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Mennonite records complete circle of history

Mennonite Church USA

Four record books from a defunct Prussian Mennonite congregation that have been housed in the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College 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-related volumes in existence, are from Gdansk, Poland, formerly Danzig, Prussia, where Dutch adherents to the fledgling Anabaptist movement had begun settling by the 1530s.

Dirk Philips, an important 16th-century Anabaptist leader, is considered founder of the Danzig Mennonite Church. Menno Simons (1496-1561), for whom the Mennonite movement was named, probably visited the group, although before it was formally organized.

The congregation was influential and large, with more than 1,000 baptized members. In contrast, most other Mennonite congregations were small and rural.

Low Germans, from Paraguay to Canada to Germany can trace some connection to the congregation, according to Rich Preheim, director of the Historical Committee for Mennonite Church USA, under whose auspices the archives at Bethel fall.

Danzig church members led the Mennonite migration to Ukraine and the establishment of the first Russian Mennonite colony at Chortitza in 1789.

Four centuries of Mennonite presence in West Prussia ended at the close of World War II, when the region’s Mennonites, who identified themselves as German, scattered in the face of advancing Soviet troops.

Oral tradition says Mennonite historians Cornelius Krahn of Bethel and Harold S. Bender of Goshen College instructed American Mennonite relief workers who went to Europe after the war to be on the lookout for items of possible historical significance.

Visiting the bomb-damaged Danzig Mennonite Church, an unidentified worker found the four books, which list births, deaths, marriages, baptisms, and ordinations, in some cases going back to 1598, although the books themselves probably date from the late 17th or early 18th centuries.

The Americans brought them to the Mennonite Library and Archives.

“There was no place in Europe at that time for the Danzig books to go,” Preheim said.

In recent years, informal conversation began about putting the books in the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, the Mennonite archives at Weierhof, Germany, where the bulk of West Prussian Mennonite materials reside.

In preparation for the transfer, Preheim has been raising money 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 burned edges and disintegrated bindings. A decade ago, a paper conservator was able to stabilize them, but they remain fragile.

Digitizing will help by making it possible to look at the text without actually handling the books.

“There are still people living in Germany who had to flee West Prussia,” Preheim said. “To have the books returned to Europe may provide some kind of closure for those who were displaced.

“We can’t go back and re-create Danzig Mennonite Church or the West Prussian Mennonite presence, but we can honor and preserve that legacy by preserving these books and making them accessible.”

Transporting such rare and fragile documents is neither simple nor inexpensive but Preheim hopes to have a historical committee representative symbolically hand over the books to Mennonitische Forschungsstelle at the end of June.

Last modified June 3, 2009

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