Conference Report: Mennonites and the Holocaust, Bethel College, Kansas, March 16-17, 2018
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 24, Number 2 (June 2018)
Conference Report: Mennonites and the Holocaust, Bethel College, Kansas, March 16-17, 2018
By Doris Bergen, University of Toronto
Scholars, students, community and church leaders, and members of the general public gathered in mid-March 2018 at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, for two intense days of presentations and discussions on the subject of “Mennonites and the Holocaust.” Conference organizers Mark Jantzen, John Thiesen, and John Sharp put together a stimulating program featuring speakers from the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and Ukraine. Around 200 people registered, and more attended the keynote address and the film showing, which were open to the public, so that the conversation continued beyond the formal sessions, over meals, during coffee breaks, and subsequently online. As the conference demonstrated, it is worth the time, effort, and expense to bring people physically together when the issues involved are so important and the stakes so high.
Joel H. Nofziger, Ben Goossen, Aileen Friesen, and Jason Kauffman prepared thoughtful summaries of all the sessions for the “Anabaptist Historians” blog. You can find those, along with additional commentary by Lisa Schirch, at https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/mennonites-and-the-holocaust-conference/page/1/.
This report focuses on three insights from the conference: one historical, another methodological, and the third programmatic.
Mennonites were directly involved in the destruction of Jews as witnesses, beneficiaries, and perpetrators. Already from John Thiesen’s opening remarks it was clear that the conference would unsettle the myth of Mennonite innocence. Thiesen’s research on the reception of National Socialism among Mennonites in Paraguay dates back to the 1980s; the title of his book, Mennonite and Nazi?, articulated a key question twenty years ago. Still, even for those familiar with the research of the late Gerhard Rempel (“Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetration,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84 [Oct 2010]: 507-49) and recent work by Ben Goossen, the conference produced shock after shock.
In her contribution to a panel titled “Mennonite-Jewish Connections,” Aileen Friesen described a massacre of Jews in Zaporizhia in southern Ukraine in 1942, just miles from the church where Mennonites from the Khortytsia colony gathered to celebrate Easter. Among the local police who did the killing were two Mennonite brothers. Using the recently opened KGB Archive in Kiev, Dmytro Myeshkov provided chilling accounts of Mennonite collaborators. For example, Ivan Klassen, a physician in the service of the SS, examined disabled patients in a hospital in the Mennonite Molotschna settlement. A killing squad followed up by shooting more than 100 children, women, and men whom Klassen had deemed unable to work. Erika Weidemann’s paper analyzed the experiences of two Khortytsia Mennonite women. One of them, an informant for the SS killing squad Einsatzgruppe C, used her language skills to rat out potentially subversive forced laborers.
Weidemann, Myeshkov, Friesen, and Victor Klet all noted the disastrous impact of the Soviet experience on Mennonite communities in Ukraine. But those victimized by Stalin were not the only Mennonites who joined the Nazi cause. Colin Neufeldt’s paper, on “Jewish-Mennonite Relations” in the Masovian Voivodeship, shifted attention to German-occupied Poland. At least twenty Mennonites, including Neufeldt’s grandparents, left their village of Deutsch Wymyschle to take over properties from which Jews had been expelled in nearby Gąbin. Papers by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and Pieter Post identified Mennonite theologians in Germany and the Netherlands who embraced and propagated National Socialist ideology; Joachim Wieler added a poignant personal note, reading a letter by his father, a Wehrmacht officer, who in 1941 exulted from France, “The Lord is visibly on our side.”
In her keynote address, “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: The Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust,” Doris Bergen called for more scholarship, and from as many angles and disciplines as possible. The conference illustrated how fruitful multiple approaches can be but also revealed many unexplored perspectives.
Jim Lichti’s presentation, “An Illusion of Freedom: Denominationalism, German Mennonites, and Nazi Germany,” compared Mennonites with other “free” churches, notably Quakers and Seventh Day Adventists. Like Imanuel Baumann and Astrid von Schlachta in their papers, Lichti was careful to point out the range of Mennonite positions, public and private, on everything from the Hebrew Bible to antisemitism and Nazi racial policies. At the same time, he observed that the lack of centralized structures made it almost impossible to develop a coherent Mennonite voice of opposition. Alle Hoekema’s discussion of Dutch Mennonites recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous among the Nations” confirmed this point. The forty individuals identified are, as Hoekema put it, not insignificant, but they are few. Nor do their accounts highlight Mennonite identity or beliefs as key factors. Instead they emphasize their networks and commitment to humanity as what motivated them to help Jews.
Several speakers noted that common narratives about Mennonite suffering and survival can serve to conceal negative assumptions about Jews and Judaism. Hans Werner analyzed how Mennonites frame their memories to produce “usable” versions of the past, for example, by writing only about the Soviet years or balancing sadness about the Holocaust with joy at Nazi German “liberation” of Christianity. Viewing the 1935 movie, Friesennot (“Frisians in peril”) showed how Mennonites, real and imagined, were mobilized for Nazi purposes. That theme of mobilization also came across in Ben Goossen’s paper on scholarship about Mennonites in the Third Reich. Mark Jantzen, who introduced the film and prepared the subtitles, pointed out that it does not explicitly refer to “Mennonites” or “Jews.” Nonetheless, antisemitic canards about Jews-Bolsheviks as the lascivious, blasphemous, brutal foe of pure and noble “Aryan”-Christian-German-Mennonites are embedded in the story.
The cultural components of the conference encouraged reflection on issues that tend to be neglected or repressed. Connie Braun’s poetry and prose invited listeners to contemplate “the missing pieces of our narratives”: Mennonite prejudices and the suffering and losses experienced by others. Helen Stoltzfus’s reading from “Heart of the World,” a play she co-wrote with Albert Greenberg in 1999, raised the topic of intermarriage as a way to explore what divides and connects Mennonites and Jews, and indeed all people. Stoltzfus’s performance of four different characters showed the value of multiple perspectives and reinforced an earlier moment in the conference. During the Q&A, an audience member had identified herself as Jewish, possibly the only Jew present she said, and challenged the rest of the room to consider how the light-hearted tone taken by some speakers sounded and felt to her.
Although the conference was academic and focused on the geographically and chronologically delineated subject of Mennonites and the Holocaust, it raised even broader questions with far-reaching implications. Some of these were spelled out explicitly, others remained below the surface of the formal proceedings or spilled over into discussions off-site. David Barnouw’s paper about Jacob Luitjens, “From War Criminal in the Netherlands to Mennonite Abroad and Back, to Prison in the Netherlands,” suggested the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a widely respected relief organization, actively helped a Nazi conceal his past and use his Mennonite ties to gain refuge. Does this history pose a challenge to the MCC’s ongoing efforts in Israel/Palestine? Some people present at the conference want an examination of these issues in advance of the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the MCC. Some also echo Arnold Neufeldt-Fast’s call for a Mennonite “post-Holocaust theology.” Already in the works is another conference, to be held in 2020 at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana, on “Reading the Bible after the Holocaust.”
In his paper, “Selective Memory: Danziger Mennonite Reflections on the Nazi Era,” Steven Schroeder called for “truth-telling” about Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust and also about the ways that Mennonites participated in and continue to benefit from colonial systems. Schroeder, who teaches in western Canada, noted that his institution, University of the Fraser Valley, is located on unceded Indigenous Territory. Several members of the audience signaled an interest in future engagement with this aspect of the Mennonite past and present. As Bergen mentioned in her keynote, thinking critically about history does not imply that I would do better. But it might open possibilities to listen, understand, and care.