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The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Saga of Anna K.

Book Review by Lawrence Klippenstein Ph.D., Winnipeg, Manitoba

Harms, Wilmer A. M.D. "The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: A Saga of Anna K". Hearth Publishing, Hillsboro, Kansas, 1998.


This volume is simultaneously a tribute to a remarkable woman, Anna K, and a significant memento of recall for a troubled period in Mennonite history. Anna herself was one of several hundred persons who felt an irresistible urge to leave their homeland when it fell into the hands of an intolerable regime in the early days of the Soviet Union. Thousands found ways to leave legally but many others who wanted to were permanently barred from doing so. These people refused to accept that as the last word on their future.

Anna Klassen (later the wife of George Neufeld, who died two weeks after their wedding), a young woman from the Mennonite community of Ignatevo in eastern Ukraine, was one of several persons who decided to travel to Siberia from Moscow and escape by fleeing across the Amur River and make it out to the West somehow. To give details of how that could actually happen, leading eventually to a teaching career at Bethel College in Kansas, would be to give away an incredible story. It is a "must" read, and we hope review readers will make sure they do.

But before the saga gets told by Harms, who was determined to get the story written up and out, we are treated to a brief history of Germans in Russia, and then a whole series of shorter escape episodes and adventures of both Lutherans and Mennonites, equally daring and exciting for those involved.

We are given the Johann H. Friesen family's flight to China, for instance, and the David Unruh family escape, then the better-known Shumanovka village escape, and the Isaak family escape. There are others: the chapter on Dr. Johann J. Isaac, then a story about Batum and Constantinople, and "Immer weiter nach Osten," and more. A number of the accounts gain in extra vividness through their autobiographical medium. There is unmeasured suspense in the numberless instances of unsurmountable difficulties and hardships, which are however overcome.

There is a focal point in many of these stories that is connected with the city of Harbin in China. Much more needs to be written about this international community which played a role in many of these escapes, but has a certain broader significance in the Russia-China relationship, especially in the post-1917 period. The portrait by Harms goes a long way to filling in this piece of the puzzle.

The project is deeply indebted to the initiative of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in getting the project going, and specifically also the files of material generated by the Lutheran Mission in Harbin, China. It is the special contribution of Dr. Harms to have researched these files, relatively untouched until now, in order to bring forward the Lutheran and also Mennonite data which they hold. As well, the book makes clear what not all Mennonites recognize: that their story is part of a much broader "saga" of the experience of several million German Russians with whom they were in all this together.

For the first time, readers are then offered some very interesting and extensive lists which form a major appendix to this volume: a list, first of all, of all the Lutheran refugees whose names (526 here) appear in the Harbin Mission records (now held at the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago, Illinois), then a list of Mennonite refugees (649, including nine Klippensteins!) who registered at Harbin (for which data has been drawn from the Archives of the Mennonite Church at Goshen, Indiana, and the H. P. Krehbiel papers at the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas), and finally a list of those Mennonite refugees (a total of 207 persons) who arrived on the west coast of the USA in 1929-1930 (including two Klippenstein families of six persons each).

Not least of all the listings, note three young women who got student visas from the American consulate at Harbin, China: the undaunted Anna K, Susie Penner (who later moved to Paraguay to marry Peter Hildebrand), and Mia Reimer (later Mrs. A. A. DeFehr of Winnipeg, Manitoba), who all enrolled at Bethel College in 1931, and where Anna then completed an A. B. degree, with an MA to follow at the University of Kansas -- all this at the end of their unbelievable journey which they made together.

One might add a quibble. A few spelling errors have slipped in (should be Molotschna on p. 123, a computer slip gave the Amur River its Armur version here, and the reference on p. 117 is undoubtedly to Zaporozh'e which used to be partly Chortitza many years ago).

Several photos and a map are helpful additions though, and a brief bibliography is also very apropos. There is even a veiled promise that a sequel to this volume might be forthcoming -- much collected material could not be included here. We hope that may happen sooner rather than later. Such data needs to reach the public, not only for research reasons, but the larger Lutheran and Mennonite and even wider constituency as well. The larger Siberian story, too, is waiting to be told, and this volume may spur on those who ought to get in the telling of this "saga" as well.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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