Letters from Mennonites While Post-World War 2 Refugees

Rosanna Formanek Hess

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was active in post-World War 2 (WW2) relief ministries, caring for tens of thousands of refugees across Western Europe. The distribution of packages, sent from Mennonite congregations in the United States, brought joy, hope, and gratitude to their recipients, Mennonites and non-Mennonites alike. Many of those beneficiaries found donors’ names and addresses in their packages and wrote letters expressing their sentiments.

During those years, my grandparents, John and Mary Godshall Forman, attended the Franconia Mennonite Church, in Franconia, Pennsylvania, and were involved in donating clothing, dried food goods, and household supplies to MCC. The Formans also helped their neighbors and friends with translation and transcription of thank-you letters that came from refugee recipients in Europe. Our family possesses an old yellowed spiral-bound notebook with sixty letters transcribed in English in my grandmother’s handwriting, dating from 1947 to 1953. In that notebook is also a list of over three hundred names and addresses of donors and recipients, also in my grandmother’s handwriting. This list includes dates when the letters were written in Europe and received in the United States. My grandparents did not keep the original German letters.

I was given access to a second group of letters, from the same era, which were translated and transcribed by Noah Zimmerman, a longtime archivist in Juniata County, Pennsylvania. He retained over 160 transcripts of letters in German and English.  He also mentioned his translation work and some of the names of the letters’ recipients in the diary that he kept. The letters translated by Zimmerman contain names but no addresses of the U.S. recipients.

All of the letters from Europe were written between 1947 and 1951 by children, teenagers, mothers, and fathers. Many of the mothers were widows. Besides words of gratitude for the packages, many writers described the horrors of war and post-war life as refugees.  Some mentioned their towns or villages of origin, where they had lived before fleeing to Allied-occupied Germany. They came from South Russia, Ukraine, and the formerly German territories of East and West Prussia. They wrote of fleeing the cities of Danzig, Mariensburg, Elbing, Bonhof, and Neuendorf, among others. They sent letters from the displaced persons’ camps of Backnang, Delmenhorst, and Gronau, Germany; from Kapfenberg, Austria; and Aalborg, Denmark. In later years a few letters came from several families who had immigrated to South America.

For the purpose of this blog post I have chosen to share content of letters that specifically use the word Mennonite or details that indicate a link to Mennonites in some way. This eliminates the majority of letters but provides a specific link to Anabaptist history. The letter writers who mentioned being Mennonite also wrote of fleeing from the East (Russia) to the West (Germany) during or shortly after World War II. Themes drawn from these letters include Mennonite identity, spiritual life, connections to military life, and future aspirations.

Mennonite Identity

Thirteen letter writers identified themselves as Mennonites. One Frau Koster wrote a letter on February 12, 1947, to Cora Kauffman. In it she stated, “I am Mennonite, born in Neuendorf, Russia.” This town was part of the Chortitza Mennonite settlement. Another woman, Hildegard Guthe, wrote a letter to Walton Detweiler on December 28, 1947, from Frelsdorf, Germany. She described her family as a husband in a Russian prison camp, and two children with her, Manfred, eleven years old, and Doris, seven. She wrote, “We originate from Bonhof, West Prussia. We belong to the Mennonites.” A widow, Marie Dyck, wrote to the John Weaver family from Neu Holtsee, Germany, on December 26, 1947. Marie, her mother, two sisters, and sixteen year-old son, Gerhard, were living with a farmer. They had come from Ukraine. She wrote, “Through the MCC we received clothing and food. May God bless the givers across the Sea. We, with other Mennonite families here, have no Mennonite church or pastor.” The Wilhelm Mensch family, with eight children, wrote on January 3, 1948, from Kapfenberg refugee camp in Steiermark, Austria, to Ruth Saner. They described themselves as “formerly Russian Mennonites.” The couple, Hans and Erna Tyart, wrote from Dahlenburg, Germany, on January 10, 1948, to Floyd Hackmans in Elroy, Pennsylvania. Their six-week journey west from Poland in 1945 was filled fear and danger. “At the beginning, always in anxiety and danger at being overtaken by the Russians, many of our brothers and sisters fell in their hands. And the reaper of death made broad [in]roads in our Mennonite group.” On January 17, 1948, Ernst Voigt wrote from the displaced persons’ camp in Delmenhorst, Germany, to a Mrs. Brubaker. He stated, “In the Christmas gift from the Mennonite Church we received some meat, meal, and pencil and paper for our young son. We are grateful for the tenderhearted givers who have opened their hearts to us. We are homeless Mennonites, and are scattered. Our home was Elbing, West Prussia.” Mrs. Lenore Nickel wrote from Hoya, Germany, on February 2, 1948, addressing her letter to the Boyd Kauffman family. She included these details. “We have for many years, in Bremen [Germany], the largest city near our home, gone to worship and serve God in a Mennonite Church that is found there. My husband, while in Danzig, stood for this church, so I changed and took the Mennonite faith.” A 13 year-old girl, Anny Penner, wrote from Lolsburg, Germany, on April 14, 1951, “We are from West Prussia – Kreis Marienburg and belong to the Mennonite Church of Thiensdorf, Preisch Rosengart.”  Numerous other letter writers mention Russia, Poland, Ukraine, East or West Prussia, and their flight toward Germany, but are not specific about a Mennonite connection.

Spiritual Life

The refugees described their spiritual life in their letters to the package donors with praises, prayers, Bible verses, laments, and descriptions of church activities. Many of the comments were related to Christmas since that was the usual time of year they received the packages from MCC. A twenty-four year-old woman, Hedi Kemper wrote to Clair Saner in December 1948. “Christmas is here again and will be celebrating under better conditions than in previous years. Praise the Lord. Things are still very costly. When we want to get presents for our children, it is often not done, for the money to be [spent] is used for more necessary items. But for the children we do all we can. Above everything else, our foremost thoughts in celebrating Christmas are on Jesus our Lord and Savior who came in this world to die of the Cross for all men. So we wish you will be thinking of Him too as you celebrate your Christmas feast. We will again wish you a joyous Christmas blessed of God.” Marie Dyck gave testimony to God’s grace in her letter written in December 1948. “A merciful God has brought us so far and we trust him to bring us further. We thank Him that after so many years of unrest and anguish we can again rest peaceably.” The Mensch family wrote, “A loving Heavenly Father has brought us through darkness into light. Praise God that we have a father yet, for this we bring thanks to God; for many children have lost father and mother. It is very heavy for me at times too, but as I seek the place of prayer, there is shown to me the cross He bore, so I would not complain . . . For God gives strength to bear, a pure heart gives strength and confidence. We hope our Heavenly Father will give us a home on this earth for our children, for He always gives better than we think. God will show us the right road according to his will. So may I beg of you, pray for us that we may be true and stand firm till the end.” Jakob Klassen wrote as a thirteen-year-old, from Colony Volendam, Tiefenbrunn, Paraguay, on February 22, 1948. His letter was sent to Jonas Freeds. “Christmas Eve was celebrated in [the] jungle, under the open sky. It was altogether different from where we came from, as in Europe there is always snow at Christmas. And here everything is green. The Christmas story impressed me very much; the angels, the shepherds in the field. Christmas Eve was wonderful, from the starry heaven and deep through the forest, the Christmas candles were gleaming, and yet it is summer! . . . I was born February 17, 1935 in Ukraine, Alte Kolonie, Kreis Chortiza. My father died in 1936. My mother and four brothers and sisters are here . . . We were homeless for the last twelve years and now we are here in Paraguay in the forest. We are allowed to build a house. It is not finished yet but we thank God that we can lie down to sleep in peace. We have Sunday school here and the week before last we had Bible hour. They are encouraging hours.”  (Note: This young man is listed, with his mother, Katharina (Derksen) Klassen, and three siblings, Otto, Käthe, and Anna, on the ship’s passenger list of the Volendam that sailed to South America in February 1947. His birthdate is listed as the same one he mentions in his letter.)

Mentions of Military Life

There are a few mentions of military life in the letters that also refer to a Mennonite connection. Ernest Voigt, originally from Elbing, West Prussia, wrote that he became a solider in 1939 and a prisoner in 1945.  After release from prison he found his family again. It is not known in which army he was a solider or who imprisoned him. Lenore Nickels described her husband’s background and current suffering in her letter of February 1948. “In March 1945 we had to leave our home, and this is the first joyous Christmas for us since then. Unfortunately my husband is a cause of much distress, because of illness, due to poor living [conditions]. Since our flight from Danzig, [he] is much worse. The first of next month he will be forty-six years old, and cannot [walk] without a stick or cane. In Danzig he was a High Officer, a Corporal.”  One other letter makes reference to military life without specifying a Mennonite connection. Fifteen year-old Günter Regehr wrote just after Christmas 1948 to Emma Clemmer and included details about his family. He did not write the names of his parents but mentioned his sister Marilse and brother Ernst. He wrote that when his family had to flee Danzig in January 1945. “Our papa was a sergeant [stationed] in Norway at that time.” From this letter we cannot learn in which army “Papa” Regehr was serving. At Christmas 1948 he was again with his family. Günter wrote, “The four Sundays before Christmas our papa was hardly a day at home as he is deacon over all the refugees in the British zone. And it is his duty to oversee their welfare and minister to their needs.” (Note: A man by the name of Ernst Regehr is in a photo of the 1956 General Conference Mennonite Meeting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonites_in_Uruguay); and in another photo which indicates he was an elder in the Rosenort congregation and went to Uruguay, South America https://archives.mhsc.ca/index.php/ernest-regehr-johann-entz). Could this be Günter’s father?)

Future Aspirations

Since the letter writers were refugees, many were praying for a better life, a life beyond the horrors of war and post-war displacement. Almost thirty letters mention a dead or missing husband or father. Some writers still hoped for the return of their loved one. Gertrude Wiebe, wrote from Lüdingworth, Germany to Anna Stover in April 1949.  She shared her prayer burden. “I still have a little hope that God will hear my request and return my dear husband to us. There are many men coming out of Russian prisons. Then the end is well when our family is all together again. The uncertainty is very hard. My greatest comfort is my children [Gisela, Hans, and Klans]. Other refugees were making arrangements to leave Europe. Emil and Elga Rupp wrote in April 1949 from Polau, Germany, to Cora Kauffman. “We hope in the spring to be with our children in South America. We are waiting and hoping till it is accomplished. We are assisted by MCC as a transport of Danzig Mennonites will sail, and we are accepted for the month of October to sail for Uruguay. But conditions are not secure. It all depends on the five hundred; if they all report, or whether the Uruguayan government will allow more than five hundred to enter at that time. We hope with God’s help to be privileged to leave this fall and [we] wait the six months with reluctance. We receive pleasant letters from our children in Uruguay, how glad we are that it is going well with them; and they so readily adapted themselves. They are writing this it is so much better with them than with us and are so sorry that we must wait so long.” Sixteen year-old Gerhard Dyck wrote to Mr. and Mrs. John Weaver, on December 28, 1947, looking back and forward. “My father is still in Russia. He died in 1940 in exile. He was arrested in 1936. We lived awhile in the Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia, on the Dnieper [River]. In 1943 we came to Germany. And we hope right soon to go to Canada if permitted. An aunt of ours lives in Winnipeg and owns a farm. She sent us a guarantee or bail. We have other relatives there too. So many Mennonites have gone from here to Canada and Paraguay.”

Conclusion

These letters, and others of the same era, in the two archives used in this blog post, are rich in history, emotion, suffering, and meaning. They contain details of contents of the packages sent through MCC, farms and homes left behind, life in displaced persons’ camps, and some of lives of immigrants to Mennonite colonies in South America. Family historians searching for more information about their ancestors can access the full inventory of names. Copies of the letters transcribed by the Formans are located in the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville, Pennsylvania. The letters translated by Zimmerman are housed in the Juniata Mennonite Historical Center, Richfield, Pennsylvania. His diary is also located there and is being published in the Center’s newsletter, Echoes.

Rosanna Formanek Hess,
4321 Northampton Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223

5 thoughts on “Letters from Mennonites While Post-World War 2 Refugees

  1. My mother worked with MCC in Torre Pellice, Italy from 1947 to 1949. I remember her talking about handing out Christmas bundles to families in the area and their joy in receiving them. She remembered one family opening up their bundle and then giving each member of the family, including grandma, something from it. For years afterwards mom made sure our family put together one or more Christmas bundles because of her experiences in Italy.

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    • Hello Emilie, Thanks for the response to my post about MCC work in post WW2 Europe. What was your mother’s name? I many come across it in the MCC archives. You may write to me at rosannafhess@gmail.com What Mennonite community was she connected to?
      An article I wrote using many more of the letters, and specific to Christmas bundles, will be in the 2023 summer issue of the Harleysville PA Mennonite Heritage Center newsletter. Do you receive it?

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  2. Thank you, Rosanna. I love it when primary sources are used to convey history, as they bring the times focused on to life and gives us real glimpses into the world the people were experiencing. Your article is both interesting and moving.

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  3. Hello Anne, Thank your for your response earlier this month to my post on MCC post WW2 refugee work in Europe. There will be another article based on a larger selection of the same primary sources published this summer in the Harleysville PA Mennonite Heritage Center newsletter. Do you receive it? If not, perhaps I could send you an unpublished version if you’d like to read more. Rosanna Hess

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    • Umm, I think I get the newsletter. I’ve been involved on and off with MHEP for years, but just recently became an actual member. Anyway, it wouldn’t hurt for you to send me your article; I’d be very glad to read it.

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