Norita Yoder


Winner, 2011 Best History Paper

Photos of Berlin, Germany tell a story of a nation that went from expansion to destruction in the space of six years. In 1942 elaborate military parades were staged with a vast and disciplined army at the Brandenburg gate. By May of 1945 the Russian “Red” Army was raising their sickle and hammer flag over the Reichstag with smoke rising from the rubble of what was once a proud Berlin. Truly the war had “come home in all the frightfulness with which the German leaders started and waged it”[1] Berlin was a window to a Europe in ruins. Into this rubble, came organizations for relief efforts. Their first concern was the millions of refugees displaced as the Red Army advanced from the east and the Allied powers from the west. The American Mennonites were significant components in the rebuilding and relief efforts. This aid was focused in three ways: First were the Mennonite men and women volunteers who worked to help European Mennonite refugees escape from the Russian zone, then immigrate into the Americas. Secondly, volunteers worked to rebuild infrastructure, homes and villages destroyed by the war. Lastly, large amounts of material aid was sent from the Mennonites in the United States and distributed by the volunteers through the Mennonite agencies positioned in Europe. Both men and women were involved in these relief efforts, that made a significant impact on the recovery of Germany in particular and Europe in general, and raised world awareness among American Mennonites.

The Mennonites originated in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands during the Reformation. They were initially named Anabaptists because of their belief in adult baptism.[2]The church was to be one of individual choice, not mandated by civil government but chosen by a free individual out of their personal belief and faith in Christ, which initiated them into the Kingdom of Christ. This kingdom was distinct from the Kingdom of the world and therefore had a different ethic and morality. This led to their view of peace and “loving one’s enemy” and their non-involvement in any case of bearing the sword or military service. Their stance on war and opposition to the military later led them to ally with other groups such as the Quakers and the Brethren, and together they are known as the Historic Peace Churches (HPC).[3]For the HPC the practical means to overcome evil is the Biblical teaching that “good overcomes evil.” It is interpreted, as saying there is something of a good God within every individual who can be appealed to through good. Material aid has historically been a means of good for the HPC to overcome evil.

The post-World War II Mennonite relief efforts came out of this long history and theology of mutual aid. From the beginnings of Anabaptism there had been a focus on giving freely to both those within the church and outside of the church. Menno Simmons, from whom the Mennonites derive their name, said that if those in the army of a nation are willing to give their lives and livelihood for the sake of the cause, then so should those of the Kingdom of Christ. They interpreted this as both committing their lives for a cause, but also giving of their money and material goods to help other people.[4] There are many examples of this in Mennonite history.[5] In 1919 the Mennonites had developed an aid organization, The Mennonite Central Committee, who would take the lead in providing aid and material assistance to the world from the Mennonites. Their initial charge was to help bring relief and aid to Mennonites suffering in Russia as the Bolsheviks took control immediately after World War I.[6]

As early as 1786, the Russian monarch Catherine the Great had appealed to German farmers to settle her unpopulated land. They are often called “Russian Mennonites” and play an important role in this story. It is the descendants of these who would later become refugees in Germany in the 1900s.

Because of the persecution and lack of land for farming in Europe, the center of Mennonitism had shifted to North America by the early 1900s. There were large settlements of these people in Pennsylvania, Ohio and most of the Mid-western states. There had also been large-scale immigration from those Mennonites who had moved to Russia and than immigrated into the Plains states and also the Prairie Provinces of Canada. There had also been some migration of these Russian Mennonites to the “Green hell” or the Chaco of Paraguay.[7]It is largely the North American Mennonites who would be so instrumental in helping their European brothers and sisters after the war.

The problem of refugees was astronomical after the war. A postwar (24 March 1950) report to Congress prepared by the House Special Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, “Expellees and Refugees of German Ethnic Origins” places the number of refugees at 12 million. It says that about 8.5 million of these were in West Germany with the balance in East Germany under Soviet rule.[8]This number does not reflect the displaced West Germans who had lost their homes in the war. It also estimates that the number of refugees who had died in the chaotic period following the war was about 3 million.[9] Within this large amount of people were Mennonites from Russia, but some who had remained in Prussia, and still others from parts of Eastern Europe. The Mennonites of North America had generally not fought as soldiers in the war, but had served in a program designed for those opposed to going to war called Civilian Public Service.[10] Because of this, they were not as aware of the refugee issue until after the war; consequently it took them some time to mobilize their efforts to support and help.
At the outset of World War II, MCC had sent representatives to England to help distribute aid and provide for the children of England. Peter Dyck, born in Russia and immigrated to Canada, was one of the most influential MCC aid workers during this time. He met another aid worker in England, Elfrieda Klassan, whom he married. Dyck had been asked to go and felt that he could not refuse MCC because he had himself been fed by MCC aid while a child in Russia.[11] The Dycks entered Europe through the Netherlands in June 1945; one month after Germany had surrendered. They initially made contact with the Dutch Mennonite Church, which promised their help as well. Dyck was almost immediately faced with the enormity of the situation. At first their plans had been to distribute aid, but they soon became enmeshed in the refugee problem.[12]By this time the MCC had geared up its aid efforts, and Mennonites in North America donated almost half the aid goods coming through the Dutch Red Cross.[13]

It is extremely difficult to find the exact number of refugees who were Mennonite. MCC eventually assisted about 9,500 Mennonites to emigrate. There were many more that decided to stay in West Germany, and unfortunately there were many who died or were repatriated to Soviet territories and disappeared.[14] One poignant story is that of 614 Russian Mennonites who started their journey from the Chortitza Colony North of the Black Sea in the Ukraine. Twenty-two months later they had found their way to the Dutch Border at Maastricht where they engaged Peter Dyck to help them. By this time their numbers had been reduced to 33 people.[15] The Dutch authorities were reluctant to allow this group to enter the Netherlands without a promise that MCC and the Dutch Mennonite Church would care for them, and that they would help them resettle in another country. MCC committed to this and found lodging until a ship could be chartered. MCC was eventually able to charter a ship and move these people to Paraguay.

MCC’s effort in Europe also allowed for women to transcend traditional borders and restrictions on their roles in the Mennonite church, which was still largely patriarchical in its leadership. Lois Gunden Clemens, Eva Blosser and the above-mentioned Elfrieda Klassen Dyck are perhaps the best known of any of the women who served.

Lois Gunden Clemens, who later in life became and influential leader in the feminist movement within the Mennonite church, served through MCC as the director of a refugee children’s home in Canet-Plage in southern France. As a twenty-six year old woman, she was in charge of the “Villa,” as the children’s home was named, which was filled with refugee children whose parents had died in the fighting in northern France.[16] Clemens was very resourceful in protecting the children in spite of numerous attempts of the authorities to take the children and return them to northern France and Germany. Following the German occupation of France she was taken into Germany as a civilian prisoner of war and held at Baden-Baden. She was interned for thirteen month before being released. While in Baden-Baden she was instrumental in setting up language classes for other prisoners and keeping hope alive until her release in 1944. [17]

Eva Blosser was another woman instrumental in the efforts at relief in Europe. She and her husband Howard, who had been in the Civilian Public Service Program, served in Europe under MCC following the war. In a 1986 interview they both say Mennonite women voluntarily stepped out of their historic isolation and broke down some of the leadership barriers that had prevented them from serving in the past. While men had been forced out of their communal isolation by the draft and the CPS program, women voluntarily took this step. The Blossers point to this as a transformational time in the role of Mennonite women. Eva says that the experience with MCC gave them a global perspective both geographically and culturally.[18]

Eva, who was responsible for clothing distribution in Germany after the war ended, was essentially in charge. She would spend weeks traveling and distributing clothing throughout war-ravaged Germany. She says that she would sometimes consult with her husband, who was the titular head of the distribution network, but she ran it. Her husband agreed, saying, “They (The women) were the decision makers, who got (clothing) and who didn’t.”[19] She also said that, “We were given a job to do and expected to do it. We weren’t asked whether we were a man or woman. This is the job that needed to be done, and you do it.”[20]When asked if she had to fight for her rights she indicated that attitudes among the MCC European staff were much more free in regards to women in leadership roles than among the supporting churches in North America.

Perhaps the best-known example of women in leadership in the relief effort is Elfrieda Klassen Dyck. She is an integral part of what became known as “Operation Mennonite.” In the autumn of 1946, Elfrieda’s husband, Peter Dyck, received word of a number of Mennonites stranded in the Western sector of Berlin. Because the Soviet Union viewed them as citizens to repatriate under the Potsdam Agreement, they were afraid to attempt to travel through the checkpoints associated with the travel corridors to the west. Initially the US Army officer in charge gave Dyck a house to house these people until the legal issue could be resolved. As other Mennonite refugees found out about the arrangement, their numbers swelled from the initial 212 to over 1,000.[21] Because they were technically Soviet citizens, the US and United Nations official relief organizations could not count them as refugees and therefore not feed them. MCC took responsibility to care for these people. As the numbers grew, Dyck faced increasing pressure from Colonel Stinson, the US Army head of the Displaced Persons Department in Berlin, to move these people out of Berlin. After many attempts to coordinate passage through the Soviet Zone, Stinson and Dyck decided to give a list of names and nationalities to the Soviets in an attempt to cause them to live up to the Yalta Agreement, which specified that refugees other than war criminals, deserters, or collaborators could choose where they wanted to go. They presented their list to the Soviets, and nothing happened. The refugees themselves were fearful of this move, for they had seen many of their own people gathered by the Soviets to disappear into the East.[22] After this attempt did not work, the Army decided on a classified operation called “Operation Mennonite” where the Army would provide rail transportation through the Soviet Zone to any port in Europe, and MCC would provide a ship and a guarantee to resettle these people outside of Europe.

MCC had several hundred refugees in Holland by this time, over 1,000 in Berlin and about another 1,000 in a refugee camp near Munich.[23] As the time drew nearer for departure, the Army and Dyck worked together to prepare the refugees in Berlin for “Operation Mennonite.” At the last minute, General Lucius Clay, a four star general and the military governor of the US zone in Germany, found out about “Operation Mennonite” and cancelled the operation as too much risk for an incident with the Soviets.[24]

Dyck immediately requested an audience with Gen. Clay, which Col. Stinson said would never happen. Dyck then wrote a letter and hand delivered it to Clay’s headquarters; to his surprise Clay gave him an audience and he suggested that they bump the decision up to Washington. To their surprise, Washington said that “Operation Mennonite” could go forward if the Soviets agreed, in essence bouncing it all back to Clay and Dyck. With this MCC faced a quandary because of their binding contract with Holland-American Lines: they faced a $15,000 per day penalty for every day they did not sail past their assigned date. Dyck left for Bremerhaven where the Volendam was docked to take the bad news and load the balance of the refugees, leaving his wife in charge in Berlin.[25]

Shortly after Dyck’s departure from Berlin on 31 January 1947, Elfrieda Dyck was summoned to Col. Stinson’s office where she received the good news that “Operation Mennonite” was on after all. She was told at 6:00 PM to have the refugees in the streets at 8:00 that evening and have them wait in silence. After that Stinson issued orders to block the entire area with American Military Police and requisitioned US Army trucks to take the refugees to the train. After a brief delay they were able to successfully make their way to the British Zone and on to Bremerhaven, where they boarded the Volendam for their new homes in Paraguay.[26] What is fascinating is that in the absence of her husband, Elfrieda met with the Army leaders and organized the impossible task of having 1,115 people ready to go in two hours time. This included sick, children and even a lady in labor![27] She was in charge and everyone involved understood this well. This again shows the amount of authority that these Mennonite women carried in this work. It is also a fascinating picture to think of a pacifistic Mennonite woman and the US Army planning a secret operation to remove Russian citizens from under the nose of the Soviet occupiers!
The contribution of these women to MCC and to the relief efforts is immeasurable. All told, from the spring of 1945 until the end of 1948 MCC distributed about 8,000 tons of food and 110 tons of textiles (mainly clothing) in Europe.

MCC spent about ten million dollars in aid and help for refugees in the same period. They had established permanent offices in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. In many cases women like Eva, Lois and Elfrieda were leaders in this effort. It was also from these locations that the Mennonites developed plans for not only the relief efforts, but also the rebuilding of Europe following the war.

MCC soon saw the need for developing a more systematic way of helping rebuild the war ravaged nations of Europe. Espelkamp-Mittwald, a former munitions and poison gas factory slated for destruction by the British forces, was chosen as the site for their first overseas Voluntary Service Project. The project itself was the result of the German Evangelical Hilfwerk,[28] who had rescued the camp and intended to use it to provide housing for Displaced Persons.[29] Generally the refugees at Espelkamp were not Mennonite and more often were displaced Reichsdeutsche. MCC discovered the work and almost immediately sent an investigation. Late in 1948 they established a service camp to allow both long term and short term workers (Including women) to help build this model city.

When the European Recovery Plan (ERP), or Marshall Plan, was put into operation by the United States, it forced the amalgamation of church and state at Espelkamp. In it Hilfwerk used ERP money to help build institutions for the model city. Espelkamp was not a handout for these refugees, rather it was a social experiment that asked those benefitting to also invest time into the project. For instance, in 1949 it was agreed that anyone wanting to build would have to break loose and clean 2,000 bricks from the bombed and dynamited bunkers, which would then be used in the foundations and walls of their homes.[30]

It is here that the workers who came to Germany through MCC would step in and help these refugees build their homes. In 1951 MCC established PAX,[31] a foreign service program for I-W[32] draftees. At Espelkamp they not only helped families build their homes, they also built churches and many other buildings. It is here that many young North American Mennonite men and women saw firsthand the devastation that war had wrought in Europe.[33]Espelkamp was an extremely positive picture for MCC and PAX; when they decided to withdraw and move their efforts elsewhere, Hilfwerk asked them to find displaced Mennonites to move there. About thirty Prussian Mennonites who had been displaced by the loss of East Prussia to Poland settled there. MCC stayed on and helped these people build homes and also built a Mennonite church in Espelkamp-Mittwald.[34]

The Mennonites, then, discovered in the rebuilding of Europe that in working out the mandate of Christ to overcome evil with good, a metamorphosis occurred within themselves which pushed them into world awareness and changed their own structures.

Norita Yoder is an alumna (2011). She writes: “I am a Mennonite woman who entered University for  own benefit and for the purpose of advocating for higher education and women’s issues within my subculture.  I graduated in December 2011 summa cum laude with Research Distinction in History.  I plan to continue my research of women within my culture and the factors that influenced the changes in their roles from their beginnings in the Reformation.  I just received acceptance into Yale Divinity School for fall of 2012.” 

[1] Harry S. Truman, “Radio Report to the American people on the Potsdam Conference,” 9 August 1945, Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO: Available online at

2 The term Anabaptist means re-baptizer. It is based on the Latin “Ana” again and baptized. In Germany they were often called the Widertaufers. For more see George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation ( Kirksville, MO: Truman University Press, 2000), 294.

[3] For more on this alliance see Marcus Yoder, “An Experiment in Democracy: Civilian Public Serivce and Conscientious Objectors in World War II.” (Senior Honors Thesis, The Ohio State University, 2010), 6.

[4] Walter Klaassen, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (Scottsdale, PA Herald Press, 1981), 240.

[5] Needless to say mutual aid was and remains the backbone of Mennonite relief efforts. There are literally hundreds of mutual aid organizations ranging from MCC which works world wide, to very small organizations which focus on small regions. For more see Henry Smith and Harold Bender, eds., The Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955), 3: 797.

[6] Yoder, 19.

[7] Henry Smith and Harold Bender, eds., The Mennonite Encylcopedia (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955), 4:384.

[8] Special Subcommittee of the Committee of the Judiciary, Expellees and Refugees of German Ethnic Origin 81st Cong., 2d sess., March 1950, Report No.1841, 3.

[9] Special Subcommitte Report, 5.

[10] See Marcus Yoder.

[11] Peter and Elfrieda Dyck, Up from the Rubble (Scottsdale PA: Herald Press, 1991), 19.

[12] Dyck, 61.

[13] Ibid., 60. There is an amusing anecdote in Dyck’s book where the Dutch Red Cross director asks whether half the North Americans are indeed Mennonite! This is because nearly half the goods were from them. This is reflective of the high level of mutual aid and support that the North American Mennonites showed in the post-war relief efforts.

[14] John A Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder, Testing Faith and Tradition: Global Mennonite History Series (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2006), 132.

[15] Dyck, 81-129.

[16] “Lois Gunden Clemens” archive article at MC-Archives, Goshen IN. Available online at, accessed 28 February, 2011.

[17] Elaine Sommers Rich, Mennonite Women: A Story of God’s Faithfulness 1683-1983 (Scottsdale, PA, Herald Press, 1983). 220.

[18] Eva Blosser interview, by Leonard Gross, 26 March, 1986, CPS-MCC Europe Collection, Goshen College, Goshen IN. Transcripts in Author’s personal collection.

[19] Blosser interview.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Edger Stoesz, Like A Mustard Seed: Mennonites in Paraguay (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008), 73.

[22] Dyck, 162.

[23] Dyck. 167.

[24] Ibid., 169.

[25] Dyck, 173.

[26] Ibid., 185.

[27] Elfrieda records that the lady was so shocked that her labor stopped and the baby was not born until a week later.

[28] The literal translation of this is “help work” which was the goal of the group, to assist in rebuilding.

[29] Smith and Bender, vol. 2, 248.

[30] Emily Brunk, Espelkamp (Frankfurt Germany: MCC, 1951), 16.

[31] Because of their stance on peace they used the Latin Term PAX or peace for this program.

[32] I-W is the designation for Conscientious Objectors to military service in the post World War II draft. This is the designation that Selective Service gave these men.

[33] Luke Rhodes papers, available from archives at the Center for Anabaptist History, Martinsburg, OH.

[34] Brunk, 29.