People identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer have long faced stigmatization and discrimination in many North American Mennonite churches and institutions. But during the past decade, two parallel denominations, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, have been moving sporadically but irrefutably toward policies of inclusiveness.1 The rise of LGBTQ Mennonite leaders is reshaping the North American Mennonite world, expanding a faith tradition that has staked its identity to radical Christian nonviolence and reinterpreting what it means to live in peaceable communities.
These changes within several Mennonite groups, which have been accompanied by intense controversy and schism, signify substantial developments in Anabaptist faith traditions. Until the early 2000s, when profiles of LGBTQ Mennonite individuals began appearing in a few publications, Mennonites were rarely visible in histories critiquing homophobia and heterosexism.2 More likely, students of Anabaptism might have encountered stories conforming to, in the words of literary scholar Daniel Shank Cruz, “the usual Mennonite trope of leaving the community because of its restrictions.”3
In 2016, I began interviewing theologically-trained Mennonite leaders on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border who identify as LGBTQ, a project culminating in newly-published scholarship in the journal Nova Religio: “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders.”4 To help me locate potential interviewees, staff and board members of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, headquartered in Minneapolis, provided names of colleagues ranging in age from 24 to 80. Snowball sampling—that is, the practice of following leads gleaned through personal contacts—yielded forty-four seminary-trained LGBTQ leaders across the U.S. and Canada, some of whom no longer affiliated with Mennonite institutions.
Of the forty I was able to contact, thirty individuals consented to interviews. Many of them also made available sermons, letters, photographs, and other relevant documents for this study. Our interviews, which cover personal narratives and engagement with congregations and church-related institutions ranging from schools to mission agencies and publishing houses, provide windows into the experiences of queer leaders across decades and geographic regions. Although I had begun this work intending to document the loss of theologically-trained pastors and others to Mennonite faith communities as a result of discriminatory practices, I learned that their paths had been both complicated and highly variable.
In some cases, individuals had been pushed out of their faith communities or had left in search of more hospitable church homes. Stories of harm and spiritual violence, both episodic and sustained, are an integral part of these oral history narratives. At the same time, many interviewees recounted how they persisted in professional roles as Mennonite pastors, chaplains, and administrators, despite barriers embedded in institutional policies and practices. Still others, who in previous decades had departed their faith communities under painful circumstances, had eventually circled back to Mennonite structures undergoing profound theological shifts regarding sexual ethics and congregational hospitality.5
Interviews conducted for this study are now available for further research at the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, Indiana.6 Leaders whose narratives have been archived include Sharon Andre, Michelle Burkholder, Jason Frey, Joanne Gallardo, Theda Good, Sarah Klaassen, Shannon Neufeldt, Paula Northwood, John Rempel, Annabeth Roeschley, Russ Schmidt, and Randy Spaulding. Additional Mennonite pastors and theologians who are hetero-identified and allied with LGBTQ Mennonites also contributed interviews for archival repository and public dissemination. Notably, former Mennonite Church USA officials Ervin Stutzman and Nancy Kauffmann, prior to retiring from their administrative positions in 2018, also went on record with interviews focused on their practices affecting LGBTQ pastoral candidates. In their interviews, Stutzman and Kauffmann reflected on the sustained criticisms of the denomination’s policies from the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, Pink Menno, and other progressive activists within the church, as well as the exodus of conservative churches and conferences from Mennonite Church USA.7
This body of recorded oral histories is a significant resource for contemporary Mennonite studies. At its heart are first person narratives of theologically-trained individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. Some of the interviewees have been in leadership in Mennonite congregations that have long welcomed all adherents, regardless of sexual orientation.8 One respondent, for example, recounted the prophetic witness of the Hyattsville Mennonite congregation in Maryland, which, she noted, has been a welcoming church for more than three decades and, as such, has earned the status of “rebel stepchild in the Mennonite Church.”9 But nearly all the respondents, in their personal and professional lives, have navigated far more conventional Mennonite settings.
The oral histories reveal how complex negotiations have been in the broader Mennonite world, as queer leaders and their allies have strategized to transform churchwide perspectives on sexual identity, and, in some cases, have moved to less heteronormative sites to practice their faith.10 Some left the church temporarily, even for decades, before returning with broadened perspectives to Mennonite settings. When queer Mennonite leaders and their allies departed, where, denominationally speaking, did they go? The evidence suggests that most individuals who moved away from Mennonite affiliations turned to the Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Canada, and the Unitarian Universalists. Others have circled again into Mennonite congregations that have grappled with, and ultimately dropped, exclusionary practices.
The oral history interviews make clear that “staying Mennonite” is not necessarily the most desirable outcome for pastoral leaders who have moved on to other faith traditions. Most who leave continue to identify culturally and theologically as Anabaptist Mennonites, even while serving as pastors, chaplains, and administrators in other faith communities. Several of the interviewees referenced other Mennonite pastors, beyond the scope of this study, who identify as LGBTQ but, at present, remain circumspect about publicly acknowledging their sexual identities. And although I sought to interview transgender Mennonites, only one transgender person agreed to be interviewed. Further historical research is needed on transgender leadership in Mennonite settings, as well as on the experiences of LGBTQ Mennonites who are not theologically trained.11
The witness of LGBTQ-identified leaders living their lives authentically continues to impact faith communities across geographic and denominational boundaries. Their perspectives inform and alter Mennonite institutions that are seeking, however convulsively, to acknowledge and address homophobic religious culture reaching back many decades. Beginning in 2014 with Theda Good’s ministerial licensing at First Mennonite Church in Denver and continuing to the present, regional conferences within Mennonite USA that have licensed openly LGBTQ pastors and chaplains include Mountain States Mennonite Conference, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, Central District Mennonite Conference, and Allegheny Mennonite Conference.12
The quickening pace of LGBTQ leaders arriving into and heading out from Mennonite institutional life blurs the lines of denominational identification, as openly queer pastors and theologians move into positions of influence in and beyond the Mennonite church. While many sectors within the broader Anabaptist landscape—not only in North America, but worldwide—continue to deny calls for equity and justice, queer leaders are pushing Mennonite bodies to make history, dismantling discrimination against LGBTQ-identified members and confronting the sins of homophobia.13
Rachel Waltner Goossen is Professor of History at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Thanks to Ben Goossen for providing comments on this essay.
2. Significant scholarship includes Roberta Showalter Kreider, From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People and Those Who Love Them(Gaithersburg, MD: Chi Rho Press, 1998); Together in Love: Faith Stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Couples (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2002); The Cost of Truth: Faith Stories of Mennonite and Brethren Leaders and Those Who Might Have Been (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2004); Alicia Dueck, Negotiating Sexual Identities: Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Perspectives on Being Mennonite (Zurich: LitVerlag, 2012); Stephanie Krehbiel, “Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA,” Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 2015, and Irma Fast Dueck and Darryl Neustaedter Barg, The Listening Church, documentary, 2016, http://listeningchurch.ca/?page_id¼16.
3.Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 136.
4. Rachel Waltner Goossen, “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders,” Nova Religio, 24 (February 2021): 68-95. Academic audiences provided commentary that informed this work at the Crossing the Line Conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, in June 2017; the Menno Simons Lectures, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, in October 2018; the Women Doing Theology Conference, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, in November 2018; and the Queer History Conference, San Francisco State University, in June 2019.
5. Examples include Shannon Neufeldt, Keith Schrag, and Randy Spaulding.
7. Stutzman interview via phone, Harrisonburg, VA, 5 February 2018, audio recording; Kauffmann interview via Skype, 18 January 2018, Elkhart, IN, audio recording. On the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests and Pink Menno, see “BMC Mission and Vision,” https://www.bmclgbt.org/about, and “Pink Menno: History and Vision,” http://www.pinkmenno.org/history-vision/.
8. Cf. Richard Lichty, An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005 (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2015), and an account of Hyattsville Mennonite Church’s relationship to Allegheny Mennonite Conference in Emma Green, “Gay and Mennonite,” The Atlantic, 18 March 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/gay-and-mennonite/388060/.
10. On queer theologians incorporating personal experience, see Stephanie Chandler Burns, “Queering Anabaptist Theology: An Endeavor in Breaking Binaries as Hermeneutical Community,” in Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method, eds. Laura Schmidt Roberts, Paul Martens, and Myron A. Penner (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 77–92.
11. The Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests’ Oral History Project, one avenue for fruitful research, makes available videotaped oral history records pertaining to individuals from multiple Anabaptist groups; see https://www.bmclgbt.org/center-history.
13. This study is intended to spur broader research on other continents, as well. Mennonite leaders identifying as queer are prominent in Europe, but LGBTQ membership and leadership remain controversial among adherents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. See Rachel Waltner Goossen, “Transnational Perspectives: LGBTQ Mennonites,” chapter in Just Peace, Vol. 2, Amsterdam Centre for Religion and Peace and Justice Studies, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, forthcoming.
As a historian, I am well aware that all times are in some sense historic, that every time period and every surviving source worthy of study, and yet, like so many of us, I have been well aware that the events of the past year—the Covid-19 pandemic, the protests for racial justice and against police brutality that spanned first America and then the globe, and the end of the Trump presidency—are events that my descendants will ask about, in the same way that I have been curious about my grandparents’ experiences of World War II. Likewise, I am confident that future students taking Mennonite history courses will want to know how Mennonites and other Anabaptists were affected by and responded to these events—as in fact, did my current students, who brought up some of these topics in their online discussions. This, then, is the beginning of a modest collection of contemporary links, in the hope that they might serve as useful primary sources for future Mennonite history instructors and students writing term papers as they attempt to make sense of the past year.
When it first became evident that Covid-19 would spread virtually unchecked across North America, I couldn’t help but think of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites who refuse both private and government-run health insurance might be affected. Would they be more reluctant to seek medical care for Covid as a result? Moreover, how difficult would it be for them to maintain social distancing without many of the technological solutions that the rest of us have used to fill the gap?
I was intrigued by this post from Penn Medicine, which discussed health outreach efforts among the Amish by Lancaster General Health, useful as a way to see how Amish communities in Lancaster County have been affected and how health care workers have tried to provide Covid safety guidance in culturally appropriate ways.1
This CBC news article detailed how, a month into the pandemic, Hutterite and Old Order Mennonite communities in Canada were adapting to restrictions on gatherings.2 The better part of a year after these restrictions have been put in place, the cost of isolation is felt even more keenly.
Of course, anyone seeking to learn how more assimilated Mennonite churches have weathered the pandemic is faced with an embarrassment of riches, as more churches than ever have recorded sermons and even full services and shared them online over the past year.
Black Lives Matter
During the protests following the murder of George Floyd, an image and video quickly circulated featuring a group of people in plain dress, singing hymns and holding signs that read “Justice for George Floyd,” “Thou Shalt Not Kill Anyone,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Standing Against Systems of Oppression.” Twitter users quickly identified the group as Amish, and tweets about Amish support for Black Lives Matter quickly proliferated. One such post, by Twitter user @nedwhat, garnered over 400, 000 likes.3 In fact, these protesters were not Amish at all, but members of the Church of God (Restoration), a church with no Anabaptist affiliation based in Greenville, Ohio.4
Though the actual Amish do not appear to have participated in Black Lives Matter protests in any great numbers, other Anabaptists did. On June 1st, Mennonite Church USA released a statement on racial injustice that forcefully repudiated white supremacy and state violence and encouraged Mennonite congregations “to lament and pray together…to stand in solidarity with communities of color, walk alongside them and, indeed, be led by them.”5 My own city of Portland became a particular point of national and international media attention, and several members of Portland Mennonite Church participated in peaceful protests across the city. Britt Carlson, our pastor of community life, also wrote a reflection on the citywide protests for Baptist News.6
The 2020 Election
As journalists and political strategists attempted to determine which candidate might carry the swing states in the Great Lakes region, several outlets published pieces about the political sympathies of Amish communities in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Many of the Amish interviewees had a broadly favorable opinion of Trump’s presidency, particularly his support of deregulation and his perceived support of businesses.7 Amish voter turnout remained low in the 2020 election, but opposition to restrictions on businesses and religious gatherings designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 appears to have motivated at least some younger Amish voters.8 The ongoing work of Steve Nolt and Kyle Kopko of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College will no doubt help to clarify how Amish turnout in 2020 compared to past year.
We are, of course, in the midst of these events still. It remains to be seen just how various Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities will have been shaped in the long term by the events of the pandemic, the ongoing work of racial justice, and the increasing political polarization in the United States (and indeed in many parts of the world). I welcome additional links and resources in the comments as well, in the hopes that this collection might continue to evolve as the situation does.
A German hymn popular among Amish and traditional Mennonites centers on humility, a cardinal virtue in Plain Anabaptist life.
Demut ist die schönste Tugend, Aller Christen Ruhm und Ehr’, Denn sie zieret unsere Jugend Und das Alter noch viel mehr.
Humility is the most beautiful virtue, The glory and honor of all Christians, For it adorns our youth And old age even more so.
It’s fair to say that humility is receding as a lodestar in many mainstream Americans’ lives, as a December 2019 article in the online publication Medium explored.1 Empathy, a hallmark of humility, has, according to the article’s author, lost ground to narcissism, especially in public life. The continued centrality of humility in Plain culture is one of many intangible ways in which Amish and traditional Mennonites stand apart from many of their non-Plain neighbors.
As observers of traditional Anabaptist groups have noted, their identity as people of faith is expressed visibly, most obviously in the ways they dress and groom themselves. Plain people read 1 Peter 5:5, for example, as a literal call to express their humility through what they wear.
… And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”
Plain humility is encoded linguistically as well. In a manual on Christian (i.e., humble) living directed at Amish youth, there is a section devoted to how one should speak. Seven principles for appropriate speech are laid out, each supported by Scripture.
The anonymous editors of this manual do not suggest that any specific language is more or less suited to humble speech. However Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Plain people, which includes most Amish and Old Order Mennonites, do often perceive a link between the maintenance of their German-related vernacular language alongside standard German for devotional purposes and humility.
Both plain dress and “keeping Dutch” are connected in an interesting quote collected by the Old Order historian Amos B. Hoover and included in his wonderful book, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage. In a conversation with Hoover, a Weaverland Conference Mennonite minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), shared the following thoughts.
Ich meen, es Deitsch as mir hen is ken gschriwweni Schprooch, awwer is genunk fer helfe uns zammehalde. Gott hot die Schprooche verwechselt un es hot gedient zum Gude. Nau velleicht sette mer net schaffe fer en unified Schprooch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die Gmee war, hot en aldi Fraa grode, “Die Schulkinner sette aa wennig lanne ihre Greiz draage, mit die Gleederdracht.” Un ich meen aa so mit die Schprooch. S’is gut wann sie wennig gschpott warre.3
In my opinion, though the German we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.
Plain people are not the only Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to associate humility with how one dresses and what and how one speaks. So-called “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants who comprised the great majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers into the 20th century, expressed sensibilities much like those of Luke N. Good.
Below is an excerpt from a dialog in Pennsylvania Dutch that appeared in 1841 in a German-language Lutheran newspaper published in Easton, PA. Although the author and most if not all of his readers were native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, German was at that time the preferred medium for writing. Whenever Pennsylvania Dutch was used in print, it marked a shift to a more direct, colloquial style that connected author and reader closely. The two men in the dialog from which the text below is excerpted were members of the same Lutheran congregation.
Wer sei Schprooch verlaesst, daer schemmt sich noch vun sei Eldre un verlaesst noch sei Religion un watt en Maddedischt. Un is denn die englisch Schprooch vornemmer un schenner as die deitsch? Ich denk net. Unser alder Parre hett immer gsaat dass die deitsch Schprooch die vornemmscht un bescht waer, un sell glaawich aa. Awwer sobald der Hochmut in die junge Leit faahrt, wolle sie englisch sei un schemme sich, Deitsch zu schwetze, as wann’s Sind un Schand waer.
Waar’s Deitsch gut genung fer mich, so denk ich, is’s aa gut genung fer mei Kinner. Sie sin deitsch un solle aa deitsch bleiwe. So viel Englisch wie sie breichte, lanne sie ennihau uf der Schtroos.
Whoever abandons his language is ashamed of his parents and will leave his faith and become a Methodist. And is the English language really loftier and more beautiful than German? I don’t think so. Our old pastor always said that the German language was the loftiest and best and I believe that, too. But as soon as pride enters young people, they want to be English and are ashamed of speaking German, as if that were a sin and scandal.
If German was good enough for me, then I think it is good enough for my children, too. They’re German and should stay German, too. They’ll learn all the English they’ll need in the street, anyway.
In prose and poetic texts in the 19th and 20th centuries, Pennsylvania Dutch writers often lamented the tendency for youth to stray, which aside from preferring English was also reflected in their worldly fashions. One example that appeared in several German-language newspapers in Pennsylvania starting in the 1860s was a reader’s letter titled “Teite Hosen un Ständups mache der Mann net” (Tight Pants and Standup Collars Do Not Make the Man).4 The letter concludes with this verse:
Fer weiti Hupps un teiti Hosse Nemmt mer besser sich in Acht, Sie sin graad wie falschi Rose, Zum Verfiehre yuscht gmacht. Zwar gucke sie recht fei un schee, Doch wer kann dehinner seh?
Of wide hoops and tight pants One had better beware; They are like fake roses, Made just to lead astray. They may look quite fancy and pretty, Yet who can see through them?
Though the author of this poem was almost certainly a Fancy Dutch male, the sentiments he expresses align well with contemporary Plain values. Amish and traditional Mennonite women have never worn hoop skirts and still today males in the most traditional Amish groups, including the Swartzentruber and Nebraska Amish, wear collarless shirts and loosely fitting trousers.
The spirit of the “Tight Pants” text is echoed in the Pennsylvania Dutch poem below from 1870, in which the “poor soul” quoted prefers both stylish clothing and English over her native tongue.
So schteck ich do in meine Hupps Un bin en aarmi Seel, Ausse glatt un inne Schmutz, So simmer unni Fehl. Un wann ich yuscht drei Sent noch hab, So muss ich doch in Schtoor. Datt muss der letschte Kupper fatt, So geht’s vun Yaahr zu Yaahr. Schwetzt ennich epper zu mir Deitsch Un froogt mich, ‘Kannscht du des?” So saag ich awwer jo net “Ja”, Ich saag in Englisch, “Yes!’5
That’s how I am in my hoops, A poor soul, Smooth on the outside and dirty on the inside, That’s how we are without fail. And when I’m down to my last three cents I still have to go to the store. That’s where the last copper has to go, So it goes, year in and year out. If someone speaks to me in Dutch And asks, “Can you understand?” Then of course I don’t say “Ja”, I say in English, “Yes!”
Just as Plain people ensure the survival of the Pennsylvania Dutch language in the twenty-first century, so too do they continue the tradition once shared by their “Fancy” neighbors of linking both language and modest dress with the time-honored virtue of humility.
What did it mean to be Mennonite during the Holocaust? The records of a Nazi death squad that killed tens of thousands of Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War offer one perspective. This death squad, Einsatzgruppe C, produced detailed reports for superiors in Berlin on a nearly daily basis during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. In addition to meticulous counts of Jews, communists, and others murdered under their command, the officers of Einsatzgruppe C devoted substantial attention to pockets of German-speaking communities that they encountered across Ukraine, including large Mennonite settlements. These wartime documents show how the Third Reich’s most infamous killing units treated local Mennonites while perpetrating genocide.
Einsatzgruppe C was one of four major death squads (labeled A, B, C, and D) that the SS created in 1941 to conduct ethnic cleansing and racial warfare in newly conquered regions of the Soviet Union. Each Einsatzgruppe operated in the wake of an army group. They collectively comprised about 3,000 members. These murder units grew more ruthless as they went, at first killing mostly men, but then also slaughtering women and children. Einsatzgruppe C worked in areas destined for civil administration. This territory became the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. It encompassed several Mennonite colonies including the region’s oldest settlement, Chortitza. By contrast, the largest colony, Molotschna, lay to the south in a military district assigned to Einsatzgruppe D.1
Experiences in western and central Ukraine with Lutheran and Catholic German speakers shaped Einsatzgruppe C’s attitudes toward the Mennonites it encountered farther east. Prior to invading the Soviet Union, Nazi officials feared that few “ethnic Germans” would be left alive in the areas they conquered, and that those remaining would be hardened communists. Invaders were instead pleased to discover large groups of anti-Bolshevik German speakers. “The impression that these people make is surprisingly good,” Einsatzgruppe C reported. “There can be no talk of any kind of Bolshevization.”2 The murder team immediately began integrating these ethnic Germans into its operations, distributing Jewish plunder and placing trusted men in positions of local authority.
The death squad’s officers expressed ambivalence toward Christian piety among ethnic Germans it encountered. On one hand, religious belief had helped preserve their morale during decades of communist oppression. But Einsatzgruppe C also felt the Bolshevik ban on churches had yielded a “positive result,” in that the previously strong divisions between Christian denominations had begun to dissolve, giving way to a common attitude of racial unity: “Clergy must be prevented from reestablishing lines of denominational division.”3 This view was almost certainly shaped by Einsatzgruppe C’s in-house racial expert, Hans Beyer. As a prolific academic and editor, Beyer was well versed in the history of Ukraine’s Mennonites, whom he would soon meet in person.4
Hans Beyer and other members of Einsatzgruppe C arrived in areas of Mennonite settlement by September 1941. Their sub-unit, Einsatzkommando 6 (EK 6), established temporary headquarters in the city of Kryvyi Rih. In evaluating ethnic German villages around Kryvyi Rih, EK 6 devoted attention to what it considered a “strange mixed settlement” called Stalindorf. Thousands of Jews lived alongside hundreds of ethnic Germans. The latter group included Mennonites, described as being of “Dutch” origin but nonetheless fully Germanized. The pre-Soviet state had settled these families as model farmers for the Jews. “The Jews conducted a regime of terror and rigorously exploited the German farmers,” EK 6 reported. “The hate against the Jews is accordingly large.”5
To what extent can historians trust the sociological evaluations of a genocidal murder squad like Einsatzgruppe C? The officers of this unit possessed a fanatical hatred of Jews that led them to drastically misunderstand the basic dynamics of communist society. “Our experiences confirm the earlier assumption,” one report asserted, “that the Soviet state is in the purest sense a Jewish state.”6 Members appear to have truly believed that Jews controlled every significant political organization, city administration, and commercial enterprise in Ukraine. To “liquidate” Jewish leaders—and eventually the entirety of the region’s Jews—made strategic and economic sense to the killers of Einsatzgruppe C, who saw murder as a prerequisite to breaking Bolshevik power.
Einsatzgruppe C hoped that local populations, including Mennonites, would share its extremist views. The death squad’s officers were therefore predisposed to overstate anti-Judaism among locals. Yet Nazi expectations also pushed these groups to become more antisemitic than they might otherwise have been. To convince Ukraine’s general populace that mass murder would be carried out mainly against Jews, officers marched victims through villages in broad daylight. They also involved local militias in the killings, distributing complicity. “Executions of Jews were everywhere accepted and viewed positively,” Einsatzgruppe C evaluated. “What is striking is the calm with which the delinquents allow themselves to be shot, both Jews and non-Jews.”7
The death squad took pride in killing a small number of ethnic Germans known to have served as Soviet bureaucrats or police informants. “The population’s trust in [our] activities,” officers reported, “has been further strengthened because in necessary cases, the most serious measures are also taken against ethnic Germans.”8 SS leaders expressed special disgust for ethnic Germans who had helped Bolshevik police arrest, deport, or kill fellow Germans. Einsatzgruppe C showed remarkable leniency, however, to individuals who claimed that their work for Soviet offices had been coerced. Indeed, numerous former Soviet secret police agents of myriad ethnic backgrounds collaborated with Nazi occupiers, offering their service in hopes of surmounting suspect pasts.9
One former Soviet agent who joined Einsatzgruppe C was a Mennonite woman named Amalie Reimer. Originally from the Chortitza settlement, Reimer had slipped behind German lines as an undercover Soviet spy. Instead of completing this task, however, she defected. Asking to speak with the highest German authority, Reimer arrived at the EK 6 headquarters in Kryvyi Rih. She told the death squad that she had been forced into spying against her will. Reimer explained that Soviet police had deported her husband, and they further threatened to imprison her and to harm her five-year-old son. EK 6 extended Reimer the benefit of the doubt. The death squad’s officers treated her tale as reliable evidence of ethnic Germans’ horrific oppression under communism.10
Historian Doris Bergen has argued that the Nazi term “ethnic German” (Volksdeutsche) helped to exacerbate antisemitism among German speakers in Eastern Europe during World War II. People categorized as ethnic Germans could access favorable treatment from Hitler’s forces. Achieving this desirable status often required racial appraisal. Applicants could provide genealogical data or demonstrate their fluency in German folkways. Borderline cases could also prove their political loyalty by participating in Holocaust atrocities.11 Records produced by Einsatzgruppe C suggest that the term “Mennonite” constituted an even more desirable sub-category of belonging than the more general “Volksdeutsche” designation. Hopes for high status gave incentives to collaborate.
The case of Amalie Reimer illustrates how the concept “Mennonite” held coveted value during the Holocaust. Although EK 6 did not yet know it when Reimer presented herself in Kryvyi Rih, she was a persona non grata in her home community of Chortitza. Numerous local Mennonites firmly believed that Reimer had not been forced to act as a Soviet spy. Rather, they saw her as a hardened communist who had personally betrayed many fellow ethnic Germans. One rumor even held that Reimer, having grown unhappy in her marriage, had sold out her own husband to the Soviet secret service. Reimer made sure to steer clear of her hometown, where accusations against her had convinced the Mennonite chief of police to arrest her, should she ever return.12
Reimer may have been rejected by her fellow Mennonites, but she carefully portrayed herself to Nazi authorities as a good and upstanding community member. Nazi officers who interviewed Reimer in Kryvyi Rih clearly accepted her motives.13 An autobiographical account penned later in the war reveals what Reimer probably told her interviewers. “I had a joyful childhood,” she wrote, “and was raised in the Mennonite faith.” Reimer underlined this information. It was the only phrase she underlined in the entire document, including her discussion of atrocities against ethnic Germans, reference to Stalin’s secret police as a “Jewish organization,” or promise to be a “loyal daughter of the German country.”14 For Reimer, being Mennonite already implied the rest.
SS race experts considered members of the denomination to be unusually pure and industrious specimens of Aryanism. Einsatzgruppe C expressed ambivalence toward Mennonite religiosity, but officers were no more disparaging than they had been toward the faith of the Lutherans and Catholics already evaluated to the west: “Despite their religious fundamentalism, their German racial consciousness and faith in the Führer and Reich has been uniformly strongly awakened.”15 Indeed, a comprehensive SS report on German speakers in eastern Ukraine (based on data from Einsatzgruppe C as well as from units to the south) concluded that “the Mennonites make the consistently best physical and spiritual impression of all the ethnic Germans assessed so far.”16
High-ranking Nazi officials accelerated the Holocaust precisely as killing squads arrived in areas of Ukraine with large Mennonite populations. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, visited EK 6 in Kryvyi Rihin early October. This trip helped Himmler formulate plans to reshape Ukraine as an Aryan utopia. After Himmler told subordinates to intensify their murder operations, EK 6 shot Jewish women for the first time.17 Himmler also tasked an SS officer who had accompanied him to Ukraine, Karl Götz, with eventually importing hundreds of thousands of German farmers from overseas for settlement in Eastern Europe.18 Götz envisioned a special role for Mennonites in this process, and he reached out to denominational leaders in Germany to coordinate plans.19
More local Mennonites, besides Amalie Reimer, soon became entangled in the activities of EK 6. Himmler’s visit to Kryvyi Rih had coincided with the Nazi conquest of Zaporizhzhia, a large city near Chortitza. From October 5 to November 19, EK 6 reported murdering 1,000 Jews during operations in the Dnieper Bend, and it initiated plans to kill 1,500 individuals with mental and physical disabilities.20 Some local Mennonites denounced their neighbors as the SS arrived, and others may have directly participated in shootings. At a postwar trial, one former commander of EK 6 reported that a number of ethnic Germans had joined the death squad: “There were students who had experienced how their parents were shot. It actually frightened us, what bloodlust they had.”21 Further reserach is required to understand the full extent of Mennonite participation.
The brutality of the Nazi occupation created violent cycles that drew Mennonites and others into crimes. While in the Zaporizhzhia region, EK 6 complained that its work had been hampered by huge quantities of denunciations. “Nearly all the residents consider it necessary,” officers wrote, “to self-interestedly denounce their relatives, friends, etc., to the German police as having been communists.”22 The complexity of assessing these accusations’ validity in turn created roles for local collaborators to prove their worth. Amalie Reimer—after retrieving her son, whom she had hidden with a Russian family—traveled with EK 6 to the regional capital, Dnepropetrovsk. She worked there for the General Commissar and regularly performed confidential tasks for the SD.23
Regardless of whether other Mennonites continued onward with EK 6, its decisions—along with the wartime empowerment of ethnic Germans—ensured local Mennonites’ further involvement in genocide. EK 6 in fact murdered fewer Jews than some comparable death squads. It did not shoot most of Zaporizhzhia’s Jews, explaining: “due to the considerable shortage of skilled workers, we had to keep Jewish craftsmen alive for the time being.”24 Similarly in Stalindorf, EK 6 left most Jews to work.25 Between October 1941 and May 1942, local Mennonite authorities thus participated in the ghettoization, enslavement, and murder of remaining Jews. Some received plunder from the 2,500 Jews in Stalindorf.26 Others helped organize the shooting of 3,700 Jews in Zaporizhzhia.27
National Socialists’ genocidal plans to infuse the ethnically cleansed regions around Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies with vast new migrations of Aryan settlers never came to fruition. Battle losses on the eastern front forced Hitler’s armies into retreat by 1943. Instead of bringing more colonists to Ukraine, the SS evacuated Ukraine’s Germans to the west. Most found themselves in refugee camps in or near occupied Poland. The Third Reich planned to naturalize nearly all these evacuees as German citizens. In a twist of fate, a prominent Mennonite named Johann Epp—the former chief administrator of the Chortitza colony, who was now helping Nazi officials evaluate evacuees’ suitability for citizenship—found Amalie Reimer and her son in one of the camps.28
The unexpected meeting in 1944 between Amalie Reimer and the Mennonite Johann Epp offers a final opportunity to analyze the denomination’s relationship to Einsatzgruppe C. Epp believed that Reimer was a former communist agent, and he recommended she be denied citizenship. Reimer appealed to her SS superiors. They affirmed that her work in Ukraine outweighed any “rumors” and suggested that she be employed in a concentration camp.29 Epp, in turn, submitted damning statements by himself and four other Mennonites, who accused Reimer of betraying kith and kin while fraternizing with Jews and socialists.30 In the end, Reimer was denied citizenship.31 In this remarkable exchange, the opinions of Mennonites outweighed the desires of leading SS officers.
To be within the Mennonite fold during the Holocaust was to wield influence. Einsatzgruppe C’s records prove that prominent Nazis believed killing Jews would rectify communist violence against ethnic Germans. Mennonites, moreover, enjoyed a higher reputation than did ethnic Germans generally. They could even defeat SS officers in disputes. After the war, Mennonite evacuees in Western Europe repurposed tales of suffering in the USSR to cast themselves exclusively as victims. Amalie Reimer adopted this position in postwar testimony at Nuremberg.32 Like thousands of others, she and her son migrated to the Americas through help from Mennonite aid societies.33 Knowledge about the denomination’s connections to a major Nazi death squad subsided, until recently, into obscurity.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Laureen Harder-Gissing for providing sources for this essay and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.
1 It would be valuable to systematically trace Einsatzgruppe D’s interactions with Mennonites during its operations in Transnistria, Crimea, southern Ukraine, and the Caucasus, as this essay does for Einsatzgruppe C’s activities in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. On Einsatzgruppe D and Mennonites, see Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen, eds., European Mennonites and the Holocaust (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 3-4, 57-62, 210-220.
2 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 81,” September 12, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941: Dokumente der Einsatzgruppen in der Sowjetunion, ed. Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Andrej Angrick, Jürgen Matthäus, and Martin Cüppers (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011), 454.
4 See Hans Beyer, Aufbau und Entwicklung des ostdeutschen Volkstums (Danzig: Paul Rosenberg, 1935), 109-110; Hans Beyer, “Hauptlinien einer Geschichte der ostdeutschen Volksgruppen im 19. Jahrhundert,” Historische Zeitschrift 162, no. 3 (1940): 519. In 1937, Beyer strategized with Mennonite denominational leaders about how to improve their reputation in Nazi Germany. “Aus der Unterredung Beyer-Regehr (Danzig),” October 4, 1937, Vereinigung Collection, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS). Beyer’s interlocutor may have been Ernst Regehr, elder of the Rosenort Mennonite congregation, who had joined the Nazi Party on June 1, 1931. According to “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 85,” September 16, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 483, Beyer spoke to ethnic Germans in Zhytomyr. He arrived with Einsatzgruppe C in Chortitza by the end of September 1941. Karl Roth, “Heydrichs Professor: Historiographie des ‘Volkstums’ und der Massenvernichtungen,” in Geschichtsschreibung als Legitimationswissenschaft, 1918-1945, ed. Peter Schöttler (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1997), 291-294.
5 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 85,” September 16, 1941, 468-469.
6 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 81,” September 12, 1941, 451.
8 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 80,” September 11, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 444.
9 Jeffrey Burds, “Turncoats, Traitors, and Provocateurs”: Communist Collaborators, the German Occupation, and Stalin’s NKVD, 1941–1943,” East European Politics & Societies and Cultures 32, no. 3 (2018): 606-638.
10 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 88,” September 19, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 497-498.
11 Doris Bergen, “The Nazi Concept of ‘Volksdeutsche’ and the Exacerbation of Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, 1939-45,” Journal of Contemporary History 29 (1994): 569-582.
12 David Löwen to Johann Epp, April 24, 1944, Einwandererzentralstelle Collection, A33420-EWZ50-GO62/2902-2954, Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo, ON, Canada (this file hereafter cited as MAO).
13 Friedrich Werner to Hermann Behrends, February 2, 1944, MAO.
14 “Handschriftliche Aufzeichnungen der volksdeutschen Angestellten (ehem. Lehrerin) Amalie Franziska Reimer, geb. am 3. Jan. 1911 (in Chortitza im Rayon Saporoshe),” ca. February 1944, MAO. It is possible that whoever typed Reimer’s handwritten account may have added the underlining, in which case its meaning would be different. Regardless, Reimer took pains to portray herself in this seven-page document as belonging to Chortitza’s Mennonite community, which she depicted positively in contrast to Judaism, communism, and the Soviet secret police.
15 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 86,” September 17, 1941, 484. Leading Mennonites exhibited antisemitism in correspondence with fellow denominational leaders. The district administrator of Chortitza, for example, praised the Nazi invasion for ending an era in which “Jews and Jew-lovers sat in our villages and played their evil games.” Quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Johann Epp, December 5, 1943, Vereinigung Collection, folder: 1943, MFS.
16 “Das Deutschtum im Raum von Kriwoj Rog, Saporoshje, Dnjepropetrowsk, im Gebiet Melitopol und im Gebiet Mariupol: Vorläufige Feststellungen, insbesondere über die Mennonitensiedlungen,” November 1, 1941, in Deutsche Besatzungsherrschaft in der UdSSR 1941-45: Dokumente der Einsatzgruppen in der Sowjetunion, ed. Jürgen Matthäus, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Martin Cüppers, and Andrej Angrick (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2013), 221-226, here 223. This report’s information on Mennonites in areas under Einsatzgruppe C’s jurisdiction had been collected from September 19 to 23; information on Mennonites in the area under Einsatzgruppe D’s jurisdiction had been collected from October 17 to 24.
17 Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999), 224-225.
18 On Götz’s anticipated postwar role in resettling Germans from overseas, see “Ratsherrn Karl Götz, Stuttgart,” September 19, 1941, A3343 SSO, roll 21A (Karl Götz 11.3.03), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA. One version of this plan envisioned bringing 200,000 settlers from overseas. These were to join nearly two million total settlers intended for Eastern Europe, where one major new province called Gotengau would be erected in a region known for its historic Mennonite populations: “the Dnieper Bend, Taurida, and the Crimea.” “Stellungnahme und Gedanken von Dr. Erhard Wetzel zum Generalplan Ost des Reichsführers SS,” April 27, 1942, in Vom Generalplan Ost zum Generalsiedlungsplan, ed. Czeslaw Madajczyk (Munich: Saur, 1994), 51-52. Nazi planers contemplated a special role for South American migrants in their hypothetical Gotengau: “Here we could perhaps trade [with South American countries] to get back the South America Germans, especially the Germans from southern Brazil, [in exchange for Polish settlers whom the Nazis wanted to remove from Europe] and locate them in the new settlement areas, possibly in Taurida and the Crimea as well as the Dnieper Bend.” Ibid., 63.
19 Götz wrote to the Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh on October 24, 1941 with the goal of facilitating a meeting between Unruh and Himmler. Meir Buchsweiler, Volksdeutsche in der Ukraine am Vorabend und Beginn des Zweiten Weltkriegs—Ein Fall Doppelter Loyalität? (Gerlingen: Bleicher Verlag, 1984), 321. On Götz and his relationship to Mennonites, see Benjamin W. Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Third Reich Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75, no. 2 (2018): 173–206.
20 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, in Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, ed. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, 818. EK 6’s rate of murder accelerated as compared to the period from September 14 to October 4, during which it reported killing 106 political functionaries, 48 saboteurs and plunderers, and 205 Jews. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, ed., Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, 673, 777.
21 Ernst Biberstein’s testimony from June 29, 1947 at the Einsatzgruppen Trial in Nuremberg is quoted in Buchsweiler, Volksdeutsche in der Ukraine, 377. Records of ethnic German evacuees processed by the Einwandererzentralstelle in 1944 offer one avenue for identifying Mennonites previously recruited by the Einsatzgruppen. For instance, the file of one Chortitza colony resident reports that he joined an “Einsatzkommando” on November 11, 1941 while EK 6 was still in the Dnieper Bend, although he appears to have remained in Zaporizhzhia with the SiPo and SD until October 1943. Jakob Ediger, “Einbürgerungsantrag,” April 13, 1944, Einwandererzentralstelle Collection, A3342-EWZ50-B034/1214-232, Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo, ON, Canada.
22 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, 818. This complaint applied generally to the Dnieper Bend region, where Mennonites were only a minority of the population, but the pattern also held for Mennonites. In one case, a Mennonite in Zaporizhzhia who had reportedly “betrayed several ethnic Germans” to the Soviets died of illness before he could be tried by Nazi authorities. Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung and Verband, October 18, 1943, Vereinigung Collection, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. In a postwar interview, Heinrich Wiebe (who had served as the mayor of Nazi-occupied Zaporizhzhia) discussed another case: women in Chortitza had denounced a fellow Mennonite named Niebuhr for betraying their husbands to the Soviet secret police. Niebuhr avoided punishment by joining the Gestapo. Wiebe added: “Among our Mennonites, very many unfortunately joined the Gestapo. Many.” Heinrich Wiebe, Interview, ca. 1950s, Cornelius Krahn Interviews, tape 5, side B and tape 6, side A, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.
23 “Amalie Reimer worked in various capacities as a trusted agent for the Security Police and SD office that I headed in Dnepropetrovsk.” Hermann Ling to Chef der SiPo and des SD, EWZ, Lager Litzmannstadt, March 24, 1944, MAO. Ling had previously been an officer with Einsatzkommando 5 of Einsatzgruppe C. While in Dnepropetrovsk, Ling oversaw the enslavement of thousands of Ukraine’s remaining Jews. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower, eds., The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 43, 205. Reimer may have arrived in Dnepropetrovsk prior to the massacre of around 15,000 Jews in that city by mid-October of 1941. 5,000 Jews reportedly remained alive in Dnepropetrovsk as of October 19. Mallmann, Angrick, Matthäus, and Cüppers, ed., Die “Ereignismeldungen UdSSR” 1941, 821.
24 “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, 818.
25 “EK 6 decided against shooting these Jews in the overriding interest of continuing the [agricultural] work, being satisfied with liquidating the Jewish leadership.” “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 81,” September 12, 1941, 452.
26 Buchsweiler, Volksdeutsche in der Ukraine, 381, gives the number 2,500 for October 1941. On their ghettoization and murder, see Danielle Rozenberg, Enquête sur la Shoah par balles, vol. 1 (Paris: Hermann, 2016), 65-119. Most of Stalindorf’s able-bodied Jews were sent in April 1942 to work on the Dnepropetrovsk- Zaporizhzhia highway. Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-44 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 83. Stalindorf’s remaining Jews were killed in May 1942. Wila Orbach, “The Destruction of the Jews in the Nazi-Occupied Territories of the USSR,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 6, no. 2 (1976): 44. Further research is required regarding Mennonites’ relationship to the killings. 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), 304. Some empty Jewish homes were given to Mennonites, and Stalindorf was renamed Friesendorf after their “Frisian” heritage. See “Dorfbericht: Friesendorf,” July 7, 1942, R 6/623, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany (hereafter BArch).
27 See Aileen Friesen, “Khortytsya/Zaporizhzhia under Occupation: A Portrait,” in European Mennonites and the Holocaust, ed. Jantzen and Thiesen, 229-249; Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 530-535.
28 Reimer had been trying to leave the camp and gain new employment. An SS-Brigadeführer had already written on her behalf to the top Nazi in Reichsgau Sudetenland, noting that she “had made notable contributions to the German cause.” Rudolf Creutz to Konrad Henlein, March 15, 1944, MAO. For Johann Epp’s initial evaluation of Reimer’s citizenship application, see Amalie Reimer, “Einbürgerungsantrag,” March 19, 1944, MAO. Epp’s title at this time was “Volkstumssachverständiger bei der Einwandererzentralstelle-Kommission XXVIII.” Epp had already rejected other evacuees’ applications on similar grounds. Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung, January 7, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.
29 Ling to Lager Litzmannstadt, March 24, 1944. Ling had found a position for Reimer at the Potulice concentration camp, where she would have worked with kidnapped children of anti-German partisans from the Soviet Union. Regarding Johann Epp’s charges against Reimer, Ling added: “One must know the context of the ethnic Germans from Zaporizhzhia to know that there, Russian rule caused much internal malice.”
30 Accusations by Luise Schmidt, Anna Cornies, and Johann Rempel are contained in K. Löwen to Johann Epp, March 31, 1944, MAO; Johann Epp, “Meine Stellungnahme zum Lebenslauf der Amalie Reimer,” April 24, 1944, MAO; David Löwen to Johann Epp, April 24, 1944. See also Rudolf Rempel, “Vernehmungsniederschrift,” April 24, 1944, MAO.
31 Regierungsrat to Niedenführ, April 4, 1945, MAO. This process took over a year to resolve. Already by mid-1944, however, the accusations against Reimer resulted in the revocation of her employment offer at the Potulice concentration camp. Authorities who weighed the evidence for and against Reimer considered the Mennonites who denounced her to be “Russia German evacuees, who not only have known her for years, but who also must be seen as leading people within Germandom.” Schapmeier to Ehrlich, June 10, 1944, MAO.
32 Instead of working at the Potulice concentration camp, Reimer had received employment in a factory through the help of a former EK 6 officer, Matthias Graf, and she later testified (under her middle name, Franziska) on his behalf at Nuremberg. See Erika Weidemann, “Identity and Survival: The Post-World War II Immigration of Chortitza Mennonites,” in European Mennonites and the Holocaust, ed. Jantzen and Thiesen, 269-289. The racial expert Hans Beyer also remained in contact with Mennonites after his service with Einsatzgruppe C. See Hans Beyer to Christian Neff, May 31, 1944, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1944, MFS; Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung, November 21, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.
33 Reimer and her son left for Canada on November 4, 1948, sponsored by A. Reimer of Lockwood, Saskatchewan. Hermann Schirmacher, Hans Peter Wiebe, and Thomas Schirmacher, eds., “MCC Auswanderungslisten nach 1945: The Mennonite Central Committee Post-World War II Refugee List, 1945-1952,” 2020, Mennonite Genealogical Resources, online.
In 1968 a Mennonite pastor and peace worker named Edgar Metzler published a short booklet in the popular “Focal Pamphlet” series published by Herald Press – a series that includes other more widely read works by Mennonite historians and theologians like Harold S. Bender and J. Lawrence Burkholder. The brief preface on the inside cover gives some indication of its purpose and audience in the context of the American Mennonite experience during the late 1960s.
This pamphlet is prepared to stimulate the Christian’s peace testimony. Christians need constantly to return to the Bible to discover the message of the gospel. This message must be translated into living terms by every generation. The S. F. Coffman Peace Lectures are sponsored by the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of the Mennonite Church. They are financed by an individual who has an interest in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to the social needs and the international tensions of the world in which we live.
Metzler’s text is situated amidst the international tensions alluded to above, particularly racial tensions and violence in the United States during the Vietnam War era. The pamphlet is titled Let’s Talk About Extremism, but what the author means by the term “extremism” calls for explanation, some of which the author provides in the first section of the text below.
Although other pamphlets in the series were more widely read, Let’s Talk About Extremism has only been cited a few times since it was published – most recently in a survey of definitions of radicalism and extremism.1 The lack of scholarly or public engagement with the text in the years since it was published is a problem that I hope to remedy in this edition.
In short, the argument of the pamphlet is that how we think about the relationship between extreme or opposed positions – whether they are political, religious, social, or a combination of all three – matters deeply. For Metzler, ways of thinking and knowing, or what scholars call “epistemologies,” are just as important for the Christian peace witness as more visible manifestations of violence like killing or war. Whereas Metzler refers to “extremism,” today we tend to refer to the problems he addresses by using the term “polarization.” In response to these problems, Metzler calls his readers to consider how hard oppositions between liberals and conservatives are clarified when we think about not only what we think, but also how we think, and how we express what we think.
But rather than staying within the bounds of the liberal-conservative opposition, Metzler enjoins his readers to reframe their vision of extreme positions by measuring ways of thinking against a different standard, asking: “Is this way of thinking closed or open?” Drawing attention to the presence of closed-mindedness at all points on the political spectrum (a pattern recently explored by Francois Cusset), Metzler advocates for openness. Against racist, nationalist, and religious prejudices, Metzler values a kind of open-mindedness that is able to listen to the other, take in new information, and charitably engage with “extreme” perspectives. By contrast, the closed mind is reactive, reliant on questionable second-hand sources, and unable to be moved. This is not to say, however, that Metzler advocates for a kind of passive middle way that sits between extremes and attempts to remain neutral on matters of justice. Rather, Metzler helps his readers to avoid the pitfalls of both polarization and neutrality.
One further benefit of how Metzler frames his argument for openness is that he leaves open the question of how this openness is authorized or validated. For Metzler himself, it is the peaceful figure of Jesus Christ who is the model for a more open epistemology. But Metzler leaves open the possibility of taking on his perspective without confessing Christian faith. Metzler’s resistance to oversimplification, selectivity, black and white thinking, appeals to fear, authoritarianism, and so forth, are critical values that can resonate with the priorities of Christians and religious ‘nones,’ secular and confessional Mennonites, and anyone who is concerned with the problems of our shared world. For this reason, perhaps anachronistically, I would characterize Metzler’s work as “postsecular” – where “postsecular” names a way of thinking that challenges the claims to superiority made by both religions and secularities.
One final point that makes Metzler’s work important today is his critique of conspiratorial thinking. His conversation with an alienated congregation member, as described in the final pages of the pamphlet, is a model for how to openly and critically engage with those who are given to conspiratorial thinking, while seeing through the content of such arguments to the narratives of rejection and victimhood that lie beneath. In a time when conspiracy theories are becoming more influential, concomitant with a decline in public trust and trust in expertise, I think it is essential to consider Metzler’s reminder that beneath the “extreme” positions of those who believe in conspiracy theories is often a common human desire to be heard and recognized. Again, this is not to say that Metzler’s work is a resource for those who would, in the name of ‘free speech,’ give an open platform for hate (for example, the conspiracism and violence of far-right groups). Instead, his concluding comments point to the deeper social roots of present political problems, and provide practical ways of challenging violent ways of thinking.
In the digitized edition below I have made very few editorial interventions. I have left the original text entirely unchanged. My only additions are the footnoted references for the quotations provided by Metzler and some references to resources. Paragraph breaks, headings, and numbering have been preserved, along with older usage (ex. ‘catalog’). References to original page numbers appear in square brackets.
I am especially grateful to Edgar Metzler and his son Michael Metzler for their permission to publish this online edition of the pamphlet, and I want to acknowledge not only their support but also their conviction that this historical document still has much to teach contemporary readers.
Original Author Note
“Edgar Metzler was born in Masontown, Pennsylvania, where his father, A. J. Metzler, served as pastor for a number of years. He was graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and received his BA and BD degrees from Goshen College and Goshen College Biblical Seminary, Goshen, Indiana. The latter degree was received in 1961. During 1966-67 he studied at the Graduate School of International Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C. Before he became pastor he served for two years as associate executive secretary on the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the ministry in 1957 when he became pastor of the First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ontario. where he served until 1962. He was Executive Secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section from 1962-66. In 1967 he with his family joined the United States Peace Corps as Program Officer in Nepal. He has served on the Peace Problems Committee, later the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of Mennonite General Conference. He has written curriculum for Uniform Sunday School Lessons and articles for various publications in the areas of peace and social concern.” 2
Have you ever called anyone an extremist? Or have you thought that someone was one? What did you mean? Likely you meant that he had certain ideas, patterns of thought, styles of expressing and discussing ideas, or actions which you considered to be unreasonable or irresponsible.
But that’s your judgment. He may think the same of your ideas and the way you support and express them. Extremism is thus not a very useful term. It is vague and difficult to define precisely. It is relative. One man’s extremism is another man’s moderation. Nevertheless, the term is in common use in our society. The term usually appears in the discussion of political and social policy and programs. In church circles the discussion may be intertwined or overlaid with religious and doctrinal issues.
To me, Christmas has well and truly arrived when the peppernuts are made. Though both my maternal and paternal lines come from a Swiss-German Mennonite background, my dad began pastoring a General Conference Mennonite church when I was a young girl, which meant that my understanding of “Mennonite food” wasn’t Shoo-fly pie and fastnacht but pluma moos and peppernuts. No fewer than three varieties of peppernuts graced the cookie table at our Christmas Eve service, some small and spicy, others slightly larger with a mild molasses flavor. I loved them all.
As I prepared to make peppernuts this year, I became curious about their origins. I had always heard that they were closely associated with Mennonites (even Wikipedia says so!). But was that true? Where did this tradition come from? To try to discover the origins I did a quick survey of our cookbook collection at the Menno Simons Historical Library and struck gold when I found the two-volume Mennonite Foods & Folkways from South Russia by Norma Jost Voth. When I saw that it had a nearly 40 page chapter dedicated solely to “Christmas Peppernuts”, I knew I was in the right place!
I learned that peppernuts or similar cookies, “are made in most Scandinavian countries at Christmas. Pfeffernüsse are also made in northern Germany. However, the older recipes from the Russian Mennonite kitchens more closely resemble the Dutch or Scandinavian pepernoot or pebernødder cookie than the German Pfeffernüsse.”1 Voth also writes that “Peppernuts have been part of Russian Mennonite baking traditions for several centuries.” But “Whether or not this custom came from the Mennonites from Holland to the Vistula Delta in the 1500s has not been established.”2
Everyone I speak to about peppernuts mentions that each family they know who make them has a unique recipe or method for “their” type of peppernut. The recipes have all been tweaked as they have been passed down through families and across years and borders. And it continues on into the next generation! Earlier this month I was scanning the Nov. 19 issue of the Goshen College Record when a line in “The GC pandemic logbooks” caught my eye. Claire Franz writes:
“Made pfeffernusse today with Kristin. Even though we’re the only two Russian Mennonites in the house, we still managed to disagree about everything in the recipe. Ground anise or whole anise seeds? Chill the dough in the fridge or the freezer?”3
For her chapter, Voth collected over 33 recipes hailing from at least six different countries, though I’m sure the true number of peppernut varieties is many times more. The basic recipe is made from butter or shortening, sugar, flour, leavening like baking powder or soda, molasses or a similar syrup, and spices. The dough is chilled then rolled into logs and cut into coin sized rounds. The recipe variations in Voth’s volume included ingredients like lard, eggs, Karo syrup, watermelon syrup, candied peel, peppermint, anise seed, nutmeg, walnuts, almonds, honey, buttermilk, whipping cream, sour cream, cherries, pineapple, and even gumdrops, each adding a different flavor to the iterations (though I want to stress that no one recipe contained all of these ingredients).4
The more I read about these little spice cookies, the more I am convinced that folklore is a secret ingredient. The stories about peppernuts Voth captured in her volume were as delicious as the recipes. Some folks remember peppernuts being given by grandmothers to their grandkids to keep them quiet in church.5 Their small size also meant that they were perfect to fill the pockets of children “on their way to school or to do the chores.”6 Hildred Schroeder Wiebe recalls a tale her grandmother told of men throwing peppernuts to wolves to ward them off as they made their way by horse and sleigh into town. And there are a number of stories in Voth’s volume that describe hard Christmases where no treats can be expected, only to be surprised at the last minute by mothers or community members scraping together the necessary ingredients for a batch of peppernuts.7 Passing down the tales seems just as important as passing down the ingredients list.
Voth writes that as she compiled this chapter, “the testers and tasters came to these conclusions: The best peppernuts are crisp and very spicy. Anise is the most popular flavor. Pepper enhances the other spice flavors. The plain, traditional peppernut is still very good. This tradition will continue!”8 Traditional foods like peppernuts connect us in a very tangible way to the experiences of those who came before, and are a tasty way to pass down the past. May we all find ways to continue these traditions in this very untraditional year.
1. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 366.
2. Ibid., 365.
3. Franz, Claire. “The GC Pandemic Logbooks.” The Record , November 19, 2020.
4. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 372-402
Dr. Kat Hill, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, Birkbeck, University of London Dr. Simone Laqua-O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer in European History, University of Birmingham
In her memoir of her life in twentieth-century Ukraine in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna, Justina D. Neufeld (born 1930) expressed the sense of dislocation and displacement which often characterized diasporic belonging and the Mennonite experience of migration. She said that as a young girl growing up on the Steppe she never really felt like this was home, for her community spoke a different language and their pasts were rooted in the Netherlands. But alongside her sense of discomfort was also the idea of hope for a better future, for somewhere where they would feel at home. As she said, she always sensed they were pilgrims on a long journey which was not yet complete. “We had come from somewhere far away where people spoke our language, and we were hoping someday to leave this foreign land in which we now lived.”1
This tension between here and there, present and future underpins what we might term utopian thinking and is prevalent in the imagination of many religious non-conformist groups. But why have communities turned to the idea of utopia? What was the significance of this idea? And how does it sit alongside other notions of idealized and hopeful ideations of place and time, such as the longing for a homeland in the diaspora or anticipations of heaven? These are questions which have come to feature in our research together, and this piece is an initial foray into answering these questions.
Utopia is imagined often as a place beyond reach, idealized, unachievable and fictional. Thomas More’s utopia was never imagined as a reality but as a dreamed-up land with tolerance of religious difference, no private property and a welfare state (although also slavery in a jarring reminder of the different world in which More lived).2 But for groups like the Mennonites it has been in constant touching distance and a tangible possibility in the here and now, not just a prospect in the afterlife. There may be similarities between utopia and heaven, but they also exist in different chronotopic frameworks. Utopia is distinct from the community of the faithful in heaven in that it is something which human hands can theoretically build, and it is also an ideal which exists in the temporal realm of human existence, not the sacred time of eternity. It is, therefore, a place believers can work towards rather than await in the afterlife.
If we understand Neufeld’s memoir in the context of utopia, however, it raises a series of interesting questions: Even though Mennonite communities often seem to believe a utopian future might be on the horizon and might become reachable through the plain lifestyle, when does utopia actually begin? And what is the role of human agency in its creation? Is it in the striving towards perfection perhaps? This constant striving for individual and communal perfection is essential to the community’s survival and has been an important dynamic in the migratory histories of the Mennonite diaspora and other similar groups. Scholars such as E.K. Francis and Leo Driedger have characterized the moments when Mennonites decided to migrate from Prussia to Russia, from Russia to Canada, as a search for utopia.3 But when is utopia actually achieved? Is it a place, an activity, or perhaps a time? Can it be found in the rural rhythm of an Old Order Mennonite’s workday? Does it have apocalyptic implications and is there any relationship between the New Jerusalem and utopia? These are some of the questions our research currently grapples with.
Utopias, of course, are also a form of critique of the modern world. By building the ‘city upon a hill’ or conforming to the romantic narrative of the withdrawn pastoral idyll,4 utopian groups comment on what is wrong with the world even when this is not explicitly their aim. There are many examples of utopian communities evolving from non-conformist Christian traditions that have built their vision of an ideal world in north America and beyond – branches of the Mennonite and Amish churches, the Shakers, the Amana colonies. This critique can take quite radical forms and often found its most provocative expression in the regulation of sexual relationships. Oneida was a utopian community founded by John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) in the mid-nineteenth century. The Oneida community practiced “complex marriage,” in which each man was married to each woman. Sexual relations followed a schedule and were recorded to assure no illicit favouritism occurred. Sexual intercourse fulfilled the threefold function to regulate pleasure and procreation as well as the creation of community. The radicalism of this set up not only lay in this practice of religious communistic love but also in the separation of sexual intercourse from procreation, which is of course highly controversial in Christian tradition.
For Mennonites, the wish to live their own idea of communal harmony has often manifested as the desire to be somewhere where they can be ‘the quiet in the land’, while the Amish have become famous for their simple way of life apart from the modern world. Whilst seen as ‘quaint’, or old-fashioned, the critique they offer of contemporary American culture does touch a nerve with wider society and goes some way in explaining the popularity of the Amish in wider society.5 Although the isolated and cutoff nature of Mennonite or Amish communities can mean that they are hard to maintain because new recruits are not necessarily welcome, they still attract an increasing number of those known as ‘seekers.’ Research has shown that these are particularly attracted to the stability offered by the plain lifestyle. It seems to offer a timeless utopia ‘reminiscent of America’s past, when small agrarian communities supported stable family relations, and religious and social customs provided the nation’s citizens with security and belonging.’6
These visions of Christian perfection have also been translated beyond their western contexts, clashing and mingling with other traditions. In 1972, former Buddhist monks in Owa, Japan formed a Hutterite colony with support from the Dariusleut Wilson Siding Colony near Lethbridge, Alberta. In a valley between low-lying hills about 165 km north of Tokyo, this group established their haven of communal living away from the urban demands of Japanese life.7 And there are many examples of utopian experiments beyond a western Christian framework. Auroville is an experimental utopian society in Viluppuram district in India founded by Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) whose goal is human unity ‘above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.’8 Whilst it is beyond our current research to investigate all these communities, they are examples of people who have stepped outside the contemporary world to critique of the world they live in in complex ways.
Conditions for utopia
Utopias need building, they need to be imagined as somewhere – even if that somewhere never comes to be. For Mennonites this has never been one specific place but rather a type of landscape or place which accommodates their idealisations. When Mennonites moved to the Central Chaco in the 1920s they were drawn to it because they mistakenly believed the landscape was a perfect grass farmland.9 Actually this dense jungle area, known as the Green Hell, was completely unsuitable for farming. Amongst many utopian groups, the idea of the ‘plain people’ has been crucial as has the value attributed to a simple, rural life, working the land. Kanter argues that a feature of utopian communities is the return to the land as a pathway to perfection.10 Many of the nineteenth-century American utopian communities sprang up when industrialization threatened patterns of life and the return to rural simplicity, by communities such as the Unitarians of Brook Farm in Massachusetts.
The construction of the utopian community exists in the social relationships between people – whether this is the emphasis on equality, Christian love, sharing of goods, or particular patterns of raising children, marrying or family structures. However, it is also reflected in the architecture and the layout of the communities which facilitate the communal lifestyle. The Shakers around Ann Lee (1736-1784) became widely known for the simplicity and functionality of their community layout and furniture designs. Larger communities also included dual spaces for men and women, emphasising their general striving for order and their celibate lifestyles.
Early modern Hutterites practiced communal living in the Bruderhof, with long buildings around a central common. The ground floor of larger buildings were workshops or spaces for communal living, whilst the top attics were living quarters for couples and their children.11 Mennonites settling in Ukraine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, built villages along specific plans, family homesteads close to one another along a central street, and each with its own cemetery, schoolhouse, and administrative buildings. This sense of constructed perfection extends even to the dead. The Amana colonies designed cemeteries lined by pine trees, always facing east since they believed Christ would return from this direction, and individuals were buried by chronological order of death not by family group to emphasise equality. The whole community was united as one large family in death.12 The Moravian Brethren followed a similar principle.
The longing for utopia propels movement and migration but when communities do reach their utopia it remains unstable and in constant negotiation. The Oak Knoll Amish Mennonite Community are a community for whom some sense of a utopian present has been constructed by cutting themselves off from the modern world. Alarmed at rapid urbanization in California, in 1969 three families in Oak Knoll bought one thousand acres of land.13 To maintain this refuge from the modern world, however, they have a constant process of assessment and negotiation which decides which aspects of modern technology to allow into their “other world.” Threats can be internal as well external. What happens to utopia when the society begins to break down and the vision of perfection crumbles?
Religious utopian communities seem to look back to an older often imagined past which is, however, constantly being constructed. Does a utopia then look back or forward in time? Can utopias also exist in the past? A mirage of a golden past of perfection from which the contemporary world has declined often seems to fuel utopian ideals yet they also constantly look the future. Koselleck proposed the notion of the temporalization of utopia, as the faith in a future heaven and millenarian ideals declined and utopian ideals shifted to the secular world of now and the future.14 He argued that the ‘imagined perfection of the formerly spatial counterworld is temporalized.’
But this model also raises problems. How does this fit with Anabaptist legacies? Is utopia something which exists on earth or in heaven or beyond earth, and how then is it to be constructed? Is this something the Mennonites and other Christian communities would agree with? Do they feel connected to the notion of utopia? Would they not strongly disagree that their lifestyle is utopian and even more so that their vision is? After all, they are already living a kind of utopia in the here and now and the utopia of the afterlife is a certainty for them, not a dream.
1. Justina D. Neufeld, A Family Torn Apart (Kitchener, 2003), 21–23.
2. Thomas More, Libellus Vere Aureus Nec Minus Salutaris quam Festivus (London, 1516); “Utopia”, trans. John P. Dolan, in James J. Greene and John P. Dolan, eds, The Essential Thomas More (New York, 1967).
3. E.K. Francis, In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba (Glenco, IL, 1955); Leo Driedger, Mennonite Identity in Conflict, Studies in Religion and Society 19 (Lewiston, NW, 1988), Harold J. Schultz, ‘Search for Utopia: The Exodus of Russian Mennonites to Canada, 1917-1927’, Journal of Church and State 11.3 (1969), 487–512.
4. John P. R. Eicher, Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age (Cambridge, 2020), 22–23.
5. Dachang Cong, ‘The Roots of Amish Popularity in Contemporary U.S.A.’, Journal of American Culture, Volume 17.1 (1994), 59–66.
6. Cory Anderson, ‘Religious Seekers’ Attraction to the Plain Mennonites and Amish’, Review of Religious Research, 58.1 (2018), 125–147, here 142.
7. Hiroshi Tanaka Shimazaki, ‘The Emergence of Japanese Hutterites’, Japan Review 12 (2000), 145–164.
9. Esther Breithoff, Conflict, Heritage and World-Making in the Chaco: War at the End of the Worlds? (London, 2020), 29, 37.
10. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: 1972), 8.
11. John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society (Baltimore, 1997), 35.
12. Jonathan G. Andelson, ‘Amana Cemeteries as Embodiments of Religious and Social Beliefs’, Plains Anthropologist 62 (2017), 181–200.
13. Duncan Waite and Denise Crockett, ‘Whose Education? Reform, Culture, and an Amish Mennonite Community’, Theory Into Practice 36.2: Exploring the Margins: Lessons from Alternative Schools (1997),117–122; Denise Crockett, ‘Lessons from a Utopian Community: Is a Critical Examination of Technology Feasible, Possible, or Necessary?’, Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly 4.3 (2010), 256–269.
14. Gregory Claeys, ‘Utopia at Five Hundred: Some Reflections’, Utopian Studies 27. 3, SPECIAL ISSUE: On the Commemoration of the Five Hundredth Anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia—Part II (2016), 402–411; Richard Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford, 2002), 85, 88.
The following is the fifth and final article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos.
The work of Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School, featured in Part 4 of this series, has been gaining a lot of attention, locally in the Tres Culturas Region, as well as nationally in Mexico, since its establishment in 2016. The school has graduated 3 classes of midwives and continues to train midwives and doulas from traditional and non-traditional Mennonite backgrounds, as well as from Mestiza and Indigenous Rarámuri backgrounds. Graduates from the midwifery and doula programs are attending births in their home communities and the Casa Geburt Birthing Center provides services in the center’s birthing room, in clients’ homes, and in the local maternity ward through a partnership with Hospital Angeles in Cuauhtémoc.
The following link features a segment from the nationally syndicated news program, Milenio, titled, “Doulas y parteras menonitas en Chihuahua” (“Mennonite Doulas and Midwives in Chihuahua,”) which was originally broadcast January 21, 2020. English subtitles are available by using YouTube’s closed captions feature and a translated transcript is also available below.
Translated Transcript “Menonite Doulas and Midwives in Chihuahua”
[Translation from Spanish] And now we go to Chihuahua where they have created a midwifery and doula school that serves the Mennonite community in Cuauhtémoc so they have options–alternative options, as well as, traditional options to give birth to their babies. Norma Ponce has the complete report.
[Speaking English] Katia LeMone: My name is Katia LeMone and I am a midwife and herbalist and I’ve been here in Cuauhtémoc since 2015. I moved here at the end of 2015 at the invitation of the Mennonite community.
[Translation from Spanish] Norma Ponce: Mennonites in the municipality of Cuauhtémoc began the work of bringing an American doula and midwife to their community to facilitate births that were more humanizing and in accordance with their traditions.
Aggie Froese: In regards to Mennonite women, there is often a language barrier and no one to attend to them in the hospitals. The objective is to give them more options and to give them a different, more beautiful experience.
Clara Enns: Well, we were losing this tradition and we didn’t have anyone to learn from, but once again, the need has arisen. Young couples are searching for a midwife.
Norma Ponce: With the help of the community, Katia created Casa Geburt, a school for doulas and midwives that serves and supports mothers and gives them the opportunity to give birth at home, at a birthing center, or in the local hospital.
Diego Fernández: Yes, it’s something unusual. It’s probably not something you’d find in any other hospital in Mexico. What’s important to us is to raise the quality of healthcare in a region, in a community, which because of their customs, for many years, until recently, has been isolated.
Norma Ponce: With a population of more than 50,000 Mennonites, doulas and doctors from the region have learned to work cross-culturally, respecting their traditions, which has led to a lowering of C-section rates and a greater demand for more humanizing births.
Dr. Guiller Stauferd: We’re wanting to create an atmosphere where the patient feels relaxed, like she is at home and not at a hospital or a hotel. Where she feels like she is receiving good care in her home, but knows that she has complete hospital access within 10 or 20 steps.
Norma Ponce: They have witnessed such great success that Mexican [Mestiza] and Rarámuri women are beginning to see this group of doulas and midwives as an option. From 2016 to today, more than 125 babies have been brought into the world through the hands of these women.
Angélica Galaz: I met these women at a Christmas fair, from the first appointment I had, I felt very confident in them. They give you all the time you need. They answer all your questions. It was very different from what I was used to.
Delma Cecilia Martínez: They charge what people are able to pay. The women give them what they can. They create a secure environment where women feel cared for and protected, within the hospital.
[Speaking English] Katia LeMone: The Rarámuri didn’t have any money to pay, but they wanted a partera [midwife] to help them. I’ve had women do a lot of sewing for me. And we’ve had Mennonite women who couldn’t afford do canning of fruits and vegetables for us. We’ve had people clean houses.
[Translation from Spanish] Norma Ponce: From Chihuahua, with images provided by Daniel Ramírez, this is Norma Ponce with Milenio News.
Aggie Froese: It’s high time that we change how mothers bring their babies into the world.
This nationally syndicated broadcast reveals changing sentiments locally and nationally to midwifery and highlights the work of midwives in the Tres Culturas Region, offering them public recognition for work that had largely gone unnoticed for almost a century.
The following accounts were collected by Casa Geburt doulas and midwives who gave the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB) permission for their use. These accounts reveal many of the recurring issues that have faced women giving birth in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua over the last 100 years such as: linguistic and other communication barriers; pregnancy loss and infant mortality; fear and distrust of the medical establishment; high C-section rates; the intersection of traditional midwifery and modern medicine, as well as and the role of the doula and midwife as a comforter and advocate. These accounts were translated from German to Spanish by Sarah Banman, a midwifery school graduate who currently attends births in her community. The Spanish to English translation was done by Abigail Carl-Klassen.
The first account, from a woman who chose to remain anonymous, details difficulties faced by her mother-in-law, mother, sisters, and friends in childbirth:
My mother-in-law had all of her babies by Cesarean. And my mother had extremely difficult births because the doctor did not give her the care she needed. She had to lay in the bed, not allowed to get up, suffering for hours. She had her last two babies by Cesarean.
Two of my sisters had difficult births and the other two sisters had their children by Cesarean. The majority of my friends had their babies by Cesarean. The reason that the doctors do it this way is so that the woman does not suffer so much pain and for the doctor it’s faster.
She continues, describing her fear of the hospital and what she believes to be a case of medical malpractice experienced by her sister.
My husband and I don’t know a lot about hospitals or therapies; because so far we have only gone to the hospital to visit family. There are things that still scare us about going to the hospital in the city or having a baby in a hospital.
Another reason why I didn’t have my birth with a doctor was because of an experience one of my sisters had. My sister was expecting her second child, but she hadn’t realized it yet and she was not feeling well and she went to the doctor. He told her she had something in her uterus and needed to see a specialist. The specialist examined her and told her it was something very serious and needed to take medication. If the uterus did not clean itself out after a few days she would have to have a surgery.
My sister and her husband had the presence of mind to think that maybe she was pregnant and they waited to use the medicine that had been prescribed to them by the doctor to clean her uterus. Instead, they took a pregnancy test, which came back positive.
If they had followed the directions of this doctor, today I would not have this beautiful, healthy, and strong nephew. Many doctors do not respect the trust that people put in them and they care for them at their own convenience.
She describes her own birth and the ease and safety she felt with the midwives:
The most beautiful and wonderful experience I ever had in my life was the birth of my daughter. She was born at home, and the birth went well. Although I had a lot of strong pain, I was comfortable to be at home and the service from the midwives was the best. The most valuable part of the experience was that my husband was at my side to support me as best as he could and the baby was born in her father’s arms.
I am currently expecting my second baby and we didn’t question for a second who we were going to receive care from during this pregnancy, birth, and post-partum period. We feel at home with the midwives and I have fallen in love with the kind of care they provide.
The second account, provided by Mina Gunther, echoes many of the challenges and positive experiences described in the previous account, but also highlights the positive experiences she had at Casa Geburt concerning the partnership they had with her gynecologist and how they walked beside her through the difficulties she encountered in her post-partum period:
My name is Mina Gunther. I want to write a little about my story and my experiences with the midwives at Casa Geburt Cuauhtémoc Chihuahua. For my second pregnancy I decided to go the midwife Katia LeMone, for all maternal services and to have a home birth, since my first pregnancy where we had Dr. [Redacted] attending me, ended at 25 weeks with an extremely premature birth, where the baby did not survive. For this reason, we decided to change and have Dr. [Redacted] as our gynecologist, whom we would like to thank for his professional care and support when he knew we were planning a birth with the midwife that he approved of.
Dr. [Redcated] explained our situation clearly and supported us at all times and was very honest about the situation. We had monthly appointments with the midwife until the third trimester, and after that we had weekly appointments. At Casa Geburt they checked: Pulse, Blood Pressure, Weight, Hydration, the Position and Heartbeat of the Baby. The last weeks before the birth and the first appointments postpartum, they made house calls.
I had the opportunity to choose the position that was the best and most comfortable for me. During labor they gave me the time I needed and did not pressure me.
They taught me lactation when I had complications since I didn’t have any experience and they gave me all the instructions on how to do it and it helped me so much which makes me very happy. They explained everything to me and answered all my questions and brought me everything I needed. And they inspired me to eat healthy, drink lots of water and take vitamins. They were also accepting of our decision to have Dr. [Redacted] as our gynecologist. They were not against any medication given to me by the gynecologist though they always try to help people in the most natural way possible.
She reflected on the future, confident in her ability to make choices about her reproductive health and the quality of care she would receive.
I am very thankful to God, because without him our beautiful boy would not have been born and to the midwives for their presence for being peaceful and waiting until the right time to give birth….If I become pregnant again, I will choose them and have a home birth because of the professional care and experience. I would recommend Casa Geburt as a place where the mother and baby are the highest priority and they are not motivated by money, but the well-being of mothers and babies. They have made a big difference in the community in the years they have been offering this service.
Though the Campos Menonitas, Cuauhtémoc, and and the surrounding Tres Culturas Region have undergone significant socio-political, economic, ideological and cultural shifts in the 100 years since the Mennonites’ arrival in 1922, midwives and their commitment to accompany and advocate for women in all aspects of their reproductive health remain as important as ever. In many ways, today’s midwives are far removed from the experiences of Caterina Shroder and Susanna Shellenburg, whose work as midwives in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua in the early and mid-20th Century, was featured in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series; however, they still embody the same drive and spirit of service which propels them to confront reproductive health taboos and navigate cultural dynamics that often prohibit or discourage connection between women from different communities, in order to provide maternal care to women from all backgrounds regardless of religious affiliation, language, or ability to pay.
Today, after nearly a half-century of decline, midwifery is undergoing a resurgence not only in Mennonite communities in Chihuahua, but all across Mexico, particularly in rural areas and Indigenous communities. A MacArthur Foundation report on public health in Mexico found, “In recent years, more than thirty organizations—from small, indigenous led organizations, to government institutions and non-profit organizations—have worked together to bring back professional midwives with the hopes of improving access and quality of care for mothers and babies and respecting the reproductive rights of women. This movement wants midwives to be more respected and acknowledged and for them to be seen as a safe and reliable alternative, which according to many women is more comfortable and dignified than current hospital methods, especially in rural areas. After education and promotion, the number of training programs has grown to more than a dozen and the number of clinics that work with midwives has doubled. Hundreds of seminars, workshops and basic courses have become available to health authorities and practitioners throughout the country.”1
Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery School, located in Campo 6 ½ in the Manitoba Colony, approximately twenty kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc, is part of this movement to provide “partos humanizados” or “humanized births” that respect and empower women to be active agents in their reproductive choices and experiences. Founded in 2016 by Katia LeMone, a midwife, and public health practitioner with more than thirty years of experience, Casa Geburt is at the center of reproductive and maternal care in the Tres Culturas region of Chihuahua. Originally from New Mexico, Katia relocated to the Mennonite Campos in 2015 at the request of members from the Mennonite community to train doulas and midwives in the Tres Culturas Region.
In 2018, she shared how her decision to become a midwife and to train midwives had its origins in an encounter she had with an Indigenous Rarámuri woman in Chihuahua in the late 1970s with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB)2:
In 1979, I was living in Parral and I met a Tarahumara [Rarámuri] woman on the street and she invited me to her house. We were talking and drinking tea and she asked me if I wanted to see her “instruments.” She showed them to me and said, “I’m a midwife. I help women give birth.” I was very interested and when I returned to the United States, I volunteered in El Paso with some friends of mine who were training to be midwives. At that time, I had a transformative experience during a difficult birth and I decided that I not only wanted to be a midwife, but I also wanted to train midwives. Women didn’t have and still don’t have access to the care that they need. I wanted to be an advocate for women and provide them with what they need. The important thing is women supporting women.
Katia had her first client from the Campos Menonitas in Chihuahua come to her midwifery practice in New Mexico in 2008, a Trajchtmoaka who was well known in the community, and by 2014, Katia had attended more than twenty births for Mennonite women from the Campos.
After a few years [of attending births], I was invited to come to the Campos Menonitas and teach some training classes in the community. The first time, I came for ten days to train doulas, but in December of 2015, I moved to the Campos to train midwives because there was a high demand for the course. My goal was to train women who could then later train others in Low-German. We have had two graduating classes from the midwife training course so far. The first class had fifteen participants and all of them were Mennonite, both liberal and conservative. There were students from such conservative communities that I was surprised that they wanted to come and train with us. In the second class we had 7 Mennonites, 2 women from the Rarámuri Pueblo and a Mestiza woman. In the second class I tried to integrate public health training in order to create relationships with churches and the community.
She continued, sharing about the challenges, successes and future goals for the work of Casa Geburt in the Campos Menonitas and the larger Tres Culturas Region.
We have really high maternal mortality rates and in this environment midwives and doulas have to be promotors of public health3. We have really big goals. I couldn’t have imagined what we have been able to accomplish. In 2016, we opened the Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School. We have partnerships with La Asociación Mexicana de Partería (The Mexican Association of Midwifery) and some hospitals. We want for every woman to have quality care in her mother tongue. This is what I would love to see. There is always the goal of raising up more Mennonite women to be educators, midwives, childbirth educators, breastfeeding educators, doulas. To raise up those ranks so that we have a doula for every woman. A midwife that every woman can feel comfortable with. And then, the Tarahumara [Rarámuri] community, and working with them. Developing our program so more of our programs can be in Spanish and Tarahumara [Rarámuri]. More of them can be in Low-German. Those are the things that are all really important to us. The ultimate goal would be to have a functioning school with dormitories that’s associated with the Maternity Center Clinic where women in any of these communities could come in, and get care by women from their community.
Clara Enns, a seamstress and midwife from the Swift Current Colony in the Mennonite Campos in Chihuahua, Mexico, was one of the first graduates from Casa Geburt’s Midwifery Training Program in 2016. She spoke with REBB about the importance of Low-German speaking midwives and doulas as public health practitioners, educators and advocates in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua4.
The return to midwifery is really modern in a lot of ways, but there also is a respect and a deep knowledge of the traditional, of what used to be. Deep down that makes sense to many of the traditional women. In our communities there’s a lack of information, a lack of education. Childbirth and women’s health in general, is not talked about. There’s very little knowledge. There’s a shame surrounding it. Women have lost the information they did have. Breastfeeding is completely a lost art for so many women here. The high rate of C-sections needs to change5. The World Health Organization guidelines are there and we need to change6. Mexico in general has a very, very high C-section rate, and is being pushed and incentivized to change that7. We Mennonites form a big part of that. The C-section rate in our communities is much, much higher than it is in general in Mexico in general8. A big part of it is language barrier. It may be the biggest one. We have a lot of traumatized women. We want to empower women in our community to take back what they need.
The fifth article in this series will feature first-hand accounts of present-day pregnancy, birth and post-partum care in Chihuahua’s Campos Menonitas, and will explore perspectives concerning midwifery within and outside the Campos, including the transcript from a segment that aired on the nationally syndicated news program El Milenio in early 2020 that featured Casa Geburt.
2. Katia LeMone, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
3. World Health Organization Maternal Mortality Rate for Mexico, 38/100,000 (2015).
4. Clara Enns, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
5. World Health Organization Estimate for Medically Necessary C-section Rate, 10-15% (2017); World Health Organization C-section Rate for Mexico, 45.5% (2017).
6. World Health Organization Statement on C-Sections, “While many women in need of caesarean sections still do not have access to caesarean section particularly in low resource settings, many others undergo the procedure unnecessarily, for reasons which cannot be medically justified. Caesarean birth is associated with short- and long-term risks that can extend many years beyond the current delivery and affect the health of the woman, the child and future pregnancies. These risks are higher in women with limited access to comprehensive obstetric care.”
7. Word Health Organization C-section Rate for the state of Chihuahua (2017), 37.6% (public facilities) 60% (private facilities).