Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites
A collection of twenty-eight stories from Mennonite History
by John E. Sharp
Herald Press, 2001
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the Footsteps of Clayton Kratz
For three young Mennonites in 1920, it was undoubtedly a fantastic adventure. On their way to administer relief supplies to the war- and famine-stricken Russian Mennonites, Arthur Slagel (1891-1943), Orie O. Miller (1892-1977) and Clayton Kratz traveled from New York to Athens to the interior of Russia by boat, train, motorcycle and carriage, along the way experiencing new worlds of beauty, strangeness, extravagance, and ultimately, danger. Their journey took them from the art museums of Italy to a meeting with the Pope to the teeming streets of Constantinople. The experience left none of them unchanged.
Eighty years later and under very different circumstances, the four of us were also on a journey of discovery, from standing at the gleaming stones of the Acropolis, to hearing a 100-year-old Russian Mennonite woman describe firsthand the horrors of the famine and Nestor Machno's reign of terror, to crossing the moonlit Black Sea on the Caledonia. While on one level it was a journey of immediate and experiential discovery, on another level the sights and sounds we encountered along the way also led us to new levels of discovery in the story of Clayton Kratz.
The basic elements of the story are familiar. Clayton Kratz, a rising senior at Goshen College, popular, talented, full of promise, engaged to be married, leaves on the brink of his final year of college to accept the call of the fledging Mennonite Central Committee to administer relief to Russian Mennonites suffering from civil war and famine. He was the third man chosen to accompany two already selected, Arthur Slagel and Orie Miller. Slagel, of Flanagan, Illinois, was a young professor at Hesston College with remarkable linguistic skills eager to make a contribution in the area of active nonviolence and service. At the age of 28, Miller, of Akron, Pennsylvania, was already making a name for himself as fledging church leader, with overseas experience in the Near East relief effort.
Two months into the trip Kratz disappears, leaving only a scant paper trail and many unanswered questions in his wake. Through the haze of history it is difficult to get a firm grasp on the personal face of Kratz; it is much easier to treat him as an icon or archetype, but to do this betrays the depth of the story.
Born in 1896 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the sixth child of Elizabeth and William Kratz, Clayton was by all accounts a well-behaved and well-liked boy who exuded promise. He was the first in his family to attend college, enrolling at Goshen College after teaching school. His list of academic and extracurricular accomplishments at Goshen is enough to make any parent swell with pride: member of the baseball team, prize-winning orator, president of the junior class the list seems endless. (He was even elected best-looking by his classmates.) Pictures from the time show a confident young man, at times properly dressed and looking serious, at other times clearly at ease and enjoying himself with friends.
The contrast of Kratz's almost charmed life at Goshen with his final days in Russia is almost too large to fathom. This contrast is one aspect of the story that makes it so compelling. What was the road that took Kratz from his world as a popular and gifted student to being arrested, beaten, and disappearing in the freezing predawn cold of a war-torn Russia? That road began when Kratz received a telegram from the MCC office asking him to be the third man to join Miller and Slagel on the trip to Russia. Kratz was given two days to respond, but he needed less than one, postponing his academic career and leaving behind all he knew to enter a world of which he knew virtually nothing, only that he was needed.
It is difficult to imagine the full breadth of experiences and responses he must have had along the way, and he and his companions left precious little that shed light on their personal feelings and responses to what they were seeing and experiencing. In a time when talk shows clog the airways and tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, it can be hard to relate to an age when full disclosure was not valued as highly as discretion. Yet this reality is evident in reading the journals and letters left by the three men, which tend to be fact-oriented, long on descriptions of buildings and travel times and short on reflection.
In a way this is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it would be wonderful to be able to know about everything from the interpersonal dynamics between the three to what they missed most about home. On the other hand, the lack of such confessional or revelatory records leave enough questions unanswered to let the reader or observer search out his or her own answers to the questions, and the story becomes more personal and meaningful. Regardless of how one raises and answers these questions, it is difficult not to admire the serious-minded and resolute way the three young men went about their work.
While Kratz's name may not be as familiar to Mennonites today as H.S. Bender or Orie O. Miller, and many Goshen College students live in the dormitory bearing his name without knowing anything about him, Kratz is not in danger of disappearing into oblivion quite yet. The Clayton Kratz Fellowship in eastern Pennsylvania, a student dormitory on the campus of Goshen College, a work of fiction by Geraldine Gross Harder, a video by John Ruth, and an active oral history all ensure that Kratz's story will be told, retold and remembered.
Yet there is a danger in letting history and stories, especially important ones, grow too familiar. The beauty and complexity of that which is closest and most familiar is often easiest to overlook. The Kratz story is certainly engaging on an immediate level, but it is also a more complicated story than it is often given credit for. One of the great pleasures of working on the video was exploring the many facets of the story. Peeling away one layer revealed another, which upon inspection changed the way we viewed previous layers, and so forth.
Everyone wonders what happened to Kratz. But there are other telling questions that also need to be considered, questions that inject a very human element into the story. How did Kratz's relationship with his brother Jacob, who enrolled in the military during World War I, affect his decision to go to Russia? What did Istanbul look like through the eyes of a 24-year-old Mennonite from Bucks County, Pennsylvania? How did Kratz feel while crossing the Black Sea on the American destroyer Whipple, ducking beneath the massive guns on deck and sharing sleeping quarters with officers? How did he occupy his time during his final days in Halbstadt?
History is not recorded in a vacuum, and stories are not passed to successive generations without undergoing processes of transformation and adaptation. They must be reborn and retold if they are to survive. Particularly in regards to a faith tradition that has valued martyrdom and suffering, our generation of Mennonites is at a sort of crossroads in interpreting that history. Postmodernism has certainly found a secure toehold in the current generation of Mennonite students, and the postmodern lens is not a particularly kind judge towards the value of martyrdom. What is martyrdom other than the willingness to lay down ones life out of a belief in an absolute Truth? Is it possible to celebrate and affirm the value of such a decision without holding the exact beliefs? Is a complete adjustment of the definition of martyrdom necessary?
These questions and an intense desire to secure a more complete and human understanding of the story formed much of the impetus that caused the four of us to take a trip across the ocean, seeking out and following the trail of the group of young men. But no matter how personally enthused and engaged the four of us were with the subject matter, we still had to face the questions of why in the summer of 2000 a new video based on the life and travels of Clayton Kratz was needed, and why we were a group capable of producing it.
On an immediate level, the recent surfacing of the diary of C.E. Krehbiel merits a new look at the Kratz story. Krehbiel was an MCC worker in Russia in 1922-23 who made inquiries into Kratz's disappearance during his tenure there. Other MCC workers, perhaps most notably A.J. Miller, also did some investigating and made appeals to the Russian government for any information on Kratz, but their efforts brought no answers to the persisting questions and speculation.
In fact, subsequent efforts by MCC workers and officials to determine Kratz's fate were so fruitless that speculation as to the disposition of Kratz's case ranged from him being executed to dying of typhus, to working in coal mines in eastern Russia. One Russian official even claimed that Kratz had been placed on a train for Norway, where he would be released from Russian custody.
After 80 years of virtually no information or discoveries, the Krehbiel diary offers answers. It provides a cause of death, means of execution, charges leveled against Kratz, a villain and a motive even a numbered document that, if it did exist, in all likelihood still does exist, suffocating somewhere beneath eighty years of Soviet bureaucracy.
August 15, 1922
December 24, 1922
Promising, yes. Tantalizing, certainly. But at the same time, the Krehbiel diary essentially boils down to a collection of hearsay. Krehbiel himself did not see document 3538a in Kharkow and did not talk to Grigori Saposhnikov. Yet however reliable or unreliable Krehbiehls sources may have been, and even if his reports are accepted at face value, new questions arise to take the place of the old.
With so many people back home starving for any piece of news, the question of why Krehbiel kept his findings secret is a mystery nearly as engaging as Kratzs disappearance. It is tempting to speculate. Perhaps he dreaded the thought of shattering any remaining hopes in the Kratz family or his fiancé, Edith Miller. Perhaps he realized the secondhand nature of the information and did not want to assume personal responsibility for it or its consequences. Perhaps Krehbiel viewed the reference to Saposhnikov, a Jew, as information too inflammatory to disseminate.
But to become too consumed with the details and tantalizing fragments of the diary is to miss the point. As exciting as the Krehbiel diary is, to one inclined to believe everything in it, there are no seismic changes to what had already been assume; and to a skeptic, it only raises more questions than it answers. So while the Krehbiel diary is certainly a significant development and was perhaps for our group somewhat of a catalyst for making the video, it is still only a part of the total picture.
When the idea of making a video about Kratz was still more idea than reality, we talked to Professor John D. Roth. He was both encouraging and supportive of our idea and enthusiasm, but was sure to articulate some of the challenges ahead. For instance, the fact that John Ruth had already made a video about Kratz would raise questions of pertinence in the minds of many viewers and supporters. Roth also advised us to prepare ourselves to answer the question of what authority we had to present this story. This question certainly tempered our enthusiasm, but as we resolved to go forward with the project, we found that the answer lay in the story itself.
Both Miller and Slagel were still in their twenties at the time of the trip, and Kratz was twenty-four, with another year of school ahead of him. It is hard to overstate the importance and risk of their work. They were granted leadership in the groundbreaking steps of forging Mennonite Central Committee, with a task of organizing and delivering tons of relief supplies into the interior of a war-ravaged country, charting unfamiliar territory and navigating through nightmarish bureaucracies. These would be formidable tasks now, let alone in 1920.
It is difficult to imagine that if the church were selecting a team of three to fill a role of such importance today, a team of twenty-somethings would be selected for the job. It is easy to get trapped in circular logic answering the question of whether or not that has more to do with the church or the young people of today. But the bottom line is that leadership positions in the church and church-affiliated organizations for young people simply are not there to the extent they were in 1920, or even in 1960. Seeing the example of these three young men shouldering such responsibility and delivering under great pressures and stresses is an inspiring example of the potential impact that young people can have on the church.
While the elements of mystery, intrigue, and war make the story gripping, it is the faith, dedication, courage, and unfaltering belief in the justness of their cause that pierces the layers of history shrouding the story, bringing it very much to life for four young people on the brink of making life-changing choices. While we may differ in our perceptions of the story and what we take away from it, one thing all four of us feel strongly about and see manifest in this story is that young people of the church have a voice and can be capable producers and leaders when given the opportunity and supported through it.
The story of Clayton Kratz is
still touching lives and compelling people to action. We hope
that this video will, at least in a small way, continue this
Reprinted with permission from the forthcoming book Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites Tell edited by John E. Sharp, Herald Press, Copyright 2001. The book is sponsored by the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church.