In 1994, twenty relief quilts made in 1945 by North American Mennonites for the Dutch were given into my care. Last year I lost one…. and that was okay. Here’s the story.
After WW2, Russian Mennonites fleeing westward were allowed to stay in The Netherlands for a short time providing that the Dutch Mennonite (Doopsgezinde) community would house, feed and clothe them.
Short of supplies themselves after the Honger Winter, Mennonites in Canada and the US sent over pallets of food, clothing and quilt blankets, which they’d been preparing since 1940.
The relief was coordinated by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), founded in 1920 to assist Russian Mennonites to emigrate to Canada after WW1. Many of the key people in the 1945 efforts were themselves refugees from the previous war. Helping now was their way of repaying and passing on the comfort they had received.
A Mennonite woman, An Keuning-Tichelaar and her husband Herman, a Mennonite minister in Friesland, The Netherlands, organized the overall care of twenty-one Russian Mennonite immigrants in their village and hosted several in their home. But they had no mattresses left, having burned the old ones post-war due to vermin infestation. An called the newly-opened Mennonite Central Committee office in Amsterdam, asking for mattresses. The next day she received a truck full of quilts and comforters, much to her dismay – they were so thin! She was advised to pile 4 or 5 of them together in a ticking and ask people to sleep on top as well as under them, and so she did.
After her houseguests left a year later by ship for Paraguay, An Keuning kept caring for the quilts, about eighty in number. They served as keepers of her wartime memories, which she did not share with others for many years. I happened upon them as a guest in their weekend farmhouse and recognized them from growing up in a Mennonite environment in Minnesota. I asked if I could buy one, but An said they weren’t hers to sell.
Ten years later I called her again to ask if the quilts might be exhibited in our bookstore over Thanksgiving weekend, as symbols of gratitude given to strangers. That was the start of a lifelong friendship, although we differed greatly in age and background. Over the years, An had donated many of the quilts to other Doopsgezinde projects and persons, but kept about twenty of them close to her.
In 1994 she turned this collection over to my stewardship. I was even more interested in her wartime stories and urged her to write them down. In 2005 we launched our book Passing on the Comfort: the War, The Quilts and the Women who made the Difference at the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) headquarters as well as at a gigantic quilt convention in Pennsylvania.
That was also the start of a two-year long traveling exhibition of the quilts, back to their makers in Canada and the United States, carried all the way by volunteers. More than 180000 people viewed them. Facsimile quilts, postcards, and coloring books were all made around the theme. Dutch and German versions of the book were made later, as well as an 8-minute film available as DVD or on YouTube.
In more recent years, European Mennonites in Switzerland, Germany and The Netherlands have been making simple quilts called comforters as relief goods for refugees in Syria, Greece and Jordan. At the European Mennonite conference in France last year, An’s quilts were exhibited right next to a huge workspace for making new comforters, side by side. Groups had also brought hundreds of comforters, which were lovingly loaded into a freight container on the convention center parking lot, bound by sea to Syria.
One of the WW2 quilts had been displayed on an easel to entice visitors to the other building where comforters were being made. At the end of the conference, we packed up the WW2 quilts in their cabinets, but could not find the one that had been on display. Dozens of people searched everywhere. Thankfully, it was one of a pair of identical comforters in the Bars and Tumblers pattern – if one had to go missing, this was the least unique of the collection. In its place, the organizers urged us to take a modern comforter with us to tell the continuing story – we choose a special yellow one, with shadings from black to white.
The container went to Syria and, when the unpacking was done, sure enough the old comforter was tucked amongst the new ones. Forewarned, the recipients hung it up carefully on the wall of the church in Damascus that served as distribution point for the relief goods. It serves there as an ambassador from the past, linking the history of women who fled nearly one hundred years ago and later made comforters for the newly needy to people now in need, who may well follow the example sometime in the future by making comforters for others.
When TRC asked for a donation of a Mennonite quilt, it felt right to give two of the eighty MCC quilts which had originally been given to An, to this cause. We hope they will carry the story to a wider audience. We’ve also donated the new comforter made in 2018– the one that substitutes for its sister, now in Syria telling her story there (TRC 2020.0194).
The twenty quilts An gave me in stewardship are administered by the International Menno Simons Centre group of Witmarsum, Friesland. Menno Simons was the 16th century former priest whose first name was taken up by followers inspired by his reformist ideas, hence “Menno – nites”. The Amish are an offshoot of this group, followers of Jakob Ammann.
Lynn Kaplanian-Buller Jan. 29, 2020