She's been working on it for a year already, yet Andrea Dyck says it still brings tears to her eyes when she sees some of the images within the Russlander exhibit.

Curator Andrea Dyck and Assistant Curator Jenna Klassen are putting the finishing touches on the new exhibit at Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. It is called Russlander, and it represents the migration in the 1920's of the Mennonites that fled the Soviet Union and came to Canada. Dyck says about 24,000 migrants came between 1923 and 1930.

When you enter the Gerhard Ens Gallery, you are immediately introduced to the exhibit by a compelling photo showing a group of Russlander Mennonites just after they crossed the Soviet border. This near-life sized photo was taken at a train station in Riga. It shows the Mennonites stopping for an impromptu worship service. It is believed one of the German songs the Mennonites sang at this service, translated into English was, "Now We Thank Our God."

Dyck says the photo shows men with their hats removed, women with their hands to their faces and people crying into their handkerchiefs. They are escaping a very difficult situation and now able to release their emotions as they enter into freedom.

"When the installers came here, you'd think I'd be immune to this because we've been working on this for a year," says Dyck. "But I almost cried when I saw that because it's just this one moment of escaping to freedom and what does that mean for people."

She refers to it as a gripping image. Dyck says we know how things turned out for them, but they were living it and unaware of what lay ahead.

As you walk further into the gallery, you come across a ransacked kitchen. Dyck admits putting this scene together was one of the highlights of the entire process. She says they wanted something visual to grab peoples' attention. It is intended to look like a kitchen damaged by anarchists.

The Curators planned everything to the most minute detail. But, in order to get to this end result, Dyck says they first set up the kitchen in pristine shape. Then, very carefully and gently they began turning the kitchen upside down. What you see is broken dishes on the floor, a chair turned on its side, a spoon still sits on the child's high chair and coffee beans are scattered everywhere; some of them crushed to reflect what it would have looked like after the anarchists departed.

Dyck says some of the other artifacts in the Russlander exhibit leave you questioning how or why they ever made it to Canada. One of those is a woman's dress belonging to Maria Heese. She immigrated to Canada in 1924. Within the Russian Empire, prior to the Soviet Union, Heese and her family were part of the social elite, living a life of privilege. The owners of a flour mill, they were wealthy merchants with running water, electricity and maids.

Dyck says in the violent turmoil that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Heese and her two youngest children fled to Canada. Dyck notes her dress in the exhibit has "one foot in both worlds." It has one foot in the area of the exhibit that shows why the Mennonites left and one foot in the area that depicts their life in Canada.

"Whenever I look at that dress you think, you go from this to this and the logistics of having a dress that is that fancy and that delicate," remarks Dyck. "It's made of lace and silk and it has whale bone stays, it's made for a completely different life than what she would have lived on this farm in Grunthal."

Dyck says one other item she questions how it got here, is a child's bed. When this family fled in a box car with the ability to take very little along, she wonders why they decided to bring a six foot long, heavy, metal bed.

"What I want for people to see in this exhibit is to get a different sense of that history, to understand what objects mean and the weighty kind of symbolism that they have in our lives today with how we remember the past," says Dyck.

Yet, Dyck says she also wants this exhibit to be a tool that helps people look outward. The museum has partnered with Eastman Immigrant Services on one of the cases inside the exhibit. The case highlights the journey of five newcomers to Steinbach. Each newcomer has submitted objects that sum up the experience in leaving their homeland.

Opening night for the exhibit is May 25th. The museum will be hosting a Russlander tribute fundraising banquet. Proceeds will go towards replacing the village centre roof. 

Photos credit: Mennonite Heritage Village