Chapter 5: The Blessings of Communism

The "Blessings" of Communism
Grain Convoy
One day my stepbrother, Henry Isaac, and I hauled several sacks of flour into the woods where he had dug a hole. The flour had been milled at the local windmill from our own wheat. We deposited it there at noontime, when almost everyone was taking a midday nap. (The days were long, and work did not stop until sundown, around ten o'clock at night.) I helped Henry unload the sacks and hide them in the hole. We shored up the sides and bottom with boards to keep moisture out. This hiding place was only to be temporary, for up to a week, perhaps. It had been rumored that inspectors were coming through our area. This was a necessary part of surviving.
During our last year or so there, another call came to the farmers to deliver all their grain to the government granaries. It was called the "Sweep the Granaries"  project. It was presented as a voluntary, patriotic duty. Farmers were urged to rally the whole village together, sweep their granaries, and deliver all of it to the city.
This effort was to be "rewarded not only with payment in money, but with recognition by the government for patriotism.

I was one of those who hauled a load of wheat on a sleigh, pulled by a team of horses. I am not sure if the people had swept all of the granaries, but that was the impression conveyed by the long convoy of sleighs, with the red Communist banner flying overhead.

When we got to the county seat, we stopped. A bureaucrat speaker got up on top of a load of wheat and made a rousing speech about the patriotism of our people in Petrovka Village. This spirit of patriotism, he said, would not go unrewarded. He promised that we would be supplied with pure seed grain and new machinery. Of course, none of it ever happened.

Over the years, much wheat—thousands of tons—was allowed to spoil. After such massive collections, the city granaries became full. The rest was simply dumped in piles out in the open, where much of it rotted in the snow and rain. This was a notable tribute to Soviet mismanagement.
The Capitalist Tax
There was also a special taxation, a "Capitalist" tax. People who were a little better off than others were called "Kulak" and had to pay this special tax. The word "kulak" means "fist" and carries the connotation of those who keep others under their thumbs: exploiters. Father was required to pay it.

Our neighbor, Henry Janzen, a minister and one of the poorer farmers, was also charged with this tax. He didn't have enough to pay it on his own, so the officials told him to go and see his "brothers" in the congregation. "They will help you."

The poor man had to look for help. He didn't ask anyone, but just told us of his plight. Our people saw to it that he was kept out of prison.

At one point my stepfather's civil rights were revoked because he was listed as a "Kulak," a Capitalist. Since we had more work than we could do all by ourselves, we had hired help. For instance, we hired a young man, Henry Schmidt, who lived with us for several years. We also hired a young lady named Anna Friesen, who also came to stay with us. I will be mentioning these two people again a little later.

They were very happy to work for us. Neither they nor anyone else complained to the authorities that we had mistreated them. But, in the eyes of the Soviet system, just the fact that a person hired someone else meant that one was exploiting the other.
Secret Preparations to Leave Russia
About 1927-1928, a new settlement was made when new homesteads were opened up in the Amur River region of Eastern Siberia. John Isaak, my
stepbrother, and his family moved there and took up new land as a homestead. They were only a few miles from the Amur River, which forms the border between Russia and China.

During the winter of 1928, John Isaak returned to central Siberia as a settlement representative to buy cattle. He bought a lot of cattle, but while he was there, he also informed the family that he had been into China several times. There was an opportunity to cross the border there and escape into China, and from there we might have a chance to go on to America.

At the time, I knew nothing about it, but after he left our family began making arrangements to sell off the farm—the house, all the livestock, and farm equipment—and migrate to the Amur Region. As an outspoken young man of fifteen who didn't know all the facts, I objected, "No! Why should we go? We have our own house, livestock, and friends, and everything we need is here. Why should we go to a new place and have to start over again?"

My parents gave me no good answers at that moment. Then, one evening, while I was bedding down the horses for the night, my Mother came into the barn.
She said, "Son, I want to tell you something, but you must not tell this to anyone—not to your closest friends, to absolutely no other person. If you do, it could mean that your father and I would be sent to prison or maybe even executed. You would be sent to a Communist orphan home. So, you see, it is very important that you tell no one."

Of course I promised to keep silent!  Then she looked around to make sure there were no other listening ears present. She told me, "We do not want to go to the Amur Region to live. We are going there because it is the beginning of our route to America." She finally said firmly, "Now, I don't want you to be rebellious."
I said, "America? Great! Let's go tomorrow!"

If it had been possible, I would have started to America at that moment.

Preparations proceeded quietly. Finally, the house and land were sold. Presumably, we owned the land, but it would be only a short time until the government would confiscate it. It had already been declared that all land belonged to "The People" to be administered by the government, and we were just waiting for the time when they would actively appropriate it. This government takeover was a part of the Soviet's first Five-Year-Plan, which was about to go into effect. We only had about 400 acres, and two-thirds of that had already been seized and given to people who previously had no land. Our parents never complained about this, though, because the new owners didn't have any equipment to farm it, so they simply leased it back to us. This way, they benefited from the lease, and we continued farming it pretty much the same as we always had.

But now, we were going to sell what still belonged to us. The buyer understood well that he was actually only buying the house, and that he could make use of the land until the government claimed it—which indeed happened a few years later. All land was taken into collective farms.

Our preparations were quite adventurous to me, once I knew our goal. There were occasions when people questioned me quite pointedly about what we were planning to do. Some were quite suspicious and would not accept that we were just planning a move to the Amur region. They felt—just as I had before I knew what the scheme was—that it really didn't make sense to go.

One day our neighbor, Mr. Klassen, came to our home. Our parents had gone somewhere and I had just returned from taking some flyers announcing our auction sale to a Russian village. I was getting ready to do my chores and he came into my room. He said, "So, John, you are really going to go to America, huh?"
I looked blankly at him and said, "No. We're going to the Amur."

He continued to question and apply pressure. Finally, he flung a challenge at me and said, "I'll bet you that I get to America before you do, only I will go the legal way and you are going illegally!"

I know now, but didn't realize then, that this was a very clever attack. He knew I was usually ready to accept a challenge. I might have said, "I'll bet you we'll get there first!" But I didn't.

Looking back, I believe the hand of the Lord was on me at that moment. I simply said, "Well, Mr. Klassen, I have to do my chores."

I left him standing there, and I was able to keep our secret. Bu this same man harassed me later. One day he told the village official that some boys had pulled a prank on him. This was a common thing, as there were groups of boys who sometimes played tricks on people. Mr. Klassen's sleigh had been picked up and hung in a tree out of reach. He told me that he was going to make sure that I would not leave when my family moved. The boys were called into the village office (which was located in our house) and questioned. Fortunately, I had not been with the boys when the deed was done, and I was cleared.

Dad had already told me not to worry. If I had been falsely implicated and told to stay, he would have quietly put me on a train and sent me off to my stepbrother's home before the rest of the family was to leave. "Don't worry," he said, "You won't stay here when we go."

Even though there were several different attacks that were attempts to get one of us to reveal our plans, none of us ever let on where we were going, other than to the Amur. Actually, we did go through the principal city of the area, Blagoweschensk, on our way to America, but did not stay there.

On the day of our auction, a rumor circulated that some Communist spies were present. Therefore, Dad kept a low profile and stayed in the house, away from the auction while most of our earthly possessions were sold to the highest bidder.

Finally, on February 23, 1929, we boarded a train in Slavgorod, in the Altai Region of Central Siberia, and left for the Amur Region in eastern Siberia. On March 7, 1929, we crossed the border into Manchuria, China.

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