Sunday, September 23, 2007

The (real deal) Great Escape

In the late 1800's in Southern Russia the Germans that had moved there about 100 years earlier began to think that things were not so good, and were getting worse. When Catherine the Great (a German Princess), Empress of Russia advertised and invited German shop keeps, artisans, craftsman and farmers to come to Russia she promised them that they would never have to pay taxes, and most important for these immigrants, their son's would never have to serve the Russian Army. They would have land (Germany was pretty crowded) and generally could become as prosperous as their ambition would allow them to be.

This was the lure, and it worked quite well. Many, many came down the Danube river, through eastern Europe and to the port city of Ismail or to modern day Odessa in the Black Sea. From there they were distributed to various townships and given land and sometimes not much else. The story of this immigration will have to come in another post because this happened for the most part in the late 1700's or so and everyone was settled and had lived a generation or two by the time our story starts.

Of course Catherine had died. She was quite a colorful ruler and did much to build her adopted country into a great nation. While she was alive, she kept her word and the Germans mostly thrived. Catherine's idea in bringing the Germans to Russia was something of a cross cultural breeding experiment. She wanted the Germans to come to Russia and bring their skills and work ethic and marry good Russian boys and girls and hopefully energize Russia economically. Sadly for all concerned it didn't work out that well. The Germans were glad to have a home, and one in where they didn't have to pay taxes. Many pacifistic sects came, grateful to be far from the constant bloodletting that was western Europe, and not to have to serve in the Czar's army either. So they were glad to be there, but they didn't want anything to do with the Russians and held themselves apart. They considered the Russians dirty and they wanted nothing to do with the Russian Orthodox Church. They continued to speak German, brought school teachers and ministers from Germany, kept up on the German news and generally held themselves aloof from their new homeland. Perhaps foolishly, they actually believed that 'forever' actually meant 'forever'.

I think that it was during the reign of Alexander III that things started down hill. Alexander II was a gentle man who had married a German princess, sometimes spoke German in private and was a bit of an idealist. He was kill by a bomb, and his son Alexander III became the Czar. Alexander III had no love for the Germans and during his rule taxes were instituted and young men had to serve in the army, or serve as laborers in the forest, cutting wood and making trails.
Many, many Germans felt the shift of the political wind and many emigrated to other countries, notably the United States. Many of them started this migration in the 1880's, and it carried on until the Revolution in 1917. But not everyone wanted out at first, and then not everyone could get out when they wanted to leave. Our story is about a group of Mennonites that stayed in Russia until things became fairly bad, and how they made their Great Escape.

Fast forward to the year 1922. Most Germans are trying frantically to leave Russia. Canada is allowing in most of those that find a home. Germany is letting in a few, but mostly acting as a go-between in getting the German-Russians to Canada. Then Canada decides that they have enough. There are thousand of Germans that have sold their farms, sold everything they have and have moved to Moscow, hoping against hope that they will be able to emigrate. Russian secret police are gathering up the men and boys and shipping them in cattle cars to Siberian work camps. I don't know what happened to the girls. Nothing very good I fear. But not everyone was trying to go to Canada, Brazil, and the U.S.

Some families were looking to move East. Russia had opened up large areas of land East of the Urals, and Mennonites, Catholics and Lutherans were all found in the new area. This was an improvement, and the farmers from about 1907 until 1922. That was when new grain taxes were imposed. The taxes took basically all of harvest and kept the people at near starvation levels. Sometimes so much grain would have to be given to the government that they didn't have enough to plant when spring came.

About this time more land was opened up for homesteading in Eastern Siberia. The Trans- Siberian railroad had been completed and Russia wanted to settle all of the land. It was about a 5000 mile journey from Western Siberia, and about 7000 miles from Southern Russia where we started our trip.

This is a Google Earth screen shot of Asia, taken from the equivalent of 3200 miles above the earth. The yellow marker is the destination. There are now two villages in Kazakhstan called Petrovka, and I don't know for sure that either one of them is the actual village that these families departed from. But it gives you an idea of how far they traveled.

This give you an idea of where they settled, and shows the river that they crossed in the middle of the winter to enter China. This would be the view from about 16.6 miles up.

Here is one of the old original buildings in the village. I had to copy the name carefully into the Google Earth search dialog, and would never venture to try to say it out loud.

The grain taxes were part of Stalin's plan to force farmers from their land onto collectivized farms. The farmers were an independent lot, Russian or German, and they fought the program as best they could. But it was a losing fight. Prosperous farmers, the ones that could farm from several hundred to several thousand acres with horse drawn equipment were called Kulaks, and then the secret police labeled you thus, you were bound for a work camp in the north. About 24 million people died across Russia due to Stalin. A significant number were farmers that had everything confiscated and died of starvation in the breadbasket of Asia. Many were transported to the north for resistance. Suffice it to say that you couldn't trust anyone. There were spies and informers everywhere, and it only took a whisper to end up in a northbound cattle car. Trials were swift and appeals nonexistent.

Many Mennonites kept moving from Southern Russia to Western Siberia to Eastern Siberia. The farther from Moscow, they felt, the better. The rabbi's prayer from 'Fiddler on the Roof' could have been prayed by these people - 'May God bless and keep Stalin far away from us'!

after this had happened to him: " You are so nice and healthy and strong, and have good horses and harnesses. There are so few at this time who have so much land as you do. How much can you earn with all this? Give it all to the government - your grain and anything A large number left for the Armur region in 1927 with cattle, horses, equipment all shipped by rail. They recieved 400 rubles and were given fertile land in the river valley. They felt like they had made good their escape, but in 1928 the GPU and collectivist farm managers showed up and began the process anew. Farmers were raided in the night and forced to take all of their supplies and clothes to a central square for redistribution. You can imagine that they only got back a small portion of what was taken. If they resisted they were told as was Jacob Neufeldesle that they want. We know what all you have and if you give it willingly we will take care of you later so you will not have need or suffer. But if you are stubborn about it and do not give everything, then woe to you. We'll clean you and your family from off the face of the earth. Not even the dust from you will be found" (quote from The Oddesy of Escapes from Russia, the Saga of Anna K." by Wilmer A. Harms M.D. page 44.)

There are too many escape stories to tell in this post. You could probably dedicate a blog and a hundred posts to all the heroic escapes that were undertaken. But one struck me as memorable. It was the escape of the Schumanovka Village, and it happened on December 1930.

People had been crossing the Armur river for several years. Guards watched the river pretty constantly and they had actual guns. As opposed to the farmers who might have had a shot gun, but no machine guns. There were two or three crossing area, some wider than others. Informants were maybe more dangerous than guns, because they were paid well and action would be taken on the vaguest conversations, referances or activities that might identify someone planning to leave.

Jacob Siemens was the chairman of the collective farm that had been formed and he was also the former mayor. He organized a small group of trusted friends to plan for the escape of the entire village. He couldn't bear the thought of leaving anyone behind.

Since he was the chairman of he collective (sounds a little 'Borg-ish' doesn't it?) he had a little leeway and trust. They had delivered their quota of grain and built a new flour mill and so he proposed that they be allowed to buy sleighs and horses to do work in the forest during the winter.

Once the sleighs and horses were in their possession he began to widen the circle of people that he trusted with this plan. It was a very dangerous thing to do, but gradually more and more people were brought into the scheme.

Next he sent two trusted men into China to arrange temporary accomodations for the village. They also hired a Chinese smuggler who was kind of like the Coyotees that smuggle people across the Mexican border today. Everyone was to be ready on December 15, but at the last minute the near by village of 'New York' that was also in the on the Great Escape, balked claiming that they needed another week, and threatening to inform the authorities unless the Schumanovka group waited for them. Two men from the New York village stationed themselves at each end of the Schumanovka village street to ensure that they wouldn't leave early. Siemens canceled the escape for that night but knew that he and some of his close allies were due to be arrested and if they waited for a whole week, it was likely that no one would make it.

Siemens scheduled the escape for the next night, but had to wait until the men from the New York village went home. This they did shortly after midnight. The word was then passed to get ready to go. Two suspected GPU informers joined the group even though they were unprepared. Alexander, the Chinese Coyotee was already in the village and was anxious to get going. In about an hour 60 sleds were assembled. They had been packed and provisioned for days but were hidden in straw. It was all very well organized. The families had an order to assemble in, and to travel in.

It was very cold (40 Rumor degrees the book says... but I think it might be - 40 Reaumur. I think this would translate to about -50 F.) Anyway - very cold, and the sleds kept breaking because everything was so cold and brittle. Several riders went up and down the line to make sure no one fell behind, and that repairs were made when necessary. At about 8:00 am the first sleds started up the banks on the Chinese side of the Armur river. 54 sleighs, and 218 people had safely made it to China. Alexander settled for 22 of the best horses from 54 families.

Well, that is it. Crossing a frozen river in the middle of the night with over 200 people. Risking gun shot, arrest, imprisonment, separation, falling through the ice in the middle of the winter, informers and frostbite (not all of their toes made it out of China). After all of that, making their way with very little help and very little money, and not knowing the language, to the Americas has to be one of the greatest escapes of all time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


(It has been so busy that I haven't felt a lot like blogging. Sort of being chased from pillar to post. But it is better to wear out than rust out I think. There is a short new post at TradeTheTrend if anyone is interested.)

Some of you know Kay's story. She used to tell it in the schools and sometimes for Firesides. I hope that I don't butcher it too badly because I am relying on my memory for a lot of this.

Kay was born probably about 1930. She lived in Berlin as a girl, on the East side. Her family were members of the Church, and her father was a Councilor in the Branch. She had several brothers and sisters, but I think that she was the oldest. I don't remember what her father did for a living. It seems to me that he had a shop... but it is fuzzy.

When Kay was about 9, Hitler invaded Poland and their world began to change. The war went fairly well at the beginning for Germany, and while the people had some shortages and discomforts, mostly it was life as usual.

Just as a time line, WW2 started for most of Europe in 1939 when Hitler's army attacked Poland with the blitzkreig or lightening war. Hitler annexed Austria, then attacked France. Britain was France's ally and entered the war on her behalf. I don't want to make this post all about the interlocking treaties and how each country entered the war and what happened next. Suffice it to say that soon all of Europe was drawn into the war, and then it expanded greatly when Hitler attacked Russia. At first they seemed to be able to fight the whole world. France was conquered, the German army had marched all through the Balkans and made it all the way to Moscow before being crushed by a combination of the Russian winter, and Russian heroics at saving their city. That was the beginning of the end. The tide began to turn. The Germans suffered massive losses on the Eastern front, and there seemed to be no end to the replacements that Russia could recruit and field. With armies coming from both the East and the West, Germany was slowly being crushed. The Luftwaffe raided Britain and was slowly destroyed by the RAF until the RAF and the USAF ruled the skies.

When that happened, Britain and the United States started a concentrated bombing campaign of German cities. Some were completely and utterly destroyed- burned to a crisp and all of the inhabitants obliterated as surely as if an atomic bomb had been used. Dresden was such a city. No atomic bomb yet existed, but incendiary bombs were almost as effective.

Now, back to the story: Berlin was also bombed heavily and repeatedly. These were terrifying times for Kay and her family. They could hear the bombs exploding all over the city as they hid in their home and prayed for safety. Sometimes the bombs would be on the other side of the city. Sometimes closer. Buildings all around them were damaged, some were hit directly and everyone inside died. They lived in fear for months. 'if I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take' wasn't just a children's prayer - it was their reality. Finally the building that her home was in was damaged by a very near hit. All the windows were blown out. Electricity didn't work, and there was no running water. I think this was in the late winter or early spring of 1945. They were cold and afraid every day that it might be their last as the bombs continued to fall.

I am not sure of when exactly Kay's dad came back. It seems like he had been gone for some time. I remember her saying that he was so thin that his head looked like a skeleton. Even though they had very little food, he scoured the city to visit the Saints in the branch and do what he could to keep them safe and comfortable.

Germany surrendered on May 2, 1945, and right around that time there were food riots as people were literally starving. Sometime in the early spring a mob of people broke into a military warehouse and ransacked it. I don't think the soldiers cared much at that time, and they didn't shoot anyone in the crowd. People came away with what they could carry, and even though they felt bad robbing the warehouse, they also felt like they needed the food, and had suffered enough for the Reich.

Kay's dad came back to their little bombed damaged building with a huge cheese. That was all. They traded cheese for flour and other necessities for a while, and then the cheese was gone, and there was nothing left to eat.

By this time it was probably about mid-June. The Russian Army had taken over the East side of Berlin, and they were everywhere. It has been said that when the Russian army came to Berlin, and they raped every woman from 8 to 80. While this was not absolutely true, they were a brutal and lawless lot that took what they wanted to, and no one better stand in their way. Everyone, and especially the women were terrified of them.

So it was mid-June. There were Russian soldier everywhere, and there was not any food to be had in the city. Kay's family heard that in the country that some crops had been planted, and that if you had something to barter, you could sometimes obtain something to eat. Kay was the oldest girl, and the only one that could be spared to make the trip to the farming areas. She set off early in the morning on foot and walked East.

After several miles she came to a farm that had some crops in the ground. She had a little money and was able to buy some young bean plants. It was too early for them to be bearing, but she planned to take them home and chop up the stems and leaves and cook them for a vegetable. All was going well until she was close to home. It had been a long trip, and had taken her most of the day to find the farm and collect the beans and return. As she was coming into town she could see that there was a roadblock up ahead, manned by the Russians.

Fear clutched at her, making her want to run but she prayed that she might be kept safe, and that she might return home in safety with the food that her family needed. As she walked and prayed a calm came over her and a voice told her to walk right through the soldiers and not to talk to them. And that is what she did. She said that they didn't challenge her, didn't stop her, and didn't even seem to notice her. She walked right past them. She could hear them talking, could smell the cigarettes and could hear them laugh at each others jokes, but they didn't even seem to see her.

I don't know what all happened after that. She came to the U.S. and settled eventually in our little town where she taught school for many years. She would be about 77 now. I don't know if she even lives here anymore. But she is a great lady, and has been gracious enough to share this story with many of the children of the valley. She was full of faith and had many miracles in her life.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

They Are Back!!

Today was a busy day as we left early to travel to SLC. We took S3 and Cute Girl (See Annie's report on Cute Girl) along with us. Annie's sister and her husband have just returned from a 23 month stay in Malawi, so we have a lot of catching up to do. Most of Jan's children were there as well as Funky Disco and Family, Pixie Stylist, Nurse and Family and Aspen Leaf. I think we had 28 people in and out of the house. So it was busy getting there, and hard to have a conversation during the stay. We had a wonderful celebratory dinner including steaks, cheese cake, watermelon, great salads, and chocolate chip cookies. Time to get back on the treadmill. I have had too much prosperity.

We had a nice dinner, and some good talks, and then a nice long drive home. I think that Cute Girl was a hit. It was deep water as she met the family, or half of it anyway. But she is charming and poised, and carried it off well.

On the way home, we followed Aspen Leaf to south SL to see the home that she and the Card Shark are trying to buy. It is an older home in a very nice neighborhood. Quiet, nice trees, winding streets. Brick. It needs some work, but has a really nice sized yard. They will close the deal soon, and will be moving in the next week or two. I am a little shaky on the dates, but am excited for them buying the house. I think they will be really happy there.

Tomorrow is Labor Day and we will be lying somewhat low. S3 and CG will do some painting on the house, but have to get back to their respective schools and S3 has to get to bed fairly early as he is up at 3am each day. Amazing how sleep deprivation can encourage regular habits. So we don't look for world changing progress, but for a little effort. I have quite a bit of wood to cut, split and stack yet. I think Annie has some sewing. So we will labor a bit on the day, and probably grill or dutch oven something before S3 and CG have to hit the road.

Also, I found a little time to write a couple of posts to TradetheTrend, so if you are interested... Two on BinLaden type option buys, and one on basic calls and puts. Hope that you all have a great day.