No. 8, Summer 1999
C. F. Klassen: “Gott Kann”
It was a sunny Sunday morning in early autumn in Bavaria, West Germany. The year was 1945. A car was driving through a quiet village near the Czech border, stopping frequently as its driver and passenger got out and looked around searching for something or someone. Suddenly, strains of a hymn could be heard on the morning air. “Wess ich den Weg auch nicht, Du weisst ihn wohl.” (“Even when I don’t know the way, You certainly do”). Excitedly, the passenger C. F. Klassen exclaimed, “Those are my people – let’s go to them.”
Imagine the surprise and joy of the little group of Russian refugees crowded into a farm cottage with wide-open windows. They were comforting their hearts with familiar songs from their lost homeland villages in Russia, when a tall, handsome man strode into the room. He was a Klassen from Canada, but spoke their native dialect, Low German. Klassen was “one of them” who had left Russia and gone to Canada in 1928. Now he had come to post-war Germany, “seeking his brethren,” he said. He came to offer them the help of the Mennonite family in North America through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to find a new home after the horrors of the Second World War.
As the eager refugees gathered around him bombarding him with questions, they were surprised to discover he could tell them all about relatives in Canada – which town or village they had settled in, what they were working at – sometimes the names of their children. How could this be?
Soon they heard that C. F. Klassen, after helping thousands of Mennonites flee Russia in the 1920s, had been busy during the war years in Canada collecting the money borrowed from the Canadian Pacific Railway and the government to resettle in Canada. It was a difficult task but he did it cheerfully. Now it took on a new significance. He could comfort these dislocated people with news of loved ones. And he could put them in touch with those who would help them in turn to reach a new homeland. Humbly, he thanked God for His ways.
C. F. Klassen knew what it meant to be a stranger and pilgrim on earth. Back in Russia he had seen Mennonite village life destroyed through social unrest, famine and civil war. He had acted as an intermediary between his people and the government in Moscow and later between them and Western Mennonites who had sent them relief in the famine years. He sought to give his life to relieve suffering wherever he found it, whether it was food for the hungry, escape from tyranny, or to assist in resettlement to a new land. He tried to show God’s love and mercy to people whose lives had been ravaged by war and revolution, famine and disease.
His name became a harbinger of hope for thousands as they passed through West Germany, with the word so often on his lips “Gott kann” (God can). When all human efforts failed, he pointed people to a God who always cares for orphans and the homeless. Though he often spoke to military and government officials regarding his peoples’ plight, he brought compassionate care and understanding to each one he met, especially those in the refugee camps.
When C. F. died in 1954 at the early age of 59, in the midst of his work for MCC in Germany, he was mourned by thousands who could truly say he reached out to them with God’s mercy at their point of most desperate need. His “legacy of mercy” lives on in MCC, the agency to which he devoted much of his life. MCC continues to stretch out its hand of mercy “In the Name of Christ” around the globe.