History: Fleeing the Russian catastrophe

May 4, 2020 by

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In 1920, Mennonites in Russia were in the middle of a catastrophe. Political and social upheaval, including a devastating famine, had left them dying of starvation and facing a dire future under Communist rule. In response, Americans founded Mennonite Central Committee, whose centennial is being commemorated this year.

But they weren’t the only Mennonites to come to the aid of their sisters and brothers in the faith. Europeans and Canadians were also prompted to act in 1920.

Russian citizens participate in a pro-Communist demonstration in July 1917, during the early months of the Russian Revolution. By 1920, the suffering of the Mennonites led their co-religionists in North America and Europe to organize relief efforts. — Wikimedia Commons

Russian citizens participate in a pro-Communist demonstration in July 1917, during the early months of the Russian Revolution. By 1920, the suffering of the Mennonites led their co-religionists in North America and Europe to organize relief efforts. — Wikimedia Commons

Already in the spring of 1918, the Mennonite church at Weierhof, Germany, hosted a meeting of church leaders regarding the resettlement of Russian Mennonites. But apparently nothing came of it.

Two years later, however, the Russia situation had become worse, and Mennonites who had fled the country’s turmoil were being housed in refugee camps in northern Germany. The German Mennonites held another meeting in April 1920, followed by an exploration of the Russians’ needs. A number of refugees had already been taken in by German Mennonite families.

In response, the Mennonites of southern Germany created Mennonitische Flüchtlingsfürsorge, or Mennonite Refugee Care, on Nov. 22, 1920, nearly four months after MCC’s founding. The Germans sought to support the refugees with money, clothing and food and to find them employment, such as in agriculture and the textile industry. The organization later sent German-language textbooks and Bibles to the Russian Mennonites.

It also operated a refugee camp, with the assistance of another German organization, Christen­­pflicht, or the Chris­tian’s Duty. Also founded in 1920, it originally sought to help Germans left destitute by the country’s conditions after World War I.

Some refugees helped by Menno­nitische Flüchtlingsfürsorge and Christ­enpflicht stayed in Germany, and a few others were able to immigrate to the United States. But the majority of refugees resettled in Canada, thanks to the efforts of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization.

The board was established Oct. 18, 1920, as the inter-Mennonite Canadian Central Committee, which was intended to be a Canadian version of MCC. But it soon determined it best to do relief work jointly with MCC, and the committee instead focused on assisting the Russians to immigrate.

The board changed its name to the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization in 1922, with headquarters in Rosthern, Sask. Participating denominations were the Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Brethren and Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman Mennonites).

In June 1922, the board entered into an agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway, which provided credit for 3,000 Rus­sian Mennonites to come to Canada. The first refugees arrived in July 1923.

About the same time the Germans started their organizations, the Dutch Mennonites founded the Algemeene Commissie voor Buitenlandsche Nooden, or General Committee for Foreign Needs. Unlike the Menno­nitische Flüchtlingsfürsorge and the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, the Dutch organization provided funds, food and clothing for Mennonites remaining in Russia. It also opened a children’s home in Russia.

In October 1922, the Algemeene Commissie shipped 3.5 million pounds of food and clothing to the Russian Mennonites. By the time relief efforts were forced to discontinue in 1924, the Algemeene Commissie had collected nearly 240,000 guilders, or about $134,000.

In 1924, the Hollandsch Doopsgezind Emigranten Bureau, or Dutch Mennonite Emigration Office, was founded by the Mennonite Church of Rotterdam to help Russian refugees passing through the port city to immigrate to North and South America. Some 1,000 refugees had received assistance by 1930. When the flow of refugees decreased after 1930, the office turned its attention to helping Russian Mennonites who had been settled in Brazil by the Germans.

The Mennonitische Flücht­lings­fürsorge was dissolved in 1926. Christenpflicht was renamed Mennonitisches Hilfs­werk, or Mennonite Aid Organization, and continues today as a German relief agency.

The Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization remained active for four decades. Between 1923 and 1930, the board and the Canadian Pacific Railway assisted more than 21,000 refugees to settle in Canada. Following World War II, the board facilitated the immigration of nearly 8,000 Russian Mennonite refugees between 1947 and 1951.

In 1959, the board merged with the Mennonite Central Relief Committee of Western Canada, founded during World War II, to form the Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council. Four years later it joined with six other Canadian inter-Mennonite service organizations to form Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.


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