I recently published a memoir titled Small Steps Toward the Missing Peace: A Memoir. Chapter three of the book tells about my Pax experience in Germany, 1958-1960. I have attached the text, in case you want to add it to the Pax web site.
The book is available from http://www.createspace.com/3657895.
Expanding horizons, cautiously.
I was twenty years old in the summer of 1959 when I went to West Germany to fulfill my Selective Service obligations in the MCC-Pax program. I was hardly stepping out on my own. Moving from Kansas to Europe was another small step, akin to the smaller transition from Lehigh Rural High School to Bethel College. In West Germany, as in Kansas, I lived and worked in the warm and disciplined embrace of Mennonite community. For two years, 1958-1960, I was part of the MCC unit of about eight workers in the MCC offices in Frankfurt. When I left Frankfurt for travel or for vacation—to the Pax Peace Conference in Austria or the “Pax Palestine Pilgrimage” to the Holy Land—it was nearly always together with other Mennonites.
At the outset I was grateful for my Mennonite cocoon. It was good to be together with friends who could help me learn the language, make change, and negotiate streetcar traffic. Then when a member of our fifteen-man orientation group had a mental breakdown and was sent home before going out on a work assignment, the rest of us worried if the same thing would happen to us. Would we overcome our culture shock and do our assigned jobs without falling apart? I had my secret doubts. I confessed my fears to another group member and discovered that he too was anxious about his ability to survive. We needed a community of support.
I had expected to be a construction worker in West Germany, building houses for refugees. In my luggage were new leather work shoes and coveralls. To my surprise, I was assigned an office job as secretary or administrative assistant to the director of the Pax program. The job suited my abilities and interests. Working out of the MCC headquarters in Frankfurt I had opportunities to visit the Pax units in Germany, Austria and Greece. I enjoyed opportunities to meet church leaders such as Harold Bender and Orie Miller, Old Mennonite church leaders, and William Snyder, MCC executive secretary. Miller complimented me for an editorial I had written in a Pax newsletter. Snyder saw I was reading William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and warned that James did not have the last word. When General Lewis B. Hershey, director of Selective Service, visited our Frankfurt office we were impressed both by his informal story telling and by his spit-and-polish deferential military aides. My weekly letters to home were invariably upbeat about the rich experience I was having.
Once my feet were on the ground in Frankfurt, I began to have second thoughts about being so enclosed in the center of things Mennonite. We spoke English in our unit at work and at play. I did not learn the German language as rapidly as I had hoped. I envied a fellow Pax man who was on his own as director of an ecumenical refugee center in West Berlin that hosted recently arrived refugees from Communist East Berlin. In a diary note dated Dec. 29, 1959, I reflected: “Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of my Pax experience is that it hasn’t been a wilderness experience. I have not gotten away—alone where I had to think for myself without the tradition of generations bearing down on me.” I asked Ray Kauffman, the Pax program director, if I could be transferred to a more isolated and challenging post. Ray said I was needed where I was. So I stayed in Frankfurt until the end of my two-year term.
American in Germany
In Germany I gained a new sense of who I was as an American. In the fall of 1958 some of us visited the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium, in the fall of 1958. The exhibits of the United States and the Soviet Union reflected their Cold War competition. The Russians put their “Sputnik” missile on prominent display to show that they were ahead in the space race. The Americans countered with exhibits of middle class consumer culture that demonstrated the good life which was still unavailable to ordinary people in the Soviet Union. I found both the Russian and the American propaganda annoying. But I was unexpectedly hooked by the Disney “Circarama”—a film tour across the United States projected onto large screens on the walls of a circular theater. The film showed the grandeur of America from the east coast to the west coast. When it arrived in Kansas and showed waving fields of ripe wheat, tears came to my eyes. I was not as immune from American national sentiment as I had thought. Surely I was a bit homesick, but I did not want to admit that to anyone–even to myself.
It was hard to avoid other Americans. Across the street from the MCC headquarters in Frankfurt was the “PX” store where American military personnel shopped for American goods. The streetcar line to downtown went past the massive I. G. Farben complex that had housed a German chemical company before the war, but then was taken over by the U.S. army. We often passed military convoys on the German autobahn, the superhighway. I made it a point never to go into the PX store. Early in language study we learned to pronounce the formidable German word Kriegsdienstverweigerer—conscientious objector to military service. In our relationships with German people, we strove to differentiate ourselves from the military Americans. Our “Pax Handbook” contrasted our peace mission with the military mission of our country. “This is a program to construct, not to destroy. It is a positive international effort toward peace. The armed fist is replaced by the hand of love.” I wanted at least to be able to explain that mission in the German language.
When people asked, I could say that the Pax program was sponsored by the Mennonite Church, not by the government. In fact, my Pax service was substantial project in family benevolence. Pax depended on financial support from families and local congregations. My parents sent MCC a monthly check for $75 (about $575 in 2011 dollars). From that amount I received a monthly check of $10 for “incidental expenses” such as postage, toiletries and camera film. One German official to whom I explained the spartan Pax financial arrangements was a judge who was deciding how much I should be fined for my culpability in an accident involving my bicycle and two cars in downtown Frankfurt. I was clearly guilty for driving my bicycle too fast and too close behind the cars, but the judge suspended the fine. He said that Germany too was working on a program for conscientious objector alternative service.
In West Germany I discovered the continuing relevance of the letter my father had prompted me to write in 1949 warning about the militarization of Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Fifteen years after the end of World War II, the American military presence in Germany was substantial and growing. In 1958 the United States pushed for the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in West Germany. Nuclear weapons in West Germany had been excluded both by international agreements and by a domestic West German War Weapons Control Act. I was interested to see German peace movement anti-nuclear displays on the main square in downtown Frankfurt. I attend a number of sermons by the German pacifist, Martin Niemöller, at the Dreikönigskirche (Three Kings Church) in Frankfurt. I struggled to understand Niemöller in Germany as much as I had struggled to grasp his lectures at Bethel College in Kansas.
Andre Trocme, a French Huguenot pacifist who had saved thousands of Jews who fled from Germany, was the main speaker at a Pax Peace Conference in Austria. Trocme introduced us to the Old Testament concept of the Jubilee—a time each fifty years when the land was to be redistributed and justice restored. When Jesus in the New Testament came to announce the “Acceptable Year of the Lord,” said Trocme, he was recalling the Jubilee and announcing a great reversal of social and economic fortunes. I was intrigued with this new biblical rationale for Christian social involvement, in part because I had a role on a panel of Pax men who offered various viewpoints on Mennonite separation from the world. On the panel I argued that Anabaptist separation and nonconformity may have been valid in the sixteenth century, but that in modern American democracy Mennonites needed to bring their gospel of peace to the political order.
The idea of Jubilee came to have significant influence on Mennonite thinking in subsequent decades, in part through the writing of John Howard Yoder. I was again moved by Trocme’s story through a book by Philip Hailie, a Jewish ethicist, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (1979). Hailie’s book told about the World War II ministry of Andre Trocme, his wife, Magda, and their community of Huguenot dissenters. Hailie used the story of the Trocmes’ self-denying witness in behalf of persecuted Jews to explore the roots of human goodness. I found Hailie’s analysis to be a refreshing antidote to the preoccupation of modern history and literature with expressions of human alienation and evil behavior.
While in Pax I read Mohandas Gandhi’s book, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and Martin Luther King’s account of the successful Montgomery bus boycott, The Montgomery Story. I spent the better part of one month’s Pax allowance to buy my own hardback copy of King’s book. It was worth every penny. His argument against Reinhold Niebuhr’s “realism” was the clearest and most convincing I had read. The success of the Montgomery boycott proved that nonviolent resistance could change oppressive political and social systems. It seemed obvious to me that such nonviolent campaigns should be a natural outgrowth of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Why did this witness have to come to us from people outside our heritage? It was time for Mennonites to wake up to the relevance of their peace heritage.
In West Germany I learned about other Mennonites, both American and German. As a child of the Kansas Mennonite heartland I was startled to learn that other Mennonites from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana thought that they were from the heartland and that the Kansas Mennonites were on the margins. Harold S. Bender, historian and church leader from Goshen College, happened to be in Frankfurt when our orientation group arrived there. He gave us a ninety-minute lecture on Mennonite history. We new Pax men were spellbound by Bender’s grand drama of Anabaptist-Mennonite history and by the affirmation that we now had a special role in that ongoing story. He began by going around the group and asking for each person’s name and home congregation. He told each one where his ancestors came from in Europe, their likely date of immigration, and something about their home community. It was a stunning performance until he came around the circle to me—a General Conference Mennonite from Kansas. Bender apparently had never heard the name Juhnke, nor did he bother to ask me about it. He quickly moved on to his next topic.
Bender’s account of Anabaptist-Mennonite history began with the Swiss Brethren in Zurich in the sixteenth century and culminated in America in the twentieth century. I found his story very exciting, and waited eagerly for my own people to be included—the 1870s immigrants from Russia to the Great Plains. Alas, Bender didn’t get around to my people until the last five minutes. He said it was unfortunate that these belated immigrants didn’t join together with those who were already established in America and were most directly connected with true Anabaptist origins in Europe. Instead, my people had joined a smaller separate group, the General Conference Mennonite Church. Alas, if the great Harold S. Bender was right, my people were not heartland Mennonites after all. We were a marginal footnote to Mennonite history, and a deviant one at that. I sensed that Bender was wrong, but worried that he was right. It was a totally new experience for me to be an outsider among Mennonites, completely helpless in the face of someone else’s authoritative master narrative.
My office-mate in the Frankfurt Pax office was Gerald Bender (no relation to Harold Bender). Gerald was from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and had graduated from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We argued at length about religious and political issues, including nonviolent resistance and the payment of war taxes. Gerald disagreed with some of the restrictions on dress of his people (popularly known as Old Mennonites, but calling themselves The Mennonites). But he was proud of his location, as he saw it, in the center of the Anabaptist/Mennonite continuum, between the conservative Old Order Amish on the right and the liberal General Conference Mennonites on the left. I and my people were somewhere out in left field.
Learning to know German Mennonites was another rich experience in self-definition. At first it was easy to be critical. German Mennonites by World War II had largely given up the teaching and practice of nonresistance. Their church life was different from what I had known back home in Kansas. They had no adult Sunday School classes. Their singing was a weak unison, missing the vigorous four-part harmony that I had assumed was definitive of Mennonitism. Many churches did not even have worship services every Sunday. Local congregation youth groups were very small—although I did appreciate good times with youth from a Janzen family in Frankfurt.
As I learned to know some German Mennonite families and young people personally, I moderated my criticism. The heart-rending stories of families who had lost members and treasure in the war overwhelmed my inclination to negative judgments. I spent Christmas vacations with the Paul Showalter family at the Weierhof (near Marnheim, 1958), and with the Ernst Landes family at Lautenbach (near Neckarsulm, 1959). Both had large families including children my own age. I benefitted from their generous hospitality. I also learned that they did not appreciate American arrogance and aggressiveness any more than other Germans did. Admiring Pastor Showalter’s extensive personal library of Anabaptist and Mennonite books, I asked him, “Does Cornelius Krahn know about these books?” Showalter frowned and said, “Cornelius Krahn and Harold Bender have taken more than enough old books out of Germany!” Indeed, as I later learned, Krahn and Bender had competed with each other to take advantage of postwar German poverty and gather up hundreds of volumes at cheap prices to enrich the Mennonite historical library collections at Bethel College in Kansas and Goshen College in Indiana.
At a regional Mennonite “Freizeit,” or weekend youth conference at the South German retreat center Thomashof, my roommate was Hans Adolf Hertzler, a graduate student in theology at Heidelberg University. Late into the night we talked earnestly about the problems of reconciling traditional belief with modern critical thinking. We discussed the difficulty of communicating with younger and older folk in the church who were not bothered by these questions. We also compared boy-girl relationships in the United States and Germany—an inevitable topic given our stage in life. I was immensely impressed with my new friend’s intellect, with all the books he had read, and that his single-minded pursuit of academic studies did not allow any extracurricular activities. When I return to Bethel College, I told myself, I will dedicate myself to the life of the mind—not get sucked into athletics, debate, clubs and student governance issues.
From German Mennonites I also gained a new sense of history. The greatest historical celebration of my youth had been the seventy-fifth anniversary in 1949 of the immigration to Kansas. In Germany I learned that seventy-five years was a short blip in time. We visited places and buildings that had stories going back many centuries. On one tour of a Mennonite cemetery, the German leader identified so deeply with stories from centuries earlier that his voice broke and tears came to his eyes as he spoke. I was moved. I gradually realized that the history textbooks I had glided through in college actually dealt with human reality. In preparation for the Pax Palestine Pilgrimage of 1960 I wrote home to my parents and asked them to send me the copy of my history textbook by Wallbank and Taylor, Civilization Past and Present. The lowest grade I had received in any class at Bethel had been a C+ in History of Civilization class. Now I found the readings on ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Holy Land—places we would visit in person–to be alive and exciting. I returned to Bethel College resolved to major in history.
My Pax experience in Europe was an immense enrichment for my self-understanding as both American and Mennonite. Although I had not become as fluent in speaking the German language as I had hoped, I had gained reading skills that were essential for my future career as a Mennonite historian. The prospects for that career, however, had not taken clear shape in my mind. Back at Bethel I enrolled in education classes with the thought that I might become a high school social studies teacher, following the steps of my father. My resolution to concentrate on academics and to avoid extracurricular social involvements lasted less than one month. Later that school year I was elected president of the student council. Not until the spring of my senior year in 1962 did I decide to go on to graduate school. By that time I had met Anna Kreider from Wadsworth, Ohio, a student at Bluffton College.