Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus

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Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, speaks with the Mennonite physician Johann Klassen in Halbstadt, Ukraine, 1942. Klassen was executed after the war for crimes including the alleged selection of 100 disabled patients for murder. Photo courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg. Alber Photograph Collection 351-23.

Recent conferences held in Germany (2015), Paraguay (2017), and the United States (2018) have led to significant public discussion and academic scholarship on the history of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust. These events have revealed that individuals associated with the Mennonite church were proximate to and sometimes participated in fascism and genocide to a greater extent than has been previously known. In response to several requests, we here at Anabaptist Historians have created this “Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus” to disseminate basic information and suggestions for further reading. In constructing this document, we have been inspired by other recent syllabi—such as the “Black Lives Matter Syllabus” and the “#StandingRockSyllabus”—that provide resources on topics of public import for adoption in educational settings as well as for wide circulation.

Below, recommended readings are organized by topic. This syllabus highlights short, free, web-accessible, English-language sources. Full-text links are provided. For readers wanting a deeper dive into any theme or area of interest, longer secondary sources in English, German, Dutch, and French are also listed under “Further Reading.” While full citations are given for the “Further Readings,” these are—unlike the primary texts—not all available online and, when no links are provided, must be accessed via libraries or database subscriptions. This syllabus is intended for general consumption: please use, distribute, amend, and share however you like.

A printer-friendly version can be found here: Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus, 2018

Contents

Key Terms

Timeline

Readings by Topic

Key Terms

Holocaust: The programmatic effort by National Socialists in the German Third Reich to exterminate Jews as a people during the Second World War. Usually dated between 1941 and 1945, this genocide drew on a much longer history of Nazi anti-Semitism and also extended to other groups, including Roma, political dissidents, and the physically and mentally disabled.

Mennonites: A Christian religious group originating in Europe during the sixteenth-century Reformation, named after the theologian Menno Simons, and historically associated with the separation of church and state, lay leadership, and opposition to military service and sworn oaths. During the Third Reich, there were about 500,000 Mennonites worldwide, living primarily in Eurasia and the Americas.

Nazism: A political movement led by Adolf Hitler and founded in southern Germany in the wake of the First World War. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, was established in 1920 and ruled in Germany between 1933 and 1945. Nazism as an ideology was characterized by anti-Semitism, anti-communism, and a Germany first approach.

Timeline

1918: The First World War formally ends, leaving Germany and its allies defeated. Paramilitary violence continues across Eastern Europe, spreading extremist ideologies and affecting Mennonite communities especially in Ukraine

1919: Allied victors impose the punitive Treaty of Versailles, assigning war guilt to Germany and drastically reducing its territory, including areas densely populated by Mennonites. The German Workers’ Party is formed

1920: The German Workers’ Party is renamed the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP in German), also known as the Nazi Party; Mennonites begin joining

1921: Famine in Ukraine following the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War draws international assistance from new aid organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC

1923: Hitler’s first attempted revolution, the “Beer Hall Putsch,” fails in Munich. Mass emigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union to Canada begins

1925: The first Mennonite World Conference is held in northern Switzerland, depicted as a global homecoming to the soil where Anabaptism was “born.” Anti-communism and nonresistance are discussed 

1926: In line with rising interest in racial science across Europe and beyond, the first periodical for Mennonite genealogy is founded in Germany

1927: Communist authorities end Mennonite emigration after 20,000 of 100,000 members in the Soviet Union have already left for Canada

1928: Stalin introduces his First Five Year Plan, leading to massive collectivization in the Soviet Union and violent liquidation of wealthy farmers and industrialists known as “kulaks,” including a high percentage of Mennonites

1929: Over 10,000 Mennonite refugees in the Soviet Union seek to escape Stalin’s “Revolution from Above,” drawing attention in Germany, including extensive coverage in the Nazi press

1930: Approximately 4,000 of the Mennonite refugees are given temporary shelter in Germany—where over 1,000 are examined by racial scientists—before traveling on to Brazil, Paraguay, and Canada

1933: Hitler comes to power in Germany, now called the Third Reich; Mennonite conferences in Paraguay and northeast Germany send congratulations, praising Nazi nationalism and anti-Bolshevism

1934: Germany’s largest Mennonite conference revises its statutes, formally abandoning nonresistance and promising obedience to the state; organizers are nevertheless unsuccessful at uniting all German congregations

1935: The Third Reich introduces military conscription and passes the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws; these themes are both promoted in the propaganda film, Frisians in Peril, about Mennonites in the Soviet Union

1936: Organizers of the Mennonite World Conference in the Netherlands agree to avoid the “political” topic of Nazism to appease German delegates. A small breakout group makes a peace declaration after German delegates leave

1937: Mennonites in Germany disavow prior affiliations with neo-Hutterite pacifists known as the Rhön Bruderhof, dissolved by the Gestapo. Expelled members move to England with help from Mennonites abroad

1938: Germany begins expanding as it absorbs Austria and the Sudetenland. Anti-Semitic violence escalates during the infamous Kristallnacht. Extreme anti-Semitic pronouncements continue among Mennonites in Germany

1939: The Second World War begins in Europe with the joint invasion of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. Mennonites from Poland, Danzig, and Galicia come under Third Reich rule. MCC begins relief work in Germany and France

1940: Nazi occupation of France and the Netherlands brings tens of thousands more Mennonites under German auspices. Racial scholars, including several Mennonites, begin integrating Dutch into histories of Aryan colonization in Eastern Europe

1941: Simultaneous onset of the Holocaust and Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. 35,000 Mennonites in Ukraine welcome German occupation. Mobile killing units, some with Mennonite members, carry out genocide across Eastern Europe

1942: Mennonite Central Committee operations in Germany, France, and occupied Poland end with the entry of the United States into the war; MCC representatives are repatriated to the United States

1943: Germany’s Eastern Front begins collapsing. German-speaking colonies in Ukraine that have been built up as model colonies—including the Mennonite Molotschna and Chortitza settlements—start retreating westward with the Wehrmacht and SS

1944: Mennonite leaders collaborate with Nazi bureaucrats and the SS to resettle nearly all of Ukraine’s Mennonites in the new model province of Wartheland in occupied Poland. They also envision resettlement of Mennonites from overseas

1945: The Third Reich collapses with the end of the Second World War. Approximately 45,000 Mennonite refugees seek shelter in Denmark and occupied Germany and Austria, fearing deportation to the Soviet Union

1946: Mennonite Central Committee begins new programs in Europe, including refugee operations. MCC leaders like Peter Dyck begin telling military and UN officials that Mennonites are non-German pacifists who suffered under Nazism

1947: The first refugee ship after World War II sails for South America with over 2,000 Mennonites on board. Over the following eight years, MCC will help relocate over 15,000 Mennonites to the Americas, most claiming to be non-Germans

1948: Mennonite World Conference is held in the United States. German delegates express regret at having supported Nazism but claim to have participated in collective “resistance.” International Mennonite aid to Germany redoubles

1949: West Germany is established with a new Basic Law, including provision for conscientious objectors, the first time such exemption is not based on religious exemption. Peace work begins to emerge among local Mennonites

 

Readings by Topic

1) General Overviews

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: An Introduction,” Anabaptist Historians, February 7, 2018.

Coverage of “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference by Anabaptist Historians, held at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas on March 16-17, 2018.

Further Reading:

Ben Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Ben Goossen, ed. German Mennonite Sources Database, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, online.

2) Background: Mennonites and German Nationalism

Mark Jantzen, “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1860-1890,” Mennonite Life 58, no. 3 (2003): online.

Karl Koop, “A Complication for the Mennonite Peace Tradition: Wilhelm Mannhardt’s Defense of Military Service,” Conrad Grebel Review 34, no. 1 (2016): 28-48.

Further Reading:

Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880 (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2010).

Wilhelm Mannhardt, The Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2013).

H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569-1919 (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2008).

3) Mennonites and Nazism in Germany

James Regier, “Mennonitische Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Prussian Mennonites, the Third Reich, and Coming to Terms with a Difficult Past,” Mennonite Life 59, no. 1 (2004): online.

Christiana Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 81-96.

Gerhard Rempel, “Heinrich Hajo Schroeder: The Allure of Race and Space in Hitler’s Empire,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 29 (2011): 227-254.

Further Reading:

Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017)

James Irvin Lichti, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).

Diether Lichdi, Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (Weierhof im Bolanden: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1977).

4) Nazi Visions of Mennonites

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: Film Screening of Friesennot,” Anabaptist Historians, March 17, 2018.

Clip from Friesennot (English subtitles) (Ufa, Delta-Filmproduktion, 1935).

Ben Goossen, “Measuring Mennonitism: Racial Categorization in Nazi Germany and Beyond,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (2016): 225-246.

Further Reading:

Ben Goossen, “Mennoniten als Volksdeutsche: Die Rolle des Mennonitentums in der nationalsozialistischen Propaganda,” trans. Helmut Foth, Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 71 (2014): 54-70

Friesennot (full movie) (Ufa, Delta-Filmproduktion, 1935).

John Eicher, “A Sort of Homecoming: The German Refugee Crisis of 1929,” German Studies Review 40, no. 2 (2017): 333-352.

5) Neo-Hutterites: The Third Reich’s Only Anabaptist Pacifists 

James Lichti, “The German Mennonite Response to the Dissolution of the Rhoen-Bruderhof,” Mennonite Life 46, no. 2 (1991): 10-17.

Eberhard Arnold, “Rhön Bruderhof (Hessen, Germany),” GAMEO, 1959, online.

Hans Meyer, “Hans Meier tells how the Gestapo raided the Rhön Bruderhof in 1933,” YouTube, online.

Further Reading:

Thomas Nauerth, “Michael Horsch and the Rhön Bruderhof, 1936–1937: From Friend to Hostile Witness to Historical Eyewitness,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91, no. 2 (2017): 213-246.

James Lichti, “Rhönbruderhof,” MennLex, online.

Emmy Barth, No Lasting Home. A Year in the Paraguayan Wilderness (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2014).

6) Mennonites and Nazism in Canada

Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Fascism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 27, 2017.

Tim Nafziger, “A Window into Antisemitism and Nazism Among Mennonite in North America,” The Mennonite, July 30, 2007.

Benjamin Redekop, “German Nationalism Among Canadian Mennonites During the Early 1930s,” Mennonite Historian 19, no. 3 (1993): 1-2, 9-10.

Further Reading:

James Urry, “A Mennostaat for the Mennovolk? Mennonite Immigrant Fantasies in Canada in the 1930s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 65-80.

Frank Epp, “Kanadische Mennoniten, das Dritte Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 31 (1974): 91-102.

James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe—Russia— Canada, 1525 to 1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 185-228.

John Redekop, “The Roots of Nazi Support Among Mennonites, 1930 to 1939: A Case Study Based on a Major Paper,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 81-95.

7) Mennonites and Nazism in Latin America

John Thiesen, “The Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism in Latin America, 1933-1944,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 12 (1994): 104-117.

John Thiesen, “The Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism: The Example of Fernheim,” Mennonite Life 46, no. 2 (1991): 4-9.

Further Reading:

John Thiesen, Mennonite and Nazi? Attitudes Among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933–1945 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999).

Uwe Friesen, ed., “Die völkische Bewegung und der Nationalsozialismus bei den Mennoniten in Paraguay,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017).

John D. Roth, ed., special issue on Mennonites and Nazism, Mennonite Quarterly Review 92, no. 2 (2018).

Peter Klassen, Die deutsch-völkische Zeit in der Kolonie Fernheim, Chaco-Paraguay (1933–1945) (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1990).

8) Mennonites and Nazism in the United States

Jack Fischel, “An American Christian Response to the Holocaust,” in Bearing Witness to the Holocaust 1939-1989, ed. Alan L. Berger (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 127-139.

Rich Preheim, “White Supremacist’s Racist ‘Faith,” Mennonite World Review, April 28, 2017.

James Juhnke, “Ingrid Rimland, the Mennonites, and the Demon Doctor,” 60 no. 1 (2005): online.

Further Reading:

John Thiesen, “The American Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism,” Yearbook of German-American Studies 27 (1992): 127–158.

James Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1975), 137-140.

Damon Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101.

9) Mennonites and Nazism in the Netherlands

Clyde Farnsworth, “Canada Revokes Citizenship of Nazi Collaborator,” New York Times, November 12, 1991.

Alfred Neufeld, “How Have We Dealt with Conflict in the Past?” Mennonite World Conference, July 2015.

Gerlof Homan, “‘We Have Come to Love Them’: Russian Mennonite Refugees in the Netherlands, 1945-1947,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 25 (2011): 39-59.

Further Reading:

Jelle Bosma and Alle Hoekema, eds., “Doopsgezinden tjdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 41 (2015).

Gerlof Homan, “‘We Must and Can Stand Firmly’: Dutch Mennonites in World War II,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69, no. 1 (1995): 7-36.

Alle Hoekema and Pieter Post, Frits Kuiper (1898-1974): Doopsgezind Theoloog (Hilversum: Verloren, 2016).

10) World War II and the Holocaust: Mennonites as Witnesses and Perpetrators

Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetration,” The Mennonite, March 1, 2012.

Ben Goossen, “Becoming Aryan,” Canadian Mennonite, June 26, 2016.

Aileen Friesen, “Soviet Mennonites, the Holocaust & Nazism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 25, 2017.

Further Reading:

Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507–549.

Doris Bergen, “Protestant, Catholics, Mennonites and Jews: Identities and Institutions in Holocaust Studies,” in Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories and Professional Interpretations, ed. Christopher Browning, Susannah Heschel, Michael Marrus, and Milton Shain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 142-156.

Horst Gerlach, “Mennonites, the Molotschna, and the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle in the Second World War,” trans. John Thiesen Mennonite Life 41, no. 3 (1986), 4-9, 32.

Hans Werner, The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013).

Jacob Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life and Communist and Nazi Rule (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

11) World War II and the Holocaust: Mennonites as Victims and Helpers

Goshen College, “Woman ‘Righteous’ for Saving Jewish Children,” Mennonite World Review, July 22, 2013.

David Boder, “David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun,” September 20, 1946, Voices of the Holocaust Project, online.

Gerlof Homan, “From Danzig to Down Under: A Mennonite-Jewish Family’s Escape from the Nazis to Australia,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 73, no. 1 (2012): 13-18.

Further Reading:

Gerlof Homan, “Friends and Enemies: The World War II Origins of MCC Work in France,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 71, no. 2 (2010): 7-14.

Alle Hoekema, “Dutch Mennonites and German Jewish Refugee Children, 1938-1945,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 87, no. 2 (2013): 133-152.

Jean-Paul Kremer, Le salut ne vient pas d’Hitler: Un mennonite déporté à Natzweiler et Buchenwald (Alès: Mission Timothée, 2016).

12) Postwar Migration, Cover-up, and Denial

Ben Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.

Steven Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms with the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945–1950,” Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 2 (2003): 6-16.

Ted Regehr, “Of Dutch or German Ancestry? Mennonite Refugees, MCC, and the International Refugee Organization,” Journal of Mennonite Studies (1995): 7-25.

Further Reading:

Horst Klaassen, “Nationalität: Mennonit? Mennonitische Auswanderungslager in Backnang 1947 bis 1953,” Mennonitischer Geschichtsblätter 54 (1997): 89-115.

Frank Epp, Mennonite Exodus: The Rescue and Resettlement of the Russian Mennonites Since the Communist Revolution (Altona, MB: D.W. Friesen & Sons, 1962).

James Urry, “Fate, Hate and Denial: Ingrid Rimland’s Lebensraum! Mennonite Quarterly Review 73, no. 1 (1999): 107-127.

13) Uncovering the Past: Recent Developments 

John Roth, “Europeans Confront Hard Truths of Nazi Era,” Mennonite World Review, October 5, 2015.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites Seek to Come to Terms with Nazi Collaboration,” Religion News Service, March 16, 2017.

Gordon Houser, Paul Schrag, and Melanie Zuercher, “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: Conference Looks at the Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust,” The Mennonite, March 19, 2018.

Further Reading:

John Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism: Historiography and Open Questions,” 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.

Ben Goossen, “Ending the Silence,” Mennonite Historian 43, no. 4 (2017): 10-12.

Doris Bergen, “Workshop Report: Mennonites and the Holocaust,” Contemporary Church History Quarterly 21, no. 3 (2017): online.

Lisa Schirch, “How Mennonites Reckon with Our History in the Holocaust,” The Mennonite, March 26, 2018.

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

Renae Stucky, Kauffman Museum, Collections Manager

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

Nazi Case-bell-wagon-0397-144dpi

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust

Lisa Schirch

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

IMG_E4818

Jerusalem at Sunrise

Beyond Academic Discussions

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4496

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

Emotional Intelligence and Personal Sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Statue of Mother Mary standing on Jewish Covenant representing Supercessionist Theology

Ramifications for Mennonite Theology, History, and Institutions Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Personal and Literary Responses

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Session Five: Personal Impacts

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

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

Ecclesiastical Artifacts

i.

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

Births and deaths,

marriages, lineages.
Our tome is thick
with sorrow.

ii.

Between the Nogat and Vistula
and the sea.

iii.

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

for sending an army,

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

our neighbours’
wooden synagogues doused with gasoline.

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

Our ancestors’ gravestones
paved Stalin’ roads.

iv.

In green pastures
lower than the sea,
the shells

of our churches and housebarns,
rows and rows

of lindens we planted centuries ago
cast shadow and filigree.

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

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

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

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

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

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Session Seven: Literary Responses

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

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

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

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

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

Session Two: Soviet UnionIMG_20180316_145202.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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: Panels on The Netherlands and German Mennonite Responses

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“Dutch Mennonite Theologians and Nazism”
Pieter Post, United Mennonite Church of Heerenveen and Tjalleberd

  • Post contrasted the thought and practice of Cornelis Bonnes Hylkema (author of Werkelijkheids-theologie [The Theology of Reality] (1932), among other works) and Fritz Kuiper (author of De Gemeente in de Wereld [The Church in the World] (1941) among others). Hylkema was a retired minister from Haarlem who regarded himself as an idealist and historian.  Kuiper was a minister in Alkmaar, a member of the Social Democratic Workers Party, and founder of the “Committee for Socialism and the Church.” Post analyzed how each understood the relationship between church and state, Anabaptism, nonresistance, and the faith community.
  • Hylkema emphasized love of God as an example for the National Socialist party and believed that Christians should submit to the state as part of God’s creation order.  Hylkema agreed with the Anabaptist tenet that violence was not in the spirit of Christ but was not himself a pacifist. Instead he argued that “a Christian people is armed and able bodied” who would fight in the name of God. He also understood the church to be a universalist faith community that offered a common grace and a “place of refuge for the spirit in a turbulent reality.”
  • Kuiper believed in the strict separation of church and state, where the church serves to remind the world of God’s commandments. As a social democrat, Kuiper emphasized the freedom of Christians to choose whichever party expressed biblical justice and believed that the faith community must be prepared to suffer in order to preserve its independence.  After the execution of two of his friends, however, he confessed to a friend that he “no longer had the courage to believe in peace work.” He viewed the faith community as a service of reconciliation.

“Dutch Mennonites and the Yad Vashem Recognition”
Alle Hoekema, professor emeritus, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

  • Hoekema used testimonies collected by the Yad Vashem and other sources from Dutch Mennonite communities to narrate the stories of individuals who aided Jewish neighbors and friends during the Holocaust.
  • He emphasized the importance of community networks and argued that most people were motivated to help, not because of their religious faith or Mennonite identity, but a more general sense of common humanity.
  • He concluded by highlighting several patterns that emerged from his analysis of Dutch Mennonites who were recognized. Most were upper-middle class, many were involved in resistance movements, few later spoke about their experiences, and most saw their actions as normal rather than extraordinary.

“From War Criminal in the Netherlands to Mennonite Abroad and Back to Prison in the Netherlands”
David Barnouw, researcher emeritus, Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies

  • Barnouw narrated the story of Jacob Luitjens, a Dutch collaborator with the Nazi regime during World War II. After the war, Luitjens managed to flee to Paraguay, claiming Mennonite identity and adopting the pseudonym Gerhard Harder. He later moved to Canada but was eventually arrested and extradited to the Netherlands where he was tried and convicted of war crimes.
  • Barnouw highlighted how Luitjens made strategic use of his Mennonite identity and connections in the Mennonite community to avoid prosecution for his wartime collaboration. In court proceedings, he said “I told my God and He forgave me.”
  • Luitjens spent time in jail but was release before serving his full sentence. Stripped of his Canadian citizenship and denied the rights of Dutch citizenship, Luitjens exists as a person without a state. Barnouw is unable to confirm whether Luitjens is still living.

Session Five: German Mennonite Responses in Theology and Memory20180317_103617.jpg

“German Mennonite Theology in the Era of National Socialism”
Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, Tyndale Seminary

  • Neufeldt-Fast’s paper used the writings of German Mennonite church leaders to analyze the underlying logic that led most of them – from across the theological and ideological spectrum – to accept and promote National Socialist ideology.
  • Drawing upon Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of the “gardening state,” Neufeldt-Fast argued that most leaders came to embrace National Socialism’s “order-making, instrumental rationale” of a modern German society in which some plants should be protected and cared for while others should be segregated, contained, removed, or destroyed.
  • While earlier writings of theologians were not explicitly anti-Semitic, they did not condemn Nazi racial doctrine as heresy. By the late 1930s, however, many actively drew upon contemporary understandings of race and blood purity to argue for the expulsion of Jewish people from Germany.
  • Neufeldt-Fast ended his discussion with a call for a critical evaluation of Mennonite theology and the need to develop a post-Holocaust theology.

“Judaism as Argument: German Mennonites between Anti-Semitism and the Old Testament God”
Astrid von Schlachta, Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein (paper delivered by John Thiesen in her absence)

  • In her paper, Astrid von Schlachta used sermons and other publications to explore the range of theological convictions among German Mennonites on the role and use of the Old Testament in the church during the 1930s.
  • Von Schlachta argued that there was not a unified opinion among Mennonites on the matter and that the influence of National Socialist ideology on Mennonite interpretations of Judaism in the Old Testament depended upon the context.
  • While some interpretations were clearly anti-Semitic, other authors pushed back against a racialized view of the Old Testament and argued for its continued relevance for Mennonites and other Christians.

“Selective Memory: Danziger Mennonite Reflections on the Nazi Era, 1945-1950”
Steve Schroeder, University of the Fraser Valley

  • Steve Schroeder drew from oral histories and memoirs to examine how Mennonites from Danzig remembered and explained their experiences during and after World War II. While other Christians in Germany were forced to account for their actions under allied occupation, Danziger Mennonites emigrated and were able to avoid critical reflection on their actions.
  • Schroeder used the framework of cycles of grief and loss – denial, bargaining, and acceptance – to categorize Mennonite memories of the Nazi era. Although many supported the Nazi regime and identified as ethnic Germans during the war, afterwards many made strategic use of their religious identity as Mennonites, distancing themselves from the German nation in an effort to seek asylum abroad.
  • Schroeder ended with a call to continue a critical examination of the role that Mennonites have played, not only in the Holocaust, but also colonial and other systems in which they continue to participate and from which they continue to benefit.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Film Screening of Friesennot

Frisians in Peril, 1935

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

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

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

Refugees, 1933

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

Homecoming 1940

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

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