Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Weierhof, a German Mennonite center

24 hours after we left our apartment in Paris, we arrived safely back home in Indiana. Of course it was a day of waiting about as much as we traveled. But perhaps more details on this past Saturday after I tell about our last week in Europe.
A week before, on Saturday July 13, we were still biking through the Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate in English) region of Germany. Our first two nights were focused on staying in castles along the Rhine River, and the final two days we focused on two Mennonite communities. So on Saturday night we stayed at the home of Ernst Neff in Weierhof. If I was more of a journalist and less of a pastor I would have some great photos of this small community that is almost completely Mennonite. But I was more focused on visiting with people and so the one picture is the back of Ernst's barn and home.
I have written more extensively about Swiss Anabaptists migrating to Alsace in search of greater tolerance for their religious faith. This is because Alsace played such an important role for the Amish division. Jacob Ammann settled in Alsace for awhile and this became the geographic center of the Amish. But the Palatinate also played a role in the Amish division, what I would call a mediator role as they tried to get the Alsatians and Swiss to agree. Of course all these Mennonites were of Swiss origin and so had a common tradition and understanding. But now they were taking that in different directions.
The Palatinate became a new immigration location for the Swiss after the 30 Years War depopulated the area. The local lords were willing to invite even Anabaptists to come and farm in their communities.
Weierhof's significance is more recent than all that, though. One of the most important Mennonite leaders of the 20th century, Christian Neff, was pastor of Weierhof. Why was he important? He is best known for two things. The first is that he was the originator of Mennonite World Conference. Under his leadership the first Mennonite World Conference was held in Basel, Switzerland, where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet, in 1925. The second is that he was one of the originators of the Mennonitisches Lexicon, a Mennonite encyclopedia and the inspiration for the English-language Mennonite Encyclopedia that came some years later. In fact you can read about Christian Neff in the online child of the Mennonite Encyclopedia (grandchild of the Mennonitisches Lexicon?) the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.
I asked our host Ernst about his grandfather Christian, saying that he must have been an interesting man. When Ernst replied, "People tell me he was interesting," his daughter Christina explained that if you are a 12-year-old boy, having a grandfather who spends most of his time writing in his study is not all that interesting.
We had a wonderful time with Ernst and Christina. Ernst was a retired farmer and long-time widower. He spoke good English and told great stories. They were wonderful hosts. Our simple meal of bread, meat, and cheese lasted from about 7 to 10. At one point they offered us Mennonite organic wine, Schoenhals was the label and Dornfelder was the variety. That led to two stories.
First I told a story. When I was gathering information about Rhineland-Palatinate for our travels I contacted the local tourism center and said I was interested in Mennonite history. So the tourism center sent me information about the Daetwyl winery, since the Detweilers are Mennonites. I read the English-language brochure and was surprised to read there that their Swiss ancestors immigrated to Germany because they were attracted to the wine-growing possibilities there. I had always thought that it was persecution that led Mennonites to the region, not wine. Christina commented that perhaps mentioning persecution was not very good marketing, and I commented that perhaps both intolerance in Switzerland and economic opportunity in Germany led to the migrations.
Then they told a story about Christian Neff. Neff was one of the first people in the area who had a car. But he employed a driver to chauffer him around. He used a stopwatch to time how long he drove him and he would encourage him to drive faster if things were going too slowly. One afternoon he was hosting C. P. Krehbiel or some other American Mennonite leader. Neff was showing him all the varities of vineyards in the region and Krehbiel commented that how much nicer it would be if all that area had been planted in wheat. According to the story, Neff said, the tour ends now and promptly brought Krehbiel back home.
But I was most intrigued with the stories that Ernst told about his own interesting life. The Weierhof sponsored a school for many years, but in the 1930s as the Nazis were coming into power the school became a public school. And eventually this former Mennonite school became one of the elite Nazi schools for educating future leaders of the party. Apparently Ernst attended this school because he lived across the road from it, not because he had party potential. But that meant that after the war the school was closed down and the community sent away while Americans occupied the school and community. When they returned a few months later, they discovered that all their war memorabilia were gone. Weierhof was then occupied by the French and then again the American military had a base there until the 1990s when the end of the Cold War brought the end of many American military bases. Ernst remembers a time when huge missiles were hauled on trucks into the base. He thought they might be nuclear warheads.
Ernst himself never faced the military draft because he was about 14 when the war ended. At that point, because they were so desperate for warriors, the Germany army was drafting 15-year-olds for the military.
The school was allowed to be re-opened, again by the Mennonites, and it was considered a very good school. It still operates today, though its church connection is not as strong, it is still influenced by the many Mennonites that continue to give leadership to it.
Weierhof today continues to be associated with the military and Mennonites. Whenever I would talk to local Germans about visiting Weierhof they would wonder if I was connected with the military. Clearly most Americans they meet are. But then I would say no, I am a Mennonite, and that would make sense to them too. Weierhof is where you find Mennonites, after all.
Weierhof is also the home of the German Mennonite Archives, which were started after World War II when the Danzig area Mennonite congregations disappeared and they needed to find a place to keep all their records. Gary Waltner is a South Dakotan who came to Weierhof many years before through MCC's PAX and married a local girl and stayed. He is the one who found us a place to stay and also helped us to bike from the Kircheim-bolanden train station to Weierhof.
When we arrived on Saturday we got there just in time for a community tea, and the women very kindly extended tea time a few minutes so that we could have some cake and coffee or tea. On Sunday we attended the Weierhof congregation. Unfortunately their regular pastor Andrea Lange was not there. It was an older congregation, at least that Sunday, where the announcements focused on deaths. Ernst introduced us and we were not the only North Americans visiting that Sunday. We met some wonderful people there.
I again noticed all the connections across the ocean. But I am also concerned that those connections are becoming thinner. Mostly historians are staying connected, but not church leaders. And there does not seem to be as many young people crossing the ocean for longer than a couple of weeks or months. For example Ernst's daughter Christina attended Bethel College and married an American. That kind of thing seems to be rarer.
But even with that concern, I was again impressed with the sense of connection we had with one another. We belong to a common family and follow a common lord with in many ways a common understanding, or at least common enough.

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