Conference on Mennonites and Holocaust should come to Canada

Apr 23, 2018 by

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I have followed the reports of the Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference that took place March 16-17 at Bethel College with keen interest. Three different life experiences have shaped my personal interest in this tragic subject.

I grew up on a farm in a Mennonite family in Southern Ontario. My father was a conscientious objector, and did not question his pacifism until I spent a year in Trier, West Germany, in 1973-74 attending a German high school and living with four different German families. I will never forget an evening spent with one host family looking at a recently published collection of photos of Trier in the aftermath of World War II: page after page of bombed rubble. As we neared the end of the book, the photos took a dramatic turn of subject matter. What followed were photos depicting death camp atrocities, mass graves, naked lifeless bodies piled high. In an instant, we all recoiled from the unbearable weight of connection. The sadness of the destruction of Trier was a direct result of the evil of Nazi Germany’s Aryan empire expansionism and the Final Solution.

My host father asked, “Can you imagine where we would be today if the Allies had not been successful in bringing an end to the Nazi madness?” Then he asked me, “Where did your father serve during the war?” Not really understanding how naive I sounded, I proudly proclaimed that my father was a pacifist and that he helped build a highway as a form of alternative service. My host father’s reaction was one of astonished disbelief, and I realize now that as he hurriedly changed the subject, he was trying to refrain from insulting his young guest. Until that moment, I had never really thought that there might be other understandings of the choice my father made.

Shortly after returning from Germany, I began an undergraduate degree at University of Toronto, studying German and History. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust were a big part of my studies. But it was friendships with Jewish students during those university years that left a lasting impact on my life. Hearing my friends recount their families’ Holocaust stories, their sharp critique of the embedded anti-Semitism within Christianity, their personal experiences of anti-Semitism in Canada and their passionate support of Israel left me a changed person.

A few years after graduating from university, I began working for Mennonite Central Committee. This brought me into contact with Russian Mennonites, about whom I knew very little. (My immediate and extended family were all part of what we then called the Old Mennonite Church.) As I met more and more Russian Mennonites, I was moved by the stories of both those who came to Canada in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and also the tragic stories of the ones who came to Canada as refugees after World War II.

Their stories of victimization were so powerful they overwhelmed some questions I had but did not articulate. From my German studies and from the personal Holocaust stories of my Jewish friends, I knew about the Nazi collaboration of the so-called Volksdeutsch (Germans who lived in Eastern European countries). Mennonites living in Ukraine were a subcategory of Volksdeutsch, so I wondered if Mennonites could also have been collaborators. In my MCC travels, I certainly encountered undertones of anti-Semitism and open sympathy for their German “liberators.”

At one point, my travels took me to a small Mennonite Church in New Brunswick, where I encountered a man who had worked with MCC helping resettle the many Mennonite refugees who had flooded the now-defeated Germany along with the retreating German army. He had work alongside Peter Dyck and claimed most of the stories Peter Dyck told about his work were misleading and in some cases outright lies.

These experiences led me to suspect that there was another story to be told, one that might disrupt the dominant Russian Mennonite victim story. I wasn’t a scholar, so I didn’t pursue these thoughts, but when Ben Goossen started publishing reports of his research tracing the roots of Mennonite participation in the rise of National Socialism’s racial superiority theories in Germany, and also among Mennonites in Canada, I was encouraged to see that a North American Mennonite scholar was finally giving serious, sustained attention to a largely ignored field of research here among Canadian Mennonites. I was even more encouraged that a major conference about Mennonites and the Holocaust was being organized.

As I read through the reports of the conference presenters and panelists at the Anabaptist Historian website and Mennonite World Review coverage, much of what I had wondered about came into sharp focus. The idea of Mennonites collaborating with Nazis and indeed participating directly in the Holocaust shocked me, but did not come as a complete surprise. It went a long way to explaining why there has been virtual silence for so long among Canadian Mennonites. After all, some of this activity could easily have been the subject of war crimes investigations, and the high-profile case of Jacob Luitjens that was outlined at the Bethel conference must have struck terror among other Mennonite collaborators in Canada.

I am grateful for what this conference has uncovered but wish that the conference had taken place in Winnipeg rather than Newton, Kan. Canada, with its large population of Russian Mennonites, is ground zero for this mostly untold story. My fear is that because this conference took place in Kansas, Canadian Mennonites will continue to remain mostly silent about what is a truly dark chapter of their history. There were a few very good Canadian presenters at the conference, but I worry that they will not find a receptive audience at Canadian Mennonite academic institutions for this important scholarship, and more importantly, I fear that Mennonites and their institutions will escape accountability to the Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel for their participation in the Holocaust.

I would like to see a follow-up conference take place, ideally in Winnipeg with a variety of sponsors: Canadian Mennonite University, MCC Canada, Mennonite Church Canada and with participation of Jewish organizations, perhaps the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus.

For me there are three take-aways from the Bethel conference:

  • I have a responsibility to have conversations about this with my Jewish friends whose families are Holocaust survivors.
  • I have a responsibility to call out continued silence or minimizing, even denial of the Mennonite role in Nazi collaboration and participation in the Holocaust.
  • I have a responsibility to encourage Mennonites to re-examine their views on Israel and encourage a more balanced understanding of the need for the state of Israel to be a safe place for Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Kathy Shantz lives in Kitchener, Ont.

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