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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 161–63 

Book Review

Ambassador to His People

Herb Klassen and Maureen Klassen. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1990. 266 pages.

Reviewed by Wesley J. Prieb

“There is probably no living Mennonite who is so widely {162} known and so universally respected as was the late C. F. Klassen. . . .” After reading the book this reviewer agrees; the claim is justified.

The authors of this book carry unique credentials. Herbert Klassen, teacher of history, is a son and Maureen Klassen, a teacher of English, is a daughter-in-law of C. F. Klassen. After extensive research Maureen commented, “I have touched the spirit of a father I have never met.”

The authors unfold the life of Klassen in the context of the Mennonite experience shaped by world events in Russia, Europe, and North America. His pilgrimage is divided into three parts.

RUSSIA, 1894-1928: Cornelius Klassen’s childhood was spent in New Samara, daughter colony of Molotchna. After high school in the Crimea, Klassen went to Moscow and St. Petersburg for work. World War I interrupted his education as he was drafted into the Forestry Service, an alternative service program, where he quickly advanced to administrative leadership.

Shortly after the November Revolution in 1917, Klassen attended the Mennonite Congress in Ohrloff, where he emerged as an ambassador of his people, called to represent nearly 100,000 Mennonites in Russia to civil authorities during the difficult years of civil war, typhus epidemics, drought and famine (1920-22). He played a major role in opening doors for MCC relief. Then from 1922 to 1925 he helped thousands of Mennonite emigrants find new homes in Canada. He and his wife, living in the Mennonite Center in Moscow, escaped to Canada just before emigration closed in 1928.

CANADA, 1928-1945: In Canada Klassen was quickly put to work on the Board of Colonization and other MCC agencies. His first task was to collect travel debts for emigrants totaling about two million dollars-a task he completed in 1946.

As World War II began, Klassen became involved in negotiating with public officials in Canada to arrange an alternative service program and to make preparations for MCC relief work after the war. He traveled widely in Canada and the United States, promoting peace and service.

EUROPE, 1945-54: The authors remark, “History celebrates the great men who moved armies and established kingdoms. But who will dare to move hordes of homeless, sick and decrepit people left in the wake of these military feats?” On {163} August 6, 1945, the day Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the MCC sent Klassen to Europe to investigate human need.

With a spirit of compassion, long suffering, patience, and quiet determination he returned to Europe and Russia on six major missions during the next eleven years. His mission was to establish programs to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build homes for the homeless, find new homelands for refugees, establish Bible schools, and encourage churches to teach peace and non-resistance.

Klassen died of a heart attack, May 8, 1954, in Gronau enroute to Holland for a Peace Conference. His last written words appeared in Der Mennonite, after his death, as an exhortation to the larger Mennonite family: “Are you and I being salt? Let us continue to pray for an awakening, asking that it begin in us. May the risen Christ equip us in our dark days to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.”

The witness of C. F. Klassen is especially relevant in the past Gulf War era. Klassen’s frequent expression “Gott Kann” (God is able) offers the world-wide Mennonite family hope in this dark world. Every serious Mennonite should read this book and touch the spirit of Cornelius F. Klassen.

Wesley Prieb, Former Director
Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Tabor College
Hillsboro, Kansas

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