Memories of Mennonites

Two soldiers posing with a sign in what’s today known as Morozivka, Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine – what is the deal with that? To begin with, “Morosowo” was also known as “Hochfeld”. Why a German name on a place deep into the Soviet Union? Read on…

While German troops arrived in the region in mid-August 1941, the photo appears to have been taken after the first snows later that year. It’s also quite possible that the soldiers, looking rather fresh-faced, were new arrivals stationed to Morozivka in the spring of 1942.

The Mennonites is a Christian sect with many similarities with the more well-known Amish. They originated in the Netherlands in the 16th century, but some moved to the Vistula region in Poland in search of religious freedom and exemption from military service. As Prussia emerged as a local power, most of the Vistula Mennonite lands became part of the kingdom. They had to pay heavy fees in order to keep the exemption from military service. In 1763, the Empress Catherine the Great invited all Europeans to settle in various parts of Russia, and the Vistula Mennonites, not happy with the situation in Prussia, heeded the call and began settling in 1789 in lands won from the war with the Ottoman Empire.

Hardworking farmers, the Mennonites mostly kept to themselves, happy to enjoy religious freedom. Things changed with the government’s 1870 plan of Russification of the diverse ethnic parts of the Empire. Afraid to lose their status as pacifists, many Mennonites chose to emigrate to the United States and Canada. Whole villages moved off, and the Russian government, not wanting to lose the best farmers in the Empire, offered an alternative to armed service in 1880. In the chaos following WW1 – the fall of the Czar, the Bolshevik power grab, and the Russian Civil War – the Mennonite communities suffered. More emigrated, mostly to North America. With the Communist collectivization of farms, Mennonite lands were confiscated.

The Mennonites were part of a greater German-speaking population known as the Volga Germans, who had colonized the area following Catherine’s decree. During Stalin’s Great Purge in 1937-38, German-speakers were targeted and in many cases deported to Siberia. When the invading German Army entered the region in 1941, it was seen as a liberator, at least initially. Some Mennonites went on to serve in the Wehrmacht, some voluntarily, some not. Following the war, about a million ethnic Germans, among them Mennonites, were forcibly deported to Siberia, where 200,000 – 300,000 died from starvation and exposure. When Stalin died in 1953, his draconian policies were rescinded, but the German-speaking communities were smashed for good.

So that’s the story behind the sign held by those soldiers in the winter of 1941-42.



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