scarce and her family had to survive on meals provided by a Mennonite Central Committee soup kitchen.
"People in the Ukraine were still trying to recover from the devastation of the revolution," Neufeld explained.
Neufeld recalls begging her mother for a second slice of bread.
"You already had one. The boys get two because they're older," her mother replied.
At night, chilblains kept her from falling asleep.
"My earliest memory of Papa was when I was whimpering because my feet hurt and I couldn't go to sleep. Papa came to my prosh, my bed box, and rubbed my feet," Neufeld said.
When the collective's dairy cows had to be butchered after they were allowed to overgraze in alfalfa in an effort to meet milk production demands, the KGB came to arrest her father and take the meat.
"I never saw my papa again," Neufeld said. "I was 10 years old."
Four weeks after World War II started, the Germans liberated Neufeld's village, lifting the restrictions of communism.
"Freedoms were restored; religious gatherings were permitted," Neufeld said.
For a few years, there was more than enough food for her family. Then, in February of 1943, cannon fire was heard.
The people of Gnadental realized if the town was recaptured, they would be deported to Siberia, so the residents loaded up wagons and fled westward on Oct. 22, 1943.
Suddenly, they heard a humming sound coming from behind.
"We turned our eyes to the skies and saw three or four planes heading towards us. ...Before we got into the ditches, the bullets zipped by us," Neufeld said. "I felt this was my last day."
After the strafing ended, the refugees found only a few sheep had been hit. The spooked horses and livestock were scattered and lost. The group's leader urged them on.
"We did not stop to eat lunch or feed the horses at noon. Mama handed us some bread and we continued walking," Neufeld said.
Two weeks into their journey, snow began to fall.
"Hearing explosions in the distance kept us forging ahead in all kinds of weather over muddy country roads," Neufeld said.
Supplies were depleted and the refugees scavenged or begged for food as they traveled. Those who died were wrapped in a sheet and buried on the side of the road.
Finally, the Neufelds found temporary shelter in a Ukranian village. The family of seven — Neufeld's mother, an aunt, and five young children — shared a one-bedroom adobe house with the couple who owned it.
"Mama attempted to rid us of lice, but she did not succeed," Neufeld said.
In January 1944, the family was forced to leave via ice-covered roads as the Soviet front advanced.
"Several horses slipped on the road and broke their legs. Wheels came off of wagons and rolled into the ditch. People stood around, helpless, in the bitter cold," Neufeld said.
Cramming into a boxcar, it took the refugees a week to cross into Poland. There, they stayed in a refugee camp, sharing a large room with other families, separated only by curtains.
"We did not undress at night because it was cold. People died and I remember at least one baby being born," Neufeld said. "Twice a day, we received a bowl of soup made from parsnips — without meat — and a slice of bread."
At the Red Cross station, a refugee list showed one of Neufeld's older brothers and his family had gone to the relative safety of Alsace-Lorraine. Neufeld's mother determined that the malnourished 13-year-old girl should be sent to live with him.
Neufeld, reluctant to leave her mother, was promised she could return in three months — a promise that was not kept. After receiving one letter, Neufeld would never see or hear from her mother again.
As the months passed, Neufeld ate, played with her 5-year-old niece and did housekeeping tasks for an exiled Russian countess.
When the factory where her brother worked was bombed, the family was left without income or food. Neufeld's sister-in-law used gestures to communicate with a US soldier — an African-American named Richard — that the family needed to eat and she would do his laundry in exchange for leftovers from the GI kitchen.
"This was against the law. They were not supposed to feed civilians," Neufeld said.
While waiting for the countess at a train station, Neufeld was arrested and paperwork was prepared to deport her back to Poland.
"My brother was sure if we were to return, we would be exiled to Siberia," Neufeld said.
Neufeld's brother gave a policeman three packages of cigarettes in return for her release. The Neufelds then went into hiding, writing to an estranged uncle in Canada for help.
"One Sunday afternoon, this man appears in our apartment and he speaks Low German," Neufeld said.
That man was Peter Dyck, whose mission it was to find Mennonite refugees in Europe and send them to safer countries.
Neufeld and her relatives were given two hours to prepare to travel to Holland.
"I got my suitcase and started packing," Neufeld said.
In Holland, they were issued passports and lived in yet another refugee camp — but this one offered both food and faith.
"Canadian and American Mennonite pastors came to instruct the young people in catechism; even those of us who were in our teens had never been to church," Neufeld said.
Neufeld was sent to live with a host family in Minnesota. She learned English and went to school, starting seventh grade at the age of 17 in 1948. She graduated from high school in 1950. In 1951, she enrolled in the Mennonite Collegiate Institute.
"I wanted to go there one year because two of my brothers had emigrated there and I hadn't seen them for quite a few years," Neufeld said.
In 1955, Neufeld graduated from the Bethel Deaconess nursing program; two years later, she graduated from Bethel College. Wanting to give back in honor of how she had been helped as a refugee, she spent two summers in voluntary service in psychiatric hospitals in Manitoba and Ontario, Canada.
Neufeld said she is deeply indebted to MCC for the survival of herself and her family and grateful to God for how he has brought her through the events of her life.
More details from Neufeld's life are chronicled in her book, "A Family Torn Apart."
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at email@example.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MiddleSentinel.