The “Blessings” of Communism
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I said, “America? Great! Let’s go
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,