Mennonites and The Holocaust: Five Ideas I Brought Home from The Conference

Joy Kraybill

When I saw an advertisement for a 2-day conference on “Mennonites and the Holocaust” at Bethel College, I jumped at the chance to attend. My family is of Swiss-German Anabaptist descent, and in college in the mid-90s, I had majored in German. I had recently read Ben Goossen’s 2017 book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era and suffice it to say, I had many questions about Mennonite activity during World War II. So I took two vacation days off of work, and flew to Kansas to learn more.

The conference was intense and almost overwhelming. I came home awash with thoughts and feelings and ideas. I found it useful to synthesize the things that were running through my mind into a few key ideas. While I’m sure each attendee experienced the conference very differently, I wanted to share the five main realizations that I brought home from it:

1. Despite what we might have hoped, Mennonites seem to have reacted to the Holocaust and Nazism in much the same way as the bulk of mainstream society did.

Most Mennonites really didn’t behave any “better” or any “worse” than most other European and Russian populations did at that time. As one example, we learned at the conference about a Mennonite family who bought a store as part of the “Aryanization” efforts which essentially robbed Jews of their property and gave that property to Nazis and/or non-Jews. Apparently Mennonites were not separate from this commonplace practice at the time. Likewise, I picked up a book at the conference about a Mennonite pastor who served for 5 years in Hitler’s army. (A Witness in Times of War and Peace: The story of Gerhard Hein, a Mennonite Pastor who served in the Wehrmacht during World War II by Wilfried Hein, 2015) Next on my list is another book from the conference, Mennonite German Soliders, by Mark Jantzen, 2010. These are just some examples of many. I do not know exactly what to do with these stories just yet, but I commend the people who are finding the courage to come forward and share them. To learn about these kinds of stories within Mennonite communities is sobering and shocking, because it does not at all correlate with the image of Mennoniteism that most of us held in our minds. We assumed that Mennonites might have acted differently, and we are now learning that they generally did not. It’s hard to know what to do with this information.

2. The story likely feels different, based on your exact Mennonite roots.

Most of my family came from Switzerland, fled to Germany for about 40 years to escape the Swiss government, and then emigrated to the U.S. by the early 1700s in search of better farming conditions. By the time Hitler rose to power, all of my relatives had already been living in the U.S. for over 200 years. As I sat in the conference, I realized that this perspective probably distanced me quite a bit from the topic, in comparison to Mennonites whose families were still living in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, for instance. Likewise, it was clear to me that Mennonites whose families were living in Poland or Germany in the 1920s and 1930s had much closer ties to the Holocaust topic than my family did. I’m not saying one situation is better or worse; I’m saying that I suddenly realized that because my family line was 200+ years removed from the countries in which the war directly took place, it distanced me from this topic more than other Mennonites may feel. Your specific Mennonite ethnicity and lineage probably matters a lot, when it comes to this topic.

3. This begs the question of what each of our individual accountability is, for the role of Mennonites in the Holocaust.

I sat in the conference, reflecting on the fact that we were discussing Mennonites’ actions in other countries, about 30-40 years before I was born. And I began to ask myself: As a person of Swiss Mennonite heritage, what is my accountability in all of this? The issues in question happened on another continent(s), decades before I was born. But despite that, I don’t think that allows me to say, “Oh, but I’m not one of those Mennonites—my family was Swiss Mennonite, and we had already been in the U.S. since the 1700s.” Drawing that kind of a line seems to negate the point of belonging to a group, and doesn’t seem like it would lead to anything good. However, on the flip side, does that mean that I share accountability for anything that any Mennonite in any country, in any time period does? If I identify as Mennonite, do I bear the responsibility for what Mennonites in Europe were doing before I was born?

4. When it comes to history, we need to rethink our Mennonite school curriculums.

I am a graduate of a Mennonite high school and a Mennonite college. I never heard a thing about Mennonites and the Holocaust from any Mennonite educational institution. I realize that we are just first now learning about Mennonite roles in the Holocaust, in very recent years. This explains why it was not discussed during my education in the 1990s. However, what this has also led me to reflect upon is the amount of classroom education I received about the history of the original Anabaptist church formation vs. the amount of classroom time spent discussing how Anabaptists applied their faith during major historical eras over the following centuries. The difference is shocking. We were schooled extensively on the original founding of the Anabaptist faith, and almost not at all on how Anabaptists applied that faith during the major historical eras of the following centuries. Hopefully this balance has shifted since my schooling in the 1990s. We clearly need to move away from reveling endlessly in the stories of the 1500s and also prepare students for how one applies that same faith in other settings over time.

5. The Mennonite world hasn’t confronted its role in World War II, and it doesn’t seem to have made any amends for it. We have to do better than nothing.

Towards the end of the conference, one of the speakers concluded his presentation with a very compelling observation that the Mennonite world has not confronted its role in World War II, and that it hasn’t processed it, and that it hasn’t attempted to reconcile it in any way. I would love for someone to show me how that speaker’s assessment is wrong, but from what I can tell so far, he is exactly, and painfully, right. I do not pretend to know how one makes right things that are so wrong. Huge, overwhelming atrocities have occurred, and they cannot be easily righted—most of them can’t really be righted at all. However, I do hope that we, as a faith community, can do better than doing nothing. We are going to have to do better than nothing, if we want to uphold the values we believe in. It seems to me that at the bare minimum we want to be thinking about what our apology statement might look like, and who (which organizations) an apology statement would come from. We clearly have a very, very long way to go on all of this—what I am flagging here is that I don’t really see us as having a choice not to do anything further, now that we are suddenly learning the truth.

In conclusion, I want to note again how grateful I am to the people who have been courageous enough to share their stories. It is only because of the people who have bravely shared their stories that we are able to grow in our group identity and better understand ourselves as a faith community.

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