Almost a year ago, an article appeared in the Canadian Mennonite that caused a brief, yet significant controversy. Ben Goossen, a scholar of global history, wrote an article entitled, “Becoming Aryan,” in which he challenged Mennonite churches to acknowledge that Mennonites had benefitted from Nazi racial policies, which had also instigated and justified violence against the Jewish people. He chose the Soviet Mennonites as his case study to illustrate the sins of our Mennonite past, implying that not only had Soviet Mennonites profited from Nazism, but also that under German occupation Soviet Mennonites in Ukraine had “first learned to think of themselves as Aryan.”
Adelsheim choir at the church in Nikolaifeld, Molochna, Russia, during German occupation, ca. 1941. (Mennonite Library and Archives, Photo Collection, 2004-0071)
Members of the Soviet Mennonite community in Leamington, Ontario, objected to this version of their story. In a short response, Johanna Dyck, on behalf of other Soviet Mennonites, challenged Goossen’s interpretation of their lived experience. As she wrote, “The choices we made in Ukraine were not motivated by Aryan, National Socialist or racist theories, but, rather, were based on the Stalinist extermination of Mennonites from 1937 to 1940. This oppression and persecution was not unlike that which our religious group faced in earlier historic times… Further, we confirm that we had not heard of Aryanism and other racial theories until well after the conclusion of the war.”
The role of Soviet Mennonites in the Holocaust has recently received much attention. I feel compelled to unpack these two narratives of Soviet Mennonites as either complicit participants and perpetrators (inspired, in part, by their treatment under Communism) or as unimpeachable victims of the policies and actions of both Soviet and Nazi governments. Both these narratives distort the past and are unhelpful in forging a path towards atonement for Mennonite churches. It should be noted that the issue of atonement with regards to the Holocaust is not new within the Canadian Mennonite community. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Canadian government levelled accusations of Nazi collaboration against Jacob Luitjens, Mennonites debated issues of collaboration, accountability, forgiveness, and atonement in the pages of the Mennonite Reporter. One letter writer, Alfred Heinrichs, offered a path for Mennonites to show contrition: “First, we need to draft a statement that takes ownership of our involvement in the Jewish solution. Second, we need to stage a public meeting with the Jewish community as we seek forgiveness. Third, we need to find ways of doing service projects together with the Jewish community as it seeks to build a bond of fellowship.”
Like Heinrichs and Goossen, I view this not as a hunt for the guilty, but rather an opportunity for Mennonites in Europe and the Americas to exercise a collective acknowledgment of our failings during this period. Notice that I say “our” failings. To engage in a conversation of atonement, it is important for those of us who were not placed in untenable positions, not forced to make compromised choices, to acknowledge that faced with same dilemmas we also might not have emerged morally unscathed. It is time to heed this call for collective responsibility.
While I appreciate that Goossen presented a simplified narrative in order to make a broader point, we need to be cautious in our use of the Soviet Mennonite story. Within the Canadian Mennonite community, the experience of the 1940s refugees has been marginalized and appropriated in service of the Russlaender (or the 1920s Mennonite immigrants) narrative of the horrors of Communism. I fear that now the Soviet Mennonite story is once again being co-opted, only this time into a narrative that has its foundations in the Mennonite experience within Germany. In reality, relatively little academic research has been conducted on the Soviet Mennonites. Before we can truly unpack this encounter between Soviet Mennonites and Nazism, we must develop a better understanding of what happened to Mennonites in Ukraine during the 1920s and 1930s. The suffering experienced by Soviet Mennonites under Communism did make them susceptible to Nazi ideology during the Second World War. But this narrative is too simplistic. It neglects the communal suffering experienced by Mennonites and their Ukrainian and Jewish neighbours as well as the role of ‘the terror’ in shaping relations within Mennonite communities. It also underestimates how Soviet nationality policy influenced the development of Mennonite identity. Over my next several posts, I would like to explore elements of Soviet Mennonite history before and during German occupation to add nuance to the positions that Goossen and Dyck expressed in the Canadian Mennonite.
For this discussion to proceed, one point needs to be made clear: some Soviet Mennonites participated directly in the Holocaust, which means they took part in ‘actions’ in which Jews were murdered (including men, women and children). In Ukraine, the Holocaust unfolded in a very public and brutal way, with the execution of Jews outside of towns and villages, often, though not exclusively, with help from the local police. Mennonites participated in these police forces in a variety of functions (as did other Soviet Germans and Ukrainians). Such a statement is still controversial for some Mennonites; this denial cannot continue. Direct Mennonite participation in the Holocaust is a fact. Even before Gerhard Rempel published an article attesting to this point in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, the first chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Harry Loewen, who also was a Soviet Mennonite, published the following: “Some [Soviet] Mennonite young men joined the German forces voluntarily and gladly, or at least did not resist induction…Some Mennonites even took part in “actions” against Jews…” Stories told informally among Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union confirm this reality. Nonetheless, at this moment in time, we simply do not know the extent of the direct participation of Soviet Mennonites. This issue requires digging through memoirs, survivor accounts, German archives as well as those in the former Soviet Union to write micro histories of these “actions” and of the villages, towns and cities where Jews and Mennonites lived together in Ukraine. This is painstaking, but necessary work before we can assess whether these perpetrators were a few lost souls or a significant number of young Mennonite men.
Goossen draws our attention beyond the issue of direct participation in atrocities into the realm of complicity. As a result of their elevated position within the Nazi racial hierarchy, we must question whether the designation of ‘bystander’ is entirely appropriate for Soviet Mennonites living under occupation in Ukraine. This is a difficult question. Mennonites benefitted from their Volksdeutsche status given to them by their Nazi “liberators”. Yet it is hard to read Susanna Toews’ account and view her as anything but a woman faithful to God, who survived, despite experiencing unimaginable hardships. In fact, the role of women in keeping the Mennonite faith alive in Ukraine and in defining what it meant to be ‘Mennonite’ has been overlooked within the recent academic literature. She presented a basic, but in many ways unflinching view of her life under German occupation and her participation in “The Great Trek” in 1943. Her account is straightforward and filtered through a distinctly Christian lens. She expressed her “disappointment” in the attitude of German soldiers towards the Christian faith. She interpreted the murder of Jews by German soldiers as an example of how “unbelief reign[ed] in Germany.” She judged people (including other Mennonites) by their kindness and compassion towards others. Anyone who helped her and her sister during the Great Trek, regardless of their ethnic background, was remembered with gratitude, including Russians, Poles, and Germans. She recalled her appreciation that the Polish people were “kind to us” despite having been “evicted from their homes” to make room for this caravan of Volksdeutsche.
This eviction is just one example of how Toews benefitted from the Nazi racial policies; yet the question remains, how did this privilege influence her identity? At least some sources indicate that Mennonites felt uneasy and ashamed of their treatment by the German occupiers in comparison with that of their Jewish and Ukrainian neighbours. This shame, one might argue, stemmed from their shared suffering during collectivization, dekulakization, and the 1932-33 famine. We must remember that the Soviet Mennonites, more than previous generations, had the language skills necessary to communicate with their neighbours. (These language skills, of course, are one of the reasons that the German occupiers so eagerly integrated them into the administrative system). As John Sawtazky from Osterwick recalled,
“We soon heard that Jews were being killed. At first we didn’t believe it, but it wasn’t long before we learned it was true. Some of my best friends were Jews. We had worked side by side and shared the same hardships. Now we were different. They were targeted, and their lives were in jeopardy, all due to their nationality. I could not face the Jews anymore. I was ashamed.”
Interactions with the realities of the Holocaust formed deep impressions in the memories of Soviet Mennonites. In her 1946 interview with David Boder, Anna Braun, a 40 year-old woman from Einlage, confirmed that Mennonites were strongly affected by what was happening to their Jewish neighbors. She claimed to have challenged German soldiers on this topic, telling them “…it is wrong the way you treat the Jews, murdering the Jews, who are the chosen people.” Another woman, Helen Rempel Wiens Franz, recalled the plight of one family in her village. A Russian woman, Vera, who was married to a Jewish man, was given the choice of living or dying with her husband and children: she chose to die. As Franz wrote, “I saw Vera walking across the yard with her baby in her arms. She had been given a chance to save herself, but her husband and his children would be shot. Knowing what happened to Vera made a deep impression on me to this very day. She had chosen to die with her family…” John Sawatzky confirmed this event in his memoirs, adding that Vera’s choice had “touched all people in [Osterwick].”
While one can find examples of Soviet Mennonites who embraced Nazi ideology, we can also find those who disapproved of these ideas and the actions they justified. This story, however, is complex. In my next posts, I will attempt to unpack the meaning of “Mennonite” in Ukraine as well as address the more troubling aspects of Mennonite encounters with Nazism, including the issue of antisemitism and the persistence within the Mennonite community of the idea of Judeo-Communism as an explanation and justification for the fate of Jews in Ukraine.