Otto Klassen

Honorary Doctorate

Otto Klassen

Honorary Doctor of Letters

Internationally respected documentary filmmaker Otto Klassen has been recording Mennonite history for over three decades creating more than 50 documentary films.

Klassen – a Mennonite originally from the Ukraine – came to Canada via Europe and Paraguay before settling in Manitoba. He has survived the devastating famine of 1932-33 in the Ukraine, the horror of war in Europe and endured the hardships of pioneer work in Paraguay.

“Otto felt he had survived for a reason,” explained Peter Letkemann. “He felt it was his responsibility to tell the story of his Mennonite people – of the suffering and hardships they endured, of their cultural and economic achievements and above all their faith.”

Like many men of his generation, Klassen was not formally educated after Grade 7. He discovered his creative voice and found his artistic focus through keen observation, extensive reading, diligent self study and life experience—including his knowledge of six languages (German, Low-German, Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish and English).

Klassen’s films tell the story of the Mennonite people in more than half a dozen countries including Russia, Mexico, Paraguay, the Netherlands and Canada. Known for attention to detail, he exhibits diligent care in every project he undertakes. He is a meticulous researcher, historian and scholar in his own right. His work reflects his extensive research. He has a broad collection of previously unknown and unseen film footage and photographs discovered from German and Soviet archives that he has gathered and utilized in his films over the years.

Klassen’s films not only cover the history of his people, but the stories shared are in several languages including English, German, Spanish and Low-German. This exemplifies his comprehensive knowledge of scholarly literature that is used and is evident in his film scripts that he writes.

By telling the stories of his people, Klassen has ensured that generations of Mennonites and non-Mennonites can learn about the historical trials, suffering and survival of the Mennonite people over the last century.

More than 50 films later, Klassen has made the life stories and history of Mennonites in Canada and around world accessible to a wide audience. Thousands of people have viewed his films over three continents.

Klassen’s attention to detail is also reflected in his work as a stonemason. Klassen was a bricklayer when he first came to Manitoba. His chimneys and walls are all over Winnipeg, and a fine example of his artisan work stands at the entrance of the Steinbach Museum. An obelisk designed and built by Klassen made of sticking white limestone. This obelisk is a monument dedicated to Mennonite victims that have experienced terror and repression.

“Klassen is a true pioneer,” said Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies, Professor of History, UWinnipeg. “He has performed a highly valued community service, giving voice and picture to a very appreciative audience. He has helped build a sense of a global Mennonite community, helped that community come to terms with its immense suffering and educating a wide audience on the extent of the Mennonite history.”