German history center continuing to preserve, analyze

Director handing off responsibility to a new leader for a new era of study

Feb 9, 2016 by and

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The next chapter for the German Mennonite Historical Society is chronicling steps to modernize the group’s research center while digging deeper into the past.

Gary Waltner and Astrid von Schlachta examine a book in the collection of the Mennonite Research Center in Weierhof, Germany.

Gary Waltner and Astrid von Schlachta examine a book in the collection of the Mennonite Research Center in Weierhof, Germany. — Mennonite Research Center

In October, University of Regensburg history professor Astrid von Schlachta began as director of the Mennonite Research Center in Weierhof. She is sharing the position in a one-year transition period with Gary Waltner, who will step aside in October after decades of work that literally built the research center from the ground up.

While the research center enjoys an exclusive location in Weierhof today, its collection followed a nomadic path out of the ashes of World War II. Ernst and Rosa Crouse of the Berlin Mennonite Church evacuated to Gottingen, taking with them Mennonite church books from the Prussian State Library. They continued adding to the collection in their home until retiring to Krefeld.

“That’s where they found two rooms given to them, because the Schloss (castle) that had been built by rich family Mennonites was now part of the city hall,” Waltner said.

After the couple died in the late 1960s, no one was willing to care for the library. Helmut Haury, headmaster of the Weierhof Mennonite school, offered the school’s attic. In 1969 the collection moved once again, joining up with the collection of Mennonite leader Christian Neff, which had been stored in the Weierhof Mennonite Church parsonage.

When Nelson Springer of Goshen (Ind.) College spent a sabbatical classifying and cataloguing materials in 1975-76, Waltner got more involved. The historical society asked him to take on responsibility for the collection, and he has been its caretaker ever since.

“I’m an avid collector, anything and everything, and never hesitated to visit south German families to ask what they have as far as books and family documents are concerned,” he said of materials related to Mennonite, Amish, Hutterite, Old Colony and broader Reformation history. “The rooms have always been filled here.”

Row of spinning wheels

The Freeman, S.D., native has always had an interest in Germany and its history. He first came as a Pax volunteer, then was one of the first two Mennonite Central Committee trainees sent from North America to live and work in Europe.

With his retirement from being principal of an American school looming in the ’90s, Waltner saw more time on the horizon that he could devote to the library. He also saw the facility’s inadequacies. Four farmers in the congregation donated an old shed. After a fundraising blitz, it was torn down, and volunteers did everything from bricklaying to painting.

“When it was time to put the roof on, I called the elder of the Mennonite Brethren Russian Mennonite church in Frankenthal: ‘Can you send me 20 people?’ ” Waltner said. “They sent 25 Russian Mennonites to put the roof on in one day.”

The collection moved again, into a building all its own, in 1998.

“When I see the collection now, my goodness, we never would have had room up in the attic,” he said.

There are 15 movable stacks piled with centuries-old tomes. Microfilm. Drawers of family history charts. Suitcases used by Mennonite refugees in 1945. A row of spinning wheels lines a high shelf, looking down on hats typical of an era long past.

Six of the 23 Martyrs Mirror printing plates purchased in a transcontinental Anabaptist effort are part of the holdings.

Nazi-era documents

Von Schlachta arrives in yet another of the collection’s turning points. A five-year reorganizing process has catalogued everything, and efforts are under way to organize the archives on computer and make holdings searchable online.

She is continuing to teach but trimming it down to one class per semester.

“I’m trying to keep in contact by teaching in Regensburg, but it’s not a full-time position,” von Schlachta said. “Here in Weierhof it’s a half-time position, but practically it’s full-time. It’s enough to teach a course and do the work here.”

She will be kept busy with the unending pursuit of further collecting.

“Tomorrow Astrid and I are going to Thomashof to check the documents of the Verband because they aren’t taking care of it, to see if it’s time to move that to Weierhof,” Waltner said of the conference of mostly southern Mennonite congregations.

On top of adding to the materials, von Schlachta hopes to also dig into them. Many documents from the 1930-45 period of National Socialism and the Third Reich are only beginning to be studied.

“Probably no other place will you find so many documents from this time in history,” Waltner said.

There are records from major meetings, official and personal correspondence, as well as sermons from the era.

“It’s somehow a new generation taking over,” she said. “This generation is not so emotional about the topic. The people who were involved are dying, and the next generation can look at it more objectively.”

She said a conference on Mennonites and the Third Reich that was organized by the historical society last September in Münster would not have been possible even 10 years ago. The topic was still too emotional. People sympathetic to certain positions were still too judgmental of one another.

“The conference was needed, and there will be a need for more, perhaps in three years,” von Schlachta said. “But we are first trying to put out the papers of the conference. That will come out this year. Then we’ll see what happens.”

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