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Website celebrates overlooked elements of Mennonite life

By: Geralyn Wichers

Posted: 08/4/2018 10:30 AM

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Erin Koop Unger, editor of Mennotoba, in her Steinbach home.


Erin Koop Unger, editor of Mennotoba, in her Steinbach home.


For some, Mennonite culture is so normal it fades into the background. For others, who perhaps have to explain themselves to more metropolitan folk, it’s embarrassing.

For Erin Koop Unger, that was Mennonite life as a child: either boring or embarrassing. She didn’t see her Kleefeld dairy-farm lifestyle reflected on TV, and the kids in school were happy to remind her that Koop rhymes with poop.

In adulthood her outlook changed.

Koop Unger edits Mennotoba, a website dedicated to Mennonite history, culture and food, and musings on the oddities of Mennonite life. Her husband Andrew J. Bergman runs satire site The Daily Bonnet.

Extensive travel has taught Koop Unger and Bergman that "when you really hold a lens up to any culture or group of people, the eccentricities emerge…you really see that every large group is made up of smaller groups, each with their own complicated dynamics."

In keeping with those dynamics, Mennotoba doesn’t stick to surface-level, light-hearted fare. Despite frequent forays into the pleasant parts of Mennonite culture—a review of waffles with white sauce or a quiz to test your knowledge of Plautdietsch—Koop Unger has written about more sobering finds.

While travelling in Belgium, she and Bergman made an impromptu tour through Castle Gravensteen in Ghent. Later, a little background research revealed that over 100 Mennonites were tortured and executed within those walls.

It dawned on them that they both descended from Mennonites in Ghent. Had any of their ancestors died in the castle?

Mennotoba also offers opportunities to share knowledge. Koop Unger recently dug up a yearbook for a place simply titled "Mennonite Invalid Home." She’d never heard of such a place, and while she could tell it had been somewhere in Steinbach, she didn’t know where it had stood. After she wrote about the mysterious yearbook, people let her know the precise details.

"As a younger Mennonite person," Koop Unger said, "you sort of have this idea that ‘oh Mennonites are so kind and so gentle and innocuous, and you know, so peace-loving and they always get along’ and you think this because you’re not really paying attention."

Once you start paying attention, she said, you realize that they were constantly getting upset at each other. "Sometimes they could get downright threatening with each other."

That was new information to her. "This is not something that parents tell their kids as bedtime stories, necessarily."

It hadn’t dawned on Koop Unger that the site would have a takeaway beyond the bits of information she found so interesting. With thought she settled on a hope that people would find a new appreciation for their province.

"Where we are is special and loaded with stories," she said.

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