Mennonites and the Holocaust


March 16-18, 2018 I attended the Mennonites and Holocaust conference at Bethel College, in Kansas. I would be hard on myself for not getting this out in the month that the event happened. But, given that Mennos didn’t study this history together, and publicly, until 2018 (2015 in Germany, 2017 in Paraguay………about 70 years after it all happened) I won’t begrudge myself the seven weeks. And this is not the end of the recognition. It is the beginning! We will begin to attend to trauma from here on out, particularly participant-induced trauma (as Trina Nussbaum from EMU puts it). We’re also going to grapple with this theologically (at a conference at AMBS in 2020, but there is a group that is part of the national church that has relationships with Jewish people that meets more frequently than that).

Side note: There is also a group that has relationships with Muslim people who meet. I guess I could start one as well for Mennos with Buddhist relationships. I am really happy that our denomination is doing more careful thinking about interfaith relationships. However, some people still would like to convert other people…that’s not how I want to structure my relationships with people in other faiths. Well, that is a blog post for another time, but the idea of Christianity being supreme, when coupled with racism and ethnocentrism is what led to the very topic that I am writing about here.

Also, the delay is related to digestion. This conference becomes more potent to me as it all sinks in. I had read the conference material beforehand, and went there because I have so many relationships with Jewish people, comrades, friends, and co-workers. If I am to show up well in the fight against Antisemitism, I must study my people’s history. And study we did; it was a very historical conference. The organizers specifically chose to focus on the past and not on present day applications. But I must focus on what it means for me and the church now…so I needed to chew on it first.

So, I’ve waited until Passover 5778 and Easter 2018, so I could hold these stories in my heart through these holy days. Now here we are, the day after International Worker’s Day (Alle brider! Rise up! Workers of the world unite!). But I began to share my learning, personally, right away. From my sermon, a day after the conference:

“Future generations will look back at this extreme time and examine our actions. This was clear from the conference we were at this weekend. I am in town for the Mennonites and Holocaust conference. There we learned about the fact that Mennonites participated in the full range of activities during the time of World War II and the Nazi rule of Germany—from being active members of the party to material collaboration with German forces, to avoidance. In rare occasions we rescued Jewish people, but more often benefited materially from their dispossession. Post-war Mennonite migration and shifting identity included falsifying documents and denying complicity.

Whatever we did, we were far from innocent bystanders, or an especially noble group, as I was taught to see myself growing up. Some at the conference looked at the way this reckoning with our past disrupts a traditional narrative of ourselves as persecuted, victimized people who have had little power wherever we live. For some, the arrival of German military forces were a relief from suffering Menno communities faced, and because we spoke German and maintained a lot of that culture Mennos sided with the Germans, even changing our theology to eliminate the cognitive dissonance participating in war created.

Overall, for most people then, it seemed too difficult to challenge the status quo, because of the anticipated consequences. This conference was one step on what will be a long journey of healing and repair. There are many lessons I could take from the conference, but that is one. Don’t let your own experience of suffering stop you from speaking up—in whatever creative way that you can—for others who are hurting, especially when that means challenging the status quo.

While confrontation of the violent status quo can be an uncomfortable thing to do, Christian peacemaking requires us to learn how to strategically show up publicly to defy societal structures and systems that separate us from one another and this planet. That includes challenging readings of Scripture that render us powerless, oppressed, trapped, and traumatized.”

So, now that this conference has been off of the news cycle, hopefully this post can bring back a solemn moment of memory. International Holocaust/Shoah remembrance day is January 27, 2019.

Never Forget
I was in conversation assisting in putting this analysis piece together. Lisa’s work here is crucial: Keynote Doris Bergen told us that scholar’s job is “to break apart the myths. . . . Many groups are confronting and breaking the myth of their own innocence or noncomplicity in the Holocaust. This can be enormously liberating.” Lisa doesn’t feel liberated yet, she ends her article:

“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.”

That makes sense, because it’s so disorienting for so many Mennonites who have been raised with the stories of our overall noncomplicity with empire, (even if they had some critiques already), our victimization by it (even if we are experiencing ongoing victimization/targeting within the church), and the stories of our “purity” (even if we don’t strive to maintain it).  There is a specific way in which recognizing the range of collaboration with the Nazis–and the non-telling of these stories for so long–is like a punch to the gut.

Steve Schroeder brought it home with intersectionality, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, “described Mennonites’ failure to acknowledge their anti-Semitism and support for National Socialism under Hitler — whom many viewed as a German savior — as a denial of the past that can be corrected only by truth-telling.” He told people to learn of the indigenous people where they live, and never forget their 9,000 year cultivation and lifeways that were nearly wiped out by the same forces that tried to wipe out the Jews–European racism + Christian hegemony.

Kansas seems to be the place where I remember death. My arrival in Kansas marked 11 months to the date that I was at those places in Kansas, for MJ’s funeral. We recently set up a scholarship in his honor.  This is important because there is a current Holocaust in Congo. The count is 20 million dead now, but it’s not all about the numbers. The point is is that “never again” is happening, and we can do something about it. Check out Friends of the Congo’s work, and see what you can do.

There are

About SEN

Born on United Nations Day, I am actively involved in the process of figuring out how we can live together well on this planet, given our similar and different truth claims. Thanks for joining me on the journey!

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