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.


AnnieOfBlueGables said...

Thank you for that "reader's digest" of that story. I would love more blogs like this. You are a good story teller.
I love you, Sweet Friend.

Andrew said...

I've always wondered about how the Germans ended up in Russia. Cool story about the escape too. Does that mean we have some Chinese blood in us too?

Sailor said...

Nope, these guys left in 1930. All of your ancestors left between about 1880 and 1905. One group left in about 1885 but didn't make it to the U.S. until sometime in the early 1900's because they went to South America. That was a surprise, and we can't really hold it against them. They lived a pretty simple life, and bible studies were more important then geography and world events.

Mike said...

Very interesting reading. I enjoy hear about this stuff. You could make a movie about some of these escapes. Good writing.


pixiestylist said...

yes, i was also thinking this would make a really good movie! wow. i dont think i'm as brave as all these people who lived in these times.