Life between East and WestBy John A. Lapp
On my desk is From the Oder to the Bitterroot: Memories of an Uncommon Life by Werner H. Will, published by the author at 3604 Kingbury Place, Missoula, MT 59808, 2011, 321 pages, $12 plus $2.50 postage.
One of the major innovations of Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite colleges in the decades after World War II was the creation of an international student program.
These several thousand students shaped global Mennonite consciousness. The International Visitor Exchange Program was equally formative.
Being both trainee and international student were essential to Will’s “uncommon life.”
Will was born into a poor farm family in Pomerania, one of the easternmost provinces of Germany. He attended a village elementary school until the family was forced to move west in 1945 to Gorlitz in what became East Germany.
Will has a marvelous memory for the details of village life. He recalls the network of relationships and rhythms of rural life. His household had neither radio nor newspapers, so his understanding of war was largely the product of school-inspired patriotism and Hitler Youth propaganda. A dramatic moment of this memoir is how as a student at Eastern Mennonite College in 1956 he discovered Newsweek and read through the issues from 1939 to 1945. Only then did he discover the truth of Nazi atrocities and military failures.
In East Germany he enrolled in a training program in a machine works. Most important in these years at the end of the 1940s, he became part of a pietistic Lutheran church group. Religious life and church attendance was new, and he discovered authentic faith and friendship. Through these connections, he discovered possibilities of escaping westward.
The story of the escape in 1951 is a well-told dramatic tale. He met Mennonites for the first time at the Albert and Katlin Oesch farm. He earned enough to attend a Swiss Mennonite Bible school. This whet his appetite for more learning and richer life experiences.
In Switzerland he learned of the MCC trainee program. The Oesches agreed to give him leave to apply for an American visa and work permit. Meanwhile, he became a West German citizen.
Will grew up on a potato farm in Pomerania. With MCC, he spent six months on a Mennonite potato farm run by the King family near Lancaster, Pa. A long-term friendship including participation in church developed. Will was baptized and, as was the IVEP pattern, moved to a second assignment, on a farm near Cordell, Okla. Here he learned the difference between “Old” Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren.
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