Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting, collaborating with and even perpetrating such evil?
This is the question that haunts me after attending a recent conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.
The conference, attended by over 200 people from Ukraine, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, U.S. and Canada, was the 3rd in a series of conferences on the same topic. The first two occurred in Germany (2015) and Paraguay (2017). These three conferences have highlighted an emerging body of scholarship on Mennonite complicity in the Holocaust.
Over the course of the two days, we heard 20 different speakers present their research into a profoundly disturbing story. These are a few of the things we heard…
…German Mennonite churches (both conservative and liberal) bought into National Socialism’s racist and anti-Semitic ideology that valued blood purity and Aryanism. Many Mennonites considered Adolf Hitler as God’s instrument to restore the fatherland of Germany. Their theology gave them few tools to resist Nazi propaganda because they had abandoned earlier Anabaptist commitments to nonviolence and had also lost a sense of the centrality of the Kingdom of God as inaugurated by Jesus.
…Many Mennonites in the Ukraine knew about—and a few even participated in—massacres of Jews around their communities during the period of German occupation, 1941-43. In one three-day massacre near Zaporizhia (and the Mennonite community of Chortitza) over 3,000 Jews were murdered and thrown into a mass grave. A Mennonite named Heinrich Wiens became an SS commander and was responsible for killing thousands of Jews. Many of the Mennonites hired by the Germans to act as interpreters translated lists of Jews who were subsequently murdered. Mennonites benefited from the German occupation while their Jewish neighbours suffered unmeasurably.
…Some Mennonites in Poland accepted homes and businesses confiscated from Jews. Refugees accepted the clothing and effects of Jews who had been killed. One prominent local Mennonite, Erich Ratzlaff, assisted in rounding up Jews for a new ghetto. Later in Canada, he edited the Mennonitische Rundschau for many years.
…In the Netherlands, many Mennonites actively supported the occupying forces. One such individual, Jacob Luitjens, played a role in the Nazi propaganda service and also helped to track down Jews. In 1991 he was extradicted from Canada to the Netherlands to serve the prison sentence handed down in absentia decades earlier.
…During the German occupation, some Mennonites in the Netherlands participated in the resistance movement and some also hid Jews. One of the latter, Gerrtje Pel-Groot, took a Jewish baby into her home while the baby’s parents hid elsewhere. The little girl survived the war, but Geertje died in a German concentration camp after someone informed on her. She is one of 40 Dutch Mennonites who have been honoured by Israel as “righteous among the nations.” But, as the Dutch scholar put it, why only 40?
…Mennonite Central Committee actively worked after the war to identify Mennonite refugees in Europe as Dutch rather than as German, and to minimize Mennonite connections to the Nazis. It did so in order to better enable the refugees’ escape from Europe to destinations in South America or Canada. MCC worked closely with avowed Mennonite Nazi supporters and party members like Benjamin H. Unruh.
At the end of two days of hearing these stories and much more, my heart ached and I struggled to hold back the tears. Questions swirled around in my mind.
- Why the silence? Why are we only hearing these stories now? This question was actually put to me by the one person attending the conference who publicly identified herself as Jewish. “Why has it taken Mennonites so long to acknowledge this?” she asked.
- How does memory shape a people and a narrative? The conference highlighted that memory is constructed—shaped and re-shaped to “make sense” of people’s experience. Memory can, for example, reinforce identities of victimhood, while denying identities of victimizer. How can memory serve to honestly bear witness to truth in all its complexity?
- Does a community’s own experience of trauma absolve it of complicity in the harming of others? Soviet Mennonites were, when German occupying forces arrived in 1941, deeply traumatized. Under Stalin, they had lived through forced collectivization, starvation, repression, and the murder or disappearance of thousands. Does that reality lift the burden of responsibility? Or does it simply explain why Mennonites did not come to the aid of the Jewish community?
- How do Mennonites recognize, acknowledge and atone for this dark side of our collective story? How do we lay aside the sense of “Mennonite exceptionalism” that we are somehow better than others?
- And this one: Could it happen again? Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting power structures that commit such horrible atrocities? How does the church in our day nurture the robust theological and spiritual resources, and the foundational commitments to justice, peacebuilding and Christian discipleship so necessary to resist systemic evil?
I am thankful to the historians and theologians, the preachers, poets and artists—as well as the organizers of this conference—for guiding our community in this painful but necessary journey.
More information on the conference is available here.
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.