Mennonite Heritage Village

Mennonites at War: The “Aussiedler”

A couple weeks ago “Village News” explored how war, violence, and the threat of military participation shaped the first three waves of Mennonite migration to Canada. We ended the column by asking what happened to those Mennonites who remained behind in the Soviet Union. As you may recall, our narrative of Mennonite migrations to Canada ended with the statistic that 35,000 Mennonites were evacuated out of the Soviet Union with the retreating German army and that 12,000 of those were re-settled in South America and Canada.

What happened to those who did not or could not join the “Great Trek” out of the Soviet Union? These Mennonites experienced continued hardships, including religious persecution as Christians. For those readers inclined to do the math in the previous paragraph, one might also wonder what happened to the 23,000 Mennonites who were evacuated as part of the Great Trek in 1943 but not re-settled by Mennonite Central Committee abroad at war’s end. While 12,000 escaped to North and South America, nearly double that number were forcibly re-patriated to the Soviet Union, where they were treated as enemies of the state and sent to labour camps. 

In the years following the Second World War, Mennonite churches in the Soviet Union had lost a large number of ministers and elders who were exiled to various prison work camps. Mennonite churches remained unsanctioned by the Soviet state and by the 1960s, many Mennonite churches had lost their doctrinal distinctions. In 1966 some congregations chose to join the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, which had state recognition. Beginning in the 1970s and increasing after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of these Low German-speaking, Mennonite-descendant Baptists, known as “Aussiedler” (emigrants) moved to western Germany. Twenty years later, beginning in the late 1990s, they began to immigrate to communities in Manitoba with large German-speaking populations, including areas around Steinbach and Winkler. This migration continues today. 

When we speak about the impact of war and violence on Mennonite life, our stories tend to be wrapped up in the first three more well-known waves of Mennonite migration. Our stories also tend to focus on the hardships and triumphs of the particular group we belong to. Because of this tendency we easily forget or downplay those stories that do not “belong” to us. For a personal example, my own family stems from the Russländer migration (my father’s side) and from the post-Second World War migration from Germany to Paraguay, back to Germany, and finally to Canada in the 1970s (my mother’s side). My own perspective is inevitably informed by these histories. It is only recently that my personal history has taken on another set of stories. When I married my husband last year, I entered a family who emigrated from the Soviet Union to Germany in the 1970s and then Canada. The history of the Aussiedler migration to Manitoba provides a unique insight into Mennonite life in the Soviet Union and illustrates the impact of war and violence on Mennonite migrations. Yet, despite my personal connection and despite the importance of the subject, it was somewhat late in writing exhibit panel text for the part of the upcoming “Mennonites at War” exhibit on migration that it occurred to me that I had left this most recent migration out of the narrative entirely.

Emphasizing our stories over other peoples’ has its consequences, but there may be a positive outcome in these instances if one is open to learning lessons from one’s mistakes. In next week’s column I’ll share a little more about what happened after I realised my omission on this topic and how it changed the face of the “Mennonites at War” exhibit.

Photo caption: Johann and Katherina Janzen received this medal (accession no. 2010.3.1) for the 100th anniversary of Podolsk, their village in the former Mennonite settlement of Orenburg, Russia. The two world wars resulted in extreme turmoil for the Janzens, which continued for many decades. The Janzens were forcibly relocated and conscripted to work in a Soviet coal mine during the Second World War until 1953. They were finally able to return to Podolsk in 1954.
(Photo Credit: Jerry Grajewski, Grajewski Fotograph Inc.)

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