Examining the legacy: Mennonites & Antisemitism

By Joel Horst Nofziger

On the last day of Passover this year, a gunman entered Chabad of Poway a synagogue in north of San Diego, and opened fire. One person was killed and two more were injured. Three days later, May 2, was Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day as observed by the Jewish people. Rabbi Paskoff of Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pennsylvania sent a request to churches of Lancaster to join the Jewish Community Alliance of Lancaster’s service of remembrance because we live in a time where Jews are once again being targeted.

This was a service of prayer and poetry, interspersed with candle lighting to give form to remembrance. Candles were lit by individuals with a direct personal connection to the Holocaust, such as Rosette Lboel who survived hiding with families in France and Richard Smiga, whose parents were in Buchenwald, Treblilnka, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau. Following the service, Dean Kunkle gave a presentation on teaching the Holocaust and Holocaust denial today.

Delegates to the 2017 Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando passed a resolution entitled, “Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine,” which calls us as a body of believers to, among other things, examin the legacy of antisemitism and its impact on Mennonites as well as building relationships with Jewish communities. One concrete outcome of this resolution was the 2018 conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust organized by Mennonite Church USA and Bethel College [Read more on Anabaptist Historians,
bit.ly/2ZcbaF2]. To put it without fanfare, Mennonites were involved across the entire spectrum of possibilities when it comes to the Holocaust, as rescuers, yes, but as bystanders and active participants as well.

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest up on the Divine Presence’s wings, within the range of the holy and the pure, whose shining resemble the sky’s, all the souls of the six million Jews, victims of the European Holocaust, who were murdered, slaughtered, burnt and exterminated for the Sanctification of the Name, by the German Nazi assassins and their helpers from the rest of the peoples.

Zaporozhia, in Chortitza, the “Mennonite capital” of the Old Colony in Ukraine was occupied by German forces in October 1941. After the occupation, the invaders turned to the local German speaking Mennonite community to serve as administrators, notably Heinrich Jakob Wiebe and Isaac Johann Reimer. They recruitmented policemen to enforce the rules of occupation—such as the requirement that Jews wear an armband marked with the star of David—and drew heavily on communal and familial networks to fill those positions.

On the first day of Passover, in 1942, the Jews of Zaparozhia were ordered to assemble: men, women, and children. Local police, including Mennonite brothers Isaac and Jakob Fast, marched them to the outskirts where they were shot. The shooting began at 8 in the morning and continued until 5 at night the first day, the second day, and the third day. More than three thousand were massacred. A few days later, Mennonites celebrated the German occupation because they were able to reopen churches closed by Soviet decree and celebrate Easter for the first time in a decade. We know they opened worship by singing “Christ is risen, shout it to Zion,” and we know the murder of the Jews went unremarked. The ethnic cleansing continued in the region until the fall of 1943, with an eventual death count in excess of 44,000.

Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect them forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie their souls with the hope of life.

There is a strong temptation for us, or maybe it is just me, to throw up my hands and say “wait, hold up, this has nothing to do with us, nothing to do with me.” But we are bound to our Mennonite brothers and sisters across space and time through the body of Christ as the Church. And that is uncomfortable. But it is important that we acknowledge that our past is not without spot or wrinkle, so that Truth might be served. How else can we confess, repent, and renew our efforts to work for the Kingdom of God?

As a final thought, perhaps there is a more pressing reason to consider how Mennonites were seduced by the State and by fear into going alongside horrors. How is it that we need to reinforce ourselves so that we do not fall into the same errors? Is there some matter of doctrine of which we need to be more mindful? Some areas of personal commitment to renew? Some sense of pride we need to abandon? Let us remember, and remember rightly.

The Everlasting is their heritage, the Garden of Eden shall be their resting room, and they shall rest peacefully upon their lying place, they will stand for their fate in the end of days, and let us say: Amen. (El Malei Rachamin, the Prayer of Mercy)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *