Mennonite Participation in the Holocaust
A few years ago, I was left feeling deeply disturbed and more than a little shocked by a conversation with my brother after he returned from his studies at Canadian Mennonite University. He claimed that it was an “open secret” on campus that a number of his friends had living relatives who had served in the Nazi SS during the years of the Holocaust. I failed to understand how, if this was true, the Mennonite Church I thought I knew could be home to individuals who had most likely committed war crimes. I was even more troubled as I wondered why I had never before heard this topic addressed or discussed in my Mennonite congregation or by the wider denominational body, Mennonite Church Canada. I was left with the feeling that a dark secret was buried behind under the thinly whitewashed walls of our peace church theology. Yet the existence of this secret was confirmed for me only by rumour, through conversations with ethnic Mennonite friends who recalled with discomfort their family members bearing SS tattoos.
This March, an article was published in The Mennonite, a widely read American Mennonite denominational magazine, entitled “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetration” which points the finger at the Mennonite Church for burying its history of complicity with the Holocaust. The article was condensed from a peer reviewed scholarly published by Gerhard Rempel in the Mennonite Quarterly Review. In this paper I will use Rempel’s paper to engage in a preliminary effort to explore Mennonite atrocities during the Holocaust, and to draw attention to the many unanswered questions surrounding this painful chapter of Mennonite history, for the purposes of illustrating the need for serious study to be done in this area. I regret that the source material is limited, yet despite contacting professors at both Conrad Grebel University and Canadian Mennonite University I have not discovered other English language resources on the topic. This fact in and of itself should be telling regarding the nature and scope of the problem.
In this paper I will argue that an increased awareness of Mennonite participation in the Holocaust must become known and acknowledged by Mennonite scholars, pastors, and laity. First, I will outline the involvement of Mennonites in the Holocaust as detailed by Gerhard Rempel. I will then explore the presently unanswered questions which Rempel’s historical account raises for the Mennonite Church’s peace church theology and self-understanding. Finally, I will outline some possible avenues for raising the awareness of lay people in the Mennonite tradition to shed light on this dark area of our past.
Mennonites in the Russian Revolution
Rempel makes the argument that the destruction of Mennonite church and community life in Soviet Republic under Stalin was so destructive that not only did Mennonites abandon their peace theology, but they perceived Hitler’s invading forces as their liberators, thereby setting the stage for them to actively aid the Nazi agenda. Rempel describes the turbulence of the Russian Revolution: “Driven by fear and the predation of violent anarchists, many Mennonites in South Russia set aside their pacifist tradition and formed self-defense units to protect their homes and families against bandits and even the Red Army” (509). It was during this period that many Mennonites chose to leave behind their beliefs in nonviolence in order to fight a losing battle against the communists, who were perceived as a threat both because of their atheistic stance and their desire to abolish private ownership of property. Rempel infers that it was these initial violent actions which set a tragic precedent laying the foundations for the next generation of Mennonites to take up arms alongside of the Nazis.
By the early 1920s, the Mennonites began to experience a period of stability and economic recovery under Lenin, but unfortunately by the end of the decade their increased prosperity caused them to become targets of Stalin because of their opposition to collectivization (509). This wave of persecution became known as The Great Terror, during which 8 to 9% of Mennonites were arrested and deported to the gulag (509). The breaking up of farms, families, and churches not only left Mennonite communities seriously deprived of leadership but also left them more vulnerable to the famine which soon followed. Mennonite churches were either severely restricted or closed by the atheistic government because of their Christian beliefs. Rempel writes,
“By the mid-1930s the religious and social fabric of Mennonite communal life, along with its ethical and more fiber, was disintegrating; the public expression of religion and the physical existence of the Mennonite church is Russia had been nearly erased. Young people in particular were vulnerable not only to the spreading atheism but, more importantly, to a kind of moral and lawless indifference to the inner voice of conscience and restraint. A decade later this trend blinded many to the inherent evil of the carriers of National Socialism who came to Communist Russia in German uniforms as purported liberators” (522).
Although the destruction of Mennonite life by the Soviet government may shed some light on how the Mennonites came to be involved in the Holocaust, it cannot be used as an excuse for their complicity. Clearly enough Mennonites survived Stalin’s persecution that Mennonite communities continued to exist to aid the Nazis in the 1940s. Not only that, but Rempel later cites several examples of Mennonites who were prominent community business owners and prosperous farmers, enough so that they were able to purchase labour from Nazi concentration camps. The Mennonite community was not so utterly destroyed by the dekluakization measures that none were left in positions of power by the early 1940s. It should be noted, however, that those Mennonites who were most willing to “bend the rules” of their Christian beliefs and pacifist convictions may have been those more likely to remain alive and in positions of power.
Stutthof Concentration Camp
The Stutthof Concentration Camp was constructed in Poland in 1939 under the command of the SS under Henrich Himmler in close proximity to what was at that time the world’s largest population of Mennonites, the Polish community of Danzig (512). This camp was initially a concentration camp, but was later utilized as a death camp equipped with a gas chamber and crematoria. This camp initially housed Polish and Russian political prisoners, but soon became the destination of tens of thousands of deported Jews. Many of the prisoners were held in the over 200 sub-camps in its surrounding area, such that nearly 60,000 people were held there at one time in 1944, guarded by 1,056 SS troops (514). Rempel lists the ethnically Mennonite names of many of the camp’s guards who were later convicted of war crimes. One ethnically Mennonite individual, Heinrich Wiens, initially worked at Stutthof as an SS officer but was later transferred to Kislovodsk, where he oversaw the massacre of about 6300 Jews who were killed by gas vans (547).
The Mennonite farmers and businesses owners in the Danzig region were not only aware of the existence of the concentration camp but they derived personal profit from its operations. Mennonite farms paid the camps to receive field laborers, working them under what were often brutal conditions without payment for their labor and often for longer than the allotted 8 hour shifts to maximize profit (524). Mennonites who owned factories, such as Gerhard Epp, utilized the low-cost labor from concentration camps; Epp’s factory actually manufactured firearms for the Nazi war effort (525). Other Mennonite businesses profited by building and supplying the camp itself. Since Mennonite attempts to show more sympathetic treatment of the workers was forbidden by the Nazis on the threat of the sympathizer being imprisoned in the camp, Mennonite arguments that their usage of such labor was primarily motivated by opportunities to show mercy to the prisoners are unsustainable. Likewise it cannot be reasonably claimed that the large Mennonite community did not know about the camps since they were actively profiting from this activity. Neither the presence of tens of thousands of people subjected to in horrific conditions, nor the billowing smoke and ashes of the crematoria, could have been denied by any Mennonites at Danzig or Stutthof who wanted to know the truth of what was happening in their backyard. Moreover, the presence of ethnically Mennonite names on the lists of prison guards who were later convicted for their work at Stutthof demonstrates that at least some members of the Mennonite community themselves committed atrocities within the camps.
Other Mennonite Crimes
Rempel describes the account of the massacre near the Mennonite community of Chortitza, as recounted by Mennonite Alexander Rempel, who lived in the region at the time of the massacre in which about 44,000 Jews were shot at close range over a period of several months (531). Alexander Rempel reported that Mennonites were recruited from the area to assist the SS soldiers with the massacre because there were not enough regular troops available to conduct the killing (532). In the city of Zaporozhia, a Mennonite mayor named Heinrich Jakob Wiebe was appointed to power by the Nazis, who acknowledged the disappearance of tens of thousands of Jews in his community and the city’s confiscation of their property. Disturbingly, Alexander Rempel found that his reports of these crimes was dismissed by his church leaders who could not believe it to be true, although they were later confirmed by Nazi documents (530). It seems that either these leaders already knew about Mennonite involvement but felt an obligation to hide it, or that they simply found it too horrendous to be believable. These Mennonite leaders had an opportunity to denounce such violence, yet they abdicated their responsibility to do so.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) aided thousands of ethnically Mennonite refugees after the war by issuing Menno Passes which verified their Mennonite identities in order to aid their emigration to North America. Since this process assumed that Mennonites were innocent of war crimes and consequently did not investigate the backgrounds of individuals thoroughly, it allowed Mennonites perpetrators of the Holocaust to escape prosecution for war crimes. It was known by MCC workers at the time, however, that many of the people whom they were helping had served in the SS as Nazis (537).
The Love of Neighbour or The Love of Power?
The questions surrounding the Mennonite participation in the Holocaust are many. In the face of such atrocities committed by Mennonites, can the Mennonite Church lay claim to its peace witness with any kind of authenticity? I believe that Mennonites must wrestle with the reality of our involvement in the Holocaust in order to reclaim the authenticity of our peace theology.
How could Mennonites, who claim to uphold Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, become part of the slaughter of millions of men, women, and children? Gerhard Rempel emphasizes the destruction of Mennonite community and religious life under the Soviet government as a foundational reason for this massive failure, yet his theory seems to be lacking for the simple reason that Mennonite communities were not entirely extinguished by the Soviets. When the Nazis invaded, they discovered Mennonite communities which consisted of business owners running shops and factories capable of building up Stutthof. They found young men who were healthy and educated enough to serve as privileged SS soldiers. They found Mennonite farmers who were able to afford to purchase laborers from their concentration camps. These individuals were from communities which continued to exist, in stark contrast to the state of Jewish communities throughout most of Poland after the war. Mennonites may have been damaged by Stalin, but they were not annihilated by him. The Mennonite’s betrayal of their beliefs must have had other supporting reasons.
Another question must be raised as to whether or not the perpetrators really were legitimately Mennonite. If the Mennonite faith is based upon Anabaptist theology (including nonviolence) rather than ethnicity, it might be arguable that the perpetrators were not truly Anabaptist. The destruction of the Mennonite communities by the Soviets suggests that many of the strongest church leaders had been removed prior to the Nazi invasion. Yet the fact remains that those who committed these crimes most likely had some exposure to Anabaptist theological beliefs through other members of the community and through privately held worship services. Whether the Mennonite faith tradition was sufficiently passed on to the next generation by those leaders who were not imprisoned in the gulags could be a subject of further study.
In my opinion, the motivation for personal power and profit is a stronger motive behind Mennonite war crimes than the destruction of their communities under Stalin. Mennonites who had faced restricted socio-economic status under Stalin jumped at the opportunity for wealth and privilege that their German ethnicity offered them under Hitler. Their own personal gain caused Mennonites to close their eyes to the suffering around them. Gerhard Rempel writes that his own family lived for a period of time in a house that had been confiscated from a Jew killed in the Holocaust (549). One Mennonite had an opportunity to become the Mayor of Zaporozhia, while others embraced the status of the SS uniform. Farms and businesses profited and grew from slave labor. When opportunity for profit presented itself, peace theology took a back seat.
It is likely that an unexplored ethic of anti-Semitism present in the Mennonite community facilitated this economic opportunism. If Jews were seen as lesser people than Christians, the Mennonite ethic to “love thy neighbor” did not need to apply, since Jews were not “real” neighbours. Anti-Semitism would also help to explain why MCC assisted refugees who were suspected of being SS soldiers fleeing from prosecution without thoroughly investigating their backgrounds.
Disturbingly, it has been my own experience that lingering anti-Semitic tendencies can be found within the Mennonite Church today. During one Adult Education class this past summer a church member chose to lead the group in discussing the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The teacher discussed how the Israelis had forced Palestinians from their land and homes during the Nakba in 1948, during which time many Palestinians were massacred. When the teacher invited group discussion, I mentioned that it was important to consider that many of the perpetrators of the Nakba had themselves been traumatized as survivors of the Holocaust. I shared the comment of an Israeli friend of mine about the after effects of the Holocaust, asking me to imagine what it is like to live in a country where there are almost no grandparents, because almost all of them had been murdered. Later that day, a person in the class told me he found it impossible to believe that a very large number of Holocaust survivors were living in Israel.
In a separate conversation, a former Mennonite pastor told me he believed that the Book of Exodus should be removed from the canon because of the violence contained, yet he made no mention of how that removal would affect Christian relationships with Jews who claim Exodus as foundational to their religion. The same individual once critiqued a sermon I preached which was based on the Exodus account of God’s call to Moses, because of what he perceived as a danger of Zionistic theology in the Exodus text.
The Naming of Sin
Another troubling question which arises from consideration of Mennonite participation in the Holocaust is why this participation has not been clearly named and renounced as sin. Mennonite churches have historically been known for their practice of the ban, a form of church discipline in which an unrepentant member of the church is denied church fellowship in order to encourage repentance. A less severe form of this practice is the exclusion from communion of an unrepentant person. Repentance consisted of a public declaration of wrongdoing and request for forgiveness. Why were Mennonites known to be SS soldiers not subjected to the ban? Again, a lingering Mennonite anti-Semitism seems to present a likely answer.
At the present time, Mennonite Church Canada is becoming increasingly involved in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission over the operation of residential schools for aboriginal peoples in Canada (the Mennonite Church operated three such schools). The recent General Assembly in Vancouver the gathering was opened by a First Nations speaker who performed a traditional ritual of invitation for the Assembly to meet on his nation’s land. A branch of Mennonite Church Canada has been tasked to hear and respond to the concerns of aboriginal peoples. In contrast to the church’s acts of repentance in its relationship with aboriginal peoples, no acknowledgement, apology, or denominational act of naming sin has taken place to denounce Mennonite involvement in Holocaust atrocities. The failure of the Mennonite Church to name its involvement in the Holocaust as sin and its reluctance to hold the perpetrators and collaborators to account is highly problematic for a tradition which emphasizes non-violence as one of its fundamental core values.
Opportunities for Repentance and Reconciliation
If a problem of anti-Semitism indeed exists within the Mennonite Church, this issue must be publicly acknowledged, addressed, and responded to in order to uphold the integrity of our peace witness. Such acknowledgement must include thorough investigation and research into the specific facts of the atrocities which Mennonites committed or supported, examination of Mennonite theology for anti-Semitic biases, and strategies to educate and engage grass roots Mennonite membership through in local congregations.
I would recommend to Mennonite Church Canada that the denomination commission a small task force of historical scholars to engage in careful research on the role of Mennonites in the Holocaust. This group would be aided in their studies by the historic files confiscated by the Soviets in their conquest of the Nazis, which have in recent years become accessible to Western researchers (535). New access to previously unavailable information offers the possibility of unearthing unrevealed information on the extent of Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust. It is important that such researched be initiated as quickly as possible if eye witness accounts of the aging survivors are to be incorporated. An additional area of responsibility for these researchers could involve probing Mennonite Central Committee ‘s involvement in assisting Nazi refugees fleeing from prosecution as war criminals.
The full extent of Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust needs to be known and acknowledged so that repentance of these actions may occur. The denomination needs to undertake a serious introspective look at its own shadows in order to correct any mistaken beliefs about its unblemished past. Mennonites have often chosen to indentify ourselves with the actions of conscientious objectors who chose imprisonment or alternative service rather than bear the sin of killing another human being. My church library contains books written by such individuals, and the older generations enjoy sharing stories of their alternative service assignments at potlucks. If Mennonites are awakened to the hidden memory of our own culpability, our self identity will be impacted, but our understanding of ourselves will be made more honest. A humbling acknowledgement of our sins can help us to use more careful discernment in our future actions. Most importantly, an honest assessment of our failings may open opportunities for engagement with the Jewish community and other groups who were marginalized and persecuted during the Holocaust.
The Anabaptist tradition is often accused of marginalizing the Old Testament texts in its effort to promote the teachings of Jesus. Somehow in our efforts to live like Jesus, we can forget that he was Jewish. Mennonite Church members often express feelings of ambivalence, confusion, and apprehension toward the Old Testament, especially those problematic texts which appear to value violence. Consequentially, such texts are often sidelined in the life of the church. Yet the Torah is the foundation of faith for Jews, and if Mennonites neglect or sideline it we are also running the risk of creating further distance between our respective religions. A renewed appreciation for the Hebrew Scriptures may assist Mennonites in finding common ground with our Jewish friends.
Increased interfaith dialog between Jews and Mennonites would be a valuable experience for building bridges between these religions. At the present time several Mennonite churches in southern Ontario have been actively involved with sponsoring interfaith dialogue with Muslims at the level of the congregation. A year ago, a Palestinian Christian and an agnostic Israeli were invited to speak together in several local churches in Ontario. However, there are no interfaith groups with open participation currently underway involving practicing Jews and Mennonites. I believe opportunities for Jewish and Mennonite individuals to learn about one another’s religions in a structured, safe setting would be valuable for all participants. Conrad Grebel University or the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre would be institutions capable of facilitating such dialogue. A call for papers examining Mennonite theology for anti-Semitic bias could be another aspect of this project.
The congregationally led structure of the Mennonite denomination signifies that the most powerful leadership of the church occurs from the grassroots up. For this reason, Mennonites must work for a transformation of anti-Semitic attitudes at the level of the local congregation if real change is to happen. Local congregations can work for acknowledgement and repentance of Mennonite Holocaust atrocities and deeper appreciation and respect for Jewish religion and culture through Adult Education classes, sermons, prayer litanies, and creative rituals of repentance.
Adult Education (or Christian Formation) classes happen for about 10 months of the year in most North American Mennonite churches, usually before the service begins. These classes usually run for about 45 minutes. Attendance varies depending upon the topic, but it is common for about half of the congregation to participate. These classes are seen as opportunities to engage in learning on a variety of topics which may or may not be related to materials covered later in the sermon. There is a great deal of flexibility as to the format of the class and the nature and content of the discussion, making these classes an ideal opportunity to discuss issues which may be sensitive. Leading a series of several classes on the relationships between Mennonites and Judaism could be an appropriate way of opening the discussion on Mennonite anti-Semitic bias and Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust. A series would allow opportunity for the issues to be presented in a setting which would allow individuals to share their stories and experiences in a trusting environment.
Sermons in Mennonite Churches are considered to be essential to the service. Pastors tend to have a great deal of freedom and flexibility in the style and content of their preaching as long as it relates to a biblical text in some way. Since good preaching is expected to present opportunities for challenge and growth, sermons on the topic of Mennonite participation in the Holocaust may be appropriate. It would be necessary to preach with a great deal of sensitivity to the culture and history of the congregation in dealing with this subject because of the potential presence of people who have been perpetrators or witnesses. The value of having the historical reality of Mennonite crimes named and acknowledged from the pulpit is probably worth the risk of the controversy which might be created by this action.
A more subtle way of inspiring change in anti-Semitic attitudes is by incorporating repentance from them into congregational prayer litanies. Congregational sharing and prayer time is an opportunity to name prayer requests in the presence of the congregation. Prayer for Holocaust survivors and the repentance of anti-Semitic attitudes would be appropriate during this time. Naming these prayers during the Call to Worship or the Confession would also be possible. Structuring a Prayer of Confession around the theme of the Holocaust could be a liturgically powerful act. Other ritual acts, such as the lighting of candles in remembrance of Holocaust victims, could also assist church members in coming to terms with the reality of the Holocaust.
Mennonites must acknowledge and repent of our involvement in the violence of the Holocaust. Although this is a difficult and painful history to own, the authenticity of our peace church stance is undermined when we critique violence in the world without repenting from the violence which we ourselves have been a part of. Mennonite Church Canada can partner with its church sponsored universities to undertake historical research into Mennonite participation in the Holocaust so that Mennonite crimes may be named with greater specificity. Mennonite pastors and congregations can work toward transforming our own anti-Semitic attitudes and biases. Relationships can be built between Mennonites and Jews through interfaith dialogue, increased understanding, and acts of repentance. The failings of the past need to be honestly assessed and better understood in order to prevent those tragedies from occurring again.
Alicia Good is a master of divinity student at Wycliffe College, in the University of Toronto, and is currently doing a field placement as a street pastor with Mennonite Central Committee. She is a member of Toronto United Mennonite Church.
Rempel, Gerhard. “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation.” Published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Goshen: Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, 2010.