It was 1940. The war news from the Europe was not good. Canada and the Allies were losing the war. Germany had conquered most of Europe and seemed unstoppable. The community of Leamington, Ontario – the Tomato Capital of Canada – started to look at their Mennonite neighbours with suspicion. What did they really know about the Mennonites? These strange people usually kept to themselves. One thing the people of Leamington did know: the Mennonites who came from Russia in the 1920s, spoke German, and had been in Canada for less than twenty years. Could they be trusted to support Canada?
During the Second World War, many Canadians suspected Mennonites of being enemy spies. Not only did the Mennonites speak German, but they refused to fight in the Canadian army. Tension was higher in some communities than in others. In Leamington this tension was especially strong. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police went as far as to search Reverend Jacob Janzen's house looking for illegal or enemy material.
What did the RCMP want from this pacifist church minister? Their actions were part of the wave of anti-German feeling that swept Canada during the war. Jacob Janzen's only crime was speaking German. The fact that Janzen and the other Mennonite immigrants were from the Soviet Union, not Germany, was ignored.
Life under the communists in the Soviet Union had been hard. More than 20,000 Mennonites fled from the Soviet Union to Canada in the 1920s to escape persecution. North American Mennonites heard of their plight and gave what assistance they could. When they arrived in Canada, the Russian Mennonites stayed with Swiss Mennonite families in Kitchener, Waterloo, and other communities. When the immigrants felt ready, they moved west to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Some, however, stayed in Ontario .
One of these groups that stayed in Ontario travelled 300 km south and west from their hosts in Kitchener-Waterloo to the lakeside town of Leamington . This area soon had enough Mennonite settlers to establish a church. In 1929, the church had 150 members. By 1947, they had 711.
This growing congregation's problems began when Canada declared war on Germany. The English-speaking community in Leamington did not trust the German-speaking Mennonites. On the night of 25 May 1940, this suspicion turned to violence. Some people broke into the Mennonite church and vandalized the basement. They smashed dishes and destroyed Sunday School material, even though it was in English.
A week later, the RCMP called some Mennonites to the town hall for finger printing. When they discovered that the Mennonites were all born in Russia or the Ukraine, the event was cancelled. The Mennonites knew the community was watching them. For that reason, the church cancelled their German school and didn't hold private meetings in the church basement for the rest of the war. The vandalism and the fingerprinting made it apparent that the church's efforts had been in vain.
These events shook the whole Mennonite community in Leamington. Jacob Janzen faced a personal test in November 1940. The RCMP staged a surprise search of his house.
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Why did they search Janzen's house?
In 1940, suspicion against Germans was at an all-time high. Germany's mighty armies had conquered most of Europe. Nightly, German planes bombed London, the British capital. Meanwhile, in Canada, the leaders of the pacifist churches worked to ensure that their young men would not have to go to war. Considering the desperate situation in Europe, the pacifist position was very unpopular.
In Ontario, the Conference of Historic Peace Churches met regularly with government officials. The leader of the Mennonite church in Leamington, Rev. N.N. Driedger, was on a committee that required him to visit Ottawa frequently to negotiate for the peace churches. He wrote many letters to committee members, government officials, and Mennonites across Canada.
The post office in Leamington became suspicious when he began to receive so much mail. Who was writing him, they wondered? Was he a German spy?
Although Driedger was engaged in legal church activities, he decided to reroute his mail to Jacob Janzen's house for a while. Someone – no one knows who – called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the RCMP sent two officers to search Janzen's home.
Janzen had nothing to hide, but the visit shocked him nevertheless. The officers searched the house for anything that might show that Janzen wasn't completely loyal to Canada. Maybe they'd find some weapons, or a German flag, or a letter proving Janzen was spying for Germany. They searched through drawers and cupboards, closets and bookshelves, and found nothing. The one officer who could read German quickly saw that Janzen's books were almost entirely religious.
Near the end of the visit, the men interviewed Janzen. Since they knew that he had suffered greatly in the Soviet Union under the communists, they asked him whether he wanted Germany to defeat the communists. Janzen was not fooled by this trick question. He said that because he was a Mennonite, he believed that war was wrong no matter who was fighting. He did not support either side.
The officers were satisfied with Janzen's response. Janzen's possessions and his answers to their questions convinced the RCMP that he was sincere in his religious beliefs. They realized he was not a threat to Canada and never had been.