An eye-witness account of Nazi occupation


Waldemar Janzen | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Waldemar Janzen is the author of Growing Up in Turbulent Times.

At the age of 85, I am probably one of the few survivors of the German occupation of Ukraine/Russia from 1941 to 1943 who still have clear personal memories of that time.

When the German army occupied Chortitza, Ukraine, where I lived, we Mennonites were exuberant. I remember vividly the euphoria of being liberated from the brutal Stalinist regime. Churches were opened again, friends could meet in groups, and Christmas could be celebrated, and the Soviet secret police needed to no longer be feared.

If Nazism movements developed in the 1930s and ’40s in Brazil, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Paraguay, why not Ukraine? Because the Mennonites there—including me at a young age, but also the adults around me—had heard only vaguely whispered rumours about the developments in Germany. All news in Stalinist Soviet Russia was strictly censored.

From our perspective, we welcomed the Germans as our deliverers with open arms, not the Nazis. For the adults around me, the term “Germans” evoked memories from the “good old days” before the Russian Revolution, the anarchy and the rule of communism. They recalled the German literature they had studied in school, German stories, poems and folk songs; the German Luther Bible, which could now be taken from hiding; familiar German hymns; memories of places in Germany and Switzerland where many leaders had studied theology, literature, medicine, engineering, midwifery and more. This choice of German-language universities and schools was due to their knowledge of the German language and culture; it had nothing to do with the Aryan race or German nationalism.

Such associations must be recognized as the first of two major components essential for forming a correct interpretive context for understanding our welcoming of “the Germans.” The second major component is the terror and cruelty of the Stalinist regime, which had robbed almost every Mennonite family of several members, mostly men, but also many women. We would have welcomed almost any power that had come to deliver us from that brutal rule.

With all his wealth of research, Ben Goossen, the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites in the Global Era, missed both of these, and replaced them with a hermeneutic of suspicion that characterized all Mennonite connections with Germans and Germany by tarnishing them as complicity with Nazism.

The term “Nazism” in this context, is not historically descriptive, but pejorative. It is the term that the Western Allies and their countries are wont to use when referring to the Hitler-era by its most heinous crimes, foremost among these the Holocaust, once its full extent had become known. To lump terms like “German,” “heimat” (home country), and “vaterland” (fatherland) together under “chosen nation” and “Nazism” is a gross misunderstanding of the connotations these terms held for us Mennonites then, and also carry generally in the German language. Goossen is not cognizant of how hurtful such use of “Nazi/Nazism” is for people like me, and probably can’t be expected to be.

Did we, then, side with Germany and fail to recognize the Hitler ideology for what it was eventually shown to be? Our disappointment grew gradually during the two years of German occupation.

The killing of Jews in Ukraine became known, sooner by some Mennonites and eventually by more and more. After the German army came, the party-based civic administration gradually showed us the true nature of the regime: the full extent of the murder of the Jews, and the notion of racial superiority, including the downgrading of Ukrainians and others as inferior races. This process took time—although two years is not a long time in the course of history—and occasioned much disappointment among Mennonites.

The older adults, most of them women with young children—the husbands having been imprisoned, exiled and often executed—suffered severely under the burden of disappointment, as did countless Germans in Germany itself. And yet we were deeply grateful to the retreating German army for making every effort to help us escape from the Red Army to Germany, and to the German people who accepted us refugees into their defeated, devastatingly bombed and impoverished country.

In later years, I have read more than 50 books authored by eye witnesses of the events I am describing, or by their immediate family members. But in Goossen’s register of names I find almost none of these authors. Not all of them were scholars, although many were, but most were eye witnesses. Goossen’s cavalier disregard of them is akin to a “historian” of the Holocaust who would disregard the testimonies of Holocaust survivors!

I do not question his diligence and sincerity, but I find his work seriously deficient in understanding of, and empathy with, the Mennonites in Ukraine and their descendants, as he attempted in his book to awaken them from their supposed “Nazi denialism.”

Waldemar Janzen is a professor emeritus at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg and the author of Reminiscences of My Father: Wladimir Janzen: Teacher, Minister, and Gulag Survivor, published in September 2017, and Growing Up in Turbulent Times.

Read a related story, "Scholars uncover hidden stories of the Holocaust. 

Waldemar Janzen is the author of Growing Up in Turbulent Times.

Waldemar Janzen's book, Reminiscences of My Father: Wladimir Janzen: Teacher, Minister, and Gulag Survivor, published in September 2017.

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I applaud Canadian Mennonite for covering the recent conference on “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” held in North Newton, Kansas. This event brought together over 200 scholars and participants from five countries. Presentations and panel discussions illuminated the extensive involvement of Mennonite women and men in the Nazi machinery of death that targeted millions of Europeans, including Roma, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, political dissidents, and especially Jews.

At the same time, this magazine continues to publish pieces by self-identified “survivors” of the Third Reich seeking to distance Mennonite actions from Nazism. Most recently, Waldemar Janzen argued that my book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, both ignored the suffering of many Mennonites under Stalinism and uncritically equated “Germans” with “Nazis.” In fact, Chosen Nation discusses both these topics at length.

Janzen’s defense of Mennonite actions in Nazi-controlled Eastern Europe is overeager. Neither I nor any of the numerous other academic historians who have published peer-reviewed scholarship on this topic suggest that most local Mennonites clamored for genocide. We are interested, rather, in understanding how their general “enthusiasm” for German occupation—Janzen reports that he himself was “euphoric”—contributed to the Holocaust.

Imagine how a Jewish reader would respond to Janzen’s complaint that “Nazism” has become a pejorative or his portrayal of Hitler’s armies as Christian liberators. Only because Mennonites like Janzen were categorized within the Aryan racial elite could they have been “grateful.” Others were murdered.

Finally, Janzen desires that Mennonite memoirs be treated on par with testimonies from Holocaust survivors. But postwar Mennonite writers had strong incentives to downplay collaboration. They often falsely equated their own experiences with Jewish victimization, as Janzen does here—a move that is profoundly, if perhaps unintentionally, anti-Semitic.

Ben Goossen states that his book, Chosen Nation, discusses at length the suffering of many Mennonites under Stalinism. It does not. There are a few perfunctory paragraphs. More to the point, the Mennonite experience under Soviet rule and Stalinism does not inform in any way Goossen’s discussion of Mennonite activity during the German occupation.

Goossen also states that “only because Mennonites like Janzen were categorized within the Aryan racial elite could they have been ‘grateful’” for the German occupation. Not true. Many Soviet citizens welcomed the German invasion and 1.2 million served in the Nazi military machine; only a small fraction of these were ‘Aryan.’

There are many peer-reviewed books and articles describing “Stalin’s Genocides.” I would hesitate to do so but reputable scholars have made the case that both Russian Germans more generally as well as Mennonites were victims of genocide. For Goossen to claim, therefore, that Mennonites “often falsely equated their own experiences with Jewish victimization,” and that this is “profoundly anti-Semitic” is tendentious.

In my view, the Canadian Mennonite is not an appropriate forum for debate about Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust. It is defensible, for historians studying that involvement, to use the term “Mennonite” for anyone with an “ethnic” Mennonite name. But the Canadian Mennonite is for all members and adherents of Mennonite Church Canada; to give disproportionate space to the actions of the small and dwindling number of survivors of post-war Russian Mennonites immigrants and those few descendants who are still members of a Mennonite church is to perpetuate the racialized view of Mennonite that Goossen purports to decry.

In a previous letter (September 25, 2017) Goossen chastised Canadian Mennonites for not undertaking a “robust public reckoning” of their involvement in Nazism, as Mennonites in the Netherlands, Germany and Paraguay have done. There is an important difference: there are Mennonite institutional continuities in those three countries that are more difficult to establish in the case of Canada. Also, I suspect Mennonites in those countries are much more homogeneous than Mennonites in Canada, reinforcing the continuities. Canadian Mennonite denominational structures (GC/MC Can and MB) have some responsibility for the actions of their members in Canada before and during the war, but which institution is responsible for the post-WWII immigrants? The Mennonite Historical Society of Canada may, perhaps, be willing to facilitate a public conversation in Canada but it takes a lot of money and energy to host a public conference and Mennonites in Canada appear to find it more urgent to come to terms with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the meantime, conversations can continue at a local level. Goossen is obviously not aware of all the conversations that have taken and continue to take place but I see no obligation to inform him whenever one does. If he does want to contribute, he can begin by not responding with inflammatory letters to every critic of his book.

That it is difficult and painful for a community that is both victim and perpetrator to come to terms with its past will surprise no one with an ounce of historical sensitivity. Historians of the Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Lithuanian, etc., experience during and memory of the war and Holocaust have much to teach us.
Richard Ratzlaff, Toronto

Richard, help me with some facts.

When the Soviets transported Germans to Kazakhistan in 1941, from Molotshna and again in 1945 from occupied Europe with the help of Allied armed forces, was the death rate of those left on railroad sidings for the winter 33% or 50%? Were they combatants, or the elderly, women and children? Does Mr. Goossen's research take any of this into account? To the people who died, does it make any difference if the barbarism was Soviet Communism or National Socialism?

And why did Allied armed forces collaborate with Soviet forces in returning refugees to Soviet lines for execution after the war ended? And exile to railroad siding in the midst of wilderness?

Seems to Mennos weren't the only ones with ambiguous moral choices to be ashamed of. Roosevelt and Churchill did too!

As someone who has worked in the area of the Mennonite experience in the context of nineteenth and twentieth century Russian and Soviet history, including the experience of war, revolution, exile and emigration, I find many aspects of Mr Goossen’s book (Chosen Nation) questionable. Some of his arguments often appear misplaced, misguided or downright misleading. Part of the problem is that he appears to have formulated his argument ahead of carrying out detailed research into sources on the Mennonite experience in Russia and Ukraine and selected mainly those that support his point of view. In doing so, he says little or nothing about other sources, interpretations and arguments that might contradict him. I also note that when questioned about such matters, he often replies by making new accusations against his critics up to and including alleging that their criticisms are racist and anti-Semitic.

Further, Mr Goossen draws upon a discourse of victimization and moral outrage with regard to race more common in the USA than perhaps outside it. The reaction to his arguments has been more emotionally charged within the USA than outside it. It is particularly strong among Mennonites in the USA with no links and/or experience of Russia and the Soviet Union. In Canada the reaction to Mr Goossen’s ideas often has been more muted and in certain circles, downright hostile. While I cannot endorse all the negative reactions I would remind readers that Canada has received large number of immigrants from Russia and the USSR in a number of different waves, including most notably during the 1920s and after the Second World War. The USA did not.

Dr James Urry, Wellington, New Zealand

Some of the "muted" Canadian response may also be influenced by the reality that Canadian Mennonite communities include people who were part of the Hitler Youth, the German armed forces, and the SS in various capacities, as well as their children and grandchildren. This touches many of us personally; one of my Sunday school teachers was in the Hitler Youth. The people who air our open secrets in public are rarely warmly received.

There are some mentions of the "open secret" aspect of this part of our past elsewhere on the Canadian Mennonite website going back over a number of years, like in the comments here for example, with further references to the Mennonite Quarterly Review:

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