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In Memoriam of Dr. George K. Epp (1924 - 1997)

Written by Dr. Peter Letkemann, Winnipeg [ lblpeter@mb.sympatico.ca ]

Dr. George K. Epp was born on 26 October 1924 in the Mennonite village of Osterwick (Pavlovka) in the former Chortitza Settlement. His parents were Maria and Kornelius Epp. His father was a well-liked school teacher by profession and a respected lay preacher by calling. Being a teacher was a risky occupation in the new Soviet "Workers' Paradise" of the 1920s. In 1923 the Soviet government introduced laws prohibiting preachers from serving as teachers, and vice versa. While this decree was aimed primarily at the Russian Orthodox Church and its 50,000 or more church schools, it struck Mennonite communities hard as well. Kornelius Epp was unwilling to compromise his principles, and was dismissed from three successive teaching posts - in Schönwiese, Osterwick and Franzfeld - within a five-year span. The family moved from Osterwick to Franzfeld (Varvarovka) in the Yazykovo Settlement only weeks after George's birth, and for some unknown reasons George's birth was "officially" registered in Franzfeld rather than Osterwick.

George spent his difficult, yet happy childhood years in Franzfeld. He attended school in the neighbouring village of Nikolaipol, and was known for his discipline and diligence. While most boys had enough of school after seven years and went out into the work-force, George hoped to continue his education. He was able to complete his eighth grade at the school in Neuendorf. He apparently had ambitions of working in the agricultural sector. During the summer months he worked on the collective farm.

On 21 June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and George's life changed for ever. At the age of sixteen he was drafted into the German Wehrmacht and, given his command of the German, Ukrainian and Russian languages, was given an assignment as interpreter. As the German army retreated westward after 1943, George eventually ended up in southern Bavaria, where he was captured by the American army. Unlike 1.5 million other German POWs who perished in American captivity, George was lucky enough to be released shortly after the war ended. In 1947 he was among the first group of Mennonite refugees to leave Germany for Paraguay on the Volendam.

In the Volendam Colony he met and married Agnes Froese in 1948. Together they shared the hardships of pioneer life in a new land. The community soon recognized his teaching gifts, although he had no formal pedagogical training, and hired him to be their school teacher. After his baptism in 1950, George also began his lay ministry in the church - thus continuing a long-established family tradition.

In December 1954, George and Agnes emigrated to Canada. Within days of his arrival in Winnipeg on 20 December 1954, he was offered a job as lab assistant to Dr. Campbell in the chemistry department at the University of Manitoba. George became an accomplished glass blower, making test tubes, beakers and other glass apparatus for the lab. The complex Pyrex glass vacuum system that he built to store gases for chemistry research at the U of M still stands as a monument of sorts to his skills.

Already fluent in Russian, Ukrainian, German, and Spanish, George began studying English and taking night-school classes to complete his high school requirements. In addition to his work in the lab, George then enrolled at the University of Manitoba, and earned BA and MA degrees in German. His MA thesis, entitled "Rilke und Russland" was completed in 1968 and published in 1984. In 1976 he earned his Ph.D. in history with a dissertation on "The Educational Policies of Catherine II."

George gave up his career as a glass-blower in 1968, and began a long and distinguished teaching career. He taught at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, the University of Manitoba, Canadian Mennonite Bible College, the University of Winnipeg and Menno Simons College. From 1978-83 he served as President of the Canadian Mennonite Bible College; from 1985-92 he served as Director of the Mennonite Studies Centre and helped to establish its successor - Menno Simons College. He retired from Menno Simons College in 1992, but continued his involvement with the Hutterian Heritage Teachers' Training program, where he taught church history.

In addition to his teaching duties he also served as a lay minister in the Sargeant Avenue Mennonite Church, Springfield Heights Mennonite Church and Douglas Mennonite Church. He also worked on many conference committees - especially the editorial advisory board to the German-Mennonite paper Der Bote.

Dr. George K. Epp died of cancer in Winnipeg on 25 October 1997, one day short of his 73rd birthday. He will be remembered as a man with a diverse range of interests and talents: a master glassblower, a dynamic teacher, a passionate public speaker, a capable college administrator, and a renowned scholar in various disciplines - ranging from Anabaptist history and theology, Russian- and Soviet-Mennonite history, to Mennonite literature. He was a man of courage and deep conviction, of passion, determination, discipline and sincere humility, a man of faith and vision who looked not only to the past but also to the future. Above all he was a man deeply devoted to his family and to his fellowship of faith, a sensitive pastoral counselor, and a dear friend, always ready to listen and take time for people.

Selected Bibliography of published books and articles:

BOOKS:

    1974. Harvest: Anthology of Mennonite Writing in Canada, 1874-1974.
    Altona: Friesen Printers, 1974.
    1977. Unter dem Nordlicht, Anthologie des deutschsprachigen Schrifttums der Mennoniten in Kanada.
    Altona: Friesen Printers, 1977.
    1984. Rilke und Russland. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1984.
    1984. The Educational Polices of Catherine II. The Era of Enlightenment in Russia.
    Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1984.
    1997. Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. Band I - Deutsche Täufer in Russland.
    Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1997
    1998. Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. Band II (in preparation)
    [1999] Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. Band III (in preparation)

ARTICLES:

(1) Anabaptist-Mennonite History

    George Epp made significant contributions to Mennonite scholarship in the area of Anabaptist research, where he was the first to recognize the significance of Menno Simons' roots in the medieval Premonstratensian Order.

    In 1996 George was invited to Europe present a series of lectures at the "Jubiläumskonferenz und Symposium zur 500-Jahresfeier von Menno Simons." Oerlinghausen, 14. - 17. März 1996. Unfortunately, he fell ill with cancer before he was able to deliver the lectures, and someone else had to read them for him at the symposium.

    1980. "The Spiritual Roots of Menno Simons," Mennonite Images, ed. Harry Loewen.
    Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1980, 51-59.
    1988a. "The Premonstratensian Connection of Menno Simons: Confirmations, Revisions and New Evidence," Mennonite Quarterly Review 1988, 349-55.
    1996a. "Am Erbe gemessen," Kein anderes Fundament. Beiträge zum Menno-Simons Symposium.
    Hrsg. von Johannes Reimer. Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1996, 9-18.
    1996b. "Menno Simons - Gesamtwerk und Bedeutung für die Gegenwart. Probleme der Forschung,"
    Kein anderes Fundament. Beiträge zum Menno-Simons Symposium.
    Hrsg. von Johannes Reimer. Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1996, 21-39.
    1996c. "Das 'Fundamentbuch.' Im Gespräch mit den Reformatoren," Kein anderes Fundament. Beiträge zum Menno-Simons Symposium. Hrsg. von Johannes Reimer. Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1996, 127-146.

(2) Russian and Soviet-Mennonite History

    George Epp's greatest contribution as a scholar came in the field of Russian Mennonite studies. He was uniquely qualified. for this role - he was not only fluent in Russian, Ukrainian and German, but he understood the Russian and Ukrainian setting, and knew the Mennonite story intimately from his own personal experience. I can still recall the tour which he and I led to the Soviet Union in 1990 - on a warm spring day our group was sitting on the upper deck of a boat cruising on the Dnieper River around the Island of Chortitza in Zaparozhye; George spoke 'off-the-cuff' for at least an hour, telling us story after story of what we were seeing. I can also remember that memorable day in May 1990 when he came back to our hotel room in Odessa brimming with excitement about his discovery of a vast archive of materials relating to the history of Mennonites and German Colonists in south Russia.

    The final fruits of his labours are found in his Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. Volumes I and II were completed well before he died. Several chapters of volume III were completed before George was hospitalized in June 1997, others exist only in draft. Before his death he asked me to oversee the completion and publication of this third volume. I hope to complete this task, together with a team of Mennonite scholars, before the end of the millennium.


    1985 "Die grosse Flucht, Vom Dnjepr zur Weichsel - Von der Weichsel aur Elbe, 1943-1945," Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 1985, 69-74.
    1986 "Russian patriotism among the nineteenth-century Russian Mennonites," Journal of Mennonite Studies 1986, 120-134.
    1987a. "Those who seek God in the U.S.S.R. discover he never went into exile," Mennonite Mirror, May 1987, 9-10 [contains the translations of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn].
    1987b "A confession of faith is a costly choice in the Soviet Union," Mennonite Mirror, September 1987, 5
    1987c "Perestroika: Khrushchov-Gorbachov-Yeltsin." Mennonite Mirror, December 1987, 5-6.
    1988b "Mennonite in Spite of . . .," in Why I am a Mennonite. Essays on Mennonite Identity.
    Ed. Harry Loewen. Kitchener: Herald Press, 1988, 50-60.
    1988c "Zur ethnisch-sozialen Interaktion der südrussischen deutschen Mennoniten," in Die Deutschen in der UdSSR in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Hrsg. Von Ingeborg Fleischhauer und Hugo H. Jedig. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1990. Internationales Symposium: Brücke der Verständigung - Die Deutschen in der UdSSR Einst und Jetzt. Bonn, 1. - 3. Mai 1988.
    1989a "Johann Cornies (1789-1848): Deutsches Bauerngenie am Schwarzen Meer,"
    Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland, 1985-1989. Stuttgart, 1989.
    1989b "Mennonite-Ukrainian Relations (1789-1945)". Journal of Mennonite Studies, 1989.
    1989c "Urban Mennonites in Russia," Mennonites in Russia, 1788-1988: essays in honor of Gerhard Lohrenz. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1989.
    1990 "The Mennonite Historian and Perestroika," Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society Newsletter, December 1990.
    1994 "Die deutschen Mennonitenkolonien an der Wolga," Zwischen Reform und Revolution. Die Deutschen an der Wolga, 1860-1917. Herausgegeben von Dittmar Dahlmann und Ralph Tuchtenhagen. Essen: Klartext, 1994. [Paper presented at U of Freiburg, 6 - 10 Oct 1992]
    1997. Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. Band I - Deutsche Täufer in Russland. Bielefeld: Logos Verlag, 1997.
    1998. Geschichte der Mennoniten in Russland. Band II (in preparation).


Further tributes to George Epp:
    Isaac P. Bergen, "Erinnerungen an meinen Mitschüler und Freund," Der Bote 19 Nov 1997, 7.
    Erwin Strempler, "Epp focused on the Mennonite Story," Canadian Mennonite, 8 Dec 1997, 5.
    Brenda Suderman, "Historian/preacher was also craftsman," Canadian Mennonite 22 Dec 1997, 12.
    Peter Epp, "Erinnerungen an meinen Bruder Georg," Der Bote 2 Jan 1998, 4; 7 Jan 1998, 4; 14 Jan 1998, 4.

Comments or Questions may be addressed to:

Peter Letkemann < lblpeter@mb.sympatico.ca >

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