A Place to Belong

Katherine (lower left) with her roommate (lower right) and two other nurses while in the Ukraine.

by Mary Lou Cummings, Perkasie

“Ever since I left home at age 17 to go to nursing school, I have always lived among strangers,” Katherina Efimenko says. Born in a German Mennonite colony in the Ukraine, Katherina now lives at Rockhill Mennonite Community in Telford, Pa.

Katherine graduated from nursing school in 1938 just as World War II erupted.  The Ukrainian community was caught between the Russians and the Germans.  Trying to survive, Katherine volunteered to join a medical unit of doctors and nurses that moved with the German army. She owned only a blanket, basin and pillow.

In the meantime, in three different deportations, Katherine’s loving stepmother and two brothers were sent to Siberia by the Russians. The villages were emptied, and all the relatives lost contact with each other, not reconnecting until many years later. Many had thought that Katherine was dead.

Katherine met Iwan Efimenko in a displaced persons camp in Salzberg, Austria.  She lived there with two other women in a cubicle partitioned off by blankets hung for privacy. She and Iwan decided to marry and try to build a life together.  Their daughter Alla was born a year later.

In 1949 the Efimenkos were accepted to immigrate to Brazil; once there they were housed and fed with 200 other immigrants dislocated by war. They tried to learn Portuguese and struggled to build a small house. Iwan worked as a mechanic and Katherine in a factory.

And there, Katherine became very ill and almost died of typhus. During the long month Katherine lay in the hospital, a German-speaking nun came to pray for her. Katherine prayed in desperation, “Please let me live so I can raise my child.”

“That is when I became a believer,” Katherine says simply. Iwan and Katherine began to worship in the Greek Orthodox faith.

A second daughter, Tamara, was born 10 years after her sister. In 1962 the family moved to the U.S. During those early years in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Katherine cleaned houses, worked on learning English, and began work as a phlebotomist (“collecting blood”) at Thomas Jefferson Hospital, where she taught many others, including doctors, her techniques. Her style of nursing was to help the patient in any way she could, even when not her assigned job.

Both of her daughters died early deaths, and when Iwan died in 1989, Katherine thought, “Now I want to look for a Mennonite Church.”

She found a listing for Doylestown Mennonite in Together newspaper and sought out a church home. She bonded with the congregation and with pastoral couple Ray and Edna Yoder.

“When I first joined at Doylestown, I said, ‘Now I belong, what can I do to help?’ They asked me if I could quilt. So I’ve been making quilts all these years,” Katherine says.

Katherine Efimenko now.

Katherine, now 93, struggles with Parkinson’s Disease, and is ready to give up sewing comforters every Thursday morning, but her church friends have told her to keep them company while they work. It will be difficult for her to stop “helping,” however, because helping others and working hard is the way she has lived her

Katherine has three adult grandsons and five great-grandchildren, with whom she is very close. She has family members in Canada, Brazil, and in the Ukraine with whom she keeps in touch. But her Doylestown church family continues to be precious to her, and her friends at Rockhill provide special tokens of friendship—such as the daughter of her late neighbor who plants flowers on her patio each spring.

A victim of World War II and conflicting ideologies, Katherine has lived a hard life—a life of terrible losses. But now, between her friends at Rockhill Mennonite Community and her Doylestown church family, she finally has found where she belongs.