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What’s your Family History?

In researching Mennonite history for a novel I’m writing, I found the story of a whole village that escaped Russia through Siberia and over the Amur River to China, from where they went to Canada, the United States, and South America.

This was 1929, when the anti-God Communist government was imposing collectivization. They took property from individuals, leaving them barely able to provide for their families. They arrested and executed or sent to labor camps those who owned a horse or cow, machinery—or taught Sunday school or wrote letters to family in North America or Europe.

My grandfather was a minister/farmer; his family, including my father, was in the last group to receive exit visas from Moscow in 1929.

My grandfather, 3rd from left, back row, before he was married. Photo taken about 1900 in the Ukraine.

Others were desperate enough to escape illegally. One such route was over the Amur River in Siberia into China, and from there to the Americas.

Border guards were constantly on the lookout as the Amur was only about a mile wide at the point they planned to cross to China. Escape attempts were fraught with tension. Leaders tried to time their escapes in mid-day when they thought no sane person would cross the river; later in the afternoon when the guards were less well staffed; in the brilliance of the setting sun which they hoped would blind the guards temporarily; or at shift change between 11 and 12 pm.

The entire village of Shumanovsk (Siberia) planned to leave together–a very risky business with 60 sleighs and 217 people. They had to cross the Amur when it was frozen over. Villagers had been hiding sleighs and goods in their barns in preparation. The leaders knew there were several in the village they couldn’t trust to keep the plans to themselves. So they waited until late one night, then went door to door, knocking softly. “We leave in one hour.”

They approached the two homes of those they didn’t fully trust. “We leave in one hour. You come with us, or not, but we are going.” No time to warn the border guards.

There were some tragedies on the journey–several sleighs broke down and had to be repaired or their occupants shifted to other sleighs while crossing the river; and at least one baby was smothered as his mother tried to keep him from crying out. But the group reached China, across the river, as a whole.

In stories from two sources I read that the group learned later that the two border guards who were supposed to be watching for nighttime crossings were arrested. They were asked why they didn’t stop the group or call for help.

The men’s response was that they saw a large group of armed men around the group and supposed they could not overpower them, so they left them alone. The refugees thanked God for the guardian angels protecting them.

I think in these days we need to hear stories like this. I need them! While many have suffered and still do suffer for their faith, we need to be reminded of stories of God’s deliverance as well. And we need to remember that whatever comes, He will be with us–whether that’s by guardian angels surrounding us or by taking us Home to heaven.

Our pastor reminded us this morning that GOD IS GOOD. His character is good, and He does not change. So whether it’s Coronavirus, divisive politics, or anything else stressing us, we can rely on His goodness, knowing He uses even bad things for His own purposes.

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Psalm 100:5


  1. Kathy Caballero says:

    Thank YOU Carol! What a wonderful way to learn of your family history as well. So many have suffered for their faith in ways that we can’t even begin to fathom. Praise God that they didn’t give up on their faith!

    1. carolnl says:

      So true Kathy. I do praise God that my grandparents and parents retained their faith. When I think of the difficulties we face in our nation now, I am reminded that we stand on the shoulders of heroes – heroes who were often afraid, as we are at times. Blessings to you and Ed!

  2. Karen O'Connor says:

    Thank you for this inspiring story from your heritage, Carol, and for the precious photo. My ancestors came from Ireland in the late 1800s, fleeing from famine and poverty. We owe so much to these brave people who laid down a foundation for our lives.

    1. carolnl says:

      We do, Karen, indeed. Thank you for your comment. Yes, those who fled Ireland escaped some horrific circumstances as well. Thank God for the foundations they laid for our lives!

  3. MarJean Peters says:

    Wow, Carol! What a story!! I enlarged the picture and I think your brothers bear resemblance to your grandfather. Where did you find this story? Thank you for sharing! It is a great encouragement in this evil day. God IS good and cares for us in ways we cannot always see.

    1. carolnl says:

      Thank you Jeannie. Interesting observation about my brothers resembling Grosspa. I found this particular story in two sources, one “The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Sata of Anna K” by Wilmer A Harms, M.D.

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