Germany Central / Russlanddeutsche

 Language: German / ’Plautdietsch’

Religions: Protestant 34%, Roman Catholic 34%, Muslim 3.7%

Population: 81 million

Capital: Berlin

Mennonites in Germany South and Central

BTG ; AMBD ; AMG ;

 

Martyrdom

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

Shortly after seizing the power in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks started fighting religion because they saw, above all, the clergy being a major obstacle in creating a new communist society. In the late 1920s this caused the strongest persecution of Christians in Europe of the 20th century.

Persecutions

The full scale of the persecutions in those days was only revealed in the 1980s . A special state commission published the following numbers: during the Soviet era, about 200.000 ministers (priests, pastors, church elder, preacher, deacons) were murdered. An additional 300.000 ministers were locked up in prisons and in labor camps. Many ordinary Christians also suffered a similar fate. About 40.000 church buildings were destroyed. From 1935 all churches in Mennonite villages were closed.  First, congregations were assigned extremely high taxes. When these could not be paid, church buildings were confiscated and turned into cinemas, granaries or workshops. Most of the church elders and preachers were arrested.

 

Imprisonment

This also happened to elder Jakob A. Rempel from Grünfeld. Due to generous financial support, from 1906 until 1912 he studied theology, philology, and philosophy at the preacher’s school and University of Basel (Switzerland). Back in Russia, Rempel became a schoolteacher and later a university professor. He rejected a call to a professor position at Moscow University because he was elected elder at his congregation in Neu-Chortitza. In the 1920s, Rempel led the Mennonite brotherhood and negotiated with the government to ensure the continuing of the congregations. In 1929, Rempel had to flee from Grünfeld, as his property was confiscated, and his family deported. In November 1929 he was arrested in Moscow and tortured for  seven months. Then he was sentenced to 10 years of labor camps.

 

Rempel’s last letter

Several years later, he managed to escape but shortly afterwards he was arrested again. He was kept in prison until September 11th 1941, when he, together with 156 other prisoners, was shot on a personal order of Stalin. In one of his last letters he wrote:

 

They can put me in chains, strike me, cut off my head, but nobody can take my faith, my knowledge, the history of my life. From a stable boy to a professor, and even higher in the work for my community, I am now at the peak of my life. I will not boast about that nor shrink from the chosen way, but I bow deeply before the one who prescribed this way to me. 

 

Itinerant preaching

Author: Johannes Dyck

Johannes Fast, a Mennonite Brethren itinerant preacher, was one of te key people in helping to re-establish congregations in new places with new people after World War II. He was born in 1886, in Mariental in the colony Alt-Samara in Russia, and died in 1981 in Dshetysai, Kazakhstan. The preacher-to-be was born into a large family. His parents, both former widowers, created a blended family of thirteen children from their previous marriages. Together they had more children in the next years and their number grew to twenty-two.

 

Vocation and theological training

After finishing the village school, Johannes started an apprenticeship with his elder brother, a carpenter. In 1908 he started a three-year term with the non-military forestry service in Gross-Anadol in South Russia. Here, on May 4th 1908 he experienced a conversion and in 1910 he delivered his first sermon. Between 1911-1913 he studied at the Bible School St. Chrischona in Switzerland. After returning home he became a preacher at the Mennonite Brethren church in Alexandertal, conducted a choir, founded a youth association in 1920 and served as an itinerant preacher. In 1913, he married Agathe Driedger. She died in 1926. In 1927, he married Wilhelmine Enns. That marriage lasted till 1976.

 

Fast’s mission tested

In March 1931, Fast and his family were deported to the Far East where he spent the next decades, until 1954. A year later he moved to Temirtau in Kazakhstan from where he visited many believers scattered around Central Asia, Siberia, and the Ural, preaching, teaching, baptizing, ordaining, and founding churches. When the oppressions became stronger in 1958, the authorities started a campaign against him, but in the end they did not put the seventy year old preacher in prison.

 

Sermons: Fast’s way of seeing

From 1967, Fast lived in Dshetysay in South Kazakhstan. Here he joined a church that consisted mostly of Germans, where he continued his work in spite of progressive blindness. In 1970, he started to write down sermons for widows, which were in turn copied by their readers. The almost blind and aged preacher continued to write, and produced two books with sermons for every day as well as a volume of sermons for different occasions. His writings are the most comprehensive collection of sermons written by a Mennonite in USSR after World War II.

 

See more about Johannes Fast in the German Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=art:fast_johannes). 

 

The long way of suffering begins

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

The most difficult time for Mennonites in Russia came after the October 1917 revolution when the Bolsheviks seized the power. With it, in Russia, a Civil war begun that ended in 1922/23. Several groups fought each other. Most feared by the  Mennonites were the Anarchist terror bands of Nestor Machno that regularly attacked Mennonite villages. For instance, in the Eichenfeld village in just one night in October 1919, 77 men and 4 women were murdered. Even more victims died from epidemic typhus which was also spread through the villages by Machnovites. Whole families died. In the Schönhorst village 132 of the 350 inhabitants died, in Chortitza 180 of the 767. More than 10% of the population died from the epidemic.

 

Famine

After all the years of bitter struggle the Mennonite economy was totally destroyed. Food tax collector troops of the new Soviet government seized agricultural products, taking away the last cereal from the peasants. A terrible famine broke out. After difficult negotiations with Bolsheviks, American and Dutch Mennonites were able to deliver food and clothing to their suffering brethren.

 

Prohibition of migration

Mennonite delegates explored the possibilities of migration to America, and found much support. Canadian Mennonites requested immigration visas with the government, obtained credit for traveling, and promised that the newcomers would not become a burden to the state. Between 1923 and 1928, ca. 23.000 Mennonites found their way to Canada via Germany. In 1928, the Soviet government stopped this migration.

 

The impact of collectivization

The collectivization which should replace the private economy by a collective one began in Russia in 1929. Again, a terrible famine was the result, with 10 million victims in the Soviet Union in 1932-33 alone. Among the dispossessed and deported were many Mennonites. They were deprived of land, livestock, and machinery. Many were forcibly resettled and had to leave their villages and homes. Many of them died of starvation or illness in the deportation areas. Some deprived Mennonites went into cities looking for jobs and food. This is how the dissolution of the Mennonite colonies was brought about.

 

See more about Mennonites in Russia in the Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (http://www.gameo.org).

 

Diversity of Mennonites with Russian background

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

Of the approximately 2.5 Million Russian-born Germans who immigrated to Germany since the 1970s, about 200.000 have Mennonite roots. Many persons with a Mennonite background when entering Germany declared their confession as Mennonite, but many of them lived in regions of the Soviet Union where no Mennonite congregations existed after World War II. They were not baptized and never belonged to a Mennonite or Mennonite Brethren church (in the Soviet Union, these were the two dominant Mennonite branches). In the past decades, many of those ‘up-rooted’ people found their way back to the faith community. The more than 100 congregations of Russian-born Mennonites have 35.000 to 40.000 members.

 

Brotherhoods and associations

Almost all of the Mennonite churches with approximately 35 gathering places joined into an Association for Spiritual Support of Mennonite Churches (Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur geistlichen Unterstützung der Mennonitengemeinden, AGUM). The Mennonite Brethren churches, however, joined various different associations. A big part of the Mennonite Brethren churches found themselves in associations with Russian-born Evangelical Christian-Baptists: 25 congregations, including branches, in the Brotherhood of Christian Congregations in Germany (Bruderschaft der Christengemeinden in Deutschland, BCD), and 7 Mennonite Brethren churches joined the Union of Anabaptist-minded Churches (Bund Taufgesinnter Gemeinden, BTG). One larger group of Mennonite Brethren churches with 23 gathering places comprises the so called Frankenthal Circle, a non-formal brotherhood. One Mennonite Brethren church joined the Brotherhood of Evangelical Christian Baptists (Bruderschaft der Evangeliums Christen Baptisten), and several congregations did not join any association. A certain amount of Russian-born Mennonites are part of other associations (AMBD, VMBB, WEBB).

 

Statement of Reconciliation

During the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren Church in 2010, several Mennonite Brethren congregations that belonged to the Union of Anabaptist-minded churches (BTG), to the Association of Mennonite Brethren churches in Germany (AMBD), and to the Association of Evangelical Free Churches of Mennonite Brethren in Bavaria (VMBB), published a Statement of Reconciliation, in which they asked for forgiveness for inappropriate behavior against other Mennonite churches during their history, and expressed their desire that in the shared future the cooperation should be defined by brotherly love and mutual appreciation. Though the majority of Mennonite Brethren churches did not join this statement, the relations between churches of both kinds has been  brotherly and often even cordial for many years.

Mennonites in their new motherland Russia

Author: Johannes Dyck

A large part of the today’s Mennonite community in Germany consists of people  who spent a part of their life in Russia. Most of them immigrated to Germany in the last few decades. Their names look like Frisian and Flemish ones. In the stormy 16th century, they became Mennonites and fled to safer places in the Danzig area, then under Polish government. Later, when these territories became Prussian and they were again oppressed because of their faith, they looked for a new place to live in Russia.

 

A warm welcome

In 1789 Russia warmly welcomed the first group of Mennonites. The Tsarist government promised them freedom of faith and exemption from military service and settled them in autonomous self-governed settlements called colonies. The first one was called Chortitza on the Dniepr river. At special Mennonite request, the government was even willing to provide them with twice as much land as other settlers from Germany. In 1804, the next major group of Mennonites from Prussia immigrated to Russia and founded the Molochna colony. Several smaller groups followed. The last migration wave took place in 1859.

 

Hard-working settlers

The diligent and hard-working Mennonites turned the virgin soil of the steppes into a blossoming landscape. Their hard work made Southern Russia, where they settled, became ‘the breadbasket’ of Europe. The small factories they started, over a course of decades and generations, became a prosperous industry with a very strong position on the internal Russian market. With time, the original settlements became  too small for the growing Mennonite population. Having enough resources, the Mennonite community expanded eastwards. At the beginning of the 20th century, large colonies were established even in Siberia – the Asiatic part of Russia. Throughout the generations, they did not lose the ability to work hard, nor the readiness to settle in new, inhospitable areas to make them suitable for living .

 

Motherland Germany

On the eve of World War I and the Russian revolution of 1917, Mennonites in Russia became one of the most progressive members of the worldwide Mennonite family. Still living in colonies which had long before become German islands in the multi-ethnic Russian Empire, they managed to keep a vital connection to their motherland Germany.

 

See more about Mennonites in Russia in the Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (http://www.gameo.org)

Children’s and youth work

Author: Johannes Dyck

In Germany, much children’s work nowadays is done by young church members providing an effective way of taking part in church life. In the Soviet Union, children’s and youth work was a hot issue.

 

Since 1929, the law forbade every kind of special meeting, including those for women, children, and youth. When after 1955 newly established churches tried to obtain a legal status, the authorities demanded strict adherence to this law. Moreover, they often even forbade the presence of children in regular worship services. From time to time, Sunday services were interrupted by authorities and school teachers who made lists of school children in attendance. Usually the next day at school the listed children were called before school directors and bullied in front of their class. For the young churches and young parents, the persecution time between 1958 and 1966 was a struggle for the children. Finally, the parents won the battle, and the children were permitted to attend the regular services.

 

Victories in spite of risks

Shortly after this first small victory, churches in various cities started small Sunday-schools for children in private homes. In cities, this work could be kept hidden better than in villages. For this work, several persons, including young women, were imprisoned. Nevertheless, this risky work, often done by young women, was performed until the emigration to Germany.

 

Young people taking the lead

Youthwork also belonged to a grey legal area, often tolerated by officials. Usually, it was organized in small groups which met in private homes for fellowship and Bible study, often twice a week. This part of church work showed big potential and provided churches with young people that were ready to take on responsibility and accept ministry in the churches. Youth choirs also came into being, serving as an important attraction point for young boys and girls. The infrequent performances were a real festive occasion for churches.

 

Good hope

Things that were prohibited by the Communist government, became much more popular in the new  freedom in Germany. Knowing the importance of children’s and youth work for the churches’ future, Mennonite congregations built a flourishing children’s and youth work in Germany that keeps children in churches up till today. Considering the often large Mennonite families in Germany, this work serves as an important factor of confessional family growth.

 

 

 

Congregational Life

Author: Johannes Dyck

The congregational life of Russian-born Mennonites in Germany in many aspects still follows the traditional ways that existed in Russia before the times of persecution. Every Sunday the congregation gathers for one or two services. The order of a usual service is simple – three short sermons are combined with singing of the choir and the congregation. The sermons are delivered by preachers of different ages and spiritual experience. The number of preachers in one church can reach several dozens.

Continuation of preaching

This tradition comes from the Pietistic revival meetings in Russia which started in the 1840s, when several participants shared their testimonies. In the early Mennonite Brethren church, the existence of many preachers in congregation soon became a tradition. Involvement of many brethren made all of them active in proclaiming the Word of God and gave additional strength to spreading the gospel. In the post-war revival that occurred in times of severe suppression, having a  big number of preachers was the best way to survive – when the leaders were deported or even imprisoned, there was always a new man to replace them.

 

Themes and singing

Following the old Pietistic tradition, the main content of a sermon is encouragement in faith. Often, preachers make calls for repentance, conversion and getting born again. Popular themes are discipleship, holy life and separation from the world. These themes are also the focus of regular prayer and Bible study meetings. An important part of the Russian-born Mennonite piety is singing. In times of persecution, when no Bibles were available, Christian songs could easily be memorized and shared amongst the persecuted. Often they were the only way for single isolated persons as well as for small groups of getting comfort and strength in faith. For many young people, German spiritual songs were the way to start to learn German. An important place in the church service is also given to choral singing.

 

Relationships and meetings

The congregational life is not limited to worship services by far. It expresses itself by close personal relations between church members. This model for closeness and intimacy of church relations was established long ago, through colony life in a rural setting when fellow church members were also neighbors living in the same village. An important part of congregational life are closed members' meetings. Here baptismal candidates tell about their faith, and church discipline is practiced; here issues of common moral standards and witness before the world are debated; and here important decisions are made.

 

 

Responsibility in Society and World

Authors: Hermann Heidebrecht, Johannes Dyck

Russian-born Mennonites didn't have the possibility to conduct official mission or diaconic work. Soon after their new beginning in Germany, many Mennonite congregations established their own missionary projects in Germany and in different countries in the world. There are church planting projects in Germany (often in the new federal states) as well as in the countries of origin: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Later, many projects in South and East Europe (Romania, Bulgaria), Latin America (Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico etc.), Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia etc.), and other parts of the world were added. In addition to church planting, several churches support schools and orphanages.

The mission work of Russian-born Mennonites is done through their own newly created Mennonite organizations. Sometimes, missionaries are sent to work through other German or international mission societies.

 

Schools and diaconic social projects

In the last few years Russian-born Mennonites have launched several private denominational-based schools or worked together with Christians of other confessions in establishing these. An example is the Christian School Association Lippe (Christian Schulverein Lippe e.V.) which operates several schools in Detmold and its vicinity with more than 2.300 students and 200 teachers.

The importance of school projects of this kind for a successful integration of Germans from Russia into German culture was recognized by the governmental structures at different levels.

Museum of History of Culture of Germans from Russia

The founder of the Christian School Association Lippe and of a school in Detmold, Otto Hertel, a former physics teacher from Kyrgyzstan, had a strong understanding of the role of history in the formation of people’s identity. From the first days of the school, he prepared several expositions on Germans in Russia, and gave lectures on their important role in Russia’s culture and science. In 1996, a museum got a permanent place in a small building on the school campus. In addition, Hertel donated his books to the museum, as the start of a library with a special focus on Germans and Mennonites in Russia.

 

In July 2011, the museum was re-opened in a new building with an impressive exhibition covering the history of Germans in Russia from their very beginnings there until their re-immigration to Germany and their integration into society.

 

See more about the museum on the Internet (http://russlanddeutsche.de/).

Mennonites leaving the USSR for Germany

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

Before 1987, only a few thousands Mennonites from Russia could leave the USSR for Germany. After 1987, most emigration applications were approved by German as well as by Soviet authorities. A mass exodus occurred on a scale which had never been seen before. Several reasons existed for this escape of almost all Mennonites from the former Soviet Union.

The persecution and oppression of faith lasted almost 70 years. Christians were not only put under pressure but were also regarded as backwards.

 

National oppression in the Soviet Union

National oppression of Russian-born Germans who were not differentiated from Hitler’s national socialists of World War II (in USSR called fascists) was also an important reason to leave the country for Mennonites and other Germans. Even though there were German schools in some regions of the Soviet Union, as well as German broadcast and German newspapers, they could not stop the gradual dissolution of the German identity in Russia.

 

Political and economical issues

Most Mennonites, probably, never agreed with the Soviet politics. The pain of confiscations, deportations, arrests, executions, and other sufferings of the last decades was too deep. There was hardly a Mennonite family that did not mourn over victims. The Mennonites did not trust Soviet governments and their leaders anymore. Economic conditions also played a role in emigration matters. People in cities and villages lacked almost everything. Though nobody experienced hunger, bread, butter, milk, sugar and other food often could only be obtained with big difficulties when not produced by people themselves. The same situation applied to clothing, furniture, household appliances and other articles.

 

Immigrant service organisations

The Mennonite emigrant service (Die Mennonitische Umsiedlerbetreuung) was  created by old Mennonite congregations in 1972 and  for many years fulfilled the function of helping the fresh arrivals with making a new start. Through the support of this organization, many locations for settlement in Germany were found, in many places regular church services could start, and new congregations could be organised. After Die Mennonitische Umsiedlerbetreuung finished its work, newly formed Mennonite congregations established their own immigrant service organization: the Aussiedler-Betreuungsdienst which took over all the aforementioned  functions. Since their foundation, both services welcomed and consulted more than 100.000 Mennonites or persons of Mennonite origin in the state border transit camps and entry points of federal states.

A new beginning after World War II

Author: Johannes Dyck

During the severe persecutions in the Stalin era, Mennonites lost almost all church elders, preachers and church buildings. After the Soviet Union entered World War II in June 1941, all Germans from the European part of the country were forcibly deported to Siberia and Central Asia, not allowed to leave these places. Mennonites were part of that tragedy. In addition, in the beginning of 1942, all remaining capable men were mobilized away from their jobs into the Worker’s Army.

 

Prayergroups during deportation

In the Worker’s Army, under appalling conditions and often near to death, men began to cry to God together, occasionally coming together for hidden prayer meetings with no regard to confession. One of such secret prayer groups was organized in 1942 by Heinrich Voth, former elder of the Mennonite church in Nikolaifeld. And God heard them. So a revival of faith began. Hidden prayer groups came into being in many places. In 1945, many Mennonites that were taken to Germany during the war, were repatriated to the Soviet Union. They also gathered to worship in the places they found themselves. Where possible, Mennonites joined Russian Baptist congregations that were allowed during the war.

 

After Stalin

After the death of dictator Stalin in 1953, a political thaw set in, and in 1956 all Germans were released from their exile. The oppression of religion declined somewhat, and in many villages people that were converted in previous years, were baptized by courageous men. This led to the establishment of small village congregations in former places of exile. Being released from exile, Germans, and among them Mennonites, moved from their places of exile into the south of the country, especially to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where they established new churches or joined existing Russian Baptist churches which showed much similarity to the Mennonite Brethren churches. This way a new church geography was established.

 

Non-resistance rejected

The thaw, at least in matters of religion, ended in 1958, and a new wave of persecution began. Mennonites were regarded as reactionary anti-governmental sectarians because of their historical non-resistance position. Their congregations were excluded from the list of officially permitted confessions, and had no chance of being legally recognized. This situation changed in 1966, giving the way for legalizing the first Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren congregations.

 

Many Mennonite Brethren and persons with a Mennonite background also joined Baptist churches.

 

Reference: And When They Shall Ask. A Docu-Drama of the Russian Mennonite Experience (1984/2010) dvd. www.mennonitemediasociety.com