The Kindergarten and the Holocaust

Children’s eyes sparkled in the candlelight. This was the first time many had seen a Christmas tree, aglow in the Einlage kindergarten in December 1942. Soldiers handed out wooden toys. They had spent weeks carving them—model houses, schools, churches, city halls, trucks, and trains—while convalescing at the military hospital in this Mennonite village in southeastern Ukraine. The group joined in song, filling the hall with old German Christmas carols. The tunes, which had not been heard openly during the recent years of Bolshevik rule, reminded all those present of the momentous changes wrought since Hitler’s armies had taken control of Ukraine.[^1]

Children march in an October 1942 parade honoring the visit of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, to the Halbstadt Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine. Courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Alber Photograph Collection 151-17.

The Mennonite kindergarten in Einlage was a Nazi showpiece. Military engineers and SS agents had helped refurbish the sturdy stone structure, coated with quality oil paints and sporting its own washroom, kitchen, and cafeteria. The kindergarten had steam heating and electric lights. Einlage’s recovering soldiers hailed from all over Germany, but they affectionately termed the town’s youngest members “their children.” In addition to making toys, they had drawn pictures that inducted the kindergarteners into the fantastical world of German fairy tales and myths. Outside, a swastika flag fluttered in the breezes passing over the Ukrainian steppe.[^2]

No other kindergarten in the whole administrative district of Dnipropetrovsk was as magnificent as Einlage’s. Nazi occupiers had counted 10,000 kindergarten-aged children in the area as being of “German blood.” These had been sorted by men in brown uniforms who could be found in all the villages, going door to door and categorizing inhabitants according to “genealogical and racial biological” criteria.[^3] Children deemed to be German were put into a segregated school system—separate and very unequal. The 129 pupils in Einlage happened to the most fortunate of the roughly 5,000 children already organized into the district’s 110 German-only kindergartens.[^4]

We know about the Einlage kindergarten because it was profiled extensively in two Nazi papers that served the Dnipropetrovsk district. The Ukraine Post and the German Ukraine Newspaper regularly featured Einlage and other villages in the Chortitza Mennonite colony. “Chortitza on the Dnieper!” wrote one SS journalist, expressing joy that through the war, readers had become familiar with “the most flourishing” colony in the district’s “chain of German villages.”[^5] Its fame was rivaled only by that of Halbstadt, Ukraine’s largest Mennonite settlement, which became incorporated into Dnipropetrovsk in September 1942 as Nazi civil administration expanded east.[^6]

Nazi civil administration in occupied Ukraine (shaded) had expanded by September 1942 to encompass the region’s three largest Mennonite colonies (in black). This involved Germanizing place names: Halbstadt was previously called Molotschna, while Kronau had been Zagradovka.

Most of Ukraine’s 35,000 Mennonites lived in three colonies: Chortitza and Halbstadt in the Dnipropetrovsk district as well as Kronau in an area called Mykolaiv. This latter district was served by the German Bug Newspaper, named for the local Bug River. Nazi occupiers reported a total of 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Chortitza, 25,000 in Halbstadt, and 13,000 in Kronau. Most inhabitants were of Mennonite background, although each colony—especially Kronau—included numerous Lutherans and a smaller number of Catholics. All three colonies also had Russians and Ukrainians, whom occupiers subjugated or deported. Death squads shot or gassed resident Jews.

It is possible to reconstruct a detailed picture of Mennonite daily life in Nazi-occupied Ukraine through careful readings of the Ukraine Post, the German Ukraine Newspaper, and the German Bug Newspaper. Scholars must treat these sources cautiously. All three papers’ primary purpose was to circulate propaganda. Their target audiences were German-language readers in Ukraine—including soldiers, bureaucrats, and local Mennonites—as well as interested audiences on the home front. Articles were steeped in anti-communist, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and authors wrote confidently of the Third Reich’s coming victory at a time when the front was already faltering.

Nevertheless, basic information like dates, events, names, and ranks were generally accurate. Selective combing reveals much about Nazi efforts to expand administrative control. Articles tell how local Mennonites joined the army or bureaucracy.[^7] Village names were Germanized.[^8] By October 1942, Chortitza had an operational post office.[^9] Halbstadt’s opened a month later.[^10] One of Dnipropetrovsk’s two courts held session next door.[^11] Occupiers sanctioned businesses like an iron foundry in Chortitza and a machine factory in Halbstadt.[^12] Horse breeding took place, as did silk manufacture.[^13] And tallies are available for grain, milk, and eggs produced in Kronau.[^14]

The nature of these newspapers as propaganda organs makes them valuable for understanding the landscape navigated by local Mennonites. Content and diction reveal how occupiers hoped the region’s “ethnic Germans” would learn to think and act. In May 1943, a Nazi Party rally took place in Mykolaiv. The main speaker thundered that “international Judaism” had started the war: “Whether on the side of the plutocrats or the Bolsheviks, the Jew works everywhere as agitator and provocateur. This war is a race war. We must break the Jewish danger, or we will be broken by it.”[^15] Functionaries fanned across the district, repeating this lie in all twenty-nine of Kronau’s villages.

National Socialists murdered 1.2 million Jews in occupied Ukraine, including tens of thousands in the Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv regions. Propagandists avoided reporting explicitly on the Holocaust. Journalists instead portrayed Jews as aggressors who must be stopped. Jews’ alleged victims were Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans.” The very real deprivations and terrors of Soviet rule were thus ascribed to “Jewish-Bolshevik tyranny.”[^16] Occupiers sized Jewish property and redistributed it, claiming to redress past wrongs. Jubilant reports of one aid action in Kronau mentioned only that the 32,000 clothing and household items were “for the most part used.”[^17]

The same agencies that liquidated Jews provided aid to Mennonites.[^18] Their backdrop was total war. Thousands starved across Ukraine, and the land was pocked with barely-covered mass graves. But Nazi administrators wanted “ethnic Germans” to live happy and whole. “Blossom-white are the dresses and the head coverings of the women and the girls,” remarked one visitor of a Sunday in Chortitza.[^19] Another crowed: “The simple church is no longer a movie theater as in Bolshevik times.”[^20] Both Chortitza and Halbstadt played host to triumphal delegations of the Third Reich’s leading Nazis, including enormous rallies for Reich Minister Alfred Rosenberg.[^21]

“You are a piece of Germany!” Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, spoke to thousands of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” in the Chortitza colony in June 1942. Rosenberg and his high-powered entourage visited Halbstadt a year later. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Administrators moved quickly to indoctrinate Mennonites into National Socialism. By December 1941, all able-bodied men in Kronau were organized into a paramilitary German Corps. Boys aged fourteen to seventeen belonged to a German Youth Corps, and their female counterparts aged fourteen to twenty-one joined a League of Ethnic German Girls.[^22] The local Women’s League was responsible for activities like sewing circles and distributing clothing shipments from Auschwitz. Aid workers arrived in the colonies with such organizations as the German Red Cross, the People’s Welfare, and the SS. Chortitza, Halbstadt, and Kronau all received youth delegations from Germany.[^23]

This 1942 feature piece in the wartime Nazi newspaper, Ukraine Post, lauded local Mennonites: “Thanks to their strict lifestyle and their outstanding work ethic, they became the most successful German settlers in the East.”

Occupiers stressed education. Wartime transportation needs initially prevented regular teacher exchanges between Germany and Ukraine. Small groups of professionals therefore held crash courses so that local educators could be “indoctrinated in the National Socialist mindset.”[^24] These specialists organized back-to-back three-week camps in Kronau during the spring of 1942.[^25] Wagon upon wagon of men and women arrived, some from as far as one hundred miles away.[^26] Participants heard lectures on German politics, literature, and art. They then returned to their villages, where schools received Nazi-oriented workbooks and reading materials.[^27]

Kindergartens comprised just one among many types of German-only educational institutions to open in Mennonite colonies. Chortitza’s segregated kindergartens were joined by elementary schools and, in 1943, at least two high schools.[^28] Kronau boasted planned or operational middle schools, high schools, an agricultural school, and a training school for rural women’s work. The orchestra of one institute played Wagner for visiting dignitaries, and pupils pledged loyalty to Reich and Führer from the stage.[^29] A teacher training academy that served as Ukraine’s primary location for cultivating “ethnic German” educational professionals held class in Halbstadt.[^30]

Education prospered both in and out of the classroom. Hitler Youth officers kicked into high gear during the summer of 1943. A third of eligible young people across Dnipropetrovsk already belonged to the German Youth of Ukraine, with the best results from Chortitza and Halbstadt’s “fertile ground.”[^31] Following a leadership training camp, the graduates—forty-two girls and thirty-two boys—staffed camps throughout the district. The grandest lasted six weeks and had 160 participants.[^32] Affirmative action also came to Ukraine. In Chortitza, twenty gifted young people competed for five spots to study in Germany.[^33] Others returned from learning trips to teach true Nazism at home.[^34]

No single school received as much public attention as the Einlage kindergarten. This was the prize institution overseen by “Aunt Müller,” the area’s child education specialist. In 1942, Aunt Müller, who originally hailed from Transylvania, organized a camp for twenty girls and women who would go on to become Chortitza’s kindergarten workforce. They put on a craft exhibition, and those who were particularly quick studies received awards.[^35] Under Aunt Müller’s direction, plans were initiated to expand the school and to board children aged three to seven from outlying villages. The Chortitza iron foundry agreed to repair donated beds.[^36]

It is a miracle.” So wrote a German soldier named Leonhard Froese in 1943. His own daughter attended kindergarten on the home front, and he penned a glowing letter to the German Ukraine Newspaper describing his visit to the school in Einlage. Each day, the building opened by 7:00. At 8:00, the children assembled outside for roll call. The swastika flag would be hoisted, and it was time for athletic exercises. Then everyone would “goose step” through the front door. Each child had a personal cubby for jackets. During field trips, they were divided into three groups by height: giants, dwarves, and Thumbelinas. To Froese’s eye, he could have been in Germany.[^37]

Decades after the Second World War, under entirely different circumstances, I, too, attended a Mennonite kindergarten. My school was in Indiana, not war-torn Ukraine. My parents had not suffered through years of fear and hunger in the Soviet Union. Nor did Bolshevik agents come in the night to shoot my grandfathers or to deport them to gulags. My kindergarten cubby contained a nylon jacket, not some wrap of unknown provenance, perhaps taken from another five-year-old who happened to be born to a Jewish family. Nevertheless, the songs, the laughter, the shouts, and the joy of children at the Einlage kindergarten resonate with me. What a privilege it is to learn.

Precisely such familiarity of experience is what renders Mennonites’ past in wartime Ukraine so chilling. Nazi officials did not hide Einlage’s kindergarten. Unlike the blood-soaked pits virtually a stone’s throw away, writers trumpeted the school in page upon page of propaganda. Education in Einlage was intended to show Nazism’s radiant potential. It represented an alleged antidote to “Judeo-Bolshevism.” It was what the Holocaust was supposed to enable not only in Ukraine, but for all children of “German blood.” Today, historians sift laboriously through archival records to identify Mennonite death squad members. No such work is needed for Einlage’s kindergarteners.

Collective memories of this Holocaust kindergarten have never left us. Mennonites who grew up in Ukraine during the Second World War continue to speak and write with grateful thanks for their generous treatment by the Third Reich. When Hitler’s regime collapsed in 1945 and they became homeless refugees, their plight developed into a cause célèbre for congregations across Europe and the Americas. Their voices and their stories remain heard through film, books, and close family relationships, including my own. Leading Mennonite newspapers in North America still to this day credit Nazi officials with returning a “semblance of normal life” to Ukraine.[^38]

Our denomination, as Christian peace church, must grapple with our history in the Holocaust. This is first and foremost the tale of the Einlage kindergarteners, of Jews murdered so that Mennonites could flourish. Myths of happy wartime children shine with the light of latent anti-Semitism. It is a vital, urgent task to identify and to root out our anti-Semitic narratives. I have never once felt physically endangered because of my faith. But in my country, Jews are gunned down in houses of worship. If you are a Mennonite, if you attended a kindergarten, or if you ever experienced the wonder of singing around a Christmas tree, this story is for you. This is a task for our church.

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

[^1]: “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 9, 1943, 8; “Soldaten erfreuen volksdeutsche Kinder,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 29, 1942, 3. All of the newspaper articles cited in this essay are freely available online: https://libraria.ua/en [^2]: Leonhard Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 11, 1943, 8.
[^3]: Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Leistungen deutscher Kolonisten,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung<, August 8, 1942, 3; “Das Bluterbe der Väter,” Ukraine Post, March 6, 1943, 3.
[^4]:“Fürsorge für die Volksdeutschen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 31, 1943, 3; “Es geht wieder vorwärts,” Ukraine Post, August 10, 1943, 8.>
[^5]: “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
[^6]: “Erweiterung des Reichskommissariats,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 2, 1942, 3; “Eingliederung in das Reichskommissariat,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, September 5, 1942, [^7]: Rudolf Rümer, “Heimkehr in das Volkstum,” Ukraine Post, October 31, 1942, 3.
[^8]: “Alexanderstadt statt Bolschaja-Alexandrowka,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 9, 1942, 4.
[^9]: “Neue Dienstpostämter,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 3, 1942, 3.
[^10]: Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 15, 1942, 3.
[^11]: “Deutsches Gericht in Halbstadt,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 2, 1943, 3.
[^12]: “Amtliche Bekanntmachung,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 12, 1943, 6.
[^13]: “Körordnung für den Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4; “Aufbau der Pferdezucht,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 29, 1943, 3; “Deutscher Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 31, 1943, 3; “Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3.
[^14]: “Volksdeutsche Bauern packen weider an,” Ukraine Post, July 3, 1943, 7.
[^15]: “‘Der Kampf ist hart aber wir sind härter!’” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 29, 1943, 4.
[^16]: “Der Ruf des Reiches an die Volksdeutschen am Schwarzmeer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 16, 1943.
[^17]: “Kleider für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 30, 1943, 3; “Kleidungsstücke für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 6, 1943; “Die Hilfsaktion wird fortgesetzt,” Ukraine Post, July 20, 1943, 8.
[^18]: Rudolf Rümer, “Volksdeutsche sind unserer Hilfe sicher,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 22, 1942, 3.
[^19]: “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
[^20]: “Nach deutschem Vorbild,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 2, 1942, 3; “Deutsche Art dringt durch,” Ukraine Post, April 17, 1943, 5.
[^21]: “Führung des europäischen Ostens größte Aufgabe unseres Volkes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 21, 1942, 1; Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Festtag im deutschen Dorf am Dnjepr,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 28, 1942, 3; “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung; “Reichsleiter Rosenberg besuchte die Schwarzmeerdeutschen,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 22, 1943, 3-4.
[^22]: “Aus der Volkstumsarbeit Kronau, Gebeit Alexanderstadt,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 11, 1942, 4; “Der Generalkommissar in Alexanderstadt und Nowibug,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 1, 1942, 4.
[^23]: “Erzähl uns von Deutschland,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 25, 1942, 3; “HJ-Tagebuch in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 5, 1942, 3; “Abschluss der HJ-Fahrt durch den Generalbezirk,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 26, 1942, 4; “Jugend als Sendboten des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 19, 1943, 3; “Harzer Hitlerjungen im Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3; “Regelung des studentischen Osteinsatzes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 4, 1942, 3.
[^24]: “Umschulungslager volksdeutscher Lehrer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 24, 1942, 3.
[^25]: “Umschulungslager für volksdeutsche Lehrer,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, April 8, 1942, 4.
[^26]: “Volksdeutsche Lehrer im Schulungslager,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4.
[^27]: “Der Lehrernachwuchs in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 2, 1942, 3.
[^28]: “Zwei neue deutsche Hauptschulen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 13, 1943, 3.
[^29]: “Schülerheim in volksdeutschem Dorf,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 16, 1943, 3.
[^30]: “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung.
[^31]: “Volksdeutsche Jugend an der Arbeit,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 21, 1943, 3; “Jugend im Gleichschritt,” June 5, 1943, 7.
[^32]: “Volksdeutsche Jugend in froher Gemeinschaft,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 17, 1943, 3.
[^33]: “Ausleselager in Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 15, 1942, 3; “Aufgeschlossen, begabt, einsatzbereit, kameradschaftlich,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 3, 1943, 2.
[^34]: “Die Kinder der ‘Kulaken,’” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 9, 1943, 3.
[^35]:“Für die Volksdeutsche Jugend,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 3, 1943, 3.
[^36]: Rümer, “Heimkerh in das Volkstum.”
[^37]: Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat.”
[^38]: Rich Preheim, “From ‘Tauferkammer’ to Burkina Faso,” Mennonite World Review, December 3, 2018, 6.

Necessary Idealism: A History of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate

While the legacies of Anglo and French schooling are well studied, Canada also has a long history of religious schools founded by ethnic groups that were neither English Protestants, nor French Catholics. The Mennonites, for example, were convinced to immigrate to Canada in the late nineteenth century in part by federal government promises that they could create their own education system. Mennonite interest in education, according to John W. Friesen, can be traced back to Prussian Mennonites who believed in a minimalist education that would “perpetuate the German language and acquaint their children with the Bible and Mennonite distinctives.”[^1]

A popular contemporary perception of ethno-religious private schools such as those of the Mennonites is that they were created to perpetuate narrow understandings of religious belief, and to limit—or at least carefully direct—the integration of students with the wider society in which they found themselves. The history of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba provides some contrast to this perception. Westgate was established as much as an alternative to existing Mennonite schools as to the public school system. Its founders believed the existing Mennonite high schools in the province of Manitoba provided too narrow a perspective, both religiously and socially. The formation was thus the opposite of a trend that had occurred among Mennonites in the United States a generation earlier. There, schools like Hesston College were formed in part as an objection to the perceived laxity of older Mennonite institutions like Goshen College[^2]

Westgate

Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, originally known as Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI), was founded by Mennonites in Winnipeg in 1958. It is one of hundreds of small ethnic private schools that had proliferated across Canada by the mid-twentieth century.[^3] The particular form of ethno-religious identity that the school attempted to inculcate in students differed from the Mennonitism promoted by other Mennonites in the province, and also changed over time. As a result, the school’s history—and possibly the history of other, similar schools—defies simple categories of assimilation or cultural resistance.

Victor Peters, one of Westgate’s founders, promoted a vision of the school as an alternative to Anglo-Canadian assimilation, even as he invoked Anglo-Canadian scholars and politicians in support of his perspective. The school’s objective was not to preserve a static representation of Mennonite culture and belief, but—in his words—to “take on the good aspects” of non-Mennonites while “discarding the less valuable aspects” of Mennonite tradition.[^4] Over the years, this process resulted in Westgate defining Mennonitism in ways that at times led to demands that the school enforce exactly the kind of static definition of identity the founders had wanted to avoid.

In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the school in 2007, Westgate commissioned the writing of their history. This peer-reviewed publication is now in print at CMU Press. The book’s title, Necessary Idealism, is taken from the initial conversations of the nine men and one woman who met in February 1957, to discuss forming a new Mennonite high school in Winnipeg. Doing so, they concluded, would require not only significant funds but also “the necessary idealism.” This idealism was tested throughout the school’s history, both by those within and without, and the school changed somewhat in response. Despite those changes, the core nature of the school persisted: Westgate was an alternative, not only to the secular world, but to the limits of the Mennonite one.

[^1] John W. Friesen, “Studies in Mennonite Education: The State of the Art.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 133.
[^2] John Ellsworth Hartzler, Education Among the Mennonites of America Danvers IL: The Central Mennonite Publishing Board, 1925), 165.
[^3] See T. Krukowski, “Canadian Private Ethnic Schools,” Comparative Education 
4, no. 3 (June 1968): 199-204.
[^4] Westgate Mennonite Collegiate archives, untitled typescript with handwritten notation: “V. Petersan die Gruenderversammlung”

Centennial Histories Symposium at Eastern Mennonite University March 24, 2018

20180324-centennial histories conference-001-1000pxPhoto credit: Macson McGuigan/EMU

In celebration of Eastern Mennonite University’s centennial year, history professors Mary Sprunger and Mark Sawin planned a symposium centered around the centennial histories of the five MCUSA colleges: Bethel1, Goshen, Bluffton, Hesston, and EMU. They brought together the five authors of centennial histories as well as past presidents to share their reflections on the histories of the schools. The symposium offered an opportunity for consideration of how the past of these schools plays into their present and future.

The first session was a panel discussion where each author gave a brief overview of the histories of their institution. The authors shared in order of school age; Keith Sprunger from Bethel first, then Susan Fisher Miller from Goshen, Perry Bush from Bluffton, John Sharp from Hesston, and finally Donald Kraybill from EMU. It was interesting to hear parallels in the motives for some of the schools’ foundings. There was a common thread of these schools starting in order to save Mennonite students–both to save them from the evils of the world and to save them from leaving so that their talents could be used in the church. All of the authors recognized that loyal faculty and staff have seen the schools through very difficult times. They also echoed a theme of change and adaptation across the five schools stories. But some differences were apparent as well–Midwest vs. East coast, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, and an openness to the world vs. a fortress mentality. Past presidents Loren Swartzendruber and Victor Stoltzfus and outgoing Bluffton president James Harder also shared their reflections.

In the second session the authors shared about challenges throughout the schools’ history. Keith Sprunger shared about Bethel first, mentioning issues like financial struggles, low enrollment, difficulty in finding quality faculty, and diversity. These topics would be echoed by many of the authors on the panel. Susan Fisher Miller discussed declining Mennonite enrollment and pondered whether the Mennonite institutions have become victims of their own success–did they nurture strong minds early on who then moved on to “greener pastures” of more prestigious education and subsequently encouraged their children to do the same? Perry Bush spoke about how Mennonite institutions are now a part of the national marketplace of higher ed and have to contend with issues like being competitive cost-wise, offering good value for money, and finding support outside of traditional church and parachurch organizations. John Sharp mentioned the historic lack of cooperation between Hesston and Bethel even though they are located just a few miles apart. Don Kraybill spoke of the particular issue of encouraging diversity at EMC while contending with the Jim Crow-era South. The authors all acknowledged ongoing “sibling rivalry” between the institutions, but noted that early attitudes of isolation and competition have since been replaced with an attitude of cooperation.

The third session was a time where groups of faculty, students, staff, administrators and authors gathered around tables for conversation. Participants discussed the morning’s sessions as well as questions from a prepared handout that asked:

  • What should the guiding mission and purpose of Mennonite schools be in coming years given the changes in both the church and the student bodies?
  • Is being distinctively ‘Mennonite’ important?
  • Institutions by necessity grow and change. How will Mennonite institutions need to change to remain relevant in the future? What are the ‘givens’ that must remain? What are the traditions that may need to change?

There was a second handout highlighting enrollment trends at the Mennonite institutions over the past fifteen years. It broke down enrollment by MCUSA conference, trends of Mennonite student attendance, and overall full-time Mennonite traditional undergraduate enrollment at the schools. These graphs can be found here: http://bit.ly/MennoHS & http://bit.ly/MennoSystem

These questions and the data sparked fascinating conversations surrounding Mennonite identity and population at the institutions, what it means to be a Mennonite institution in the face of dwindling Mennonite attendance, and what impact larger societal trends are having on these institutions.

In the final session the authors gave their final thoughts on how the first centuries of these institutions will inform the next. Many reiterated the distinctiveness of these five institutions in maintaining their Mennonite identity over their histories and the importance of loyal faculty and alumni. Susan Fisher Miller highlighted the benefits of diversity and an international focus. Perry Bush reminded the group of how radical and attractive the Anabaptist perspective can be to students, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite, and said he believes remaining distinctly Anabaptist and following a Third Way is the best path forward for our schools. John Sharp posed the question: who are we serving if the church that we serve is scattering? Don Kraybill had to leave early but left remarks that were read reflecting on the difficulties of maintaining Mennonite institutions of higher education without a critical mass of Mennonite students and strong church support. Finally, students responded to what they had discussed in the afternoon. They spoke of their appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about the history of their institutions and called for more cooperation and conversation between the student bodies of the schools.

Many in the Q&A sessions voiced a wish that these conversations had taken place long ago and a desire to see them continue in the future. It was a hopeful time for me to see such cooperation and engagement across a variety of sectors in our Mennonite institutions and I, too, hope that these conversations continue as we all work toward our common goal of providing distinctive, faith-based, Anabaptist education. As I reflect on the symposium, I feel that it is clear that the Mennonite institutions of higher ed are entering a new era. The old models are unreliable and in order to survive and thrive there must be an openness to new ways of being. This brings uncertainty, grappling with questions of identity, and, at times, pain. But it feels necessary to ensure the survival of these beloved institutions in their second centuries. As someone who was shaped by Mennonite education and feels privileged to work at EMU, I hope that the challenges facing the institutions will spark creativity, cooperation, and positive change and allow for the continued flourishing of our Mennonite institutions.

Special thanks to Mark Sawin, Mary Sprunger, Barbara Byer, Scott Barge and all others who contributed to facilitate this fantastic symposium.


  1. Bethel’s history was written to commemorate its 125th anniversary.