West Prussia was the region on both sides of the lower Vistula between Danzig and Thorn. As the western part of the possessions of the Teutonic Knights it was ceded to Poland in 1466 and became the province of Royal Prussia in the Kingdom of Poland. It became a province in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1772, where it remained until it was made a part of rapidly expanding Kingdom of Prussia in 1772. It was a province of Prussia from 1773 to 1824 and from 1878 to 1918 (from 1824 to 1878 it was combined with East Prussia [Ducal Prussia] to form the province of Prussia). After 1918, its central parts became the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig, while the parts remaining with the German Weimar Republic became the new province of Posen-West Prussia in the Free State of Prussia or were joined to the Province of East Prussia as Regierungsbezirk West Prussia.
The Mennonite population of this province probably never exceeded 15,000 souls. Nevertheless West Prussian Mennonitism is the mother soil from which nearly half the Mennonites of the entire world were transplanted to Russia, Asia, and North and South America. East Prussia, the territory immediately to the east of West Prussia, consisting largely of the eastern part of the former territory of the Teutonic Knights, was made a secular duchy in 1525 by Duke Albrecht. The history of the Anabaptists and Mennonites in this area is given in the article East Prussia. The city of Danzig was a free city, under Polish suzerainty 1466-1772, and from 1772 under Prussian suzerainty, and was never actually a part of West Prussia. (See Danzig for the history of the Mennonites in this area.)
The West Prussian congregations were built largely by refugees from the Netherlands. Since the Reformation in that country took on an Anabaptist character after the appearance of Melchior Hoffman (ca. 1530), the opposition of the authorities was directed principally against the Anabaptists. Emperor Charles V refused to tolerate any heretics in his hereditary lands, Holland, Zeeland, and the southern Netherlands. In the territories later added east and south of the Zuiderzee (Utrecht in 1527, Overijssel 1528, Friesland 1534, Groningen 1536, Drenthe 1537, and Gelderland 1543), persecution never reached such excesses and did not become severe until the rule of the Duke of Alva.
In 1535 a proclamation was issued against the Anabaptists in the Netherlands, because some radical elements among them, incited by the example of Münster, had made an attack on the Oldeklooster in Friesland and on the city hall of Amsterdam. Revolutionary or peaceful, the Anabaptists were henceforth without discrimination subject to severe persecution with fire and sword. Some Anabaptists escaped to Prussia via the North Sea and Baltic Sea routes. In 1534 the Danzig city council wrote the harbor cities of Amsterdam, Antwerp, zur Fähre, Enkhuizen, and Emden, requesting that no Anabaptists be permitted to board the boats to Danzig. Especially from the crown lands Anabaptists came to Prussia in the first fifteen years after Melchior Hoffman's activity; the Duchy of Albrecht of Hohenzollern (East Prussia), Protestant since 1525, offered them refuge. In Polish Prussia (West Prussia) the Reformation was violently suppressed in the early years; in 1526 several citizens of Danzig were put to death as Protestants on royal orders. But after 1543 the Protestant creeds enjoyed a certain measure of freedom, since otherwise the possession of West Prussia would have become uncertain for the kings of Poland, for the estates of West Prussia would not have submitted to religious suppression. This freedom also benefited the Anabaptists, though they were, to be sure, merely tolerated.
On 1 February 1539 the first Mennonite (Anabaptist) settlement in the general area of Prussia was begun by two preachers from the Netherlands—Hermann Sachs and Hugo Mattheissen—in Schönberg in the Oberland of East Prussia, where 4,250 acres were made available for settlers. Hugo was a preacher of the Danzig Mennonites during the years when Menno Simons and Dirk Philips organized the West Prussian congregations. Herman van Bommel also became a preacher of the Danzig Anabaptists. It was rumored that young Stadholder Karl was favorably inclined to the Anabaptists. Before 1549 Thonis Barbier of Emden and Michel Janszoon of Oisterhout, Brabant, served as deacons in the Danzig congregation. Apparently the only Anabaptist congregation before Menno's (he visited Prussia not later than 1549), time was that at Danzig, though some of the members lived in and around Elbing. Scattered Anabaptists must have settled in Danzig and Elbing in the early 1530s.
When it was discovered that the Dutch settlers differed from the Prussian church constitution in the matter of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the unofficial toleration was annulled, and the great majority of the settlers were expelled. Thus the first Anabaptist settlement in the duchy of Prussia was destroyed. The settlers found new homes in West Prussia, and in the free cities of Elbing and Danzig, where the Polish authorities had to give religious toleration to their German subjects, who for the most part had accepted the Reformation.
The Anabaptists who settled in the Vistula Delta before 1547 were almost exclusively from the crown lands of the Netherlands, especially from the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, and Brabant. Although all these immigrants were settled as farmers, some of them had previously been in other trades or professions. From the regions acquired after 1524, in which the imperial edicts were laxly executed, there were few emigrants to Prussia until 1547. About 1570 Johann de Mepschop den Ham of Ommelanden (Groningen) united with the Danzig congregation. The Epp, Ens, and Tgahrt families very likely came from the province of Groningen, and the Wiebes from West Friesland. The Janszoon, Rosenfeld, and Momber families came from Flanders, and the Sudermanns from Rotterdam.
In the case of many of the immigrants of the first 100 years the country of origin is given. Thirty-six persons, perhaps with their families, came from the present Netherlands (from Limburg 1, Gelderland 2, Utrecht 3, Friesland 10, Groningen 3, Drenthe 1, Overijssel 2, North Holland 8, South Holland 5, North Brabant 1). From what is now Belgium there were 18 persons by 1640 (from Brabant 10, Antwerp province 4, Flanders 2, and elsewhere 2). From Germany there were nine (Emden 4, Oldenburg 1, Holstein 2, Westphalia 1, Rhineland 1), from Luxembourg one, and from the High German congregation in Moravia two. Most of the immigrants had come from the cities. Later investigation may show a greater participation by Westphalia and the northern Rhineland. But there were also scattered instances of immigration from all the North German regions as far as Mecklenburg. It is not yet known how strong the immigration from South Germany or Moravia was.
In the spring of 1535, 200 Anabaptists (60 families) expelled from Moravia, in part of Silesian origin, came to the region of Thorn, Graudenz, and the Duchy of Prussia. They constituted the initial core of the Anabaptist congregations in the lowlands of the Vistula near Culm and Graudenz.
A new phase in the West Prussian Anabaptist movement now developed in 1547-1550, which was to make it permanent. The great drainage enterprise was initiated to drain the Vistula Delta, which covered an area forty miles in width from Drausen Lake to Ellerwald and included the two great delta areas east of Danzig, an undertaking which was to require three to four generations. About 1550 the Anabaptists began their work at two points: at Wengeln on Drausen Lake and near Elbing in the Ellerwald area. In 1547 the territory of Tiegenhof, commonly called the "Unterwerder" (Lower Delta), was acquired by the Danzig banker Loysen, who used Mennonite settlers from Holland in the following years for the work of drainage. In the same year two prominent Anabaptists who had been living in the duchy, Herman van Bommel and Tönnis Florissen, acquired large areas in the Danzig Werder (lowlands) for settlement.
For these extensive undertakings the number of Anabaptists already living in Prussia was quite inadequate. Accordingly, Philip Edzema, a Frisian, went to Holland with a letter of recommendation from the Danzig council to enlist "people of his nation." Somewhat earlier similar enterprises were begun by the Anabaptists in the Vistula Valley at Culm, Graudenz, and Thorn.
From the religious point of view, the years 1547-1550 were also a turning point. It is only from this time on that one can really speak of Mennonites in West Prussia. By 1550 a large Anabaptist congregation had been established in West Prussia, with its center in Schottland just outside the walls of Danzig, since the Anabaptists were not permitted to settle in the city proper. Here they had their worship and established their shops for the manufacture of fine textiles and brandy. Hugo Mattheissen and Herman van Bommel were the ministers of the Danzig Anabaptist congregation ca. 1550. The church also had two deacons, Tonas Barbier, a native of Emden, and Michel Janszoon of Oisterhout in Brabant.
In the summer of 1549 Menno Simons came to Prussia with Dirk Philips to establish the church in Prussia in permanent form. It was no doubt at this time that the influence of the Sacramentists, which was being felt among the Anabaptists in Prussia, was rooted out. Menno Simons' loving concern for the "brethren in Prussia" is evidenced by a letter he wrote to them on 7 October 1549 from his home in the west, closely following his visit to them.
The significance of the refugee group here was so great that Menno's most intimate co-worker, Dirk Philips, assumed the leadership of the congregation in Danzig for the rest of his life. In 1567 he made a trip to Emden to mediate in a controversy between the Flemish and the Frisian Mennonites in Holland. He died in Emden.
From this time on there were both Flemish and Frisian congregations in West Prussia. It is due to the influence of Dirk Philips that the stricter Flemish party won the upper hand, both in Danzig and in the northern coastal area near Elbing, particularly in what is known as the "Grosswerder," i.e., the Great Delta. In the Kleinwerder and in the valley of the Vistula the Frisian party was dominant. In Danzig also there was a small congregation of the United Frisian, Waterlander, and High German groups in addition to the large Flemish group. The Frisian congregations had an able leader in Jan Gerritsz, who came from the Netherlands in 1607. Since in that year the ruthless destruction of the great Anabaptist congregations in Moravia also began, he, as elder of the United Church in Danzig, which included the High German group, visited the High German congregations in Moravia and brought back with him to Danzig a preacher by the name of Wall. In 1604 the Swiss Anabaptist preacher Josef Hauser with seven other brethren and their families, a total of 37 persons, had already emigrated from Moravia to Prussia. After an unsuccessful attempt to settle in Elbing, they finally located in the Mennonite settlement in Wengeln on Drausen Lake. At this time also apparently a number of Anabaptist families of Swiss Brethren origin settled in the Vistula Valley.
In the first decades of the 17th century the dominant position of the Danzig city church in West Prussian Mennonitism gradually declined, and the rural Mennonites began to develop both ecclesiastically and economically into strong groups. In 1613 the Mennonites of the Danzig Werder refused on conscientious grounds to obey the demand of the city council for military service, and received exemption from this service on the basis of a money payment. This is the first appearance of the problem of nonresistance in the history of the West Prussian Mennonites, a problem which was to be so important in their later history. In 1622 there occurred another significant development, namely, the formation of a fire insurance organization covering all the Mennonite farmers in the Danzig Werder and the Grosswerder. Through this cooperative organization a farmer who had lost his buildings by fire recovered his loss by money payments from the other farmers by a prorated charge on their acreage. The near neighbors also helped in the work of clearing away the ruins and erecting new buildings.
During this time the Mennonites suffered grievously under the attacks of a hostile environment. Their "defenselessness" was exploited, and enormous sums of money were extracted from them, until finally King Wladislaus IV granted them a "privilegium" or charter in 1642, which promised them a large measure of toleration as well as protection and a guarantee of their old privileges for all time (this was granted naturally also on the basis of a money payment). This charter refers with high praise to their great services to the country in the matter of drainage and recovery of land in the Werder. It was repeatedly confirmed and renewed by the later kings.
About this time, that is, one hundred years after the beginning, the basic work in the drainage of the three Werders had been completed, with windmills, dikes, sluices, and countless drainage ditches. Fat cattle pastured on the fertile meadows. The extensive polders of the three Werders were completed. However, this tremendous achievement was accomplished at a very high cost in human life. Eighty per cent of the settlers are said to have died of marsh fever.
The newly settled area in the Grosswerder was included in the territory of the Flemish congregation, since the unity in colonization work was accompanied by unity in church work. The center of this congregation, the congregation of the "Niederung," later became the Rosenort congregation. In 1639 Jan Siemens was chosen as the first elder of this congregation. Up until this time the elder of the Danzig church had served the group in the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper. A smaller Frisian congregation was organized in the neighborhood with the name Orlofferfelde. Other Frisian congregations were organized at Markushof, Montau, and Schönsee, while a smaller Flemish congregation was organized at Culm and a larger one in Elbing-Ellerwald.
In 1638 Johann Jakobsen van Geltema, who was in close contact with the settlers, at least through the marriage of his daughter to a Mennonite, took possession of the Tiegenhof area through mortgage. Thereby the position of the Mennonite settlers was made more secure, and in the following decades there was further immigration into the Grosswerder from the Danzig region. The causes of this immigration were not only the unfriendly attitude of the Danzig council toward the Mennonites, who had a difficult time during the period when the shoemaker Georg Hansen was their elder, but also the inundation of the Danzig Werder in 1656 at the time of the war between Sweden and Poland. After 1700, however, there was no more room for the surplus population of the growing Mennonite settlement. Consequently, when the great plague of 1709 in the eastern part of East Prussia wiped out the greater part of the population there, the Prussian government offered the Mennonites land for settlement in the delta of the Memel River. But in 1724 the militaristic king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm I, ordered the nonresistant Mennonites expelled, since they refused to take up arms. The returning settlers from the Memel territory naturally increased the already excessive population in the West Prussian area.
Two possibilities now offered themselves for the acquisition of new land for settlement by the Mennonites. One was the purchase of scattered surplus parcels of land belonging to the villages of the former Teutonic Knights. By this method a considerable number of individual farms were secured, on each of which a single family was settled, living on its acreage under one roof with the cattle and the produce from the fields. The stables were attached next to the dwelling and the barn to the stable. The barnyard was usually surrounded by high trees and gardens were filled with flowers; all was kept scrupulously clean. The people observed the most conscientious cleanliness and simplicity in clothing and in their furniture.
The second possibility of land purchase arose when the distribution of the scattered farms and meadows which formerly belonged to the Teutonic Knights in the Marienwerder region and in the "Oberwerder" were offered for sale. A small group of Mennonites had settled as early as 1554 in the Oberwerder in and around Heubuden. Now Heubuden became a very large congregation, whose members were settled on the extensive grazing lands which had formerly been used for the enormous number of horses required by the knights. This new area extended from the former Order estates of Kalthof and Warnau near Marienburg through Heubuden to Leske. As a result the membership of the Heubuden congregation increased greatly during the first half of the 18th century. In 1711 there were only eleven candidates for baptism, but in 1743 three times as many. In 1728 the congregation, which for 60 years previously had had no ministers of its own, now chose Jakob Dyck as its first elder. Another Frisian congregation was established on the grazing lands of the Marienwerder area south of Marienburg, called Tragheimerweide, chiefly by returning settlers expelled from the Memel district.
Meanwhile, growth in membership finally compelled the Grosswerder congregation to subdivide into four new congregations. In 1735 Tiegenhagen, Fürstenwerder, and Ladekopp were organized, Rosenort remaining as the central congregation. Church buildings were permitted by the authorities in the Vistula Delta only after a long delay. The dates of the first two churches are 1728 at Thiensdorf and 1754 at Rosenort. The other congregations built their churches in 1768. The services had previously been conducted in barns.
The church records give evidence of active spiritual life in the Grosswerder congregation. In July 1741 in the stable of the widow Suckau in Mausdorferfeld, baptism was administered to 51 candidates in the presence of 1,000 people. On 2 March 1775 the Lord's Supper was celebrated in the new church at Rosenort with 1,566 participants. On 6 July 1755 the newly elected elder, Abraham Penner, was ordained by a Danzig elder, Hans van Steen, in the presence of a crowd of 2,500-3,000. "The floor of the building was removed, some sat in the balcony, others stood on ladders which were placed against the windows from the outside, while others stood on carriages" (Regehr).
Hans van Steen was the last elder who strongly urged the use of the Dutch. From 1600 to 1750 there was frequent contact between Danzig and Holland, not only correspondence (the [[Amsterdam Mennonite Library (Bibliotheek en Archief van de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam)|Amsterdam Mennonite Archives]] contain a large number of such letters), but also by personal visits. The wealthy members, especially those in Danzig, preferred to send their sons to Amsterdam to complete their schooling and learn commercial practice. Marriages back and forth were also not uncommon. The country congregations, however, could not continue this regular personal contact with Holland, since they had adopted the Low German dialect known as "Werderplatt" much earlier than in Danzig for use in everyday life, and even in preaching introduced the High German one to two decades earlier than in the city. Previous to this apparently all Anabaptist-Mennonites had used only Dutch in home and in church.
As to education, the Mennonite farmers had their own schools even in the 16th century. From 1700 on the charters almost universally mentioned the right of the Mennonites to have their children educated by their own teachers. Another important feature of the West Prussian Mennonite church life in earlier times was the hospital or old people's home which each congregation erected beside the church. Brotherly aid in various forms was considered to be a chief duty of the Mennonites.
The last years of the Polish period were marked by a considerable loss of legal protection. In 1765, 200 Mennonites, forced to emigrate from the Vistula Valley for religious reasons, settled in the Neumark. The first partition of Poland in 1772, by which West Prussia became a part of the Kingdom of Prussia, meant at first an advantage for the Mennonites, since Frederick the Great had a high regard for superior farmers. Accordingly, when the ceremonial honoring of the new king was to take place in the autumn of 1772 in the mighty old castle of the Teutonic Knights in Marienburg, the Mennonites of the region delivered for the festival meal two fat oxen, 400 pounds of butter, 100 ducks and hens, and 20 cheeses. At the same time they showed the king their Polish charters with privileges, and requested him to give them a similar charter, which they actually received in 1780. In this charter, among other things, their exemption from military service was confirmed.
But it soon became clear that the Mennonites were now subjects of a military state. According to the Prussian army code the obligation of military service derived from the ownership of property. Accordingly, the purchase of property by Mennonites, whose number was constantly increasing, would reduce the number of men available for military service, and could not be in the interest of the state. But Frederick the Great was generous in this point, and in 1781-1784 alone granted permission for the purchase by Mennonites of 296 new tracts of land never held by Mennonites before. However, all Mennonites in West Prussia and East Prussia had to pay for military exemption by contributing annually (from 1773) a total of 5,500 thalers to the support of the military academy in Culm.
Outside Danzig and Thorn the Mennonites at that time numbered 13,500 souls and owned approximately 150,000 Prussian "Morgen" of the best lowlands in the Delta of the Vistula. After Frederick's death the generosity of the government came to an end. The Lutheran pastors of the Werder, concerned for the future of their congregations, as well as the government officials responsible for providing recruits for military service, urged the king to prohibit further extension of Mennonite landholdings. For this reason Friedrich Wilhelm II issued a special decree in 1789 bearing the title "Edict Concerning the Future of Mennonitism," which guaranteed freedom of conscience in regard to military service but restricted sharply the opportunity to purchase land and obliged the Mennonite landowners to pay the regular church tax required of members of the Lutheran churches. Thus began an 80 year struggle by the West Prussian Mennonites to maintain their practice of nonresistance. In 1801 the edict of 1789 was further sharpened to make the purchase of any further land impossible.
Under these conditions the surplus Mennonite rural population had only one outlet—emigration. This emigration was now undertaken in the form of a large-scale movement to South Russia. The ancient migration route up the Vistula to the broad steppes of the Black Sea area, which the Goths had once traveled, was now again traveled by countless farm wagons loaded high with furniture, beds and household goods. But it was not only the landless and poorer Mennonites who sought a new home in the Ukraine. Many others who were not satisfied with the new conditions in West Prussia sold their farms and joined the migrants. In 1787-1866 the surplus population of the West Prussian Mennonites migrated to Russia, as is evidenced by the fact that the population figure in the homeland remained static at about 13,000 souls. A considerable number emigrated to the Samara region of Russia in 1859 to found the Alexandertal settlement.
In the time of Prussia's distress during the Napoleonic Wars (1806-1814) the Mennonites who remained in West Prussia gave their loyal support to the government, but nevertheless were subjected to a renewed and vigorous attack on their freedom from military service. In 1806 the Mennonites made a voluntary grant of 30,000 thalers to Friedrich Wilhelm III on the occasion of his visit to Königsberg. In 1810 they added another voluntary contribution of 10,000 thalers to the compulsory war tax which all Prussians had to pay. When the king issued his famous "appeal to my people" in 1813, love for the enslaved homeland was strong in the hearts of the Mennonites, but their spiritual duty to God, which forbade military service for them, still held first place in their consciences. Accordingly, they did not furnish any soldiers, but delivered 500 horses and paid 25,000 thalers tax. In addition they made a voluntary contribution of 60,000 guilders and 6,000 ells of linen. All attempts to force them into active military service, however, met a stubbornly successful resistance which was expressed in the following statement: "Although we are prepared to support in every way possible the state which protects and tolerates us, it is impossible for us to have any part in military service as long as we are Mennonites and remain so." A number of their young men, to be sure, accepted military service, and were then excommunicated. Although official pressure was brought occasionally to force the churches to receive these young men back into fellowship after their return from the front, the churches held their position and refused. Again, when the military reserve corps (Landsturm) was established by the army and universal military service was introduced in September 1814, new attempts were made to persuade the Mennonites to accept military service. All such attempts failed. As a substitute the Mennonites paid a certain sum per acre into the military treasury to support the Landsturm. The Alexandertal (Russia) settlement was founded in 1859 by a group who wanted to maintain full nonresistance.
A crucial time for the congregations came when the North German Confederacy passed a law on 9 November 1867 which annulled the Mennonite privilege of exemption from military service. The crisis was alleviated somewhat by a modification of the law by an Order of Cabinet dated 3 March 1868 which authorized noncombatant service by those Mennonites who could not conscientiously serve with arms, offering service as hospital orderlies, clerks, and in transportation. They were also released from the military oath of loyalty and permitted to substitute a simple handclasp. However, a great number of Mennonites could not conscientiously accept even noncombatant military service. The elders of the congregations at Heubuden, Elbing, and Obernessau emigrated soon thereafter with a part of their congregations to Kansas and Nebraska.
For those who remained behind the previous restrictions in the purchase of land naturally fell away. Mixed marriages with other faiths became more frequent. Mennonites now became better citizens. To achieve this position, however, they had to surrender one of the two fundamental articles of faith. This meant that their separation from the world and their peculiar character as Mennonites was in part eliminated. Until World War I something of this typical Mennonite character as different from the surrounding world remained in the sense that a large percentage of the Mennonite men still took noncombatant service. The Versailles treaty of 1920, following World War I, imposed considerable difficulties upon the Mennonites of this region, who were divided by the new boundaries into three almost equal blocks, Danzig Free State, Poland, and East Prussia.
In World War II the Mennonites of West Prussia took regular military service along with other Germans. The Bolshevik flood from the East now took from them their homeland and their existence as a settlement. When the Russian army in 1945 marched into the Vistula Delta, where the great majority of the Mennonites of West Prussia lived, the great emigration began. On 24 January 1945 the endless columns of wagons and trucks began to move the Mennonites out of the Werder territory which had been their home for 400 years. This was no organized movement. Part of the group succeeded in getting across the Oder River before the Russsian army encircled Danzig. The remainder finally fled by sea to save their bare lives, and many of these finally reached Denmark. A large part of those who remained behind were transported into the interior of Russia, or suffered severely in their old home territory. Some 1,800 were finally located in camps in Denmark, where elders Bruno Ewert of Heubuden and Bruno Enss of Orlofferfelde took charge of the group. In September 1945 a commissioner of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), C. F. Klassen, visited the group in Denmark and initiated the relief work of the American Mennonites for them. Some 691 persons of this group were settled in Uruguay, 7 October 1948, by the MCC. In October 1951 another group of 431 was settled there. In Germany Gustav Reimer, a former deacon of Heubuden, secretary of the conference of the former West and East Prussian congregations, was assigned the task of re-establishing contact among the widely scattered members in Germany and aiding them in their attempt to find a new homeland elsewhere.
In the 1950s some 5,500 West Prussian Mennonites were living as refugees in the northern and Rhine provinces of Germany and another 1,000 in Württemberg, Baden, and a large number in the Palatinate. The number in the Russian Zone was not known, but was probably also nearly 1,000. The largest concentration in any one area in Germany was in Schleswig-Holstein and around Hamburg, where ca. 2,700 were located. In 1959 the baptized membership of the former West Prussian (including Danzig and East Prussia) congregations was distributed as follows: North Germany—ca. 4,000, of whom ca. 2,100 were in nine refugee congregations widely scattered and an equal number in the eight established congregations; South Germany—ca. 600, of whom two thirds were in the Palatinate. Two new refugee congregations were established in the South Enkenbach in the Palatinate and Backnang near Stuttgart. In Uruguay there were in 1957 four congregations with a total of 809 members—El Ombu, Gartental, Montevideo, and Colonia Delta. The nine congregations in North Germany were organized under a conference committee called "Aeltestenausschuss der Konferenz der west- und ostpreussischen Gemeinden." In Uruguay the four congregations formed a conference which was affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church in North America. -- Horst Penner
The Mennonites who had to leave their ancestral home in West Prussia, East Prussia, and Danzig (Gdansk) between 1945 and 1947, in the 1980s lived predominantly in three countries: in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD; Federal Republic of Germany), Uruguay, and Canada. Approximately 250 lived in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic). At first these refugees lived mainly in the northern part of Germany (BRD), but then moved because of available jobs to the Ruhr Valley in the west-central BRD and partly also to the southern part of the country. The emigration to Canada happened mostly through the initiative of individuals, whereas two emigrant transports went to Uruguay. As a result of family relationships a heavy exchange of visiting takes place between these countries.
Very few of these originally agrarian people still lived on farms in Germany in the 1980s. Most of the former refugee families now worked at urban jobs. Many children from these families became lost to the Anabaptist faith because they lived in areas without a Mennonite congregation, or they changed their membership to another church. Some of the Mennonite refugees found new homes in largely Mennonite settlements, e.g., Bechterdissen, Espelkamp, Neuwied, Enkenbach, and Backnang. Two further settlements in Wedel near Hamburg and Lubeck did not develop into autonomous Mennonite congregations. In these settlement churches something of the old mode of life (closed living situation, far-reaching unity of family, neighborhood, church) survived. Other Mennonite congregations which were founded by refugees after 1945 were very small in 1987, threatened by dissolution, and their members lived scattered far and wide. This was especially true whenever a congregation had no full-time minister and no meetingplace or building of its own (e.g., Kiel, Lübeck, Gottingen, Bremen). Whenever refugees joined already existing Mennonite congregations (e.g., Hamburg, Krefeld, Weierhof) they enlivened and enriched these in spite of initial adjustment problems; thus it was in large part through West-Prussian Mennonite influence that the lay ministry (frequently alongside a full-time minister) was blooming again in German Mennonite churches.
The integration of refugees in West German society happened gradually, and many refugees at first nourished hopes for a return. Therefore they joined existing Mennonite congregations only with hesitation, or they formed their own new congregations. It was the economic upswing in the Federal Republic of Germany, above all in the late 1950s, which very much eased the integration of Mennonite refugees. A memorandum of the German Lutheran Church in 1965, which advised reconciliation with Poland and a renunciation of the "old country" in East and West Prussia, set loose some intense debating in Mennonite congregations. Exactly when individuals gave up hope of a return to West Prussia varied—for some this occurred already in the 1950s, for others in 1961 (building of the Wall in Berlin, climax of the East-West conflict), for others not until the 1970s (Moscow and Warsaw Treaty between the BRD and the Soviet Union and Poland respectively).
In West Prussia itself where Mennonites lived for 400 years, their traces have faded. The old farmhouses, frequently built of wood, were disappearing more and more with the passing of time. The people who lived there were refugees from the former East Poland which was ceded to the Soviet Union at the end of the war. The fields were cultivated and well-kept, and, after initial difficulties, the marshlands, whose water drainage systems were destroyed during the war, were dry again. Some of the Mennonite church buildings still stood. Some served Catholic congregations (Elbing-Ellerwald, Montau, Obernessau, Preussisch-Rosengart) or a Protestant congregation (Danzig) as meetingplaces; others were used as storage buildings (Fürstenwerderfeld, Thiensdorf). Still other Mennonite church buildings have vanished. Cemeteries of the former Mennonite congregations, for 35 years hidden in the countryside and abandoned and overgrown, were being cleared away since the 1970s. Occasionally visitors from the west have taken souvenirs. Private efforts to bring the "Nickelstone" (Abraham Nickel) into the Bundesrepublik Deutschland had been without success by the 1980s.
Since approximately 1970 Poland made visits of refugees to their former residential areas possible and, among others, many Mennonites went there and so made their peace with the past. For the younger generation of former West-Prussian Mennonites, Prussia was no longer a special, living memory; they were at home in West Germany. Through these visits, many individual contacts with people in Poland were made, including occasional contact with Polish maids or coachmen who still lived there. It was especially these former West Prussians who in the early 1980s, sent many parcels to Poland when it was experiencing its worst economic distress—this was also a symbol of reconciliation and solidarity with the old country as well as with its current population. In the years 1973, 1974, and 1980 groups of young Mennonites drove to Poland under the auspices of the Protestant Aktion Sühnezeichen (Movement of Reconciliation), to visit the former concentration camp Stutthof near Gdansk and Majdanek near Lublin, thus contributing to the reconciliation. -- Peter J. Foth
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|Peter J. Foth|
Cite This Article
Penner, Horst and Peter J. Foth. "West Prussia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 5 Mar 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=West_Prussia&oldid=103481.
Penner, Horst and Peter J. Foth. (1989). West Prussia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 March 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=West_Prussia&oldid=103481.
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