“The epic rescue of thousands of war-ravaged Mennonite refugees”
Due to a desire to go back to my spiritual roots, I decided to spend free time this summer reading books about Anabaptists. So far I’ve only read one. I stumbled across it unintentionally and am glad I did because I hadn’t come across it in my online searches (which have been few) for books related to Anabaptists and Mennonites. Months ago, I had mentioned this summer reading goal to a YAR friend of mine, and he asked if I would write reviews on whichever books I read. This review is more of a summary and reflection, a smattering of thoughts I had while reading. Let me say, first of all, that I recommend it. It is a very poignant story of a group of people trusting God’s faithfulness and provision despite heartache, persecution, hunger, fatigue and seeming hopelessness.
Some of you may be familiar with Up From the Rubble, written by Peter and Elfrieda Dyck. I had never heard of the book nor the story it tells. My Mennonite lineage is Swiss-German whereas the Mennonites in this story are from Russia. I don’t know anyone (or anyone’s grandparent) personally who went through this, but I felt a connection due to being a Mennonite, and that connection served to make the story seem all the more real as I read and digested it.
The story is told by both Peter and Elfrieda; they alternate chapters or sections of chapters, so we hear both of their experiences in their own words. They tell us how they separately went to England through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) during World War II in response to a call they heard from the church and ultimately from God. While working in England they met, fell in love, and were married. From England they moved to the Netherlands to do relief work (distributing clothing and food) after the war. It was there they came in contact with the first Mennonite refugees they would help. From the Netherlands they went to the U.S. sector in Germany.
I was struck with how the events seemed to unfold, and step by step Peter and Elfrieda began to focus on assisting the Mennonite refugees. They spoke low-German, the same language as the Mennonites from Russia, and were therefore the ideal people to work in this area. I see the work they did as a need that developed right before them, and they took the opportunity. One thing they were told by MCC when their assignment began was to go and see where help was needed. It was as simple as that; no agenda for how specifically to help.
One very beautiful part of this story is how supportive Mennonites from the Netherlands, North America and Canada were in providing food and clothing for the refugees. When the first refugees requested entrance into the Netherlands, the governments would only allow them after a promise from MCC that they would take care of them entirely and the government would have no responsibility. And that’s what they did. The Dutch Mennonites opened up their homes and retreat centers for the refugees. Mennonites from North America sent clothing and canned food in large shipments. Apparently, much of the canned food was home-canned, and this struck me deeply when I began to picture Mennonite women across North America canning food, not just for their own families, but for families they had never met. This kind of provision continued when Peter and Elfrieda were in Germany with over a thousand refugees waiting to leave to go to North America or Paraguay.
Another interesting part of the story relates to the involvement of the U.S. military. While in Germany, Peter, Elfrieda and all the refugees were housed in military housing. When more homes were needed for the ever-increasing refugees, they went to their contacts within the military, and were given more houses. They also depended on the military to transport the refugees because without their assistance, it seemed unlikely they would receive permission to escort the refugees through various zones (specifically the Russian zone). I was intrigued by the close work and dependence on the military.
The book also includes the story of multiple ship-loads of refugees leaving Europe and going to Paraguay. These stories should have their own summaries. Additionally, the story doesn’t end when the refugees arrive in Paraguay (by the way, Paraguay agreed to take 3,000 refugees no-questions-asked because of previous Mennonite settlers who were able to “tame” a certain un-tamable part of Paraguay). I read about the struggles of refugees starting in a new, very different place. Many people were separated from spouses, and they had no idea whether they would ever hear from those spouses. The story also discusses how people and churches struggled with how to handle situations when individuals were interested in new marriage relationships while still not knowing if their spouse was dead, alive or in prison in Europe or Russia. Peter and Elfrieda do a faithful job of illustrating the heartache and hardship the Mennonite refugees endured during this time and as a result of the war and persecution in Russia.
I think I’ll end here and save the rest for your own reading. One last thought, there is an old video (called Berlin Exodus) of some of the events in the book — has anyone seen it?