Mennonite Heritage Village

Mennonites at War: Including the History of the Aussiedler

By Andrea Klassen

In last week’s volume I shared a personal story about how our backgrounds can bias us to emphasizing certain parts of history and downplaying others. In conceptualizing the portion of the upcoming exhibit “Mennonites at War” that focuses on Mennonite migrations and how they have been influenced by war, violence, and the threat of military participation, I had not included the “Aussiedler.” The Aussiedler are Russian-German Baptists of Mennonite-descendant who remained behind in the Soviet Union after the Second World War and began immigrating to western Germany, and then on to Canada, in the late twentieth century.  This is a migration that continues today.

Chagrined at my omission, I re-wrote the panel text and re-configured the floorplan of “Mennonites at War” to include information and artefacts about this latest migration of Mennonite descendants to Canada.  In looking for an image that could visually convey this migration, I contacted the Museum für Russlanddeutsche Kulturgeschichte (Museum of Russian-German Cultural History) in Detmold, Germany.  They responded enthusiastically to my request and provided a scan of a poignant photograph of Helene Esau, engaged in a fierce and tearful embrace with another woman, just before she boarded a dilapidated bus that carried her forever from her home in Kamenka, Soviet Union, to start her long journey to Germany in 1989.

Unbeknownst to either me or my counterpart in Detmold, my request revived a unique relationship started between our two museums in 2011, when the Detmold museum opened.  At that time, MHV gifted the new museum a framed artefact from our collection, one knitted child’s stocking. In turn, MHV framed and kept the other stocking.  For a few years, the framed socks were displayed prominently in each museum to demonstrate the unique connection between our organizations and the history we interpret.  Eventually, however, those staff who remembered why the socks were on display were no longer at either museum and the socks were quietly whisked away into each museum’s respective collections storage rooms for safe-keeping. 

Not recognizing the importance of stories other than our own has consequences.  As I re-discovered this connection with the museum in Detmold, it was with some sheepishness that I recalled how I had been the very curator who had removed the framed sock from its location in MHV’s foyer and moved it into storage when I first began my career at the museum.  I was also the one who very nearly had overlooked the Aussiedler migration, to which my own history is now inextricably bound, as part of our interpretation for the upcoming exhibit. 

Recognizing biases, can also have benefits, if you choose to learn from your mistakes. In response to my initial oversight in including this unfolding history of Russian-Germans in “Mennonites at War,” MHV’s relationship with the museum in Detmold has been re-discovered by staff at both museums, and the framed sock is now back on display in a prominent location at MHV and, I’m told, at the museum in Detmold as well.  Visitors to MHV’s upcoming “Mennonites at War” exhibit will also see the photo of Helene Esau’s tearful goodbye in Kamenka in a prominent location on the panel that explores Mennonite migrations to Canada, as well as some of the few artefacts MHV has in its collection pertaining to the migration of Russian-German Baptists in Manitoba.

MHV is also seeking artefacts to add to our collection to help us tell the ongoing story of the Aussiedler.  If you or your family have an object relating to this history of the Aussiedler arriving in Manitoba, either for loan for the “Mennonites at War” exhibit or for donation to the museum’s permanent collection, I invite you to contact me at

Photo Caption: The child’s sock (1994.37.112 a), once again on display in the Art Hall at MHV. The other sock of the pair was gifted to the Museum für Russlanddeutsche Kulturgeschichte in Detmold, Germany in 2011.

Upcoming Events

  • Village Books & Gifts remains open, Monday – Friday, 9-5pm. Museum grounds and galleries are closed until further notice.
  • Livery Barn Restaurant take-outevery Thursday and Friday, 4-7pm. See the set menu on our website, then call 204-326-9661 to order. Pick-up is at our main entrance.
  • Hard Decisions: Mennonite Response to War Free Webinar, May 25, 7:30pm. Guest speaker Hans Werner was born in Saskatchewan to immigrant parents who came to Canada after World War II. Hans Werner brings a depth of knowledge to the intersection of Mennonites and War. Hans’ years of instruction and leadership with the University of Winnipeg and the D.F. Plett Foundation will help to set the stage for our new exhibit.
  • Mennonites at War Exhibit Premier and Fundraiser, June 5. If COVID restrictions allow MHV will be hosting a VIP tour of our next exhibit and a special update on our Chortitz Housebarn. See our website for more details.