She Came Back to Help: Aganetha Loewen Wiens’ Experiences as a Nurse and Midwife in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, 1980s-Present

The following is the third article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

The 1960s and 70s were a turbulent time within the Mennonite settlements in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua, Mexico. Communities split over the introduction of electricity and running water, which were previously forbidden. Excommunications for putting rubber tires on tractors and buying cars and trucks were so common that colony land directly adjacent to the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc was settled by excommunicated people and became known the Quinta Lupita colony. For poor, landless young men in the colonies, referred to by some as “Mennonite cowboys,” semi-truck driving became a path to economic and social freedom. With newfound access to vehicles, families began joining migrant farm labor circuits in the U.S. and Canada, earning more in a few months than they could earn in years in Mexico.1 Suddenly, the Campos weren’t so isolated from Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, and the rest of the world. Commerce between Mestizos and Mennonites exploded since it was no longer limited to the distance that could be covered by a horse and buggy.

However, this increased mobility did not typically extend to women in the colonies, particularly young, single women like Aganetha Loewen Wiens. Aganetha grew up in a traditional Old Colony community during these tumultuous years and feeling the buzz of this movement around her, she was determined to pursue and education beyond the sixth grade. Although she didn’t speak Spanish and was the only Mennonite in the school, she insisted on attending the only accredited secondary school in the area at the time, in the village of Alvaro Obregon. She told the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project (REBB) in 20182:

I did it practically without speaking any Spanish and all of school was in Spanish. I struggled a lot in those first months to understand the teachers. Sometimes, I would find out later that they assigned homework. But I had some good classmates who saw I was struggling who came and asked me if I understood what homework we were supposed to do. It was an extraordinary experience.

Aganetha always pushed against the boundaries of what was acceptable in her community, moving to Chihuahua to attend college after completing secondary school, years before anyone else, male or female, would do so.

I had the idea of going to Chihuahua to study nursing, I had a lot of obstacles, especially from my family, there was no economic support, nothing. Nobody supported me when I had this idea, but there was a teacher from the Campo 101 school who gave me economic support and support in every sense of the word to be able to study there. During those years, I learned that, yes, change is possible, yes, that it’s possible to live differently. Afterwards, I told myself: Yes you can, if you want to, anything is possible.

She became a nurse and married a Mestizo man, a doctor, whom she met at the hospital during her year of assigned government social service and had three children. She also trained to be midwife during an era in Mexico, the second half of the twentieth century, which historian Ana Maria Carillo referred to as “the death of the midwife.”3 Aganetha described the dynamics with the traditional Ojo de la Yegua Colony where she and her husband moved and opened a clinic in the 1980s:

It was a very traditional community. When we started there, there was no highway, no electricity. . . . In the practice we had a room where we attended births. The women were very isolated. I had been rejected because I left the community. But they came for medical attention. That was not rejected. They accepted that. There was no problem. Lots and lots of people came. Those who didn’t know Spanish struggled a lot to go to the doctor. For this reason, they sought us out. We had the advantage that we could communicate with them in their language.

When Aganetha began attending births in the Mennonite Campos in the 1980s, it was nearly impossible for Mennonite women, traditional or non-traditional, to have any formal medical training and those who would have wanted to obtain it would have had to go to Chihuahua to receive it. During this period from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the gap between the Spanish speaking medical establishment and Low-German speaking Mennonite women remained wide, and at the same time, many birthing and post-partum practices traditionally practiced in Mennonite culture, such as home births and breast feeding, were becoming less and less common in many colonies for a variety reasons internal and external (following contemporary national and global trends), leaving many Low-German speaking Mennonite women, particularly in the most conservative communities, without adequate access to care from either the Spanish speaking medical establishment or from traditionally trained Mennonite midwives.4

Aganetha’s training as a nurse and cultural and linguistic background gave her the ability to provide maternal care to women who would not have otherwise had access. Running the clinic with her husband, a medical doctor, provided her with a framework for acceptance within the professionalized, male dominated medical establishment and gave her credibility in an environment that was increasingly skeptical of midwifery. Her training as a nurse; however, provided her with skills and knowledge unavailable to previous generations of traditional midwives and was a pre-cursor to later movements in maternal health care that would incorporate modern medicine with the care, skill, support and advocacy provided by midwives to give women a voice known in their pre and post-natal care and in the birthing process. In Mexico, this movement toward a more woman-centered standard of maternal became known as the fight for “partos humanizados,” or “humanized births.”5 During the time Aganetha and her husband ran their clinic in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, Mennonite women wanted hospital births, but did not have access to them in their remote location. Aganetha was able to serve as a bridge the medicalization and professionalization of maternal care and midwifery by providing Mennonite women with the culturally appropriate medical care in their language that they were unable to get anywhere else.

After her husband’s death in 1998, Aganetha continued running the clinic and pharmacy and attending births on her own. Though she eventually closed her clinic and pharmacy in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, she relocated to the Swift Current Colony where she continues to practice to this day. During her interview with the REBB Oral History Project, Aganetha excused herself from the interview to attend to a patient who honked her horn in the driveway to alert Aganetha that she had arrived. After about fifteen minutes, Aganetha returned and poured more coffee before sitting down to finish the interview. Reflecting on how her work as a nurse and midwife has changed over the course of nearly forty years, she smiled and said:

I still work here. I still do what I love and use what I learned. I have a pharmacy and I love working there and seeing people in the practice. Recently, there has been one birth after another. Children are still born here, and I love attending the births. I can’t really say anything has changed about the work itself because I do it the way I’ve always done it. In the thirty-five to forty years since I went to school, things have improved a lot. The mentality is more open. It’s not so closed anymore.

Though Aganetha and became a nurse and midwife against the wishes of her family and community, the transition between the tumultuous times of change and reform in the Mennonite colonies and today, where there is a greater diversity of religious expression, more educational opportunities, and increased access to healthcare, was very difficult, and it would not have been possible without the work of women who left the traditional church (through excommunication or by their own choice, like Aganetha) who later returned to their communities to serve and support the women who still lived there.

Part four of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal health in the Mennonite Campos of the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua will explore the dynamics concerning the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico, particularly in rural areas, as well as, the role of Katia LeMone, a Certified Nurse Midwife from New Mexico, whose close relationship with her Mennonite clientele laid the groundwork for the creation of Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School that serves clients and midwifery students from Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Rarámuri backgrounds in the heart of the Campos Menonitas.


Part 1: “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos”

Part 2: “This Woman Saved Lives: Prohibitions on Midwifery in Post-Revolutionary Mexico”


1. David Klassen, 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.

2. Aganetha Loewen Wiens, 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. Carrillo, Ana Maria, “Naciemiento y muerte de una profesión. Las parteras tituladas en México” (“Birth and Death of a Profession. Certified Midwives in Mexico.” DYNAMIS, 167-190, 1999.

4. 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.

5. Alejandra Saena Izunza, “Parir en México es un acto de resistencia” (“Giving Birth in Mexico is an Act of Resistance”), Washington Post, Jan. 13th, 2020.

This Woman Saved Lives: Prohibitions on Midwifery in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

The following is the second article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

In the years following the Mexican Revolution, a Mennonite midwife, Susanna Shellenberg, whose life and work was referenced in Part 1 of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal care, was ordered by the government to stop attending births and providing the local communities of Cuauhtémoc, Cusihuiriachi, and Santa Rita with herbal remedies. What happened next was the result of a perfect storm of contemporary socio-political and religious dynamics unfolding at the national level, as well as changing sentiments about midwifery and traditional healing that coincided with the development of Mexico’s national public health system and its focus on modernizing medical treatment in rural areas.   

The years following the Mennonites’ arrival in San Antonio de los Arenales (modern-day Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico,) from Canada in 1922, were marked by an intense period of national political and social reorganization following the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa’s soldiers in the north and Emiliano Zapata’s soldiers in south and central Mexico, returned home to conditions that were similar under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and continued pushing for increased land reform through armed revolt and political action. Some of these conflicts played out in and near the Mennonite Campos, detailed by local historian José Luis Domínguez in his book The Other History of the Mennonites (La Otra Historia de los Menonitas), and led to the creation of the Two Hundred Colony (Colonia Dos Cientos), so called for the 200 pesos paid for in exchange for giving up their claim to land now occupied by Mennonites.1

President Álvaro Obregón, who during his term (1920-1924) granted privilegium to the Mennonites to settle in the state of Chihuahua, enforced land reform provisions that had been laid out in the 1917 Constitution, but had not implemented in practice into the Mexican government’s infrastructure. He was viewed by many as a force that quelled unrest and that navigated the unification and modernization of Mexico, while negotiating increased commercial relations with the United States. However, in years following his term (1926-1929), an armed conflict, known as the Cristero War (La Cristiada), raged in the western and central regions of the country (excluding border states like Chihuahua) between President Plutarco Calles’ anti-clerical forces that advocated for a secular state and the enforcement of punitive “Calles Laws” and the Cristeros who supported the Catholic Church. In 1928, Álvaro Obregón succeeded Calles and was re-elected president, but was assassinated soon after because of his support of Calles and his anti-Catholic policies. A peace between Calles’ forces and the Cristeros and was brokered in 1929 through a complex web of international negotiations, which included a U.S. ambassador, the Knights of Columbus, and representatives from the Vatican.2

The 1930s ushered in the beginning of a period of relative stability and the election of Lázaro Cardenas in 1934 marked an increased push to modernize Mexico, with special attention to its rural areas. This period of reorganization, while tumultuous, shaped the economic, socio-political and religious dynamics in Mexico to this day and gave birth to some of modern Mexico’s institutions such as the Ejidal public land system and the national public health system3 and serves as the historical backdrop to the following oral history testimony concerning a confrontation between a Mennonite midwife, Susana Shellenburg, two local Cuauhtémoc doctors, and the Mexican government.

Coinciding with the drafting of the 1917 Constitution, which focused on land reform, the roles and responsibilities of the secular, centralized federal government, and the protection, fundamental human rights of Mexican citizens, which included healthcare, Mexico also created the first iteration of its national department of public health (Departamento de Salubridad Pública) that focused on the provision of potable water, the prevention and treatment of contagious diseases, and the launching of vaccination campaigns. By 1931, the State Health Services (Servicio de Sanidad de los Estados) was established to build health infrastructure and access in rural areas and was the precursor to the national public health system that Mexico has today that was created in a variety of iterations beginning in the 1940s.4

The following oral history, which was shared with Casa Geburt Midwifery Training School by Susanna Thiessen, Susana Shellenberg’s great-grandaughter, occurs in the midst of these sweeping national public health campaigns and reforms.

“My great-grandmother [Susana Shellenberg] was born in Canada in 1905 and was the wife of Heinrich Shellenberg. Susana learned how to attend births and how to heal the sick with herbs from two traditional Jewish women in Canada.

In 1927, Heinrich, Susana, and their two daughters came to Mexico. At that time, there were no doctors in the Cuauhtémoc area. She immediately began to care for the sick. After some years in Mexico, she also began to provide midwifery services. She served in the Campos Menonitas, as well as in the Mexican ranches. Sometimes, people came for her in the middle of the night in a horse and buggy to take her to attend births or to heal the sick.

Many times, the people were so poor, they couldn’t even offer her a coffee. She attended many births where she didn’t receive payment of any kind. She also took along baby clothes and blankets because she knew that the people didn’t have anything to keep their babies warm.

Some years later, doctors began to arrive in Cuauhtémoc, including Dr. Cazale and Dr. Barba Cornejo. The city had grown with the passing of time. There were people who were jealous of the type of help that Susana was providing and made a legal complaint against her with the government. She had to stop helping people for a time until some Mexican people that she had helped before said, “This woman saved our families’ lives and we want her to continue helping people.” The Mexicans fought for Susana until after some time, the government gave her a permit to be able to continue working freely.”

Despite tensions surrounding land disputes between Mestizos and Mennonites during this period  as well as accusations that the government was giving preference to the Mennonites as a religious group in a state that purported secular governance, Susanna’s rapport with the local Mestizo community was so strong that they came to her defense and demanded that she be allowed to continue to practice. Additionally, the local community’s support of Susanna reveals resistance of many within the rural population to embrace the modern medical infrastructure they felt was being imposed on them by outsiders from Mexico City. To avoid additional unrest in an already delicate socio-political, economic and religious environment, the government conceded to the will of local Cuauhtémoc residents and Susanna was allowed to continue to practice.    

Though the Mestizo residents advocated on behalf of Susanna Shellenberg and she was given a special permit by the government to continue practicing, Susana’s story is representative of a common theme occurring at that time in Mexico. As medicine became professionalized in Mexico, midwifery was seen as a threat to medical practice the woman-centered model of maternal provided by midwives was replaced by an almost exclusively male, professional medical establishment, which in keeping with commonly held views of the time, viewed pregnancy and birth through the lens of pathology and did not provide women a voice or position within the new modern medical system.

Doctor María Graciela Freyermuth Enciso, a researcher for Mexico’s National Social Development Policy Institute (CONEVAL) and a social anthropologist who focuses on maternal health and midwifery while simultaneously chronicling the history of midwifery in Mexico writes, “Midwifery almost went extinct in Mexico….midwives were criticized by doctors and didn’t have a voice in that transition.”5 Though Susanna continued to work as a midwife and herbal healer for the remainder of her life, she was the exception not the rule.

Susanna Thiessen describes her great-grandmother’s work after she was given permission by the government to begin practicing again saying,   

“My great-grandmother continued her work out of her home where she had a small clinic and saw patients freely. Sometimes, people had kidney problems and she attended to them for weeks in her home. At first, she ordered the products for her natural remedies from Germany, but there was a problem with the package delivery and she began to place orders with Mexican companies. She needed these herbs to care for sick patients. Sometimes, she sold a little of the medicine, but very cheaply, because many times people didn’t have money.

She had two books with medicinal recipes and she made many of the remedies herself. She worked into her old age. She was eighty years old when she attended her last birth and it was the birth of her great-grandson, her granddaughter’s son. This child’s mother said that this child who was born with his great-grandmother was stronger than the other children who were born in hospitals with doctors.”

By the 1980s, when Susanna Shellenberg died, births in the Tres Culturas Region with the exception of the most rural and marginalized women from Mestizo, Mennonite, and Rarámuri backgrounds, were almost exclusively attended in hospitals. The vast majority of these births were performed by C-section, which matched trends nationally. Though the national health system drastically improved health outcomes in many areas, particularly in the prevention and treatment of infectious disease, the maternal and infant mortality rates, particularly in rural areas of Mexico, remain so high that World Health Organization, federal, state and local governments, and health care workers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors are continuing to seek the development of community health models and culturally responsive maternal care that will improve mortality outcomes.6

Part 3 of this series will explore the beginnings of the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico generally and the Mennonite Campos specifically, exploring the origins nurse midwives who beginning in the 1970s, began practicing integrating the knowledge and community trust held by traditional midwives with modern medical training, giving particular attention to the experiences of a nurse and midwife who is still practicing in the Campos today, Aganetha Loewen Wiens.   

[Oral History translated from German to Spanish by Sara Banman, a graduate of Casa Geburt’s midwifery training school, also currently working in the Campos Menonitas.]

[Oral History translated from Spanish to English by Abigail Carl-Klassen.]


Read part one of Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos


1. José Luis Domínguez. La otra historia de los menonitas. (Chihuahua: Ediciones Kleidi, 2015)

2. Michael J. Gonzales. The Mexican Revolution 1910-1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002)

3. Ana Cecilia Rodríguez de Romo and Martha Eugenia Rodríguez Pérez. Historia de la salud pública en México: siglos XIX y XX. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, no. 2 (1998): 293-310.

4. Ibid.

5. María Graciela Freyermuth Enciso. La historia de partería en México. CIESAS. (YouTube, June 4, 2019). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=\4g8C426u-Ak&t=2050s

6. Progress and Prospects: Bringing Midwifery Back to Mexico. (MacArthur Foundation, November 12, 2019). https://www.macfound.org/press/grantee-stories/progress-and-prospects-bringing-midwives-back-mexico/

Himmler’s Mennonite Midwife

Ben Goossen

Long-lost datebooks of Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler from 1943 through the end of the Second World War have recently resurfaced and been published. Upon opening the new volume, which clocks in at more than a thousand pages, I was startled to see that the first entry—for January 1, 1943—describes meetings between Himmler and the leading representative of Mennonites in the Third Reich, Benjamin Unruh. Historians had previously known about this encounter from letters that Unruh penned for fellow Mennonite churchmen following a three-day summit with Himmler at the commander’s SS headquarters in East Prussia. Himmler’s date calendar confirms Unruh’s reports in striking detail, offering new insight on Mennonites’ relationship with the Nazi state.1

The newly published Himmler diaries show clearly why the powerful head of the SS wanted to meet with a delegate from the Third Reich’s Mennonite denomination during the darkest days of the Nazi assault on Jews and other perceived enemies, when Hitler’s territorial control of much of Europe was at its height. Unruh had been seeking such a meeting with a high-level Nazi like Himmler for years—unsuccessfully. Yet in the autumn of 1942, it had been Himmler who had reached out to Unruh to invite him for a tête-à-tête.2 “Guess whose greetings I bring for you from Russia?” Himmler asked Unruh when the two men broke bread. “For example, from Frau Berg,” Himmler continued, naming an elderly midwife he had recently met in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.3

The German war artist Heinz Hindorf sketched an elderly Mennonite woman (Maria Dyck, born 1867) in the Chortitza settlement in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, 1943. The Mennonite midwife Helene Berg lived in the larger Molotschna colony to the southeast. Source: Mennonite Life 13, no. 2 (1958): 55.

Hearing Himmler utter the name Helene Berg must have been a remarkable moment for Unruh. The eighty-four-year-old midwife had long been a pillar of the Molotschna Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine, where Unruh himself had been a prominent leader prior to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Unruh, an ardent anti-communist, had been exiled to Germany after the formation of the Soviet Union. The midwife Berg, meanwhile, had remained behind with another 100,000 Mennonites in the fledgling USSR. Unruh had watched with horror from his adopted homeland of Germany as coreligionists in once thriving Ukrainian colonies like Molotschna faced hardship upon hardship: famine, collectivization, deportations, and executions.

Unruh’s separation from Berg and the other Mennonites in Ukraine had lasted for two decades. During this time, Unruh worked tirelessly to publicize their plight in the Soviet Union, which—especially after the rise of Joseph Stalin—targeted religious groups, once wealthy people, and communities of German heritage with brutal violence. Unruh assisted thousands of Mennonites to leave the Soviet Union, and he helped organize food and clothing drives for those who stayed. Sharing a conspiracy theory with the nascent Nazi movement about communism being a Jewish plot, Unruh recognized a potential partner. In 1933, he welcomed Hitler’s rise to political power.

Unruh made his first financial donation to the SS in 1933, but another decade would pass before he met in person with the notorious head of this violent organization.4 During this period, Unruh chose to remain stateless, never applying for German citizenship, which he felt might harm his ability to advocate for downtrodden Soviet Mennonites on the international stage.5 He became the official representative in Germany of several major denominational aid organization abroad. His dealings with high government officials also rendered him an invaluable asset for Germany’s own Mennonite churches, which he increasingly came to represent in the eyes of Third Reich bureaucrats. Yet not until the Second World War did Unruh achieve the full influence he sought.

Germany’s Mennonite leadership had begun trying to win an audience with Himmler or another top Nazi official in 1937. This was arguably the single most dangerous year for Mennonites’ own legal position as a tolerated denomination operating openly in the Third Reich. In 1937, several threats to Mennonite independence arose simultaneously. In that year, Nazi authorities expelled a small group of Anabaptists known as the Bruderhof. Party censors grew suspicious of Mennonite ties to coreligionists abroad, especially those who espoused pacifism (a theological position that Germany’s Mennonites abandoned). Most concerning to Unruh and his colleagues, two separate Nazi Party chapters had questioned whether members could keep Mennonite church affiliation.6

Keen to demonstrate the compatibility of Mennonitism and Nazism, Unruh and his church allies pursued every avenue. Unruh pressed Mennonites’ case as part of two delegations to the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.7 Such efforts contributed to a ruling that “Mennonites can also be members of the NSDAP.”8 Yet issues persistently arose, especially opposition in various Reich services to exempt Mennonites from swearing oaths. Church leaders mulled a direct appeal to the Führer.9 Those with personal connections to his deputies, including Rudolf Hess and Himmler, approached these men by letter. But they met limited success. In 1938, the SS even temporarily banned Mennonites, news that reportedly “landed like a bomb” among one ministerial group.10

What changed Himmler’s mind? The SS chief had personally rejected an appeal from Mennonite leaders to allow the marriage of a preacher’s daughter with an SS man to go forward. Himmler insisted on both unusual blood purity and intense ideological commitment from female as well as male members of his SS “clan community.” In 1938, he clearly felt that “The foundations of the Mennonite sect are in no way reconcilable with the worldview of the Schutzstaffel.”11 Yet four years later, he had amended his position. The outbreak of World War II and Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe brought the large colonies in Ukraine to Himmler’s attention. “I have been in the Ukraine and seen the people there,” he reportedly told Unruh. “Your Mennonites are the best.”12

Himmler had once feared that Mennonites could contaminate the SS gene pool. His embrace of Mennonites in Ukraine during the Second World War, conversely, stemmed from a new belief that members’ blood could prove valuable for the new Aryan order that the Nazis hoped to build in Eastern Europe. When German armies invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, they discovered hundreds of thousands of German speakers living in Ukraine, including some 35,000 Mennonites. Himmler and other leading Nazis saw these local people as a “master race” that had previously been repressed by Jews and communists under Soviet rule. Himmler dispatched death squads to Ukraine to murder the region’s 1.2 million Jews, including those in Mennonite areas.13

The Nazi conquest of Ukraine cheered Unruh and other Mennonite leaders in Germany, who had long prayed for the demise of Bolshevik tyranny over coreligionists to the east. Unruh dispatched numerous letters to his old friends in Ukraine, asking for news. Among those he reached was the midwife in Molotschna, Helene Berg. This elderly woman told Unruh of her great joy in being liberated from Soviet rule. Berg’s letters described the horrors of communism as well as the new privileges that German speakers like herself received through racial warfare. Like many residents of Molotschna—which the Nazis renamed Halbstadt (a more German name, to their ears)—Berg studied Nazi propaganda and developed good relations with agents of occupation and genocide.14

A map of prewar German-speaking settlements in Ukraine (shaded black) and of areas the Nazis planned to Germanize during and after World War II. The striped area around Crimea encompasses possible borders for the hypothetical “Gotengau.” Extant settlements like Halbstadt (formerly called Molotschna and located just north of Melitopol) were either to be relocated to Gotengau, included within an expanded version of it, or built up as racially pure “strongholds” in regions otherwise populated by Ukrainians and Russians. Source: Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 264.

From late 1941 through mid-1942, Himmler enthusiastically read the reports of his functionaries as they murdered Jews and distributed aid to German speakers like Helene Berg. The Holocaust of bullets in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory soon peaked, and the weight of the genocide shifted to centralized extermination camps in occupied Poland.15 The geographical boundaries of the Nazi empire were nearly at their zenith—and the regime’s wartime administrative machinery for Ukraine expanded apace. By September 1942, the Halbstadt colony where Berg lived had come under the territorial jurisdiction of the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Day to day activities in the settlement, however, remained under SS rule. Himmler himself would soon make an appearance.

Himmler met Berg during a six-day tour of southeastern Ukraine that spanned late October and early November 1942. The SS chief had recently held meetings with Hitler about Germanizing Ukraine, including discussions about Halbstadt and other Mennonite colonies. Himmler had given the task of envisioning Eastern Europe’s racial reorganization to Konrad Meyer, a scholar and SS officer. Meyer drew up a secret master document, General Plan East, according to which populations from Halbstadt and elsewhere would form the kernel for a new Nazi province called Gotengau. Himmler’s meetings with Hitler yielded a bevy of new ordinances for Ukraine. These, and his trip to Halbstadt, constituted the first practical steps toward the hypothetical Gotengau.16

Himmler arrived in Halbstadt at 4:30pm on October 31, 1942. He had just come from Crimea and was traveling with a retinue of high-ranking SS men. The colony’s own SS administrators had planned a full schedule. During an “Ethnic German Evening,” local youth performed a pro-Nazi pageant. Himmler then delivered a speech to village mayors, proclaiming that they would receive German citizenship and material restitution for their hardships under communism. The next morning, Himmler spoke to a general assembly (with marches from Nazi youth groups and paramilitary formations), and he visited workshops and an educational institution.17 The SS chief reportedly inducted hundreds of Mennonites into the Waffen-SS and bestowed several honors.

The midwife Helene Berg appears to have numbered among Himmler’s honorees, likely on the morning of November 1. Subsequent correspondence shows that Himmler granted her a monthly pension from SS coffers of 100 Reichsmarks.18 He chose to celebrate Berg “as a midwife, who brought over 8,000 Ethnic German children into this restless world.”19 In her eighty-four years, Berg had certainly not performed thousands of births with any express intention of expanding the biological stock of an Aryan master race. But for Himmler, this had been the result—as essential a service to Nazism as could have been rendered by any male soldier. Berg’s example justified to Himmler’s thinking the future subjugation or removal of all Halbstadt’s remaining non-Germans.

The SS architect Heinrich Himmler toured the Mennonite colony of Halbstadt in southeastern Ukraine in 1942. Among those pictured here are German Red Cross nurses who had come to Ukraine during the war. Himmler exhibited interest in matters of health and racial hygiene while visiting Halbstadt, including meetings with a local doctor named Johann Klassen and with the midwife Helene Berg. Source: Mennonite Heritage Centre, Photograph 351-2.

Himmler’s meeting with Benjamin Unruh two months later concerned plans to import Germans from abroad and to murder or expel other peoples so that much of southeastern Ukraine would be a pure German territory along the lines of the Halbstadt colony. Over three days at the Hochwald bunker in East Prussia from December 31, 1942 to January 2, 1943, Himmler dined or otherwise conferred with Unruh on six occasions. His diary shows that others present during the encounters included leading SS figures responsible for perpetrating genocide in Ukraine, for forging Ethnic German policy, and for long-range racial engineering.20 Unruh subsequently relayed Himmler’s desire to acquire more German Mennonite settlers from the Americas. “The highest importance was placed on the resettlement,” he reported, “which should be executed very generously.”21

Unruh welcomed Himmler’s vision of bringing thousands of Mennonites from the Americas for colonization in Eastern Europe, alongside other German-speakers from locations as far-flung as Palestine and Italy. Unruh had already helped arrange modest migrations of his coreligionists to the Third Reich from Brazil, Canada, and Paraguay. Sponsoring much larger waves after the war would serve Nazi objectives and Unruh’s own. When speaking with Himmler, Unruh leveraged such prospects against more immediate religious concerns. Himmler agreed to allow ordination of Mennonite elders in Ukraine, and to consider exemptions from swearing oaths. Meanwhile, he redoubled efforts to ensure the region would be “totally Germanized, that is, totally settled.”22

Nazi losses on the eastern front thwarted Himmler’s dreams for a racial Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine. The SS began evacuating German settlers in 1943. As the Red Army retook Ukraine by 1944, Himmler simply shifted colonization schemes west.23 Most Mennonite refugees found new lodging in Nazi-occupied Poland. Benjamin Unruh, now receiving a monthly salary from the SS, oversaw their contacts with high Nazi offices.24 Among his concerns was finding a suitable home for Helene Berg, who had traveled by wagon from Halbstadt to Poland and was living in a transit camp. Unruh’s SS handlers were well aware of Himmler’s personal interest in this midwife, and they helped arrange her transfer to a Mennonite home for the elderly in the city of Marienburg.25

In the end, whether Berg was grateful for Himmler’s attentions is difficult to know. As the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, surely the comforting words shared by Unruh rang hollow: “Every birth is so difficult and the birth of a new Europe especially.”26 With the Red Army bearing down on Marienburg, most of the city’s able-bodied Germans fled. They abandoned Berg and the other residents of the home for the elderly. Over the next eighteen months, Berg witnessed atrocities committed against the few Germans who remained, including the rape of her caretaker. By the time Poland expelled her to western Germany in mid-1946, Berg had little incentive to talk about Himmler, dead for over a year.27 Yet she appreciated renewed contact with “dear, good Beny.”28

The history of Himmler’s Mennonite midwife reflects a troubling intersection of denominational activism and Nazi genocide during the Second World War. For Himmler, Helene Berg and the thousands of ostensibly Aryan children she had helped deliver constituted both past and future of a violently cleansed utopia, free from Jews and other so-called racial aliens. Mennonite leaders like Benjamin Unruh participated in this project, alternately sharing Himmler’s vision or using promises of future cooperation to attain their own religious goals. And what about Berg herself? The archival documents by and about her suggest intriguing new directions for research about Mennonites, reproduction, and the elderly under fascism—topics still waiting to be explored.

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 Arnold Neufeldt-Fast for providing sources and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.


1. The papers, discovered in a Moscow archive in 2013, have been published as Matthias Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors: Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1943-1945 (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2020). Another section, covering the years 1941-1942, had already been found in 1990 and appeared in print as Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999). On Unruh’s meeting with Himmler, see Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 147-156.

2. This invitation came on the recommendation of an SS officer and longtime scholar of Mennonites named Karl Götz, whom Himmler planned to install as the head of the Overseas Department of the Ethnic German Office after the war. Götz, who had known Unruh since 1934, apparently tried to establish a meeting between Unruh and Himmler for November 1941. Götz seems to have written to Unruh again in September 1942—during the period when Himmler and Hitler were conferring with advisors about Ethnic German policy in Ukraine. At this time, Unruh provided documents about Mennonites to Götz, who passed this information to Himmler. Benjamin Unruh to Gerhard Hein, July 25, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany, hereafter MFS. Himmler’s staff then reached out to Götz on October 2, 1942, asking for Unruh’s address. Geheime Staatspolizei to Karl Götz, October 2, 1942, T-81/143, archived in Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (hereafter NARA). On Götz, see Benjamin Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Third Reich Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75, no. 2 (2018): 173-206.

3. “‘Notizen”’ über die Unterredung des Reichsführers SS Heinrich Himmler mit dem Verteter der Rußlanddeutchen in der Ukraine, Südrußland, Professor Dr. Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, Karlsruhe/Baden, an Sylvester 1943 im Hauptquartier Himmlers, in dessen Wohnwagen,” n.d., Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 7, MFS.

4. Unruh’s 1933 financial contribution made him a Supporting Member of the SS with the membership number 168,232. Benjamin Unruh to Walther Kolrep, January 30, 1940, Benjamin H. Unruh Papers, box 2, folder: Misc. Unruh Papers, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

5. Until Unruh received his invitation to visit Himmler in November 1942, he had been trying unsuccessfully through civilian channels to receive permission to travel to Nazi-occupied Ukraine to meet with Mennonite coreligionists. In September 1942, he even applied for German citizenship as a means of greasing the bureaucratic wheels. Ernst Kundt, “Einbürgerung von Professor Dr. B.H. Unruh,” September 8, 1942, R 127518, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Berlin, Germany. Just as Mennonite leaders in the Third Reich struggled to gain the attention of prominent Nazis during the 1930s, however, Unruh was unable to reach wartime Ukraine for primarily religious purposes using civil service contacts. Commenting retrospectively on his 1942 rejection by the East Ministry, Unruh recalled: “At this point, it was entirely clear to me that one path alone could lead to my goal [of reaching Ukraine]: namely through the Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom [Himmler].” Unruh to Hein, July 25, 1943. Unruh never actually reached Ukraine: he planned to visit in early 1943 after his visit with Himmler, but unfavorable military conditions other factors consistently delayed his trip until the late summer, at which time the SS had begun evacuating Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies due to Red Army advances.

6. This was a new development given that Mennonites with church membership had been joining the Nazi Party since 1920. Around August 1937, NSDAP Ortsgruppe Rom temporarily stripped Paul Reymann of his membership. Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. At nearly the same time, a Nazi Party court in Tübingen questioned the membership of a Mennonite farmer named Daniel Schneider. Emil Händiges to Arbeitsausschuß der Vereinigung, September 24, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS.

7. Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, and Gustav Reimer visited the Brown House on July 6, 1938. During the meeting, Unruh emphasized: “As a church we unconditionally support the [Nazi] Party. In West Prussia and Danzig, the great majority of elders and preachers are members of the Party.” Gustav Reimer, “Bericht über die Verhandlung in Braunen Haus in München am 6.7.1938, betreffend die Regelung der Eidesfrage,” Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. Hendrik van Delden, Benjamin Unruh, Gustav Reimer, and Daniel Dettweiler attended another meeting at the Brown House on March 16, 1939. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, April 14, 1939, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: 1939, MFS.

8. Ruling of NSDAP Kreisgericht Celle I, May 12, 1938, quoted in Goossen, “‘A Small World Power,’” 204.

9. Mennonite leaders contemplated writing to Hitler in August 1937. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, August 31, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS. Church leaders again considered contacting Hitler in August 1943 regarding the use of oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Emil Händiges to Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, and Abraham Braun, August 17, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Instead of approaching Hitler, however, Unruh pursued the matter through his contacts with Himmler, who ultimately approved Mennonites’ exemption from oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, February 28, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

10. The precipitating case concerned a proposed marriage between SS member Heinrich Krüger and a Mennonite woman, Erika Driedger. The head of Germany’s largest Mennonite conference reported on the rejection of this marriage by Himmler: “The communication of the decision landed like a bomb in the ministerial assembly in Kalthof on June 16, 1938, especially since numerous respected members of the Mennonite ministry wear the swastika on their breast with pride and joy as [Nazi] Party members.” Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. Himmler’s decision reflected a recommendation from the head of the Reich Main Security Office that “members of this sect cannot simultaneously be members of the SS clan community.” Chef des Sicherheitshauptamtes to Chef des Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamtes, April 9, 1938, NS 2/220, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany. Quick action by Mennonite churchmen ensured that by 1939, members were once again admitted to the SS clan community, albeit with some suspicion.

11. Händiges to Dettweiler, et al., June 23, 1938. On marriage and the SS “clan community,” see Gudrun Schwarz, Eine Frau on seiner Seite: Ehefrauen in der “SS-Sippengemeinschaft” (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1997).

12. Quoted in Diether Götz Lichdi, Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1977), 141.

13. Himmler met with detachments from Einsatzgruppe D in September 1941 and Einsatzgruppe C in October 1941, shortly before these death squads began wholesale murder of Jewish men, women, and children in and around the two largest Mennonite colonies in Ukraine: Molotschna and Chortitza, respectively. Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 533, 537. See Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-549.

14. One letter from Halbstadt reported: “Naturally Frau Berg, despite her advanced age…inquired about everything; including in the political realm. She has studied the Führer’s [Mein] Kampf with appropriate interest.” Berg reportedly also met with Karl Stumpp, whose East Ministry commando worked to identify and register Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews.Hans Spittler to Emil Händiges, May 7, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS. Berg herself reported meeting with an Einsatzgruppe member (“Among the first Germans [to arrive during the 1941 invasion] was SS-Mann [Heinrich] Wiens, originally from Muntau [Molotschna], who must once have been your student.”), and she deployed casual antisemitism in her correspondence with Unruh. Berg reported that religious life in Molotschna had not yet fully recovered from the Bolshevik period; in her church, “the praying [by a Baptist minister whom Berg disliked] is terrible, all mixed up such that one imagines oneself displaced to a synagogue [Judenschule].” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. April 1942, quoted in Benjamin Unruh, “Nachrichten aus Rußland,” May 22, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS.

15. The economics of genocide continued to link Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies with the Holocaust: Himmler ordered that clothes and household goods taken from Jews in Auschwitz and Lublin be sent to Halbstadt, Chortitza, and other settlements. Heinrich Himmler to Oswald Pohl and Werner Lorenz, October 14, 1942, T-175, roll 129, NARA. By November 1942, twenty-seven wagons of plunder had been sent from SS-Wirtschaftslager Lublin. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603. Similar aid actions for Ukraine’s Mennonites continued into 1943.

16. Himmler and Hitler met on August 9, 1942 at the Führer’s Werwolf bunker in Ukraine to broadly discuss Ethnic German questions for the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. On this meeting and its aftermath, see Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 266. Himmler and Hitler met again on September 22, 1942 to discuss settlement in and around Crimea, including plans for 40,000 Ethnic Germans in Halbstadt and 15,000 in Chortitza. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 562-568. On the Nazis’ Gotengau settlement plans, see Norbert Kunz, Die Krim unter deutscher Herrschaft (1941-1944): Germanisierungsutopie und Besatzungsrealität (Darmstad: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005), 72-73.

17. Upon arrival, Himmler conferred with the SS officers Hans-Adolf Prützmann, Horst Hoffmeyer, and Hermann Roßner. Then he had one-on-one meetings with SS officers Claus Selzner, Hermann Harm, and Erwin Metzner. Himmler dined, then attended the pageant and spoke to the mayors. He lodged with a Dr. Haus. Around noon on November 1, following a short lunch, Himmler departed for Zaporizhia to view the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603-604.

18. Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, November 18, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

19. Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, December 3, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Berg’s special treatment by the SS came at the direct expense of people considered undesirable by the Nazis. The Ethnic German Office provided her with a cow and a house in Halbstadt, and when the SS evacuated this colony to a more westerly part of Ukraine in 1943, officers found a new house for Berg. The SS requisitioned such lodging by force from local Ukrainians. See for example Jakob Neufeld, Tiefenwege: Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse von Russland-Mennoniten in zwei Jahrzehnten bis 1949 (Virgil, ON: Niagra Press, 1958), 125.

20. On December 31, 1942, Himmler met at 2:30pm with Werner Lorenz, Horst Hoffmeyer, Benjamin Unruh, Konrad Meyer, Heinrich Wiepking-Jürgensmann, and Herman Wirth. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 660. On January 1, 1943, Himmler lunched at 2:15pm with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, Unruh, Ernst Rode, Josef Tiefenbacher, Karl Gesele, and Werner Grothmann. At 5:00pm, Himmler met with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, and Unruh. At 9:30pm, Himmler dined with Lorenz, Unruh, Bernhard Frank, and a Captain Rickert. On January 2, Himmler lunched at 2:10pm with Lorenz, Unruh, and Fritz von Scholz. At 5:00pm, Himmler bade farewell to Lorenz and Unruh. Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors, 64-66.

21. Benjamin Unruh to Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, Christian Neff, Gustav Reimer, and Henrik van Delden, January 6, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Unruh further reported: “It has been agreed that Herr Obergruppenführer [Werner] Lorenz will personally take care of our matters, naturally in constant agreement with [Himmler]…. Regarding the resettlement [of Mennonites from the Americas], which will be of unimaginable scope, I do not want to pontificate. I have just been brought into this matter, and it will likely occur as I told our [Mennonite] people when they went overseas: we will get you back again! This assurance lives in the hearts of our brethren!” Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, January 22, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

22. Heinrich Himmler to Konrad Meyer, January 12, 1943, quoted in Czeslaw Madajczyk, ed., Vom Generalplan Ost zum Generalsiedlungsplan (Munich: Saur, 1994), 256. After Meyer drafted the General Plan East in 1942, Himmler charged him with expanding this into a General Settlement Plan for all of Nazi-occupied Europe. According to Himmler’s wishes for this expanded plan, the areas envisioned for Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine were to include “all of Crimea and Taurida.” In the meantime, occupiers’ focus remained on building up smaller Ethnic German “strongholds.” In July 1943, Meyer traveled to Halbstadt to finalize plans to deport non-Germans still living there and to import urban and scattered rural Ethnic Germans from elsewhere in Ukraine. Ibid., 277-281.

23. For example, Gerhard Ritter, “Wunschträume Heinrich Himmlers am 21. Juli 1944,” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 5, no. 3 (1954): 162-168.

24. Emil Händiges to Hendrik van Delden and Abraham Fast, May 27, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

25. When Unruh reported difficulties with local authorities in Danzig-West Prussia regarding the Marienburg home, an SS contact recommend that he appeal directly to Himmler: “I suggest that you explain to the Reichsführer-SS [Himmler]—it must naturally be written in a careful way—that the handling of Mennonites in Danzig and their few private wishes would not be without significance for the attitudes of the Mennonites overseas. And that it would be of great propagandistic importance for the Mennonites overseas if one could deal very generously with the Mennonites in Danzig and their desires.” Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, ca. January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, January 12, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. While Unruh intended to contact Himmler about the matter, it is unclear whether the SS chief ultimately interceded. In any event, Berg arrived at the Marienburg home by March 1944, where Unruh visited her at that time. Benjamin Unruh, “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

26. Benjamin Unruh to Helene Berg, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. Unruh offered this sentiment in response to Berg’s report that the trek from Ukraine to Poland had required “difficult, yes very difficult efforts.” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. late January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

27. Berg’s postwar recollections say nothing of her wartime encounters with prominent SS officers. After the fall of the Third Reich, she had incentives to downplay former links to Nazism and instead to emphasize her own suffering. Berg was in this respect typical of other Mennonites from Ukraine and also of Germans generally. See Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 218; Elizabeth Heineman, “The Hour of the Woman: Memories of Germany’s ‘Crisis Years’ and West German National Identity,” American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (1996): 354-395.

28. Helene Berg, Unsere Flucht (Winkler, MB: Winkler Printery, 1947), 18. Upon her arrival in western Germany and return to the broader Mennonite community, Berg (then around 88 years old) professed her intention to emigrate to the Americas. Whether she achieved this goal or remained in Europe requires further investigation. Benjamin Unruh spent the rest of his life in West Germany, a somewhat diminished but nevertheless celebrated figure among Mennonites worldwide. A biography by his son, Heinrich Unruh, Fügungen und Führungen: Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, 1881-1959 (Detmold: Verein zur Erforschung und Pflege des Russlanddeutschen Mennonitentums, 2009), gives a sanitized and hagiographic account of Unruh’s life. See Gerhard Rempel, “Book Review: Fügungen und Füherungen,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 2 (2010): 275-278.

Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

Abigail Carl-Klassen

This article is the first in a series investigating the history of Mennonite midwives and doulas in the Tres Culturas region of Chihuahua, Mexico, including personal narratives of Mennonite midwives in the Campos, past and present and as well as an exploration of the intersection of midwifery training, culturally appropriate care and public health outcomes in the Tres Culturas Region.

On the surface it would appear that Catalina Schroder and Susanna (Fast) Shellenburg lived very different lives and embodied the differences and tensions that existed between traditional and non-traditional Mennonite communities in Mexico during their lifetimes, which spanned from the early 1900’s to the last quarter of the twentieth century. However, differences in country of origin, dress, religious and cultural practices, and approaches to education did not keep them from building bridges between communities and providing maternal care to women from all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds in region surrounding Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, for nearly sixty years.

Catalina, who married her husband after a nontraditional courtship (which included learning to cook from her fiancé) was formally educated as a midwife in what is now modern-day Ukraine. The young family arrived in the Mexican state of Veracruz in 1926 via a ship from Russia, fleeing violence and religious persecution. Eventually, after many delays, including the loss of newly-issued government documents in a fire, they made their way north to Cuauhtémoc in the state of Chihuahua along with small number of other Low-German-speaking Mennonites who had immigrated directly to Mexico from Russia with the hopes of settling alongside five thousand Low-German-speaking Altkolonier Mennonites who arrived from Canada in 1922, after negotiating a Privelegium from President Álvaro Obregón.

Catalina’s grandson, Walter Rempening Rico, pastor of Templo Ebenezer, a Spanish-speaking Mennonite congregation in Cuauhtémoc, shared with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB) in 2018 how his grandmother, grandfather and their young children settled in the city of Cuauhtémoc and quickly integrated into many aspects of local Mexican culture because Mennonites from Russia were not allowed to live in the nearby Altkolonier colonies because of their less traditional lifestyle, dress and approach to education. Despite community prohibitions, Catalina worked tirelessly as a Trajchtmoaka, a sobadora (bonesetter), and midwife, and was, highly sought after to attend births for traditional Mennonite women and was beloved in the traditional, non-traditional, and Mestizo communities she served. 

Susanna Shellenberg, on the other hand, was a traditional Altkolonier Mennonite woman from Canada who arrived in Mexico with her husband Heinrich and young daughters in 1927 and was able to live in the traditional Mennonite Darpe, which was settled many kilometers outside of Cuauhtémoc in the years following the initial 1922 migration from Canada. 

In Canada, Susanna had trained under two Orthodox Jewish women as a midwife and herbal healer, and she continued her work upon her arrival in Mexico. Her granddaughter, Susanna Thiessen, who is also a midwife, related in a recent interview with Casa Geburt, a midwifery and doula training school and birthing center located in the Campos Menonitas about twenty minutes north of Cuauhtémoc, “At that time there were no doctors in the Cuauhtémoc area. She immediately began to care for the sick. After some years in Mexico, she also began to provide midwifery services. She served in the Campos Menonitas, as well as in the Mexican ranches. Sometimes, people came for her in the middle of the night in a horse and buggy to take her to attend births or to heal the sick. Many times the people were so poor, they couldn’t even offer her a coffee. She attended many births where she didn’t receive payment of any kind. She also took along baby clothes and blankets because she knew that the people didn’t have anything to keep their babies warm.”

Susanna worked as a midwife until she was eighty years old. Near the end of her life, after she had attended her last birth, the birth of her great-grandson, she was asked about the number of babies she helped bring into the world and she responded, “How many births have I attended? I don’t know. I never wrote it down. For me, it is good that God knows.”

Since the days of Catalina Schroder and Susanna Shellenberg, midwives in the Campos from traditional and non-traditional communities have occupied a vital role in community life and have been at the center of changing dynamics in the region over last century. There is a strong heritage of midwifery in each of Cuauhtémoc’s three cultures (from which the Tres Culturas Region derives its name): Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Rarámuri Pueblo. Midwives in each community, while distinct, are powerful advocates for women who are marginalized because of language, ethnicity and/or socio-economic status and serve as public health practitioners and educators in some of the most at-risk and underserved regions for maternal and child health in the country. Often operating at the margins of the official community rules, subverting taboos surrounding reproductive health, pregnancy and breastfeeding, midwives in the Mennonite communities of Chihuahua have always been invaluable in the creation of support networks between women and as agents of cross-cultural women’s solidarity and as bridge builders between communities that have historically experienced tension for a variety of cultural, economic and socio-political reasons. 

The next article with further explore Susanna Shellenberg’s life and experiences as a midwife and will include perspectives from her great-granddaughter Susanna Thiessen who, in keeping with family tradition, is a midwife in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua.