MCC’s call to explore past welcome, documentary maker says

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Many were likely shocked when news broke two weeks ago that the Mennonite Central Committee has launched an investigation into how it helped Nazi collaborators after the Second World War.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/01/2021 (673 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Many were likely shocked when news broke two weeks ago that the Mennonite Central Committee has launched an investigation into how it helped Nazi collaborators after the Second World War.

How could the organization, which has a stellar reputation today for its aid work around the world and advocacy on behalf of marginalized and vulnerable groups in Canada, ever have been involved in such a thing?

Getting an answer to that question is MCC’s goal. It has asked 11 researchers from five countries, including Canada, to explore how it happened.

That will include investigating “MCC’s entanglements with National Socialism before and during World War II, and with the legacy of National Socialism as we worked to resettle displaced Mennonites, including those who had served in the German army and those who had worked with MCC,” the organization said in a statement.

The goal, said Ann Graber Hershberger, executive director of MCC U.S., is to develop “a deeper understanding of this part of our history, and reckoning with it once the research is complete.”

While the news is shocking to many, it isn’t a revelation for historians who have been researching, writing and speaking about this issue for many years.

One of the places they have been sharing this research is through Anabaptist Historians, a group dedicated to “cutting-edge scholarship” about contemporary Mennonite/Anabaptist faith and life.

In an introduction to the issue on its website, the group notes “Mennonite experiences of and involvement in the Holocaust differed widely.”

A handful of European Mennonites actively participated as executioners and concentration camp guards, while “a substantial percentage of Europe’s Mennonites benefited from and often sympathized with aspects of Nazism.” This included sometimes receiving goods and property taken from murdered Jews.

Yet many Mennonites also suffered. Some Mennonites joined the resistance, and a number were executed or sent to concentration camps. A small number, primarily in the Netherlands and France, hid and saved Jews.

When the war ended, about 45,000 European Mennonites were stranded in refugee camps and in need of help. Many of them had fled west from the Soviet Union with the retreating German armies; they were in danger of being sent back to that country to be imprisoned, exiled or killed.

Mennonite church institutions, including MCC, sought to help them get needed aid by portraying them as abhorring National Socialism and as victims of Nazi persecution — an “erroneous impression” that has persisted until today, according to researchers.

The goal of the research launched by MCC is to understand how that happened, and also how the organization ended up helping some who were actively involved in the Holocaust escape justice.

One of the researchers tasked with this research is Aileen Friesen, who teaches history at the University of Winnipeg.

“MCC did a lot of good work at that time” by helping Mennonites escape to the west, said Friesen, who specializes in researching Mennonite collaboration with the Nazis in the Soviet Union.

But along with the legitimate refugees helped by MCC, “there were perpetrators among them,” she said.

This doesn’t negate the “good work” MCC did back then, she said, but it “is a historical fact that needs to be addressed to have a more honest portrait of what happened.”

Another researcher is Ben Goossen, who teaches history at Harvard University.

Goossen, who grew up in a Mennonite family in Kansas, didn’t know much about the wartime experiences of European Mennonites until about 10 years ago.

“I heard more stories about suffering,” he said of Mennonite experiences during the war. “They were true stories, but they weren’t the only stories.”

That spurred him to research it more; one of his most recent articles, titled The Real History of the Mennonites and the Holocaust, was published in November in the American Jewish publication the Tablet. In it, he detailed how MCC employed a former Nazi-collaborator by the name of Heinrich Hamm after the war.

Goossen praised MCC for taking a serious look at this issue. “I believe MCC will be stronger for being honest about its past,” he said.

At the same time, he expects Mennonites will respond with shock, disappointment and regret as they learn more. “It won’t sit easily,” he said.

For Winnipeg documentary maker Andrew Wall, MCC’s call to explore its past is welcome.

Wall, who produced Paper Nazis, a documentary about how some Mennonites and others showed support for National Socialism in Manitoba before the war, “this is something we have to talk about… it’s really important to have this discussion.”

The story is also “complicated,” he said, adding he hopes all the all the good work MCC has done in the last 100 years won’t be tarred by a “broad brush.”

faith@freepress.mb.ca

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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