The exact beginning of Mennonite history in the Vistula area in northern Europe cannot be determined, but it is known that by 1549 several congregations had been organized, for Menno Simons, who had worked among them, addressed them at that time as "the children of God in Prussia."Dirk Philips followed Menno as a worker among these churches and in the region of Danzig until 1568. These migrations may have taken place as early as 1529.
However, the larger migrations took place somewhat later following a special invitation extended by Simon and Hans von Loysen, owners of large undeveloped estates in the Lower Delta at Tiegenhof in 1562. Because of their experience in dike-building and in draining swamp areas the Dutch Mennonites were given a special invitation with the promise of liberal rights both religious and economic.
As the migrations continued, the settlements spread across the swamp lands of the wide Vistula and Nogat delta until prosperous communities and congregations had been established throughout the region of Marienburg, Schwetz, Graudenz, Culm and Thorn. In succeeding generations these broadened out into surrounding territories.
For some two centuries the settlements enjoyed comparative liberty and freedom unhampered by restrictions until they became prosperous and influential. However, under the reign of Frederick William II (1786-1797) the situation changed. Economic and religious restrictions were set up which made it clear that both state and church were determined to stop further growth of Mennonitism. In the midst of a period of anxiety and increasing distress came the invitation of Catherine II of Russia, inviting these people to come to her land, with an assurance of liberal privileges and opportunities. During the next half century almost half of the whole delta Mennonite population emigrated to Russia. This article confines itself to those who remained behind in the Vistula, especially in the Danzig area. Before World War II there were approximately ten thousand Mennonites living in the lower areas along the Vistula River. Two thirds of these lived in the territory of the Free City (State) of Danzig. The rest were in East Prussia and Poland. They were organized as the Conference of the East and West Prussian Mennonites. Preceding World War I they had attained a high level of economic prosperity, although spiritually they suffered in the loss of some of the old Anabaptist principles. Following World War I the economic picture deteriorated until the rise of Hitler, under whom a short-lived period of prosperity again flourished.
In the summer of 1944 the tragic evacuation of the entire area began; the German army began to retreat before the onslaughts of the Russian army. By early fall thousands of refugees were fleeing from East Prussia. Many fled to Western Germany; others concentrated in the Free City of Danzig, hoping they would escape the terrors of war. Among these great masses were thousands of Mennonites leaving all their possessions in the hope of saving life itself. Most of the evacuation was completed by February 1945, but in the spring of 1948 there were still some two hundred left in the Danzig area.
Those fleeing into Western Germany met with hardships and horrible experiences as they were overtaken by the Russian armies. Western Germany was already overcrowded with refugees and the coming of these additional groups only aggravated the situation. Here in this densely crowded area, living under most trying conditions, they lived until resettlement plans could be formulated and successfully carried out. The United States and Canada were not ready to accept German nationals; Paraguay was looked upon with disfavor by the Prussian group. The danger of being moved back to the Russian Zone constantly faced them. Earnest efforts on the part of Gustav Reimer, Sr., on their behalf for settlement in France failed completely. So it was not until 1948, when some 450 Prussian Mennonites from the British Zone together with three hundred Prussian Mennonites of the Danish internment camps arrived in Uruguay, that the doors began to open for new life.
Not all of the Mennonites of the Vistula area fled into Western Germany. Great masses fled into the area of Danzig, only to discover soon that even there they were not safe. With the retreat of the German army in the presence of the onrushing Russian tanks and artillery, Danzig, the beautiful homeland of Mennonites for over four hundred years, became a mass of flame. Countless thousands of helpless refugees were herded upon ships by the German army and transported into safer regions. Great numbers went down into a watery grave in the flight; many leaped from flaming decks into the waters while others were burned to death, unable to escape. A remnant was saved and brought to the shores of Denmark, which was then occupied by Germany. The close of the war found this small nation of four million people with over 200,000 homeless, despised Germans upon its hands, confronted with great problems of housing, feeding and clothing them. Of these, approximately 1,500 were of the Mennonite faith.
With the close of the war, when Denmark recovered its sovereignty, it attempted to solve the problems caused by having these refugees within its borders. Internment camps were established throughout the land, ranging in size from some 20,000 to a few hundred in population. At one time, approximately 40 camps were in existence, which were later consolidated. All were encircled with barbed-wire fences and posted with armed guards day and night to see that no one entered or left the camp without the proper papers. Thus these refugees became virtual prisoners of war. It was not until more than three years had elapsed that the last of these camps were finally closed and provisions had been made for the removal of these unfortunates into lands where they could begin life anew.
In the late fall of 1945 C. F. Klassen, returning from a three-month tour of Europe as special commissioner for displaced Mennonites, included in his report these 1,500 Mennonites in Denmark. Plans were formulated to aid these along with other refugees in Europe. It was not until late in the fall of 1946, however, that any work could actually be undertaken in their behalf. At that time Walter Gering and Elma Esau were sent as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) unit to work within the camps, with headquarters at Copenhagen. Their program was to be one of spiritual and material aid. Food was provided by the Danish government; however, clothing and shoes were distributed by the unit to Mennonites and non-Mennonites. Gering, as a minister, was to arrange for religious services and spiritual nurture of the Mennonites.
Mennonites were found scattered in the various camps—at one time in 34 different camps, often in very small groups. Attempts to bring these together into several camps were only partially successful. The MCC unit made its headquarters in Copenhagen, where the largest of the camps was located. From here they went out on regular tours of the country, visiting the various camps and distributing two shipments of clothing, totaling 25 tons and 4,000 pairs of shoes, among the refugees. The Danish government had agreed to this distribution under the condition that half of the goods be distributed by the camp officials to non-Mennonites. The other half could be distributed by MCC workers to the Mennonite internees. Elma Esau was in charge of the distributions while Gering arranged for and conducted Bible studies, worship services, and individual contacts of a spiritual nature. Bruno Ewert and Bruno Enss, elders from the Danzig area (Heubuden and Orlofferfelde) and fellow internees, were associated in the work of the MCC unit. Later Mr. and Mrs. P. S. Goertz, with Susie Peters, succeeded the first MCC workers.
While the problems of the work were such as are common to all refugees, yet the greatest one was that of instilling hope for the possibility of a new beginning. The total loss of all possessions including the loss of members of the family, the prolonged period of internment and the hardships of camp life, all contributed to create a spirit of hopelessness and despair. Together with this came the decision of Mennonite Central Committee that while resettlement of these Danzig refugees was to be a part of the general program of resettlement, yet the first obligation should be that of providing for the Russian Mennonite refugees. The reason for this decision can be understood in the light of the danger in which the Russian Mennonites found themselves. However, this meant further delay for the Danzig Mennonite refugees, a delay that brought increased despair to them as they waited in uncertainty as to what their future held for them.
It was on 7 October 1948 that the Volendam sailing from Bremerhaven carried with it 751 Prussian Mennonites (a small number were former Galicians, not Prussians), 284 coming directly from the Danish internment camps and the rest out of the British Zone in Germany. These were known as the Danziger Mennonites. They had been assigned to Paraguay, but the doors of Uruguay opened in a dramatic manner just as the refugees were about to embark. So it came about that the Volendam unloaded the 751 at Montevideo on 27 October 1948, and the first group began the settlement of a new land. In October 1951 another group of 430 Mennonite refugees, largely from the Danzig group, landed to join the group which had come in 1948.
Since the granting of visas came unexpectedly for the original group in 1948 there was no time to make resettlement preparations in advance. The immigrants were housed in two camps, one at Colonia and the other at Arapey, where they were supported by the MCC until they found work or were settled on the land. In May 1949 the Mennonite Central Committee with the help of a government loan purchased a land site known as "El Ombu," a tract including 2,962 acres on the main highway between Montevideo and Paysandu. In 1953 another large tract was purchased at Tres Bocas, 50 miles from El Ombu.
All this took time, as can be expected. In the meantime many of the immigrants secured work outside the camps and a number also succeeded in locating land themselves which they could rent with the possibility of purchase later. Gradually all those who were able to work left the camps.
The land at El Ombu was divided into 30 parcels, three families living on each parcel. Each of the three families was made responsible for the development of the land within its parcel and the payment of the debt against it. A cooperative was organized to transact the business of the colony. Some land was set aside for Mennonite couples who in later years will want to live with their own people. The development is along the line of diversified farming, the land being best suited for this.
While most of the families settled finally on the El Ombu colony tract, yet some who had found work of a permanent nature in the cities preferred to stay where they were. A goodly number of single girls found work doing housework in the city of Montevideo. For these and other Mennonites in the city, Mennonite Central Committee opened a center which conducted sewing circles, Bible study, choir practice, and Sunday church services. Also a guest house was opened for Mennonites coming to the city on business. -- WG
The door of emigration to Canada was opened for the Danzig refugees in 1951, and a total of over two hundred emigrated to that country with the aid of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization in 1951-1952.
The great majority of the Danzig refugees, however, were resettled in Germany. Over a thousand, chiefly from the Denmark camps, were moved to the Palatinate-Hesse region, also to the region around Neuwied (Niederbieber) in 1949. Others were resettled in small projects in Espelkamp, Backnang, Lübeck and Enkenbach, where with the aid of the German government and the Mennonite Central Committee new homes were built. However, most of the refugees took care of themselves as best they could, locating in widely scattered areas through all four zones of Germany, with over one thousand in the Russian Zone. These latter had the most difficult time.
Unfortunately the wide scattering made it most difficult to provide pastoral oversight or to organize congregations in the new locations. Some were attached to the older established congregations, but the following new congregations were organized: Göttingen (1945), Bremen (1947), Bergisches Land (1948), Uelzen (1948), Kiel (1949), Lübeck (1950), together with the unorganized congregations of Nord-Schleswig, Holstein, and Westphalia. Three homes for the aged were established, filled largely with Danzig refugees: Leutesdorf a. Rh. (1948), Enkenbach (Pfalz), and Pinneberg-Rellingen near Hamburg. These homes are operated by an association called Mennonitisches Altersheim e.V., organized in 1948. The old organization of the West Prussian conference was reconstituted as Aeltestenausschuss der Konferenz der west- und ostpreussischen Mennonitengemeinden, and the Vereinigung organized a relief program, Hilfswerk der Vereinigung der Deutschen Mennonitengemeinden, in 1946. It is estimated that the total population of Danzig refugees remaining in Germany by the mid-1950s was about seven thousand including unbaptized children and adherents. Emigration had practically ceased by 1953, the situation having apparently stabilized. -- HSB
Epp, Hermann. "Die Westpreussischen Gemeinden von 1983 bis zum Untergang." Der Mennonit 1 (1948): 4-5, 20.
Ewert, B. "Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites." Mennonite Life 3 (April 1948): 10-18.
Händiges, Emil. "The Catastrophe of the West Prussian Mennonites." Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950): 124-129.
Heinritz, Lotte. "Women's Odyssey." Mennonite Life 3 (April 1948): 19-22.
Schreiber, William J. The Fate of the Prussian Mennonites. Goettingen: Goettingen Research Committee, 1955.
|Harold S. Bender|
Cite This Article
Gering, Walter and Harold S. Bender. "Danzig Refugees." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 7 Mar 2014. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Danzig_Refugees&oldid=91557.
Gering, Walter and Harold S. Bender. (1955). Danzig Refugees. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 7 March 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Danzig_Refugees&oldid=91557.
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