Danzig church books return to Europe
The four books are among the oldest Mennonite church records in existence.by Melanie Zuercher for Mennonite Church USA
Four record books from a defunct Prussian Mennonite congregation that have been housed in the Mennonite Library and Archives on the Bethel College campus in North Newton, Kan., for more than six decades are being prepared to return to Europe this summer, helping close a circle that encompasses nearly all of Mennonite-Anabaptist history.
The books, among the oldest Mennonite church records in existence, are from Danzig in West Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland), where Dutch adherents to the fledgling Anabaptist movement had begun settling by the 1530s.
Dirk Philips, an important 16th-century Anabaptist leader, is considered the founder of the Danzig Mennonite Church, and Menno Simons likely visited the group, though before it was a formally organized congregation. It soon became large—well over 1,000 members—and influential, distinguished by its size and its urban location when most of the Mennonite congregations were small and rural.
“Given Danzig Mennonite Church’s size and prominence, many Low Germans in the world, from Paraguay to Canada to Germany, can trace some connection to the congregation,” says Rich Preheim, director of the Historical Committee for Mennonite Church USA, under whose auspices the archives at both Bethel College and Goshen (Ind.) College fall. “It was Danzig Church members who led the migration to Ukraine and the establishment of the first Russian Mennonite colony at Chortitza [in 1789].”
Four centuries of Mennonite presence in West Prussia came to end at the close of World War II, when the region’s Mennonites—who identified themselves as German—scattered in the face of the advancing Soviet army. Those refugees spirited out many of the surviving West Prussian congregational materials, much of which has now made its way into the collection of the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, the Mennonite archives at Weierhof, Germany—with some exceptions, including the four record books from the Danzig Mennonite Church.
Oral tradition says that Mennonite historians Cornelius Krahn and Harold S. Bender instructed American Mennonite relief workers who went to Europe after World War II to be on the lookout for items of possible historical significance. Visiting the bomb-damaged Danzig Mennonite Church, one of those workers—there is no definitive record of who—found congregational records either in the building or in the possession of a neighbor. “There was no place in Europe at that time for the Danzig books to go,” says Preheim.
In the last several years, informal conversation began about putting the books in the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, where the bulk of West Prussian Mennonite materials reside, with more serious planning taking place in the past two years. In preparation for the transfer, Preheim has been raising funds to pay for digitizing all four volumes and placing them on the Historical Committee’s Web site. The oldest of the four books is in fairly good shape but the other three have pages burned on the edges and bindings that have disintegrated.
Very restricted handling is necessary in order to limit further deterioration, Preheim says. Digitizing will help by making it possible to look at the text without actually handling the books. A North Manchester, Ind., firm with expertise in digitizing old, fragile documents recently completed the job.
“We can’t go back and recreate Danzig Mennonite Church or the West Prussian Mennonite presence,” he says, “but we can honor and preserve that legacy by preserving these books and making them accessible.
“We’re deeply grateful [the books] were found, that someone had the knowledge and perspective to keep an eye open for them,” he says. “There’s much to be learned about faithfulness, identity and perspective from the experience of the Danzig Mennonite Church and the West Prussian Mennonites.”
Transporting such fragile documents is neither simple nor inexpensive, but Preheim hopes at least to have a Historical Committee representative symbolically hand over the books to the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle at the meeting of the Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein (German Mennonite Historical Association), which oversees the archives, in Berlin at the end of June.
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