Mennonite War Crimes Testimony at Nuremberg

Ben Goossen

Why is it news in 2019 that some Mennonites participated in the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews? Last month, the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada sponsored a symposium in Winnipeg on the history of Mennonite-Nazi collaboration. During the question and answer period, audience members asked historians Aileen Friesen and Hans Werner why this story is only now gaining public attention. The scholars gave two main answers. First, new sources in East European archives have recently come to light. And second, Mennonite memoir literature has tended to treat the Holocaust cursorily or emphasized Mennonites’ own wartime suffering.

To these two responses might be added a third reason: Mennonite leaders and others affiliated with the church actively repressed evidence of Nazi collaboration and Holocaust participation. As the recent scholarship by Friesen, Werner, and others suggests, the story of why it has taken so long for Mennonites to speak publicly and extensively about this dark chapter in twentieth-century history requires investigation in its own right. This essay considers one small slice of that larger question. It examines testimony given by two witnesses, Benjamin Unruh and Franziska Reimers, at trials of Nazi war criminals held in Nuremberg in occupied Germany in the 1940s.

Defendants in the case United States of America vs. Ulrich Greifelt, et al. in the dock at Nuremberg. Defense lawyers are in the foreground. Werner Lorenz is at center back, chin in palm. Credit: Trials of War Criminals, 605.

The first witness, Benjamin Unruh, testified at Nuremberg on December 17, 1947 on behalf of the Nazi administrator Werner Lorenz. Lorenz had headed the Ethnic German Office of the SS, which during the war had resettled hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe with the purpose of demographically engineering an Aryan utopia. At Nuremberg, Lorenz was tried along with thirteen other defendants in the eighth of twelve trials organized by United States authorities to prosecute war criminals. Unruh, who had been born in a Mennonite colony in Crimea in 1881, had liaised with Lorenz in his capacity as a leading Mennonite church leader in the Third Reich.

Unruh testified to the court that Lorenz and his subordinates had extended favorable treatment to Mennonites and other so-called Ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe. From 1941 to 1943, Nazi offices had provided aid to German-speaking Mennonite colonies in occupied areas of the Soviet Union, and in 1944, the SS had overseen their evacuation from Ukraine to more western regions. Unruh emphasized a longer history of Mennonite suffering under communist rule in the USSR. He himself had helped to organize a mass exodus of tens of thousands of church members during the 1920s, and he considered Lorenz’s activities a continuation of this older humanitarian effort.

The court understood that the favorable policies of SS leaders like Lorenz toward Mennonites and other “Ethnic Germans” had come at the expense of populations the Nazis had considered to be non-Aryans. Judges sentenced Lorenz to twenty years imprisonment for his crimes. However, Unruh refused to acknowledge links between welfare and genocide. During cross-examination, he claimed that “we, the Mennonite Church, always collaborated in perfect harmony with all other churches and also with the Jewish church.” When asked about the Holocaust, Unruh said that he knew of the killings, but he insisted that he “always protested against that energetically.”1

Benjamin Unruh’s postwar claims of helping Jews and of opposing genocide are not supported by the extensive correspondence preserved in his personal papers, government archives, or other sources. In fact, he appears to have hastened the turn toward extreme antisemitism in Mennonite church organizations in the Third Reich. Unruh contributed financially to the SS already in 1933, and in the same year, he personally quashed a request by two Jewish physicians for Mennonite help in leaving Germany.2 During the Second World War, Unruh collaborated with various Nazi agencies to aid Mennonites while these same offices expropriated and murdered Jews and others.

The second Mennonite to testify at Nuremberg, Franziska Reimers, served as a witness at the ninth and next war crimes trial organized by the United States. Born in 1911 in the Mennonite Chortitza colony in Ukraine, Reimers came under Nazi rule during Hitler’s wartime invasion of the USSR. As a young woman, she had experienced the Bolshevik revolution and the horrors of Stalinization. Soviet secret police had arrested her husband in 1937, along with numerous other Mennonites. She had not heard from him since. In August 1941, as the Nazis advanced eastward, Soviet secret police pressured Reimers to spy behind German lines, threatening her young child.

During her testimony at Nuremberg on January 7, 1948, Reimers reported that Romanian troops had apprehended her. The Romanians sent Reimers to the Nazi killing squad, Einsatzkommando 6, then based in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. It was on behalf of one member of this group, Mathias Graf, that the court called Reimers to testify. Graf had served as a low-ranking member of the death squad, and he was on trial along with twenty-three other members of the liquidation units called Einsatzgruppen, or Task Forces. Each of the four main Task Forces had between 800 and 1,200 members, and they were collectively responsible for murdering two million people.

A Mennonite woman at her home in the Chortitza colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, 1943, sewing with photograph of Hitler on the wall. Credit: Image NN11456799, Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Reimers described Graf as an upstanding and pious man. In cross examination, the prosecution expressed surprise that Graf’s Commando 6, which was a subunit of the larger Task Group C, had not summarily shot Reimers, a Soviet spy. But she explained that as an “Ethnic German,” she had seen the invading Nazis as liberators, and in turn they had treated her as a persecuted conational. Reimers testified that Mennonites in the USSR “had to suffer terribly from cruelties in Russia; in the flourishing locations at the time not one man ever came home in the villages, all the men were expelled to Siberia.” Reimers responded by offering “service to my countrymen.”3

For several weeks during September 1941, Reimers lived under special protection of Commando 6 in Kryvyi Rih. She gave Russian language lessons to several death squad members, including Graf. According to Reimers, Graf arranged with the commando’s leader, Erhard Kroeger, to take her back to the region around Chortitza to search for her child, and she arrived in late September or early October. While Reimers presented this move as a happy tale of family reunification, the transfer of part of Commando 6 from Kryvyi Rih to Chortitza coincided with the Nazi capture of the nearby city of Zaporizhia. The group murdered 3,000 Jews there over the next month alone.4

Asked at Nuremberg if she had known about the operations of Commando 6, Reimers said, “in general I saw that Jews were herded together with bundles on their back. What happened to these people I could not find out.”5 Reimer’s claim that she learned of the Holocaust only years later, after leaving Ukraine, is certainly false. Commander Erhard Kroeger’s personal involvement in Reimer’s transfer to the Chortitza area suggests that he considered her valuable as a translator and cultural link to the local Mennonite population. Upon arrival at Chortitiza, the Commando 6 subgroup recruited dozens of volunteer auxiliary policemen, including a number of Mennonites.6

Whether Reimers directly participated in the recruitment of Mennonite killers for the Nazi death squad, or whether she herself was present during related actions, is difficult to know. However, her testimony does reveal that she reestablished contact with her child and other relatives thanks to Commando 6. Even children among this local Mennonite population were aware of Holocaust atrocities. Years after the war, one Mennonite woman recalled how as a girl, she had encountered the body of a murdered Jew in the hedgerow by her farm. In another case, she helped distributed bloodstained clothing. She herself washed and wore a dress with a bullet hole through the chest.7

Nazi officials organized Mennonite men in occupied Ukraine into police and military units, such as this “self-defense” group in the Molotschna colony in 1942. Credit: Bild 137-78955, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

That Reimers acquitted herself well in the eyes of Commando 6 is suggested by the fact that she continued onward with Graf and other squad members from the Chortitza area to another city, Dnipropetrovsk. Reimers reported working there for the German civil administration, although she continued to provide Russian language lessons to Commando 6 two or three times weekly. Reimers was one of numerous Mennonites to join the Nazi administration in Ukraine. Others served as mayors for cities like Zaporizhia. Collaborators aided various aspects of the Holocaust, expropriating Jews, forcing them to wear identifying symbols, and assembling them in ghettos.8

Although Graf left Dnipropetrovsk after several weeks, Reimers remained in touch with him by post. After the city’s evacuation in 1943, Graf invited Reimers to resettle near his own home in Germany along with her mother and child. He helped her find office work in a munition factory. Reimer’s testimony in support of Graf may or may not have positively influenced the Nuremberg court’s verdict. The judges ultimately sentenced Graf to time served and ordered his release. The ruling noted that while Graf had certainly belonged to a criminal organization, lack of evidence due to his low rank meant that his presence at killing actions could not be definitively proved.9

The Nuremberg testimony of Benjamin Unruh and Franziska Reimers shows how Mennonites with vastly different relationships to church leadership could suppress histories of collaboration. While Reimers lived in Bonn after the war, a city without any Mennonite congregations, Unruh worked closely with both the North America-based Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Germany’s largest conference, the Mennonite Union. He helped MCC provide aid to Mennonite refugees from Ukraine as the agency downplayed their wartime actions.10 Meanwhile, his Union colleagues sought to intercede with Allied authorities for former Nazis facing criminal charges.11

While Mennonite participation in the Holocaust is making headlines in 2019, the fact that two Mennonites testified at Nuremberg is not news. Transcripts of their remarks have been available for years in church archives, alongside numerous reels of Nazi documents copied from state repositories.12 Researchers have more often used such materials to recount suffering in the Soviet Union than to reveal complicity with genocide. Indeed, one person was sufficiently taken with Reimer’s testimony to pen a fictional coda. Grateful for ostensibly having saved each other, Graf and Reimers fall in love, although she and her child eventually depart with MCC for Canada.13

One anonymous author imagined a romantic affair between the Mennonite Franziska Reimers and the former death squad member Mathias Graf, pictured here at Nuremberg in 1947. Credit: Image 09930, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

How could it ever have been possible to imagine such a tone-deaf fantasy? Stories of Mennonite victimhood in the Soviet Union circulated so widely through official and informal channels, and memories of Mennonite involvement in murdering Jewish neighbors had become so thoroughly repressed, that this author found it possible to compare Graf’s imprisonment in postwar Germany to Reimer’s suffering under Stalinism. It apparently seemed unproblematic to laud romantic love between a Mennonite and a former member of a Nazi death squad. The reality that such an idea could inspire not horror but wistful longing should give pause to Mennonites and others today.

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


  1. “United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt et al.,” December 17, 1947, M894, roll 4, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA).
  2. Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, August 25, 1933, Nachlaß Otto Schowalter, Folder: Korrespondenz 1929-1945, Mennonitische Forschungsstellte, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany. Thanks to Arnold Neufeldt-Fast for sharing this source.
  3. “The United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf, et al.,” January 7, 1948, M-895, roll 5, NARA. Reimers was summoned by Graf’s legal counsel. Eduard Belzer, “Defendant’s Application for Summons for Witness,” September 15, 1947, M895, roll 34, NARA.
  4. Alexander Kruglov, “Jewish Losses in Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 279.
  5. “The United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf.”
  6. Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 530-535.
  7. Pamela Klassen, Going by the Moon and Stars: Stories of Two Russian Mennonite Women (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994), 85. Mennonite women in Ukraine participated in the distribution of clothing from murder victims on several occasions. The Nazi press referred to such clothing as “used” but did not specify its origins. For example, “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. However, archival correspondence demonstrates that clothes and other goods taken from Jews were to be designated for redistribution among Mennonites and others. On one occasion, Himmler ordered that items from warehouses in Auschwitz and Lublin be sent to the 55,000 “Ethnic Germans” in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies for Christmas 1942. His instructions included that each person was “to be given a dress or suit, a coat and hat if available, each three shirts and relevant underwear and other daily necessities including utensils as well as a trunk. The needy are also to be given featherbeds and blankets as well as linens.” Heinrich Himmler to Oswald Pohl and Werner Lorenz, October 14, 1942, T-175, roll 129, NARA.
  8. Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine, ed. Brandon and Lower, 248-271; Markus Eikel and Valentina Sivaieva, “City Mayors, Raion Chiefs and Village Elders in Ukraine, 1941-4: How Local Administrators Co-operated with the German Occupation Authorities,” Contemporary European History 23, no. 3 (2014): 405-428; Viktor Klets, “Caught between Two Poles; Ukrainian Mennonites and the Trauma of the Second World War,” in Minority Report: Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered, 1789-1945, ed. Leonard Friesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 287-318; James Urry, “Mennonites in Ukraine During World War II: Thoughts and Questions,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 81-111.
  9. Michael Musmanno, John Speight, and Richard Dixon, “Mathias Graf,” in Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals, vol. IV(Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1949), 587. See also Hilary Earl, The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 258-260.
  10. Part of this history is told in Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.
  11. In one case, the Union’s de facto postwar leader claimed to British authorities that Heinrich Enß, a Mennonite who had served with the Waffen-SS at the Stutthof concentration camp, “had only to do with the financial administration and was able to help some of the prisoners in that camp.” Ernst Crous to Religious Affairs Branch Zonal Executive Offices, October 22, 1947, FO 1050/1565, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom. Enß joined the Nazi Party and the SS in 1933. By 1941, he had advanced to the rank of SS-Oberscharführer. See A3343-SM-C107, Heinrich Enß 2.3.7, NARA. Postwar charges against Enß are archived in BY 5/V279/124, vol. 7, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany.
  12. “Official Transcript of the American Military Tribunal against Otto Ohlendorf et. al. Nurnberg, Germany,” 1948, Siegfried Janzen Papers, Volume 5456, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Canada; “Case #8 Tribunal 1 US vs. Ulrich Greifelt, et al., Volume 7 Transcripts,” December 17, 1947, SA.I.184, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.
  13. “Leben u. Liebe im Sowjetparadiese,” Henry B. Hoover Papers, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. This account appears to be entirely fictional, with Reimer’s name changed to “Ella.” Records of Mennonite immigrants to arrive in Canada after World War II do not include a Franziska Reimers.

2 thoughts on “Mennonite War Crimes Testimony at Nuremberg

  1. Good work, Ben. For others: this summer I discovered the 1933 correspondence between Benjamin Unruh and Elbing Mennonite Elder Emil Haendiges and shared these with Ben, Alfred Neufeld (Paraguay) and John Thiesen (Bethel). The two letters were located in a strange file (“Otto Schowalter Folder”) at the Weierhof Mennonite Research Centre in Germany. The contents are chilling. In 1933, because of Hitler’s election earlier in the year, and a stark increase in anti-Semitic activities locally, two Elbing Jewish doctors came to Haendiges for emigration assistance–specifically, they were willing to go to the Paraguayan Mennonite colony of Fernheim (!!) where there was a terrible need for medical assistance. Unruh, who knew the dire situation in Paraguay–he helped get them there–flatly refused German Mennonite assistance for the doctors, saying that the Paraguayan Mennonites really should have someone from their own Christian background. This of course was crazy; Russian Mennonites had a long history of having mostly or sometimes only Jewish doctors. Thankfully one of the doctors and his family (he was a pediatrician; his wife was a medical doctor as well) managed to leave in 1935 for Ohio, where he set up a practice. I am in touch with the family. Whereas Elder Haendiges saw this as a no-brainer, win-win idea, Unruh clearly said “no” and shut down the conversation. He had a choice–and Ben Goossen’s judgement of Unruh in this case is correct.

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  2. Thanks to Ben Goossen for another sobering article on Mennonite and Nazi collaboration. The Winnipeg event he mentions was videoed and posted to YouTube for those interested in more than the brief article in the Winnipeg Free Press. Here’s the link.

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