Chapter 7: Long Sojourn in Manchuria

Long Sojourn in Manchuria
Refugees on the Road

To get to the next village, we drove all day. Our guide knew where it was, so we followed him along the road, our hopes of escape increasing with each passing mile that we put between the river and us. To our disappointment, we found the river meandering considerably. During the day we would find ourselves alongside that river again and again as we proceeded toward the village we sought. Just before sundown, we neared the village.

There were Chinese soldiers on the village streets. As they saw us approaching they dashed to their barracks, got their rifles and came out to meet us. They paired up, two soldiers per sleigh, one on each side. Over and over, they asked us in Russian, “Do you have rifles? Do you have rifles?" That seemed to be the only word they knew in the Russian language. Fortunately, we had no weapons of any kind, not even a peashooter.

Later, the commander told us that when he saw women and children on all of the sleighs, he was fairly confident that we were not a camouflaged attack force, but some ordinary people seeking freedom. He allowed us to stay in the village one night. The soldiers escorted us to an oriental inn, where the commander had said we could stay for only one night. He didn't want any trouble from the other side of the border.

We spent the night there and met a Turkish man who spoke both Russian and Chinese. Our men engaged him as our interpreter and guide. Our original guide, Thomas Friesen, now became one of our group.

The next morning we started for another village away from the river, farther away from the border. Early in the afternoon, about two miles before the next village, we stopped at a farmhouse. We were allowed to stay. Our women and children were allowed to come in the house and warm up. Since Father was an older man, he was allowed inside with Mother.

A couple of our men went ahead into the village of Tchekade, to talk to the captain of the garrison about allowing us to come there. When they explained to him that we were refugee families, he agreed.

We arrived to find the streets lined with curious people. In places they were three to five persons deep, standing and trying to get a look at these strangers. Although they had seen non-Asian people before (there were several Russian wives of Chinese men living in the village) they had not seen whole families, so we were a curiosity to them.
Waiting for Passports

Again, they took us to an oriental inn to stay. Here we were informed that we could not travel any further in their country without passports, so we stayed at this inn for some time. I remember that we had three rooms for sixty-two people. With such crowded conditions, we slept double or triple decked. The problem of passports became serious. Since we had none, and couldn't travel without them, how could we get through? Passports could only be obtained in the larger cities.

After our arrival in Tchekade, Mother discovered that a small handbag with personal effects was missing. The only place they could think it might be was at the farmhouse where we had spent some time in the afternoon. The next day our new interpreter and I were dispatched to go back and check it out. My interpreter assured me that these people were very honest. We asked whether anything had been left behind by our party, to which they replied, “No, nothing."

I saw something of the color of the missing satchel under the edge of a curtain. I felt ompelled to ask about it, yet I was scared to reveal that I doubted their word. Though my heart throbbed, still I felt that I must check it out to be true to my assignment. Even so, I didn't realize the seriousness of my question, “Would you mind if I just looked behind that curtain over there?"

The man was definitely agitated as he gave me permission. I felt terrible when my suspicions proved unfounded. The man was very angry. I returned to my family empty-handed. Mother felt a deep loss because her photographs and keepsakes were gone.
John and Marie Isaak Join Our Band

Meanwhile, my stepbrother, John Isaak, who was the instigator of this whole resettling move, made his way across the river as well. He didn't sell anything, or remove any of his belongings. He merely loaded his family onto a sleigh, opened the back door of the barn and left. He had told his neighbor that if he should find him gone the next morning, he could come and take whatever he wanted, since John and his family would not be returning.

On the way to the river after just a few miles away, his daughter Olga cried out “Mama, Mama!"

 He said, “Be quiet," and continued. Then he looked back and saw a dark clump on the snow; it was his wife, Marie. She had fallen from the sleigh. Dressed in a heavy fur coat head to foot, she could not get up. He turned around. After situating her back on the sleigh, they pressed on across the river and to the city. John himself had a Chinese passport he'd had for some time because he frequently crossed the river on business. John also knew where to come looking for us.

There was a bus line between the village of Tchekade, where we were staying, and the city where he landed. It ran every two days with one or two buses. It is interesting to note that these buses were American-made. Most were Model T Fords, and there was one almost new Model A, 1928 vintage, with only a few bullet holes in the body from traveling on mountain roads.

One day John Isaak came into the village on one of those buses and found us. He was surprised to find that we were short of food. We were reduced to eating unfamiliar Chinese food, and some fish. The Chinese were good fishermen, so we bought fresh fish from them daily. Bread was in short supply, though. Our people were used to eating a lot of bread. When John went back to the city, he sent bags of bread on the next bus.
John Gets Us Passports

Next, he came back with a photographer. They took pictures of us, took the pictures back to the city, and John got passports for all of us. It was a bit expensive, but they were worth the price. There were business people whose main activity was to provide passports for refugees. After John obtained the passports, he sent them to us by bus.

When the commandant saw them, he said, “These can't be authentic passports since you haven't been anywhere outside our village. They must be counterfeit," and so he confiscated them.

Our men managed to persuade him to send a telegram to the city inquiring about the passports. They “greased his palm" a bit to get him to do it. He received the answer back the following morning, stating that the passports were genuine and that they were to be released immediately. He seemed embarrassed about the “grease" he had accepted, and did not show himself anymore to our men. However, his officers bought all of our horses for the army. Ours were a larger breed than their small Mongolian horses, and they paid more for them than we had originally paid for them in Russia.

After being in the village for two weeks, we chartered four busses (two Model T's, one Model A, and a Dodge truck with a canopy) to take us to our next destination, the city of Tzitzehar. From there, after a night of riding on a train, we arrived at Harbin, and there we would stay until we could go on to America.
The Excitement Cools Down

At the start of this trip there was much excitement, especially among the young people and children. They had never ridden on a bus before. However, the excitement wore off in a short time because the huge bumps tossed us up and down, and we frequently banged our heads on the roof. We were traveling with about fifteen persons per bus. By today's standards, there weren't any real roads, just rough trails of dirt tracks. But the drivers found their way through the rolling hills without any trouble. These trails led across small streams, creeks, and wider rivers. Keep in mind that it was late in March, and the waterways were still frozen over. We had crossed the Amur River on March 7, so this part of our trek was toward the end of March.

It happened to be the very last trip the buses would be making until the water froze over the next winter. The ice was already beginning to thaw. During the summer months travelers relied on boats for transportation. Thawing made gaping holes in the narrow trails, full of sticky mud. Sometimes the passengers were required to help push the wheels out of the holes. At other places, the ice had started to melt on top, even though it was still quite firm underneath.

On one occasion a driver unloaded half his load, drove across and unloaded the rest. He then came back and loaded the rest and went back across. The last time through, one wheel started to crack the ice. We had to help push again. Eventually the wheel was freed and we proceeded on across.

After four days of this kind of progress, we arrived at last in Tzitzehar. The drivers took us to the railway station, where we had hoped for the means to clean up a bit. To our amazement and delight, there were fresh, clean towels, and even toothbrushes for travelers to use. It may seem strange to Americans, but I had never even seen a toothbrush or a towel made of toweling material (like Cannon towels), what we call Turkish towels. After the Revolution, and during my life till then, Mother made towels out of whatever material she could find, even rough sacks. It felt indescribably good to clean up with all these fine supplies.
A Burial in China

During the first night of this bus trip, Jacob and Mary Janzen's baby died. Early in the morning they asked and received permission to bury the body in a nearby burying ground. The ground was frozen, but the father, his oldest son, John, and I managed to dig a shallow grave and they placed the little body in its basket and buried it there in a strange land. God comforted the family and we moved on. On that Great Day when the Lord comes, they will be reunited.
Close Encounter with Russian Railroaders

After several hours we got on a train to Harbin. One of the things that surprised us was a Russian flag flying side by side with the Chinese flag on top of the depot. We thought that we had left the “Hammer and Sickle" behind forever, and here the thing was waving in the evening breeze. To our dismay the conductors, brakemen, and other workers were Russian men, so Father went over to talk with one of them. He said, “What is the Hammer and Sickle doing here? We thought we had left it behind."

The man said, “Mister, if you know what's good for you, you'll keep your mouth shut."

Later we learned that this railroad was operated jointly by the Soviets and China. Dad knew that the Russian Czar had built it originally, and had a 99-year lease. He didn't know that when the Soviet Revolution took place, the Soviets negotiated with the Chinese to operate the Far Eastern Railroad jointly on a fifty-fifty basis. Not only was the revenue divided fifty-fifty, but also the operating personnel. That meant half of the workers and operators were Soviets, and even most of the “Chinese" personnel were Russians who had fled to China since the Revolution and had become Chinese citizens.

For some unknown reason, we were assigned a whole railway car exclusively for our group (62 persons) for the overnight trip to Harbin.

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