Scholars take a hard look at the Holocaust

Historians explore Mennonite response to Second World War

Nov 18, 2019 by and

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WINNIPEG, Man. — About 80 years ago, Jews and Mennonites lived peacefully together in the Ukrainian city of Chortitza. Then the Nazis came, and everything changed.

Aileen Friesen listens as Hans Werner answers a question on “Mennonites, Jews and the Holocaust." — John Longhurst

Aileen Friesen listens as Hans Werner answers a question on “Mennonites, Jews and the Holocaust.” — John Longhurst

In 1941, before the invasion, Chortitza had about 2,000 Mennonites and 402 Jews out of a population of about 14,000. A year or so later, all the Jews were gone, murdered by the Nazis.

Did the Mennonites know what had happened to their neighbors? Did some help with the killings?

Those questions were addressed at a public lecture Nov. 5 on “Jews, Mennonites and the Holocaust” sponsored by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

The lecture, attended by an overflow audience of about 175 people, featured Mennonite historians Aileen Friesen, executive director of the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation, and Hans Werner, a retired professor of Mennonite history from the University of Winnipeg.

Friesen, who spoke about the experience of Jews and Mennonites during the German occupation, began by noting the last major massacre of Jews in the region occurred in 1942 in the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia, across the river from Chortitza.

Around the same time 3,000 Jews were being murdered, Mennonites, who were treated well by the Nazis because they were seen as ethnic Germans, were celebrating their newfound liberation from communist oppression at Easter church services.

“The image is stark,” she said, of how Mennonites benefited under German occupation while Jews were “subjected to unspeakable violence.”

While most Mennonites didn’t participate in the genocide against the Jews, some did collaborate, serving as mayors, police or other officials. Some were also members of local security forces that rounded up and murdered Jews.

For decades, Mennonite scholars “have struggled with issue of collaboration,” she said. But recently discovered records from the former Soviet Union provide “concrete evidence” of Mennonite participation in the Holocaust.

Since much of the new material comes from Soviet interrogation records from after the war, it has to be “treated with caution,” she acknowledged.

But together with other historical records and recollections, it is clear some Mennonites helped the Nazis in killing Jews.

Wartime overlooked

In his presentation, Werner dealt with the way the Mennonites have remembered their wartime experience in Ukraine.

Referencing memoirs written by Mennonites after the war, he noted the Holocaust usually only makes cameo appearances. Most focus on Mennonite life before the Russian revolution, the subsequent loss and displacement under the Soviets and their own suffering during and after the war.

These memories are colored by how the German invasion of Russia was “a relief from Soviet oppression,” he said, adding they also fit neatly into “Cold War logic” after the war when the Soviet Union was seen as the enemy.

Some memoir writers who mentioned the Holocaust promoted a sense of “equivalence between the killing of the Jews and Mennonite suffering [under the Soviets],” he said, or blamed the Nazis for Jewish deaths.

Dan Stone, co-chair of the program committee for the Jewish Heritage Centre, summed up the presentations by saying it “was exciting to see the Mennonite community looking at its past and giving praise where it is deserved and blame where it is deserved.”

He praised Friesen and Werner for facing the past directly and honestly and for taking a hard look “at what actually happened, without fear of what they are going to find.”

Why did it take so long?

In a question-and-answer period, it was noted many Mennonites from the Ukraine came to Canada after the war yet little has been said about this terrible experience — including in Winnipeg, which is home to many Mennonites. Friesen and Werner were asked why it has taken so long for this story to be told.

Werner replied it is partly because of a new generation asking questions of their parents and grandparents and also because some feel the need to tell their stories before they die.

It’s also “not a good story” to tell, he said, noting even he was nervous speaking about it at a Jewish community center.

Friesen added it’s also happening because of new historical records that have just become available in the past 10 to 15 years. “Now we can put things together,” she said.

At the end of the evening, Dan Klass, a member of the Jewish community whose parents came from the Chortitza region to Winnipeg in 1913, noted the similarities between that community almost 80 years ago and Winnipeg today.

Like back then, Winnipeg is a mix of Mennonites and Jews, he said, noting relations between the two communities are positive, despite this terrible history.

“We should celebrate and cherish this and make sure Winnipeg is a place where it never happens again,” he said.


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