Annual Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies Mini-Conference

 

 
APASA mini-conferences are low-key events that provide an opportunity to share your work and get feedback, meet colleagues who have similar focuses, and discover potential collaborators.


The 2018 Annual Mini-Conference

Holmes County, OH: June 1, 2018

At the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center (“Behalt”)

DEADLINE FOR PROPOSALS: Friday, April 13th. CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT.

We invite abstracts and proposals for posters, paper presentations, organized sessions, or panels / round-tables.

AFFORDABILITY
In addition to being within closer reach of most plain Anabaptist scholars, the Holmes County location also allows us to substantially reduce the registration fee to $15 for APASA members (and $35 for non-members).

EXPLORE NEW RESOURCES
If you have not had a chance to visit the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center’s new library wing, this mini-conference will give you the opportunity to get acquainted with its materials and research resources. And if you have not seen the Center’s main attraction—the magnificent 360-degree “Behalt” painting of Amish and Mennonite history—this will be your chance.

Registration: Members-$15; Non-members-$35 (payable on-site)

Meals: Meals will be held at local restaurants. Registration fee does not include meals, which is estimated at $10-$20 per meal.

Lodging: Attendees are responsible for arranging their own lodging if needed. Hotels are available in Berlin, Millersburg, Walnut Creek, Sugarcreek, New Philadelphia / Dover, and Wooster, and advance reservations are suggested due to this being the late spring tourist season.

Why collect a Nazi flag?: Kauffman Museum’s Role in Confronting Our Past

Renae Stucky, Kauffman Museum, Collections Manager

In November 2016, a donor approached Kauffman Museum at Bethel College with the offer of this Nazi flag for consideration for donation. The flag belonged to the donor’s father who traveled to do relief work in Europe following WWII. The young Mennonite volunteered as a “Seagoing Cowboy” helping tend and deliver livestock being transported to war-torn countries by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the Heifer Project. The donor believes that the flag was given to his father by a man he befriended during his time in Germany.

Nazi Case-bell-wagon-0397-144dpi

While the flag has Mennonite connections, usually a decisive factor in the museum’s collections policy, its Nazi connections made it a controversial case. The decision about whether or not to accept the object evoked many questions. What would it mean to have the flag in our collection? Would accessioning the item show insensitivity to those who suffered under the Nazi regime? Or could we use the flag to expose and confront this difficult history? What role did the flag play in our mission to tell the Mennonite story?

Due to the controversial nature of the artifact, the flag was brought to the full Kauffman Museum board for consideration and discussion. Members of the board, staff, and Bethel College history faculty were invited to offer their expertise and insight to the conversation. A variety of viewpoints were presented. In preliminary correspondence, the potential donor of the flag asserted that if there was no interest in the artifact by an historical institution he would likely destroy it ceremoniously in memory of those who perished. The members of the history faculty acknowledged the sensitivity of the object, however they ultimately agreed that “there are more constructive ways” of dealing with troubling historical topics if used or displayed in the “appropriate interpretative context.”

After much discussion among the board about the flag’s Mennonite connections, the importance of not denying “painful history” and the need to address recent scholarship related to Mennonites and the Holocaust the board voted unanimously to accept the artifact into the museum’s permanent collection.

The flag was officially accessioned at the end of 2017 with the understanding that it would be used to acknowledge the difficult history surrounding the symbol, and to confront hate rather than celebrate it.

In conjuncture with the recent conference “Mennonites and the Holocaust” held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, the flag was displayed across the street at Kauffman Museum along with several other Nazi artifacts from the museum’s collection (including artifacts brought to the United States from Mennonite colonies in South America.) The artifacts were displayed in a tall narrow case with the flag as a backdrop to a Luftwaffe dagger, an iron cross medal, and a commemorative pin from the Nazi era, and a copy of Mein Kampf. Accompanying the artifacts was interpretive text explaining the museum’s thoughtful consideration and acceptance of these Nazi artifacts, specially the flag, entitled “Why collect a Nazi flag?”

Why would Kauffman Museum collect a Nazi flag? In the same way that the conference continued the conversation about Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust, a museum has a unique opportunity to use artifacts, like this flag and others objects like it, as a catalyst for conversation about historical and current topics. We talk about these difficult issues, and display these controversial symbols, in order to confront the troubling parts of our past. If we ignore or destroy evidence of our misdeeds we risk forgetting them, letting them gather dust in the dim corners of our memory—or in this case our storage space.  However if we literally, put them on display for all to see, we are forced to come face-to-face with the reality of our past, which could change our future.

How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust

Lisa Schirch

Bethel College should be applauded for taking the leadership to organize the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference March 16-17, 2018. Because of a generous grant from Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking initiative of MCUSA, I was able to attend the conference.  Across the street from Bethel College’s campus, the Kauffman Museum portrays a history of Mennonites that illustrates the type of commonly told positive narrative of our beliefs, pacifism, martyrdom, humanitarian work and community. While there are stories of Mennonites opposing the Nazis and hiding Jews in this history, the recently revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust feels like a betrayal of everything I’ve been taught over the last fifty years of attending and working for Mennonite institutions. There is a terrible chapter in our history that has been intentionally silenced and absent from my education. Records of Mennonite history are like Swiss cheese: full of holes that leave out our participation in the holocaust. It is important for the church to reflect on how we reckon with this history and what this history requires us to do.

IMG_E4818

Jerusalem at Sunrise

Beyond Academic Discussions

This is not just an abstract, academic conversation among historians who compete to document the facts of this history. Many people in the audience at the conference were experiencing intense emotions because of the shocking revelations about Mennonite complicity and participation in the Holocaust.

I grew up in the Mennonite community of Bluffton, Ohio, where I never heard anything anti-semitic. I was encouraged to read Jewish literature as a kid and was taught to have nothing but respect for Judaism. I was taught to commit to “Never Again” and took up a career in peacebuilding to prevent genocide. On the other hand, I never heard any Mennonite discuss broader church responsibility for the anti-semitism or the Holocaust. In hindsight, this is problematic. Christians are generally unaware of the long history of Christian persecution of Jews.

Last fall, I led Eastern Mennonite University’s study abroad program to Israel and Palestine where we focused on Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding efforts. My husband is Jewish, and we are raising our children to be both Jewish and Mennonite. We know at least fifteen other Jewish-Mennonite families. For us, this is not just history. I was flooded with emotion hearing about Mennonites participating in massacres of Jewish families or Mennonites taking Jewish land. 

My first thought was this: ethnic Mennonites went from participating in the Holocaust, to helping Palestinian refugees, to denouncing Israeli occupation. Where in this story did ethnic Mennonites help Jewish refugees or stand up for Jewish rights at the same scale? How dare Mennonites act self-righteous in their relentlessly critical stance toward Israel when these Mennonites literally pushed Jews out of their homes and some of those Jews fled to Palestine, where my Palestinian friends were pushed out of their homes. This is a sick and twisted history where Mennonite victims hurt Jewish victims who hurt Palestinian victims. And of these three groups, Jews suffered the most.

The role of Mennonites in the Holocaust has direct impacts on Mennonite-Jewish families, the integrity of Mennonite peacebuilding efforts in Israel and Palestine, and our collective voice on issues of peace and justice.

IMG_4496

Synagogue Bimah in Migdal, beside the Galilee, where Jesus studied. The bimah is the Seed of Life symbol, a symbol used to represent the sacredness of life in many religions.

Emotional Intelligence and Personal Sharing

During the first few panels of the conference, members of the audience shared personal stories. These were a necessary part of the audience digesting and processing the information provided by researchers. But it was not without consequence.

A Mennonite holocaust denier, Bruce Leichty, attended parts of the conference. Leichty is a California-based lawyer known for representing the Holocaust deniers Ernst Zundel and his Mennonite wife Ingrid Rimland Zundel. Leichty has passed out anti-semitic literature at the past several MCUSA gatherings. At the introduction of the conference, the organizers told the audience there was someone attending the conference who they were watching. But many were not in the room or did not understand what was being said. When Leichty began to ask an offensive question during the conference, the organizers removed him by calling campus security, but did not inform the audience of who the man was or why he was being removed. The lack of communication confused many in the audience.

Minutes earlier, a Jewish participant in the audience shared about her discomfort at the emotionally inappropriate discussion of these topics. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to stand up in a room where she was alone in representing the Jewish people to a group of Mennonites. She noted the lack of acknowledgment that the stories being told were about people like her and included her relatives. She expressed offence at the laughter and lighthearted comments that were tone-deaf to the seriousness of the stories being told. For example, one panelist mentioned there were “fifty shades of Mennonite collaboration” which was met with laughter. She asked, “you’re laughing at the number of ways your people were involved in the genocide against my people?” I felt pain and embarrassment over the behavior of “my people.” Perhaps Mennonites are so allergic to grief that some choose to laugh inappropriately instead? This was so awkward and uncomfortable. But what came next made it worse, not better.

Panel moderators immediately told the audience we were no longer allowed to share personally. They informed us we were only allowed to write down our questions on slips of paper and submit these to the moderators. Coming immediately after the sharing of a Jewish woman, while a number of us in the audience were in tears, it was hard to understand the logic. No one explained this decision.

A trauma expert, facilitator or pastor could have helped the conference audience recognize and make space for the personal impacts we might experience during the conference. We could have acknowledged that people in the room would feel a range of emotions. We might have been reminded that laughter can be therapeutic but that we need to be careful to understand that inappropriate laughter can also be harmful.

The body and brain are not separate. I have attended many academic conferences that also include elements that address emotion and spirituality. It is not either/or. A conference can be both academic and address the intense emotional significance of a subject.

It is not possible or desirable to have an academic conference on a topic involving discussion of Mennonite complicity in the genocide of six million Jews and other groups without the expression of emotion. This insistence that the conference ONLY be academic and heady, without allowing other people to participate in shaping elements to support emotional, spiritual and personal responses was harmful. Because several conference attendees had mentioned this need for a grief room, candle or prayers to the conference organizers before and during the conference with no response. It appeared as if the organizers themselves were unable to imagine or acknowledge the emotion that might emerge from the academic discussions, overwhelmed when audience members shared their personal responses, and felt deeply uncomfortable with giving up some control of the conference and allowing others to help facilitate aspects of the program.

For a conference about Mennonite collaboration with the Nazis, it felt in form like Mennonites are still infected with some lingering patriarchal, authoritarian mindsets. There was only one person of color involved as a panel moderator. White men were in charge. No emotion was allowed. Participants were restricted in how they participated. Offers to help facilitate grief circles were seemingly ignored. There was no collective accountability or statement of responsibility. The tone and form of the conference felt offensive given the weight of the facts presented.

P1130403

Statue of Mother Mary standing on Jewish Covenant representing Supercessionist Theology

Ramifications for Mennonite Theology, History, and Institutions Today

For decades, Mennonite historians and theologians have searched for a coherent statement of our history and theology. History impacts theology. While the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) is planning a theology conference to address this history in 2020, it feels strange to try to completely separate out a history conference from a theology conference or to have to wait two more years to take church action on this history. Mennonite complicity with the Holocaust requires action in the present. This is not just an academic historical topic – this history disrupts Mennonite narratives about ourselves, our history, our theology, and our current struggle with racism in the church. Mennonite Nazi connections and theologies of racial superiority continue to have impact today. 

The role of Mennonites and the Holocaust requires an acknowledgement and a statement to Jewish groups that we are undergoing a process of accountability and repentance and invite their participation in how we best do that.  I am curious to understand the rationale for not inviting Jewish participants to attend these conferences where we are wrestling with how we are accountable.

The Bethel conference included papers about German and Dutch Mennonite theology, Some challenged Nazi theology. Some justified Nazi theology. But these scholarly panels made no reference to how the story of Mennonites and the Holocaust seriously disrupts today’s narrative of Mennonite theology.

  • Some Mennonite theologians took part in Nazi racial science, opened church records, and asserted with Nazis that “morals pass through blood.” This is seemingly in direct opposition to Anabaptist beliefs about adult baptism.
  • Some Mennonites in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere rejected pacifism and joined the military to defend national interests. This directly challenges the narrative of Anabaptist nonviolence.
  • Just as West Germany went through a process of self-reflection and intentional de-Nazification, so too does the Mennonite Church need an explicit de-Nazification effort to address the lingering anti-semitism that informs our history and church culture.
  • Mennonite-born White Nationalist leader Ben Klassen is one of the two main figures of the white nationalist movement in North America.  Ben Klassen grew up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and read Mein Kampf there. He credits Mennonite theology for his white supremacy.  Regrettably, Klassen is not an aberration. Some Mennonites have reinforced the ideology of white supremacy in unique ways in US and Canadian history. White nationalism is a serious threat to Muslims, Jews, First Nations, African Americans, Latinos and all people of color and non-Christians in North America today. The white supremacists in Charlottesville last summer were carrying the words of Mennonite-born Ben Klassen. In sharing the history of Mennonite roles in the Holocaust with friends on Facebook, the strongest response has been from African American friends who repeatedly reported that they were “not at all surprised.” Racism and anti-semitism stem from the same superiority narrative and belief that “morals pass through blood.” Friends recounted how they didn’t get jobs at Mennonite institutions even though they were clearly more qualified than the “ethnic Mennonites” who were hired. Our current work on racism needs to be informed now by this history.
  • The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) story has been told in a way that has suppressed the fact that Russian Mennonites were both victims and perpetrators. At the conference, we heard that MCC storyteller Peter Dyck told stories that intentionally deceived not only immigration agents, but also the Mennonite church at large. MCC has hidden the fact that some Russian Mennonites were Nazi leaders and collaborators. The whole story of MCC needs to be retold. MCC needs to reckon with its founding, its relationship to Jews, and its programming in Israel and Palestine which to date has focused almost entirely on the Palestinian narrative without acknowledging Jewish connection to the land and need for control over their safety following centuries of persecution. MCC is holding a 100-year anniversary conference in 2020. Hopefully, this awful history can be addressed, and real action can take place to be accountable for both these historic wrongs and the glaring absence of attention to Jewish connections to the land of Israel just as Palestinians are connected to the land of Palestine, and the need for safety for both Jews and Palestinians.
  • Who will be held to account for suppressing this awful history? Some scholars in the audience at the conference shared that they had tried to raise this history with Mennonite institutions thirty to forty years ago. Church leaders intentionally silenced these voices, diminished the Mennonite role in the Holocaust, and continued to leave out this history. Even today, I’ve heard a dozen Mennonite scholars assert that Ben Goossen’s historical survey of this history in his book Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era is an “exaggeration” or “not footnoted carefully.” When I ask for specifics, it turns out they haven’t yet read the book. But they are clearly eager to downplay the significance of this history (which, as a fellow scholar, I think is well footnoted). This failure to take responsibility and to illustrate accountability and repentance is familiar to those of us who have worked on the history of sexual abuse in the Mennonite church.  Mennonite leaders practice denial and suppression of any facts about Mennonites that are not flattering. They give speeches over and over about Mennonite values, our humility, our history of persecution, our work for reconciliation and justice. But they leave out any truthful acknowledgement of our failings.  They seem to think they can keep these terrible histories down by ignoring and suppressing them.  But truth always has a way of coming out. And the church is more likely to suffer lack of integrity by the failure of Mennonite leadership to confront these problems than it will if it admits the failures of the past.
  • Mennonites and Jews have a unique history. For centuries before the holocaust, Jews and Mennonites were persecuted together. European states applied special taxes, restrictions on public office, and allowed Mennonites and Jews only to live in certain areas. Helen Stolzfus is a Mennonite friend also married to a Jewish man, and also raising her children as both Mennonite and Jewish. Helen gave a reading of a play she and her husband wrote about their discussions of this painful history of Mennonite roles in the long history of anti-semitism. In the play, her Mennonite ancestors and her husband’s Jewish ancestors talk to each other. I know fifteen or so other Mennonite-Jewish families, at least. I don’t know that many Mennonites married to any other groups, not Mennonite Catholics, or Quakers, or Muslims. So why do Mennonites and Jews intermarry so often? And what more can we learn about the history of this, for Mennonite friends have also found they have Jewish blood. Mennonites also need to look into this broader history between Mennonites and Jews.
  • Finally, Mennonites pride themselves as being “authentic” Christians who attempt to return to the teachings of the early church, before the Council of Nicaea and before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Of course, Jesus and the early church were Jewish. Jesus was very clear he was an observant Jew and was not trying to start a new religion. While traveling though Galilee last fall with my students from EMU, we visited the synagogues where Jesus studied. We learned many new things about Jesus, seeing him through the eyes of our Israeli and Palestinian guides. If Mennonites actually want to practice an authentic way of following Jesus, we are going to need to learn more about Judaism.

Mennonite history classes, books and museums need to tell this newly-revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust. The positive narrative of Mennonites needs to include the angels and demons in our histories. We can’t wait another few years to address Mennonite history and theology. It will take a lifetime for me to recover a positive sense of identity after learning all of this. And Mennonites have some serious work to do in taking responsibility for those Mennonites who did these terrible things. We urgently need to begin talking about the ramifications of this history now.

As a witness to this conference and this history, I feel shame, grief, and immense sadness. This history disrupts my world, my identity, and my relationships.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Personal and Literary Responses

20180317_142835.jpg

Session Five: Personal Impacts

“The Missing Pieces of Our Narratives,”
Connie Braun, Trinity Western University

  • Braun opened with her poem “Ecclesiastical Artifacts,” reprinted below with permission:

Ecclesiastical Artifacts

i.

Burning pyres, screws
hammered through tongues
of pious mouths, in ashes.

Births and deaths,

marriages, lineages.
Our tome is thick
with sorrow.

ii.

Between the Nogat and Vistula
and the sea.

iii.

Faith without icon, or Christs
hanging on crosses (He is risen,
He is risen, indeed).
Our ministers thanked God

for sending an army,

Jesus became Aryan, the cross
grew twisted, we, the Volk,
looked the other way

our neighbours’
wooden synagogues doused with gasoline.

We were a berm that could not hold
the river’s current.

Our ancestors’ gravestones
paved Stalin’ roads.

iv.

In green pastures
lower than the sea,
the shells

of our churches and housebarns,
rows and rows

of lindens we planted centuries ago
cast shadow and filigree.

  • Presenting what she termed an “Afterward” to her 2017 book, Silentium, Braun went on to identify two main streams that are missing from the stories Mennonites often tell themselves. First, Mennonites should be mourning not just their own losses and those of their families, “but mourning [also] the loss of the Other. That is the narrative that has been missing from our stories.” Braun also noted that Mennonites’ prejudices are missing from the narratives they construct.

“A Usable Past: Soviet Mennonite Memories of the Holocaust,”
Hans Werner, University of Winnipeg

  • When the Wehrmacht initiated Operation Barbarossa and shortly thereafter occupied Ukraine’s large Mennonite colonies, residents experienced intense relief that they were free from Stalinist oppression. Mennonites in these areas considered themselves German and were viewed as Germans by the invading army. They were seized with euphoria by their liberation at the same time their Jewish neighbors made a desperate escape to the east, with forced labor and death awaiting those who were caught by the advancing German army. Under occupation, Mennonites were engaged across all possible roles, although for this presentation Werner focused on those who were witnesses rather than active perpetrators of genocide
  • Werner enumerated four frameworks used by postwar memoir-writers to render their memories usable: 1) Remember/write only about the Soviet Period, but do not talk about the Holocaust; 2) Write oppositional memoirs rejecting National Socialism and its manifestations, a typology dominated by Mennonite women who married Ukrainians; 3) Feature narratives that acknowledge the stories of Jews whom the writers knew, including their execution; 4) Construct memoirs in such a way as to alleviate guilt, telling stories that portray the Wehrmacht as innocent and/or try to equate Nazi and Allied actions.
  • The presentation concluded by noting that the clearest intersection of the collective and individual memories among Mennonites who experienced Nazi occupation in Ukraine is of Hitler having saved the Mennonites. In the postwar years, members of this cohort grasped for other memories rather than dealing with their own roles in the murder and persecution of Jews and others: “They made their prewar experience under the Soviets into their own Holocaust.”

“Family Responses to the 1930s and ’40s in West Prussia,”
Joachim Wieler, Fachochschule Erfurt

  • Wieler was born before World War II in the eastern German city of Marienburg, and in 1945 fled along with his mother as a refugee to Dresden, which he remembers burning. He recounted the experience of recently being given a box of family documents after his parents had died. Inside the box, he discovered, among other surprises, a thank you note to his mother for supporting the German war effort in the World War I. One letter from after World War II, sent by his father to family from a Soviet prisoner of war camp,  read: “Since we did not do any injustice to anyone and since you also love to work, I believe we will see each other again. In this sense I am greeting all of you with justified confidence and with a strong heart.”
  • Documents from the Nazi period included a letter that Wieler’s father sent from the French front, mixing heavily patriotic language and strong religious overtones: “All soldiers who are fighting here for their fatherland are performing worship in the truest sense of the word.”
  • Wieler ended his presentation by expressing gratitude to Mennonite Central Committee and North American families for their role in supporting refugee families as well as the United States Government’s Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Germany. He also asked, “How many more boxes are out there?”

20180317_160049

Session Seven: Literary Responses

“Readings from Silentium: And Other Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place, and the Sacred,” Connie Braun, Trinity Western University

  • Braun is a poet, memoirist, speaker and instructor. Having written and published widely in diverse genres including poetry, memoir, book reviews and academic papers, her work has been featured in numerous journals and anthologies. Her areas of interest and expertise include Mennonite Studies and Creative Writing. Connie writes on themes of family history, ethnicity, immigration/emigration, loss, (dis)placement and (dis)location.
  • She read from chapter 4, “Running through the heart of storms,” from her 2017 book, Silentium and Other Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place, and the Sacred (Wipf and Stock), proceeded by a poem, “Kanada.” Silentium is based on three visits to Poland–first to her mother’s village, a second to Krakow and Auschwitz (reflected in the excerpt Braun read), and a third that included visiting the Stutthoff concentration camp.

“A Mennonite Wife, A Jewish Husband, and the Holocaust,” dramatic reading from Heart of the World,  Helen Stoltzfus, Black Swan Arts and Media, Oakland, California

  • Stoltzfus reflected on her time as co-artistic director, playwright, and performer for the internationally-acclaimed “A Traveling Jewish Theatre,” in which she was the only non-Jewish member of the ensemble.  This group’s original works for the stage were produced worldwide, including the Los Angeles Theatre Festival, the Kampnagel Hamburg Sommer Festival, the Fool’s Festival in Copenhagen, and the Baltimore International Theater Festival. The group traveled the globe–from Toronto to Oslo, and Prague to Appalachia.
  • “Heart of the World,” written twenty-five years ago, looks at the experience of a Mennonite wife and a Jewish husband as they are expecting a child and discussing how to parent their offspring, with the question, “Who will this child be?” driving the story. The play uses archetypal characters “Ancestral Mennonite” and “Ancestral Jew,” into whom the characters regularly transform, as a way to express “that we all carry our ancestors inside of us, whether we are conscious of this or not.”
  • Speaking about the play and its reception, Stoltzfus recalled, “We sought connections where others saw separations.”

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Soviet Union and Mennonite-Jewish Connections

Session Two: Soviet UnionIMG_20180316_145202.jpg

“Survival and Trial: The Post-War Experience of Chortitza Mennonites”
Erika Weidemann, Texas A& M University

  • Using the life stories of two women, Erika Weidemann explored how the actions of Mennonites from Chortitza during the Second World War influenced their ability to create new lives in the post-war environment.

  • She demonstrated how Mennonites (and other ethnic Germans) attempted to re-characterize their wartime experiences to fit the categories created by the Allied powers of displaced peoples worthy of assistance; sometimes they were successful, other times they were not. Often this re-characterization involved emphasizing their victimhood and reinventing their identity in pursuit of survival.

  • Weidemann’s study shows us that identity politics, which performed an important role in shaping the options and opportunities available to Mennonites during the war, continued to be one of the main factors in determining access to resources and routes out of Europe in the post-war era.

“The Mennonites under the Nazi Regime in KGB Documentation, Ukraine 1941-44”
Dmytro Myeshkov, Nordost-Institut (Lüneberg)

  • Dmytro Myeshkov presented fascinating new materials from the recently opened SBU (KGB) archives in Kiev that reveal many hidden stories about Mennonites before, during, and after the Second World War. While he illustrated the limitations of these sources, which must be read with caution, he also demonstrated their incredible potential in allowing us to trace the life stories of Soviet Mennonites.

  • On the basis of these sources, Myeshkov described the case of Ivan Klassen, a doctor from Molochansk (Halbstadt), who was tried and convicted by the Soviet of a number of offenses. During the German occupation, Klassen visited a hospital in Orloff with disabled people (including children) to determine whether the patients could work or not. After his visit to the site, about half of the people were executed by the Germans. Klassen’s case raises questions on the role of Mennonite doctors in the Holocaust.

  • Finally, Myshkov discussed Mennonite women who served as translators in Crimea. These translators assisted in locating Jews for elimination and they received Jewish property and goods in return for their service. His research cautions us against assuming that only men belong in the category of perpetrators and against viewing the activities of translators under German occupation as benign.

“The Mennonite Search for Their Place in the Struggle Between Germany and the USSR”
Viktor Klets, Dnipropetrovsk University

  • Viktor Klets provided an overview of Mennonite experiences during the Second World War, showing this period in all of its complexities. He reminded us of the deportation of part of the Mennonite population in Ukraine by the Soviets before German occupation and their treatment in the labour army.

  • By demonstrating not only how Mennonites collaborated with the Germans, but also how Mennonites did not quite fit the expectations of these occupiers, Klets illuminates how the Soviet environment had shaped Mennonite life in the years preceding the war.

  • He also offered a window into how Ukrainians viewed Mennonites during this period. Some Ukrainians remembered Mennonites as willing collaborators, who readily adopted a superior attitude toward their neighbours based on their Germanness while others emphasized that Mennonites reacted in similar ways to other Soviet citizens.

Session Three: Mennonite-Jewish Connections20180316_153936.jpg

“Jewish-Mennonite Relations in Gabin, Plock County, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland, Prior to and during World War II”
Colin Neufeldt, Concordia University of Edmonton

  • Colin Neufeldt investigated Mennonite experience in Poland through a microhistory of the village of Deutsche Wymyschle. Based on a combination of archival sources and oral interviews, Neufeldt showed the variety of ways in which Mennonites in this area collaborated with the German occupiers as their Jewish neighbours faced discrimination and then destruction.

  • Neufeldt also shared the story of Erich L. Ratzlaff, a native of Deutsch Wymyschle, who would become well-known as a teacher, editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau, and minister in Canada. After Germany invaded Poland, Ratzlaff became a full member of the Nazi Party, serving the party cause as the mayor of Gabin. Similar to a number of other prominent Mennonite men from this period, this wartime history has never been fully incorporated into Ratzlaff’s biography.

“Mennonites and Jews in Soviet Ukraine”
Aileen Friesen, Conrad Grebel University College

  • My presentation explored issues surrounding perpetration and rescue among Mennonites living in Khortitsa. By detailing the massacre of Jews just outside of Zaporizhia and the celebration of Easter by Mennonites, both events which took place in the spring of 1942, this presentation forces us to address the reality of occupation: Mennonites benefitted from the racialized policies of the Nazis which victimized their Jewish neighbours.
  • By exploring cases of Ukrainians providing assistance to Jews in the province of Zaporizhia, this presentation also raised uncomfortable questions about why we find so few stories of Mennonites helping Jews during this period. 

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Film Screening of Friesennot

Frisians in Peril, 1935

The final event on Friday, March 16, at the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference was an evening screening of the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Friesennot, which in English translates to “Frisians in Peril.” Professor of History Mark Jantzen of Bethel College, one of the conference organizers, introduced the film. Jantzen had requested permission to screen the film from the German Federal Film Archive, and he organized English-language subtitles of the German and Russian dialogue. This was the first public screening of Friesennot in the United States since 1936 and its world premiere with English subtitles.

Friesennot was one of several films featuring Mennonite themes promoted by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Ministry. Of these, Friesennot most explicitly depicts Mennonite characters—although even here, the protagonists are referred to not according to their religion but with to the racial term “Frisian.” The film’s plot follows a small Mennonite colony along the Volga in Russia, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. While the Mennonite inhabitants are portrayed as quintessential Germans, the film depicts communists who arrive in their colony as Semitic brutes, who oppress the blond “Aryan” farmers.

The moral dilemma of Friesennot concerns the Mennonites’ pacifism. While the Bolsheviks steal horses and molest women, the Mennonite elder cautions his congregants to turn the other cheek. Continued abuses by the communists prove this foolhardy, however, and eventually the men of the colony take up arms. One evening while the Bolsheviks are inebriated, the Mennonite militia surprises them in the church building—which has been turned into a drinking hall—slaughtering everyone inside. In the final scene, the colonists pack their belongings and depart for a new homeland.

Refugees, 1933

Nazi filmmakers had become interested in Mennonites following an international crisis in 1929 and 1930 when thousands of refugees fled the Soviet Union, arriving both in Germany and in northern China. This event captured German public attention, inspiring extensive newspaper coverage as well as several novels. In 1933, the first film in the Third Reich to win the Propaganda Ministry’s State Film Prize—entitled Flüchtlinge, meaning “Refugees” in English—followed the fate of German-speaking colonists who escaped from the Soviet Union to China.

Homecoming 1940

During the Second World War, Nazi films with Mennonite themes became tied to ethnic cleansing. In 1940, a film called Heimkehr, meaning “Homecoming,” valorized National Socialist programs to resettle hundreds of thousands of German speakers—including Mennonites—from across Europe to occupied Poland, where they were supposed to “Germanize” land previously held by Poles or Jews. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Propaganda Ministry also re-released Flüchtlinge and Friesennot—retitled Dorf im roten Sturm, meaning “Village in the Red Storm.”

Following the film screening on Friday, discussants noted the various ways that Friesennot contributed to Nazi programs of anti-Semitism before and during the Second World War. Originally produced in 1935, the film coincided with the re-introduction of German military service as well as the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping Jews of citizenship and targeting sexual relations between Germans and Jews—a topic of contention in the film. When re-released during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Friesennot helped generate support for the Nazi war effort and stirred up anti-Semitism at the same time that death squads were initiating the Holocaust.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses”

20180316_110912Bookending Doris Bergen’s lecture “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: The Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust” was the call for more scholarship. Her talk, the keynote of the Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference and convocation for Bethel College, focused on the challenges of doing Holocaust scholarship.  Bergen—who is Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto—explored five specific challenges, increasing in difficulty, with the note that “like those nesting dolls”, each opens new issues even as the resolve others.

The first challenge looked at insider/outsider scholarship, including its costs and benefits. Mennonite scholars come with some advantages–they have access to some sources, especially oral memories–that could not be found by outsiders. Insiders also make special note  of details others might miss: Bergen recounted being at a talk about the nature of the guards at Auschwitz, and in the general spreadsheet of place of origin and other statistics was a column on religion; one Mennonite was listed. “As an insider you notice and care,” noted Bergen. However, insiders face disadvantages. She singled out the push and pull of mythologies, especially “the myth of Mennonite innocence,” as a factor that can lead scholars to attack, defend, or censor themselves.

The second challenge was the question of definitions, specifically “what is a Mennonite” and “what is the Holocaust?” For the former she gave two guidelines. First, a warning to avoid “the temptation to define to distract” where you become so caught up in the words that you lose sight of the matter at hand. Second, she stressed the importance of having a functional definition of identity, not one based on fluid individual identities, but one that accounts for accounts for all ages and genders, covers communal bonds and how Mennonite identity can be constructed. She also included an admonition not to forget the women, “as defining, narrating, and performing Mennonitism has largely been the work of women.” For the latter, she noted that a proper definition of the Holocaust would consider a chronological range, encompassing both the prewar years and the immediate postwar period, as well as  being constructed by the identity of the perpetrators not the victims.

Bergen’s third challenge was to maintain a clear focus on the way Jews maintained a particular place of destruction in the Holocaust, being mindful of anti-Semitism. It is especially important for Mennonites to examine how Jews and anti-Semitism are built into our narratives. As one example, she recounted hearing how “Mennonites were [like] Jews” being told as the description of their experience; an inversion common across genocides where people take on the identity of victims “as a way of erasing their memory of their roles as victimizers.” She also noted how in Mennonite literature, especially in texts in the 1920s and 1930s, Jews become narrated as villains. The solution to this held up by Bergen was to incorporate literary scholars into the research to help analyze texts deeply, as opposed to taking them at face value. She also highlighted the need to have multiple sources, not just Mennonite and German ones, but Jewish, Roma, and more as well.

20180316_110409The fourth challenge was the questions “how do we avoid writing scholarship that is moralistic or judgemental?” Bergen’s response was to start by noting that studying genocide does not imply that she would personally have done better had she lived in a genocidal context, but “scholarship is about analyzing and understanding–how could people like us behave certain ways?” She also warned against the tendency to use avoiding judgement as a way to avoid discussion. This also gets caught up with the maintenance of Mennonite mythology. One solution given was to use the tools of genocide scholarship, which use comparison. “Mennonites were not unique, though distinctive, many of the issues we explore have been and are being confronted by many other people,” said Bergen, “These can be humbling and extremely liberating.”

The final challenge, as articulated at the beginning, was the need for more scholarship, particularly work “that will contextualize the topic, that will be discipline, that will look for unknown unknowns” an use a broad range of sources and tools. While this is an impossible task for an individual, it becomes possible if many become involved. Specific topics of research named included the Stutthoff concentration camp (situated among Mennonite communities), interactions between Mennonites and Roma, pre-war relations with Jews, and the role of singing and music.

Professor Bergen’s research focuses on issues of religion, gender, and ethnicity in the Holocaust and World War II and comparatively in other cases of extreme violence. During the keynote, she confided that she had not grown up with an innate interest in Mennonite history–indeed she actively avoided it–but it found her nonetheless via the topics she researched; at every turn, Mennonites popped out of the archive. Bergen’s books include Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (1996); War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (2003); The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Centuries (edited, 2004); and Lessons and Legacies VIII (edited, 2008).1

 


  1.  http://history.utoronto.ca/people/doris-bergen