What happened to tens of thousands of Mennonites who were arrested in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and '40s and then disappeared? That's the question researchers are beginning to find the answers to.

The Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg has been given access to KGB files in Ukraine to help in the search for answers. Dr. Aileen Friesen, co-director of the centre, says people can contact them if one of their loved ones was caught up in that tragedy.

"Many times, people would just disappear from their lives and they had absolutely no answers as to what had happened to their loved ones. And so these files offer some insight into, first of all, the experience that these men and women underwent as they were interrogated by Soviet authorities and then, their actual fate, so what happened to them. Some were sent into exile in Siberia, some were simply executed a few months after their arrest. These are the types of answers that these files can give us."

Friesen cautions there are still instances where there are no records for some of the victims.

"In some cases, people have given us names and we haven't been able to find information. In other cases, we've been able to find basic information and in further cases, we've been able to find information and files about what happened to that person."

She cautions that in cases where they do locate these records, the outcomes were usually not good.

"They are often as dark as everyone suspected. Multiple times, we've had to give the information to family members that their grandfather was shot, or their great grandfather was shot or their uncles were shot. They suspected it happened, but it's never been confirmed. It isn't a pleasant part of this to give them that news, but we hope that they appreciate the closure that this allows them to have."

Friesen says the access to KGB files is also enabling historians like her to glean other information about Mennonites in the Soviet Union during that era. She gives an example.

"One of the files that I discovered was the file of Aaron Toews. Aaron Toews was one of the last ministers of Chortitza, the first village in the first settlement that Mennonites established after being invited by Catherine the Great. From the information that they give, we can see that the church was still functioning in the early 1930s. There is a reference to Aaron Toews' authority among Mennonites, as a minister, which is something that is quite interesting and helps us think about this era and how churches survived under Soviet repression."

The Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies (CTMS) wants to help families of thousands of missing Mennonites find closure. Families searching for information on their missing family members simply need to send the name of the family member, date and place of birth, and names of their parents to ctms@uwinnipeg.ca. CTMS personnel will then search the archives for information on the missing person. If any information can be found, the data will be forwarded to the family members. CTMS will also link family members to translators in Ukraine and Canada.

In addition, CTMS wants to create an archival repository of these stories at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg. People with family stories, photographs, letters, and diaries from the 1930s and 1940s will be asked to donate copies to preserve the experience of Mennonites during this tumultuous period in history.

The program is made possible due to funding from the Paul Toews Fellowship in Russian Mennonite History.