Film revisits ‘miracle’ voyage to freedom

Documentary highlights experience of Mennonite refugees fleeing Soviet oppression


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John Ens was only nine years old when he boarded the Dutch passenger ship Volendam in 1947 for a voyage to freedom and safety.

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This article was published 19/02/2020 (1024 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

John Ens was only nine years old when he boarded the Dutch passenger ship Volendam in 1947 for a voyage to freedom and safety.

He had lived through a tremendous amount of fear and danger while growing up in a Mennonite family in Soviet-controlled Ukraine before escaping Europe. Before he was born, his father was taken by Soviet authorities and executed. The family faced poverty, hunger and persecution.

Then, the war came. For the Mennonites, the advancing German soldiers were greeted as liberators from Communist oppression.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS John Ens, a mennonite who escaped Soviet-controlled Ukraine in 1947, is the subject of the documentary Volendam: A Refugee Story which premieres this week at the Winnipeg Real to Reel Film Festival.

When the war turned against the Germans, they retreated west. John’s family fled with them — mother and five children — by train and on foot, ending up in Munich after the war.

“I was quite young,” says Ens of that time, noting he didn’t fully understand the danger. But he still remembers the hunger — having nothing but a small handful of beans to eat each day. 

The greatest fear was being forced to return to the Soviet Union because of an agreement between the western allies and the Soviets that required all former citizens of the Soviet Union to be repatriated without choice.

Ens and his family were able to escape being returned to exile and maybe death through help from the Mennonite Central Committee. In 1947, they boarded the Volendam together with over 2,000 other Mennonite refugees, and made their way to a new home in Paraguay.

“It was a miracle,” says Ens, 81, who emigrated to Canada in 1954. “God was with us.”

His story is one of many told in Volendam: A Refugee Story, a new documentary from Winnipeg filmmaker Andrew Wall of Refuge 31 Films that premières Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Real to Reel Film Festival.

The documentary tells the story of Mennonite suffering in Ukraine before the war, their flight to the west, and how MCC helped nearly 4,000 of them escape to Paraguay after the Second World War. That included more than 1,000 Mennonites trapped in Berlin’s Soviet zone after the war.

“I wanted to give a voice to the Mennonite refugees who went through that experience,” said Wall, who grew up Mennonite and is a member of a Mennonite Brethren church in the city.

“The starvation, the terror of Stalin, the war, the flight to safety. And I wanted to do it before all of them were gone.” 

He also wanted to chronicle “what was lost. Tens of thousands of Mennonites disappeared into exile and death,” he said. “That story needs to be told.” 

Wall shot the 84-minute long documentary in Manitoba and Paraguay, with financial assistance from private donations and foundation grants. 


“It was a real learning experience,” he said of how he worked with many extras, animals and period locations such as the St. James-Assiniboia Historical Museum, the Ralph Connor House and the Prairie Dog Central Railway.

His biggest regret is he couldn’t include more stories in the documentary. “I didn’t anticipate how much people would want to talk about those days,” Wall said.

He said he hopes people will come away from the documentary with a deeper appreciation for what those people went through, and also a better understanding of what refugees are going through around the world.

“Maybe it will help some become more sympathetic towards refugees today,” he shared. “They aren’t much different from those Mennonite refugees from long ago, just doing what they can for themselves and their families.”

In its 10th year, the Winnipeg Real to Reel Film Festival is dedicated to showing films that will “encourage and inspire us to a greater understanding of the human journey.” It started Tuesday and runs until Sunday at the North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church, 1315 Gateway Rd. 

For more information, go to

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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