The quiet and peace with which we concluded the old year continued into the new year. Certain troubles were to be expected, of course, especially for those who employed outside help. The inspection of their working conditions and of their treatment by their employers became more stringent. Minimum wages and limited working hours were established, and their living conditions were scrupulously watched. On the whole this affected us less than many others.
In the first place, because of my frequent absences away from home we were entitled to have hired help, and secondly because our servants were so good and faithful. Jakob Arndt, his sister Marie, and nanny Annchen Bartuli were just great. Until the beginning of this year we didn’t even draw up written contracts, as we were supposed to do.
But in January Jakob Arndt left us. With his good wages he had been able to take care of his family in Hussenbach, but also gradually he had bought the necessary machinery, livestock, etc. so that now he was going to start farming on his own. In his place came David, a thirty-year old German, also from Hussenbach. He had previously worked for one of our neighbors. He had the reputation of being a good worker, but also a hot-head. We fared well with him, too, but it was altogether different from our relationship with Jakob. Now we always had to watch our speech carefully because he had caught quite a bit of the Communist spirit.
This winter I was home more and without extra responsibilities as in other years. Naturally I attended the annual meetings of the Agricultural Society in our village, the NSS, the SPS, etc. For the first time I noticed a strong pull to the left. For example: during the NSS meeting comrade Zeitler presented a proposition made by Moscow, that all local societies should be subdivided, so that each society would be responsible for only one branch of the economy. This was economic nonsense. I also realized at once the political motive for this move. The way it was now, the whole economic enterprise was concentrated in one or a few persons, men who usually were the most capable and who naturally had certain positive influence on all concerns. But that did not sit well with the authorities who were moving steadily more to the left.
So the plan to split each society up into several, as many as four, smaller segments, would break the strength and unity of the Society; it would also cause more bickering and create disunity, and this would give the Communists a chance for more influence and power. Zeitler, who knew very well how I would react to such a proposal, took me aside before the meeting and tried to make me promise that I would speak in favor of the plan. I refused, of course. But when he told me that this was an order from headquarters to carry out the subdivisions, I realized that logic and reasoning against such nonsense was utterly useless; so I agreed to keep silent. The outcome had already been decided by the Party. I saw how former methods of the Communists to accomplish their ends were gradually returning.
The meeting of the Registered Seed Organization (S.P.S.) in Pokrowsk was also quite different. Until now the administration had consisted of impartial men, J.I. Kuchowarenko as chairman, Joh. L. Penner and Sergei Barchatow as members. Barchatow was fired, and Penner was allowed to stay on only after much effort. Almost by force they tried to get two Communists into the committee, but were unable to do so largely because of the decisive and manly opposition of D. Berger, who was a Communist himself, but who strongly recommended that Penner be retained for one more year. Berger was a right-oriented Communist.
In March we returned the stallion „Lewkoi,“ who had been in our barn for three years, and had been an excellent horse for the road for me. I and another man went to Saratov to choose three stallions from their pure bred supply for our settlement. One of them, a black trotter, came to our barn again. It was a beautifully shaped animal, noble in all his proportions, but balky in temperament and often could be rather unpleasant. I sold a young stallion, an offspring from Lewkoi, to the Department of Agriculture for 750 rubles (ordinary but good horses sold for 80 – 120 rubles). This horse, „Ivan“, was put out to training as a race horse and already next year showed great promise on the track.
In March there was a meeting in Pokrowsk of the so-called „experts“ in agriculture. The Department of Agriculture invited me to attend. One of the agenda items was to make a new survey of the land in those villages that wanted to change over to larger communal farming. I went, but felt at once that this meeting was no longer for me. Each of my suggestions was viewed with suspicion; the leftists set the tone, and practical, economically sound reasoning was out of place.
Our land was again sown under contract with seed from the Department of Agriculture, the S.P.S.
In May Lieschen was baptized by Elder Corn. Nickel. Elder Peter Wiens had retired because of illness and age. As far as I could tell the preparation for baptism was a blessed time for Lieschen. Rev. Franz Quiring had the catechism instruction for our youth. He did this important task with joy, dedication and love.
Our church life during these years was harmonious and good, and I believe that our ministers worked with great faithfulness and were a blessing. During this time our church had its first mission festival, together with the one in Koeppental. Until now we had separate mission services in the two churches. The main speaker at the festival was Rev. Franz Quiring. The choirs of the different villages sang and at the end all of them together sang, „A Mighty Fortress is our God.“ I also remember that one item on the program was the poem, „Es reut mich nicht,“ (I do not regret it). The church was packed. The festival had been suggested by Franz Quiring, but our other young ministers also were much in favor of stimulation and spiritual revival in our church life; also old Ohm John. Toews, Fresenheim. Perhaps less so elder Peter Wiens (retired) and Rev. P. Dyck, but I don’t mention this as a reproach; they were still of the old school, opposed to any changes and innovations in church life.
In May we had a much appreciated visit from Peter Sinner, the most important school authority in the German Volga Republic. He came with his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Kern. Sinner had taught in St. Petersburg before coming to Saratov to teach at the German division of the high school. He was a Volga German through and through. He was generally known as an unflinching optimist in his faith in a great future for the Volga Germans. But I remember how depressed he seemed to be as we walked along our garden paths and talked until late in the evening. He told us how the Communist pressure in school had spoiled teaching for him, and how lucky we were to have taken Vogt, Dyck and Quiring out of that school. It was the first and only time that I had such a discussion with Mr. Sinner; my respect for him increased and at the same time I pitied him, for my misgivings matched his exactly. For him the fate of the Volga Germans was also his own fate.
In the years 1925-26 two Russian professors often came to Am Trakt to gather statistical information about our past and present. Fortunately most of the material was still on hand in the archives in the Koeppental district office. One was Prof. Surukin and the other Elpatjewski. The latter was assessor of the Saratov Agricultural Institute and had the specific assignment to investigate the origin of the Holland or Holstein cattle Am Trakt, as well as our present number of cows, quantity and quality of milk production, its use in the cheese factory, the marketing of cheese on a co-operative basis, etc. The resulting brochure was called „The Menno Toggansky Cattle“ and was published by our Society. Surukin’s book was a general study of our settlement since its beginning, but with special emphasis on the last decade. I had the book and can not understand why it was not brought along to Canada; likely it was left behind by oversight, the way we left many books there.
In May our Agricultural Society organized a so-called „folk-festival.“ I had suggested it, did most of the preparatory work and was the program director. It took place in the garden of our Society farm (the former Wiebe place) and the open space across the street, between the new cheese factory and the Society’s granary. A platform at one end of the big machine shed was erected for the performers who sang solos, duets, made speeches and for the mass choir. The songs were mostly folk and nature songs, some more serious ones, like „The Clock“, sung by Mrs. Frieda Epp. There were 400-500 people present.
The program was much appreciated and applauded by everyone, except the observer from the Communist Party. She ridiculed it and mock ingly said that it was almost like a church performance and served to stupefy rather than enlighten the people.
After the program a buffet was available consisting of: tea, lemonade, zwieback, cookies, sandwiches, etc. The young people had fun playing games outdoors, while the older folk enjoyed themselves visiting with each other. Many benches had been placed in the big garden. When I saw the people promenade along the winding paths among the beautiful flowers and shrubs, I had to think of the rightful owners, Jacob Wiebes, who were hard at work in Beatrice, Nebraska, attempting to establish a new home for themselves.
In the evening and when it was completely dark, there were fireworks in the garden; I think we had 25 items. Most people had never seen anything like it before. Everyone was satisfied and many asked to have more celebrations like this one. The Society had organized and paid for everything.
During these years many foreign delegations came to visit the Soviet Union. Their guide was always a G.P.U. (secret police) agent, who let them see what the government wanted them to see. Many of them also came to our villages and usually they first came to our house.
I remember especially a group of four journalists from foreign papers: Dr. Scheffer from the Berlin Daily, an Englishman, a Dane and a Norwegian. They stayed with us for the night. It was a very beautiful evening. The gentlemen promenaded in our lovely garden and said that they couldn’t find words to adequately expresstheir amazement at finding such culture and affluence in Soviet Russia. The guide, comrade Gruenspan, a Jew, was with us every minute and took note of how I answered their many questions. Of course I chose my words carefully.
But one time when Gruenspan had left us alone for a few minutes, I told Dr. Scheffer what the life in Russia was really like— that we were an excep tion, that we always felt like being in a prison, etc. I think that was the only time that I forgot myself and the necessary caution; but the pressure from the left grew stronger all the time.
I felt this especially during the meetings in Pokrowsk, and even in the Department of Agriculture, the NSS, and the German Volga Bank. I felt a growing distrust towards me. The normal business matters that I used to take care of without much difficulty, now became extremely difficult, especially the obtaining of credit. That became virtually impossible except for short-term loans. They tried to foreclose our two and three year credits, which weren’t even due yet for repayment. Joh. Thiessen always asked me to settle these matters. I did it, but it was not easy and I was always met with suspicion. We Mennonites were no longer looked upon as „examples of evolution and economic reconstruction,“ but rather as elements that had achieved affluence too quickly.
The favorable weather conditions this summer promised a rich harvest. We were still hoping that the attitude of the government against us farmers was only a temporary phase. For the first time larger imported machinery was for sale, not on the open market, of course, but only through the NSS, and with a special permit from the Department of Agriculture. We hoped for good times ahead. We had considerable amount of cash but didn’t dare deposit it in the bank, so we bought a new Germanmade „Krupp“ binder for about 425 rubles, and also a new Fordson tractor for 1,400 rubles. We hitched the tractor to the binder and because the tractor had headlights we kept cutting our grain day and night. I remember one night Anna was on the tractor and I was on the binder. We also had three old binders, one a McCormick and two Osbornes. We hitched horses to one of these and so the harvesting was soon done.
I remember one incident. It was in the afternoon when both binders were in action and I was having a dinner nap, that the phone rang. Abr. A. Froese, chairman of the District Soviet in Koeppental, told me that a car with a German delegation of „workers“ had just left for our place. How fortunate that Froese called me, or the „comrades“ would have found me napping. It was a time when it was again very important to be known as a working peasant. Quickly one of the children took the message to the field, that the tractor with binder should stop at the far end of the field and stay there until further notice.
A tractor and new machinery were not meant for private enterprises, but only for collective farms. So even though I had the permit for our purchase, caution was still necessary. I quickly changed into older greasy clothes, went to the field, just caught the horse binder as it was coming along, and began to grease it. . . at the very moment when the car with the „worker“ delegation arrived.
The guide, again a Jew, was unknown to me. I let our hired man continue with the binder, while I showed them the farm, the house, the garden, etc. These workers from Germany were the most rotten delegation of any that came. They asked very sarcastically if now at last we worked, and had we not been only masters before? Did we not wish that those times would return again? When they walked through the house and the other farm buildings one of them remarked: „This is not a farm, this is an estate.“ When we walked through the garden, they sneered: „A nice park for the lords and ladies.“ They asked if our hired help ate at the same table with us. . I tried to get rid of that communist bunch as quickly as possible.
The crop this year yielded more than ever before: rye 100 pud per desjatin, wheat over 90 pud (1 desj. = 2 acres, 1 pud = 40 lbs). For several years we had planted corn, though with poor results; this year it yielded 460 pud per desj. i.e. corn on the cob. Because of the good crop we put the tractor on our big threshing machine (Clayton and Shuttleworth, 42″ cylendar) and our 18 h.p. motor (Triumph) on the small machine. But we had to change motors, because the Fordson tractor could not handle the larger threshing machine. Our mechanics were Gerhard Dyck and Franz Wall’s Johannes, both from Hohendorf. I’d like to mention that after cutting I sold the new Krupp binder for the same price we had bought it. It had worked well, except for a wheel at the back where the sprockets were poorly adjusted and consequently would soon wear out.
One day during threshing time the workers‘ inspectors, Liebrecht and his boss, comrade Oehlers, from Kukus, came to the threshing site. I had already heard that in several places they had stirred up the workers against their employers in a shameful and insolent way. I saw how they stopped several laborers in their work and asked how many hours they worked, what wages they received, what kind of food they ate, what kind of treatment they received, etc. Apparently satisfied, they came to me beside the tractor and said that everything was in order, except that a girl on the machine was feeding in the sheaves; that work was too hard for her. I should assign a man to that job. This girl was our own Lieschen and so I said in an amused tone that I likely wouldn’t do that. They flared up and demanded that I call the girl down; they were going to write a report about my overburdening a worker. So I told them with a smile that the girl was my daughter.
Now they were even more incensed, demanded that I stop the machine, they wanted to talk to all the workers. I told them that they had no legal right to do this, and that they should leave and not hinder us in our work. That was too much for Oehlers and he flew into a rage. Was I not aware that he was a member of the judiciary committee? I responded calmly, albeit a bit sarcastically but firmly, that they should leave now, especially since they themselves had said that all was in order, except for the girl. And that girl was my daughter and consequently no concern of theirs.
This rather insignificant incident was to have an epilogue that almost turned out badly. Shortly after this I received a summons to appear in court in Kukus on a specified day to answer charges of insulting a government official and forcefully (sic!) hindering him from carrying out his duties; and also violating the worker’s laws. Immediately I went to the Justice Department in Pokrowsk to inquire what the consequences could be. The Commissar for the Department was my old acquaintance, Judge Huszti. I told him quite openly about the incident and realized right away that he was very annoyed.
On the one hand he’d be willing to take my side, but I had insulted a Party member. He was unwilling to take a stand against him. The maximum penalty would be 100 ruble fine or two months in prison. From Huszti I went to Zeitler, chairman of the N.S.S., also an influential Party member, and next I went to H. Fuchs, my strongest supporter. He also agreed right away that the incident would be of no significance if Oehlers was not a Party member; but now he didn’t know what to say.
However, he tackled the problem in his usual energetic manner, went to Huszti in the Department of Justice, and after half an hour returned with the information, that it would be impossible to annul the incident, but Huszti had eventually agreed to send a hint with Party authority to Kukus to let me go free.
„But we will do this for you only this one time,“ he added. „We’ll do it because your relationship to the Party has always been correct, and because this is the first time that you asked us for a personal favor.“
I got the message. Beware!
Soon after that came my day in court. It was an ideal day for threshing, but the machine had to stand idle because Oehlers had summoned our hired men and women as witnesses. They were questioned exhaustively, actually they were asked to raise complaints against me, which would have given Oehlers a new leverage against me. But they all defended
„No, I did not demand too much work from them; the wages were higher than the law demanded; treatment and meals were good.“ That even gave cause for some laughter. The judge asked Sander (Alexander) a Lutheran 20-year old who had been with us for over two years what „gage“ (wages) he received.
„What? Gashe? (a Russian dish of millet cooked in salt water). Only the Russians eat Gashe; we don’t get that.“ There was general laughter and even the judge couldn’t remain serious.
When Oehlers made his accusation I realized right away that he had heard that nothing was to happen to me, because he seemed to lack his usual self-confidence. When I was acquitted, the unexpected remark was added, that this was due only to „the services I had rendered in the cooperative economic reconstruction.“ I realized that the judges had let me go free very reluctantly and only because of the influence from higher authority.
After court I went to Oehlers and apologized. He was peevish but eventually was satisfied; it seemed to me that he expected I would mock him, which of course would have been extremely unwise.
Soon after this, at the end of August, Irma went to attend high school in Dawlekanowo which was still under Mennonite jurisdiction. I took her to the Volga steamer in Saratov. Our students Vogt, Dyck and Quiring also went there on the same ship, as well as Julius Bergmann’s Peter. The three students last year had found adjustment in the new school difficult, but now were quite willing to return. Irma carried a letter for Jak. J. Toews, a good acquaintance of mine and chairman of the local Mennonite Society. He arranged a boarding place for her at Giesbrechts, the father of the young man who had been teaching in Lysanderhoeh last year and did again this year. I had confidence in Toews; I knew only good things about him. He was always helpful and friendly to Irma, and this was especially true of his wife and daughter. Giesbrecht, too, a widower, and his 23-year old daughter, were kind to Irma. Her board and room arrangements were good. The two families lived on opposite ends of the same house and not everything was as I had expected, but that has no reference to Mrs. Toews.
As chairman of the District High School now located in Koeppental I tried to have our teachers confirmed for the coming school year but ran into fierce opposition. We were free to choose our teachers for the grade schools, but the high schools were supposed to have Communist teachers. After days of struggle the Department finally agreed that we could keep our teachers one more year, with J. Kern as principal. So I went home. But it turned out quite differently. After I had left, the Department wrote to Mr. Kern, that they expected him to resign, which, of course, he did. After all, how could he work if this was the attitude of the Department of Education and the inspector.
Shortly after this, Abr. A. Froese, Koeppental, chairman of the District Soviet, phoned and asked me to come to the office of Koeppental at once. The Department of Education had appointed three teachers who had already arrived. I went there and we had a lengthy discussion with the three. A year later, when we were already in Canada, Harry Stahl wrote a mocking article about this conversation in the German Volga paper „Nachrichten“ (News). Here are a few extracts from the article entitled „Kulak-Culture“:
„In the ‚Avenue‘ of the Mennonites it is monotonous and empty. The much admired ‚Avenue‘ of the Mennonites, which is thirteen miles long, has many gaps. The Mennonites experienced two major calamities, one of them last fall. Three red teachers had been sent unexpectedly to their high school in Koeppental. When the three dreaded men arrived, Uncle Froese, chairman of the District Soviet, called the „Light of Lysanderhoeh“ to report the mishap. Immediately Iwan Iwanowich Dyck rushed to the scene, ordered the leading teacher, comrade Schippmann, to the Soviet office, and in a long speech told him how he and his colleagues had to conduct themselves among the Mennonites.
„The Mennonites are quite different from the other ‚Colonists,'“ he said. „They don’t want to know anything about all that ’new stuff.‘ The children will have to be raised and educated accordingly. He talked like that for an hour, and then concluded with these words: ‚You see, we Mennonites really are a national minority in the German Volga Republic, and our dream is one day to proclaim our own Mennonite Republic.‘ All the worldly and spiritual strands of this haggling nonsense come together in the hands of two or three aristocrats in Lysanderhoeh. Those few men direct, judge, and monopolize the whole life of the Mennonites; they make the politics.“ (The article was written by Harry Stahl, whose real name was G. Schneider).
Of course this scoffing article had twisted the conversation with the three teachers. What really happened was as follows: The two young teachers, Domhoefer and Kerber, seemed to be fairly decent men judging by their attitude and comments, and quite willing to really teach; but the appointed principal, Schippmann, was quite different. He came from Hamburg, spoke a good German, acted very bold and declared quite frankly that likely his main responsibility would be to promote Communist propaganda, and that not only in the school.
Naturally I tried to influence him to take a different direction. I told him that he could do as he pleased outside the school, we could not stop him there, but we could and did demand that in the school he be a teacher and not a Communist agitator. At first he rejected any council that I, as chairman of the school board, offered, but eventually he became somewhat more open to reason during this and other discussions I had with him from time to time. He turned out to be fairly moderate during the first six months, but later we
lost all influence over him.
Johannes had completed grade school and we had to send him to Koeppental for further education. We were very reluctant, but what else could we do? He boarded at Alexander Quirings, my sister Anna’s place. Lieschen was there as well, taking a six-month sewing course with Wilda Epp, which she enjoyed very much.
With the good harvest and the fact that we sold our wheat at 40% above market price to the Department of Agriculture (SPS), plus the good income from milk, which was all converted locally into butter and cheese, we had a very good financial year.
Our chief hired man, after Jakob Arndt had left, was David. He had married Marie Arndt and so they both worked for us until now. He was a very good worker and we had a good relationship, until that incident when I had to go to court. After that he changed, often associated with dissatisfied workers, turned totally Bolshevik, so that it was impossible to satisfy him. Eventually I was glad when his term of service was over.
In the beginning of November I went to court again with our young C.O. men. Again they were all freed from military service, but the atmosphere in court had changed completely. In former years the judges were more or less impartial, including chief justice Huszti, but now he was really spiteful, and spoke sarcastically in mocking tones about religion in general and the Mennonites in particular. At times it was difficult to know how to deal with all these attacks. It was so obvious how much they hated the fact that the law was in our favor. I felt that I didn’t care to come back here again—as it turned out, this was the last time.
In November Joh. Penner and I again attended the annual meeting of the council of the AMLV in Moscow. Penner’s sister, Meta, and our Anna came along and greatly enjoyed the sights of the city. The Council decided to call a general meeting of all Mennonite settlements in February. The constitution called for this annually, but there had not been one for nearly two years. Our work in Moscow also became more difficult because of the government’s shift to the left. P. Froese, C.F. Klassen, and J.W. Ewert, our Moscow executive, did not work with their former enthusiasm any more. The atmosphere grew more and more oppressive and apprehensive.
I began to think about emigration. By now it had become impossible for entire groups to obtain exit visas, which were granted only to individual families, and even these obtained them only after long hassles. Many were refused outright. There were problems and frustrations on all sides. In Moscow someone let me read a letter from Rev. J.H.Janzen in Ontario. He wrote how most of the immigrants suffered from homesickness sooner or later. He wrote something like this: „One lives under a burden, not really knowing what ails one, until one day you realize—it’s the longing for the homeland. When we are in this mood everything is against us: people, conditions, yes, even the telephone poles seem to stare at us ‚immigrants‘ in an unfriendly and hostile way.“
Everything in me rebelled against leaving our beloved homeland and emigrating to that cold and strange country of Canada. No, not yet! But the thought had been planted and began to grow in me, so that it became an ever more frequent topic of conversation between me and my dear Renate.
In December our District Soviet received notice of an impending change. At Am Trakt each of the nine villages had its own Society, with a District Soviet in Koeppental, which consisted of three representatives from each village. Now headquarters had decided to change this to three administrative units, with each unit having a Soviet. Their objective was clear: they wanted to break the unity and joint cooperative planning among the Mennonites, which the Communists often had felt as a thorn in their flesh. Similarly the village schools were considered to be too small and were to be closed; in their place there were to be only three large schools.
This caused great excitement and the District Soviet commissioned Joh. Penner and me to appeal to the Central Committee of the Party to annul the decision. After a while we received word that we were to come to the monthly meeting of the Central Judiciary Committee.
Our efforts at this meeting were a depressing failure. We were both seasoned and tenacious fighters for our administrative and economic rights whenever individual persons or organizations capriciously and deliberately violated them. But now the attacker was the highest authority of the German Volga Republic, the government itself. When we presented our case and gave reasons for wishing to leave things as they were, we were met with icy and hostile rejection. There was no attempt to understand us, all reasoning was useless. The only thing we did accomplish was that the administrative division into three Soviets would be postponed for one year, and the change into large schools to wait until three appropriate school buildings could be found.
On leaving this meeting I was so filled with disgust and loathing of the whole system that I said to Joh. Penner that I felt as if I had been under a gas attack. I thought we ought to emigrate. But my dear friend didn’t see it that way, he thought this governmental attitude was only a passing phase. Time would tell, but in time the thought of emigration grew….
And so Christmas and New Year came and went. Irma had come home for Christmas; she had enjoyed school but had been very homesick. After all she was only fourteen years old. Our other children were not away from home that long that early. But Irma was a gifted child and for a good education the school in Dawlekanowo was the only one which so far had not succumbed to the Communist influence.
Economically we had done splendidly this year. We had bought the tractor for cash, Irma’s schooling was a considerable expense, but the net profit was more than those expenses. In the family we were all well, my own health had improved, we had a large circle of relatives and friends—in short, we had much to be grateful for. And we were thankful.
But constantly during our Christmas celebration at home, or while visiting at Joh. Bergmann’s on the third day of Christmas, as we had done now for five years, and especially during the New Year’s Eve service in our beautiful church, the question arose within me: will this be the last time? Where will we be a year from now?
It was the first time that the government had forbidden Christmas programs in the schools. The children were forbidden to learn any religious songs, poems or Bible verses. Eventually Rev. Franz Quiring had prepared a program with the young people over 18, which was offered in a former store, now belonging to the Agricultural Society.
These restrictions were signs of the time which I interpreted as warnings that we could not stay in our homeland for long. But we could not reach a definite decision. When I was all for emigration, my dear Renate became faint-hearted; when she was ready to venture forth, it seemed too risky and quite impossible to me. But the idea stayed with us. It had taken root. Thus another year of respite had passed.
After New Year Irma immediately returned to Dawlekanowo, Lieschen and Johannes to Koeppental, Lenchen, Peter and Clara to the school in Lysanderhoeh. In January Mrs. Jakob Bergmann died; she was a sister of the late Ohm Cornelius Isaac, Koeppental, a cousin to my mother. Jakob Bergmanns had celebrated their golden wedding anniversary the previous May.
In November, 1925, the oldest daughter of Joh. Bergmann’s, Anna, had married my cousin Arthur Toews. Also Catherine, the widow of my brother-in-law Joh. Matthies, who was murdered in 1921 on a trip to Koeppental, married Heinrich Schmidt, Hohendorf, a brother to Corn. Schmidt, Beatrice, Nebraska.
In the forenoon of January 21 Helene, wife of my cousin Art Penner, phoned that her father-in law, Uncle Leonhard Penner had died. That was totally unexpected. Our strong uncle who had never been sick, now dead? He had not felt well for two days, but nobody had paid much attention to that. The last night he had not been able to sleep well because of chest pains. When it became worse he went to Aunt Penner’s bedroom intending to tell her, but then changed his mind because he didn’t want to disturb her peaceful sleep. This was so typical of him, always consideration for his wife was his first priority.
At 5 o’clock he had awakened the hired man and lit the lantern for him. When Helene, his daughter-in-law, got up he said to her:
„Helene, when you have lighted the fire, please go across the yard and call my son Herbert and his wife, also notify Joh. Penner (the oldest son). Tell them that most likely I am going to die this morning.“
He had said this quite calmly. In the meantime he had fully dressed himself, and then he went to awaken his wife. When they were all assembled in his room, he told them what he had said to Helene, that he was probably going to die now of a heart attack, because he had such pressure in his chest and at times quite a bit of pain.
Immediately someone went for the doctor in Koeppental. He came at once, examined him, and said that his heart was beating irregularly, but it would likely pass. The doctor was still there, they were all gathered in the room around Uncle Penner, who sat fully dressed on a leather couch, when he breathed very heavily a few times, then his head fell back, and he had finished his earthly pilgrimage.
His family and we could hardly grasp it. Our dear uncle, who had always been well, now suddenly gone! Sometimes our dear uncle had appeared to be a bit harsh, but people who knew him well, like we did, knew how sensitive and tactful he could be, especially to his wife. He was always a very good husband. For Renate and me he had been a loving and fatherly friend all these years; he cared deeply about everything in our lives. How many wonderful hours I had spend in his room, when he, Joh. Penner and I, sat together and talked.
Uncle never spoke much about religion. During his last hours, before the doctor arrived, he had said that he regretted not to have witnessed more for his Savior, but he knew that all his sins were forgiven and he was ready to go. Then he had talked to each one separately and reminded them of the one thing that is needful, to make peace with God. What a glorious end! What grace from God to be able to die so suddenly, and yet quite prepared.
In January we had our annual meeting of the Agricultural Society. This time it really was a special event, because the new government policies raised questions regarding the future of our organization. More than in other years representatives had come from Pokrowsk: the German Volga Bank, the Department of Agriculture, the NSS, and the SPS. But I’ll be brief. The main spokesman for the government this time was Kuchowarenko, chairman of the Registered Seed Department (SPS). Even though he was not a Communist, or rather because he was not, he was delegated to initiate the first changes.
During the course of the year a number of misunderstandings had arisen between his Department and our Society which he knew would have to be dealt with. He had remarked to Joh. Penner before the meeting: „I feel as if I am going to court.“ Until now our Society, which was the strongest organization in the SPS, had always played a leading and decisive role. But the government’s new policy was directly opposed to ours. This was the day when the issue would be decided. Nearly all 150 members had come to the meeting, which was held in the large basement of our cheese factory.
Everything went smoothly during the business part and the treasurer’s report. Then Joh. J. Thiessen read the agenda for the coming year, as it had been drawn up by our committee. This was followed by remarks from the men from Pokrowsk and also by Kuchawarenko. After that there was a general discussion. Attitudes and feelings of the members were quite obvious: our methods of working were satisfactory and we should continue as before; our Society should not be split into four segments; it should not opt out of the AMLV in Moscow, etc.
I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that everyone expected me to speak, but I felt instinctively, that now was too early. Finally, when it seemed that everything had been said to induce me to declare myself, Mr. Kuchowarenko arose and delivered his long, well prepared discourse. He had not expected such strong opposition and so he came on strong and put all his cards on the table.
That is what I had been waiting for. I took brief notes and when he was finished, I too was on my feet for the rebuttal. NOW I could very clearly show the meeting what the results of the new course would be if we implemented it. I also openly discussed and attempted to settle with him all the past misunderstandings. Basically I felt sorry for him, because he was only the victim and scapegoat of the powers behind him, but what else could I do? I knew exactly the motives that prompted the suggested changes and I knew that only total and complete unity on our part could save our situation this time.
On the other hand it would never, never do to show that we were opposed to the government and its new course; even the majority of our members must not become aware of that. Eventually the vote was taken and was unanimous against the Pokrowsk project; even the politically short-sighted members, who had wanted to „just keep the peace“ and make no waves, voted against it. One more time our Society would operate within the usual framework. But I knew that for me any further work with the officials in Pokrowsk was over. I had done what I had done quite deliberately.
After the meeting I asked Mr. Kuchowarenko, who actually was more than a good acquaintance but my friend, for tea. He had offered me his hand with the words:
„Congratulations for defeating me.“
He was a fine man. He understood that we had fought each other only in a political arena, and that our private relationship would remain unchanged. Quite frankly he said to me:
„How shall I now return to Pokrowsk and report that I haven’t fulfilled my mission? I will be disgraced by the Party.“
I told him that was bound to happen anyway sooner or later. As the man of integrity that he was, he would not continually capitulate; as a man of honor he would sooner or later become a victim of the evermore left-oriented government. And that is exactly what happened. Only ten months later, when we were already in Canada, he was dismissed from his office and sent into exile for five years. I felt truly sorry for the man. He was a typical representative of the Russian intelligentsia in the old sense of the word. With his knowledge he not only wanted to earn his daily bread, but he wanted to serve his people. And he did that to the very best of his ability. In doing so, he had to make many compromises with the Communists during the last period of his service. He went much further in this than I could have done, in the hope that the moderate elements of the Party would soon gain the upper hand again. Oh, what an endless tragedy is the story of the Russian intelligentsia!
When I was in Pokrowsk for the first time after this meeting, I felt more than ever their hostile attitude towards me. One official said to me: „Postponement is not abrogation.“ (Aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben). I knew what he meant. It was obvious there was no more work for me in this area. Emigrate? Not yet!
It was at this time that Jacob Bergmann, son of the former store owner Abr. Bergmann, courted our Lieschen. Jacob was a fine young man, a real Bergmann who stands head and shoulders above the rest in integrity and honorable character. Lieschen was young, only seventeen. I warned them, told them that we were thinking of emigrating, but they loved each other, and so Jacob started to visit in our home. We learned to respect and love him.
In the first days of February Joh. Penner and I went to the annual meeting of the AMLV in Moscow. This trip was to become significant for me. The meeting took place in the same building as our Mennonite organization offices. On the second day the deputy minister of the Department of Agriculture held a long speech. In essence he said: How happy all the different nationalities in Russia were to live under the banner of the hammer and sickle; that only a small minority, the Mennonites, were not satisfied; and that now they were attempting to emigrate. Even the organization here in Moscow, which the Party permitted for their agricultural and economic interests, can’t keep its hands off that emigration issue. That had to be stopped, etc.
During the minister’s speech Peter Froese, chairman of the AMLV, sent me a note to respond to the man. This I did, touching matter of factly on all his criticisms, questions, and suggestions. It seemed to me that he was quite satisfied with my response. That is, until I came to the question of emigration. First, I acknowledged all the positive support that the government had given us in our economic reconstruction. But then I went on to say, perhaps a bit too emphatically, that the Mennonites would never voluntarily agree to some of the government’s demands, such as collectivization of farms, anti-religious instruction in schools, etc. If no other way was open, then, and only then, would the emigration idea gain momentum.
After I had finished the minister took his leave, politely but obviously dissatisfied. I realized that I had gone too far, but I had expressed the general feeling of the delegates. However, I had expressed myself in a manner I would not have done even a year ago, when the Party was not yet as strongly oriented to the left as it was now, and less antagonistic to the Mennonites. Soon after he left recess was announced. The delegates surrounded me on all sides, saying that I had been right to express so frankly and forthrightly the feelings of everybody. H. Rempel from Arkadak remarked, that if he could speak like I did and were as fluent in Russian, he’d land as a Commissar in the Kremlin. „Yes,“ I replied, „or in prison.“
I was soon to realize the truth of this. I looked around for our chairman, Peter Froese, and was told that he had gone to his office. When I followed him there, a man was at his door who refused to let me in. It was the G.P.U., the secret police. Later Froese called me to his office and told me that the interrogation had been as a result of my speech. They had wanted to arrest me on the spot. Only because Froese stood up for me, pointing out that I had never before done anything to harm the Party, that I was popular with government officials in the German Volga Republic, etc., had they refrained from an immediate arrest. The GPU would wire for information about me to the government of the German Volga Republic; I was to write down my speech immediately and Peter Froese was to bring it to the GPU headquarters this very evening. Then they would decide what to do with me.
It looked serious. I wrote the speech down quite verbatim, omitting only several rather strong expressions that I had used. The content was the same, only in a milder form. Peter Froese considered it very good and took it to the GPU late that evening. I don’t know how long he was there; I didn’t sleep much that night. Next morning he told me that the matter was settled. The reports the GPU had received about me had been excellent, so I just received a warning. But I realized that in future I was on the list of the untrustworthy ones, as one opposed to the Soviet regime, in Moscow as well as in the German Volga Republic. I was grateful for the outcome, but also angry that a few frank words that the government didn’t like, were enough to send one to prison.
How long can I, and how long should I, quietly endure this system which increasingly resembled slavery? If I protest, the consequences will not only effect me, but also my family. Shall I take that risk? The conference was spoiled for me. But not only that, I could clearly see that all the efforts of the AMLV today were neither productive nor creative any more; we were merely defending ourselves against the growing aggression of Communism. Of course this had to be done, too, but could one work joyfully at such a task, and would it eventually not all be in vain? Would the collectivizing of all our farms, the ruin of our economic and cultural achievements, the changing of our schools to antireligious centers, eventually and surely happen?
To all these questions there always came the answer, „yes.“ If I laid aside all hopes and wishful thinking, all illusions, and used only my head, it was logical that the Communist Party, if it was to be consistent in carrying out its program, would terminate its „retreat“ of the 1921-1926 N.E.P. (New Economic Policy), would forcibly end all private methods, rights, opinions, organisations-actually everything that existed today; and on their ruin build the final phase of Communism.
What would that mean for us and our children? First of all, our children would be bereft of all religious influence in schools and society. Economically as well there would be no future for them. They would become slaves of Communism, with no right to personal property or even their own opinion. As children who were not born of „proletariat parents“ they would be persecuted, despised and damned until they would end in misery.
That is how the future appeared to me. If that were true, to emigrate should not be a hard decision. But what if I were wrong? What if the present trend was only a passing phase, as 95% of the people believed?
During the whole return trip to Saratov I battled with the issue; my dear friend Joh. Penner was very sympathetic. He did not think that the situation was as serious as I saw it, the danger not as imminent, the time for leaving not yet. That could be the last resort when all other hope was gone. But he did not dissuade me; he didn’t want that responsibility. Finally I decided that as soon as we reached Pokrowsk I would apply for a visa;–But
Mr. Reimer was there with our team to take me home. At about 6 o’clock in the evening we arrived in Hohendorf at the home of my parents-in-law. It was on March 1 and the wedding of my sister-in-law, Helene Mathies, with Gerhard Esau was in progress. My family was there too, so I joined them at the supper table. All were eager for news from Moscow. But I didn’t feel like talking, I felt a stranger among my own relatives and acquaintances, who were all in such a festive and happy mood. They met my hints of pending Communist danger with smiling disbelief. It seemed almost wrong to disturb their light-hearted festivity.
After an hour I could stand it no longer.—Emigrate?— Stay? What should we do? The question burned like fire in me. I told my dear Renate that I was going home, but that she and the children should stay and enjoy themselves. I ordered a team, took my leave only of my father-in law, and left.
And then? Then I had the hardest decisionmaking experience of my life. The servants were in the front halls and I was alone in the house. Twice twenty four hours I had tortured my brain: stay or leave? I had considered all the pros and cons, and always I had come to the same bitter conclusion: emigrate! It must not be postponed any longer.
And then again my whole being rebelled. I think I can truthfully say that during this fateful hour I struggled as much as any human being can struggle. I sat and brooded. I stormed about the house. How can I? How dare I risk so much for my loved ones, taking from them our dear home, the perfectly organized farming enterprise, the grandparents, siblings, relatives, friends, church, everything that constitutes „home“. Leave all that and take my Renate and our many still dependent children into an unknown future? And my health was not the best. What was right? What should I do?
Finally, in the living room, under the pictures of my late dear parents, as though I wanted them for witnesses, I knelt and cried to God in the anguish of my soul. „Lord, have mercy, and show me the way I am to go. I do not want to go my own way, but I don’t know which is your way.“
Finally, when his hour had come, when I had acknowledged my own helplessness and inability to make a decision, it seemed as if the Lord came to me and said: „Why all this tempest and storm from the depth of your soul? Take comfort, your faith has helped you. I, I myself will lead you in the path that is best for you and your loved ones. Just be sure to do your part.“
I had become miraculously quiet. „Yes,“ I asked myself (or did I ask my God?) „but what am I to do?“
Apply for passports, was the answer. If it’s God’s will that you leave, you will get them; if you are to stay, they will be refused. When at last I rose from my knees, all doubts and indecision were gone. I knew that God would provide.
Soon after this Renate and the children came home. She was surprised to find me so changed, so quiet. She had expected me in a different mood. After the children had been put to bed, we sat together for a long time and I told her everything that I had experienced.
Within the next few days Joh. Penner and I reported to the our Society about the meeting in Moscow. I was asked to go to Pokrowsk on the following matter: The deputy minister of the Department of Agriculture, comrade Schneider, who had written an article under the pseudonym Harry Stahl for the paper „Nachrichten“ (News), had been at the Central Soviet in Koeppental on business. In private conversation with Abr. A. Toews, District Soviet chairman, he had said that he had given up hope to have the Mennonites brought „onto the right Soviet track without radical measures.“ When Froese asked him what he meant by „radical measures“, he had replied: „Expropriation of property and banishing at least 10 to 20 percent of the most prominent and affluent families; reorganization of the ‚Dyck Society;‘ hiring of Communist teachers; etc.“.
People were alarmed and I was to investigate in Pokrowsk whether this was the private opinion of the deputy minister or the official attitude of the Department. So I went to Pokrowsk, applied for our passports, filled out the necessary forms and paid 300 ruble per passport. I was to expect an answer within a month. The die had been cast.
After that I attended to some business for our Society, and finally went to comrade H. Fuchs, Minister of the Department of Agriculture, to find out more about the remarks made by his assistant, Schneider. He acted very surprised and said that Schneider’s remarks to Froese did not represent his own nor the Party’s position. In fact he didn’t believe that comrade Schneider had made any such remarks. I asked him to call Schneider for questioning. He actually did, and when Schneider entered his office, he repeated my story and then said rather harshly: „Of course there isn’t a word of truth in all this, is there?“ „Not a word!“ replied Schneider.
I saw through this farce right away. It had been said, and it was the official plan, only it was not yet to be made public, and Schneider had exposed it too soon. I noticed that Fuchs was embarrassed by the interview, and that he personally likely didn’t favor the designated course of taking „radical measures“ against the Mennonites. But it was the official position of the Party, and that is all that mattered.
This radical, extreme leftist orientation of the Party policy was so obvious and so revolting, that I pleaded with God to deliver us from this environment. These officials knew nothing about my emigration plans as yet, but their attitude towards me had changed so much; words were chosen more carefully, a certain mistrust and rejection was obvious.
I had a number of matters for our Society to look after in various departments, and each time, in each office, I felt that this was the last time I was there, and inwardly said farewell.
The reader may think it a bit odd that I longed to be delivered from this system and at the same time was sad and reluctant to leave. These were, after all, the organizations, the people and offices where I had done a great deal of my work during the last six years. Here in the Department of Agriculture I had sent out the first feelers for agricultural reconstruction; in the Justice Department and the higher courts I had fought for the rights of our C.O. youth, as well as many a hard battle for the legal right and best interest of our settlement; here at the Volga Bank I had received thousands of rubles of long-range credit for our Society; the SPS, the NSS. In each department memories rose to remind me of the aspirations and the struggles for the rights and welfare of our settlement Am Trakt. Small wonder that a deep melancholy sadness overwhelmed me at the thought that all that was now past? And yet the greatest benefit and blessing from all these efforts had been mine, since throughout all planning, all work, all contact with the Communists, I had done everything in constant communion with God. So many silent pleas for wisdom and help went constantly to God while I worked here. The long trips to Pokrowsk were great times for meditation and prayer. Never in my life had I been in such intimate communion with God as in the time of my very intense societal involvement—so that I can honestly say that to me this was mission work in its truest sense of the word.
I learned to forget about self, investing all my strength, ability, and know-how for the welfare of our settlement and God’s blessing rested on all undertakings. That assurance certainly was the best of all. In these years I learned how one can grow out of the narrow capsule of Self in pursuit of only one goal, that of the welfare of others. How many happy and lonely (sic) hours there were when I was given the grace to see success after success, to feel the increasing respect and love of our people, even from people outside of our circles.
Yes, I must say and proclaim: I found the deepest satisfaction and happiness in this work when all undertakings were crowned with success; and the most precious realization of all was to know that it was not I, not I who was doing this, but my God and Father in whose strength I did what I could.—“Nearer my God to thee, nearer to Thee!“
But now it became clear to me that this was no longer my field of work. The pressures from the left were increasing constantly and God had given me great sensitivity to discern how far I could work and speak with them without later having pangs of conscience. Oh, how well I remember how my inner ear was tuned to listen to the faintest tinkle of the bell of my conscience. Now so much had changed. Under the pressure from the left several of the more moderate government officials, with whom I’d had many successful dealings, had been removed from office and replaced with more radical elements. No, and again no! It is impossible to go on. That was the conclusion of this trip.
It was about this time that our Lieschen became engaged to Jakob Bergmann, son of Abr. J. Bergmann, the former store owner. We warned them that we would perhaps emigrate. But the young people loved each other. Jakob was a very attractive, congenial young man, one of the best in our settlement, so that he was most welcome as a prospective son-in-law. God has led differently.
In late winter Uncle and Aunt Jakob Bergmann celebrated their golden wedding anniversary; both were already infirm. We had made no secret of our emigration plans and so they were soon common knowledge. One day my dear cousin, Anna Bergmann, nee Wiebe, came to us, thinking that it was her duty to dissuade us from our decision. When she heard that we had put the whole issue into the hands of God, she was quiet a bit and then said: „Oh, how I wish that we could go, too. But my Johannes will consent to that only if his brothers will also leave. And the leader of them is Julius, and he is totally opposed to leaving.“
My dear old father-in-law also tried hard him self and through others to change our mind. One time he said:
„You just have it too good, that is why you are looking for an even better life!“ On another occa sion he said:
„How can you justify leaving your beautiful inherited farm; your father would turn over in his grave, if he knew of this.“
Or he would ask: „Isn’t it thoughtless of you to leave your beautiful home for a strange country when your health is so unpredictable? What if you should die over there, then you have taken your family into want and misery,“ and more in this vein. Our dear father just could not understand my reasons, our reasons, because Renate and I thought alike, nor could he understand the times we were in.
Our old retired Elder, Peter Wiens, asked in his rough and often crude manner: „Don’t you remember the proverb: ‚Stay in your country, and earn an honest living.‘?“ One could not discuss this with him, because all his life he understood and justified only one opinion, his own.
One Sunday after church Rev. Julius Siebert asked if he and Rev. Jakob Penner could come to us for dinner. After the meal they told us that at a recent ministerial meeting our emigration had been discussed and the two men had been asked to talk about the matter with us. They also believed that we were facing hard times, but precisely because of that, and because of my experience in dealing with the government, our settlement would need me to represent our community at the government level. The two men were to ask me if I thought I had the right to emigrate.
„Yes,“ I replied. „I didn’t hesitate even a second with my response. You just don’t understand the situation, or you would realize that even now I cannot work with the Communist system any longer. And the more radical the leftist policy of the government will become, the less I will be able to help. With my record of the past activities, with my convictions, and with our financial situation, I am already a thorn in their flesh. In future my presence here would do more harm than good. This has been established and finally, my first line of responsibility is to my family. I am convinced that I have to rescue them before it is too late.“
When the dear brethren saw how seriously I treated the matter, they withdrew their objection to our leaving, said they would not put any obstacles in my way, and asked me to accept their protest as an expression of their respect and love for me. They knew that I had always been willing to give of myself for the welfare of the community.
Naturally we were deeply touched by all these expressions of deep concern from our father, the ministers, our many friends, who generally could not understand the reason for our leaving. That made the thought of our departure even harder and appear almost tragic. There were times of hesitation and uncertainty, but then the former confidence returned. God would undertake.
On my birthday, April 16, we had many visitors, „for the last time,“ was the predominant mood. On that day also some dear relatives tried to change our minds, mostly approaching my dear Renate, but she remained firm and of good courage. The seeding was finished in record time, only 5-6 days. We worked with horses during the day, and with the tractor around the clock.
In February I had written three letters to Canada asking for information. The answers came in April. Dan. Loewen and teacher Franz C. Thiessen wrote quite hopefully, inviting us to come. The most sober and realistic letter came from Elder David Toews. I remember especially one sentence from that letter: „Anyone who is willing to earn his livelihood with hard work, is welcome here.“ That didn’t sound very promising. Actually I would have preferred to go to another country rather than to cold Canada. But thanks to the agreement that the Mennonite Board of Colonization had made with the C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railroad) this was the only country open to take the Mennonites. Although we had received the entry permit to Germany several years ago through our friend Aron Andres, Tiegenhagen, I feared that Communism might one day win the upper hand there too, and then we would have jumped from the frying pan into the
Late April we received the news by telephone that permission to leave Russia had been granted; so the decision was final. We two, Renate and I, shall never forget that hour. We were both ready and prepared, we were used to the idea, and yet, when the light actually turned green we did some more very serious thinking and praying. We needed strength from above so that we would not lose heart at the last minute.
Soon after that I went to Pokrowsk to receive our passports, and from there to Moscow to the „Russkapa,“ the Russian-Canadian Transport Co-Op, to make arrangements for our trip and to gather information about it. I made reservations by telegram for us eleven persons to travel Tourist Class on the best ocean liner of the C.P.R., the Empress of Scotland, which was to leave Southampton June eight. In Moscow I met two emigrating families, a Braun and ? , to whom I gave money, because they had less than they were legally allowed to take out of the country. The agreement was that as soon as they arrived in Canada they were to deposit it in my name with the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization. I also met Jakob Toews there, chairman of the AMLV branch in Dawlekanowo, and gave him 500 rubles, because he said he could send specified amounts abroad every month through the Government Bank. I also asked C.F.Klassen to listen around for chances to get money out of the country and to let me know when he heard of any. The government controlled all money flowing out of Russia, but I hoped to find ways to get ours to Canada.
May ten was sister Lieschen’s birthday. My brother-in-law John Isaac had worked diligently for some time on the emigration issue. We had not influenced the Isaac’s and didn’t want to be responsible for their decision, but now we were very happy that at least one of our close relatives wanted to go with us. Cornelius D. Froese and Gustav Froeses, both from Lysanderhoeh, applied for visas at the same time the Isaacs did.
On Pentecost Monday our Anna and Irma were baptized in the Orloff church by the retired Elder Peter Wiens. Our present elder, Corn. P. Nikkel, and Rev. Franz Quiring, the youngest son of the late Elder Joh. Quiring, had both been arrested in spring and sentenced to exile. I am not sure where Nickel was sent to, but Quiring was exiled for five years to the infamous concentration camp Solowski. One night early in March Renate woke me because she had heard the telephone ringing „central“ repeatedly. She had listened in and heard that a fire had broken out in the large mill of Julius Bergmann. The mill was only a quarter of a mile from our place, but we could see nothing. I quickly dressed and rushed to the scene. The fire had started in the engine room, followed the power belt through the opening in the wall into the mill, and soon everything was in flames. Nothing could be saved. We had about fifty pud of wheat there which had already been ground into flour and was ready to be picked up in the morning.
About two weeks earlier the government had confiscated the mill from Jul. Bergmann and put its own manager there, a comrade Oehlers. The government had also taken the house away from Bergmann. Now Bergmann was accused of arson. They said he had made the assistant mechanic, who was on duty that night, set the place on fire. Bergmann was arrested and kept in prison until the day of his trial, but was acquitted on the testimony of the mechanic that it had been his carelessness that had caused the fire. He had allowed the motor oil to catch fire and had not been able to put it out in time. Bergmann had nothing to do with it.
In the weeks following the fire I tried to talk Bergmann into emigrating, especially since everything had been taken away from him, but he could not be persuaded.
Johannes Penner visited us frequently during these last weeks in our homeland. One day he told me that he had met Huszti, secretary of the Communist Party, in Pokrowsk, who had told him that my visa application had been referred to the Party Executive for a decision. The Party had been very surprised and had wanted to refuse permission for us to emigrate. But then Huszti had said, „The Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go.“ Huszti said he was glad to be able to get rid of Dyck in this way, because he was becoming more and more a thorn in the flesh of the Communists. Huszte couldn’t have rendered me a better service.
Now we wanted to sell everything as profitably as possible, of course. The land belonged to the government, but buildings, cattle, the total inventory, was for sale. Corn. C. Wiens (Chutor Wiens) bought our house, the barn, including the passage that connected house and barn, the wellhouse and the garden, for 9,000 rubles. The Pauls sisters in Orloff bought the pig barn with storage space in the loft for 80,000 pounds of grain. The large haymow was sold to the Department of Agriculture for 1,500 rubles, and I forget who bought the big granary that held 80,000 pounds of grain. Abr. Klassen, Ostenfeld bought the 23 x 98 ft. machine shed. All buildings were sold with the stipulation that they could be torn down only after we had safely crossed the border. If a problem arose, and we would not be able to leave, I could return the money and reclaim the buildings.
I had prepared an inventory of everything in the house and outside and affixed a price to each. The list and dates of the sales were announced in all the villages. Abr. Bergmann came every day to take care of the business transactions, so that I had nothing to do with all that. He sold everything for the prices we had fixed. Beds, some furniture, and other needed items remained until after our depar ture.
The Department of Agriculture agreed to buy all our cows, except two, several yearlings, our two year-old stallions, and five yearling colts. Since all these animals were bought for breeding purposes they fetched a high price. The Department also bought eighteen plows. Everything that was not sold one week before our departure, was sold at a public auction. That included, for example: five plows, several wagons, harrows, harnesses, etc. Not much of household goods was left.
Joh. Janzen, whom I mentioned in the record of 1921, and who is the man that very likely saved my life, also came to the auction and bought a few small items. I met him in the dining room, looking at the big buffet with three partitions, top and bottom. I asked if he was interested in it. He said he was, but couldn’t buy it because it would probably go for as high as 100 rubles. (It was listed for 120 rubles.) I sold it to him for twenty five rubles. I also traded our couch, which had been covered with genuine leather a year ago, with him in exchange for an old suitcase, which was really worthless. Because Janzen had fallen into disgrace with the Communist Party he now lived in poverty.
Our own Agricultural Society bought the Fordson tractor, our entire crop, as well as about 100 acres of crested wheat grass, which was almost ready for cutting. We sold the two threshing machines and the Triumph motor to private Russian people.
We gave away a lot of used clothing to poor families. Renate gave to our siblings and close friends various mementos from the house. I gave to my dear friend and cousin Joh. Penner our two best breeding mares, Silva and the three-year old Sasluga. The old teacher, Peter Dyck, who now was sickly, received from us a substantial amount of money in appreciation for his faithful services. In this way we also tried to fulfill our duties of love. Later we were sorry that we had not been more gen erous, but I don’t think we were petty in the way we disposed of our possessions.
The sale of all our inventory, cattle, buildings, etc. was done without any outside interference whatsoever. We were able to sell everything for a good price because at that time the people had money. The sales to the Department of Agriculture were especially advantageous because our horses and cattle were purebred; private people would never have paid that much. A few work horses, geldings, were sold on the Pokrowsk market. I sold my desk with combination bookcase to Franz Dyck for twenty five dollars, with the understanding that his son, Paul in the USA, was to pay me later. And he did.
During the year 1919-20 I had loaned considerable amounts of wheat to poor farmers for indefinite periods of time; also some cattle and machinery. I did that at the time when we had to reduce our operation to a smaller scale, if we didn’t want to risk having all of it confiscated. But then came the year of disaster, 1921-22. But by now, 1927, most of the „loaned“ items had been paid for. That was proof that most of our people were honest.
Not long before our departure two Commissars came onto our yard. I invited them into the house. They came in and began to ask questions, such as: when were we planning to leave? How much had we realized at our sale? I soon caught the drift of their questions and knew that they had come to find out what I was going to do with the money that we had in excess of what we were legally allowed to take out of the country? They were young and inexperienced, the name of one was Wasmuss, unknown to me but definitely not ill-natured.
I answered all their questions, though sometimes vaguely, like: perhaps not everyone would pay; or, some was still outstanding and had to be collected; or we were going to buy a good bit of clothing for our large family; some coats, which would cost quite a bit; our tourist class tickets were expensive and had to be paid; our passports also cost a lot of money, etc. I did not give them any definite figures. In the meantime there was a good dinner on the table which they enjoyed heartily and which decreased their curiosity considerably. So they left, but as one of them remarked, without any results. I was afraid that a more serious and thorough investigation would probably follow.
Since the liquidation of all our belongings had been without problems or interference by the authorities, we wanted to have a special farewell celebration with our friends. So we sent out the following invitation:
Dear Relatives and Friends
As you all know we intend to leave soon and, God willing, find a new home in distant Canada. Once more before we leave we would like to thank God, together with you, for all that he has done for us in the past; and we want to pray that his grace and faithfulness will continue to be with us in the future. For that purpose, we invite everyone who is listed below, along with their families, for a farewell service in our home on Tuesday, June 7, at 3:00 p.m.
Respectfully Johannes and Renate Dyck
This invitation was sent to 75 families, and they all came. The ministers, Jak. Penner and Julius Siebert, delivered the farewell messages. It was a beautiful yet difficult afternoon; we experienced much love. The guests were still with us when I received a coded telegram from C.F.Klassen, Moscow, informing me that there was little hope of transferring our money out of Russia. That was a shock. I had a hard time to conceal my feelings so that nobody in this large crowd could notice my disappointment.
We thought we had concluded our farewells, but were mistaken. Day after day people came who had not been invited to say goodbye. I never thought that I had gained the love of so many people through my societal work. I received many, many expressions of gratitude and best wishes and blessings for the trip and the new home.
The thought was also expressed that if I found conditions in Canada tolerably satisfying, and if my apprehensions about the future in Russia should be fulfilled, then I would be in a position to help many more of them to emigrate also. I can only repeat again, it was very moving and heart-warming to receive so much love from relatives and others. On the one hand we appreciated all these expressions of love-especially since it showed me that I had been understood, and that they realized that I had given myself unreservedly to the interest of our settlement for the past six years; on the other hand it made leaving our beloved „Heimat“ (homeland) even more difficult.
These emotions climaxed on our last Sunday in our beloved church. For the last time I listened to God’s word from my pew that I had occupied for so many years. How will it be in Canada? After the service my dear Renate and I, with our baptized children, Lieschen, Anna, and Irma, went to the front and Elder Peter Wiens served us communion. I will never forget my heaviness of heart on leaving our church for the last time.
After our decision to emigrate I had ordered a marble cross as a monument for my father’s grave. During and after the Revolution they were not made in Saratov. Now I wanted to do this in memory of dear Papa. My two sisters, Lieschen and Anna, wanted to join me in this, so we shared the expense. It was put in place a few weeks before we left. One evening Renate and I walked to the cemetery to say goodbye to the graves of our parents. Where will we await our resurrection?
We received farewell letters from Uncle Herman Epp in Aulie-Ata, from relatives in Chiva, and from many friends in various settlements; also from the three students in Dawlekanowo. This is the letter student Jakob Vogt wrote:
„Dear Mr. Dyck!
„Because I will not be seeing you again, perhaps never, I want to write this note, which I actually intended to write for a long time. First, I want to say ‚Thank You‘ a thousand times for all the trouble that you went to for us. Looking back, we have to admit that it is only because of you that we have been able to pursue our secondary education.
„Thanks to you I have become what I didn’t dare dream of four years ago. Thanks to you I was able to leave my boring, narrow, monotonous life and learn to know and appreciate a life that is far more beautiful. Even if this new life has brought some conflicts that I would not have had in my former days, I still can only praise and thank God for his guidance, and with joy accept the struggle of the new life.
„My studies have lifted me out of a narrow pit and have placed me on a high mountain. Even though I have always loved nature and the universe, this appreciation has increased a thousand times. And when I look at people, I also see them in a different light now because of my study of psychology; which we have most likely only sampled. And yet it has been enough to help me understand ourselves better. Even God has become more exalted and magnified than before. I bow before him in humble adoration and worship.
„Pardon me for being somewhat long-winded, but thinking of you I could do nothing else. Accept this as a simple, heart-felt thanks. In part I have considered you as my second father and have always valued your counsel.
„You expect us to become workers for our Mennonite society: you shall not be disappointed in me. I am already looking forward with great anticipation to teaching, and ask God to give me his blessing, because without him we can do nothing.
„I would so much have liked to talk to you once more, but it is not to be. So from afar I bid you farewell as a father of mine. I will never forget you as long as I live. Forgive me, if I have written too freely, but believe me, it comes from the heart.
„Auf Wiedersehn, if not here then in heaven. With warm greetings and love, Jakob Vogt.“
This letter was reward enough for all the trouble I had with the three students. Otto Dyck also sent a similar, though not quite as warm, letter.
Also the Hohendorf Youth Club sent me the following:
„We regret that you will leave us soon. We see in you a person deeply interested in young people, and your leaving touches us profoundly. We thank you for all the work that you did for us young people. We wish you a hearty farewell and a pleasant journey. In loving memory—The Hohendorf Youth.“
From all sides, from the old and young, the well-to-do and the poor people, came expressions of love and respect. I cannot and do not intend to mention them all. But one incident I would like to share:
I had gone to Pokrowsk one more time for some shopping. I did not go near any official buildings because I didn’t want to meet any of those men. When I was on the street in front of my place of lodging, ready to go home, comrade Fuchs came along. As minister of the Department of Agriculture I had had many dealings with him. He asked if it was really true that I was leaving, and then added:
„So you really don’t believe in ‚us‘.“
„Ah, but I do,“ I replied. „It is precisely because I believe in the Party that I am leaving.“
„How so? I don’t understand.“
„The Party’s course to the left,“ I replied quite frankly, „will destroy all the established order; it will bring about economic ruin; and most important, it will stamp out all religion. To save our children from such a future is the reason for my going.“ I told him that he tried to live according to his convictions as a Communist, and I tried to live by my convictions as a Christian. Our chat was short but meaningful. Then he said,
„Have a good trip. You are right to go. I respect and admire you for it even more than before.“ Tears welled up in his eyes. He was a good man.
After receiving the news that our visas had been granted, I wired Irma to come home. Next to Lieschen, she found it most difficult of all the children to leave. The dear child. Johannes had already quit school in Koeppental in March, first because the principal, Shippmann, was not a respectable person and his teaching was very anti-religious. Secondly, Johannes had infected eyes; the doctor in Saratov diagnosed it as trachoma, so he stayed in the hospital there for several weeks.
During our last week at home we did a lot of packing. Legally we were permitted to take about 1,700 pounds of baggage; actually we had over 2,000 pounds, and later regretted that we had not taken much more. We had feared baggage weight control would be strict, but it wasn’t. Our sister-in-law, Helene and Johannes Bergmanns helped with the packing. It was a big job, and we had to be mindful not to forget anything. Anna Bergmann had a special gift for packing so things wouldn’t break. They all helped us a great deal.
On our last Sunday evening we went to Fresenheim to say goodbye to our beloved Aunt Leonhard Penner. As I write this my dear Renate reminds me not to forget to mention the many unforgettable hours that we had with her; she understood us so completely, perhaps more than anyone else. Poor aunt. In later years she had to suffer so much when she was evicted from her home, persecuted, and much more. Our last news from her came in 1937. We can only hope that her sufferings, as well as those of Tante Franz Wall, have ended.
Tante Wall lived not far from us. She told me repeatedly that her brother, my dear Papa, had advised her before he died, that she should always turn to me for council. She had a specially hard cross to bear in her family. She came to see us quite often, but never too often as far as we were concerned.
The second last evening we went to visit my beloved sister Anna. They lived in Koeppental in brother-in-law Alexander Quiring’s parental home. Our Rena went along since she was the same age as sister Anna’s oldest daughter, Marie. They told us that they intended to sell Papa’s home, which Anna had inherited. They had asked 3,000 rubles for the house. Aaron Esau, Fresenheim, had offered 2,500 ruble. He was going to think it over and come back in a few days. On our way home I remembered that Papa had said a few days before he died:
„If Anna ever wants to sell this home, which I have built with my last strength, then you buy it, if you are able to do so. Perhaps it will be at a time when you think you have no use for it, but remember, that this is my last request from you. I would not like to see this house go into the hands of strangers.“
Was that not strange, that two days before we were to leave she told me they wanted to sell the house? I think I could have left with a clear conscience without buying it; Papa would not have insisted on his last request being carried out, especially since the house soon afterward passed into the hands of strangers, anyway. And yet, was it merely a coincidence, or was God testing me? And if we would listen to the voice of our conscience, who knows, one day it might be useful for us?
It didn’t take me long to make that decision. Early next morning I sent a worker with a note to sister Anna, asking her not to sell the house, we have another buyer.
It was the last day in our cozy and beloved home. All matters of business had been settled.
Abr. J. Bergmann and his wife had agreed to deliver all the furniture to the buyers, clean the house and hand it over to Wiens after we had left. For all their trouble I gave them an almost new Alfa-Laval cream separator.
Towards evening Anna and Alexander came. They were curious to hear about the buyer, and surprised when they found out that it was we. Anna understood me fully. I gave them 3,000 ruble, and Anna 250 ruble for personal needs. I realized that humanly speaking the 3,250 rubles were thrown away, for likely the Bolsheviks would soon confiscate the whole establishment.
I did that, however, because during the last decade, and especially during the last year, I had learned to obey the slightest stirrings of my conscience. I saw clearly what God wanted me to do. It was not hard, I did not want to go my own way, so how could I have acted differently?
Next day in Pokrowsk I gave Joh. Bergmann the necessary notarized documents giving him full power of attorney to transfer the property to my name and in future collect any income that might accrue from it. About 2,000 rubles remained outstanding from various sources when we left, which were all paid to Bergmann by the parties after we were gone. However, I received hardly anything of the rent because it was impossible to transfer money out of Russia into Canada. Two years later the Bolsheviks took the money when they confiscated all of Bergmann’s property.
And so our last night at home had come. Johannes Bergmann and our Peter had already left with a load of baggage on June 14. We got up soon after 2 o’clock a.m., had not slept much. I took a small box and filled it with earth from our garden. I would appreciate it if at the time of my funeral someone would take this „Heimaterde“ and place it into my coffin. If someone will remember to do that, it will be just fine, if not, it doesn’t matter, really.
When I came back from the garden my dear friend Abr. P. Bergmann was sitting on the steps of the front porch. He had come to say goodbye one more time. He had always been very supportive in the work of the Agricultural Society, was a faithful soul, quite without guile or blemish. Joh. Penner had stayed with us for the night.
At four o’clock we left our beloved home for ever. Before leaving our friends joined us in prayer and singing, „Jesus, still lead on…“
In Hohendorf our old father joined us, also J. Isaacs who had been there for the night, and G. Esaus, so that we were quite a procession of six wagons. We drove for the last time in our beautiful carriage pulled by our superb horses, Sylva and Saluga. At about 9 o’clock we arrived at Wigand’s inn in Pokrowsk, left the teams there, had tea and went to the ship to cross over the Volga to Saratov on the other side. Joh. Bergmann and other friends took care of our baggage. As everything was under control, Joh. Penner and I went to a nearby tea house, sat on the porch, from where we could watch the ship, ordered some lemonade and talked intimately as good friends do.
Suddenly I had the feeling that someone was listening. I got up, walked along the aisle and saw that on the other side of our partition sat Comrade Shippmann, the Communist principal of the Koeppental High School. Was that a coincidence?
We crossed the Volga for the last time. How often, how very often had I done that, but never as fast as this time. In only 40 minutes we were across; the little ferryboat hurried too much to take us away from home. Let me also mention how very short the 38 miles from home to Pokrowsk seemed on this last trip. I had travelled that road so often during the last six years, possibly 25 or 35 times each year, and now it was the last time. About 40 years ago my grandfather, who had been district mayor for many years, had travelled on the same Elton-Traktway to Saratov. He is dead, and so is my father; and now I, the last of the Dyck descendants, is going far away, never to return. How right the Psalmist is when he says that man is like a flower, like the grass in the field. Here one has lived and worked; perhaps imagined to have achieved success in various areas of undertaking; here one was loved and respected, so that they said, „you dare not leave us, we need you; but what is to become of us now?“
Those who said, ‚you must not leave us,‘ said it because they did not read the signs of the times; but I knew that my work was done, I had no future here, yet my heart ached to think how fleeting, how transient life is. In a few decades our family will be forgotten here as if we had never been. Where will we be then? Will we find another „Heimat“ on this earth? Or will we perish in a strange country? What if I have been wrong and the many friends have been right in their assumption that the government will soon pursue a moderate policy and people here will be able to live in peace for generations to come? And we have excluded ourselves from such a life; have actually banished ourselves and our children! How can I justify that?
But no! Away with such doubts! Our hope and our conviction is that God himself is leading us. Jesus, still lead on in our future life. ..
On arrival in Saratov we went immediately to the train station, where our friends again helped us load all that mountain of baggage in time. And then came the last fifteen to twenty minutes of final farewells. My dear courageous Renate found it very difficult to say farewell to her beloved father (mother had stayed at home); siblings and friends; Lieschen from Jakob Bergmann; also our dear friends Heinr. Baums, Saratov, teacher at the Gymnasium. My last embrace and handshake was for my faithful, never-to-be-forgotten dear friend Johannes Penner. His last words to me were,
„I know that in politics you can hear the grass growing, but this time you are mistaken! But should it turn out that you were right, we will follow you. God be with you till we meet again.“
And now all these years he has suffered incredibly in Siberia. He languishes in exile, in dire need and misery, alone and far away from his family. When he wanted to emigrate it was too late. Many experienced the same fate. Also my dear friend, Johannes Bergmann, who was always so energetic and practical, which he proved for the last time during the packing and transporting of our baggage. And now he, too, is in exile. ….
When the train moved, the last farewells were exchanged, the last hands shaken, the handkerchiefs waved, and then came the well remembered curve, we turned and went west, and all was gone. …
„Ach Scheiden, ach Scheiden, ach Scheiden, Wer hat nur das Scheiden erdacht? Es hat so unsaegliches Leiden
Schon manchem hinieden gebracht.“ (Parting, oh parting, oh parting, Whoever conceived parting? It has brought untold agony, To so many, many people.)
For my family all was now left behind; for me the 400 miles to Moscow were familiar, I had travelled them so often that each station seemed like an old acquaintance which I now greeted for the last time. But there was one more farewell. When we came to the railway junction of Rtischlschewo, my dear friend Heinrich Rempel and wife came to say goodbye during the ten-minute stop. They lived in Arkadak, about 70 miles south on a different railway line. He knew the time of departure and so he went to the trouble to meet us there and tell us that he, too, had now applied for the emigration visa. Then he added that he intended to be our neighbor in Canada and when we settled there we should keep that in mind. He had been a dear friend to me during the forestry years of alternative service as a C.O. in Neu-Berdjansk. He was devoted to me far more than I deserved.
The minutes passed quickly and Rempel was so hopeful that we would meet again in Canada. But how did God lead him? Yes, they did receive their passports, but in Riga the whole family was detained because of trachoma. They were there for months. Then his always strong and resolute wife became ill and died. At last he was able to go to Germany and live there for about a year. Here he married again, an elderly Mennonite lady. He tried again and again to come to Canada but could not get the entrance permit. Eventually he took his family to Paraguay and settled in the Chaco. He was one of the first to leave there and start the new colony of Friesland in east Paraguay. We plan, but God leads. He wanted so much to become our neighbor, and now we live on opposite poles of the earth. -We reached MOSCOW early next afternoon.
I had written this far in the winter of 1939-40. Today is February 17, 1941 and I will continue. Let me share a bit more about my friend Rempel. On April 28, 1940 Dr. H. A. Fast, field secretary of the General Conference Mennonite Church, showed slides in the Laird community hall of his trip to Paraguay, especially of the Mennonites in Fernheim and Friesland. Suddenly Rempel is on the screen, exactly the way I had known him. And Dr. Fast commented: „This is the energetic and highly respected ‚Oberschulze‘ (mayor) of the Friesland colony.“ That was interesting. Bro. Fast stayed with us for the night and the next morning. He told me much about Rempel, how his prudence, tact, strict discipline in guiding the Colony, had gained him the respect and love of the people.
I decided to write to him again soon. I had received his last letter in 1937, which I answered in 1938 when we spent the winter in California, but had not received a reply. I postponed writing because of seeding time. Later my cousin Jakob Wiebe, Nebraska, sent me a letter from Mrs. Rempel announcing her husband’s death. His funeral had been on April 28, the very day when we had thought and talked so much about him. Responding to my letter of condolence, Mrs. Rempel wrote that he had been suffering from a liver ailment; that he had often mentioned me and Jakob Wiebe, but had not received my last letter. Rempel was two years my junior, was in much better health, and yet he finished his course before I did. I will always cherish his memory.
But back again to June 16, 1927 when we arrived in Moscow. I took the family and all the baggage to Taganskaja 21, the living quarters of C.F. Klassen and Peter Froese, the executive members of the AMLR. We stayed there for ten days; the reason for our delay was that I was trying to change our rubles into foreign currency, which was very difficult, and even more difficult to transfer them out of the country. The whole process of liquidating our property had started some time ago and had been done quite unobtrusively, in fact, it had proceeded so smoothly that the end result was an unexpected cash income of 45,000 rubles. At that time and under those circumstances that was a lot of money. The gold ruble did not fluctuate in Russia, but was not accepted abroad, and so had to be exchanged into a foreign currency. That was dangerous because it was illegal; it could result in heavy fines, prison and exile, often death by shooting. Friend C.F. Klassen was very helpful, also Mr. Wall brought me a good many dollars. But one day when he didn’t return we learned that the G.P.U. had arrested him. He still had some of my money, but thank God he did not betray me.
With our valid passports we were allowed legally to exchange rubles at the bank up to but not in excess of $1,200.00. Before this I had been able to send more than $3,000 to Canada, mostly with the help of C.F. Klassen. Now time was of the essence. Our tickets on the Empress of Scotland cost 3,292 ruble; our passports had cost 887 ruble. Their price had been increased sharply to discourage emigration. Our ship was scheduled to sail from Southampton, England, on July 9, and we had to be there at least three days before for health inspection, etc. But my main reason for wanting to leave as quickly as possible was the fear that the officials in the Volga Republic would find out just how much money we did have and attempt to stop me, or at least cause a lot of trouble. Consequently I was willing to pay any price for dollars or pounds sterling, just so we could get going. We exchanged quite a bit, but often into small currency, like one and five dollar bills, which we just couldn’t handle because of the size of the pile. It was impossible to hide all that. Then I was offered two bank drafts of $1,000 each. I paid 8,000 ruble for them, which was more than twice the current exchange rate.
It was legal to have one fur coat and one gold watch per adult person leaving Russia. So we bought four Persian lamb ladies‘ fur coats of the highest quality for just over 2,000 rubles, and a gold watch for 450 rubles. Several months before I had given 1,000 ruble to Jakob Toews, Dawlekanowo, whom I knew well, to have it transferred to Canada, since that was possible through his local bank. Toews sent me the receipt in Mos cow, explaining that the money had been sent through the bank in $100 amounts to various people in Canada. He also said he was willing to handle more in the same way. In the same letter he also asked for a personal loan of 1,000 rubles, since he was also planning to emigrate but did not have the money. So I sent him another 3,000 rubles from Moscow, 1,000 rubles as a personal loan and the 2,000 ruble to be transferred. We never got any of these 4,000 rubles back.
Toews wrote that he had sent most of the 2,000 rubles through the bank and had sent me the receipts. When I replied that I had received neither money nor receipts he began to investigate and discovered that certain officials had embezzled all that money, and more. After a good bit of pressure from him the bank they had finally repaid part of that stolen money. Hoping to recoup all of the money, he had invested what he had in wheat, but the government confiscated all of his wheat, and so all that money was lost.
I had left about 2,500 rubles at Am Trakt; 500 rubles of that was earmarked for Jakob Bergmann’s trip to Canada, which we expected would be the following year. Joh. Bergmann was in charge of that. The other 2,000 rubles was mostly outstanding from sales which were later paid to Joh. Penner. He was able to send some of that across, but we don’t know how much nor with whom, because it became increasingly more dangerous to give precise information in letters, so he only gave us hints.
I did receive a gold watch from Gustav Froese, which had been bought with that kind of money. A year later David Froese came and also brought some along. Joh. Penner also informed us that he had exchanged all the remaining dollars and given them to Heinrich Martens from the Crimea, a minister whom I knew and who was coming to Canada. Penner had given him not only our money but also some of my brother-in-law’s, Johannes Isaac’s, money as well. We don’t know how much. Then Martens was unable to leave and gave the money to
several acquaintances who were emigrating. We don’t know the exact amount of all this money, it was probably several thousand rubles, but we only received $75 in 1937 from a Gerh. Wall, now in Coaldale, Alberta. Wall is an honest but poor man, and last week he sent us another twenty dollars, promising to pay back everything as he is able.
But I am ahead of myself, we are still in Moscow. I often went to the office of „Russkapa“, the C.P.R. agency in Moscow. There I met a man one day who said he was Albert Ludwig Edel from
Volynia. He was also on his way to Canada but was travelling with the Holland-America Line. I had a favorable impression of the man. He said he had no cash, but was legally entitled to exchange 500 ruble at the border. So I gave him 500 rubles and 50 rubles extra for his commission. After exchanging the money, he was supposed to give it to Elder Corn. Harder as soon as their train had crossed the border. This money is also lost. And this is how it happened.
At the border there wasn’t enough foreign currency for exchange, so Edel was told to change the money in Riga. After crossing the border Edel wanted to give the full 550 ruble to Harder, but he refused to take it, saying that Edel had first to exchange it into dollars in Riga.
Coincidentally a fellow-traveler with Rev. Harder, a Mr. Unger, met Edel in the bank when he was exchanging the money. Immediately Edel wanted to give the money to Mr. Unger, who knew all about the deal, but he wouldn’t take it, saying that it was not his responsibility.
In Canada I tried for years to locate this Mr. Edel and was finally successful with the help of the Baptist Federation of Canada. They said he was a Baptist and located him in Leduc, Alberta. They also informed me that Edel had acknowledged the debt to me. I tried in vain to make direct contact with him. The Baptist office didn’t respond any more either. So that money was also gone.
And then I left 9,750 rubles with C.F. Klassen in Moscow. All this money was transferred to Canada over the next two years at a favorable rate of exchange, 2.75 rubles to $1.00. In this transaction C.F. Klassen rendered a valuable service to me as a friend, risking considerable personal danger in the process. In all the years I had financial dealing with him I have always found him to be absolutely dependable.
I want to add that several thousand rubles in my possession belonged to Joh. Isaac and cousin Jakob Wiebe. Isaacs also intended to emigrate and so had asked me to transfer some of their money; cousin Jakob Wiebe had been in Nebraska, USA for years; he had fled in 1921 and his brother-in-law, Joh. Bergmann and I had tried to salvage some of his property. That was the money which I also had with me. Perhaps I should not have done that, or at least looked after our own interests first. But I felt I owed it to them and to my conscience and so I gave them the same percentage as ourselves of the money we were able to bring out.
In Moscow I heard that it was possible to exchange Russian rubles in Riga. But all of C.F. Klassen’s and my investigation led us to believe that this was just a rumor. Even so, I hid 4,000 rubles and was able to exchange them in Riga for a better rate than in Moscow, three ruble for one dollar. If I had known that I would not have sent any money to Dawlekanowo, bought no fur coats and gold watch, given nothing to Edel, but simply taken it all across the border. And so the money matter was finally taken care of after ten days of continued tension, excitement and danger.
Once we were in actual possession of our tickets we took all our baggage, except five or six suitcases, to the customs office. Here it was to be inspected and then sent to the final destination, Rosthern, Sask., Canada. Since we had prepared a detailed list of the contents, we were required to open only three pieces. When the customs inspector saw the three pieces opened corresponded accurately with the list, he issued a certificate that all the baggage had been inspected to the satisfaction of the Custom’s Office and was ready to be shipped to Canada.
Now it so happened that I had a goodly amount of money in my pockets at the time of the inspection; so when it was all over and we were repacking the three opened pieces, I unobtrusively slipped this money into the baggage and retrieved it again in Canada.
One afternoon when we had nothing else to do, I went to the railway station at the time when the train from Saratov would be coming in, hoping perchance to meet an acquaintance and catch up on the news from home. And what happened? I was standing near a coach when the door opened and our Communist teacher from Koeppental, comrade Schippman came out. We saw each other, so I had to greet him. I walked along with him a bit, but in the rush of the crowd was able to slip away again. I spent some time in the station, hoping that once he was in the city he would be swallowed up by the millions of people there. But to play it safe, I didn’t take the streetcar into the city center as usual, but boarded a bus instead, a bus not going into the center but to a suburb of Moscow.
I sat down, looked around, and….who sat opposite me but comrade Schippman. Sometimes that’s what happens in life: you try to run away from fate, and it hits you head-on! I acted as if I was pleased to see him, of course, and we chatted together. He asked about our destination in Canada and I told him it was Rosthern.
„Oh, I know Rosthern,“ he said. „It’s a friendly rural town. You will travel through Winnipeg, then Redchaina, which is spelled ‚Regina,‘ then to Saskatoon and finally on to Rosthern.“.
Naturally I was surprised, and wondered how he knew all these details? And imagine my even greater surprise when he said:
„For years I worked in the vineyard of our Lord in West Canada; I was a pastor there.“ He laughed scornfully when he said this. There was such malice and sarcasm in his voice that I shuddered and soon left the bus. I did not meet him again, but I could not shake off the feeling that he had come to Moscow because of us. I was right, as we shall see later.
P.P. Epps from Siberia lodged in the same house with us, waiting for emigration visas. Our girls soon made friends with their Mary and Anna.
They came to Canada about a year and a half later.
Since most of our money transactions were done through middlemen, I had quite a bit of time and showed our children some of the sights of Moscow. We took them to Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, for example, but neither Renate nor I enjoyed this very much. Our dear Renate already had a severe case of homesickness, especially when I was gone on business. She even considered going back again, she had such a hard time, but God sustained her.
The house parents, Peter Froese, and C.F. Klassens, were all very friendly and kind to us. For years I had had contact with them, had been a member of the AMLV for the last two years, had never had the slightest conflict with them, and really valued them both as co-workers. It also made me happy that our wives soon understood and felt a kinship for each other.
The day before our departure I had a lengthy discussion with Froese and Klassen about the AMLV, as well as conditions in Russia generally. I was asked to fully inform Prof. B.H. Unruh, representative of the German Mennonites, whom I expected to meet in England. I was to take concerns to him which were too dangerous to communicate by letter, and also give him some written material, which was almost discovered at the border.
In the evening of June 25 we left Moscow. Since we were not allowed to take all our money along we thought we might as well travel comfortably and went first-class. But the major reason why we went first class was that our coach went right through to Riga, while the second-class passengers had to transfer at the border to Latvian coaches. I will explain later why I did not want to change coaches. C.F. Klassen, P.P. Epp, J.W. Ewert, all members of the AMLV, came to the station to see us off. My dear family had left home and everything that was dear to them back in Saratov, and now I had to say my last farewell to Moscow, which had become familiar and almost like home to me in the last years.
On boarding the train and for the first few hours there were two gentlemen that drew my attention. They occupied the compartment next to ours. We actually had two compartments, with eight beds, for the two of us and our children. The men were extremely friendly and throughout the whole trip tried to enter into conversation, especially with our older children; but I had warned them to be careful with what they said.
Next day at four or five in the afternoon we were nearing the border station of Sebesh. We had made our preparations long before we got there, of course, especially hiding the money. The compartments in the first class coaches came in handy. We could lock the door, take Rena’s best doll out of the suitcase, remove its head, stuff two thousand dollar notes and a hundred pound note into the head, and sow it back on again. Rena was delighted that she was allowed to play with her best doll. We thought we had hidden everything well, but we were very much aware that the critical moment was near, and that our care, without God’s protection, would be useless. Oh, how we prayed for that.
During the last few hours our neighbors watched us closely. At each station stop they stood on the platform under our windows, which were often open because of the heat. During the ride they loitered in the corridor opposite our doors. On arrival in Sebesch we had to take all our baggage to the large station waiting room. The customs officials stood behind long counters. We had to open everything and spread our belongings out on the counters for thorough examination. But they were no more thorough in examining our baggage than that of the other passengers. In the meantime I had noticed one of our „neighbors“ on the train among the customs officials in the background. When they checked my money they found that I was 70 rubles long. I had done this intentionally. I had been advised that I could send it to any one in Russia, and since I had not hidden it, I immediately sent it to Joh. Bergmann. When all this was finished, I wanted to go out and look for a restaurant to have our meal. Moving with the crowd I came to the exit door, when I felt a gentleman in civilian clothing touch my arm. He asked me to step aside a bit to let the other people go by. I complied, but had a foreboding of what was to come. After several minutes I tried to move on.
„I think it is better that we stay here,“ said the gentleman in quite a friendly tone. Now there was no mistake, it was the G.P.U., the secret police.
„Yes,“ I replied, „I’ll just check on my family,“ and wanted to go to them on the other side of the waiting room.
„Oh, they won’t get lost,“ he said. „Let’s just stay here.“ Soon I saw a young, well-dressed woman, take Renate and our girls away; a young man asked our boys and me to come along with him.
We were taken to a small room where two officials were waiting for us. We had to undress down to our shorts. Our clothing, socks, and shoes were scrupulously examined. We had nothing of value on us, so I could have been relaxed; except that I had hoped the women would not be searched and so Renate had on her some money and some small items of value. About that I worried.
Our search had ended a long time ago but we had to wait and wait. I felt sure that Renate was in trouble, that the stuff had been discovered. It was absolutely nerve-wrecking to just stand there and wait, and imagine the worst!
Finally the door opened and the young woman came out with Renate and the girls. Her look at me seemed to say, „Aha, now we’ve got you!“ But the official turned to her and asked,
„Nothing?“ „Nothing,“ the woman replied calmly.
What could that mean? I had expected almost anything. My heart beat fast, the room started to spin around, I nearly fainted. The tension of the long wait, the heat, and the strained nerves got to me. But it was not for long; soon they gave me a glass of water, I moistened my head, and everything was alright again. Now the official asked me to sign a document saying that our bodily search had been performed decently, nothing had been taken from us that we were entitled to take along, etc. Naturally I signed, and we were free to go.
I have forgotten to say that when Renate and the girls were taken away, Rena’s doll was left lying on the bench—the best thing under the circumstances, even though 300 – 400 people were passing through that waiting room. On their return the doll still lay there and Rena was allowed to play with it until we had crossed the border. As soon as we were on the other side the doll was put back into the suitcase.
Now I wanted to go and eat with my family, but the train was ready to leave; so we had to take our hand baggage and return to our coach at once. And the train started to move. Slowly, very slowly it neared the border. Then it stopped once more to let the Russian border police get off. Slowly it moved forward again, very slowly, almost hesitantly, and solemnly, it seemed to me.
And then it went under the red gate on whose arch was written in red letters:
„Proletarier aller Laender vereinigt euch.“
(Proletariat of all lands unite.) For the last time I saw that phrase, which had grown so hateful because of all the terror it had caused. I leaned out of the window—now the locomotive was through the gate, now a few coaches; oh wheels, go faster, faster so that we, too, will escape the fangs of Communism. How strange that I felt like pushing the train, just so in the last moment we would not be grabbed and held back. At last our coach neared the gate. I leaned out. . .now, now, the last coach has passed the gate—we’ve left Soviet Russia!
It wasn’t premeditated or intentional, it was entirely spontaneous that I reached for my handkerchief and waved it as we passed the red gate, calling out, „Goodbye, land of blood and terror!“
I had just made that exclamation when I heard my fellow-passenger in the opposite compartment, who was also standing at his open window, respond, „Scandalous! Shameful!“ I heard him swearing in a loud and angry voice in his compartment. Soon we had reached the Latvian border station. It was getting dark. A passenger who had been in the same compartment as our „observer“, came to tell me that I had been very unwise to utter those words; didn’t I realize we had been in no-man’s land, between the Russian and the Latvian border. Furthermore, our constant „observer“ had now openly admitted that he was an agent of the secret police. Our informant reported him saying:
„We had been alerted about this family. A railway car was waiting for them at the Sebesch station to take them to Siberia. Our suspicion was justified. If we have sufficient proof, then people have to be handed over to us at the Latvian border. But this one exclamation is not enough proof, only enough so we know that an enemy of society has escaped us.“
I don’t know whether these words were really said, or whether our fellow passenger only wanted to scare us. I am convinced that Schippmann had come to Moscow because of us. He had alerted the secret police, and my suspicion that I had been watched in Moscow and especially on the train, was correct. As far as I know, we were the only passengers who had to submit to a body search at Sebesch.
There are no words with which I can describe the relief and freedom that I felt when at last we left the Latvian station, where there were no more officials with red stars on their caps, when we were no longer spied on. From the bottom of our hearts Renate and I thanked God for our protection and rescue. How almost miraculous that the young woman searching Renate did not find the money on her. She was so thorough, and yet she seemed to be blind. We felt and knew that it had not been our skill and cleverness that had saved us, but God had done it. Praise the Lord, Oh my soul! And may we never forget what great things God has done for us.
That is how we felt then, and that is how we feel today, 14 years later. I want to proclaim and say, so that our children can hear it: „The Lord has done great things for us! We will never forget it! We will always be thankful!“
In the morning of June seventeen we arrived in Riga. The old German city, as I had known it in 1907, had lost most of its German character. The buildings were still the same, but all signs on places of business, at the railway station, the port and streets were in Latvian. German was either the second language or missing altogether, whereas then Russian had been the chief language here before.
There was one Jew, apparently rich and wellmannered, who had also travelled first class, and who wanted very much to stay with us. Finally the official announced gruffly: „All Jews to the Jews, regardless of what class you are travelling in!“ It was new for me to see how despicably they treated the Jews. We were brought to large rooms with clean beds; we were the only ones here. But first all our clothing was disinfected and we had to take a hot bath. Our suitcases were also disinfected, but while those of the 3rd class passengers went through a „hot“ disinfection, which ruined some items, ours went through a „cold“ disinfection.
June 28 and 29 we were completely on our own from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. We had to check in at the C.P.R. Office about some details with our tickets. We also had to appear before a Canadian Consul. He was very courteous, spoke German and Russian, asked each one of our nine children something—presumably to test their mentality. On the 29th we went into the city once more to buy some clothing; I bought a felt hat, for example. I also visited the sister-in-law of C.F. Klassen, Mrs. Hildegard Sadikowa. While there we received a telegram from C.F. Klassen that his wife, Mary, had delivered a healthy baby, a boy!
Here in Riga we again met Elder Cornelius Harder and Unger, who had left Moscow a week before us, along with Edel, the man who had some of my money. They reported what had happened, the way I have already described it earlier. I asked them why they had not taken the money, especially since Edel had really insisted that they take it; now that money would be lost. But they said no, Edel was an honest man. But Edel had left two days ago on the Hamburg-America Line, and so I never did get that money.
From Riga we sent the first letters home telling them that we had actually left Russia and that those people who had bought buildings from us were now the rightful owners. On June 30 we boarded the medium-sized English steamer, „Balthara,“ where we were the only tourist class passengers. This three-day cruise on the East and North Seas was the most enjoyable part of our whole journey. Oh, how we relaxed and rested from all the nervous tension of the past several months. We were completely undisturbed, were just among ourselves, even in the dining room. The meals were excellent and we didn’t miss many of them; only Renate and some of the children missed a few because of seasickness. Each evening at sundown about 15 or 20 crewmen provided a concert, with musical instruments ranging all the way from regular instruments to big brass percussion disks and similar objects for making noise instead of music. But we were interested in all this; here we heard „Yankee Doodle“ for the first time. That was a jolly bunch of musicians.
On board ship we also wrote our first detailed letters. We were able to give a lot of advice to the Isaacs, who were going to follow us shortly. We told them, for example, to bring much more „stuff“ along, since this was not prohibited either by the government or the transport companies. To our regret the „Balthara“ made no stops. If it had stopped in Danzig for four hours, as it did a month later when Isaacs were on board, I would have tried to contact our relatives, Andresen, Jantzen, or Schulz. Only once, toward evening, it stopped for about two hours before entering the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal. Two German pilots boarded the ship to guide us through the canal. By the time we entered the canal it was already dark and we were sorry to miss the sights. On the other hand, I made a very interesting acquaintance. While the one pilot was on duty, the other pilot joined us in the dining room, which also served the captain and first officers. Soon Renate and the children went to bed and I was alone with the gentleman.
He was a big, blond man, apparently with a good education, and did not mind in the least sharing information with me. For example, what did we know about the real conditions in Germany? Of course, we knew only what the Soviet press reported in its slanted way. We had always drawn our own conclusions about what was really going on „outside.“ Here was a chance to catch up on world news. After I had answered his questions about Russia, it was my turn to ask.
He told me many things about the First World War, and I remember how indignant he was about the revolutionary mood among the German sailors at the end of the war. He blamed that largely on the forced inactivity of the German fleet. If Kaiser Wilhelm had permitted a total submarine war, if he had given Admiral Tirpitz a free hand, the fleet would never have revolted and, in his opinion, there could have been a lot more military successes and, who knows, perhaps even the outcome of the war might have been different.
Then he talked about the revolution in Germany and blamed it on the Jews. At this time Germany and Russia were on very good terms. Germany was given more and more industrial and agricultural concessions, and to the horror of the Western powers, it seemed as if even the political friendship between these two countries was stabilizing. This pilot didn’t believe it; and especially did he not approve of the appeasement policy of Germany with England and France, which was ardently advocated by the German foreign minister Stresemann. He denied emphatically that the majority of the German people supported such a policy, or that they even supported the present regime of the Social Democrats. He repeated numerous times that this was tolerated at the present time only because there was no other choice.
I distinctly remember how excited he became at this point of the conversation, saying: „Stresemann is not the man we are waiting for. But one will come—and then we will settle our accounts with our enemies! Then woe to all of them, even to the child in the cradle.“ I was surprised that such thoughts of revenge were supposedly among the common people, and not only among the military. And then he added: „The world will be surprised when it learns the truth!“ He talked with great contempt, not only about Stresemann, but the whole post-war system: corruption and bribery were rampant, and the root of all evil was the fact that the Jews controlled all the civil and business enterprises. That was a new thought which we had not heard in Russia. When National Socialism controlled Germany six years later, I remembered my discussion with that pilot. It seems that his predictions were close to reality.
In July the nights are short; it dawned early when the pilot went to change off his companion and I went to bed. After about two hours of sleep I got up to see as much as possible of the beautiful landscape on both sides of the canal. What a wonderful panorama: the luscious fields, the beautifully manicured gardens, the clean solid buildings. Everything gave the impression of order and prosperity—not like the endless poverty, dirt and disorder in Russia. Soon we had reached the end of the canal, the two pilots left our ship, and we sailed out into the open North Sea.
Here a fairly strong north wind met us. On the morning of July three we entered the Thames River where we met several medium-sized battleships. I remember that one of them flew the star-spangled banner; it was the first time that I saw the flag of the USA. The closer we came to our landing pier, the more ships we saw lying at anchor. What struck me most on our way up the Thames, apart from the busyness of naval ships, was that the entire area was enveloped in smoke from the chimneys of the many factories. The entire scene was dirty and uninviting.
After we had docked we were not allowed to leave for some hours. At last, about seven p.m., we were allowed to disembark. When we approached the gangplank we could hear a loud voice calling repeatedly: „Family Dyck! Family Dyck!“ All eleven of us had pinned the CPR badges that we had received in Riga on our clothes. As we descended I could see the man who was calling, and waved to him. He came and talked to us in a friendly way, but we didn’t understand a single word of what he said. He took some of our suitcases and beckoned us to follow him. He took us across an open space, through a subway, up a long and broad stairway, always on the double. When I looked around to see if we were still all together I noticed that we had lost two children, I believe Lenchen and Clara. I stopped at once, even though our guide kept running on. Finally, when he realized that we were no longer following him, he stopped and came back to us. About five minutes later our two lost children turned up, walking calmly hand-in-hand with a man wearing a badge, presumably a railway official.
Soon we boarded a train and were on our way to Southampton. The doors to each compartment opened from the side directly to the outside, there was no hallway in the railway carriage. Then a German-speaking CPR gentleman came along, checked our documents and tickets, and said that everything was in order. After him, other train officials came along and asked us questions, but we didn’t understand anything. One of these officials kept calling „tickets, tickets,“ so emphatically that I gave him one document after another until he was satisfied. How helpless one feels when traveling through a strange country and not understanding a single word of their language! On arrival they asked us again for our „tickets.“ By this time we already knew what a ticket was.
From the train station we were taken to the immigration camp, which surely must be familiar to many Mennonites. In fact we met many here who had been detained for health reasons, mostly the dreaded eye-disease trachoma. Some had been here for months and others actually for several years, receiving medical treatment and still hoping to be able to go on to Canada. It was sad to see how families were separated, some members allowed to go and others, like a father or a mother, husband or wife, a son or daughter, detained quite without feeling. I believe there were about 100 people there at the time, detained and still hoping to go on to Canada. It seemed such a hopeless situation: they had no work, no date was given them when they might be allowed to leave; in fact some never did leave. Naturally the general mood was depressed and pessimistic. Some of the detainees were quite despondent.
Prof. B. H. Unruh from Germany did much for these people. As representative of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization he crossed the British Channel from time to time to speak with doctors, immigration officials, and the representatives of the CPR about the Mennonites stranded there. His efforts on their behalf helped many of them to get to Canada. He deserves much credit in this respect, but also on account of something else.
He arrived in Southampton the day after we did. I watched him interact with the people and could see how he instilled hope and courage with his sermons and speeches, as well as through his personal contact with the people. He was very popular because he did what the Bible says, he rejoiced with those who rejoice, and he wept with those who wept. On the whole he was quite optimistic, often even humorous, and they all loved him because he made his brief visits at the camp a festive occasion.
I had the opportunity to get to know him during those days through the meetings that he conducted, but even more through the conversations that we had each evening when we went for a walk in the vicinity of the camp for about an hour. I had a great deal to tell him about Russia and the AMLV. On the other hand all the information that I received from him about world conditions, America, Canada, the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, was all new to me and of utmost importance.
I remember especially some words that he said and which I later found rather fitting. I asked him who David Toews really was. Of course I knew that he was the chairman of the Can. Menn. Bd. of Colonization. I also knew that he was the son of Rev. Jakob Toews, Lysanderhoeh, who had joined the millennial Claas Epp trek to Central Asia in the 1880s, and who had later immigrated to the United States of America. Furthermore, I had received a reply from him to my letter last winter about conditions in Canada. But that was really all I knew about him.
Prof. Unruh knew him from his involvement in the same work that he was in and had also met him personally. When he told me about all the obstacles that Elder David Toews had overcome in his efforts to have Mennonites come to Canada, the credit arrangement he had worked out with the CPR, etc., I remarked that Toews must be a very determined fighter.
„Oh yes,“ replied Unruh. „He fights like a lion when there’s a fire.“
„And if there is no fire?“ I asked, „what then?“
„Then it often takes a long time until the ordinary daily routine things get attended to.“
I greatly appreciated my contact with Unruh. He told me that he was working on the story of the Mennonites in Russia, continuing where P.M. Friesen (Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruederschaft in Russland, 1789-1910) had left off. He asked me to write for him about our settlement Am Trakt, with special attention to the years of the War and Revolution. After he had repeated this request several times I agreed to do it; a few years later after he had repeated the same request in writing, I sent him the story.
We did not stay with the third-class passengers in the camp barracks, but were assigned several rooms in an adjacent building. They were plain but clean and adequately furnished. Our meals were also served separately from the others, though we would have much preferred to eat with them in the large common dining hall. We knew only Rev. Har der and Unger and would have preferred mixing with the other passengers. Understandably our people are rather sensitive on this matter, and if anyone acts or appears different from the others it is easily interpreted as pride and arrogance. At that time we did not feel any of this, but generally Mennonite democracy demands what the proverb says: „Equal brothers, equal caps.“
Again we wrote many letters home. One day Rev. Harder and I walked into the city of Southampton for some shopping and among other things I bought a fountain pen and a pair of glasses. I asked a man in a jeweler’s shop how much my gold watch, that I had bought in Moscow, was worth? He priced it at 50 pounds sterling.
Southampton has a beautiful landscape, quite different from here in Saskatchewan. The roads do not run in straight geometric lines, but are winding. We went on one such road, which followed a twisting river, and eventually led us into a village. It seemed to me that the houses and the other buildings still belonged in medieval times. I had really wanted to spend a little time in London, since we had only passed through there on the way to Southampton, but without the ability to speak English that would simply be an experience in futility. So I didn’t go.
I think it was on July 9 when we boarded the ocean liner Empress of Scotland. This is the only date not shown on our documents which I double ckecked again, but Renate agrees that it was July 9. Before we left Southampton we all had a very thorough medical examination and were all declared in good health. At the pier, before boarding the ship, the same examination was repeated. We thought it strange that here Renate and Johannes were separated from us and taken to two eye specialists. Everything was okay, but my dear Renate had become rather apprehensive. We had seen so much pain and tragedy because of illness and the consequent separation of families in the Southampton camp.
Prof. Unruh accompanied us to the deck of the ship. Before leaving he gave me his card as representative of the Can. Menn. Bd. of Col. with the C.P.R. with a note and a request to pay special attention to me, because as representative of the AMLV, I was spearheading the Mennonite emigra tion in Russia.
Towards evening the anchors were lifted and the giant 25,000 ton ship was towed out to sea by several tugboats. Soon our own engines were started, the tugboats and pilot’s turned back, and proudly our „Empress of Scotland,“ the one-time „Augusta Victoria,“ sailed into the open sea. Once more, perhaps for the last time in our lives, we could see the shores of the European continent. Early the next morning we docked in the vicinity of Cherbourgh, France, but stayed a goodly distance away from shore. Some passengers and a lot of mail was brought out to us by a smaller ship. In about an hour or two we left the Channel and sailed away.
Three years have passed since I last wrote the above. I don’t know why I stopped so abruptly at that time; perhaps I thought that my main objective had been achieved. Since I became ill several weeks ago and am still unable to work outside steadily, I will try to sketch more of our continuing pilgrimage. Then also because God has granted us so much protection, guidance and help in this country, I simply want to document some of it, as I remember it, to his honor and glory.
The more I describe the events of the last years, i.e. the years here in Canada, the more you, my dear children, will remember these events yourselves. It will probably happen that what you remember and what I recall is not quite the same. That is unavoidable, of course, because it is always like that when people, after a few years, recall common experiences. Perhaps we remember differently because our attitudes with which we experience certain events are different, which then results in variations in lasting impressions. And then there is always the possibility that what one remembers the other has forgotten. But taken all together, however seemingly different, they can still all be true.
Even though I am aware that all this will to a certain extent apply to my writing, I will, nevertheless, attempt to write down as objectively as possible the events of the past—in our family, in farming, and in other matters. And I will be quite brief.
We crossed the Atlantic without any significant incidents. We occupied cabins in tourist class, i.e. a cheap version of second class. Elder Harder and Unger were in third class. I visited them once; what a difference! All their furniture was plain wood, no upholstery, the meals were much inferior to ours. I was not sorry to have chosen tourist class, since we were not able to take all the money with us anyway. I don’t remember many details, except I do remember that we all took our turns with seasickness; my dear Renate and Irma the worst of all. I also remem ber that we spent much time in the library writing letters to our loved ones back home.
On our second last day we saw many icebergs, often a truly majestic sight. One day we were alerted to whales which had come into sight. In the evenings we often watched the phosphorescent fish gleaming in the water.
We also made the acquaintance of a young couple, Alexander Harder and his wife, from Germany. He was the son of ? Harder, who 5-8 years ago had gone from Alt-Samara to Germany, where he was in business with Peter Tjahrt for a time. Alexander was an artist, a painter. He went to Rosthern, then to Winnipeg and on to various other places, but could not settle down here in Canada, and after only two years returned to Germany.
It’s too long ago to remember details about our ocean trip. In the evening of July 15 we sailed up the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and the next morning, July 16, 1927 we stepped out on Canadian soil. The checking of our passports, etc., was very superficial. We were told to buy food for at least two days, which seemed rather strange to us. Then we were „loaded“ into our coach, along with Harder, Unger, the Harder couple, and other immigrants. I didn’t think this was right, but since I knew no English I couldn’t convince the conductor that we had tickets for a Pullman sleeping car. The manner in which the train personnel treated the passengers certainly was not courteous. The coach was messy. Since it was summer the dust seemed to just roll in through the windows, regardless of whether they were open or closed. Apparently sweeping and dusting was not done here. It was by all counts the most uncomfortable, dirty, and tiring part of our entire trip.
We left Quebec in the evening. The attractive landscape, the green meadows, the luxuriant fields, the familiar Holstein cattle, the many cars, everything made a good and hopeful impression on us. But alas, on waking the next morning all of that lovely panorama out there had vanished; instead there were rocks, craggy bushes, and more rocks. When we had nothing but this kind of landscape to look at all day, we began to be apprehensive and disappointed. So this was Canada! When nothing had changed by the following morning we became very quiet. Occasionally there was a lake to break the monotony of the rocks, but we were deeply dis appointed. We didn’t know, of course, that the landscape doesn’t really change until shortly before Winnipeg
In Winnipeg we had a 5-6 hour wait for our next train to Saskatoon. My dear Renate and the girls stayed in the train station where we were greeted by a representative of the Can. Menn. Bd. of Col. Since I had the address of F.F. Isaac, who had been a member of the AMLV before me, I went to look him up. I had walked a distance along Main Street when suddenly a lady approaching me called out, „Iwan, Iwanowitch!“ It was the daughter of Franz Isaac. She took me to her parents, who welcomed me warmly. After a few hours of animated conversation, brother Isaac took me back to the station.
I remember that I was quite disappointed in the countryside between Winnipeg and Saskatoon. The farms were small and seemed poor, there were large tracts of wasteland, and all this gave me a lot to think about.
At last we rolled into Saskatoon. From the C.P.R. station we were taken to the C.N.R. station. During this transfer I spotted our baggage, which we had last seen in Russia. I also saw how roughly it was handled, and that one suitcase, a box rather, made of plywood, broke open when it was thrown around. I quickly jumped on the truck and with a cord that I found tied the suitcase together. But that made no impression on those roughnecks, they continued throwing the baggage about as before. Oh how I missed the language so I scolded them in Russian. Which had no effect at all, of course.
Now we were on the last leg of our journey. It was evening. With anticipation and suspense I observed the fields as we passed along; and it struck me that there was a lot of oats out there. But wait a moment! Is that really an oat field? How come there is wheat among the oats? At first I did not want to believe my rising suspicion that all that oats was wild oats. That is impossible. Not here in Canada with its advanced culture and civilization; surely the weeds have not taken over! But soon there was no more doubt. It was a wheat field full of the weed we
call wild oats. —ah well, what next?
The closer we came to Rosthern, the more serious our mood became. Once more I remembered so many of our friends and relatives saying farewell to us in Saratov; now at the end of our journey there would not be one familiar face. In a strange language they will say, „Get out!“ in the same manner that our baggage was thrown out in Saskatoon. After that it will be, „Help yourself.“ I had heard something about an „immigrant house.“ But the very name filled me with discomfort, and I decided first of all to find a hotel in the city. (I knew Rosthern wasn’t a large city, but I had not expected it to be that small.)
We had everything ready to leave the train. My dear Renate and the children first, the way we had established the routine during our long journey: each child having its place and carrying a piece of baggage. That is how we did it here, too. As the last one to leave the train I checked to make sure that nothing was left behind. We lost nothing and forgot nothing, not now nor at any of the other many stops.
And now the train was already slowing down. It stopped. I looked out the window and whom should I see on the platform but the brothers Benj. B. Janz and Franz C. Thiessen. They were looking around. . . .For us?
That felt good! After introductions, we were told that the chairman of the Can. Menn. Bd. of Col., Elder David Toews, had invited us all for supper. So we went directly to his house, because Janz and Thiessen said we would not need to take rooms in a hotel, other arrangements had been made.
And so, for the first time we entered Elder Toews’s home and received a warm welcome. I recall that when we sat around the supper table I automatically started counting our children, the way I had done so often on this trip, and then realized that was not necessary any more. What a load rolled off my mind, as I silently repeated the words of the German poet Schiller, who in his poem „The Bell“ (Die Glocke) has a father count his children after a devastating fire. He says:
„Er zaehlt die Haeupter seiner Lieben,
und sieh‘, es fehlt kein teures Haupt.“ (He counts the heads of his loved ones, and lo, not one is missing.) Yes, God’s providence had been with us at every stage of the long journey. As with wings of angels he had protected us at the Russian border, where by a hair’s breath it could have turned out so very differently; and all the way to the present moment there had not been a single accident, no mishap. We were very thankful to God.
After supper I suggested that it was time that we look for a hotel, but we were told that the parents and four children would stay at the Toews’s and the other five children would stay with F.C. Thiessen, until we could find our own suitable living quarters. That was a very gracious gesture of hospitality on the part of both families.
Next day I was asked to come to the office of the Board and give a report on conditions in Russia generally, and among the Mennonites in particular. As far as I can remember the following were pre sent: Elder D. Toews, B.B. Janz, who that day left for Alberta, Mr. Gerh. Enns, Dan. P. Enns, H.B. Janz, H. Willms and F.C. Thiessen. The same day I rented a house from Conrad Lanz, which somebody had found for us, for twenty dollars a month.
An hour after our arrival in Rosthern we received a telegram from brother-in-law Joh. Isaac, that they, as well as Sr. and Jr. Corn. Froeses and Gustav Froeses, had received their passports and would soon be on their way to Canada. That was welcome news. We hoped that many more would come!
We were not able to move into our rented house for 3-4 days because the floors had been painted. So during that time we continued to enjoy the hospitality of the Toews’s and the Thiessens.
On the second or third day we opened the trunk into which I had secretly put so much money in Moscow; I was somewhat concerned whether it would really still be there. It was. If only we had not left so much money with different people in Russia. Actually only the money we gave to C.F. Klassen was ever transferred to Canada.
One day David Toews went with me to Eatons in Saskatoon to buy such things as beds, tables, chairs, kitchen utensils, etc. I must mention yet, that when I had unpacked all that money, David Toews took me to the bank, introduced me to the manager, Mr. Rempel, and I deposited all of it there. It was in different currencies, which could be problematic, but mostly I feared that the two $1,000 notes, which I had bought for 8,000 rubles, might be forged. I was greatly relieved when it was all deposited and safe, a total of $6,898.25. I noticed that David Toews enjoyed helping me with this transaction. Later, when I had collected the money which had been sent to different addresses in the USA and Canada before we left Russia, I deposited that in the same bank. After we had bought the farm in Hawarden and moved there, I naturally transferred the money to the Bank of Commerce in that town.
Later the money from C.F.Klassen arrived, as well as several other small amounts from Joh. L. Penner and Joh. P. Bergmann. When we were ready to leave Russia, we had 45,000 rubles; 42,000 after the expenses of passports and the trip. If we could have exchanged that for the current rate, it would have netted $21,000. Altogether through sales of the gold watch and the fur coats, with what we transferred during the next two years we netted a total of $11,600. As mentioned before, the sale of our property had been very advantageous, but the transfer of the funds was less favorable. And yet we have so much reason to be thankful for the final result; so many people lost everything. The money we salvaged certainly helped to make our beginning in this new country much easier and enabled us to maintain approximately the same life style that we had enjoyed in Russia.
After only two weeks in Rosthern, our girls found domestic employment. Lieschen and Irma in Saskatoon, Anna in the Queen’s Hotel in Rosthern. It was especially hard for Lieschen and Irma-in a strange country, no language facility, so young, separated from the family! I know that they will never forget that time. But we did not want to appear superior to others who had come to Canada destitute; if they did housework, then we would do it too.
I asked the Board to look around for a farm for us since we wanted to continue farming. I went with a Mr. Holz to look at various farms around Rosthern, but there was nothing suitable available. What he showed me were farms that were neglected and unpromising. A Mr. Duerksen from Herbert was interest in a prospective farmer with money and showed me several farms between Elbow and Herbert, also farms belonging to the Button Brothers at Outlook, but none appealed to me. At Rosthern the only farm that interested me belonged to a Mr. Unger, just south of town, two and half quarters, but he asked fifty five to sixty dollars an acre, all to be paid in cash. It was too much, and we could not pay that. During our first days in Rosthern Ohm Jakob Klaassen, Eigenheim, came to get acquainted with us. He took us to his home and to Heinrich Jantzens. Both welcomed us warmly as people who had come from the same community, Am Trakt.
On the first or second Sunday there was a big mission festival in a large tent set up beside the Eigenheim church. I assume it included all the congregations belonging to the Rosenort Church. Many people attended, as is usual in this country. There we met Rev. Jakob Nickel, who had also come from Am Trakt, but who had emigrated from Neu-Samara where he had been a teacher and minister. It was a very new experience for us. As I observed the many people interacting and the proceedings of the day, I got the impression that this was more than a religious celebration, this was also the most important social event of the community, where friends met from far and near, where new acquaintances were made, and where young people were introduced to the life of the church.
Soon after our arrival, John Jantzen, son of H. Jantzen, had asked for our Peter aged 12, to come and work for him and, as he said, learn a thing or two. He was on his farm until we moved to our own farm, when they brought him home, much overworked. While there he had worked a few days at Martin Klaassens which he enjoyed very much.
After a month Joh. Isaacs, Corn. Froese and Gustav Froeses arrived. Isaacs moved in with us, which made it a bit crowded, especially since we had so little furniture. From then on we four men were continuously searching for farms. But I must mention one incident.
In the first days of August I went to the exhibition in Saskatoon. While there I went to a restaurant to use the telephone to call Lieschen and Irma but had trouble communicating this to the manager. A man noticed my problem and helped me. He introduced himself as a Mr. Feist, who together with a Mr. Long had a land agency. Was I perchance looking for a farm? When I said that I was, he invited me to come to his office and see the list of farms that were for sale. I did go and looked at their listing of available farms. After hearing them it seemed to me that two farms seemed worthwhile considering. One was a section of land with all the necessary buildings, machinery, cattle, etc. near Prelate, owned by a Mr. Thompson. The other was a 3/4 section farm near Hawarden, owned by a Mr. Staebner. Long and Feist wanted me to stay the night and they would take me out to see these farms the next day. I declined the offer because I remember having read that in America land agents deceive the greenhorn immigrants through their fast talk and half-truths. I replied that I would only go with them on condition that a member of the Can. Menn. Bd. of Colonization accompany me. At first they would have none of that, but then changed their minds and agreed.
So I went back to Rosthern and told David Toews about the incident. He thought it was quite possible to buy a good farm this way, telephoned Isaac Enns, Hague, a member of the Board, who agreed to come along.
First we went to Prelate, about 150 miles south-west of Saskatoon. It was close to harvest and the fields were excellent, the best I had ever seen. I still remember all the details: there were only five to ten acres of wasteland, just one slough; there were 200 acres of good summerfallow; 100 acres of oats, which Isaac Enns estimated would yield from 80 to 100 bushels per acre; about 300 acres of wheat which would yield about forty bushels per acre. I walked the fields criss-cross and noticed that the soil was heavy and gumbo-like. The house was medium-sized but in fairly good condition; the barn large and good. There were several granaries and a big machine shed. Binder, seeding drill, wagons and the other machinery seemed in fairly good condition. There was a considerable supply of oats and sheaves of oats on hand; also fourteen Clyde horses, mostly mares, and one stallion that had been bought a year ago for over $1,000. There were no hogs nor chickens, and only one cow. It was a typical wheat farm, the way some of the English people have them.
The reason why he wanted to sell was because his wife had died about a month ago, he and his family of three boys aged twelve to eighteen, who had originally come from Ontario, didn’t like it out here in the west and wanted to go back to Ontario. I was impressed with the man, and it seemed that he liked me, too. On leaving he remarked to Mr. Enns that he would very much like to sell his farm to this German because he liked him.
But no deal was made; Isaak Enns advised strongly against it. In Prelate I had met an old German and asked him about the farm. He said that it was one of the best farms around, but the area generally wasn’t much good. It was a dry belt with frequent droughts and crop failures. With sufficient rain bumper crops could be raised. And yet I had a strong urge to buy it. I figured like this:
I was to make a $4,000 down payment; the land was to cost $42 per acre; with another $3,000 we would have paid for all the livestock and inventory. If the wheat yielded 36 bushels per acre that would be about 10,000 bushels. Half of that would be our share, which we would sell at the current price of $1.25 per bushel. That would pay for the machinery and livestock and we would still have $5,000 left over. From the other half of the wheat we would still have $3,000 left over after all expenses. The 10,000 bushel oats at .45 cents a bushel would net another $2,000 or more. If we didn’t like it there we could sell the farm in fall or winter, and aside from the $4,000 down payment and 3 – 4 months of work, we would have made about $10,000, or a net gain of possibly 6 but certainly $5,000.00.
It was a rather hard test for me. All the time I felt that the good fortune, which had accompanied us in all our undertakings, was with us again. The above calculations were not wishful thinking but carefully calculated figures that in reality were even better than I stated them here. And yet I hesitated.
There were no Mennonites in the area, most of the people were German Catholics. But supposing God would lead in such a way that we could not leave after a year or so—then we would have to stay here. We’d be stuck!
When I simply could not make up my mind, Mr. Thompson offered me a week to think it over. If we decided to buy, he would send his boys to Ontario and stay here to initiate us. The price of the farm was to include all living and dead inventory: truck, car, furniture, kitchen appliances, beds, etc. He wanted to keep only the piano and the pictures on the walls.
Isaac Enns shook his head and said: „That man is dead serious about selling.“ But we didn’t buy, we left. I found it difficult to make a decision, especially when my dear Renate and Anna were very much in favor of buying the farm. But the fact that there were no Mennonites within 100 miles made me hesitate—supposing we would have to stay on that farm. And would we really leave if we had such good crops and a beautiful farm?
On the other hand, supposing everything did go as planned and we could leave the farm after three to four months, with a profit of $5,000, would that be honest in the sight of God? We had left our old home with such good intentions and prayers for God’s blessing. In short, when Mr. Thompson called after a week, I gave him a negative answer. I still remember the strange feeling that I had, almost as if I had opened my hand and let good fortune slip away through my fingers.
On our return from Prelate we stopped at Hawarden to look at two more farms. One of these became our home. There was much here that I also liked: the land, the buildings, very good machinery, a grain elevator only half a mile away, the prospect for a contract to drive the school van in the consolidated school district at four dollars a day.
The owner, Mr. Staebner did not appeal to me at all. The farm was priced at $54 per acre, which included the new Dodge car, new threshing machine, nearly new tractor, and all the other machinery. The down payment was to be $5,960. There were six or eight Mennonite families in the Hawarden area, and 15 miles north was the Mennonite settlement known as the Sheldon Farm. It had two ministers and they planned to build a church in the near future.
But I didn’t buy there either. We were going to wait until Isaacs came and then settle somewhere close together. When Isaacs and Froeses came, we four men went looking at many farms, but I liked the one at Hawarden best.
However, we would have much preferred a milder climate than the cold winters of Saskatchewan, and so we went to look at property in Coaldale, Alberta. Rev. Jakob Gerbrandt of the Can. Menn. Bd. of Col. accompanied us. There was a big ranch of about 3,000 acres near Coaldale. They asked for a down payment of $8,000 and we were thinking of buying it together with Isaacs, but both of us had our misgivings. There were other offers too, such as a 2/4 irrigation farm with firstclass buildings and equipment close to Coaldale. The down payment was to be $4,000, but Gerbrandt warned against buying such a big farm with no knowledge or experience in irrigaton. He thought the work would be much too hard for teenage children, and I agreed.
When I met Brother B.B. Janz there and asked his opinion he said in a diplomatic way: „Oh, it is very nice here for a lot of people.“ When I asked him whether he intended to stay, because he had not bought yet and was living with his brother-in-law, he replied in a slow drawl: „Ah well, I think for the time being I’ll look around.“
Since Joh. Isaac and Froeses were not in favor of irrigation farming either, we went to Didsbury, where there is a Mennonite settlement and where Elder Corn. Harder, our companion in coming to Canada, lived. But we could find nothing suitable there, nor in several other places that we looked at, and so we returned to Rosthern. Once again we scanned the area. The amiable Mr. Abr. Funk from Tiefengrund, whom we visited, took the trouble to look for something suitable for us, but found nothing.
At this time we received letters from Russia that many of our people were planning to emigrate, that about fifteen to twenty families had applied for visas and planned to go as a group. To me that seemed to be a mistake; I thought visas would be granted sooner on an individual basis. On the other hand it sounded just great and gave us hope of living together again with many of our old friends. In that case we naturally all wanted to settle together. Having scouted the area near and far, Hawarden seemed to be the best prospect. The land was good, and with down payments of 2 to 4,000 dollars there seemed to be any number of farms available. The families that were planning to come were all more or less well-to-do; there was Joh. P. Bergmann, Julius Bergmann, P.P. Bergmann, Joh. L. Penner, Joh. Neufeld, etc.
The result of these contemplations was that in August I went back to Hawarden once more, accompanied by P.P. Thiessen of the Can. Menn. Bd. of Col., and bought the Staebner farm-livestock, machinery, and all—for $54 an acre. This included the new Dodge car with only 1,000 miles on its odometer, the new threshing machine 28″ x 46″ which had not been used yet, but which he would use to thresh his crop. We paid him $5,960 in cash, $5,000 as a down payment on the farm and $960 for the car. For another $1,000 we bought all movable inventory. We were to take possession of the farm on September 20; by that time Staebner expected to be finished with his threshing. For us, the die had been cast. We had investigated, deliberated, prayed for God’s guidance and now hoped that all would turn out well.
Before we left Rosthern I wrote a long letter to Russia in which I attempted to describe as objectively as possible my impressions of Canada, its people and prevailing conditions. Apparently this letter made the rounds from village to village and home to home Am Trakt so that it was read by almost everyone.
During this time we attended the wedding of Kaethe and Heinrich Klassen from Winnipeg; Kaethe was the daughter of Franz Thiessen and Henry was the brother of C.F. Klassen. Henry Klassen was very kind and helpful. When I happened to mention the expensive fur coats that we had bought in Russia, he offered to sell them for us in Winnipeg, as he thought the market there was better than here. So we sent them to him.
One day I went to Saskatoon by train and met old Mr. Gerhard Enns, with whom I had become acquainted, and who had been a member of the Provincial Legislature. He in turn introduced me to Mr. Uhrich, the Minister of Health. He was a German and spoke the language fluently. He had many questions about conditions in Russia. I was impressed by the fact that a government minister talked freely and without condescension with a recent immigrant. For me that was an example of American democracy.
We had one cow, and in Rosthern we bought two more from Franz Klassen, who is now living in Hepburn. Since we had also bought some furniture and had considerable baggage, we rented a railway car to move everything to Hawarden. In Saskatoon we stayed in a hotel overnight and when we left the next morning we took Irma along. Lieschen had to stay another two weeks to finish her second month of service.
When we arrived at Hawarden, Staebner was not finished threshing because of rain, so we lived together in the same house for about a month, they downstairs and we in the five rooms upstairs. We bought a large kerosene stove and set it up in the hall upstairs. When Staebner was short of men I helped him with the threshing for a few days. Otherwise we spent our time in preparations for winter. We dug potatoes on a half-and-half basis. I installed a window in the smithy, set up the newly bought drill, made a garden with flower beds, did some plowing, etc.
Living together with Staebner had gone smoothly. At last he moved out of the house and we were on our own. I must admit that my heart was heavy. I was not well, the boys only twelve and thirteen years old and unable to do a man’s work. That is when Lieschen pitched in and helped me very much from the very first day.
Anna, Irma, and Johannes went to the German English Academy in Rosthern. That was expensive, twenty two dollars per month for each for board and room. But we emigrated mostly because of our children, and now we wanted to offer them the best here.
We took over the contract that Staebner had with the consolidated school district for driving the school van. At first Peter drove the van but for the winter I hired a man for it. Later Peter drove the van in the summer and the sleigh in the winter as long as we lived there. He did it very well.
The first Christmas was a rather sad and melancholy time for all of us, except the little ones. The prospect of greeting more people from Am Trakt was very indefinite as we continued to live more or less alone in this strange country. Yes, Isaacs lived on a farm they bought three miles from us; but they missed the fellowship with more people of our kind as much as we did.
We went to Dundurn with our car to meet Elder J.J. Klassen, who, we felt from the start, was a very loving and caring man, a true Christian. As long as the roads were open we went each Sunday to worship in one of the homes in Sheldon.
Cornelius Froeses were taking care of the farm for a man near Dundurn, who had gone to the USA for the winter. For the birthday of Corn. Froese, Jr. we went by sleigh, a distance of about thirty miles, to celebrate with them. They were very happy to see us and we, too, enjoyed ourselves. In early April I was able to help them with the purchase of a farm at Glenside, about five miles from us. They bought it from a man named J.B. Stoehr. It was a good buy: the land was good, the buildings excellent, and the machinery in good condition.
With much courage and in hope we did our first seeding, mostly with horses, but some also with the tractor. Soon after seeding it rained, so that everything was off to a good start. All summer we had intermittent rain, so that the prospects for a bountiful harvest were good.
In June my dear Renate and I, with three or four children, went to a conference in Rosthern. We visited at Jak. Klaassens and Heinrich Jantzens in Eigenheim, also at John Klaassens and the old Mr. Funk in Tiefengrund.
During harvest Johannes and I drove the two binders, I behind him so that I could help in case of trouble. The girls did all the stooking, over 300 acres. It was a hard and exhausting time for all of us, but we had a lot of courage. While we were cut ting wheat, Jakob Dycks from Kansas came to visit us for half a day. When we were almost finished cutting, aunt Anna Tjahrt and her son Bruno and Otto Penner came from California for a visit. The two boys were looking for work, so I hired them for the threshing, plus a Russian man and my brother-in-law Joh. Isaac. That was a mistake, we should have had at least six teams. The machine couldn’t work at full capacity and therefore didn’t perform as well, and for the threshers it was too hard. Joh. Isaac was not used to hard physical labor, Bruno was young.
But we did fairly well, threshed 900 – 1,300 bushels per day. The summerfallow wheat yielded twenty-six bushels, and the stubble wheat thirtynine bushels per acre; the former had received too much rain and had lodged so that the binders didn’t pick it all up. The oats yielded 85 bushels per acre. I became a Pool member and delivered everything to the Pool elevator at Jay’s siding, half a mile from our farm. On the average we received .83 cents per bushel for our wheat; whereas Froeses, who did not sell to the Pool, received $1.11 per bushel. We had a big loss as Pool members.
Half of the crop was delivered in Staebner’s name, which meant that the $1,000 we still owed him had now been paid off, and the total inventory was our own.
Gustav Froese, who worked on the railroad in Hawarden, Corn. Froeses and the Isaacs came to our place once a month for Sunday worship service. We usually read sermons from a book, but we also had itinerant ministers, missionaries and Elder J.J. Klassen serve us. While we had our worship service, Lieschen had Sunday school with the children.
During the 1928-29 winter all our children, except Lieschen and little Rena, went to school in Hawarden. The principal, Mr. Hembling, was a pleasant and kind man.
Our second Christmas in Canada was not a very happy one either. ‚Tis true, Corn. and Gus. Froeses were now not far away, but still.. We celebrated Christmas together, Lieschen had practiced a program with the children. But the hope that many more of our people from Am Trakt would come and join us, vanished more and more as time went on. They had a record crop, prices were good and somebody wrote that emigration was no longer a topic of conversation. Even my dear Joh. L. Penner could not decide on leavening, in spite of the fact that I advised him it was urgent, telling him it was high time that he left. I warned him that soon Communism would reassert itself in its worst form and would destroy them and their families. I was so sure that the time had come about which Lenin had spoken when he said: „After our retreat (1922) we will advance with such fury that the last elements of middle-class will be swept away and the final phase of Communism will begin.“ But they just could not believe it.
We did our seeding this spring without hired help. While Johannes now drove one outfit, Lieschen and I drove the other. I also plowed about 80 acres with the tractor. The crops had a good start, but later we had very little rain.
In March, I went to Regina for the spring exhibition and bought three purebred Holstein cows: Duchess, Jemima, and Sylvia, and later I bought a bull. The four animals and their transport cost about $1,000. We had received some money from Russia and I considered this a good investment. But we were not very fortunate with the offspring. In the first year the calves died because the barn was too cold. But the cows were a good income: we milked seven cows and for many months regularly shipped three cans of cream a week for $7.00 a can.
In late July or early August, Jakob Wiebes from Nebraska came to visit us. That was a happy Wiedersehn after eight years. They stayed for about two weeks and we enjoyed them very much. We went visiting with them to Sheldon, Rosthern and also Eigenheim. Before they left we had a little farewell party, to which all the people from Am Trakt were invited; Elder J.J. Klassen brought a message in the morning and another one in the
The harvest this year was below average. This time we had five or six teams for threshing, which went fairly well. We were almost finished threshing at the Isaac’s when we had a big rain, so I let the workers go. After a few days, when the wheat had dried off, we went to finish the little bit that was left. Joh. Isaac, one hired man, and Johannes went to get the sheaves and Lieschen came along with the wagon for the wheat. Now the wind had changed direction and so we had to move the threshing machine around.
I started the tractor and began to back up to the machine. Johannes Isaak lifted the shaft to hook it unto the tractor. Now on top of that shaft was a large platform-like box to catch the falling grain, and because this was almost full, it was too heavy for Johannes to lift. I was at the wheel, looked back, and saw that Lieschen came to help him lift it up high enough to hitch to the tractor. At this very moment the clutch dropped away under my foot, putting the tractor in gear. It backed into the machine.
The accident happened in less than a minute. Johannes Isaac was able to crawl out from under the tractor unharmed. He had landed between the large hind wheels. I don’t know how I got out; most likely I jumped off in the last moment. Had I not done that I would have been crushed between the tractor and the machine, because when the tractor finally did stop it was only inches away from the threshing machine.
But where was Lieschen? She had fallen right into the path of the wheel of the tractor in front of that box. Fortunately when the tractor backed into the machine its spiked wheels caught the edge of the box and lifted it up while it continued going backwards. But it passed right over Lieschen, churning and grinding her with its spikes until the wheel finally worked her forwards and tossed her free. She landed at the front wheel. Our poor child!
We took her to the doctor. She looked very bad. One eye was nearly forced out of its socket; the skull was cracked near the eye. There were numerous flesh wounds on her body, but the worst was that the doctor said: „Poor girl, her back is broken.“ I said that couldn’t be, since she could move her feet. He showed me the X-ray and I could clearly see that three of her vertebrae had been forced out sideways.
In the meantime my dear Renate had been fetched and we two went with Dr. Burwash to the St.Pauls hospital in Saskatoon. Soon Dr. Alexander arrived and examined her. I thought they would attend to her back immediately, but they merely administered some pain medicine and later gave her a few more injections. Renate and I stayed in the hospital for the night. When the pain was unbearable next morning and still nothing was being done, I went to Dr. Alexander and said: „If Lieschen were the daughter of a rich man, he would surely do everything possible to save her life; but since I was only an immigrant farmer, who couldn’t even talk English (and was there in my dirty over alls, directly from the field) that was likely why nothing was being done.“
He replied that when we had brought Lieschen in he had not expected her to live through the night, that is why they had done nothing except ease her pain. Then he brought two more doctors and they examined her a long time. But still they did nothing.
After the doctor said that he thought Lieschen would live, I stayed in the hospital another day. But he said she was too weak to have anything done to her back. I went home then, but Renate took a room across the street from the hospital and stayed there.
When I came home, no work had been done; the threshing was not finished. Johannes, only 16 years old, just couldn’t do it all by himself. Anna wanted to do the big laundry, but was close to collapse from the terrible shock. Just then a Maytag salesman came on the yard and offered to give us a demonstration. He could not have chosen a better time. I bought the washmachine at once for $225 cash.
After a few days I went back to Saskatoon again. Still nothing had been done for Lieschen. Dr. Alexander said she was still too weak. My dear Renate stayed there for about two weeks or more. When the doctor explained that the vertebrae could not be put back in place because they were not only dislodged but also broken, and that the only way to help Lieschen would be to have her placed in a cast for a long time, we agreed to go ahead with that. After that Renate came home. But Lieschen lay there, I think for three months, in a plaster cast from her armpits down to her hips, unable to move at all.
Then they removed the cast and after several days replaced it with another one. Soon after that we brought her home. After another three months we took her back to Saskatoon for another change of casts. Some time after that she was allowed to come home.
Our poor Lieschen had to suffer so very, very much. She was in casts for about nine months. It was a very grave and solemn time for her and for all of us. She had infinite patience and I believe drew much closer to her Lord during all this time.
Immediately after the accident, when I was still in Saskatoon at the hospital, Mr. Staebner and some English neighbors had gone to look at the tractor. I was very glad for that. They determined that the accident had not been my fault, that the cutterpin, which keeps the clutch in place, had been lost, and that the clutch had dropped precisely at the moment when Lieschen and Joh. Isaac had tried to hitch the shaft to the tractor. It had been impossible to see that the cutterpin was lost, and that consequently the clutch would drop away, because it was under the floor of the tractor. God had permitted the accident, and yet there was miraculous protection in it.
The harvest was only modest: thirteen bushels of wheat per acre and 25 bushels of oats. Since we had only 40 acres of oats we had to buy a lot of feed. This was the year when the wheat prices came crashing down. Our contract stated that if the crops yielded less than eight dollars per acre, I need only pay 1/3 of the otherwise fifty:fifty arrangement. During the threshing time the price was still above the minimum, so I delivered half of the crop in Staebner’s name. But by November 1, the time of the cut-off date, the price had fallen, but Staebner refused to refund the extra money which he had received. I believe it was about $370. I remember now that a few months after we had moved to the farm in 1927 I went to Reinland, Manitoba, for the annual meeting of immigrant representatives; also to the one in Herbert, Saskatchewan in 1928, where I was elected to represent our province. But this involved very little work. In 1929 we had that meeting at Dundurn with only moderate attendance. I had invited a man from the University of Saskatchewan to speak to us about agriculture; also a representative from the registered seed-pool, in an effort to create interest in registered seed breeding and improved methods of farming. A provincial committee was elected with myself as chairman.
In the winter of 1928-29 C.F. Klassen had come from Russia and visited us in Hawarden. Once more we heard much about our homeland (Heimat). It was not easy for him to adjust to the Canadian way of life. I was happy that I was able to perform a labor of love for him by giving positive information about him to Elder David Toews, chairman of the Can. Men. Bd. of Colonization, with the result that the Board employed him to collect the travel debt (Reiseschuld) of the thousands of Mennonite immigrants. Klassen had been slandered and Toews needed to know the truth; that is why he asked me, as one who knew him well, for my opinion and possible recommendation.
During the winter of 1928-29 Anna, Irma and Johannes attended the high school in Hawarden. The next year Irma took Grade 11 in Hawarden, while Anna stayed home to help Renate. To my great regret Johannes had also stopped school. The previous year he had been plagued with rheumatism for months, so that sometimes he could hardly walk. Now he wanted to stay home.
Renate had minor surgery done by Dr. Alexander, similar to what she had once before in Russia.
We again received many letters from Russia. The year 1929 had brought them a good crop, but it was of little value to the farmers because the government’s 5-year plan of collectivization was vigorously enforced. The more progressive farmers lost everything: crops, buildings, cattle, machinery and their own freedom—they were shipped off to exile in Siberia, Central Asia, and other places as forced laborers. Eventually most of them perished there, dying of misery, need and starvation.
Joh. L. Penner went to the German embassy in Moscow in an attempt to emigrate, but it was too late. On his return he was arrested in Saratov and together with his family exiled to the extreme north of Russia.
The same fate awaited Alexander Quiring (my sister Anna), Joh. Bergmann, my dear old father-in-law with his children, and most of our other relatives. They were all exiled to various places in Siberia. In the following years we were still able to send parcels to many of them; it was the only help we could give them. Oh how happy we would have been if only two years earlier they would have come to Canada!
In June of this year Lieschen’s cast was removed for the last time at the hospital. She regained her strength very, very slowly and only after five years has she recovered to her present state of health.
This summer Mr. and Mrs. Peter Penner from Wasco, California came to visit us. They were the parents of Otto P. who had helped with threshing in 1928. We had not known them before. They had left Am Trakt for the U.S. as a young couple 35 years ago. We enjoyed their visit. They were related to Cornelius Froeses, but as they had no car, we met Penners at the train station in Hanley and went visiting with them.
In June I had my first severe gall bladder attack. It had troubled me in previous years, but I hadn’t known the reason. During the winter 1930-31 Irma took grade 12 at the Bedford Road Collegiate in Saskatoon, working in a home for room and board. Lieschen, Anna and Johannes were home, the others went to school.
In summer Hawarden had an agricultural fair. We received numerous prizes in various classes for our Holstein cattle.
Corn. Froese sen. died in April 1929 from a hemorrhage. He had not been well, had suffered from asthma, yet his death was unexpected to all of us. He was the most homesick of our whole group, perhaps because he was the oldest. We had visited regularly with Froeses, yet after his death I felt that we should have gone there more often.
We maintained the usual monthly services in our home. Frequently we had visiting ministers, especially Elder J. J. Klassen, who had holy communion with us at least once a year. Itinerant minister Corn. Peters, Herbert, Sask. came frequently; I especially remember his very good message on New Year’s Eve, 1930. Other ministers who came to us in those years were Elder Jak. Wiens, Herschel; Elder Corn. Harder. Alta.; Elder H. Voth, U.S.A.; missionaries P.A. Penner and next year P. W. Penner with their wives. On the occasion of these visits we always invited the farther away Mennonites for the services: Jak. Martens, Glenside; Klassens, Huebners, J. Andres’s, P. Duecks and all the other Duecks (five families west of Hawarden). Our monthly services were usually attended only by our Trakt people: Isaacs, Corn. Froeses jun. and sen., Gustav Froeses and David Froeses who had come in 1929 and had rented a farm close to Corn. Froeses. Gust. Froese had also bought a farm, then had left it and rented another one.
It was taken as a matter of course that through all those years we supplied the dinner for everybody and a lunch before they left in the afternoon, as well as feed for the horses. We did this gladly and willingly all the time as this was the only way for fellowship; yet I know that with consecutive poor crops our feed at times was very scarce. Also all car trips in connection with visiting ministers were our expense, as we were the only ones with a car. We had soon joined the „Nordheim“ church, where Rev. J. J. Klassen was the Elder.
In summer we usually went to Sheldon when there was no service in our home. Sheldon was building a church. They had agreed that all members within a radius of 15 miles should finance it, with voluntary contributions from those who lived farther away. We were 18 miles distant, but always paid our full share. I mention this only as a token that we tried not to get totally involved in material aspirations, but that we also tried to the best of our ability to give our children opportunity to hear the Word of God and to get together with other Mennonites. Also, we always went with several children to the annual Canadian Conference, if it was in Saskatchewan. Once a year we also went to Rosthern and Eigenheim, several times in connection with a G.E.A. graduation.
This year our crop was very small, so there was not much wheat to sell and much feed had to be bought. Nearly all farmers, even those one considered well-to-do, went on government relief. We didn’t, but depended on our bank reserve which steadily diminished instead of grew as we had hoped. From October 1929 to October 1930 we paid nearly $1000.00 for doctor, hospital and medicine in addition to the big feed-buying expense.
In the fall of each of those years we bought, together with Isaacs and some others, a carload of coal at a cheaper rate. We did that again the fall of 1930. The car came to our siding and all our wagons were there for the unloading when the train arrived. This scared the horses and one team ran away. I saw it come, wanted to stop it by grabbing one horse by the bridle. That came off, I fell down and the heavy box wagon went over me. The doctor was soon there and I was taken home. Three ribs were broken and I had considerable internal pain. But soon I recovered and already after one week, after the doctor had taped me again, I went to Herbert for the annual provincial immigrant meeting. It was not easy, but I made it.
The atmosphere at the meeting was positive. The delegates showed their appreciation for what had been done during the year. That was encouraging, although I was well aware that our organization would not be able to achieve any economic success. But some things could be done. Most of that I’ve forgotten, but I remember that I was able to help many of our Mennonites who lived scattered among English people and who were short-changed on government relief, to get what was rightfully theirs by working through Regina. In Regina I was also able to get free transportation of feed for many. In some cases I also acted as middle-man in the purchase of registered seed; we sowed 20 acres of registered Marquis wheat.
One of my duties was the collection of the 50 cent dues, at first for the Central Immigration Committee and later for the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization. I also tried to promote at every opportunity the repayment of the Reiseschuld (travel-debt). To the best of my ability I tried to fulfill these obligations through 5 1/2 years, always gratis, though I was reimbursed for expenses.
Just now I remember that in 1929 (or ’30?) a royal commission came to a number of cities and towns to ascertain the mood of the public with regard to immigration. Elder David Toews made many trips to Ottawa and various provincial governments to get permission for Mennonite immigration of refugees from Russia who at the time were in Germany. When the royal commission came to Hawarden I was sick in bed; but I made written contact with them, describing the conditions in Russia, the willingness of our Mennonites to accommodate the refugees in their homes, etc. I remember that meant a work of days for me when I should have quietly rested in bed; but I so much wanted to support Elder David Toews in his work and nothing was too much, if it should help to get more Mennonites from Russia to Canada. I wrote the memorandum in German and Anna and Irma translated it. In reply the commission acknowledged the memorandum and stated that they had taken notice of several points.
I’ll mention here that in winter I received a letter from Mr. Anderson, premier of Sask., with the request to come to his office in the near future for an important discussion. I was surprised and had no idea what he wanted. My reception there soon after was cordial. Mr. Anderson had heard of my efforts to help relief cases and of my memorandum. Now he wanted more information about the conditions of our people and of that in Russia. The interview was positive and as a consequence I was able to regulate several pending affairs successfully.
I also want to mention that in the winter of 1928-29 I wrote a lengthy article on „Who are the Mennonites?“ Anna and Irma translated it, which was a big piece of work for them, as we’d been in the country only 1 1/2 years. But with the help of the dictionary they made it; Mr. Jones, editor of the „Hawarden Pioneer“ corrected it and printed it in 12 installments in his paper. My reason for writing this was that I felt the often very negative attitude of the English people towards the Mennonites stemmed from ignorance about our background, reasons for leaving Russia, and our present attitude to living in Canada. I received much appreciation for the article from many prominent English people.
Thus even on a small scale, yet also in this country I tried to be socially active for the good of our people. My work here was minimal compared to that in Russia; but God knows that I did all I thought was possible, not only in 1930, but from 1928 till we moved to Tiefengrund in the fall of 1933. I also was a member of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization for six or nine years, which did not involve any work but to be present at its annual meeting.
I also remember, that from 1928 to ’39 I attended the annual meetings (alternately in Regina and Saskatoon) of the „Deutschen Tag“ (German Day) for whose district director I had been elected. There was not much work involved for me or for the organization, but I enjoyed these meetings, as the organization promoted cultural advancement and especially maintenance of the German language. Of course I had no part in the festivities of the „German Day“ when the mood grew rather loud and boisterous; but I considered it my duty to attend because so few of our people were in favor of the goals of the organization due to Mennonite narrow mindedness. On these occasions I also made some interesting acquaintances, e.g. Mr. B. Brott, editor of „Der Kourier“ and later of the „Deutsche Volkszeitung“, also Mr. J. N. deStein, the German consul Seelheim, Otto Fuhrmann, Regina, health minister Dr. Uhrich, Mr. Williams as leader of the opposition, etc.
Healthwise it was again not an easy year. Very, very slowly Lieschen’s strength returned. My health was deteriorating. The whole episode of Lieschen’s accident, the economic failures of crops and prices, the realization that no more from the Trakt would come, the painful feeling of not being part of a regular church community, the concern about the future of our children in an English community, of which some happenings within the family gave cause for worry, all caused my nerves to be completely worn out, in addition to my gall bladder and liver ailments and a weak heart.
The years 1930-31 were unforgettably hard for me; the worst of it was that these were the years when our boys were growing up. I should have been strong physically and mentally. I should have been able to take the lead in our work; with sound nerves and heart many, many things would have been different. But I was sick, much more than my family realized. Sick nerves and spirit could not be fully understood. How hard it often was for me only God and I know. But in deep gratitude I want to acknowledge here, that our Johannes often was a great support to me, aside from some things because he was a teenager. As young as he was, how often my sick spirit found comfort and strength in his quiet and reserved being. Of course, my dear Renate, our precious Mama, did all and more than she could. Often she was exhausted beyond her strength and needed more rest and relaxation, which she would have had had I been well. Far too little could I be supportive during those difficult years in the rearing of our children. Yet I do know what heavy burdens she had to bear and I am sure that all our children will thank her for it and that our heavenly Father will reward her for it here and in eternity.
Because of the repeated crop failures the Mennonites in our district started to move away, so that our community steadily decreased rather than grew as we had hoped. We didn’t meet with the other families very often except with Isaacs and Froeses; yet we felt the gaps when the Andreses, Klassens, Martens, Duecks, Wiebes, etc. moved away. But I’ve mentioned this too soon, it happened only at the end of 1931 and in 1932.
Soon after New Year’s my health, mostly my heart, was so poor that I was almost completely bed ridden. Our doctor, a young man, gave me a medication to be used in special attacks of weakness. One forenoon I felt really bad again, so we took the airtight little bottle, the thin neck of which had to be broken and the escaping gas inhaled; but once I inhaled the gas I threw the bottle away and fainted. After some time, perhaps 15 minutes, I regained consciousness, but I could not open my eyes or move. I heard Johannes was called in and that he asked, „Is Papa dead already?“ that Mama replied, „Perhaps yes.“ Then I again heard nothing for a while. When I came to I wanted to give a sign that I was alive. But I could not open my eyes or move my fingers, which Mama held in her hand. Then I heard Mama say that perhaps I was still alive, she’d try to give me some wine. She fed it to me with a teaspoon and I heard one of the children say that I had swallowed it. But it took some time till I could open my eyes and hours till I could speak. The inhaled ether had almost killed me. The doctor was called, brought a colleague from Loreburn with him, and was greatly shocked. I was ill for quite a long time and would dearly have loved to die, I was so ready for it. When gradually my health improved, my biggest concern was that I’d not be that well prepared again, when my final hour would come, to meet my God. Shortly before seeding in April I crossed the yard for the first time. I remember how I sat for a long time in the warm sunshine on the south side of the barn.
When my health gradually improved and I felt more energy I was very grateful and asked God to grant me health till the children were grown and independent. It’s now 12 years later, our youngest is independent already, is a teacher. I’ve often been ill since, but am still here and it seems there are still duties for me in our family. May God add his blessing is my daily prayer.
Seeding time was as usual. At first the fields looked promising, but hot July destroyed any hope for a good crop. There was hardly any oats and very little wheat. This year we had a number of young men from Sheldon to help with the threshing of our crop, also Isaac’s, neighbor Solnicky’s and McNorny’s. Now that I mention the name Solnicky I’ll say that these people caused us very much trouble. When we came to the farm I had asked Mr. Staebner about them and he had replied, „They steal, lie and cheat, otherwise they’re alright.“ We found it so. Especially uncanny was their deceit and treachery. They were Czechs, a widow with four sons and one daughter. They lived across the road from us.
One time our horses had run from our yard and onto theirs. Johannes right away rode after them. They screamed and howled that we could hear it. After a few days I received a writ from the Justice of the Peace to appear in court, being charged with wilfull destruction of over 20 young trees. They stated on oath with hand on the Bible, that Johannes had wilfully driven the horses over the newly planted trees, whereupon we had to pay a penalty of $30.00.
Several other similar incidents happened in connection with them. We had absolutely no dealings with them except that one threshing, because they could get no other machine. That was the only time in the six years that I was on their yard. Our children tried to stay away from them, but they always tried to make trouble. As driver of the school van Peter had to suffer from them in a special way. One time when all their lies and slander about us to the school trustees brought no results, they even wrote to the Department of Education in Regina. Of course the trustees were on our side. Even if as a rule they couldn’t really harm us, we still felt such neighbors to be a real cross.
Soon after seeding Anna went to do housework in Saskatoon. That was a difficult decision, but there likely would be another crop failure and perhaps this would be good for Anna. There she could have fellowship with other girls in the girls‘ home; at home our girls always felt very much alone. Irma took Normal School in Saskatoon during 1931-32, working for board and room at the same place as last year.
Lieschen and Johannes were at home. We bought two more quarters adjoining ours with about 180 acres of land newly broken during the last three to five years; the rest was pasture. When we bought this in May, we weren’t yet planning to leave Hawarden. We also still had the hope that Jacob Bergmann could somehow come to Canada. It was really a good buy: 55 bu. wheat per acre, no interest, on half crop share; the land was so close to our other fields.
During seeding in May we almost had another big accident. It had been a cold, raw day and so Mama lit the furnace before we came from the field. To dampen the fire somewhat, she added some coal dust. Towards morning, still half asleep, I heard Mama whimper. This awoke me and I asked what was wrong. She had a headache. I noticed that the air was a bit hazy, opened the window, dressed, called to the four oldest children to get up and went to the barn. But soon Mama called I should come quickly. One of the boys lay on the kitchen floor and moaned. Mama called, that we should quickly get the others. I was going upstairs when I saw one of the girls lie on the stairs in her nightie, another on the hall floor, one boy, I think Peter, on the floor before his bed. I first got the girls downstairs, when I noticed a haze developing. When I went to get Peter the haze was so strong already that I thought I’d faint, too. By a hair’s breath our four big children would have been suffocated. If the coal gas had developed 1/2 hour or even 10 minutes sooner, we likely all would not have awakened in time. What a providence of God. That day the children were not able to work on the field nor could Peter drive the school van. Continually they had nosebleeds and severe headaches. But thank God they all got well.
Soon after seeding I had a mishap that also could have turned out much worse. I untied the cows, for which one had to approach from behind as they were in horse stalls. One had horns, stood nearest to the partition, got impatient and hit her head on the wall. It bounced back and a horn directly hit my left eye. There was great pain; I covered my right eye and all was dark, the eye was lost. I remember clearly that right after I knelt in the barn and asked God for patience if from now on I was to go through life with one eye. It wasn’t long after my illness, I was still weak and shaky, yet wanted to help as much as I could. I tried honestly to live as in God’s presence, that was my fervent desire, hence that spontaneous prayer for patience and that I wouldn’t murmur. The doctor was called. He said the eye was not lost, only the cornea injured and a muscle so stretched that only the white of the eye was visible. Gradually it healed and after some days I could see again. The doctor ordered hot compresses which felt very good. Perhaps they were applied too long or too hot, for soon the right eye felt worse than the injured one. It took over a year till all was well and the one eyelid which had drooped so much that I could hardly see, was in place again.
In July was the annual provincial immigrant meeting in Hague. I still felt weak and found it a special strain on the eyes. There I couldn’t sense any co-operative spirit, but perhaps the fault was mine because of my state of health.
In fall we had to buy nearly all the grain for feed. I bought a whole carload of oats, 1700 bu. in Macklin and later a considerable amount of barley. Our bank account shrunk more and more, for we took no government relief.
This year our Johannes was baptized by Elder J.J. Klassen in the Sheldon church. Catechism instruction was very imperfect; it was offered only on five or six Sunday afternoons by Rev. Franz Epp. I couldn’t attend his baptism; it was soon after the mishap with my eye. Mama and all the children went to church. I’ll never forget the hours of being alone, when our eldest son was baptized. I didn’t want to murmur and I did not, but many and various thoughts went through my mind. Why? Why?
This year we seeded a larger acreage than before with the two additional quarters. We had an extra large summerfallow: 60 acres on the Broder land and the whole south-west quarter. All was plowed by Johannes and me, all 220 acres, with 2 horse-drawn plows. I found it very hard. In the end I couldn’t walk to the field any more, so hitched the horses to the manure boat; but I couldn’t finish, couldn’t take the bumps and the handling of four lines. I remember vividly what a torture it was.
Many letters came from Russia. Alexander Quirings, Joh. Bergmanns, brother-in-law Peter Mathies and many others in 1929-30 had fled from the Trakt to Chiva in Central Asia. There the small settlement of the remaining faithful ones who had left the Trakt in 1881-82 with Claas Epp (d. 1913), still lived. Gradually his numbers and prestige had waned, even with this last group; but the motto „The Lord is coming soon“ remained though in a much more moderate form. This little settlement was located in a garden of the Khan of Chiva, which was an oasis in the desert, not far from the capital of the Khanate, also called Chiva. They had very little land, chiefly for gardens, and earned their livelihood by various trades, mostly by carpentry. They produced very good and beautiful furniture for the city of Chiva and especially for the Khan. About 20 families fled there from the Trakt when the people there were evicted from their homes and many were exiled to various regions.
As far as we know these refugees to Chiva were accepted very warmly; the meager daily supplies were shared willingly till the newcomers found work. Thus they lived there for about three years till the Bolshevik evacuation and destruction mania reached them too. The whole small settlement had to leave and was taken to land along the Amudarja River close to the border of Afghanistan. They were told to establish themselves in this totally uncultivated, wild, desert-like area. Their letters never described it clearly, but apparently the government had brought evacuated farmers of various nationalities there on a big scale. Likely it also planned the irrigation projects there and had the plans carried out by forced labor. At any rate, this group from the Trakt had a better life than any of the other exiled ones. They worked on this irrigated land in collective farms, together with other nationalities. The main produce was cotton.
Already after two to three years sister Anna wrote that the planted trees, etc. grew well with irrigation and that their small white-washed houses in all that greenness looked cheerful and picturesque. Naturally it was a very humble frugal life in the new settlement; many men had been taken away to do forced labor elsewhere, as their ideology did not seem to be compatible with the collective farming system. Among them was brother-in-law Alex. Quiring, his brother Rev. Franz Quiring and teacher Joh. Funk.
Thus sister Anna was left alone to fend for herself and her six small children. She worked very hard. For a long time she worked as nurse and doctor’s assistant. Part of her work was to give injections against the very prevalent malaria fever and to keep the patients‘ records. All housework had to be done before and after working hours. She found it especially hard when her youngest child lay very ill for weeks; she was not allowed to stay with it and care for it and it died in her absence.
For Soviet conditions that, of course, is not abnormal. Anna, my very dear sister, with great courage and strength from God was able to feed and nurture her children until, as she wrote recently, they were big enough to help and she was not forced to work full time in the Collective. But for the last eight to nine years she’s had no news from or about her husband and doesn’t know if he is still alive.
A large number of families from the Trakt were evacuated to Kasakstan in Middle-Russo-Asia. That was a very sad episode. The climate seemed hardly bearable, especially for children. We frequently received news from there through Abr. J. Bergmann who also had been sent there. Mortality rate was very high. After a stay of three years 90% of all smaller children and 40-60% of all adults had died. Whole families were wiped out; e.g. the sister of my dear Renate, Helene with her husband Gerhard Esau and their four small children. Also Peter Julius Wiens and Julius P. Wiens, my age, with their wives and many many more.
As far as I know, these are the only two places where families from Am Trakt resettled in groups. Most were placed in exile among other nationalities in Russia’s north or in Siberia.
Our brother-in-law Heinrich Isaac, our neighbor Gerhard Fieguth and Joh. Neufeld, Orloff were exiled to Solikamsk, in the province of Perm. Fieguth died there. Hein. Isaac had his wife and two daughters join him. Our old father Peter Mathies, after being evicted from his home, after mother had died and he had been dragged from prison to prison, had finally been released and with his youngest daughter Maria also went to Solikamsk. There the two families led a miserable, often hungry and freezing existence, with the three girls working for a pittance in homes in the city, till at last death released our father of 83 years, his oldest daughter Tina and her husband Heinrich Isaac and their oldest daughter Anna. (In 1985 the second daughter Kaethe Isaac-Wall died as Umsiedler in Germany; Maria Mathies emigrated from Khirgisia province to Germany in 1989 and died there January 15, 1994. I.B.)
My dear cousin and precious friend Johannes L. Penner was arrested, I think in January 1930, when on his return from Moscow he left the train in Saratov. He had made the trip in an effort to obtain an emigration visa through the German Embassy. Too late! How I had urged him during the last several years to leave everything and emigrate, or his fate would be as it in fact turned out to be. He could not believe it, hence could not make a decision till it was too late. Now he with family and the Bruno Epps from Koeppental were exiled to the far north.
November 2. I don’t know why I stopped writing, whether it was on account of illness or other reasons. My intention was to continue this account upon retirement. But whereas now it seems that God may soon call me home I’ll make a brief closing.
I just noticed that I was going to describe the exile of my beloved friend, Joh. L. Penner. One last tribute: I had a comrade, a better one cannot be found.
Through all the years of our marriage my dearly beloved wife Renate, nee Mathies, has given me her devoted, unselfish, faithful love; all our children in filial love intercede for me before the throne of God. Because I know this, I’d like to dedicate this story of my life to them as a remembrance.
Shortly before my surgery Mama’s wedding ring broke. She was so unhappy about it. When the doctor told me that there was little hope for my recovery, one morning in the hospital I wrote the following verse for her, since the breaking of the ring seemed symbolic:
Das Ringlein ist zersprungen Und auch das Lied verklungen Von Liebe, Lust und Glueck. Soll’s nun an’s Scheiden gehen, So lass uns feste stehen!! — Noch einmal lass uns schaun zurueck. Wir haben viel erfahren In den verfloss’nen Jahren An wunderschoenem Eheglueck. Das halte im Gedaechtnis, Und sei Dir mein Vermaechtnes Fuer Deinen weiteren Lebenspfad. Wohl muessen wir gestehen Auch manches ist geschehen Was beide wir dann tief bereut. Jedoch: Mit Gott sind wir versoehnet, Und werden bald gekroenet Durch unsern Heiland Jesus Christ.
I do not know if my pilgrmage will be long yet, if there will yet be much suffering or if I’ll go home soon. But I trust that almighty God, who through his Holy Spirit has so often been near, whom in great weakness I have tried to follow, who has led and guided me throughout, making my life so rich, precious and rewarding, that he also will grant my last prayer: My God, through the blood of Christ, give me a good ending. Amen
February 8. Since this account is to be printed shortly I’ll supplement it a little more:
This last week I’ve felt poorly. But it’s possible, if it’s God’s will, that I’ll improve again. . . For years the verse has been special to me, „Blessed are the pure in heart.“ I’ve never been able to achieve that; always there was something that was not „pure“ in the eyes of God. But I can confess, in former years and in the 16 months of my illness, that I’ve had many blessed hours with my Lord, and have experienced much grace and mercy when my heart was heavy. And so I’ll close with:
Amen! Amen! Amen! Glory to Jesus Christ, our Lord,
Who delights in blessing us. Receive my poor earthly tribute and praise in your mercy, my God. In heaven it will be better when I am with your angels. There with the heavenly choir I’ll sing many thousand Hallelujahs. Amen. J. J. Dyck