Workshop Report: Mennonites and the Holocaust

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 3 (September 2017)

Workshop Report: Mennonites and the Holocaust–and Gerhard Rempel’s Unfinished Book, Dove and Swastika: Russian Mennonites under Nazi Occupation, University of Toronto, June 12, 2017

By Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

On June 12, 2017, the University of Toronto hosted an intense and unusual event that brought together a small group of historians to discuss issues around the role of Mennonites in the Holocaust. The specific focus was on the manuscript written by Gerhard Rempel and under revision for publication at the time of his death in 2014. In a series of closed sessions in the morning and afternoon, Mark Jantzen (Bethel College, Kansas), Rebecca Carter-Chand (Clark University), Diana Dumitru (New Europe College, Bucharest), Aileen Friesen (University of Waterloo), Robert Nelson (University of Windsor), and Robert Teigrob (Ryerson University) presented their reflections on selected chapters. Doris Bergen (University of Toronto) chaired the conversation, and Richard Ratzlaff (University of Toronto Press, now McGill-Queen’s University Press) observed and contributed questions and insights.

Many important issues were raised, and what follows are only a few examples. Jantzen observed that Mennonites in the nineteenth century proved remarkably adaptable. He also emphasized that refusal to serve in the military was not central to Soviet Mennonite identity. Nelson noted that Rempel’s uncritical approach to his sources led to some problematic juxtapositions and assumptions about postwar Mennonite history. Friesen drew attention to translators, a job that opened the way to collaboration for many Mennonites, and police, the main role in which Mennonites would have participated in killing of Jews. Carter-Chand found that how Mennonites acted was quite typical of other small Christian groups (Quakers, Mormons). She wondered whether the Reich Germans treated Mennonites differently from other Volksdeutschen. Teigrob noted that the ways Mennonites in North America talk about things sometimes gets echoed in the scholarship (including in Rempel’s work.) Dumitru pointed out that in the manuscript the desire to defend the Mennonite community comes across as stronger than the desire to talk about the Holocaust. Mennonites seem to need a narrative to shield them from the Soviet past and ways they participated in that system as well as from the Nazi past. Jantzen mentioned that the Reich German Mennonites and their involvement in Nazism could use more study, and Ratzlaff mentioned Stutthof, where at least judging from the names on the records, Mennonites were deeply involved.

In the late afternoon, the room was opened to the public for a panel discussion. Bergen posed questions to each of the invited guests, who spoke from their areas of expertise to the topic. Jantzen and Friesen addressed why the issue of “Mennonites and the Holocaust” is currently “in the air” (Jantzen is hosting a major conference under that title at Bethel College in Kansas in March 2018). Dumitru situated the subject in the context of studies of collaboration, and Nelson linked it to transatlantic histories of colonialism. Teigrob looked at transnational and comparative commemorations of the war, and Carter-Chand reflected on Mennonites as one of many small, Christian minority groups active in Central and Eastern Europe.

The capacity audience included undergraduate and graduate students, professors, and members of the local community, among them some who identified themselves in the question and answer period as Mennonites, Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, or people with no direct connection but a strong interest in the topics at hand.  At least one Holocaust survivor was present as were authors and editors of significant works in the field, notably Anne Konrad (Red Quarter Moon: A Search For Family in the Shadow of Stalin, 2012); and Harvey Dyck (editor and translator with Sarah Dyck of Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life under Communist and Nazi Rule, by Jacob A, Neufeld, 2014).

The event was sponsored by the University of Toronto Joint Initiative in German and European Studies/DAAD; Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair of Holocaust Studies, and an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. For more information on the conference in March 2018, click here.