by Gordon Houser, Paul Schrag and Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In 2004, Joachim Wieler of Weimar, Germany, opened a small wooden box he inherited after his mother’s death. To his surprise and horror, it contained letters his late father wrote while serving as an officer in the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany.
“I almost fell off the chair,” Wieler said, speaking to more than 200 people at a conference on “Mennonites and the Holocaust” March 16-17 at Bethel College.
Johann Wieler wrote from France in 1941, at the height of the Nazi conquest of Western Europe: “We did not believe we would bring the French to their knees in such a short time. All soldiers who are fighting here for their fatherland are performing worship in the truest sense of the word. Those who do not believe in our victory do not believe in God. The Lord is visibly on our side. Heil Hitler.”
While his father fought on the western and then eastern fronts, young Joachim Wieler saw Dresden burning and wound up in a refugee camp, where the family received help from Mennonite Central Committee while Johann languished as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union until 1949.
But it would be 60 years before Joachim Wieler discovered his father had celebrated Nazi aggression as the fulfillment of a divine plan.
“Probably a lot of boxes still exist somewhere,” Joachim Weiler said of probing the secrets of the past.
The conference’s purpose was to uncover hidden stories of interactions between Mennonites and Jews during the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. It drew scholars from the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
The event was the third of its kind – following those in Münster, Germany, in 2015, and Filadelfia, Paraguay, in 2017 – to examine Mennonite complicity in the militant nationalism and racism that produced the Holocaust, and to ask if anything like it could happen again.
Twenty presenters described their research, which extended across the spectrum of wartime horror and mercy, from Mennonites’ participation in Nazi atrocities in Ukraine to hiding Jews in the Netherlands.
The personal connection drew Doris Bergen, who holds the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto, and gave the conference keynote address, to begin looking specifically at how Mennonites were affected by and involved in the Holocaust.
As a young scholar studying Nazi Germany, she was brought up short when a Martens from the Russian Mennonite colony of Einlage (her mother’s family name and place of origin) came to her attention.
Digging into the story, Bergen began to see that Mennonites had a far more complex place in Holocaust history than the common narrative indicates – which her lecture title, “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: The Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust,” reflected.
Being a community “insider” gives the researcher advantages of access, she said, but raises the challenge of balancing “a subjective position” with the discipline of scholarship. On the other hand, she said, “outsiders” need to take the topic seriously.
“Mennonites [and their experiences were] not unique,” she said, “but they were distinctive.”
Another challenge, which came up at several points during the conference, is “how to define ‘Mennonite.’” Bergen’s bottom line: While a functional definition is important, “resist the temptation to define to distraction,” thereby obscuring the real issues of genocide, racism and anti-Semitism.
Bergen also noted the often-forgotten groups in the Holocaust narrative – the disabled (the first to e exterminated by the Nazis), the Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish civilians. “It’s necessary to define ‘the Holocaust’ by its perpetrators, not its victims,” she said.
At the same time, there should be “a clear focus on the Jews’ particular place in the Nazi plan of destruction.”
“I often [found that] Mennonites described themselves as ‘like the Jews’ – persecuted, often homeless in the world, chosen by God. But if Mennonites are ‘the Jews,’ then where are the Jews? They become the villains of the narrative.
“This points out the need for multiple sources – not just German, not just Mennonite.”
She went on, “The job of the scholar isn’t to make a moral judgment, though that might be a starting point, but to analyze why what happened happened – to break apart the myths, because maintaining them takes so much spiritual, emotional, theological [and social] energy.
“Many groups are confronting and breaking the myth of their own innocence or noncomplicity in the Holocaust. This can be enormously liberating.”
Bergen concluded by saying that “there is so much [yet] that we don’t know. We need more research, more scholarship, more analysis.”
Steve Schroeder, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, described Mennonites’ failure to acknowledge their anti-Semitism and their support for National Socialism under Hitler – whom many viewed as a German savior – as a denial of the past that can be corrected only by truthtelling.
An honest probing of the past can be intensely personal for Mennonite scholars like Schroeder. He told of interviewing his own relatives who had lived in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) and celebrated that city’s incorporation into the German Reich.
Though more than half a century had passed when Schroeder conducted the interviews, those he talked to “did not process critically their collusion with wartime Nazis, nor did they take a contrite position toward the past.”
One man remembered singing anti-Jewish songs with phrases like “hack off their arms and legs; get them out.”
Such chilling stories “should matter to us,” Schroeder said, “regardless of our respective religious views and practices, our food preferences or our last names. This is our heritage, a heritage that impacts our personal makeup and our engagement with the people around us. . . .
“Truth-telling is a fundamental first step, as is the accompanying act of listening to those who have been harmed, including those who have been harmed by us.
“In my view, a healthy way forward is to acknowledge that Mennonites have not only suffered but have also caused harm, and to address immediate colonial enterprises in which we have participated.
“I see the seeds of this taking place at this conference, which is encouraging.”
When Mennonites and Jews were neighbors in Nazi-occupied territories, many Mennonites welcomed the German regime, and some collaborated with it.
Two sides of the Dnieper
In a session on “Mennonite-Jewish Connections,” two Canadian scholars – Aileen Friesen of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and Colin Neufeldt of Concordia University in Montreal – told of contrasting Jewish and Mennonite fates.
Early in the spring of 1942, Friesen said, Nazi occupation forces ordered the Jewish population of Zaporizhia, Ukraine, to gather, supposedly to be relocated for work. But there was no work. Men, women and children were stripped, led to a ditch and mowed down with machine guns. The massacre lasted three days. When it was over, 3,700 Jews had been murdered, their bodies carelessly covered in shallow, mass graves.
Local police took part in the atrocity. Eyewitnesses reported that among them were two Mennonite brothers, Ivan and Jacob Fast.
Less than a month later, a few miles away on the other side of the Dnieper River, the Mennonites of Chortitza gathered to celebrate Easter. The Nazis had reopened the churches after years of Soviet repression. This would be the first Easter service in more than a decade. The congregation was filled with excitement. Under German rule, life for German-speaking Mennonites might return to normal.
“These two events force us to confront the realities of occupation,” Friesen said. “During this period, Mennonites would gather to worship, celebrating their freedom to praise God, while their Jewish neighbors were humiliated, stripped of their humanity and gunned down.”
While there is evidence of collaboration and perpetration, Friesen said, the most common response was inaction.
“Many did nothing in the face of overwhelming violence,” she said. Famine and terror under the repressive hand of Soviet Communism had shaped their character. Now the Nazis had not only delivered them from the yoke of Stalin but treated them with favor due to their “racial purity”; they rarely intermarried with Ukrainians. Mennonites and others in the Nazi-occupied Ukraine disengaged from the horror their Jewish neighbors suffered.
“It is hard to find examples of rescue or aid given by Mennonites to persecuted Jews,” Friesen said.
Mennonite with a whip
Neufeldt described Nazi collaboration by the people of Deutsch Wymyschle, Poland, a mostly Mennonite town of 250 to 400 people, neighbor to the town of Gabin, with a population of 5,700, about half of them Jews.
After the Nazi invasion of Sept. 1, 1939, Jews were rounded up and their property confiscated. Mennonites from Deutsch Wymyschle took advantage of the Nazi desire to move the Jews out and the Germans in. They accepted the invitation to claim houses and businesses confiscated from the Jews. Among them were Neufeldt’s grandparents, Peter and Frieda Ratzlaff.
One prominent collaborator was Erich L. Ratzlaff, who became a Mennonite Brethren leader in Canada and edited the Mennonitische Rundschau newspaper from 1967-79. Ratzlaff became the Burgermeister, or mayor, of Gabin. Neufeldt said his grandmother remembered that she often saw him walking around with a whip, and Jews had to bow to him.
Another type of collaboration was developing intimate relationships that linked Mennonite families to Nazi culture.
“Deutsch Wymyschle women tied their futures to the Nazi regime when they married non-Mennonite and Mennonite soldiers in the German Wehrmacht,” Neufeldt said. “Weddings were often performed in the MB church in Deutsch Wymyschle in military uniform.”
When the Wehrmacht started drafting Deutsch Wymyschle men, they went willingly. “The principles of pacifism and nonresistance were not strongly emphasized” in their churches, Neufeldt said.
Showing 1940s pictures of men in Nazi uniforms, Neufeldt noted their demeanor: “Most of these people are my relatives, and they wore the uniform with pride.”
In a session on Mennonites in the Soviet Union, Erika Weidemann of Texas A&M University said, “The degrees of participation [by Mennonites in the Holocaust] vary dramatically.” As examples, she looked at two Mennonite women, Francesca Reimer, who took part in atrocities in Chortitza, and Edina Epp, who did not.
In the 1920s, Weidemann said, ethnic German Mennonites in the Ukraine learned to minimize their German identity. Then when the German army invaded in 1941 and took control of the area, the Mennonites claimed that same identity. After World War II, Mennonite refugees in Chortitza reframed their wartime experiences.
Reimer worked as a translator, and her story illustrates the hard choices many Mennonites faced, said Weidemann. Under Soviet rule, she could either work for them or be sent to Siberia. Later, she could either work for the Nazis or be shot.
In a session on Mennonites in the Netherlands, Alle Hoekema of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam shared stories of Dutch Anabaptists who helped hide Jews from the Nazi authorities. Some 40 of these have been honored by Israel as “righteous among the nations,” though “40 is not a great amount,” said Hoekema.
One woman, Geertje Pel-Groot, took a Jewish baby, Marion Swaab, into her home while the baby’s parents hid elsewhere. Later, a neighbor turned Pel-Groot into the authorities.
She was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp, where she died, lauded by other prisoners for her selfless behavior. Pel-Groot’s daughter took care of the baby, who survived the war.
David Barnouw of the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies spoke about Dutch Mennonite war criminals who escaped prison and emigrated to Paraguay. One of these, Jacob Luitjens, later went to Canada and was part of a Mennonite congregation in Vancouver.
Barnouw said that during the war, Luitjens was an active collaborator with the Nazis and worked with propaganda. After the war, he gave himself up to the police because he feared reprisals from members of the Dutch resistance. Luitjens changed his name to Harder.
In 1991, the Netherlands sought to extradict him to be tried as a war criminal. Though many Mennonites supported him, a Canadian judge ruled that he got his citizenship illegally, and he was sent to the Netherlands, where he was imprisoned. He was set free in 1994, when he was 74. He was the last Dutch war criminal to be tried.
In the final session, Connie Braun of Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, read from her book Silentium, a memoir. She noted the importance of silence. “Silences speak meaning,” she said.
Helen Stoltzfus of Black Swan Arts & Media in Oakland, California, performed a dramatic reading from the play Heart of the World, which she and her husband wrote. She titled the reading “A Mennonite Wife, a Jewish Husband and the Holocaust.”
Asked to sum up the conference at the end, Bergen returned to the importance of sources.
“Some of them are physical, like Joachim’s little wooden box,” she said. “Some are memories. Some are in archives. As Raul Hilberg, a major pioneer in Holocaust studies, said, you have to look everywhere.”
The conference planners were Mark Jantzen, Bethel College professor of history, John Sharp, Hesston College professor of Bible and religion, and John Thiesen, archivist at the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College. Major sponsors were the Marpeck Fund and the Fransen Family Foundation, along with the Schowalter Foundation via Mennonite Church USA, the two colleges, the MLA and the Mennonite-Polish Studies Association at Bethel College.
It was announced at the conference that MC USA is tentatively planning a conference on “Reading the Bible after the Holocaust” for spring 2020 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.