Mennonite Refugees after World War II

After World War II Ontario Mennonites helped displaced European Mennonites to immigrate to Canada or South America. These new arrivals helped to preserve traditional marks of Mennonite separation, such as use of the German language, but they also brought with them difficult issues concerning missing spouses, unwed mothers, victims of rape, and people who had been forced into active military service or into difficult ethical decisions under wartime conditions.

Agatha Schmidt's "Exodus USSR - 1943"

Agatha Loewen Schmidt with her painting, “Exodus USSR – 1943.” Photo courtesy Milton Good Library, Conrad Grebel University College.

Agatha Loewen was a native of the village of Gnadenfeld in the Mennonite settlement of Molotschna in the Soviet Union. Her father, a minister, had died of typhus in the early 1930s, leaving his wife and three surviving daughters. Agatha had joined the Young Communists as a teenager in order to receive more advanced education. As a young woman she became a village schoolteacher. When the village was occupied by the German army in 1941, she explored the possibility of becoming an interpreter. When it became clear the German officers were looking for interpreters who would also serve as mistresses, she decided to stay in her teaching position.

Agatha married a young Mennonite soldier in September 1943, but since his unit immediately began to retreat toward Germany they had very little time together. Agatha joined the “Great Trek” of German-speaking residents who retreated with the German army in fall 1943. Agatha and Aaron last saw each other in July 1944 when he was on leave. After a last letter dated August 26, 1944, from the western front, she never heard from him again. After the war, Agatha eventually found her way to Canada as one of many Mennonite refugees seeking a safer land.

Initially she worked at a canning factory on the Niagara Peninsula, and later she worked for a dentist. A widower ten years her senior asked Agatha to marry him. She consented, but the minister at the St. Catharines United Mennonite Church refused to marry them because the fate of Agatha’s first husband was not certain. The church decided they could be married if she was able to have her first husband declared dead. They were finally able to marry in 1951. Agatha went on to become an active lay leader in her congregation. She wrote and published several historical works, and she became a painter, documenting some of her experiences in the Soviet Union and on the Great Trek.

Agatha’s story was one of many. The post-World War II immigrants had a profound impact on the Mennonite congregations begun by the 1920s immigrants. Over the next five years, of the total of 8500 Mennonite refugees who arrived in Canada nearly 1300 stayed in Ontario. This increased Ontario’s “Russian Mennonite” population by at least 25 percent.

The circumstances of the post-war immigrant refugees created tension within Mennonite churches for decades. Families had been splintered and the fate of many husbands who disappeared into exile or military service left many poverty-stricken families headed by women with small children. There were also unmarried mothers who had suffered rape in the course of their wartime experiences. Congregations sometimes required these women to confess “their behavior” before they could become members. In 1947 both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church determined that remarriage could not be allowed as long it was uncertain whether the first spouse was dead. In 1949 this was modified by the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, which said those persons who chose to remarry could not become members, but would not be refused communion if they chose to partake. This policy was later changed.

Of course not all experiences were difficult. The new immigrants significantly broadened the culture and diversity of “Russian Mennonite” congregations in Ontario. They helped the persistence of the German language, and brought an entrepreneurial energy that only survivors of difficult circumstances can express.

Learn more about the post-World War II experience in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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