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Books to go back to Europe, closing a circle that links much of Mennonite history

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Four record books from a defunct Prussian Mennonite congregation that have been housed in the Mennonite Library and Archives on the Bethel College campus for more than six decades are being prepared to return to Europe this summer, helping close a circle that encompasses nearly all of Mennonite-Anabaptist history.

The books, among the oldest Mennonite church records in existence, are from Danzig in West Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland), where Dutch adherents to the fledgling Anabaptist movement had begun settling by the 1530s. Dirk Philips, an important 16th-century Anabaptist leader, is considered the founder of the Danzig Mennonite Church and Menno Simons likely visited the group, though before it was a formally organized congregation. It soon became large – well over 1,000 baptized members – and influential, distinguished by its size and its urban location when most of the Mennonite congregations were small and rural.

“Given Danzig Mennonite Church’s size and prominence, many Low Germans in the world, from Paraguay to Canada to Germany, can trace some connection to the congregation,” says Rich Preheim, director of the Historical Committee for Mennonite Church USA, under whose auspices the archives at both Bethel College and Goshen (Ind.) College fall. “It was Danzig church members who led the migration to Ukraine and the establishment of the first Russian Mennonite colony at Chortitza [in 1789].”

Four centuries of Mennonite presence in West Prussia came to end at the close of World War II, when the region’s Mennonites – who identified themselves as German – scattered in the face of the advancing Soviet army. Those refugees spirited out many of the surviving West Prussian congregational materials, much of which has now made its way into the collection of the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, the Mennonite archives at the Weierhof, Germany – with some exceptions, including the four record books from the Danzig Mennonite Church.

Oral tradition says that Mennonite historians Cornelius Krahn and Harold S. Bender – from Bethel and Goshen Colleges, respectively – instructed American Mennonite relief workers who went to Europe after World War II to be on the lookout for items of possible historical significance. Visiting the bomb-damaged Danzig Mennonite Church, one of those workers – there is no definitive record of who – found congregational records either in the building or in the possession of a neighbor.

The books list births, deaths, marriages, baptisms and ordinations – the latter going back to 1598, although the books themselves probably date from the late 17th into the early 18th centuries and had earlier records copied into them – through 1943. The Americans brought the materials to the United States, where they were deposited in the Mennonite Library and Archives.

“There was no place in Europe at that time for the Danzig books to go,” Preheim points out. “The German Mennonites hadn’t yet started an archival program and the only Mennonite archives on the continent were at the Mennonite seminary at Amsterdam – probably in no position to accept new materials, on the heels of the war.”

In the last several years, informal conversation began about putting the books in the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle where the bulk of West Prussian Mennonite materials reside, with more serious planning taking place in the past two years. In preparation for the transfer, Preheim has been raising funds to pay for digitizing all four volumes and placing them on the Historical Committee’s Web site, www.mennoniteusa.org/history.

The oldest of the four books is in fairly good shape but the other three have pages burned on the edges and bindings that have disintegrated. About a decade ago, the books went to a paper conservator who was able to stabilize them, but they remain extremely fragile.

Very restricted handling is necessary in order to limit further deterioration, Preheim says. Digitizing will help by making it possible to look at the text without actually handling the books – along with making every single page accessible to anyone anywhere in the world with a computer and an Internet connection. A North Manchester, Ind., firm with expertise in digitizing old, fragile documents recently completed the job.

“The transfer of these materials is an exciting opportunity,” Preheim says. “Not only has this been a chance for an international historical partnership, it’s a landmark development in the saga of the Eastern European and Russian Mennonites in the Soviet era.

“There are still people living in Germany who had to flee West Prussia [at the end of World War II], one of the great tragedies of contemporary Mennonite history. To have the books returned to Europe may provide some kind of closure for those who were displaced.

“We can’t go back and recreate Danzig Mennonite Church or the West Prussian Mennonite presence,” he says, “but we can honor and preserve that legacy by preserving these books and making them accessible.”

Preheim notes that descendants of the Low Germans who settled in Prussia can now be found in significant numbers across three continents – in the United States, Canada and Mexico, in Central America and South America (including Paraguay, site of the upcoming assembly of Mennonite World Conference) and in Germany and the former Soviet Union.

“In many cases,” he says, “the Low Germans were forced to become refugees and seek new homelands. My observation is that this centuries-long history of persecution and ‘wandering in the wilderness’ clear into the late 20th century has fostered among Low Germans a particular interest in where they came from and where they went.”

Preheim emphasizes the Historical Committee’s hope that digitizing the books will benefit the global Anabaptist community, not only the Low Germans. “This is a significant part of the Mennonite story and heritage, no matter your ethnicity,” he says.

“We’re deeply grateful [the books] were found, that someone had the knowledge and perspective to keep an eye open for them,” he adds. “The Historical Committee is honored to have played a role in preserving this history for the past six decades, and we hope [the books] will continue to be a valuable historical resource.

“There’s much to be learned about faithfulness, identity and perspective from the experience of the Danzig Mennonite Church and the West Prussian Mennonites.”

Transporting such rare and fragile documents is neither simple nor inexpensive but Preheim hopes, at least, to have a Historical Committee representative symbolically hand over the books to the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle at the meeting of the Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein (German Mennonite Historical Association), which oversees the archives, in Berlin at the end of June.

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