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THE UKRAINE: MENNONITES TO CANADA - 1917-1924
In March 1917 the Russian Revolution began.
From March until November of 1917 the Ukraine was governed by Kerensky (Provisional Government), then the Bolsheviks from November 1917 to April 1918, and then the German army until November 1918 when it withdrew.
Many of the Mennonite settlements were then occupied by Nestor Makhno (Anarchist) until July 1919 when the army of Denikin (Czarist government) took over until October 1919.
From October 1919 Makhno (Anarchist) reigned again until the Bolsheviks returned in January 1920 . In June 1920 General Peter Wrangel (Czarist government) took over until the fall of 1920 when the Communist regime took over.
In the summer of 1920, Molotschna sent a commission to North America to alert American Mennonites of their plight. In response was the creation of the Mennonite Central Committee (a uniting of various branches of Mennonites) to coordinate aid (aid began in 1922).
Moscow refused to deal directly with Canada regarding Ukrainian Mennonite emigrants bound for Canada because Canada had not recognized the Soviet government. Thus the emigrants were processed through Riga (Latvia) and Liepaja (Latvia). Moved to quarantine (to Rēzekne for example), some would not pass the medical exam—usually because of trachoma. These were allowed to stay in Germany and Southampton, England until they became healthy.
By early May, 1923, negotiations with governments in Kharkov, Moscow, and Ottawa had opened the way to emigration. The authorities in Moscow had agreed to lay on special trains to transport those leaving the Mennonite colonies. The Canadian Pacific Railway had committed to finance the passage of an initial group of 3,000.
In late June, a train of 28 box cars came to a stop at the station in Chortiza. The first departures were at hand.
Before the passengers could board, the train had to be made ready to accommodate them. Boiling water and soap were used to clean the box cars. Rough boards were nailed together to create bunks and benches. The cars were not large, but each had to accommodate some 25 adults and children. The cars had no windows. They were not heated, which could explain why the annual movements of Mennonites took place in the summer and early fall, even though the port of Libau from which they sailed is ice-free.
Those leaving had to take along food for a journey of uncertain duration. While some families brought meat and other foods, the fare of most emigrants was a Mennonite staple known as zwieback, crusty buns that were made with generous portions of butter. Those departing had roasted their zwieback to keep them from going stale during the trip. Some families brought several 100-pound bags to see them through. Water tanks were installed in each car. There is no record of how sanitary requirements were met, but it could not have been easy.
Each group of emigrants elected a train committee of five, one member of which was then chosen to act as the train leader. Every car had its own leader and an assistant. People agreed on certain rules and complied with them.
Heinrich and Helena Kroeger were living in Chortiza-Rosental when some of their friends and neighbours boarded the first train in June, 1923, and they joined the crowds of Mennonites at the station.
There are many moving contemporary accounts of the departures. One deals with Dietrich Epp, who had been born in Chortiza, was educated at the elementary and the Zentralschule, and then became a teacher in the village. He was also the conductor of the male choir, which he conducted one last time at his farewell party. The evening before his departure he walked once more along the streets of Chortiza and Rosental, taking leave of old friends, buildings, and places dear to his memory.
Following is an account of the departure of his train the next day:
The train was scheduled to leave at 6:00 PM. Never had so many people been assembled at the Chortiza station…Those who departed and those who remained looked at one another probably for the last time. Here and there a burst of sobs, tears in the eyes of everyone. A last parting handshake, the emigrants boarded the cars, and the train began to move.
This train, bearing 750 colonists, left Chortiza on June 22nd. A second left on July 2nd, a third on the 13th, and a fourth on the 24th. A favourite hymn sung by the Mennonites as the trains prepared to leave was, “God be with you until we meet again.” But for many, there was to be no such meeting in the future. There was an air of finality at the departures, with many of those leaving and many of those remaining knowing that they would never see each other again.
The first train took ten days to reach the Latvian border, partly because it was frequently shunted on to sidings. Sometimes officials came on board, and bribes had to be paid.
At the border between the USSR and Latvia the railway tracks were surmounted by a high arch. In Czarist times it had been a fairly simple monument, but the Bolsheviks replaced it with an elaborate iron structure bearing a large red star. It came to be known as the Red Gate. The side facing Latvia welcomed visitors to the Workers’ Paradise with the inscription in Russian, “Workers of the World, Unite!” The Mennonites, however, were proceeding in the opposite direction.
The first stop inside Latvia was at Rezekne, where there was a major medical and quarantine centre. Here each migrant was given a medical examination. Trachoma was common in south Russia. This eye disease was highly infectious and had therefore become widespread in the Mennonite colonies. Of those who crossed into Latvia in 1923, individuals found medically unfit had to be temporarily diverted to Lechfeld in Germany until their medical condition had been successfully treated.
When they got to Riga, the emigrants left their box cars and transferred to a narrow gauge railway for the final stage to the port of Libau. A local newspaper reported that 13 babies had been born since the group left Chortiza.
Following is an excerpt from the report filed by the Canadian immigration officer who met them:
…this party arrived in Libau on the 5th inst. and was put on board S.S. “Bruton” for Southampton…I examined all this party as it came aboard the steamer and the examination was over by about 2 o’clock p.m…
This party, of 695 persons, appeared to be of a very good class of emigrants, great numbers of them were children, and I have no doubt that, if the balance, which is coming forward, is like this first party, they will prove very good immigrants for Canada.
On July 11 a Canadian immigration official’s report about the second group from Chortiza included the comment that, “the train arrived in extraordinarily clean condition”.
The emigrants crossed the Baltic, transited the Kiel Canal, and landed in Southampton. After a short stay they boarded the CPR’s Empress of France for Canada.
The group landed in Quebec City, which was the port through which most immigrants entered Canada. On hand when the Russlaender arrived were two members of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization (CMBC), together with German- and Russian-speaking representatives of the CPR. After completing immigration formalities, the Russlaender boarded a special train. The CPR supplied them with blankets that it had obtained on long term loan from the Department of National Defence. They did not need to carry food, as part of the CPR’s undertaking was that it would provide each immigrant with two meals per day at a cost of 25 cents each.
The train then set off on the five-day trip to Rosthern, Saskatchewan, which was the headquarters of the CMBC and the centre of a heavily Mennonite part of the province. Word of their progression across the country preceded them and generated growing excitement in the area ...
[Source: http://home.ica.net/~walterunger/Kroeger.pdf Arthur Kroeger, Hard Passage - A Mennonite Family's Long Journey from Russia to Canada (Michigan State University Press, February, 2007), Chapter 6, pp. 2-4]
In 1923, it was the Russlaender of Chortiza who had emigrated. In 1924 came the turn of the Molochna colony. Trains had been arranged for, and the necessary exit permits had been issued by the authorities.
The scene when the first train prepared to leave the station in Lichtenau was comparable to that witnessed in Chortiza by Heinrich and Helena Kroeger the year before. One of the emigrants described the sadness of the farewells:
The evening shadows lengthened, the sun was about to set. We loved the soil of our homeland. Now it was time to bid adieu and leave one’s hearth, village, customs, relatives, and friends. People took leave of one another. Even the strong wept, some sobbed…The bell sounded once, then again. Everyone knew only a few minutes remained…Here a firm handshake, there the last embrace, tears flow…The third bell, the train begins to move. “Goodbye. Come after us.” “Reunion in eternity,” shouted one emigrant…Gradually those remaining behind fade into the distance…
The 1924 emigrants followed the same route as their predecessors from Chortiza the year before. When they arrived in Quebec City, an immigration official reported of one group that “The entire party was very well behaved while in this building, and physically they were a very good group of people.” ...
[Source: http://home.ica.net/~walterunger/Kroeger.pdf Arthur Kroeger, Hard Passage - A Mennonite Family's Long Journey from Russia to Canada (Michigan State University Press, February, 2007), Chapter 6, pp. 6-7]
That same evening we boarded the ship Baltara and left for England. We had barely left port when the ship began to rock so much that many of our people became ill. But the rocking soon subsided…The rest of the trip …was beautiful…we arrived at Kiel…The high bridges over the Canal opened to let the ships go through…On September 1, at seven in the morning we arrived in London. In 83 hours we had arrived…From the Port we were taken by bus to the train station…An electric train with three cars took us … to Southampton.
[Source: http://home.ica.net/~walterunger/Kroeger.pdf Arthur Kroeger, Hard Passage - A Mennonite Family's Long Journey from Russia to Canada (Michigan State University Press, February, 2007), Chapter 6, p. 11]