Members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community are welcoming the publication of new research by Mennonite Central Committee into its entanglement with National Socialism before and after the Second World War.
"I’m pleased and impressed with MCC’s honesty, purposefulness and willingness to come to grips with its past," said Daniel Stone about the research published in Intersections, MCC’s quarterly newsletter.
Stone, a retired University of Winnipeg history professor, was also impressed by the high calibre of the research.
"They have very high standards," he said of the researchers, "and are willing to say what happened."
Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, feels the same way.
"I really applaud MCC for the research," she said, adding "it is important for it to reckon with its past."
Among the 12 essays in the newsletter is "MCC and Nazism, 1929-1955," by Ben Goossen, a historian at Harvard University.
In it, Goossen noted that MCC "at best, kept silent" about its involvement with Nazis during that period, and "at worst, was involved in coverup and denial."
During that time period, "MCC leadership made conscious decisions at many points to work with Nazis where they didn’t have to, and downplayed collaboration with Nazis by some Mennonite refugees," he said.
Later, it developed a narrative about the rescue of about 12,000 Mennonite refugees from the former Soviet Union that "claimed Jewish suffering, that Mennonites had suffered like the Jews," he said.
This prevented MCC from taking an honest look at its past, he went on to say, adding that prevented it from "wrestling in any meaningful way" with the Holocaust.
By evaluating the decisions of previous generations of MCC leaders, the organization can develop tools to navigate ethically challenging situations today, he said.
"Responding to evidence of institutional antisemitism within MCC’s history will benefit the organization’s engagement with Jews, specifically, and it will more generally strengthen MCC’s work in a variety of interfaith contexts," he added.
In her essay, "Defining the deserving: MCC and Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union after World War II," Aileen Friesen noted that defining which refugees were deserving back then was "based on MCC’s own moral framework."
Although "seemingly without intention to cover acts of atrocity committed during the Nazi period, MCC gave licence for Soviet Mennonites to minimize or erase the different ways they had collaborated with and benefited from the Nazis," said Friesen, who teaches Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg.
By taking a hard look at MCC’s wartime past, the agency can "fully address" things that were once hidden and brushed over, she said, adding "We don’t have to be afraid of our past... covering it up is more detrimental."
Friesen acknowledged for some, Mennonites and Jews alike, "these are painful memories from a painful time."
But, she said, it can be an opportunity to discover what that experience means for today, and to develop good relations between the Mennonite and Jewish communities.
For Alain Epp Weaver of MCC, who edited the special issue about MCC and the Holocaust, the organization is "very grateful to the historians for helping us understand how MCC was entangled with National Socialism."
Through their work some "sobering facts have emerged and been heard," he said, adding the organization is committed to being "open and transparent" about this episode in its history.
This includes how Mennonites at that time were "bound up" in the broader Christian experience of antisemitism.
MCC’s goal now, he said, is to assess what it can learn from that episode in its history, at the same time emphasizing it "firmly opposes antisemitism alongside all forms of racism."
The organization is committed "to continued examination of its history and to discerning how to respond to this history in ways that are faithful to its grounding in the gospel of reconciliation."
Some of the research was presented Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the MCC at 100 conference at the University of Winnipeg. The full report by the researchers can be found at http://wfp.to/H2J
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.