At the age of 85, Artur Regier vividly remembers the night he fled his family’s West Prussian farm.
It was 1945, and he was 15 years old. With gunfire from the Russian army less than two miles from their home, he, his mother and two brothers galloped away on horseback.
It would be nine years before they had a home of their own again.
They sailed on the Baltic Sea with more than 2,000 refugees on a boat built for 250, then spent three years living in a Danish camp.
Finally, in 1954, they moved into their own home in Enkenbach, Germany.
That home was built by young volunteers in Pax, an MCC program that provided Mennonites in the U.S. an alternative to military service and, in post-war Europe, helped to rebuild war-torn areas and to offer a bright spot of hope.
In Enkenbach alone, the efforts of Pax built 115 housing units and a building for the Mennonite church.
Enkenbach is full of stories like Regier’s — accounts of people who were forced to flee as youth and built new lives with the assistance of MCC and its Pax program.
There was Louise Sauer, who lived in a camp in Russia for two years, then in wooden barracks in Germany with no bathroom or running water. When her family moved into the new home, she says, “It was like heaven for us children.”
Or there’s Edith Foth, who left home with her family when she was just 10. “We thought in two days we’d be back home, but we never made it back,” she says.
Her family moved into a new Pax-built home on the first Sunday of Advent in 1954. “That was a great moment for us, and without MCC’s help, it would have never been possible for us to own a house again after World War II,” says Foth, who worked alongside Pax volunteers for several months.
Between 1953 and 1961, approximately 120 Pax “boys” went through Enkenbach. (Almost all participants were men, mostly young men, but a handful of women also volunteered in Pax locations.)
Their legacy lives on in more than just the physical homes they built. Children gathered at the Pax house for snacks and Bible study, listening to the radio and playing games of table tennis in the basement. Pax participants started their own choir, and refugee youth joined in — forming the seeds of what today is the Enkenbach Mennonite Choir.
Ervie Glick of Harrisonburg, Va., was a member of that choir while he served with Pax in Enkenbach, and he also remembers playing hockey in the winter with the youth from the Mennonite church. But his most vivid memory from that time is of Monday evenings when the Pax members went in groups of two to spend the evening with a family who had moved into one of the new houses.
The families would share photos and stories from the homes they fled and of the journey to Germany. “Airplanes would strafe their columns of refugees, their horses and wagons, and they would dive into the ditches and run to escape them, the airplanes. It was just awful,” he says. So families were very thankful once they could move into the homes built by Pax. “With the new homes, once they got established they could find meaningful employment and get their feet on the ground.”
MCC relief in Europe wasn’t only in Enkenbach. Shortly after the war, food, clothing and relief supplies were distributed across Germany, and in the 1950s Pax built homes in several areas around the country.
France also received help rebuilding damaged areas. Many in the small town of Geisberg remember 1946 to 1949, when MCC relief workers built houses as well as a nearby home for orphans.
Here too, the memories are of more than construction. Though Théo Hege was only 7 when the MCC workers arrived, he remembers having them at his family’s home on Sundays and receiving candy or stamps for his collection. “They introduced us to Christmas caroling as well as the sunrise service on Easter morning,” he says.
Now that he’s older, that relationship with MCC remains — though Hege is on the other side of the equation.
When Geisberg Mennonite Church collected relief supplies for Syrians, he helped contribute. “I think that program is an expression of Christian love to those who have less than we have,” Hege says. “We share what God gave us in his mercy.”
Sisters Agnes and Emma Hirschler, whose home was built by MCC, also helped put together kits and through that, Hege says, they “encouraged the younger generation not to forget the help we got when we were in need.”
The shipment, sent through MCC, was coordinated by the relief committee of the Swiss Mennonite Church (Nothilfe Gruppe, or Emergency Group) along with French churches. It contained 1,500 hygiene kits, 65 handmade comforters, 294 purchased blankets, 791 relief kits and 144 pairs of handmade socks along with supplies like towels and sheets.
In Germany, the Enkenbach Mennonite Church, where Regier, Sauer and Foth attend, also has donated money and supplies to MCC’s relief work through Mennonitisches Hilfswerk (Mennonite Relief), an organization of 60 Mennonite churches in Germany.
Now, 70 years after the war’s end, it’s a way that many whose communities received help through MCC can give back — passing on the blessing that they received to others whose lives have been upended by conflict.
“When Mennonitisches Hilfswerk calls for special offerings for MCC projects, I am always ready to give,” Regier says. “I always remember that I have received help from MCC when I was in need after World War II.”
Emily Loewen is a writer for MCC Canada. Nina Linton is a photographer from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.