Chapter 6: Free at Last

Free At Last

The Pilgrims and Those We Left Behind

Now, for the benefit of readers, I want to record the names of our family members who came to America, so that you will know who was in the group. You remember that my stepfather's name was Peter Isaak and that he had children. The ones who came were: John Isaak, and his wife, Marie, (he developed the plan to leave Russia and led the way); their children John, and Olga, (both now live in Reedley, California); Peter and Helen Isaac, their children, Anna ,Helen, Betty,

Peter, and George; Henry and Anna (Fast) Isaak, and their family, Henry, Peter and Anna, (now all of Dinuba, California); Abram and Margaret (Isaak) Klassen, their sons, Abram and Peter. (Abram and Margaret have passed away.) Henry and Anna (Block) Rogalsky (my sister) and their children: Katherine , Helen, Anna, and Mary; my mother and stepfather, my brother, Jacob Block, and myself. That completes the list of our family who came to America. Other children were born here to my siblings.

Some members of our family stayed behind. They were my step sister, Anna (Isaak) Fast, wife of Abram Fast, and their family. Abram was fairly well off, and trusted that conditions were going to improve. However, later he was arrested and died in a concentration camp. Their grandchildren have made contact with Kathryn (Isaak) Enns in Reedley California. Others were: Isaac and Helen (Isaak) Friesen, another step sister, and my brother, Peter, and his wife, Neta (Janzen) Block and their three young children, Peter, Jacob and Lena.

I remember hearing Peter say to Mother just as we were boarding the train, “Mother, don't worry about me, we'll make it somehow.” He said, “I can get along better without you than Neta can without her parents. We'll come later.”

Of course, they had every intention of coming, but they never made it. They tried to come, while we were still in China. There was a big movement among the Mennonites to press for permission to leave. They went to Moscow to stage a peaceful sit-in, demanding to be allowed to leave Russia. Peter and his family were there. This was during the early years of Hitler's power in Germany. While they were there, an agreement between the two governments was worked out that Russia would allow a certain number of ethnically German people to emigrate to Germany. (Those who were allowed to go to Germany were subsequently settled in Paraguay and Brazil, with the help of American Mennonites.)

The Soviets did not follow a systematic selection procedure. They simply loaded families onto trains, some headed toward Germany, others back from where the passengers had come. Sometimes the people had no idea which train they were on until after it had departed for the destination.

My brother, Peter, his wife, and three children, were sent back to their home in Siberia. (For a detailed description of this historic occasion see: Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites, by John B. Toews, Faith and Life Press, Newton Kansas.)

After this, we received a few letters from Peter in which he said that he was no longer going to stay on the collective farm, but would become a laborer. His last cow and last pig, and everything else, had been confiscated.
Journey to the Amur River

The Frontier of Hope

When we boarded the train in the city of Slovgorod, Siberia, we were going to the Amur Region. It was February 23, 1929. Three days later we arrived in Blagoweschensk, the capital city of the Amur River basin in eastern Siberia. By this time, my stepbrother, John Isaak, was under suspicion. Restricted to traveling no more than two hours from home, he wasn't able to come to the city to meet us. He sent a neighbor to greet us in Blagoweshchensk.

Other people, in-laws and friends, who had found out about our plans joined us in our effort to escape. We were eleven families by this time. Each family bought a horse and sleigh which we would need for crossing the Amur River that forms the border between Russia and China for much of its 2,700 mile course. It would have been much more desirable to cross the river near the city, but that was virtually impossible because of the heavy guard in the area. Therefore, our guides had chosen a place further down the river.

Traveling, however, was difficult because there was not a lot of snow, only patches on the bare soil. It would have been easier to go by wagon, and certainly more comfortable, but we used sleighs because we needed them to cross the river. Since sleighs and wagons were both commonly used by travelers, we did not arouse more suspicion by using sleighs.

I remember that progress was slow, and took longer than our guides expected: three days. In one of the villages, on the second night, John Isaak suddenly appeared. He came in and met secretly with the men in a private room.

Due to the suspicions of the government, John Isaak would not have a chance to sell anything, nor could he be with us yet. There they agreed that since John was the one who had worked out and directed the whole plan at the risk of his own life, every family would pay him a certain amount per person. The agreement was only verbal, but strong pledges were made and John returned to his home. He sent a trusted friend, Thomas Friesen, who was to lead us across into China.

Crossing Into China

The next day, March 7, 1929, we arrived at the designated place for our crossing. We were supposed to cross the river about sundown, during the time of the changing of the guard, but the going was difficult and slow. We finally arrived at the place close to midnight.

Our leader, Thomas Friesen, had planned to skirt around the village, and onto the river. However, in the darkness he lost the way, and we ended up going right through the middle of the village. There was a military garrison stationed there and we drove right past the military gate. I remember watching the guard posted at the gate as we passed. Everything was quiet, the children didn't cry, and the dogs didn't bark. The guard and the villagers saw us go by all right, but they didn't get suspicious because to them we were just another band of settlers coming into the area.

A mile or two outside the village, the road dipped down to the river's edge. The river was frozen over, and the ice was covered with a layer of snow. This made for easy riding with sleighs, and a winter road had developed by common use. Our guide led us a little way along the river's edge and told us to stop. He and two other men drove on, about a half-mile ahead. They found everything quiet. The sky was clear, and the moon shone brightly. It was a beautiful March midnight. Our guide said in a solemn voice, “The air is clear, turn to the right.”

Everyone turned his horse to the right and headed toward China. An anxious, total stillness fell upon us as we began crossing the river. The ice had frozen in big chunks, so it was very, very bumpy. One of the horses stumbled and fell, even though it was a very fine horse. Fortunately, there were enough men there to grab him by the harness and to help him back to his feet, and away we went.

Tension was high for some time. No shots were heard. After a while everyone calmed down. We reached the other side, and our guide led us directly to a store where we were expected. The people seemed friendly and hospitable. Arrangements had been made for us to spend the night in the store.

I looked around without saying anything, and I noticed that the store shelves were loaded with lots of goodies—candy, food, and all kinds of merchandise. The shelves were full! It was not at all the way I was used to seeing a store. Most stores I had ever seen were always more than half-empty.

I wondered to myself, “Why is this store here?” I hadn't seen a village, or any houses around. In the morning, I saw that there were no people living nearby, only two or three more stores. Later on, I found out that these border stores existed, for the most part, by trading in contraband. Russian people would sneak across the border and buy merchandise to take back into Russia, either to use or sell at a profit. That's what the store's business was.

After a welcomed night's rest, the men went out to water their horses on the river. Actually, there was no water to be seen, just ice. They chopped a hole in the ice and watered the horses. Our horse was a little slow, and I must have matched his speed, so I only arrived at the river as the others were leaving. My older stepbrother, Peter Isaak, said to me, “John, there is no time now to water the horse, just turn around. We'll have to water the rest of the horses later. We must leave!

The men had seen a Russian Mounted Guard riding along the Russian side of the river, counting the tracks of our sleighs. In all, eleven sleighs had escaped them. The presence of the mounted guard raised fears that the soldiers might possibly come across and take us back. If they had, the rest of the world would never have known about it. There was no one to stop them, but for some reason they did not pursue us. In all of these instances, I believe the Hand of God was evident.

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