Hans von Niessen, a resettlement supervisor who organized the migration of more than 100,000 Mennonite Russian Germans out of the Soviet Union, died Oct. 20 in Neuwied, Germany. He was 94.
Bearing witness to several major global events, von Niessen witnessed Stalinism as a child and World War II as a 16-year-old German soldier before escaping to Paraguay. He worked to establish the Neuland settlement in the Paraguayan Chaco and was a church and school leader before returning to Germany to be a resettlement supervisor from 1973 to 1999.
About 116,000 Russian Germans (Russlanddeutscher), who were mostly Low German-speaking Mennonites, were assisted by von Niessen’s networking and diplomacy skills in immigrating to Germany and starting new lives.
He was born Dec. 20, 1928, in a village near Dnepropetrovsk, now known as Dnipro, Ukraine. Von Niessen used his brief time attending a teacher training college in Kyiv to enroll in institutions in Paraguay and Brazil, where his leadership skills were quickly recognized.
He was elected as a community leader among Mennonites in Paraguay, a position he held for 10 years, and became a school principal. This role furthered his contacts with Mennonites in Germany and led to organizing shipments of teaching materials and development aid.
Von Niessen became pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Neuwied soon after he and his wife, Helene, moved to Germany in 1970, and it wasn’t long before he was asked to manage resettlement care through German and Dutch Mennonite organizations and Mennonite Central Committee. He received the Order of Merit from the German state of Rheinland-Palatinate for his resettlement efforts.
When he asked how he should do this work, he was told, “You are a pastor and a teacher. You have to figure it out yourself. Do what you can for the people.”
“I always looked to the possibilities where I could bring an entire congregation,” von Niessen said. “It’s like this: We need apartments and a church building. The Mennonite principle that was applied to the settlements in Russia came into play here.”
The result was 175 new communities.
“Hans von Niessen was the right man at the right time and in the right place,” said Hermann Heidebrecht, who managed resettlement efforts after von Niessen.
A memorial service was held Oct. 28 at Neuwied-Irlich Mennonite Church.