Monthly Archives: May 2016

Hoffnungsträger in der Not

As published in Neue Westfälische newspaper, Germany

[See English translation by Ervie Glick and commentary by Calvin Redekop below this page from the newspaper — possible enlargement of page yet to be posted.]

Espelkamp article[With permission of Neue Westfälische as published March 19/20, Saturday/Sunday, 2016.  Texts and photos in Neue Westfälische newspaper are copyrighted.]


Espelkamp Yesterday and Today (28): When the Pax boys helped to build the city

The foundation stone for the present day Mennonite congregation was laid

By Manfred Steinmann

Espelkamp. The church was never a peripheral structure, but rather an initiative for the establishment of the town following the trauma of World War II. Faced with great need in post War Germany, the town and church together agreed to take on responsibility for building a town, and on October 4, 1949, they founded the “Aufbaugemeinschaft GmbH” (construction society) as supervisor of construction and planning. From the beginning, the Mennonites belonged to it, and they functioned as bearers of hope during war-time need as is described in “Mennonite Church of Espelkamp, John Gingerich Street.” It is the oldest Mennonite congregation in Espelkamp.

“You may believe it or not, the most difficult problem in Espelkamp was how to make clear to the people who we were. It was most difficult among the workers.

Many had lost so much in the war, their children, women and parents, their homes and possessions. For many of them, we were the hated Americans.”

These words from John Gingerich articulate well the problems that the so-called Pax Boys had to deal with when they arrived in December, 1948. They were young Americans of the Mennonite faith whose members had rejected military service ever since the founding of their movement during the Reformation, and now they, without pay, had committed themselves to love of their neighbor.

Among the 15 European voluntary service projects, Espelkamp was the only one in Germany, and it was included in the building program for two years. Equipped with trucks and the required tools, which in the post war years were extremely hard to come by, these young men went to work helping to renovate the existing war munitions halls into dwellings for refugees.

In the evenings, they gathered for Bible study. Most popular were the Bible retreats, the first ever vacation programs in Espelkamp, which attracted children in droves. The selflessness and commitment of these Pax boys underpinned the work in Espelkamp both ideally and materially.

It gave John Gingerich special joy and pleasure to be able to bring his family, which came in 1949 to Espelkamp and remained until 1967– with short interruptions—dedicated to the building of Espelkamp. At the initiation of the town, a segment of Stolper Weg, where the buildings of the Mennonite church now stand, was renamed to John Gingerich-Straße.

Men and women took turns washing and cooking

The first Mennonites lived in the barracks of Hedrichsdorf. Since the Pax boys lived in equally primitive conditions as the German refugees and displaced persons, they contributed significantly to the development of positive relations among them. The local Germans were astonished to find that the huge amount of laundry, food preparation, and housekeeping done in such primitive conditions was accomplished by both men and women in alternating shifts. The house parents were William and Ruth Dick, affectionately known as Uncle Bill and Mommy Ruth. Long after their return to the States, these dear “early Espelkampers” nurtured friendships and acquaintances in Espelkamp.

An example of the value bestowed on the Pax boys and their work, Mennonite Central Committee’s main office in the US decided to end the volunteer work in Espelkamp after two years in order to perform the same kind of service for refugees elsewhere in Europe. However, at the urgency of Pastor Plantiko of the Evangelical Church office, which was in intensive conversation with Mennonite Central Committee in Frankfurt, the service in Espelkamp was extended for another two years.

The number of Pax boys had grown to about 25, so the Munahalle (munitions hall) MH 37 on the corner of Isenstedter Straße/Kantstraße (the central bus station today) was used from December, 1950, for housing them. However, that arrangement lasted only a short time, as the hall was intended to become the Evangelical (Lutheran) prep school for Espelkamp-Mittwald (later the Söderblom-Gymnasium) with boarding facility. So they moved to Munahalle MH 56 “Under the Oaks” on Stolper Weg.  Here the new center for the Espelkamp Mennonites was created in two decades of intense construction activity.

Captions to Photos
Photo top left:  The Hedrichsdorf Barracks. The first Pax boys lived here. During the day
they helped with clearing the land and remodeling the munitions halls into
apartments. Evenings and Sundays they invited the town’s residents for Bible study.

Photo top right:  John Gingerich with his “matchbox.” Since practically no one in Espelkamp owned a car, this vehicle was a great help in remodeling the munitions halls.
It was used not only for hauling building materials, but also for clearing tree stumps.

Center photo:  Bible Study. John Gingerich with his flannel graph in Sunday School. Here
he relates the Passion story.

Bottom center photo:  Munitions Hall 37.  Here on the corner of Isenstedter Straße and Kantstraße stood the home for the Pax boys.

Translated by Ervie Glick,  4/14/ 2016

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Response and commentary  by Calvin Redekop

“Bearers of Hope in Time of Need” is a charming story of a significant period for many of those living through World War II and post war reconstruction. By now having been almost totally forgotten, it revives the nostalgia of that period for those volunteered in the Espelkamp story. It is a unique and helpful perspective provided by those who were the beneficiaries and witnesses of the commendable service the Espelkamp Voluntary Service program provided. This is a story of how one community interprets the motivations and actions of another set of total strangers.

One of the perspectives of the essay is the close connection between the MCC voluntary program which began in Espelkamp in 1948 and the Pax program, whose origins in 1951 are closely tied to the Espelkamp experiment. The article, however, understandably has factual errors and inferences of the relationships of MCC Voluntary Service and Pax which I will not correct, because it would become a bit tedious and detract from the essay’s positive view — namely the fresh, positive, and naive (in the good sense) perspective the local community experienced of voluntary service in early post-war German recovery.

For a a more expansive perspective on the early Espelkamp history, several sources are of signal importance:

First, Emily Brunk: Espelkamp: The Mennonite Central Committe shares in community building in and Settlement for German Refugees, (Karlsruhe: Heinrich Schneider, 1951). The Voluntary Service office in Frankfurt, Germany directed by Paul Peachey, and Calvin Redekop, assistant director, agreed that the basic events of the Espelkamp experiment were too important to leave in MCC files, possibly to be forgotten. Among many volunteers, Johnny Gingerch and Milton Harder loom large as very important leaders. Harder survives and resides in Oklahoma. The photos in the book are priceless, depicting the “cultural and social” milieu” of those pioneer times.

Another work, entitled Espelkamp on the German Frontier (ed. by Ruth Abraham, self published, 2005) is by William O. Dick (who is pictured in the Brunk book). It traces the story of William and his wife Ruth’s arrival at Espelkamp with the challenging, if not appalling, primitive situation that confronted them. Partly composed of daily diary entries and topics such as the almost totally despondent refugees they learned to know as neighbors and then friends, even with understated emotions it is moving even to today’s readers. Interspersed are 58 pictures which give the story a concreteness that words alone can not provide.

Finally, several sources by this author provide fuller context for the story of Espelkamp, the early origins of European Mennonite Voluntary Service and an early source of the Pax Program. One is The European Mennonite Voluntary Service: Youth Idealism in Post-World War II Europe (Telford, Cascadia, 2010). This begins with MCCs voluntary service program at Akron and the exportation of the concept via the Council of Mennonite and Affiliated Colleges summer study-work activities. Espelkamp was one of the first sites of MCC voluntary service in Europe, headquartered at Frankfurt. A personal example illustrates: Not knowing what to do with unmarried volunteers for foreign service, MCC sent Redekop to help Peachey run the emerging summer work camps in Europe. “I arrived (from the US) in Espelkamp, Germany on January 28, 1950. It was a cold, primitive and austere introduction. Espelkamp was in a deep forest, hidden from other German villages. The army barracks got so cold at night ice formed on our faces. Sleeping in bunks two tiers high, we hit the floor in the dark, tiptoed to several wash basins….and to the kitchen area, where a fire was already roaring.” (Footnote 44, p. 114). The voluntary service connection with Pax began casually and episodically but cooperation continnued, with volunteers switching to serve in activities of either.

The other source is The Pax Story: Service in the Name of Christ: 1951-1976. (Telford: Pandora 2001) This book, initiated by the Pax editorial group which was preparing for the 50th anniversary of Pax, also describes the variety of times and places where Pax and European MVS collaborated and exchanged personnel.

With respect to the fine recent essay [in Neue Westfälische newspaper] about German WWII victims and refugees at Espelkamp, there are undoubtedly many additional sources describing the emergence and evolution of the Pax idea with voluntary service and how it affected the beneficiaries.  But testimonials by participants in an event are usually the most authentic and convincing.

Calvin Redekop,  April 15, 2016