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How Mennonites reckon with our history in the Holocaust

3.26. 2018 Written By: Lisa Schirch 1,784 read

Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, held a “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference March 16-17. Lisa Schirch wrote this piece, which originally appeared at AnabaptistHistorians.org, in response to attending.

Across the street from Bethel College’s campus, the Kauffman Museum portrays a history of Mennonites that illustrates the type of commonly-told, positive narrative of our beliefs, pacifism, martyrdom, humanitarian work and community. While there are stories of Mennonites opposing the Nazis and hiding Jews in this history, the recently revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust feels like a betrayal of everything I’ve been taught over the last 50 years of attending and working for Mennonite institutions. There is a terrible chapter in our history that has been intentionally silenced and absent from my education. Records of Mennonite history are like Swiss cheese: full of holes that leave out our participation in the Holocaust. It is important for the church to reflect on how we reckon with this history and what this history requires us to do.

Beyond academic discussions
This is not just an abstract, academic conversation among historians who compete to document the facts of this history. Many people in the audience at the conference were experiencing intense emotions because of the shocking revelations about Mennonite complicity and participation in the Holocaust.

I grew up in the Mennonite community of Bluffton, Ohio, where I never heard anything anti-Semitic. I was encouraged to read Jewish literature as a kid and was taught to have nothing but respect for Judaism. I was taught to commit to “never again” and took up a career in peacebuilding to prevent genocide. On the other hand, I never heard any Mennonite discuss broader church responsibility for the anti-Semitism or the Holocaust. In hindsight, this is problematic. Christians are generally unaware of the long history of Christian persecution of Jews.

Last fall, I led a study abroad program to Israel and Palestine as part of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, where we focused on Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding efforts. My husband is Jewish, and we are raising our children to be both Jewish and Mennonite. We know at least 15 other Jewish-Mennonite families. For us, this is not just history. I was flooded with emotion hearing about Mennonites participating in massacres of Jewish families or Mennonites taking Jewish land.

Jerusalem at sunrise. Photo by Lisa Schirch.

My first thought was this: Ethnic Mennonites went from participating in the Holocaust, to helping Palestinian refugees, to denouncing Israeli occupation. Where in this story did ethnic Mennonites help Jewish refugees or stand up for Jewish rights on the same scale? How dare Mennonites act self-righteous in their relentlessly critical stance toward Israel when these Mennonites literally pushed Jews out of their homes, and some of those Jews fled to Palestine, where my Palestinian friends were pushed out of their homes. This is a sick and twisted history where Mennonite victims hurt Jewish victims who hurt Palestinian victims. And of these three groups, Jews suffered the most.

The role of Mennonites in the Holocaust has direct impacts on Mennonite-Jewish families, the integrity of Mennonite peacebuilding efforts in Israel and Palestine, and our collective voice on issues of peace and justice.

Emotional intelligence and personal sharing
During the first few panels of the conference, members of the audience shared personal stories. These were a necessary part of the audience digesting and processing the information provided by researchers. But it was not without consequence.

A Mennonite Holocaust denier, Bruce Leichty, attended parts of the conference. Leichty is a California-based lawyer known for representing the Holocaust deniers Ernst Zundel and his Mennonite wife, Ingrid Rimland Zundel. Leichty has passed out anti-Semitic literature at Mennonite Church USA gatherings. At the introduction of the conference, the organizers told the audience there was someone attending the conference who they were watching. But many were not in the room or did not understand what was being said. When Leichty began to ask an offensive question during the conference, the organizers removed him by calling campus security, but did not inform the audience of who the man was or why he was being removed. The lack of communication confused many in the audience.

Synagogue Bimah in Migdal, beside the Galilee, where Jesus studied. The bimah is the Seed of Life symbol, a symbol used to represent the sacredness of life in many religions. Photo by Lisa Schirch.

Minutes earlier, a Jewish participant in the audience shared about her discomfort at the emotionally inappropriate discussion of these topics. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to stand up in a room where she was alone in representing the Jewish people to a group of Mennonites. She noted the lack of acknowledgment that the stories being told were about people like her and included her relatives. She expressed offence at the laughter and lighthearted comments that were tone-deaf to the seriousness of the stories being told. For example, one panelist mentioned there were “50 shades of Mennonite collaboration,” which was met with laughter. She said, “You’re laughing at the number of ways your people were involved in the genocide against my people?” I felt pain and embarrassment over the behavior of “my people.” Perhaps Mennonites are so allergic to grief that some choose to laugh inappropriately instead? This was so awkward and uncomfortable. But what came next made it worse, not better.

Panel moderators immediately told the audience we were no longer allowed to share personally. They informed us we were only allowed to write down our questions on slips of paper and submit these to the moderators. Coming immediately after the sharing of a Jewish woman, while a number of us in the audience were in tears, it was hard to understand the logic. No one explained this decision.

A trauma expert, facilitator or pastor could have helped the conference audience recognize and make space for the personal impacts we might experience during the conference. We could have acknowledged that people in the room would feel a range of emotions. We might have been reminded that laughter can be therapeutic, but that we need to be careful to understand that inappropriate laughter can also be harmful.

The body and brain are not separate. I have attended many academic conferences that also include elements that address emotion and spirituality. It is not either/or. A conference can be both academic and address the intense emotional significance of a subject.

It is not possible or desirable to have an academic conference on a topic involving discussion of Mennonite complicity in the genocide of 6 million Jews and other groups without the expression of emotion. This insistence that the conference ONLY be academic and heady, without allowing other people to participate in shaping elements to support emotional, spiritual and personal responses was harmful. Because several conference attendees had mentioned this need for a grief room, candle or prayers to the conference organizers before and during the conference with no response. It appeared as if the organizers themselves were unable to imagine or acknowledge the emotion that might emerge from the academic discussions, overwhelmed when audience members shared their personal responses, and felt deeply uncomfortable with giving up some control of the conference and allowing others to help facilitate aspects of the program.

For a conference about Mennonite collaboration with the Nazis, it felt in form like Mennonites are still infected with some lingering patriarchal, authoritarian mindsets. There was only one person of color involved as a panel moderator. White men were in charge. No emotion was allowed. Participants were restricted in how they participated. Offers to help facilitate grief circles were seemingly ignored. There was no collective accountability or statement of responsibility. The tone and form of the conference felt offensive given the weight of the facts presented.

Ramifications for Mennonite theology, history and institutions today
For decades, Mennonite historians and theologians have searched for a coherent statement of our history and theology. History impacts theology. While Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, is planning a theology conference to address this history in 2020, it feels strange to try to completely separate out a history conference from a theology conference or to have to wait two more years to take church action on this history. Mennonite complicity with the Holocaust requires action in the present. This is not just an academic historical topic; this history disrupts Mennonite narratives about ourselves, our history, our theology and our current struggle with racism in the church. Mennonite-Nazi connections and theologies of racial superiority continue to have impact today.

Statue of Mother Mary standing on Jewish Covenant representing supercessionist theology. Photo by Lisa Schirch.

The role of Mennonites and the Holocaust requires an acknowledgement and a statement to Jewish groups that we are undergoing a process of accountability and repentance and invite their participation in how we best do that. I am curious to understand the rationale for not inviting Jewish participants to attend these conferences where we are wrestling with how we are accountable.

The Bethel conference included papers about German and Dutch Mennonite theology. Some challenged Nazi theology. Some justified Nazi theology. But these scholarly panels made no reference to how the story of Mennonites and the Holocaust seriously disrupts today’s narrative of Mennonite theology.

  • Some Mennonite theologians took part in Nazi racial science, opened church records and asserted with Nazis that “morals pass through blood.” This is seemingly in direct opposition to Anabaptist beliefs about adult baptism.
  • Some Mennonites in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere rejected pacifism and joined the military to defend national interests. This directly challenges the narrative of Anabaptist nonviolence.
  • Just as West Germany went through a process of self-reflection and intentional de-Nazification, so too does the Mennonite church need an explicit de-Nazification effort to address the lingering anti-Semitism that informs our history and church culture.
  • Mennonite-born white nationalist leader Ben Klassen is one of the two main figures of the white nationalist movement in North America. Klassen grew up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and read Mein Kampf. He credits Mennonite theology for his white supremacy. Regrettably, Klassen is not an aberration. Some Mennonites have reinforced the ideology of white supremacy in unique ways in U.S. and Canadian history. White nationalism is a serious threat to Muslims, Jews, First Nations, African Americans, Latinos and all people of color and non-Christians in North America today. The white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer were carrying the words of Klassen. In sharing the history of Mennonite roles in the Holocaust with friends on Facebook, the strongest response has been from African-American friends who repeatedly reported that they were “not at all surprised.” Racism and anti-Semitism stem from the same superiority narrative and belief that “morals pass through blood.” Friends recounted how they didn’t get jobs at Mennonite institutions even though they were clearly more qualified than the “ethnic Mennonites” who were hired. Our current work on racism needs to be informed now by this history.
  • The Mennonite Central Committee story has been told in a way that has suppressed the fact that Russian Mennonites were both victims and perpetrators. At the conference, we heard that MCC storyteller Peter Dyck told stories that intentionally deceived not only immigration agents, but also the Mennonite church at large. MCC has hidden the fact that some Russian Mennonites were Nazi leaders and collaborators. The whole story of MCC needs to be retold. MCC needs to reckon with its founding, its relationship to Jews and its programming in Israel and Palestine, which to date has focused almost entirely on the Palestinian narrative, without acknowledging Jewish connection to the land and need for control over their safety following centuries of persecution. MCC is holding a 100-year anniversary conference in 2020. Hopefully, this awful history can be addressed, and real action can take place to be accountable for both these historic wrongs and the glaring absence of attention to Jewish connections to the land of Israel just as Palestinians are connected to the land of Palestine, and the need for safety for both Jews and Palestinians.
  • Who will be held to account for suppressing this awful history? Some scholars in the audience at the conference shared that they had tried to raise this history with Mennonite institutions 30 to 40 years ago. Church leaders intentionally silenced these voices, diminished the Mennonite role in the Holocaust and continued to leave out this history. Even today, I’ve heard a dozen Mennonite scholars assert that Ben Goossen’s historical survey of this history in his book Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era is an “exaggeration” or “not footnoted carefully.” When I ask for specifics, it turns out they haven’t yet read the book. But they are clearly eager to downplay the significance of this history (which, as a fellow scholar, I think is well footnoted). This failure to take responsibility and to illustrate accountability and repentance is familiar to those of us who have worked on the history of sexual abuse in the Mennonite church. Mennonite leaders practice denial and suppression of any facts about Mennonites that are not flattering. They give speeches over and over about Mennonite values, our humility, our history of persecution, our work for reconciliation and justice. But they leave out any truthful acknowledgement of our failings. They seem to think they can keep these terrible histories down by ignoring and suppressing them. But truth always has a way of coming out. And the church is more likely to suffer lack of integrity by the failure of Mennonite leadership to confront these problems than it will if it admits the failures of the past.
  • Mennonites and Jews have a unique history. For centuries before the Holocaust, Jews and Mennonites were persecuted together. European states applied special taxes, restrictions on public office and allowed Mennonites and Jews only to live in certain areas. Helen Stolzfus is a Mennonite friend also married to a Jewish man, and also raising her children as both Mennonite and Jewish. Helen gave a reading of a play she and her husband wrote about their discussions of this painful history of Mennonite roles in the long history of anti-Semitism. In the play, her Mennonite ancestors and her husband’s Jewish ancestors talk to each other. What’s it like to be a Mennonite-Jewish family? And what more can we learn about the history of Mennonite-Jewish families, for Mennonite friends have also found they have Jewish blood. Mennonites also need to look into this broader history between Mennonites and Jews.
  • Finally, Mennonites pride themselves as being “authentic” Christians who attempt to return to the teachings of the early church, before the Council of Nicaea and before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Of course, Jesus and the early church were Jewish. Jesus was very clear he was an observant Jew and was not trying to start a new religion. While traveling though Galilee last fall with my students from Eastern Mennonite University, we visited the synagogues where Jesus studied. We learned many new things about Jesus, seeing him through the eyes of our Israeli and Palestinian guides. If Mennonites actually want to practice an authentic way of following Jesus, we are going to need to learn more about Judaism.

Mennonite history classes, books and museums need to tell this newly-revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust. The positive narrative of Mennonites needs to include the angels and demons in our histories. We can’t wait another few years to address Mennonite history and theology. It will take a lifetime for me to recover a positive sense of identity after learning all of this. And Mennonites have some serious work to do in taking responsibility for those Mennonites who did these terrible things. We urgently need to begin talking about the ramifications of this history now.

As a witness to this conference and this history, I feel shame, grief and immense sadness. This history disrupts my world, my identity and my relationships.

Lisa Schirch is research director for the Tokyo-based Toda Peace Institute and senior policy advisor at the Alliance for Peacebuilding in Washington, D.C. She attends Shalom Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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5 Responses to “How Mennonites reckon with our history in the Holocaust”

  1. David Alleman, Harrisonburg, Va says:

    As a follow up opening up of the story of Mennonites, Nazism and anti-Semitism, questions about current developments need to be raised, such as: To what extent and in what ways are Mennonites today undergoing a similar kind of acculturation that German Mennonites and their adherents experienced?

  2. Karl Dick says:

    Our intersection with the Holocaust of history, and its many conundrums that survive to this day, should also include a deep examination of how it came to be, that so many Mennonites are currently entangled in Zionism and the associated military and political implications.
    Will we yet realize that this is a grievous distraction to our fundamental Anabaptist stance, and that we will rue the violence it engenders?

  3. The comments made about me by Lisa Schirch, someone who has spoken with me, are both inaccurate and libelous. I am not anti-semitic nor am I a “Holocaust denier.” I did not ask any offensive questions at the conference. I merely sought to refer conference-goers to an event that was sponsored by Good Information Advocates and RighteousJews.org, featuring two pro-Palestinian activists; it was titled, “Two Revisionist Jews Consider the Holocaust.” For that, conference organizers purported to revoke my paid registrant status, told me I could no longer be on the campus, and had me arrested when I peaceably asserted out my authorization to be at the conference. No Mennonite media outlet has dared report this; however, a full account can be read at http://www.goodinformation.org.

  4. That comment above should read that Lisa Schirch has “never” spoken with me. I have, however, been critical of Ms. Schirch for smuggling uncritical leftist politics into the church by way of her position with EMU; I believe that as one of the framers of the Israel-Palestine resolution that was passed at Orlando in 2017, perhaps influenced by her Jewish husband and his circle, she was the person most responsible for insisting that American Mennonites unnecessarily acknowledge guilt for the Holocaust.

  5. Jerry C Stanaway says:

    The fact that some Mennonites in the past had a very problematic response to the Holocaust reminds me of the fact that many modern Mennonites are willing to tolerate or even advocate the wholesale slaughter of unborn children through the violence of abortion. When right-to-lifers compare the slaughter of the unborn to the Holocaust we are not being hyperbolic. We are convinced that this is a very good analogy.

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