The Kindergarten and the Holocaust

Children’s eyes sparkled in the candlelight. This was the first time many had seen a Christmas tree, aglow in the Einlage kindergarten in December 1942. Soldiers handed out wooden toys. They had spent weeks carving them—model houses, schools, churches, city halls, trucks, and trains—while convalescing at the military hospital in this Mennonite village in southeastern Ukraine. The group joined in song, filling the hall with old German Christmas carols. The tunes, which had not been heard openly during the recent years of Bolshevik rule, reminded all those present of the momentous changes wrought since Hitler’s armies had taken control of Ukraine.1

Children march in an October 1942 parade honoring the visit of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, to the Halbstadt Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine. Courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Alber Photograph Collection 151-17.

The Mennonite kindergarten in Einlage was a Nazi showpiece. Military engineers and SS agents had helped refurbish the sturdy stone structure, coated with quality oil paints and sporting its own washroom, kitchen, and cafeteria. The kindergarten had steam heating and electric lights. Einlage’s recovering soldiers hailed from all over Germany, but they affectionately termed the town’s youngest members “their children.” In addition to making toys, they had drawn pictures that inducted the kindergarteners into the fantastical world of German fairy tales and myths. Outside, a swastika flag fluttered in the breezes passing over the Ukrainian steppe.2

No other kindergarten in the whole administrative district of Dnipropetrovsk was as magnificent as Einlage’s. Nazi occupiers had counted 10,000 kindergarten-aged children in the area as being of “German blood.” These had been sorted by men in brown uniforms who could be found in all the villages, going door to door and categorizing inhabitants according to “genealogical and racial biological” criteria.3 Children deemed to be German were put into a segregated school system—separate and very unequal. The 129 pupils in Einlage happened to be the most fortunate of the roughly 5,000 children already organized into the district’s 110 German-only kindergartens.4

We know about the Einlage kindergarten because it was profiled extensively in two Nazi papers that served the Dnipropetrovsk district. The Ukraine Post and the German Ukraine Newspaper regularly featured Einlage and other villages in the Chortitza Mennonite colony. “Chortitza on the Dnieper!” wrote one SS journalist, expressing joy that through the war, readers had become familiar with “the most flourishing” colony in the district’s “chain of German villages.”5 Its fame was rivaled only by that of Halbstadt, Ukraine’s largest Mennonite settlement, which became incorporated into Dnipropetrovsk in September 1942 as Nazi civil administration expanded east.6

Nazi civil administration in occupied Ukraine (shaded) had expanded by September 1942 to encompass the region’s three largest Mennonite colonies (in black). This involved Germanizing place names: Halbstadt was previously called Molotschna, while Kronau had been Zagradovka.

Most of Ukraine’s 35,000 Mennonites lived in three colonies: Chortitza and Halbstadt in the Dnipropetrovsk district as well as Kronau in an area called Mykolaiv. This latter district was served by the German Bug Newspaper, named for the local Bug River. Nazi occupiers reported a total of 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Chortitza, 25,000 in Halbstadt, and 13,000 in Kronau. Most of these inhabitants were of Mennonite background, although each colony—especially Kronau—included numerous Lutherans and a smaller number of Catholics. All three colonies also had Russians and Ukrainians, whom occupiers subjugated or deported. Death squads shot or gassed resident Jews.

It is possible to reconstruct a detailed picture of Mennonite daily life in Nazi-occupied Ukraine through careful readings of the Ukraine Post, the German Ukraine Newspaper, and the German Bug Newspaper. Scholars must treat these sources cautiously. All three papers’ primary purpose was to circulate propaganda. Their target audiences were German-language readers in Ukraine—including soldiers, bureaucrats, and local Mennonites—as well as interested audiences on the home front. Articles were steeped in anti-communist, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and authors wrote confidently of the Third Reich’s coming victory at a time when the front was already faltering.

Nevertheless, basic information like dates, events, names, and ranks were generally accurate. Selective combing reveals much about Nazi efforts to expand administrative control. Articles tell how local Mennonites joined the army or bureaucracy.7 Village names were Germanized.8 By October 1942, Chortitza had an operational post office.9 Halbstadt’s opened a month later.10 One of Dnipropetrovsk’s two courts held session next door.11 Occupiers sanctioned businesses like an iron foundry in Chortitza and a machine factory in Halbstadt.12 Horse breeding took place, as did silk manufacture.13 And tallies are available for grain, milk, and eggs produced in Kronau.14

The nature of these newspapers as propaganda organs makes them valuable for understanding the landscape navigated by local Mennonites. Content and diction reveal how occupiers hoped the region’s “ethnic Germans” would learn to think and act. In May 1943, a Nazi Party rally took place in Mykolaiv. The main speaker thundered that “international Judaism” had started the war: “Whether on the side of the plutocrats or the Bolsheviks, the Jew works everywhere as agitator and provocateur. This war is a race war. We must break the Jewish danger, or we will be broken by it.”15 Functionaries fanned across the district, repeating this lie in all twenty-nine of Kronau’s villages.

National Socialists murdered 1.2 million Jews in occupied Ukraine, including tens of thousands in the Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv regions. Propagandists avoided reporting explicitly on the Holocaust. Journalists instead portrayed Jews as aggressors who must be stopped. Jews’ alleged victims were Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans.” The very real deprivations and terrors of Soviet rule were thus ascribed to “Jewish-Bolshevik tyranny.”16 Occupiers seized Jewish property and redistributed it, claiming to redress past wrongs. Jubilant reports of one aid action in Kronau mentioned only that the 32,000 clothing and household items were “for the most part used.”17

The same agencies that liquidated Jews provided aid to Mennonites.18 Their backdrop was total war. Thousands starved across Ukraine, and the land was pocked with barely-covered mass graves. But Nazi administrators wanted “ethnic Germans” to live happy and whole. “Blossom-white are the dresses and the head coverings of the women and the girls,” remarked one visitor of a Sunday in Chortitza.19 Another crowed: “The simple church is no longer a movie theater as in Bolshevik times.”20 Both Chortitza and Halbstadt played host to triumphal delegations of the Third Reich’s leading Nazis, including enormous rallies for Reich Minister Alfred Rosenberg.21

“You are a piece of Germany!” Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, spoke to thousands of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” in the Chortitza colony in June 1942. Rosenberg and his high-powered entourage visited Halbstadt a year later. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Administrators moved quickly to indoctrinate Mennonites into National Socialism. By December 1941, all able-bodied men in Kronau were organized into a paramilitary German Corps. Boys aged fourteen to seventeen belonged to a German Youth Corps, and their female counterparts aged fourteen to twenty-one joined a League of Ethnic German Girls.22 The local Women’s League was responsible for activities like sewing circles and distributing clothing shipments from Auschwitz. Aid workers arrived in the colonies with such organizations as the German Red Cross, the People’s Welfare, and the SS. Chortitza, Halbstadt, and Kronau all received youth delegations from Germany.23

This 1942 feature piece in the wartime Nazi newspaper, Ukraine Post, lauded local Mennonites: “Thanks to their strict lifestyle and their outstanding work ethic, they became the most successful German settlers in the East.”

Occupiers stressed education. Wartime transportation needs initially prevented regular teacher exchanges between Germany and Ukraine. Small groups of professionals therefore held crash courses so that local educators could be “indoctrinated in the National Socialist mindset.”24 These specialists organized back-to-back three-week camps in Kronau during the spring of 1942.25 Wagon upon wagon of men and women arrived, some from as far as one hundred miles away.26 Participants heard lectures on German politics, literature, and art. They then returned to their villages, where schools received Nazi-oriented workbooks and reading materials.27

Kindergartens comprised just one among many types of German-only educational institutions to open in Mennonite colonies. Chortitza’s segregated kindergartens were joined by elementary schools and, in 1943, at least two high schools.28 Kronau boasted planned or operational middle schools, high schools, an agricultural school, and a training school for rural women’s work. The orchestra of one institute played Wagner for visiting dignitaries, and pupils pledged loyalty to Reich and Führer from the stage.29 A teacher training academy that served as Ukraine’s primary location for cultivating “ethnic German” educational professionals held class in Halbstadt.30

Education prospered both in and out of the classroom. Hitler Youth officers kicked into high gear during the summer of 1943. A third of eligible young people across Dnipropetrovsk already belonged to the German Youth of Ukraine, with the best results from Chortitza and Halbstadt’s “fertile ground.”31 Following a leadership training camp, the graduates—forty-two girls and thirty-two boys—staffed camps throughout the district. The grandest lasted six weeks and had 160 participants.32 Affirmative action also came to Ukraine. In Chortitza, twenty gifted young people competed for five spots to study in Germany.33 Others returned from learning trips to teach true Nazism at home.34

No single school received as much public attention as the Einlage kindergarten. This was the prize institution overseen by “Aunt Müller,” the area’s child education specialist. In 1942, Aunt Müller, who originally hailed from Transylvania, organized a camp for twenty girls and women who would go on to become Chortitza’s kindergarten workforce. They put on a craft exhibition, and those who were particularly quick studies received awards.35 Under Aunt Müller’s direction, plans were initiated to expand the school and to board children aged three to seven from outlying villages. The Chortitza iron foundry agreed to repair donated beds.36

“It is a miracle.” So wrote a German soldier named Leonhard Froese in 1943. He one day hoped to have a kindergartener of his own, and he penned a glowing letter to the German Ukraine Newspaper describing his visit to the school in Einlage. Each day, the building opened by 7:00. At 8:00, the children assembled outside for roll call. The swastika flag would be hoisted, and it was time for athletic exercises. Then everyone would “goose step” through the front door. Each child had a personal cubby for jackets. During field trips, they were divided into three groups by height: giants, dwarves, and Thumbelinas. To Froese’s eye, he could have been in Germany.37

Decades after the Second World War, under entirely different circumstances, I, too, attended a Mennonite kindergarten. My school was in Indiana, not war-torn Ukraine. My parents had not suffered through years of fear and hunger in the Soviet Union. Nor did Bolshevik agents come in the night to shoot my grandfathers or to deport them to gulags. My kindergarten cubby contained a nylon jacket, not some wrap of unknown provenance, perhaps taken from another five-year-old who happened to be born to a Jewish family. Nevertheless, the songs, the laughter, the shouts, and the joy of children at the Einlage kindergarten resonate with me. What a privilege it is to learn.

Precisely such familiarity of experience is what renders Mennonites’ past in wartime Ukraine so chilling. Nazi officials did not hide Einlage’s kindergarten. Unlike the blood-soaked pits virtually a stone’s throw away, writers trumpeted the school in page upon page of propaganda. Education in Einlage was intended to show Nazism’s radiant potential. It represented an alleged antidote to “Judeo-Bolshevism.” It was what the Holocaust was supposed to enable not only in Ukraine, but for all children of “German blood.” Today, historians sift laboriously through archival records to identify Mennonite death squad members. No such work is needed for Einlage’s kindergarteners.

Collective memories of this Holocaust kindergarten have never left us. Mennonites who grew up in Ukraine during the Second World War continue to speak and write with grateful thanks for their generous treatment by the Third Reich. When Hitler’s regime collapsed in 1945 and they became homeless refugees, their plight developed into a cause célèbre for congregations across Europe and the Americas. Their voices and their stories remain heard through film, books, and close family relationships, including my own. Leading Mennonite newspapers in North America still to this day credit Nazi officials with returning a “semblance of normal life” to Ukraine.38

Our denomination, as a Christian peace church, must grapple with our history in the Holocaust. This is first and foremost the tale of the Einlage kindergarteners, of Jews murdered so that Mennonites could flourish. Myths of happy wartime children shine with the light of latent anti-Semitism. It is a vital, urgent task to identify and to root out our anti-Semitic narratives. I have never once felt physically endangered because of my faith. But in my country, Jews are gunned down in houses of worship. If you are a Mennonite, if you attended a kindergarten, or if you ever experienced the wonder of singing around a Christmas tree, this story is for you. This is a task for our church.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

  1. “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 9, 1943, 8; “Soldaten erfreuen volksdeutsche Kinder,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 29, 1942, 3. All of the newspaper articles cited in this essay are freely available online: https://libraria.ua/en
  2. Leonhard Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 11, 1943, 8.
  3. Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Leistungen deutscher Kolonisten,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung<, August 8, 1942, 3; “Das Bluterbe der Väter,” Ukraine Post, March 6, 1943, 3.
  4. “Fürsorge für die Volksdeutschen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 31, 1943, 3; “Es geht wieder vorwärts,” Ukraine Post, August 10, 1943, 8.>
  5. “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
  6. “Erweiterung des Reichskommissariats,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 2, 1942, 3; “Eingliederung in das Reichskommissariat,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, September 5, 1942
  7. Rudolf Rümer, “Heimkehr in das Volkstum,” Ukraine Post, October 31, 1942, 3.
  8. “Alexanderstadt statt Bolschaja-Alexandrowka,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 9, 1942, 4.
  9. “Neue Dienstpostämter,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 3, 1942, 3.
  10. Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 15, 1942, 3.
  11. “Deutsches Gericht in Halbstadt,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 2, 1943, 3.
  12.  “Amtliche Bekanntmachung,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 12, 1943, 6.
  13. “Körordnung für den Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4; “Aufbau der Pferdezucht,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 29, 1943, 3; “Deutscher Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 31, 1943, 3; “Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3.
  14. “Volksdeutsche Bauern packen weider an,” Ukraine Post, July 3, 1943, 7.
  15. “‘Der Kampf ist hart aber wir sind härter!’” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 29, 1943, 4.
  16. “Der Ruf des Reiches an die Volksdeutschen am Schwarzmeer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 16, 1943.
  17. “Kleider für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 30, 1943, 3; “Kleidungsstücke für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 6, 1943; “Die Hilfsaktion wird fortgesetzt,” Ukraine Post, July 20, 1943, 8.
  18. Rudolf Rümer, “Volksdeutsche sind unserer Hilfe sicher,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 22, 1942, 3.
  19. “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
  20. “Nach deutschem Vorbild,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 2, 1942, 3; “Deutsche Art dringt durch,” Ukraine Post, April 17, 1943, 5.
  21. “Führung des europäischen Ostens größte Aufgabe unseres Volkes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 21, 1942, 1; Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Festtag im deutschen Dorf am Dnjepr,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 28, 1942, 3; “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung; “Reichsleiter Rosenberg besuchte die Schwarzmeerdeutschen,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 22, 1943, 3-4.
  22. “Aus der Volkstumsarbeit Kronau, Gebeit Alexanderstadt,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 11, 1942, 4; “Der Generalkommissar in Alexanderstadt und Nowibug,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 1, 1942, 4.
  23. “Erzähl uns von Deutschland,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 25, 1942, 3; “HJ-Tagebuch in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 5, 1942, 3; “Abschluss der HJ-Fahrt durch den Generalbezirk,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 26, 1942, 4; “Jugend als Sendboten des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 19, 1943, 3; “Harzer Hitlerjungen im Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3; “Regelung des studentischen Osteinsatzes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 4, 1942, 3.
  24. “Umschulungslager volksdeutscher Lehrer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 24, 1942, 3.
  25. “Umschulungslager für volksdeutsche Lehrer,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, April 8, 1942, 4.
  26. “Volksdeutsche Lehrer im Schulungslager,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4.
  27. “Der Lehrernachwuchs in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 2, 1942, 3.
  28. “Zwei neue deutsche Hauptschulen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 13, 1943, 3.
  29. “Schülerheim in volksdeutschem Dorf,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 16, 1943, 3.
  30. “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung.
  31. “Volksdeutsche Jugend an der Arbeit,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 21, 1943, 3; “Jugend im Gleichschritt,” June 5, 1943, 7.
  32. “Volksdeutsche Jugend in froher Gemeinschaft,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 17, 1943, 3.
  33. “Ausleselager in Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 15, 1942, 3; “Aufgeschlossen, begabt, einsatzbereit, kameradschaftlich,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 3, 1943, 2.
  34. “Die Kinder der ‘Kulaken,’” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 9, 1943, 3.
  35. “Für die Volksdeutsche Jugend,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 3, 1943, 3.
  36. Rümer, “Heimkerh in das Volkstum.”
  37. Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat.”
  38. Rich Preheim, “From ‘Tauferkammer’ to Burkina Faso,” Mennonite World Review, December 3, 2018, 6.

3 thoughts on “The Kindergarten and the Holocaust

  1. In his latest contribution to the Anabaptist Historians, Mr Ben Goossen once again takes up the theme of Soviet Mennonite anti-semitism in Ukraine during the Second World War. On this occasion his emphasis is the educational institutions founded by the Nazis in Mennonite areas, especially a kindergarten in Einlage.

    To establish his case Mr Goossen relies totally on reports in Nazi German language newspapers published in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation. Although he suggests scholars must see the newspapers as examples of propaganda and use them with caution, this does prevent him from drawing uncritical conclusions from them. He also uses the newspapers to add additional support for his earlier views that the story of the Mennonite past in wartime Ukraine is “chilling,” must be exposed and used by today’s Mennonites “to root out our anti-Semitic narratives.” This is not history intended to understand the past, but another example of propaganda to promote a moral crusade in the present.

    It may be helpful for readers to examine the basis of how to use sources with reference to another newspaper published by the Nazis in the areas of the U.S.S.R. they occupied in the Second World War. This newspaper was in the Tatar language and was in part used to foster anti-semitism among Crimean Tatars. A Ukrainian scholar with expertise on the Holocaust in Ukraine has examined the issue, (Mikhail I. Tyaglyy, “Antisemitic doctrine in the Tatar newspaper Azat Kirim (1942-1944).” Dapim: Studies on the Shoah, 25 (1), 2005, 161-82).

    Tyaglyy notes that during the Second World War the Nazis published over 400 news periodicals in a number of languages in occupied areas of the USSR.

    At the end of his article, Tyaglyy asks whether the Nazi newspaper, and I would suggest any Nazi newspaper published in Ukraine, can be read as representing Tatar views of Jews or whether there is any proof that they opposed the sentiments expressed. His answer is clear: “What is certain is that Azat Kirim cannot be taken as a reliable reflection of the Tatars’ feelings about the Jews.”

    Like

    • Hi James, I admire your scholarship, and I very much enjoyed having lunch with you last week. You’ll understand then that it’s from a place of indebtedness and friendship that I suggest caution in comparing anti-racism advocacy to Nazi propaganda.

      Of course, I would welcome critical engagement with the argument this post makes, which is primarily about how National Socialist occupiers treated and depicted Mennonites in Ukraine during the Holocaust. One would certainly need to consult other sources (as indeed historians have) to consider Mennonites’ various attitudes toward Jews during this period.

      Like

      • Thanks for your sobering studies. Our idealistic understanding of Mennonite history and current practice need the jolt of reality your studies provide.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.