Session Five: Personal Impacts
“The Missing Pieces of Our Narratives,”
Connie Braun, Trinity Western University
- Braun opened with her poem “Ecclesiastical Artifacts,” reprinted below with permission:
Burning pyres, screws
hammered through tongues
of pious mouths, in ashes.
Births and deaths,
Our tome is thick
Between the Nogat and Vistula
and the sea.
Faith without icon, or Christs
hanging on crosses (He is risen,
He is risen, indeed).
Our ministers thanked God
for sending an army,
Jesus became Aryan, the cross
grew twisted, we, the Volk,
looked the other way
wooden synagogues doused with gasoline.
We were a berm that could not hold
the river’s current.
Our ancestors’ gravestones
paved Stalin’ roads.
In green pastures
lower than the sea,
of our churches and housebarns,
rows and rows
of lindens we planted centuries ago
cast shadow and filigree.
Connie Braun Notes: I apologize that the unpublished draft of the poem to which James Urry refers held a line about gravestones that he points out was inaccurate in its attribution. The error was amended in later drafts long before his comment came to my attention and was most surely not intended as perceived. This I profoundly regret. (June 8, 2020)
- Presenting what she termed an “Afterward” to her 2017 book, Silentium, Braun went on to identify two main streams that are missing from the stories Mennonites often tell themselves. First, Mennonites should be mourning not just their own losses and those of their families, “but mourning [also] the loss of the Other. That is the narrative that has been missing from our stories.” Braun also noted that Mennonites’ prejudices are missing from the narratives they construct.
“A Usable Past: Soviet Mennonite Memories of the Holocaust,”
Hans Werner, University of Winnipeg
- When the Wehrmacht initiated Operation Barbarossa and shortly thereafter occupied Ukraine’s large Mennonite colonies, residents experienced intense relief that they were free from Stalinist oppression. Mennonites in these areas considered themselves German and were viewed as Germans by the invading army. They were seized with euphoria by their liberation at the same time their Jewish neighbors made a desperate escape to the east, with forced labor and death awaiting those who were caught by the advancing German army. Under occupation, Mennonites were engaged across all possible roles, although for this presentation Werner focused on those who were witnesses rather than active perpetrators of genocide
- Werner enumerated four frameworks used by postwar memoir-writers to render their memories usable: 1) Remember/write only about the Soviet Period, but do not talk about the Holocaust; 2) Write oppositional memoirs rejecting National Socialism and its manifestations, a typology dominated by Mennonite women who married Ukrainians; 3) Feature narratives that acknowledge the stories of Jews whom the writers knew, including their execution; 4) Construct memoirs in such a way as to alleviate guilt, telling stories that portray the Wehrmacht as innocent and/or try to equate Nazi and Allied actions.
- The presentation concluded by noting that the clearest intersection of the collective and individual memories among Mennonites who experienced Nazi occupation in Ukraine is of Hitler having saved the Mennonites. In the postwar years, members of this cohort grasped for other memories rather than dealing with their own roles in the murder and persecution of Jews and others: “They made their prewar experience under the Soviets into their own Holocaust.”
“Family Responses to the 1930s and ’40s in West Prussia,”
Joachim Wieler, Fachochschule Erfurt
- Wieler was born before World War II in the eastern German city of Marienburg, and in 1945 fled along with his mother as a refugee to Dresden, which he remembers burning. He recounted the experience of recently being given a box of family documents after his parents had died. Inside the box, he discovered, among other surprises, a thank you note to his mother for supporting the German war effort in the World War I. One letter from after World War II, sent by his father to family from a Soviet prisoner of war camp, read: “Since we did not do any injustice to anyone and since you also love to work, I believe we will see each other again. In this sense I am greeting all of you with justified confidence and with a strong heart.”
- Documents from the Nazi period included a letter that Wieler’s father sent from the French front, mixing heavily patriotic language and strong religious overtones: “All soldiers who are fighting here for their fatherland are performing worship in the truest sense of the word.”
- Wieler ended his presentation by expressing gratitude to Mennonite Central Committee and North American families for their role in supporting refugee families as well as the United States Government’s Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Germany. He also asked, “How many more boxes are out there?”
Session Seven: Literary Responses
“Readings from Silentium: And Other Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place, and the Sacred,” Connie Braun, Trinity Western University
- Braun is a poet, memoirist, speaker and instructor. Having written and published widely in diverse genres including poetry, memoir, book reviews and academic papers, her work has been featured in numerous journals and anthologies. Her areas of interest and expertise include Mennonite Studies and Creative Writing. Connie writes on themes of family history, ethnicity, immigration/emigration, loss, (dis)placement and (dis)location.
- She read from chapter 4, “Running through the heart of storms,” from her 2017 book, Silentium and Other Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place, and the Sacred (Wipf and Stock), proceeded by a poem, “Kanada.” Silentium is based on three visits to Poland–first to her mother’s village, a second to Krakow and Auschwitz (reflected in the excerpt Braun read), and a third that included visiting the Stutthoff concentration camp.
“A Mennonite Wife, A Jewish Husband, and the Holocaust,” dramatic reading from Heart of the World, Helen Stoltzfus, Black Swan Arts and Media, Oakland, California
- Stoltzfus reflected on her time as co-artistic director, playwright, and performer for the internationally-acclaimed “A Traveling Jewish Theatre,” in which she was the only non-Jewish member of the ensemble. This group’s original works for the stage were produced worldwide, including the Los Angeles Theatre Festival, the Kampnagel Hamburg Sommer Festival, the Fool’s Festival in Copenhagen, and the Baltimore International Theater Festival. The group traveled the globe–from Toronto to Oslo, and Prague to Appalachia.
- “Heart of the World,” written twenty-five years ago, looks at the experience of a Mennonite wife and a Jewish husband as they are expecting a child and discussing how to parent their offspring, with the question, “Who will this child be?” driving the story. The play uses archetypal characters “Ancestral Mennonite” and “Ancestral Jew,” into whom the characters regularly transform, as a way to express “that we all carry our ancestors inside of us, whether we are conscious of this or not.”
- Speaking about the play and its reception, Stoltzfus recalled, “We sought connections where others saw separations.”
It is interesting to see that Connie Braun appears to have appropriated the idea of using gravestones to pave roads from Nazi actions and attribute the practice to Stalin! Although the Communist authorities showed little regard for places of worship or grave yards and their markers, often removing them when they collectivised lands for farms, I do not think they systematically destroyed cemetries or made roads out of the stones. The Nazis did. As part of their attempt to eradicate all signs of Jewish culture while exterminating Jewish people they proved horribly effective. The signs of their destructive practices are still being discovered to this day in smashed Jewish gravestones that litter the areas once settled by Jewish people in eastern Europe.