More than seven decades after World War II ended, revelations about Mennonites and the war continue coming to light.
Stéphane Zehr of Anduze, France, presented research about French Mennonite resistance to Nazism at an event Nov. 10 in Haut-Clocher organized by the French Association of Anabaptist Mennonite History.
Zehr was inspired by Mennonite Jean-Paul Kremer, who wrote about being deported at the age of 17 to concentration camps in Natzweiler-Struthof and Buchenwald for refusing to give a Nazi salute.
(Kremer’s book, Salut ne vient pas d’Hitler, or “Salvation does not come from Hitler,” is available only in French.)
Zehr met Kremer two months before his death on Nov. 27, 2016. Kremer gave him the manuscript of his deportation testimony and permission to edit it with notes and an introduction.
“It was very moving,” Zehr told MWR by email. “During this work, I found by chance a significant file at the departmental archives of Moselle in Saint-Julien-lès-Metz.”
The roughly 300-page file from the Nazi special court in Metz included testimony taken in November 1942 from 15 Mennonites from Sarrebourg, including depositions from his grandfather and great-grandfather Zehr had never heard about.
During the 1940-44 Nazi occupation, French Mennonites were accused of many things, especially speaking ill of the Nazi government, burning a Nazi flag and creating anti-militarist agitation.
But what Zehr found most interesting was their answer to one of the accusations.
“They said it was impossible for them to give a Nazi salute — a play on words, because in both French and German, the word for ‘salute’ and ‘redemption’ is the same — because redemption comes from Jesus Christ and not from Hitler,” he said.
“More so, they deconstructed very politely Hitlerism as total idolatry, saying they were praying for Hitler’s conversion to Christ. Even the SS were embarrassed.”
Among the pieces of evidence collected by Nazi investigators in the file were sermons defending Jews, many attributed to Emile Kremer, father of Jean-Paul Kremer and an elder in the Mennonite churches in Sarrebourg and Colmar.
Another critical sermon, delivered by Charles Frommer in 1939, interpreted correctly a German census of Jews that year as a sign of escalating anti-Semitism and rapid Nazi escalation. A copy of the sermon found its way to the Gestapo secret police, and Frommer was taken to Hamburg in 1941 for questioning and detention before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Friedrichsberg.
For Zehr, the new information is “a hidden treasure” because no one spoke about these experiences for so long. He learned very little from his own grandfather, who was forced to join the German armed forces at age 17 but refused to use a gun.
“Two times he was to be sent to the Russian front, and two times he became ill, so he was not sent,” he said. “Finally he was sent to Denmark, where he had to work on farms.
“According to him, it was a miracle. Not one of his friends came back from Russia.”
Zehr theorizes one reason the stories were kept under wraps might be because Emile Kremer’s strong character and convictions marginalized him among French Mennonites who feared schism before and after the war.
Zehr said Kremer’s anti-Hitler sentiment was notorious among many Mennonites, some of whom regarded it as imprudent. French and American Mennonites tried to construct a new narrative after the war that French Mennonites had abandoned nonresistance. However, some did not.
“In fact, nonresistance had been defended by Emile Kremer, but he mostly wasn’t listened to,” Zehr said. “He was motivated by nonconformity to the world . . . but he represented sectarian Mennonitism and was not welcome.”
Ben Goossen, author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, said this region of France was the only place in Europe during World War II that Nazis banned the Mennonite church. Some French Mennonites worked to save Jews.
“There’s still a lot of research to be done, especially on the French and Dutch Mennonites before and during World War II,” he said.