Hitler’s Mennonite Physicist

A Mennonite named Abraham Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program during much of the Second World War.1 Esau’s activities contributed to Albert Einstein’s decision to warn US President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, that Hitler’s government was studying atomic chain reactions that might lead to “extremely powerful bombs.”2 The program Esau ran in the Third Reich constituted a prime justification for the United States’ secret Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic weapons. After the war, the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee helped rehabilitate Esau, who in turn downplayed Mennonite involvement in Nazism. 

Abraham Esau, Mennonite physicist. One 1944 article described Esau as “a stocky man with a solid peasant’s skull,” the ideal of a Nazi scientist.

Abraham Esau was born in 1884 to a respected Mennonite family in eastern Prussia. His paternal grandfather was elder of the large Tiegenhagen congregation. He was raised by his father, a local bureaucrat.3 During Esau’s adolescence, Mennonites across Germany adopted nationalist ideals.4 Esau, perhaps more than anyone else, benefitted from the denomination’s new enthusiasm for higher education and military service. After receiving his doctorate in 1908, he performed noncombatant service as a radio physicist. He became involved in an ambitious state-sponsored project to confront British power by building a global wireless network to spread German news.5

Esau cut his teeth combining German expansionism with large-scale physics projects in colonial Africa. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he traveled to the German colony of Togo to install a massive radio station, which he subsequently destroyed in the face of invading French troops. French captivity deepened Esau’s nationalism, as did the postwar Treaty of Versailles, which gave much of his native Prussia to a new Polish state. In 1925, Esau joined the faculty at the University of Jena. There, he developed a physics research program. He discovered how to use radio waves for therapy, was nominated for a Nobel Prize, and became university president. 

The rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933 proved fortuitous for Esau. Joining the Nazi Party in May, he strengthened his presidency at Jena within the new political order. The governor of Thuringia appointed Esau a State Councilor, giving him access to powerful Nazi leaders. Meanwhile, his knowledge of radio physics made him valuable to the Propaganda Ministry, for which he served as an advisor. By the end of the decade, Esau had relocated to Berlin, where he headed the Reich Physical and Technical Institute. As a prominent science administrator with impeccable political credentials, Esau eagerly followed new discoveries in the field of high-energy atomic physics. 

The Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Telemark, Norway. This facility produced heavy water for the Third Reich while Abraham Esau ran the Nazi nuclear program in 1942 and 1943.

Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program briefly in 1939 and then again from March 1942 to the end of 1943.6 In April 1939, he organized a conference on nuclear chain reactions through the Reich Ministry of Education, where he announced plans to collect all uranium in Germany. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September, Esau lost control to the Army Weapons Office, which grew the program during the next eighteen months. Upon determining that nuclear power would not arrive in time to help win the war, the Army relinquished oversight to the Reich Research Council, which Esau headed. He ran the project until falling from political favor. 

Unlike the US Manhattan Project, Esau’s nuclear program was geared toward industrial applications of atomic energy, not bomb production. Nuclear science was certainly big business in the Third Reich. Esau oversaw a budget in 1943 worth $1,200,000.7 But this was hundreds of times smaller than the Manhattan Project, whose total cost reached $2 billion. Anxious not to overpromise at a time when Nazi leaders sought “wonder weapons,” Esau deliberately refrained from discussing atomic bombs with his superiors. This was not for lack of military commitment, however, but rather an effort to keep crucial war funds from being wasted on long-term research. 

On January 1, 1944, Abraham Esau exchanged his title of “Plenipotentiary for Nuclear Physics” for “Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology.” Infighting within the atomic program had earned Esau the enmity of Albert Speer, the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production. Nevertheless, as Esau handed the atomic program to his successor, he could boast real victories, including the enrichment of uranium isotopes by means of a centrifuge, application of nuclear physics to biology and medicine, and success with particle accelerators. Esau remained in the good graces of Hermann Göring, head of the Air Force, who gave him control of radio matters.

Esau committed the war crimes for which he was eventually convicted not as a nuclear scientist but through his capacity as Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology. The Third Reich had contracted with an electronics company in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands called Philips to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials for the war effort. In the autumn of 1944, as Allied forces advanced, Esau ordered an SS captain named Alfred Boettcher to evacuate equipment from Philips in the Dutch city of Eindhoven to Nazi Germany. Boettcher transported goods valued around $28,000 on three large trucks across the border, engaging in war plunder. 

As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, Abraham Esau was apprehended by a special team of American soldiers tasked with finding high-profile Nazi scientists and engineers. Like Albert Speer, the rocketeer Wernher von Braun, and others, Esau was interned and interrogated. In late 1946, Dutch state prosecutors requested that he be transferred to the Netherlands to be tried along with Alfred Boettcher for plundering the Philips electronics company. US officials agreed, deeming Esau less culpable than Speer and less valuable than von Braun. Esau was sent to the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he remained in prison for eighteen months.8

Esau’s first contact with North American Mennonites came while he was in Dutch prison. After the Second World War, an aid organization called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) built a robust relief presence in the Netherlands, Germany, and other parts of Europe. This agency had a long history of transnational aid work, dating to the 1920s. It had briefly operated in the Third Reich and Vichy France between 1939 and 1942, until the United States entered the war. For several years, MCC concentrated on North American needs. But with the war’s end, it returned to Europe, where staff distributed food and clothing to those suffering in the wake of violence.9

Mennonite Central Committee recruited some personnel from congregations in Germany and the Netherlands, but its most influential staff were drawn from Canada and the United States. Two early members were Peter and Helene Goertz of Kansas. Peter Goertz was the academic dean of Bethel College, a Mennonite institution of higher education, from which he received leave to work in Europe with his wife during 1947 and 1948. Much of their activity concerned the 45,000 Mennonite refugees from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and the former Free City of Danzig who were then spread across postwar Europe. Their most unusual case was that of Abraham Esau.

Dutch schoolchildren were among thousands of Europeans to receive humanitarian aid after World War II from the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

After more than a year of imprisonment in the Netherlands, Esau had become desperate to leave. He wrote letters incessantly, seeking to connect with his former scientific colleagues and to find anyone who could help him achieve freedom. When Esau’s daughter, then living in northern Germany, discovered that a Mennonite Central Committee office had been established in Kiel, she explained her father’s plight and asked if MCC could help. The Kiel office wrote to MCC in Amsterdam, where Peter and Helen Goertz received the request.10 On February 25, 1948, Peter traveled two hours by train to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he met with the imprisoned Esau.

Peter Goertz described his encounter with Abraham Esau in correspondence to friends and family in Kansas. Goertz reported that upon arriving at the prison in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he spent twenty minutes speaking with the warden, who agreed to vacate his office so the two Mennonites could meet in private. They spoke for two hours. To Goertz’s eye, Esau had become a despondent man, in need of “spiritual uplift.” Esau’s demeanor seemed to brighten over the conversation, and he expressed his gratitude so fervently that Goertz himself felt moved. The experience left a deep impression. Back in Amsterdam, he wrote: “Such are rather exciting moments even for me.”11

Over the following months, Peter and Helene Goertz reportedly developed a real friendship with Esau, although from their correspondence, it is hard to escape the thought that the former Nazi scientist cynically played his Mennonite benefactors. Although Peter clearly knew of the charges against Esau, he nonetheless took the prisoner at his word, writing that he “was not a confirmed Nazi,” that he “had been forced to care for physics laboratories in the whole of Germany,” and that “he does not know why he is in prison.”12 Helene, like her husband, expressed awe for Esau’s academic record, describing him as “a great physicist from the German Mennonites.”13

The willingness of Peter and Helene Goertz to believe Esau’s claims of innocence was typical of Mennonite Central Committee’s treatment of other Mennonites from the former Third Reich. After touring several refugee camps, Peter wrote, “It is amazing to me how many of the men from the Danzig area, even among the Mennonites, joined the [Nazi] party.”14 Helene identified attitudes of racism and territorial irredentism among the same group.15 Yet neither they, their colleagues, nor MCC as a whole seem ever to have seriously questioned their project of helping fellow Mennonites. Denominational connections outweighed even known Nazi collaboration.

Abraham Esau received several more visits in prison from Peter Goertz, who along with Helene also visited Esau’s daughter in Germany. Peter supplied his imprisoned friend with scientific and religious reading materials. He charged at least one book on electromagnetism to the MCC relief fund.16 Esau was particularly pleased with another volume, The Story of the Mennonites by the US historian C. Henry Smith.17 Commenting that this book should be available to the tens of thousands of Mennonite refugees then scattered across Europe, Esau began translating the 800-page tome into German using pencils and notebooks that Peter Goertz brought from Amsterdam.

On April 27, 1948, a Dutch court in The Hague released Abraham Esau along with his colleague and fellow inmate Alfred Boettcher, the former SS captain, with no criminal conviction. Exactly why Esau and Boettcher were released is unclear. Possibly, one or more of the letters written by Esau and his daughter convinced someone powerful to intercede on the prisoners’ behalf. It is likely that Mennonite Central Committee played at least a minor role, if only by providing Esau with the ability to claim association with a well-known and respected relief agency. MCC at this time held remarkable legal clout with multiple Allied governments, including the Netherlands.

In any event, Esau and Boettcher immediately made their way, after leaving prison, to the MCC center in Amsterdam. Arriving on May 1, they stayed for nearly a month, until May 28, when the two men left for a camp on the Dutch border, eventually arriving back in Germany. While living in the MCC house, Esau and Boettcher became acquainted with many of the leading Mennonite relief workers in Europe, since they regularly passed through Amsterdam. Both visitors penned glowing thank-you notes. Boettcher was touched with the generosity of the MCC workers after his time in isolation, and he was glad to have learned more about Mennonite faith communities.18

Mennonite staff members working inside the Amsterdam MCC center where the former Nazi scientists Abraham Esau and Alfred Boettcher lived for several weeks in May 1948. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

Helene Goertz described the weeks Esau and Boettcher spent in Amsterdam in her letters. She referred to both men as “university professors” and considered them to be “proved innocent.” To Helene’s mind, Esau and Boettcher were victims of circumstances, who had nonetheless retained “their manners, their cultured ways, and their sense of humor.”19 The former Nazis washed dishes, carried baggage, and enlivened the atmosphere. Both plied Helene with flowers and fresh fruit. “Prof. Esau has been more than generous since you are away,” Helene wrote to her traveling husband. “Twice while I was sick he sent up some luscious strawberries and once a peach!”20

MCC rendered aid to Abraham Esau on the basis of his Mennonite identity, yet it is unclear that Esau was a practicing Mennonite prior to his contact with Peter and Helene Goertz. He had married a Mennonite (since deceased) and retained other family connections, but I have seen no evidence of any religious contacts between Esau and active Mennonite congregations during the Third Reich. A Mennonite Address Book published in Germany in 1936 does not include Esau’s name, despite printing membership lists for all the congregations to which he would likely have belonged.21 One Nazi-era article referred to him simply as from an “ancient peasant family.”22

Yet Esau represented himself to his MCC friends as a good and faithful fellow Mennonite. He attended church in Amsterdam with Helene Goertz, and he used religious language in his letters to her husband. “I thank God, that He has led me into your house and your family,” Esau wrote to Peter Goertz after leaving Amsterdam. He even portrayed his scientific and administrative activities in the Third Reich as consistent with Christian faith, writing: “I will resume the task which God will give to me with the old energy and in the same manner as before.”23 And all the while, he continued translating The Story of the Mennonites, completing ten pages every day.

Esau had nearly finished his German version of The Story of the Mennonites when he departed the MCC center in May of 1948. He left his completed notebooks with Peter and Helene Goertz. Upon arriving at his daughter’s home in northern Germany, Esau finished the work, and he gave the last part of his translation to MCC workers in Kiel, who then brought this document to the Netherlands. Finally, in mid-1948, Peter and Helene Goertz carried the full manuscript with them back to Kansas, where they deposited it at the Bethel College library. They reported Esau’s own hope that his translation would prove “of some profit for Mennonite circles in the world.”24

At the same time Abraham Esau was reconnecting with his Mennonite heritage, he faced critique from his former scientific colleagues. In the early postwar years, German nuclear physicists formed a remarkably solid front against perceived intrusions by occupying Allied forces. They abandoned old internal disputes and helped one another launch new carriers in the wake of the Third Reich’s collapse. Esau was unusual in being largely dismissed by this group. Physicists like Werner Heisenberg, who had won a Nobel Prize for describing quantum mechanics and had been Esau’s chief rival in the Nazi nuclear program, portrayed Esau as irredeemably tainted.25

Notably, it was the radio scientist Leo Brandt, not a nuclear physicist, who aided Esau’s reentry into Germany’s scientific culture. Brandt knew Esau from earlier radio research and now invited him to North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1949, Esau became a professor in Aachen and joined a new aeronautical research institute. Brandt also nominated Esau for West Germany’s highest federal service prize. But fellow scientists, including the Nobel Prize winner Max von Laue, intervened. Von Laue wrote that during the Nazi period, Esau cast himself as a “chief representative of National Socialism.” A former subordinate also testified that Esau had twice threatened to murder him.26

Upon his death in 1955, Abraham Esau left two remarkably distinct legacies. In the scientific world, he was remembered as an ardent Nazi, rejected after the war by many of his onetime friends. He was also a convicted war criminal, having been re-charged in absentia by a Dutch court and sentenced to time served for plundering the Philips company.27 By contrast, Esau was eulogized by prominent Mennonite intellectuals in Germany and the United States. In 1964, when Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites finally appeared in print, the foreword by Cornelius Krahn of Bethel College praised him as “a man of uncommon creative capacity.”28 

Abraham Esau’s handwritten translation of C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites. Esau began his translation while in Dutch prison and completed the work after his release. These notebooks are now held at the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas.

The German edition of The Story of the Mennonites sanitized not only Abraham Esau’s past but the broader role of Mennonites in the Third Reich. MCC expressed interest in the manuscript as a means of catering “to our German constituency,” and the US Mennonite General Conference took charge of printing it.29 Cornelius Krahn assembled a team of six readers, including Esau and three other former fascists, who proofed the typed chapters. These appeared in serialized form in a Canadian Mennonite newspaper beginning in 1951. The book’s final version included some additions, but it also entirely omitted a critical original chapter about the Third Reich.

It is appropriate that Abraham Esau, arguably the most powerful Mennonite in the Third Reich, also helped spark—quite unintentionally—the first efforts to publicly reckon with the church’s entanglement with National Socialism. In the same year that Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites appeared, a young Mennonite named Hans-Jürgen Goertz received his doctorate in Germany on the history of radical theology. Goertz, who became a pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Hamburg, took issue with the book’s silence on the Third Reich. He translated the missing chapter and had it serialized in 1965 in a German-language denominational paper.30

Hans-Jürgen Goertz’s resurrection of the redacted chapter on Nazi Germany from The Story of the Mennonites helped ignite a slow-burning interrogation into the denomination’s troubled past. Run-ins with former Nazis as well as Goertz’s own ongoing interest in radical theology led to his landmark 1974 essay, “National Uprising and Religious Downfall,” which alleged that during the Third Reich, Germany’s Mennonites abandoned their principles for nationalism.31 This piece, which sparked still more debate and instigated the first book-length study of the denomination’s Nazi complicity, continues to inspire a process of research and response that is not yet complete.  

The story of Hitler’s Mennonite physicist illuminates much of the arc of Mennonite involvement in German nationalism from the late nineteenth century into the postwar era. Abraham Esau’s denominational background primed him to fuse academia with state militarism, allowing him to helm the Nazi nuclear program during the Second World War. Afterwards, the North American Mennonite Central Committee treated Esau, like thousands of other collaborators, as innocent and deserving of aid. Esau, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a model Mennonite, thereby erasing the stain of his war crimes. Being Mennonite suddenly mattered to Esau in an entirely new way. 

Mennonites in North America, Europe, and around the globe might reflect on this history of perpetration and denial. Why is it that European Mennonites like Esau found collaboration with Hitler’s genocidal regime so easy and desirable? How could North American Mennonites then so breezily cover for their coreligionists, without raising serious concerns about crimes they might have committed? Abraham Esau’s case may require special soul-searching, given his direct and significant role in the Nazi war machine, as well as his broader impact on the global rise of nuclear weapons. But he was also one among tens of thousands of Mennonite Nazi collaborators. 

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, to be released in paperback from Princeton University Press on May 28. 

The author thanks Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Dieter Hoffmann, Bernd-A. Rusinek, Allan Teichroew, John Thiesen, Mark Walker, and Madeline Williams for their help with sources and interpretation. 


  1. The most complete biography of Esau is Dieter Hoffmann and Rüdiger Stutz, “Grenzgänger der Wissenschaft: Abraham Esau als Industriephysiker, Universitätsrektor und Forschungsmanager,” in ‘Kämpferische Wissenschaft’: Studien zur Universität Jena im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Uwe Hoßfeld, Jürgen John, Oliver Lemuth, and Rüdiger Stutz(Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2003), 136-179.
  2. Albert Einstein, Einstein on Peace (New York: Avenel Books, 1968), 295. On the Manhattan Project, see Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  3. For works that consider Esau’s relationship to Mennonitism, see Horst Penner, “Abraham Esau: Der Große Physiker aus Tiegenhagen,” Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 14 (1974): 54-57; Horst Gerlach, “Abraham Esau: Ein Physiker und Pionier der Nachrichtentechnik,” Westpreußen-Jahrbuch 27 (1977): 57-66; Horst Gerlach, “Esau, Abraham Robert,” MennLex V, online.
  4. Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010); Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 18-95.
  5. See Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 45-69.
  6. Information in this section is from Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power 1939-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 17-206; Kristie Mackrakis, Surviving the Swastika: Scientific Research in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 162-186.
  7. Klaus Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1996), 321-322.
  8. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Deutsche und Niederländische Physiker,” paper given at the conference “Ambivalente Funktionäre: Zur Rolle von Funktionseliten im NS-System,” held November 9-10, 2001 in Osnabrück, Germany, online.
  9. See Benjamin W. Goossen, “Taube und Hakenkreuz: Verhandlungen zwischen der NS-Regierung und dem MCC in Bezug auf die lateinamerikanischen Mennoniten,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017): 133-160; Goossen, Chosen Nation, 174-199.
  10. Helene Goertz to C. Henry Smith, September 24, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, hereafter MLA.
  11. Peter Goertz to Peter [Unknown], February 26, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  12. Peter Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  13. Helene to Family Members, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  14. Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA. On MCC’s postwar refugee efforts, see also Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.
  15. Helene Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA.
  16. Peter Goertz to Dewey Yoder, April 15, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  17. C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941).
  18. Alfred Boettcher to Helene Goertz, May 30, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  19. Helene Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, May 8, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  20. Helene Goertz to Peter Goertz, May 16, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  21. Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936).
  22. Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism, 324.
  23. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, June 17, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  24. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, July 1, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  25. Klaus Hentschel, The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists 1945-1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 96.
  26. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Leo Brandt: Ein Überblick,” in Leo Brandt (1908-1971): Ingenieur, Wissenschaftsförderer, Visionär, ed. Bernhard Mittermaier and Bernd-A. Rusinek (Jülich: Forschungszentrum Jülich, 2009), 22-23; Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Von der Entdeckung der NS-Vergangenheit zum generellen Faschismusverdacht: Akademische Diskurse in der Bundesrepublik der 60er Jahre,” in Dynamische Zeiten: Die 60er Jahre in den beiden deutschen Gesellschaften, ed. Axel Schildt, Detlef Siegfried, and Karl Christian Lammers (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 2000), 120.
  27. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Schwerte/Schneider: Die Karriere eines Spagatakteurs 1936-1995,” in Der Fall Schwerte im Kontext, ed. Helmut König (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1998),44-45.
  28. C. Henry Smith, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Europas, trans. Abraham Esau (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), Einleitung.
  29.  Orie Miller to Cornelius Krahn, October 6, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  30. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Umwege zwischen Kanzel und Katheder: Autobiographische Fragmente (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018): 70.
  31. Goertz’s original essay is reprinted with commentary in Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017), 11-38. For historiographical context, see John Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism,” in European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters, ed. Mark Jantzen, Mary Sprunger, and John Thiesen (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016), 313-328.

Christmas Controversy: Community Mennonite, Interracial Marriage, and a Hope from a Half-Century Ago

The Christmas pageant at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois, was always a treat. The brick walls festooned with greenery. The eager anticipation of young children bursting into chatter and antics and no small bit of mayhem. Christmas carols. Advent wreaths. Food and friends and beauty. For the six years we worshipped with that congregation between 2002 and 2008, I don’t think we ever missed a pageant.

One of those years my partner played the part of Mary. A young man from the youth group played Joseph. Another year, I played Joseph, and the partner of one of our pastors played Mary. In both instances, as was the case most every year, the holy couple was interracial.

Not such a big deal, that. Not in 2018. Although commercials featuring interracial couples still ignite the ire of white supremacists and interracial couples report instances of social ostracism and harassment, interracial marriages have grown more commonplace and socially acceptable – at least as compared to 1963.

I mention 1963 because that was the year when the depiction of an interracial holy couple in Community Mennonite’s Christmas pageant did cause a hullabaloo. A big one. They had to call in the denominational heavyweights. It was not, apparently, very pleasant.

This is how it went down.


By December 1963, Community had been experimenting with integration for a little over two years. One Sunday in 1961, three African-American women attended a Sunday morning worship service at the previously all-white congregation. In 1956 when charter members had purchased property on which to construct a sanctuary, they had signed off on a restrictive covenant excluding “‘any one who is not a Caucasian’ from the premises.”1 The congregation, nonetheless, welcomed the African-American women. Despite a few bumps along the way, a core of both white and black members continued to attend. And, by all accounts, they enjoyed each other as they worshipped.2

Yet, tensions built below the surface. From the onset, some white members had raised concerns that an integrated congregation would lead, inevitably, to intermarriage. In keeping with the history of black-white racial unions, the white community has been less supportive of interracial unions than has the black community, a pattern especially true in the 1940s and 50s.3 Although white attitudes had begun to liberalize by the 1960s, the issue remained fraught in a community like Markham that was at that time in the midst of white flight. Black families had started to relocate to the community in search of a bit of suburban safety and security.4

Community Mennonite Church, Markham, Illinois, circa mid-1960s and featuring Pastor Larry Voth

In that context of rapidly changing racial demographics, a long history of white fear of interracial marriage, and a still fledgling congregation, the organizers of the 1963 Christmas pageant cast a black Joseph and a white Mary.5 The service ensued. Christmas came and went. All apparently without incident.

Then the church board met on January 17. With the start of the new year came reports on attendance (it was up), heating of the church building (it had started), and offering envelopes (they should be numbered). Then the pastor at the time, Larry Voth, invited the field secretary for city churches from the national-level home Missions Commission of the General Conference Mennonite Church, Peter Ediger, to speak. Ediger noted that the rest of the denomination was very interested in what was happening in Markham as this small, formerly all-white congregation found itself on a journey toward racial integration. He offered a word of encouragement by noting that when a congregation is “having a struggle for existance [sic] it is a living church.”6

All seemed in order.

And then it wasn’t.

Church board chair Al Levreau read Genesis 11:1-9, the description of the tower of Babel in which “the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”7 The notes from the meeting on January 17 don’t explain what message Mr. Levreau meant to send by reading that passage. Perhaps he saw in the story of Babel’s chaos a case study to be avoided as Community Mennonite embarked on racial integration.

What was clear was that he did not approve of mixed race marriages. Not at all. Not even the hint of one in a Christmas play. With a generous dose of understatement bordering on cheekiness, the unidentified keeper of the minutes observed, “there was quite a discussion regarding inter-marriage.”8

It must have been quite a discussion. At the end of it Levreau has resigned from his position a board chair and declared that he would not return to worship services at CMC. After a unanimous vote to close the meeting, Ediger offered “a word of prayer.”9

I’ve often wondered what the conversations went like in the church parking lot after this meeting. I imagine that there was some venting. Perhaps even a bit of invective and opprobrium directed at the departing chairperson. A bit of self-righteous indignation even? Or, there could as easily have been mourning and expressed concern for the sudden separation. After all, when the congregation had weathered a previous racial controversy, Levreau had been the one to lobby for an open-door policy that set the path toward the integrated nativity scene.10 The record doesn’t say.

A month later the board met again. This time the president of the entire General Conference joined the meeting on February 15. Although Levreau did not attend – and in fact had not been visited by church leadership since his abrupt departure – board member Margaret Carr also objected to the prospect of intermarriage and grilled conference executive Walter Gering on the denomination’s position on the topic. After Carr explained her objections to both integration and intermarriage, Gering backpedaled by asserting that denominational officers had never encouraged intermarriage but that he thought black and white couples could have a happy marriage. When prompted, African-American board member William Smith explained that black families in the congregation were not interested in marrying across racial lines, an assurance that black church leaders had been stating to white Mennonites for nearly a decade.11

The controversy came to an end a month later. A delegation reported that they had met with Levreau, but that he was not willing to return unless he could influence the church away from integration. Smith replied, “As well educated as we are why do these things keep coming between us?”12 His incredulity at the prospect of a Christian brother objecting to his presence in the congregation leaps off the page across a half-century.

In response the board put their collective foot down. They voted – unanimously – to discontinue discussion about whether the church would be integrated and to declare – officially – that “Community Mennonite Church of Markham, Illinois …welcomes continued growth on a racially integrated basis.”13

History could have gone in a different direction that night. Board members could have chosen to be silent, allow the controversy to spill over into the congregation as a whole, or simply decide that the bother wasn’t worth it. Other majority white churches certainly did.14 But instead they set their faces toward an uncertain future and made the decision to continue trying to figure out what it would mean for black and white to worship together.


I chose this story to write about because it is a Christmas story, and we are in the midst of the nativity season. And also because I miss CMC’s Christmas pageants. They were a fine thing. Always a bit chaotic around the edges. Sometimes the congregation’s singing was a bit flat. It wasn’t always entirely – well – polished. But the love in that room? That was unmistakable. And the holy couple – by tradition through the first decade of the twenty-first century if not longer – was always interracial. The hope and promise of that image – however simplistic it may have been – never failed to move me.

I write this blog post on the morning of a day in which I will later denounce white nationalism at a local rally. Given the resurgence of white supremacy in our country, writing about an integrated Christmas service fifty years in the past can seem irrelevant if not naïve. To a degree, that may be true. But I also know that when I speak tonight, when I call out white nationalists for being small-minded, hard-fisted, and racist through and through, I will do so carrying a little bit of that nativity scene with me, and a little bit more of a congregation that decided to say yes rather than no to the question of integration before them fifty years ago.

  1. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 166.
  2. Don Burklow and Grace Burklow, “Interview with Don and Grace Burklow,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mary Ann Woods, “Interview with Mary Ann Woods,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mertis Odom, “Interview with Mertis Odom,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.2005); Gerald Mares and Dolores Mares, “Interview with Gerald and Dolores Mares,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2006).
  3. Renee Christine Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 45.
  4. Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  5. That is at least the gender arrangement recalled by one couple. The written record doesn’t specify the gender mix, just that they were an interracial pair. Given the response by certain white members of the congregation, a black male/white female combination makes the most sense. Historically, the white community has been less threatened by white male/black female pairings, in part due to the record of white slave masters raping female enslaved Africans and denying the progeny that resulted any rights of inheritance. For reference to CMC’s casting decision, see: Mares and Mares.
  6. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill.: Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  7. Genesis 11:1-9, New International Version.
  8. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. Shearer, 167.
  11. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  12. M. Carr, “Community Mennonite Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill. : Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kip Kosek, “‘Just a Bunch of Agitators’: Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches,” Religion and American Culture 23, no. 2 (2013); Douglas E. Thompson, Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017).

Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of “Race Criminals”

Sixty years after he penned “Race Criminals,” David A. Shank’s anger at his co-believers still jumps off the page. Writing in February 1945 as the editor of The Vanguard, the newsletter of Civilian Public Service conscientious objectors assigned to camp 18 in Denison, Iowa, Shank aimed to awaken white Christians in general and white Mennonites in particular to their complicity in racism.

“You are guilty, you know,” he wrote. “You are prejudiced and you are bigoted and,” he added just to be certain that his message was clear, “you are pumping the bellows for the fires of racial discrimination and hatred.” Having accused his audience of racist attitudes, a racially superior mindset, ignorance, inactivity, and insensitivity, Shank ratcheted up his rhetoric with a condemnation specific to Mennonites that only pacifists would find convicting. Replete with an offensive and inflammatory racial epithet—presumably for the shock value—Shank declared, “It is just as unrighteous for a Christian to say ‘nigger’ as it is to be found fighting in the front lines of battle, and much more cowardly and hypocritical.”1

Vanguardv1n41945Feb 1

The Vanguard, 1 no. 4 (Feb. 1, 1945)

I know of no other examples of white Mennonites writing about racism in the World War II era—and precious few in the subsequent three decades—that approach the emotional intensity, prophetic tenor, or unabashed criticism of Shank’s editorial. Although African-American academic, activist, and pastor Vincent Harding would go on to challenge white Mennonite complicity with racism in no uncertain terms by the late 1950s, Shank’s reproof precedes Harding’s censure by more than a decade.2

The February 1945 issue of The Vanguard focused on “brotherhood.” Contributors to the mimeographed newsletter reported on a talk by Dr. A. T. DeGroot, a Drake University professor from Des Moines, who advocated social equality of the races; lauded Roi Ottley’s New World A’Coming and Richard Wright’s Native Son for their bracing racial content; and explicated the dangers of race prejudice. None of the other articles approach Shank’s righteous anger. A fellow camp member, James Harnish, also charged Mennonites with both tacit and overt racism but in much more mediated tones. Harnish wrote that participation in racism “is inconsistent with the mind and spirit of Christ.”3 A concluding ten-point program offered by Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingrich called for interracial friendships, evangelism, book reading, letter writing to elected representatives, and charitable donations to race-focused organizations but again in the mildest of tones.4

To be certain, an editorial in The Vanguard did not have the same reach as did an article in The Gospel Herald, the official Mennonite Church publication of the day. Historian Irvin B. Horst, then an undergraduate student, offered his take on “Mennonites and the Race Question” later on in 1945 for The Gospel Herald. Like Shank, he also pointed out white Mennonite involvement in racism, but the most stringent criticism he had to offer was that “we have quite a way to go in loving our Negro brethren.”5

The difference in tone may have simply been due to personality, passion, or preference, but the larger context of racism in the church raises the question why more voices like Shank’s didn’t surface. In 1945, Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber, long-time matron and superintendent of the African-American mission at Broad Street in Virginia Conference, had been summarily dismissed from their posts, ostensibly due to their opposition to the Conference’s Jim Crow policies.6 Also in Virginia, the Trustees of Eastern Mennonite School refused that same year to admit Peggy Webb, daughter of Broad Street member Roberta Webb, due to “race questions that have been long in forming and deeply set in the values of the inhabitants of this state and community of which we are a small minority.”7 In his Gospel Herald article, Horst testified that “Many Mennonites feel . . . that the Negro is all right if he ‘keeps his place,’ but must be ‘kept down,’ for if placed on the level of whites he will take advantage of this position and become ‘fresh.’”8 He added, “There are Mennonite communities where young members of the church find sport in making Negroes fearful and scare Negro pedestrians with automobiles.”9

It seems as if there was plenty to get angry about.

But white Mennonites of the era rarely expressed anger in public and especially not in written form. In the CPS context, historian Perry Bush notes that “Mennonites were truly the ‘good boys’ of the CPS system. . . . [they] obeyed its directives quite submissively.”10 So even if CPS men had begun to form a racial conscience – whether in Iowa, Mississippi, or Florida – that could lead to unusually acerbic rhetoric directed to their religious community, they did not direct the same kind of ire at CPS authorities. The anger Shank expressed at the time may have been nothing more than the outpouring of a youthful firebrand, safe in lashing out at his co-believers even as he acted the model conscientious objector.

Yet Shank’s essay raises another question, one that remains pertinent whenever a member of a community points out a problem within that community to the community. If Shank had aimed his pen at an employer—revealing racism evident in a workplace for example—there would have been no whistle-blower laws to protect him. Those didn’t gain prominence until the late 1980s. As it was, Shank focused his anger on his co-believers and so risked a measure of internal censure. Not only could he have been dismissed, but he might also have found himself shoved to the margins of the community, rendered irrelevant, or, worse yet, branded a trouble maker—no longer a good boy of the Mennonite system.

But he wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

A full year later his article was reprinted in Box 96, the newsletter of CPS camp #27 in Mulberry, Florida. Shank went on to serve with Mennonite Board of Missions in Belgium and West Africa for more than three decades, taught for three years at Goshen College in Indiana, helped start Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, and played a role in the founding and leadership of other educational and mission endeavors. Much loved and often honored, he was no pariah.

David and Wilma Shank 1974

David and Wilma Shank, 1974

Why wasn’t Shank marginalized in the aftermath of his harsh indictment? Why didn’t his anger—out of place even among the CPS men who had become awakened to societal and ecclesial racism—label him a troublemaker? Others had been censured. Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber lost their cherished posting at Broad Street for much less vocal protest. What protected Shank?

Some of the answers are obvious. White Mennonites have long been tolerant of their young people’s excesses, whether of worldly flirtation or prophetic invective. Likewise, Shank stood at a remove, lodged in Iowa, engaged fully in the work and witness of the church’s CPS service. His peers respected him. A fellow camp member wrote that Shank was gifted “with considerably more than average intellectual endowment.”11 He was also white, male, and positioned by virtue of his surname as a member of the pack, a tripartite privilege, layered and laminated from birth. And, unlike the Swartzentrubers who also bore those privileges, his position in the church did not depend on a board of conservative bishops fully accommodated to the racial segregation of the South.

But I also think he was given a pass because he expressed his anger in a theological frame that white Mennonites of the era understood: guilt, innocence, redemption. Those terms made sense and flowed into the evangelical streams then running through the church. They offered a way out. As harsh a message as Shank had to proclaim, he still concluded with “redemption follows confession and the passion to do and to give ‘to all nations whatsoever I have commanded you’.”12

It was the confessional catharsis: “I am convicted of my participation in racism; I am sorry that I have done so; I am relieved that I no longer have to concern myself with the issue.” By no means particular to Mennonites, various permutations of this theological relief valve have recurred throughout the twentieth century as white Christians found themselves accused of both complicit and active participation in racism. The emphasis on confession and repentance has been especially prominent in the white evangelical community.13 In response to racial accusations, white Christians have consistently taken advantage of the confessional catharsis to gain psychic relief and move forward.

Elsewhere I have documented the cycle of public and individual confession of participation in racism followed by a period of inactivity or inattention to racial issues within the Mennonite community.14 My point is not to draw into question the sincerity of these confessions but simply to note that white Mennonites, and I think white Christians as a whole, have too often relied on the confessional catharsis in order to avoid the more difficult and sustained work of solving what Shank called the “‘white’ problem.”15

I wonder if one possible response to Shank’s editorial, one that holds the promise of a measure of integrity, is simply to name the confessional catharsis cycle, recognize its historical recurrence, and commit ourselves to embarking on a more sustained, holistic, and ultimately more honest response.

Rather than reprising yet another round of confessions, we could—as David Shank advocated in ’45—then move from criminality to authentic mutuality. It would be a legacy worthy of the gift of Shank’s original ire.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, for scanning and sending me The Vanguard issue on “brotherhood.” He knew that I would be interested.


  1. David A. Shank, “Race Criminals,” The Vanguard, February 1945, 2. 
  2. “The Mennonite Churches and Race,” Gospel Herald, May 19, 1959. 
  3. James Harnish, “Mennonites & Race Relations,” The Vanguard, February 1945. 
  4. Gingerish Melvin, Dr., “A Ten Point Program,” ibid. 
  5. Irvin B. Horst, “Mennonites and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, July 13, 1945, 284. 
  6. “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). 
  7. A. G. Heishman, “Annual Board Meeting Trustees Eastern Mennonite School,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite School, 1945), [2]. 
  8. Horst, 284. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 114. 
  11. Albert Dietrich and Frank Dietrich, Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank Dietrich and Albert Dietrich (Fordham University Press, 2005), 292. 
  12. Shank, 2. 
  13. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “Conflicting Identities: White Racial Formation among Mennonites, 1960–1985,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19, no. 3 (2012); “Whitening Conflicts: White Racial Identity Formation within Mennonite Central Committee, 1960-1985,” in A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2011). 
  15. Shank, 2. 

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

Session Two: Soviet UnionIMG_20180316_145202.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Three: Mennonite-Jewish Connections20180316_153936.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Conference Opening and Session One

Bethel College

Over two hundred participants gathered today for the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference, held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. Bethel President Jon Gering welcomed the assembly for a packed day to discuss challenging topics. Conference co-organizer John Thiesen offered some brief background, noting that this is the third conference in a series dedicated to interrogating the history of Mennonites’ relationship to National Socialism. The first event, which focused on Mennonites and Nazism in Germany, took place in Münster, Germany, in 2015. The second, held in Filadelfia, Paraguay, dealt with the history of Mennonites and Nazism in Latin America. A fourth conference on the topic of “Reading the Bible after the Holocaust” is being planned for the spring of 2020 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Seeds planted by this multi-year international dialogue across and beyond the Mennonite church bore fruit today. Many speakers at this “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference had been present at previous events and made reference to work produced by colleagues in those contexts. Presenters hail from five countries—Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Ukraine, and the United States—and attendees have arrived from across North America. Because this event is sponsored by seven church and educational organizations, discussions have engaged participants with diverse interests and expertise, transcending disciplinary, professional, and faith boundaries. Topics addressed this weekend include: Mennonite-Jewish relations, theology and anti-Semitism, war crimes, postwar refugee experiences, memory, and literature.

Numerous participants expressed gratitude that this event is being held publicly and with formal church sponsorship. The fact that such a conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust is occurring only now in 2018 also highlights, however, the enormous opposition—official or otherwise—that this topic has faced from within the Mennonite community over the past seventy years. In that regard, the current conference is also an imperfect vessel, with many of us still learning how to appropriately, respectfully navigate the best ways to talk and learn about Mennonite complicity in the Holocaust. Today included an impromptu teach-in from a Jewish individual, whose own family had suffered during the Holocaust, who critiqued audience members for laughing at inappropriate moments and encouraged Mennonites to keep the victims of Nazism—not themselves—at the forefront of their minds when talking about anti-Semitic atrocities.

The conference will continue tomorrow with further presentations—and the progress set in motion here will also continue for many months afterward via further dialogue, research, and publications. Here at Anabaptist Historians, we are pleased to be providing full coverage of this groundbreaking event. Be sure to watch this site over the next days and weeks for updates, including new posts with panel summaries, narrative reports, and participant reflections.

Panel Summary

Session One: Pre-War Denominational and Organizational Themes

“Anti-Semitism and the Concept of ’Volk’: The Mennonite Youth Circular Community at the Beginning of the Nazi Dictatorship”
Imanuel Baumann, Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg

  • In the first paper of the conference, Imanuel Baumann provided an analysis of round robin letters circulated between Mennonite youth groups in Germany at the start of the Third Reich. Participants included men and women and were of diverse backgrounds.
  • The concept of “Gemeinschaft,” meaning community, helped provide a bridge to Nazism for many of the writers, who since the 1920s often sought a strong sense of belonging. Nazis aimed to provide this desire for coherence with a new specifically “racial” community.
  • Within the circular letters, anti-Semitic measures in the Third Reich mostly drew silence or positive assessments. Even in cases where Mennonite writers opposed these acts, they only condemned Nazi focus on race as an idol, without questioning racial logics as such.

“Mennonite Scholarship in the Third Reich: From Knowledge Production to Genocide”
Ben Goossen, Harvard University

  • My paper examined the writings of a small but influential cohort of Third Reich academics who produced hundreds of books and articles about Mennonites, often praising members of the denomination as possessing unusual German racial purity
  • These mostly non-Mennonite scholars developed interest in the denomination in the context of a 1929 refugee crisis in the Soviet Union. The temporary “return” of thousands of Soviet Mennonites to Germany generated major public and official interest
  • Nearly all leading Nazi scholars of Mennonitism went on to participate in ethnic cleansing during the Second World War, often deploying concepts they had developed when conducting racial studies on Mennonites to help segregate Germans from non-Germans

“An Illusion of Freedom: Denominationalism, German Mennonites, and Nazi Germany”
Jim Lichti, Milken Community Schools, Los Angeles

  • Drawing on his 2008 book, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany, Jim Lichti discussed the legal and administrative structures of Mennonites in the Third Reich, comparing them with Quakers and Seventh Day Adventists.
  • Mennonites in Nazi Germany identified as members of a “Free Church.” This term could be contrasted with Protestant or Catholic “state churches” as well as with the word “sect,” which was an undesirable designation in the Third Reich.
  • Religious opposition to Nazism more often came from state churches, since Free Churches welcomed Nazi emphasis on separation of church and state. They often also supported Nazi anti-Bolshevism, of particular interest to Mennonites with relatives in the Soviet Union.

An Honest Look at Ancestry Reveals Diversity

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Darvin L. Martin

Ben Goossen convincingly explains that the development of Mennonite family research a century ago was at least partially motivated by a quest for “blood purity and racial hygiene” (“Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”). Bridging to the present, Goossen also asserts that these themes become exacerbated through the recent advent of DNA testing, “privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.” The implication is that interest in ancestry today continues to foster attitudes of exclusion and superiority, when in my experience the opposite can and should be true.

As a prime historic example, Goossen cites the Amish-Mennonite historian C. Z. Mast, who published a genealogy in 1911, and within it spent pages to express his thoughts of heredity, defending a position we now understand as white supremacist. [^1] What Mast articulated on paper, many and perhaps most of his contemporary Mennonites had also embraced, but were ill-equipped to write or to express in detail.

In a lengthy epilogue, Mast proposed that the same natural law exemplified by selecting physical vitality in breeding agricultural stock likewise applied to humans.  He further projected that moral tendencies, in addition to outward form and features, were physically transmitted from parents to their children (747). Mast endorsed the responsibility of governments to convince their populations of the natural laws of heredity, selectively improving “human stock,” by implementing and enforcing regulations against endogamous marriage, and praised purposeful spousal selection as a means to reduce and ultimately eliminate undesirable characteristics and diseases, including blindness, tuberculous, curved legs, and mental handicaps (749).

Mast argued that the remarkable progress of his contemporary early twentieth-century Americans was the expected outcome of inheriting the vitality of the most successful men and women of the different nationalities of Europe. In contrast, he gave examples from other cultures where “divine displeasure is announced.” He cited Native Americans and other “ancient tribes and races of the Orient” having succumbed to severe inbreeding, causing “their physical and mental power [to have] melted into weakness” (748).  He criticized the Catholic royalty in Spain and Portugal, concluding their congenital disorders were the product of pope-blessed marriages between princes and their nieces.  He imprecated the emirs of Turkey for producing “simpletons and imbeciles,” as they have “intermarried so long and extensively [. . .] among those who revere the memory of the prophet” (749).

To use a common and necessary tag line of our time, it is not far-fetched to clearly report that Mast’s comments are the “textbook definition” of racism.  Yet here we have them, published by our very own Mennonite Publishing House in 1911.  In his defense, Mast had merely articulated the mainstream thoughts of the scientific and intellectual community of his time, with a directed passion to convince his Amish and Mennonite cousins to extend the tent a bit wider when looking for a spouse among the community.  But his words also subsequently labeled the “other” communities as inexcusable for the very problems that he found in his own.

Goossen calls us to own the historic racism exhibited by Mast and his fellow Mennonite and Amish family researchers, as rightly we should.  Just like those who descend from slave holders, those of us who are ethnic Mennonites have our own demons to expose. We cannot pretend that our ancestors thought of their whiteness as but one variety among many.  Likewise, let’s not be haphazard in our attempt to separate family history research from racism, as this is no easy task. Especially when Mast and others have been intent on keeping these themes so tightly bound.

For myself, an honest account showcases that Mast’s supremacist ideas sit uncomfortably close to home.  C. Z. Mast’s father was a first cousin to my great-great grandmother, Hannah Kurtz (1855-1937).  They grew up in the same congregation along the upper reaches of the Conestoga River, just west of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.  C. Z. lived on the farm of our common ancestor, Stephen Mast (1800-1868), two miles south of Morgantown.

Perhaps some of C. Z.’s prowess and detail towards family history found a home in my genes as well.  I can relate.  C. Z. was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this history, and he certainly pursued it as a way to exercise his intellectual curiosity and differentiate himself from the expected mandate to become a farmer.  C. Z. was well read, and ascribed to the basic understanding of genetics promoted in his day—that human genetics were understood as having an ideal, pure and original form; that we exhibit various stages of corruption from that pure form . . . and for some, in Mast’s warped view, the corruption is more extreme than in others.

This understanding, although now proven untrue, had filtered down through my family. Physical and mental problems were blamed on such corruption.  My grandmother (the granddaughter of the Hannah Kurtz mentioned above) scolded her younger brother when in middle-age he fell in love with a woman and decided to marry.  This brother was somewhat mentally and physically limited, had always lived with his parents, and was part of the Friendship Community program sponsored by Mennonites in Lancaster for handicapped individuals.  

From my grandmother’s perspective, marriage and the benefits and responsibilities that came with it were not to be made available to those constrained by handicaps assigned from birth.  In childhood she was told that we have a moral duty to keep handicapped individuals from having children, otherwise we inhibit humanity from rising to its full potential.  She grew up in the face of the eugenics movement, and ultimately had enough control over her brother that he decided not to marry, even though both he and his partner were well beyond child bearing age.  Both my grandmother and her brother had passed away within three weeks of each other in February 2016. These attitudes of restricting bloodlines to attain a supposed ethnic purity haunt our recent past, and perhaps have found expression in new contemporary forms.

Goossen suggests that DNA testing has become a new avenue to enforce concepts of ethnic exclusion—that those who grew up Mennonite use this to privilege common ancestry over shared convictions. While there is a tendency to use DNA testing to play the “Mennonite Game,” my own experience in interpreting DNA results of several hundred individuals, both inside and outside the Mennonite circles of ethnicity and persuasion, challenges this notion. DNA testing is all about surprises—that our ancestry is not straightforward, but rather a complicated web of interconnectedness.  We see the surprises advertised in the commercials by the two most prevalent DNA testing companies, Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.  DNA testing reveals the unexpected, and that is what people find attractive.

There are at least a dozen Mennonite DNA projects on the internet that seek to use DNA as a means to link families together.  And all of these clearly reveal an astounding amount of diversity among ethnic Mennonite populations. An honest assessment of the Y-DNA profiles among testers who share the common surnames familiar to ethnic Mennonites reveals that they are not homogenous, but rather span a wide cluster of populations of origin. The “Mennonite DNA Project” by Tim Janzen, the “Swiss Anabaptist DNA Project” by Bonnie Schrack and my own “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” are but three examples. While a very selective reading of DNA can enforce a tester’s prejudices, a more complete assessment determines that ancestry is much more complex than first assumed.

Here’s why.  All of us, if we extend our family trees into the past, have an increasing diversity of ancestors.  This is statistically inevitable. Eight great-grandparents descend from sixteen great-great grandparents and thirty-two three great-grandparents, and so forth back through time.  Ten generations back, about 350 years ago, we each should have 512 ancestors.  At twenty generations back, about 700 years ago, that number of ancestors increases to 524,288, and at thirty generations, around 1000 A.D., we should have 536 million, more than the total population of the world at that time.

Those statistics eventually break down due to the inevitable placement of common ancestors in different places on one’s tree.  In my personal example, (through recordkeeping as the result of the privileges received because of 300 years of relative economic and social stability), I can create a nearly complete ancestral chart back ten generations on each side of my family. And in spite of having strong Mennonite background on both sides of my family, the chart shows increasing diversity.

I don’t have 512 ancestors ten generations ago, but instead have 372, due to duplications on my tree.  This is caused by fourth, fifth and sixth cousins marrying each other.  But even so, diversity far outweighs the truncation experienced by intermarriages.  For myself, truncation first appears seven generations back, where a seventh-generation ancestor of my father’s lineage also appears as an eighth-generation ancestor on my mother’s side.  This one and a few others reduce my total ancestral count by about ten percent in the eighth generation, and consistently another ten percent in the ninth, and another ten percent in the tenth, so I am left with 372 unique ancestors, 350 years ago.  

Each of these has a unique story of their own life experience.  Many crossed the ocean to carve out a new existence in America. Many were Swiss—representing at least four cantons, about four dozen were German, as many as ten held Dutch nationality, a few were French, and at least five were Irish.  And I have a few unknowns.  That’s where my genealogy ends.

But let’s assume out of those 372, they each had 372 ancestors ten generations further back.  That gives me 138,384 ancestors twenty generations ago, around the year 1300.  That is far less than the 524,288 I should have, assuming each ancestor a unique individual. Even if a full half of them were duplicates, I’m left with 65,000 people that I can statistically claim as ancestors.  Writing their names alone would fill more than a thousand-page book.  What are the statistics that every one of those had the same five nationalities as my most recent ancestors? The amount itself simply forces further diversity.

And we all experience this diversity, if we take an honest look at ancestry. Some Americans can claim ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  Some have found ancestors among the Native Americans, among Africans forced into slavery and transported to America, and among those engaging in the slave trade, all at the same time.  Go back further in time and the probability increases that your ancestors were not just the ones you perceive as friends, but also your foes.

And among these 65,000 people 700 years ago, what if they each had 372 ancestors ten generations back?  That’s twenty-four million ancestors in the year 950.  It is statistically inevitable that at least one of these is a Central Asian merchant of the Nestorian Christian persuasion. At least one is an Arab from the Maghreb practicing Muslim faith, one a caravanning Mongol whose abode lies far to the east in modern China, one a Hindu who bathed in the Ganges, and one a sub-Saharan African herding cattle within the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

I’m only considering a thousand years ago. Jump back another thousand years and it is not difficult to assume that nearly every person alive at that time was an ancestor, statistically speaking.  Even those island populations that have lived in relative isolation for tens of thousands of years, such as the indigenous populations of Australia, New Guinea, and the Andaman Islands would have had occasional escapees and castaways in nearly every generation who mixed with nearby continental populations. Over time the web that starts with yourself extends wider and wider back through time until everyone is included.

Modern DNA testing as it relates to family history grants us the ability to apply specific data towards these statistical results. Through a 23andMe DNA test, I found that my grandmother (mentioned above) has a small snippet of Native American ancestry, predicted to have arisen eight generations back. In one woman around the year 1730, I find the DNA evidence to include 200 to 400 Native American ancestors by the year 1380, and 40,000 in the year 1030, encompassing all the known Native peoples’ groups of the Mid-Atlantic region and likely far beyond.  Can anyone doubt that every one of those migrant families who resided along the Bering land bridge linking Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago was also an ancestor?  Of course, some left no descendants, but those who left descendants ultimately became the ancestors of all of us.

Through Y-DNA testing, we have uncovered that the prominent Mennonite Groff family shares Y-chromosome affinity not with fellow Swiss Mennonite families, but with a Greco-Roman cluster of Italian families with surnames such as Albarano, Margarelli and Visentin.  Through similar testing, we have uncovered that Mennonites who share the Swiss surname Hollinger, Hullinger or Holiger, have as their next closest matches the Saudi families Almotawa and Al Daihan and the Turkish family Kahanizaman. The Mennonite Metzler family, tracing their lineage of descent through Valentine Metzler, a German immigrant who arrived in Lancaster County with his father Jacob in 1738, has close Y-DNA matches to Jewish families such as Kronik (in Belarus), Cohen and Langer (in Ukraine) and Friedman and Wengrowski (in Poland).

These are only a few of the examples in which DNA showcases the statistical inevitability of diversity as one takes a serious look at ancestry. I haven’t even touched the Y-DNA results of the Mennonite Good family, which reveal an origin in Afghanistan predating the time of Alexander the Great. Nor have we seriously examined the Amish Bassinger families from Ohio, which have a Central Asian Y-DNA signature closer aligned to the Asian origins of the Native Americans than to most European families.  Nor have we investigated the selection of European surnames than showcase Y-DNA signatures more closely matching a recent African origin than the typical Celtic or Greco-Roman cultures of European antiquity.

An honest look at DNA can and should break down the racial prejudices that have defined the last few generations of family researchers.  DNA analysis provides concrete ways that forecast the inevitable diversity that a statistical evaluation of our ancestry requires. Eventually, given enough time, all humans around the world are included in our ancestry, along with their diverse cultures and traditions.  That fusion throws the ideas of genetic purity on its head.  If a pure genepool of humanity exists, it includes the genes of everyone. As family history research increasingly considers DNA as a means to fill in the gaps and extend family trees, these notions of inclusion become inevitable.

I certainly am privileged to be able to construct a genealogy of my ancestry back ten generations.  But DNA testing has now broken down these barriers.  Today, anyone, even one who knows nothing of his or her ancestry, can find pertinent and often surprising information through DNA testing. The most accurate records are the ones stored in our bodies. These records are now becoming accessible and, in many cases, challenge the assertions of a century of family history researchers.

I ponder what C. Z. Mast would think of genetic testing for family history as it exists today.  Would he selectively interpret it to confirm and promote his own stereotypes, or would he embrace the data in its diversity, extending the genealogical fence to include everyone?  I don’t know for sure, but I would like to think that C. Z. Mast could be persuaded through the presentation of DNA test results that his Swiss Mennonite ancestors were vastly more diverse than he could ever have imagined.


Darvin L. Martin is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University (B.S., Agriculture) and Millersville University (B.S., Analytical Chemistry).  As a real occupation, he tinkers with chemistry related instrumentation, but on the side, manages the “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” through Family Tree DNA.


See also:

In A Reunion Like This We Can Share

Anita Hooley Yoder

History matters in the church. It matters what kinds of stories are told about our past, and who gets to tell them.

This was obvious at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, where a timeline exercise brought up some past events and issues but left out others. (See Joel Nofziger’s recent post)

As I worked on a book on the history of Mennonite women’s organizations, I found myself especially captivated by stories I had not heard before, and did not fit neatly into a typical understanding of Mennonite women. I was specifically fascinated to learn about the activities of Black and Hispanic Mennonite women, which began in an organized way in the 1970s and, to some extent, continue to today.

These activities are narrated in just one chapter in the book, but I hope the chapter I wrote is just the beginning of more writing and sharing about what happened at these events and the way God continues to work through Mennonite women of all kinds of backgrounds.

Below is an excerpt from Circles of Sisterhood, about the start of the Hispanic Mennonite women’s conferences. To read more, purchase the book! You can order online from Mennonite Women USA or MennoMedia.


5-1 Sefi de Leon

Seferina De León speaking at an Hispanic Mennonite women’s conference in the 1970s

The first Spanish-speaking Mennonite women’s conference was held in April 1973 in Moline, Illinois. Maria Bustos, wife of pastor Mac Bustos, coordinated the gathering, along with Lupe Bustos and Maria Rivera Snyder. Several reasons were given for the one-day event, which was called a servicio de inspiración. Seferina De León described it as an opportunity “to have a group of our own to listen to each other and figure out how we can help each other.”1 The organizers specifically wanted to gather women whose husbands were involved in church work and spent much time traveling, so the women could have a meaningful time together while their husbands stayed home.2 In a Voice article about the conference, Lupe Bustos wrote that the gathering arose from a concern for women who could not speak English and had never had the benefit of participating in the WMSC [the Mennonite Church women’s organization].3 As a woman of “American-Spanish descent,” she had been encouraged by attending WMSC meetings and wanted to provide similar encouragement for Spanish-speaking women.4

At the first conference, about sixty women gathered from churches in several Midwestern states as well as New York and Texas. Lupe Bustos’s article described the event as having women’s marks of creativity and care: hospitable overnight hosts, corsages for each participant, a craft project fashioning crosses out of a variety of materials. But the most memorable aspect of the event was the spiritual presence that pervaded it. The Spirit-led singing, prayer, and testimonies came to a climax when the women gathered to take communion. Mac Bustos wished to join the group for the communion service, which was led by pastor Mario Bustos. Suffering from leg pain and other health complications so severe that he was planning to give up his pastoral work, Pastor Mac was assisted into the sanctuary. Women nearby laid hands on him as they prayed and praised God. Suddenly, Mac got up and said, “Praise the Lord, all pain is gone!” He began going up and down the steps to show his increased mobility.5 “Tears just streamed from all of us,” Lupe Bustos wrote. “We realized that God still performs miracles; and a miracle happened to all of us there, because we were renewed again in Him.”6

The conference’s leaders viewed the miraculous healing of Mac Bustos as confirmation of God’s presence with them and as encouragement to continue their gatherings. At the October 1973 Minority Ministries Council meeting, they made plans for another conference and also adopted the name Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita (Hispanic Mennonite Women’s Conference). This is the name the group uses today, after a several-year period of using the name Sociedad de Damas Cristianas en Acción (Society of Christian Women in Action).

A 1974 gathering was planned for Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first gathering was presumably paid for by the women themselves; Maria Bustos lists “faith” in the finances column on a chart showing figures for the early conferences.7 To help with the second conference, the Concilio leaders wrote to the WMSC requesting a grant of $3,000 for “las hermanas.” The WMSC executive committee decided to make the money available, even though it required some temporary reallocation of funds. Beulah Kauffman, WMSC director, wrote a letter to the WMSC district presidents explaining the move and reminding them of the WMSC meeting at the 1973 MC assembly. . . . At that meeting, women had expressed that they would “stand ready to help in whatever ways possible” when “clearly defined” needs of Spanish-speaking members were presented. Kauffman described this request as just such a need and expressed hope that women across the denomination would consider making the Hispanic women’s conference their annual giving project.8

The WMSC money was apparently the only outside funding received for the 1974 conference. Women from many Hispanic churches contributed through offerings, craft sales, and other fundraisers, either to support the conference in general or to fund the travel of their own members. Lois Gunden Clemens attended the gathering as a WMSC representative. She reflected in a July 1974 Voice article: “It has been good for me at various times to be a minority within a Christian group representing a cultural heritage different from mine. My heart has been strangely warmed in sensing the oneness I could feel with them. This was true again when I joined our Spanish-speaking sisters gathered together in their Lancaster meeting.”9 Enriqueta Diaz summed up her sentiments about the conference in an August 1974 Voice article: “It is marvelous that in a reunion like this we can share with each other ideas, emotions, and thoughts, all in our own language and in a cordial environment. Praise God for His love!”10

Excerpt and photo are from Circles of Sisterhood by Anita Hooley Yoder. © 2017 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com


  1. Quoted in Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 152. Maria Bustos is often referred to as “Mary Bustos” in publications, since there were many other “Marias” involved with the organization. I follow Hinojosa in using “Maria.” 
  2.  Ibid., 152–53. 
  3. Lupe Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” Voice, April 1973, 5. 
  4.  Ibid. 
  5.  This event is also written about in several other places, including Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites, 153. 
  6.  Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” 5–6. 
  7.  Mary Bustos, “Report to the Executive Committee,” November 10, 1978, box 1, folder 3, WMSC Partnerships Records, 1973–1992 (IV-20-008), MCUSAA– Elkhart.  
  8.  Beulah Kauffman, letter to district WMSC presidents, April 3, 1974, box 4, folder 19, Women’s Missionary and Service Commission Executive Committee Records, 1917–1997 (IV-20-001), MCUSAA– Elkhart. 
  9. Lois Gunden Clemens, “Editorially Speaking,” Voice, July 1974, 2. 
  10.  Enriqueta Díaz, “Hispanic Women’s Conference,” Voice, August 1974, 11.