Opening the boxes: Conference looks at Mennonite roles in the Holocaust
By Gordon Houser, Paul Schrag and Melanie Zuercher. March 20, 2018.Click for website article from Bethel College. .
NORTH NEWTON, KANSAS. – In 2004, Joachim Wieler of Weimar, Germany, opened a small wooden box he inherited after his mother’s death. To his surprise and horror, it contained letters his late father wrote while serving as an officer in the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany.
“I almost fell off the chair,” Wieler said, speaking to more than 200 people at a conference on “Mennonites and the Holocaust” March 16-17 at Bethel College.
Johann Wieler wrote from France in 1941, at the height of the Nazi conquest of Western Europe: “We did not believe we would bring the French to their knees in such a short time. All soldiers who are fighting here for their fatherland are performing worship in the truest sense of the word. Those who do not believe in our victory do not believe in God. The Lord is visibly on our side. Heil Hitler.”
While his father fought on the western and then eastern fronts, young Joachim Wieler saw Dresden burning and wound up in a refugee camp, where the family received help from Mennonite Central Committee while Johann languished as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union until 1949.
But it would be 60 years before Joachim Wieler discovered his father had celebrated Nazi aggression as the fulfillment of a divine plan.
“Probably a lot of boxes still exist somewhere,” Joachim Weiler said of probing the secrets of the past.
The conference’s purpose was to uncover hidden stories of interactions between Mennonites and Jews during the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. It drew scholars from the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
The event was the third of its kind – following those in Münster, Germany, in 2015, and Filadelfia, Paraguay, in 2017 – to examine Mennonite complicity in the militant nationalism and racism that produced the Holocaust, and to ask if anything like it could happen again.
Twenty presenters described their research, which extended across the spectrum of wartime horror and mercy, from Mennonites’ participation in Nazi atrocities in Ukraine to hiding Jews in the Netherlands.
The personal connection drew Doris Bergen, who holds the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto, and gave the conference keynote address, to begin looking specifically at how Mennonites were affected by and involved in the Holocaust.
As a young scholar studying Nazi Germany, she was brought up short when a Martens from the Russian Mennonite colony of Einlage (her mother’s family name and place of origin) came to her attention.
Digging into the story, Bergen began to see that Mennonites had a far more complex place in Holocaust history than the common narrative indicates – which her lecture title, “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: The Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust,” reflected.
Being a community “insider” gives the researcher advantages of access, she said, but raises the challenge of balancing “a subjective position” with the discipline of scholarship. On the other hand, she said, “outsiders” need to take the topic seriously.
“Mennonites [and their experiences were] not unique,” she said, “but they were distinctive.”
Another challenge, which came up at several points during the conference, is “how to define ‘Mennonite.’” Bergen’s bottom line: While a functional definition is important, “resist the temptation to define to distraction,” thereby obscuring the real issues of genocide, racism and anti-Semitism.
Bergen also noted the often-forgotten groups in the Holocaust narrative – the disabled (the first to e exterminated by the Nazis), the Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish civilians. “It’s necessary to define ‘the Holocaust’ by its perpetrators, not its victims,” she said.
At the same time, there should be “a clear focus on the Jews’ particular place in the Nazi plan of destruction.”
“I often [found that] Mennonites described themselves as ‘like the Jews’ – persecuted, often homeless in the world, chosen by God. But if Mennonites are ‘the Jews,’ then where are the Jews? They become the villains of the narrative.
“This points out the need for multiple sources – not just German, not just Mennonite.”
She went on, “The job of the scholar isn’t to make a moral judgment, though that might be a starting point, but to analyze why what happened happened – to break apart the myths, because maintaining them takes so much spiritual, emotional, theological [and social] energy.
“Many groups are confronting and breaking the myth of their own innocence or noncomplicity in the Holocaust. This can be enormously liberating.”
Bergen concluded by saying that “there is so much [yet] that we don’t know. We need more research, more scholarship, more analysis.”
Steve Schroeder, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, described Mennonites’ failure to acknowledge their anti-Semitism and their 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 truthtelling.
An honest probing of the past can be intensely personal for Mennonite scholars like Schroeder. He told of interviewing his own relatives who had lived in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) and celebrated that city’s incorporation into the German Reich.
Though more than half a century had passed when Schroeder conducted the interviews, those he talked to “did not process critically their collusion with wartime Nazis, nor did they take a contrite position toward the past.”
One man remembered singing anti-Jewish songs with phrases like “hack off their arms and legs; get them out.”
Such chilling stories “should matter to us,” Schroeder said, “regardless of our respective religious views and practices, our food preferences or our last names. This is our heritage, a heritage that impacts our personal makeup and our engagement with the people around us. . . .
“Truth-telling is a fundamental first step, as is the accompanying act of listening to those who have been harmed, including those who have been harmed by us.
“In my view, a healthy way forward is to acknowledge that Mennonites have not only suffered but have also caused harm, and to address immediate colonial enterprises in which we have participated.
“I see the seeds of this taking place at this conference, which is encouraging.”
When Mennonites and Jews were neighbors in Nazi-occupied territories, many Mennonites welcomed the German regime, and some collaborated with it.
Two sides of the Dnieper
In a session on “Mennonite-Jewish Connections,” two Canadian scholars – Aileen Friesen of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and Colin Neufeldt of Concordia University in Montreal – told of contrasting Jewish and Mennonite fates.
Early in the spring of 1942, Friesen said, Nazi occupation forces ordered the Jewish population of Zaporizhia, Ukraine, to gather, supposedly to be relocated for work. But there was no work. Men, women and children were stripped, led to a ditch and mowed down with machine guns. The massacre lasted three days. When it was over, 3,700 Jews had been murdered, their bodies carelessly covered in shallow, mass graves.
Local police took part in the atrocity. Eyewitnesses reported that among them were two Mennonite brothers, Ivan and Jacob Fast.
Less than a month later, a few miles away on the other side of the Dnieper River, the Mennonites of Chortitza gathered to celebrate Easter. The Nazis had reopened the churches after years of Soviet repression. This would be the first Easter service in more than a decade. The congregation was filled with excitement. Under German rule, life for German-speaking Mennonites might return to normal.
“These two events force us to confront the realities of occupation,” Friesen said. “During this period, Mennonites would gather to worship, celebrating their freedom to praise God, while their Jewish neighbors were humiliated, stripped of their humanity and gunned down.”
While there is evidence of collaboration and perpetration, Friesen said, the most common response was inaction.
“Many did nothing in the face of overwhelming violence,” she said. Famine and terror under the repressive hand of Soviet Communism had shaped their character. Now the Nazis had not only delivered them from the yoke of Stalin but treated them with favor due to their “racial purity”; they rarely intermarried with Ukrainians. Mennonites and others in the Nazi-occupied Ukraine disengaged from the horror their Jewish neighbors suffered.
“It is hard to find examples of rescue or aid given by Mennonites to persecuted Jews,” Friesen said.
Mennonite with a whip
Neufeldt described Nazi collaboration by the people of Deutsch Wymyschle, Poland, a mostly Mennonite town of 250 to 400 people, neighbor to the town of Gabin, with a population of 5,700, about half of them Jews.
After the Nazi invasion of Sept. 1, 1939, Jews were rounded up and their property confiscated. Mennonites from Deutsch Wymyschle took advantage of the Nazi desire to move the Jews out and the Germans in. They accepted the invitation to claim houses and businesses confiscated from the Jews. Among them were Neufeldt’s grandparents, Peter and Frieda Ratzlaff.
One prominent collaborator was Erich L. Ratzlaff, who became a Mennonite Brethren leader in Canada and edited the Mennonitische Rundschau newspaper from 1967-79. Ratzlaff became the Burgermeister, or mayor, of Gabin. Neufeldt said his grandmother remembered that she often saw him walking around with a whip, and Jews had to bow to him.
Another type of collaboration was developing intimate relationships that linked Mennonite families to Nazi culture.
“Deutsch Wymyschle women tied their futures to the Nazi regime when they married non-Mennonite and Mennonite soldiers in the German Wehrmacht,” Neufeldt said. “Weddings were often performed in the MB church in Deutsch Wymyschle in military uniform.”
When the Wehrmacht started drafting Deutsch Wymyschle men, they went willingly. “The principles of pacifism and nonresistance were not strongly emphasized” in their churches, Neufeldt said.
Showing 1940s pictures of men in Nazi uniforms, Neufeldt noted their demeanor: “Most of these people are my relatives, and they wore the uniform with pride.”
In a session on Mennonites in the Soviet Union, Erika Weidemann of Texas A&M University said, “The degrees of participation [by Mennonites in the Holocaust] vary dramatically.” As examples, she looked at two Mennonite women, Francesca Reimer, who took part in atrocities in Chortitza, and Edina Epp, who did not.
In the 1920s, Weidemann said, ethnic German Mennonites in the Ukraine learned to minimize their German identity. Then when the German army invaded in 1941 and took control of the area, the Mennonites claimed that same identity. After World War II, Mennonite refugees in Chortitza reframed their wartime experiences.
Reimer worked as a translator, and her story illustrates the hard choices many Mennonites faced, said Weidemann. Under Soviet rule, she could either work for them or be sent to Siberia. Later, she could either work for the Nazis or be shot.
In a session on Mennonites in the Netherlands, Alle Hoekema of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam shared stories of Dutch Anabaptists who helped hide Jews from the Nazi authorities. Some 40 of these have been honored by Israel as “righteous among the nations,” though “40 is not a great amount,” said Hoekema.
One woman, Geertje Pel-Groot, took a Jewish baby, Marion Swaab, into her home while the baby’s parents hid elsewhere. Later, a neighbor turned Pel-Groot into the authorities.
She was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp, where she died, lauded by other prisoners for her selfless behavior. Pel-Groot’s daughter took care of the baby, who survived the war.
David Barnouw of the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies spoke about Dutch Mennonite war criminals who escaped prison and emigrated to Paraguay. One of these, Jacob Luitjens, later went to Canada and was part of a Mennonite congregation in Vancouver.
Barnouw said that during the war, Luitjens was an active collaborator with the Nazis and worked with propaganda. After the war, he gave himself up to the police because he feared reprisals from members of the Dutch resistance. Luitjens changed his name to Harder.
In 1991, the Netherlands sought to extradict him to be tried as a war criminal. Though many Mennonites supported him, a Canadian judge ruled that he got his citizenship illegally, and he was sent to the Netherlands, where he was imprisoned. He was set free in 1994, when he was 74. He was the last Dutch war criminal to be tried.
In the final session, Connie Braun of Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, read from her book Silentium, a memoir. She noted the importance of silence. “Silences speak meaning,” she said.
Helen Stoltzfus of Black Swan Arts & Media in Oakland, California, performed a dramatic reading from the play Heart of the World, which she and her husband wrote. She titled the reading “A Mennonite Wife, a Jewish Husband and the Holocaust.”
Asked to sum up the conference at the end, Bergen returned to the importance of sources.
“Some of them are physical, like Joachim’s little wooden box,” she said. “Some are memories. Some are in archives. As Raul Hilberg, a major pioneer in Holocaust studies, said, you have to look everywhere.”
The conference planners were Mark Jantzen, Bethel College professor of history, John Sharp, Hesston College professor of Bible and religion, and John Thiesen, archivist at the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College. Major sponsors were the Marpeck Fund and the Fransen Family Foundation, along with the Schowalter Foundation via Mennonite Church USA, the two colleges, the MLA and the Mennonite-Polish Studies Association at Bethel College.
It was announced at the conference that MC USA is tentatively planning a conference on “Reading the Bible after the Holocaust” for spring 2020 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.
What a program at Adath Israel Congregation — over 200 people attended! Thank you to Rabbi Benjamin Adler for arranging the program and to our own Rochelle ‘Shelley’ Rappaport for making sure things went smoothly.
Don and Ernie first crossed paths on April 29, 1945 in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Ernie was a 16-year-old teenager in line to be gassed by the Nazis. Don was a 20-year-old corporal in the U.S. army who came to liberate the camp. The two first met in 2012 and became friends.
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Hate never takes a vacation, and neither do we.
Anthony Acevedo, a 20-year-old Army medic, had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge when a Red Cross care package arrived in March 1945 at the Nazi slave labor camp where he was imprisoned.
It contained a diary and a fountain pen. Between the diary’s grayish-green covers, Mr. Acevedo would record a grim roster of prisoner deaths (by dysentery, heart attack, jaundice, influenza and starvation); the cruelty of the guards; and rumors of American troops closing in on the Berga camp, a part of the Buchenwald complex. It was a rare accounting of Nazi atrocities by an American prisoner of war.
March 20 — 5 more men escaped today — Goldstein’s body was returned here for burial — He was shot while attempting to re-escape. So they say but actually was recaptured and shot thru the head.
April 2 — Two more of our men died today & one last night makes 3 + 16 makes 19.
April 3 — Excellent news today — Americans are only 100 km from here. Rumors are that we are to be moved away.
Continue reading the main story
The rumors were true. Mr. Acevedo and about 280 of his fellow prisoners were soon evacuated and taken on a forced march south — “the death march from Bataan couldn’t be worse than this,” he wrote — with artillery fire exploding around them and fighters of the Army Air Forces dropping bombs. The war in Europe was near its end. But the P.O.W.s appeared no closer to freedom.
April 13 — Bad news for us. — President Roosevelt’s death — We all felt bad about it — We held a prayer service for the Repose of his Soul. — Burdeski died today.
April 19 — More of our men died — so fast that you couldn’t keep track of their numbers. We kept on marching.
CreditAnthony Acevedo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum collection
Mr. Acevedo was liberated later that month but suffered for decades from night terrors and post-traumatic stress syndrome. On Feb. 11, he died at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Loma Linda, Calif., having bequeathed his written testimony to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2010. He was 93.
Mr. Acevedo appears to be the first Mexican-American registered in the museum’s database of survivors and victims.
His son Fernando, who confirmed the death, said that Mr. Acevedo had had congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But the torture he endured at Berga, he added, had left a lasting impact on his father’s health.
In December, Fernando Acevedo said, he found in his father’s military records a psychiatric evaluation that further confirmed his suffering. After an initial interrogation at Berga, he was raped while other captors laughed at him.
“I said, ‘Papi, I found this,’ ” Fernando recalled telling his father. “He looked at it and his eyes got big. He said: ‘I’m glad you did. I want you to tell everybody about it.’ ”
Anthony Claude Acevedo was born in San Bernardino, Calif., on July 31, 1924. His father, Francisco Guillermo Acevedo, was an engineer. His mother, the former Maria Louisa Contreras Limantur, a homemaker, died when Anthony was 2 years old.
Young Anthony attended a segregated school in Pasadena with other Mexican-American children until he was 13; he and his five siblings then left for the state of Durango, Mexico, when his father and stepmother, the former Maria Louisa Morgan, were deported because they had lacked the proper immigration papers.
Anthony’s father found success in Durango, where he became the director of public works. But he was physically and emotionally abusive to Anthony, Fernando Acevedo said in a telephone interview. And after a United States government representative contacted him to serve in the war, Anthony, who “wanted to get away from his father,” crossed the border and was inducted into the Army.
Interested in being a doctor, he trained as a medic at Camp Adair, near Corvallis, Ore., before shipping to Europe with the 70th Infantry Division to fight the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. Among the “repair jobs” he performed in combat were “sewing thumbs, cutting a leg off, putting on tourniquets and sewing up the stump of a leg,” he told the Holocaust museum in a 2010 oral history interview.
On Jan. 6, 1945, he and other men from his unit were captured by German troops. “They forced us to take our shoes off — boots off — and walk down the slope, barefoot in the snow, and march for a mile to the trucks,” he told the museum.
He was taken to Stalag IX-B, an overcrowded and notoriously unhygienic P.O.W. camp near the spa town of Bad Orb, Germany. Not long after his arrival, Mr. Acevedo was among 350 Jews and so-called undesirables selected for shipment to Berga.
“They put us on a train, and we traveled six days and six nights,” he told CNN in 2008. “It was a boxcar that would fit heads of cattle. They had us 80 to a boxcar.”
They arrived at Berga on Feb. 8. The P.O.W.s were fed tiny rations of bread made of sawdust, ground glass and barley, and soup made from cats and rats. Prisoners who tried to escape were shot in their foreheads with wooden bullets. He and the other medics in the barracks were told to fill the bullet holes with wax.
Mr. Acevedo began writing in the diary on March 20 (“Yesterday our planes dropped leaflets as well as bombs”), and he alternated accounts of horrors with quotidian observations (“The weather is beautiful and it looks like spring, which has finally come to Germany”), good news (“This morning us medics got together and ate Scrambled Eggs & Sausage from our Red Cross Boxes”) and biting humor (“Lenten Fast ends at Noon today — But does not apply to us we have been fasting since December 31, 1944”).
He extended the ink in his pen by adding snow and urine. He hid the diary in his pants or under hay in the barracks.
And, as dozens of prisoners died on the terrifying three-week-long march, Mr. Acevedo continued to write.
In one entry, he wrote about Burdeski, a 41-year-old prisoner who had diphtheria. Mr. Acevedo wanted to use his pen as a tracheotomy tube to save him.
“The Germans did not let us so we got upset,” he wrote on April 13. “We said they were going to kill him and the German guard swung his rifle at me and my buddy hitting us with the butt in the face” and “cracked one of my jaw’s tooth and swung back at my buddy his glasses dropped. The German guard crushed them with his foot — Burdeski did not survive to the hospital.”
On April 23, Mr. Acevedo and other prisoners were freed; he weighed just 87 pounds. They had been in a barn, and most of the guards had fled. But one “came up to us and gave himself up and saying that we were free,” he wrote. “Boy everything looked to exciting that morning.”
And, he added, “our last death was announced.”
The diary was not a secret to his family, and neither were his struggles with PTSD. The book, with its yellowing pages, became a sort of plaything at home, with crayon scribblings by his children on the last page. But it was a major acquisition for the Holocaust museum, which has more than 200 diaries in its collection from various locations, written in 18 languages.
“It was the first written by an American citizen held in a concentration camp,” Kyra Schuster, a museum curator, said in a telephone interview. Publicity from Mr. Acevedo’s donation led three other Berga P.O.W.s, or their families, to give their wartime diaries to the museum.
“The four men had four different experiences that cover different things,” Ms. Schuster said. One was written on scraps of paper, another behind family photographs, and the other was a second diary that had arrived in the same Red Cross package as Mr. Acevedo’s.
Mr. Acevedo aspired to become a doctor after his discharge — and he sutured his children’s wounds at home with supplies from an old-fashioned black doctor’s bag — but he never did. He worked for North American Rockwell, McDonnell Douglas and Hughes Aircraft as a design engineer.
In addition to Fernando, Mr. Acevedo is survived by two other sons, Ernesto and Anthony; a daughter, Rebeca Acevedo-Carlin; six grandchildren; a sister, Estella; and two brothers, Billy and Augustin. His first marriage, to Amparo Martinez, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Maria Dolores Lamb, died in 2014.
Mr. Acevedo risked his life by keeping his diary. But, he said, he had an obligation to maintain it.
“He said he had faith that he’d make it,” Fernando Acevedo said, “and that hopefully one day people would see what the men went through.”
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies announced the death. The cause was not specified.
The grandson of Protestant ministers, Dr. Wyman was in graduate school when he began a long-term quest to learn what was done on behalf of the millions of Jews rounded up and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.
He was a longtime professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and was best known for “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945,” which came out in 1984 and sharply intensified a debate that began during the war. Drawing upon private and government records and contemporary media accounts, Dr. Wyman found widespread indifference and hostility to the Jews in Europe, even as their systematic extermination was conclusively documented. He faulted religious organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish; mainstream newspapers and movies; and the anti-Jewish feelings of the general public.
The federal government was slow to act, enforcing strict immigration quotas and refusing to bomb the concentration camps. It waited until well after the Holocaust had begun to establish a War Refugee Board, then forced the agency to rely mostly on private funding. Dr. Wyman alleged that Roosevelt was more concerned about angering anti-Semites than about helping the Jews.
“If he had wanted to, he could have aroused substantial public backing for a vital rescue effort by speaking out on the issue,” Dr. Wyman wrote, calling Roosevelt’s inaction the low mark of his presidency. “It appears that Roosevelt’s overall response to the Holocaust was deeply affected by political expediency. Most Jews supported him unwaveringly, so an active rescue policy offered little political advantage. A pro-Jewish stance, however, could lose votes.”
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel praised Dr. Wyman for his “courageous, lucid, painful book.”
“The Abandonment of the Jews” received several honors, including the National Jewish Book Award and a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle.
Most scholars accepted his general argument that the United States had done too little, but some disagreed with several of Dr. Wyman’s conclusions, such as on whether the U.S. military could have disrupted or destroyed the Nazi camps. Roosevelt’s defenders, meanwhile, said Dr. Wyman failed to appreciate that the president’s options were limited.
“FDR well understood that it would be fatal to let the war be defined as a war to save the Jews,” historian and Roosevelt biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in Newsweek in 1994, around the time a television documentary based on Dr. Wyman’s book aired. “He knew that he must emphasize the large and vital interest all Americans had in stopping Hitler, and that is what he did. And he knew that winning the war was the only way to save the people in the concentration camps.”
Dr. Wyman’s book was credited with helping to inspire the American rescue of hundreds of Ethiopian Jews stranded in Sudan in 1985. John R. Miller, a congressman and later an ambassador for combating human trafficking, told a Wyman Institute conference that he had given copies of the book to then-vice president George H.W. Bush and his top aides. According to Miller, Bush called “The Abandonment of the Jews” a major factor in the U.S. decision to airlift the Ethiopians and eventually bring them to Israel.
Bush later sent the author a handwritten note of gratitude.
Dr. Wyman continued his investigations with “The World Reacts to the Holocaust” and “America and the Holocaust,” a 13-volume compilation of documents used for “The Abandonment of the Jews.” He would often invoke the Holocaust as a defense of Israel.
“I’d come here and die for Israel if I were ever of any use,” he said in 2012 while speaking at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
A book released in 2013, “FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, contended that Roosevelt had been judged too harshly and that his actions compared favorably to those of future presidents responding to genocide.
In response, the Wyman Institute published Rafael Medoff’s “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,” which alleged that Roosevelt had a long history of anti-Jewish actions and opinions. (Ironically, Roosevelt was often the target of anti-Semitic attacks in his lifetime, with some opponents labeling the New Deal programs of the Depression the “Jew Deal”).
David Sword Wyman was born March 6, 1929, in Weymouth, Mass. He recalled his parents imparting “not just tolerance, but a high degree of respect for all different people.” He studied history as an undergraduate at Boston University and received a doctorate from Harvard University in 1962. He had intended to focus on the Progressive era of the early 20th century until he had an epiphany.
“Out of nowhere comes this question: What did the United States do while the Jews were being persecuted and mass-murdered?” he would recall.
Dr. Wyman taught elementary school and high school in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and was a history lecturer at Clark University and Northeastern University in Massachusetts before joining the UMass faculty in 1966. He retired in 1991.
In 1950, Wyman married Mildred “Midge” Smith. She died in 2003. Survivors include two children.