Ep. 57 MCC “rescues” must be reconsidered

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is an American/Canadian relief organization founded in 1920 to aid Russian Mennonites during times of famine especially during the Holodomor in 1932. MCC has continued to the present day offering worldwide relief services and community development projects while advocating for peace. But at the end of World War II the MCC was playing a dirty game helping Russian Mennonites escape their past and in the process restore their privilege over other more deserving people. Gerhard would find the MCC very helpful indeed.

The Allies, including Soviet Union, had agreed all citizens should return to their country of birth, by force, if necessary. For Mennonites repatriation precipitated another life-and-death identity crisis. As documented German citizens they were not eligible for help because Germany was not a member of the United Nations and as Soviet citizens they were destined to a miserable term in the Gulag. Meanwhile Soviet agents combed the refugee camps throughout Germany seeking to take back their former citizens, eventually capturing 23,000 Mennonites. Gerhard was at risk of capture wherever he was.

Amid the great uncertainties of Central European statehood in the immediate postwar era, when nationality often determined whether one was persecuted or privileged and, in some cases, whether one would live or die, the Mennonites adopted a fluid national identity. When their formerly favored characteristics of nationality, ethnicity, and language became the very things that brought the wrath of others to bear upon them, the Mennonites denied any association with the Nazi regime — and with their German heritage — and remodeled their existing identity to distance themselves from their recent past to avoid retribution from their enemies.[1]

Jakob ReimerJack Reimer
Readers will recall Jakob “Jack” Reimer from Episode 48, the Mennonite murderer of Jews in Lublin, Poland. He knew returning to Russia would be fatal. By the time he found his way to the Mennonite camp he had shed his uniform and was travelling with Ludmila Davidovic, a Russian Jew and her mother. Travelling with two women made him appear less like a murderous thug and more like a helpless refugee. “With the assistance of T. O. Hylkema, pastor of the Mennonite church in Amsterdam, MCC negotiated an agreement with the Dutch government to provide asylum”[2] to Russian Mennonite refugees. This was the Menno Pas. Anyone who could convince the MCC authorities they were Mennonite could get one. Once again a person’s surname determined whether he or she received privileged access to relocation and safety that was not available to other more deserving refugees. Once again a person’s name served as evidence of membership in the Mennonite community. MCC representative John J. Kroeker met Jack Reimer at the MCC refugee station at 12a Viktoria Luise Platz in Berlin and vouched for him as a “Mennonite of Dutch origin.”[3] Hylkema signed it and Reimer was delivered to one of the Dutch Mennonite refugee camps from which he emigrated to the United States.

B.H. Unruh

Benjamin H. Unruh

Did Kroeker know about Reimer’s crimes against humanity? If not specifically in Reimer’s case, in a letter to Benjamin H. Unruh[4] Kroeker admits to complicity in a don’t ask–don’t tell policy when interviewing prospective immigrants:

They put me in prison for two days because I violated military law by dragging 192 people to Berlin. We are always under observation in the camp. We do have in our midst several people who were drafted into the Wehrmacht and SS and this costs us a lot of problems about why and how.[5]

You can almost see Kroeker and Unruh winking at each other, not daring to speak the shameful truth: MCC would rather “rescue” an SS man than save a qualifying refugee.
Reimer dissolved his marriage to Davidovic as soon as possible and assumed his new life in America. “He had a wife, two children, and some grandchildren. He often read the Bible. He liked to dance. And in 1992, when he was retired and living in Putnam County, agents of his adopted country called to say they wanted to talk to him about his years as a Nazi.”[6] For the next, and last, thirteen years of his life Reimer was pursued by the American Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. His citizenship was revoked, and he was to be deported. Reimer died before he was forcibly returned to the country of his crimes,[7] an unsatisfying ending gifted to too many Holocaust perpetrators.

* * * * *

Jakob LiutjensTerror of Roden
Gerhard Harder’s[8] real name was Jacob Luitjens when he was known as the Terror of Roden. A member of the Dutch Nazi Party, he helped the Gestapo round up Jews and Dutch resistance fighters. He surrendered to the Allies in 1945, but escaped from a military prison in 1946. In 1948 the Mennonites helped Luitjens, using a Mennonite name, to escape his life sentence by giving him passage to Paraguay where he lived for 13 years.[9] The name granted him immunity from his sentence and permitted him to begin life again as a Mennonite. Talk about being born again. He emigrated to Canada in 1961, but failed to acknowledge his war-time activities, became an instructor in the Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia and even joined a Mennonite church under his real name.[10] Thirty years later reality caught up to him and he was deported to the Netherlands in 1992. Even then, the MCC continued to fight for the convicted war criminal. The BC chapter sent a letter imploring the federal government to permit Luitjens to stay in Canada “on humanitarian grounds.”[11]

* * * * *

Helmut OberlanderHelmut Oberlander
Helmut Oberlander, born in Halbstadt, the capital city of Molochna colony, was 17 years old when the killing squads of Einsatzkommando 10a arrived in his village and used him as an interpreter. When the Einsatzkommando disbanded, he served in the infantry. Like Gerhard he served the German military until he was captured by the British in 1945. In 1954 he emigrated to Canada, never mentioning his war-time association with the worst of Nazi death squads, became a Canadian citizen and operated a construction business. Forty years later he is still accused of crimes against humanity in World War II and is fighting to remain in Canada. In July 2017, the federal government again stripped the 93-year-old Oberlander’s Canadian citizenship.[12]

* * * * *

Jacob Fast
Fast is another common Mennonite name. Jacob Fast was born in a Mennonite village in Ukraine a year before Gerhard. He was “…drafted into the German army when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. In that process he became a German citizen. Many Mennonite men in Ukraine had the same experience.”[13] He joined the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Police Unit) in Zaporozhye, Ukraine and was accused of arresting, deporting, torturing and executing thousands of Jewish civilians and enforcing Nazi racial policies.[14] Fast emigrated to Canada in 1947 and was living in St. Catherines, Ontario, when he was arrested 52 years later. On October 3, 2003, the Federal Court ruled that Mr. Fast had obtained his Canadian citizenship by deceit in that he failed to reveal his German citizenship when applying to come to Canada in 1947. The Court also found that Mr. Fast had collaborated with the German Security Police responsible for enforcing the racial policies of the German Reich.[15] Three weeks before he died in 2007, the Canadian government revoked his citizenship.[16]

* * * * *

Michael Seifert as an SS prison guardButcher of Bolzano
Michael Seifert brutally murdered between 11-17 prisoners in a transit prison in Bolzano, Italy in 1945, earning him the title of the “Butcher of Bolzano.” He moved to Canada after the war, claiming to be from Estonia, and found employment as a mill worker living in East Vancouver, where he raised a family and lived until he was arrested at Italy’s request in 2002.[17]

Mr. Seifert and his wife were regular attenders at church and participated in community activities and had, apparently, a good reputation in their neighbourhood for being helpful people. Mr. Seifert has apparently not been in any trouble with the law during the fifty-odd years that he has been in Canada.[18]

Seifert spent the next five years fighting his extradition to Italy in 2008. He died after two years in prison, having lived in undeserved freedom for more than sixty years.

* * * * *

Johann Dueck
Johann Dueck lived in the village of Kalinovo, in the Mennonite colony of Memrik, less than 150 kilometres from where Gerhard was born. He was 22 years old when he worked as an interpreter for the local German police. He never wore a uniform and never carried a weapon. Like Gerhard he was conscripted by the Soviets and deposited unarmed within earshot of the front.

They were told they would be digging anti-tank trenches with their bare hands. Disembarking, they were left in a field a couple of kilometers from the German front with no commanders to organize them. “We were a big herd of people, and no food,” Mr. Dueck recalls. “You could hear the front. On the second day, the German bombers came, and the machine guns.”[19]

He married and emigrated to Canada in 1948 working as a door and window installer. In 1995 Canadian immigration officials accused him of being a war criminal based on false evidence gathered by the KGB in 1980. Mr. Dueck was exonerated in 1998 and the Canadian government awarded him $750,000 in costs.

* * * * *

menno pas1

How did the MCC manage to sneak so many German and Mennonite collaborators and war criminals into Canada?

The first strategy was the Menno Pas. After convincing Dutch authorities that Mennonites were Dutch, MCC created a special passport which enabled Mennonites to enter the Netherlands. Everyone involved in the ruse knew few Dutch Mennonites existed outside the Netherlands, but these were desperate times.

The Menno Pas had a short-lived success. Four-hundred-twenty Mennonites speaking a vaguely Dutch-sounding dialect of German were accepted as immigrants to Holland, crossing the border at Gronau, in the British zone. As soon as the Soviets realized what the MCC was up to, they refused to release any more Dutch refugees, and the Menno Pas was history. Who knows how many Mennonite war criminals were in that group.[20]

Mennonites continued to claim Dutch heritage based on the fact 90 per cent of the family names of the refugees were the same as or similar to the family names of Dutch settlers to Vistula and Nogat lowlands of Prussia centuries earlier.[21]

But not everyone was persuaded that the Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union were eligible for United Nations assistance while all the other Soviet Germans who had also been evacuated by the retreating Germans were not eligible for IRO assistance. Several Jewish, Ukrainian and American officials and researchers questioned the validity of the Mennonite claim of Dutch ancestry.[23]

menno pas2

Inside the Menno Pas.

Interestingly, the IRO (International Refugee Organization, a United Nations agency) specifically disqualified from assistance ethnic Germans who were expelled from their countries of birth and forced to move to Germany.

The IRO commissioned historian Morton W. Royse to settle the matter of Mennonite genesis once and for all. “Royse concluded that the Mennonite refugees were ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsche, irrespective of their distant ancestry. They had behaved and been recognized by the Nazis as Volksdeutsche during the war, and Royse’s conclusion was clear.”[24]

A doubtful origin, dating back several centuries, cannot change the character of the present generation, which was German and so recognized by themselves and others. These people, of the present generation, are Volksdeutsche or members of the German minority, in all ethnic aspects and mentality, regardless of what historical claims they may have to an obscure remote ancestry.[25]

The second strategy was to obviate the citizenship question entirely by claiming to be neither Dutch, nor Russian, nor Ukrainian, nor German, but simply being Mennonite. One MCC worker recalled:

They [the refugees] changed their identity when it suited them. They became chameleons … all those in the Russian zone. . . tried to pass themselves off as Germans so they would not be shipped back to Russia, but during the IRO interviews they flipped and suddenly they were not Germans . . . apparently they had no qualms . . . they played this game constantly . . . but in another sense, it wasn’t a game, they were neither German nor Russian nor even Dutch — they were Mennonite, a distinctly separate group.[26]

MCC personnel even coached Ukrainian and German Mennonites how to answer certain questions asked by the IRO administrators.

How should I answer the question about nationality? The question is very complicated but also a very simple question . . . this question should be answered with ‘Mennonite.’ And as a result, the person in question will be processed in a preferential way. In any case, one should not check off ‘German’ or ‘ethnic German.’ In this case one might also “forget” one’s citizenship papers. We do not wish to answer the questions with a partial truth and lie, but we want to maintain the old [biblical] principle: yes is yes, no is no.[27]

Wait a minute … oh never mind …

A third strategy was to explain Mennonite wartime behavior as conversion by coercion. Mennonites only became German citizens or joined the German military because they were forced to do so either out of a fear of repatriation or repercussions from the Germans. When it became known that many Mennonites had registered as German citizens years before repatriation was an issue, all Mennonites’ eligibility for assistance was placed in doubt.[28]

Immigration authorities became suspicious of the MCC methods and found “that many Mennonites had been Nazi Party members, and many had served in the Waffen SS, the Wehrmacht, and the Sicherheitsdienst, and that Ukrainian Mennonites had received German citizenship in 1943.”[29]

Several IRO administrators familiar with the wartime experiences and activities of the Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union were convinced that many of them had collaborated voluntarily with the enemy. The Mennonite refugees seemed virtually indistinguishable from the thousands of other Soviet Germans who had also been evacuated by the retreating Germans and who were regarded as being outside the mandate of the IRO. IRO administrators consequently voiced serious doubts and harboured deep suspicions regarding the honesty and legitimacy of the MCC itself when it insisted that the refugees were people of Dutch ancestry entitled to IRO assistance.[30]

It is with good cause the IRO doubted the MCC’s honesty. An example of the MCC’s ethical framework can be found in a quotation of one MCC man to another: “I fully agree with you that we do not want to do anything illegal. But what is legal and what is illegal when it comes to saving people from those godless Red bandits?”[31]

However, Mennonites continued to be admitted to United Nations camps and continued to be shipped off to Paraguay, United States and Canada at IRO expense; evidently the Mennonites had friends in high places. IRO Director General W. Hallam Tuck was “a God-fearing and well-meaning person”[32] who had “absolutely friendly relations”[33] with the MCC. He must have identified with the Mennonites’ martyr complex they so often dredged up when they were in trouble. Their “confidante” in the U.S. State Department was George L. Warren, president Truman’s representative on refugees and displaced persons at the United Nations, who “exerted his influence” to have an order quashed which required Mennonites who had collaborated to prove they did so under duress.[34] The adage rings true: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

In the end, of the 12,000 Mennonites that were not repatriated, Gerhard was one of the 7,698 to arrive in Canada.



[1] Schroeder, Steve, Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945-1950, The Conrad Grebel Review, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring 2003), pages 7-8.

[2] Dyck, Peter J. “Refugees.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 14 Apr 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Refugees&oldid=93354.

[3] Kroeker to Hylkema, March 7, 1946, Kroeker Papers, Box 14, AMC-N; U.S. Dept. of Justice, Government Moves To Deport New York City Area Man For Involvement In Nazi Mass Murder Of Jews,‛ May 2, 2005. E-mail from James Urry to Gerhard Rempel, March 20, 2006 cited in Rempel, Gerhard, Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation, The Mennonite Quarterly Review, MQR 84 (October 2010) page 537.

[4]  Benjamin H. Unruh is considered by Mennonites as a “great teacher and emigration leader”[GAMEO] and by others as a powerful supporter of the Nazi regime who considered Hitler the savior from Communism [Harry Loewen, The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 3 (Fall 2000)]

[5]  Kroeker to Unruh, Lieber Onkel Benny,‛ April 11, 1946, Kroeker Papers, Box 14, AMC-N cited in Rempel, op. cit., page 537.

[6]  Barry, Dan, A Face Seen and Unseen on the Subway, New York Times, September 17, 2005.

[7] Ibid.

[8]  The name Harder is commonly accepted as an exclusively Mennonite name.

[9]  Article: Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Canadian Judge Chastised for Delay in Denaturalizing Nazi Collaborator, December 6, 1991, https://www.jta.org/1991/12/06/archive/canadian-judge-chastised-for-delay-in-denaturalizing-nazi-collaborator, author unnamed, accessed May 15, 2017.

[10]  https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Jacob_Luitjens accessed May 11, 2017.

[11] Article: Mennonites Defend Man Threatened With Deportation, Mennonite Reporter, undated, by Margaret Loewen Reimer, accessed at https://eucatastrophic.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/img_02541.jpg on May 15, 2018.

[12]  Buekert, Kate, Ex-Nazi interpreter Helmut Oberlander stripped of citizenship for 4th time, CBC News · Posted: Jul 25, 2017 12:25 PM ET | Last Updated: July 26, 2017, accessed May 10, 2018.

[13]  Steiner, Sam J., Blog entry: Ontario Mennonites and Criminal Behavior, 2017-03-06, https://ontariomennonitehistory.org/2017/03/06/ontario-mennonites-and-crime/#comments, accessed May 11, 2018.

[14]  World War Two Related Cases In Canada, The Hellin Learning Centre, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, https://www.friendsofsimonwiesenthalcenter.com/, accessed May 11, 2018.

[15]  Canada’s Program on Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes, Ninth Annual Report, 2005-2006, Canada Border Services Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Department of Justice, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, http://www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/security-securite/wc-cg/wc-cg2006-eng.html#ww2cases, accessed May 11, 2018.

[16]  Steiner, Sam J., op. cit.

[17] Aloisi, Silvia, Ex -Nazi guard jailed in Italy after extradition, Reuters, February 16, 2008.

[18]  Oral Reasons For Judgment Before The Honourable Mr. Justice Lambert, Court Of Appeal For British Columbia, May 24, 2002,

[19]  Makin, Kirk, Witch Hunt – For crimes not committed, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, editorial dated  February 23, 1999, http://www.fpp.co.uk/online/99/02/Persecution.html, accessed May 11, 2018.

[20]  Mennonites also assisted Joop and Bert Postma by providing them with the identities of dead (Mennonite?) soldiers to escape their circumstances. See http://home.deds.nl/~hotelpostma/ accessed May 16, 2017.

[21]  Regehr, T.D., Of Dutch or German Ancestry? Mennonite Refugees, MCC, and the International Refugee Organization, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 13, 1995, page 13.

[22]  IRO = International Refugee Organization

[23]  Regehr, op. cit., page 13.

[24] Ibid.

[25]  As quoted in MHC Board of Colonization 13251957, William T. Snyder to Cornelius Krahn, 12 March 1948, quoted in Regehr, op. cit., pages 13-14.

[26]  Kreider, Robert, Interviews of Peter and Elfrieda Dyck: Experiences in MCC Service in Europe, 1941-1949 (Akron, PA: MCC, 1988), p. 322, cited in Schroeder, op. cit., page 10.

[27]   MCA, MCC Records “Refugee Migration January 1947-1948,” circular from Siegfried Janzen, 25 April 1947 titled, “Rundschrieben Nr.2 “Liebe Fluechtlingsgeschwister in Deutschland” cited in Schroeder, op. cit., pages 7-8.

[28]  Regehr, op. cit., page 15.

[29]  Frank Epp, Mennonite Exodus: The Rescue and Resettlement of the Russian Mennonites Since the Russian Revolution (Altona, MB: Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council, 1962), p 409 cited in Schroeder, op. cit., page 9.

[30] C.F. Klassen’s recollections of these negotiations are given in Klassen, Ambassador to His People, p. 187-88 quoted in Regehr, op. cit., page 12.

[31]  MCA, MCC Records, “MCC Correspondence: Inter-Office, C. F. Klassen, 1952,” letter from Klassen to W. T. Snyder, 17 January 1952 quoted in Schroeder, op. cit., page 11.

[32]  Regehr, op. cit., page 13.

[33]  Ibid.

[34]  MCA MCC Records IX 6-3, File entitled “Correspondence 1950. United States Government Department of State,” William T. Snyder to George L. Warren, 14 June 1950 cited in Regehr, op. cit., page 16.

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