Chapter 9: Out of China; to a New World

Out of China to a New World

The President Intervenes

Our intention was always to go to Canada. We didn't know very much about the United States. But, our families knew about Canada because many other people from our area had gone there in the 1926 migration. However, this time, our representatives were told that Canada was closed; there was no possibility of entering there. Therefore, they decided to check with the American Consulate, not really expecting very much.

When they went there, they were told "no". The stock market had just crashed in 1929; there were lines of unemployed, even bread and soup lines in United States. They did not want any more new people. Our men told them that we would not remain as laborers to be hired by others, we were agricultural people—farmers.

Though all of our literature, maps and pictures (except our Bibles) had been confiscated and burned in the village of Tckekade, where we had waited to get our

Chinese passports, some of our people had managed to bring pictures of their farming operations along. With the pictures, they made a new appeal to the U.S.

Consulate in Harbin.

Our people also got in contact with the Mennonite leaders in the United States. Pastor Daniel Eitzen of Reedley, California, and others, contacted their Senators. Rev. Eitzen and Dr. P. C. Hiebert, of Hillsboro, Kansas, made several trips to Washington, D.C. Others wrote to their Congressmen and Senators, urging them to allow these stranded refugees to come to America.

Dr. P. C. Hiebert, in his Memoirs, sheds light on how the final arrangement was made. Dr. Hiebert, with the approval of the MCC, made a direct appeal to President Herbert Hoover. Homer Horch, a Kansas congressman, arranged a personal interview with the President. In his Memoirs, Dr. Hiebert reconstructs the interview:

The president's secretary appeared and said, "The President is now ready to meet you." So I followed him into the President's office. There Mr. Hoover sat at his large desk; politely he rose and shook my hand and asked me to take a seat and requested me to express my wishes. This I was glad to do, first explaining to him that some of our people had difficulty in securing their U.S. citizenship papers because they did not believe in war.

"Well," he said, "that simply is out of the question; there is no law such as that; that is easy to handle; we'll take care of that. What would you like next?"  I explained the plight of the three hundred and more Mennonites in Manchuria who were destitute and anxious to come to this country, but immigration conditions were so strict that they apparently had no opportunity.

He said, "This is more difficult than the other, but we will see what we can do." He called his secretary and said, "Will you call Secretary of Labor, James J. Davis, and ask him when he could meet Mr. Hiebert?"

I overheard the conversation of the private secretary with Mr. Davis. He said, "The President would like to have you meet with Mr. Hiebert, when would it suit you?"

The answer came back "Immediately; let him come right over."

After a lengthy discussion and after conferring with his attorney, Davis said, "I would like to bring these people in immediately, but I don't see how we can.

How would it be if we would arrange to get them in smaller groups, month by month?" After further discussion, they agreed to bring them in small groups and to have them land in San Francisco, where the MCC would make arrangements to have Mennonites and friends in the area meet, feed, and take care of them. Autobiography, Peter C. Hiebert; Historic Library, Bethel College, Newton, Kansas.

A New Homeland in California

Within a year, over three hundred people arrived in the United States of America. Most of them settled in the area of Reedley, California. Others went to Spokane, Washington. The idea of small groups was implemented, and we were admitted—16 people per month. The first group arrived in September of 1929, and the last group in June of 1930.

Goodbye, Harbin

Two weeks before we were scheduled to leave, Jake and I told our boss, Mr. Azadovsky, we had to quit because we were leaving for America. He didn't say much, just shook his head. He didn't understand how it could be that we could go.

Needless to say, it was a very happy moment that last day, when we could send our baggage on a taxi to the railroad station. We walked through the streets of the city for the last time. En route, we stopped at the pastry store where Jake and I had worked to say a final goodbye. Mrs. Azadovsky, Vera, and others gave us a warm send-off at the store.

The rationale for not wanting all of us to come at one time was that it could result in a labor surplus in the area. It was feared that some would become dependent on the state for help; that is why they allowed only sixteen people per month to immigrate. I always say that's where we learned the installment plan. Due to differing sizes of families, it didn't always work out for exactly sixteen to enter per month. One month, maybe twelve went, then the next month, seventeen or eighteen.

We arrived in the U. S. on March 7, 1930, just one year after arriving in China. Only one group came later. In that last group were my sister and her husband, Anna and Henry Rogalsky, and their children; the Henry Issak family; Abraham Klassen; and the David Unruh family (now of Shafter, California.) We had spent one year in China.

Strange New Country

We boarded the train and went to the city of Mugden, the end of the Russian railroad. There we walked through a pedestrian tunnel to board a Japanese train and traveled through Korea and on to the city of Fusan. We watched with great interest as mountain people brought heavy loads of wood or hay loaded on donkeys down the extremely steep mountain terrain. At Fusan, we boarded an overnight boat and crossed the Sea of Japan to Shimoniseki, Japan.

In Japan I learned a bit about responsibility. Before the boat docked, all the men had to go to the upper deck to have our documents checked. My stepfather said to me, "John, you are in charge. Keep track of the ‘red caps' when they take the luggage, get their numbers, and help the mothers with their small children.

The red caps came and took our luggage so fast I did not get to see their numbers, and there were too many of them to follow. I nearly panicked. We were used to staying with our luggage to make sure that no one would make off with it. Now it was all gone and I had no idea where it went.

As we disembarked, I had to break the news that I had been unable to handle my responsibility. Dad spoke to one of the officers, who said, "Don't worry, it will be on your train. Much to my relief, when we got to our train, every piece of luggage was neatly placed in a luggage rack overhead. We were not used to such honesty or efficiency.

From Shimoniseki, we went by train to Kobe, where we were to embark for America. While at Kobe, representatives of the news media came, interviewed our men and photographed our group. Our story made the front page of the morning newspaper.

We had one-and-a-half days to see the beauties of Kobe and its surroundings. We were the first group of Harbin immigrants to travel from Kobe on an American ship bound for the U.S.A. All other groups had sailed on Japanese ships docked at other ports. While it took 21 days to cross the Pacific on a Japanese ship, our journey on the S.S. President Lincoln lasted just 14 days. This was a freighter which carried a few passengers.  It was of the Dollar Line, which later became the President Line. So it was, that in two weeks, we landed in Seattle, Washington.

Arriving in America

It may be interesting to understand why we came to Seattle and not to San Francisco. It was a sort of a political decision. Our leaders in Harbin indicated to us that the General Conference Mennonites were stronger in the Washington area, and the Mennonite Brethren were stronger in California. Therefore, it was suggested that the people who belonged' to the General Conference Mennonite Church should go to Washington (my parents belonged to the General Conference) and the Mennonite Brethren should go to California, even though it had not been intended that way by the settlers' committee. An inter-Mennonite Committee facilitated resettling of Mennonite people, particularly those from Russia. This committee also raised the money for us to come across. The money was loaned to us, which we repaid later at 6% interest.

After two weeks on the high seas, one night we noticed that the ship was slowing down. It appeared it was going to stop, so we boys rushed on deck and saw mountains: the first glimpse of American soil. We were at the mouth of the bay approaching Vancouver, British Columbia. After a short stop in the Vancouver harbor, we sailed on toward Seattle.

Soon all passengers were ordered on deck, where we lined up for a simple medical check. After American doctors looked at our eyes and examined groins for hernias, we were cleared for landing and American residence.

It was a cloudy, drizzly day, but our hearts thrilled to finally be on American soil.

My First Jobs in America

In Seattle, we were met by Mr. Daniel Krebiel. He was the editor of the Mennonite Herald, based in Newton, Kansas. He had arranged our travel by train from Seattle to Spokane. There we were met by people from Deer Park, a town about 20 miles north of Spokane. They took us to the area where we were to live.

Mr. Krebiel also represented the Great Northern Railroad Company, which owned much land in that part of the state. The plan was that we would buy land, totally on credit, and develop it for agricultural production. The land had been forested, but all the timber was removed. The brush was left and needed to be cleared off. The soil was somewhat sandy, a coarse sand, not likely to be very productive. Therefore our people were not in a hurry to obligate themselves.

Mr. Krebiel and the railroad were very optimistic that they were about to start a new settlement. They hired our men to build a large simple house that they dubbed "immigrant house," hoping that others would follow after we had moved out on our own.

Until that was finished we lived in a farmhouse rented for us. Henry Michelson and his stepbrothers, John and Jacob Earhardt, who had arrived there earlier (also from Harbin), found work in the hills about thirty miles away. They were debarking logs on the hillside where the trees had been felled. I joined them and worked with them for two weeks. We lived in an old log cabin, ate breakfast in the logging camp mess hall and cooked our own food, especially cooked rice for the evening. For lunch we ate mostly sandwiches.

We marked each log with our individual number and left it where it lay. The hillsides were too soft in the spring of the year to bring the logs down, so the logging company promised to pay us later after the logs were brought down. After two weeks of it, I came home. My folks had moved into the "Immigrant House" and Father said he had a job for me with a farmer.

He had also bought a car, a 1923 Model T Ford sedan, for $80, the last money we had brought from Russia. Buying that car brought some ill will from some of the American Mennonite families in the settlement just north of us, because they all had touring cars, closed in with flappy curtains for the winter. They found it hard to accept that we, the "poor immigrants," had bought a sedan. Perhaps, though we did not have much of this world's goods at the time, Dad simply did not have the mind-set of being poor.

After Dad had driven the car about three times, he ended up stopped against the house. Even though there was no damage, he said, "This is enough, let John drive it."

That Sunday afternoon I drove the car around the yard (I had never driven a car before) and then we went to see the farmer on the other side of the creek to arrange a job for me. He looked me over, and I was hired.

They had a beautiful farmhouse where I was given a room. The first night I had a problem. I had walked behind a horse-drawn harrow in a freshly plowed field all day and the lady of the house had not told me that I could take a bath in their tub. I looked at my dirty legs and at the clean white sheets on the bed. Should I sleep on it or not was the question.

I finally decided that since she had not said anything about using their tub, I must go to bed. In the morning I dusted the dry dust off the white sheets. The next evening, I got brave enough to ask whether I could take a bath. She was apologetic for not telling me to do so the day before. Soon I felt quite at home with this family.

California, Here We Come!

While I was there, Henry Michelson and my stepbrothers, John and Peter Issak, took off "to look for work," but they went all the way to Reedley, California, to do their looking. This was in response to some letters from friends they had received. When they got to Reedley, they immediately found work, thinning peaches. They sent train tickets for their families to come. I quit my job and our family headed south by car.

It was certainly fortunate that our people had been slow to buy land. My employer said one day "I hear Mr. Krebiel wants to drill a well and have you people raise truck gardens. I'll tell you what—all the lettuce you raise on an acre, I will eat in one meal." He considered that land on the other side of the creek to be very unproductive.

Leaving there was not quite as easy as it should have been. The ticket sales manager in Spokane refused to release the train tickets for the families. The railroad had been banking on us buying land, and they weren't going to give up the idea without difficulty.

Providentially, a Mr. Peter Siemens from California had come to see us that weekend. He was a real estate agent, but he said he had not come to look for business. He just wanted to see his "brothers" who had recently arrived from Russia. On Monday, he went to Spokane and demanded the release of the tickets. He told the people in charge, "These people can't be held hostage. The tickets were paid for in California and you must issue them. These people are free to go wherever they want."

We hauled our families and baggage to Spokane and then set out by car. I was sixteen, just old enough to apply for a driver's license. I had driven a car only a very few times. Mr. Siemens came with me to the Motor Vehicle Department in Spokane where I applied for a driver's license, paid $.50, and got a receipt. This made us feel much safer, even though I did not have a license as such. I had only applied and paid for one. How this would have stood up if a patrolman had stopped me, I have no idea. It was an adventurous trip.

Mr. Siemens had marked the road for us on the map. Jake had been in school for six weeks, so he could read the names of the cities as I drove. Mother did not enjoy much of the beauty of the drive through the Columbia River Gorge. She looked down and prayed that I might drive us safely. Dad was proud and said, "My boys can smell the road."

In spite of road construction, driving on the gravel parts of Highway 99 for several miles at a stretch, and several flat tires (which we learned to repair on the spot), we arrived safely in California at the home of Rev. John Regier, pastor of the First Mennonite Church of Reedley.

Early Experiences in Reedley

We arrived in mid-May and found work on farms. Peter Isaak had already rented a house, a large two-story house in Reedley where three families of us lived, and another house next door where the rest lived. Shortly after we got to Reedley, the last group from China arrived (the Henry Rogalsky family, Abraham Klassen family, Henry Isaaks family, and the David Unruh family, who settled in Shafter, California.)

The potato harvest in Shafter started in June, and since work around Reedley is slack at that time, most of us went to Shafter to work.

Often times when I think of that, I still feel sorry for my parents, even though it didn't worry me much then. My mother and stepfather were past sixty years of age and were bending over picking up potatoes by hand, all day long. Mother was not very strong, but she filled many sacks with potatoes. That's the way we worked, and that's the way we lived. Our living standard had been lower than most American people, and this served us well.

Although it was The Great Depression for the American people, it was a good time for us. We managed to save money and we used every bit of it to pay off our travel debts.
There are many other stories one could tell of these first years. Although they were hard, it was a happy time to be in America. We worked in various crops and various fields: peach and plum orchards, citrus and olive groves, and even an orange grove in southern California near San Bernardino for a time.

Our family went to the First Mennonite Church in Reedley. I joined a catechism class in preparation for baptism. This was a special class for the immigrant young people, held in German. At the end of that study we were to be baptized and join the Church.

Well, I went through this class, but I did not want to be baptized without becoming a Christian. As yet, I did not know how I could become a Christian. So, when the baptism date came, I was working in the orange groves of southern California and did not return to Reedley, even though several of the same class who also worked there did go back for the weekend and were baptized.

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