In Book, Lawrence man Recalls Escape With Family From Russian Revolution

"In Book, Lawrence man Recalls Escape With Family From Russian Revolution." Topeka Capital-Journal, 1 February 2002.

Here is the first Rempel family passport, in May 1922. Back row, from left, are Henry D., 13, Katya, 22, Agnes, 15, Agatha, 19, and Mitya, 17. Front row, mother Aganetha, 46, with Abram, 9 months, Annchen, 7, father Dietrich, 52, with Michi, 5 and Hans, 21. Dr. Henry D. Remple, retired psychologist and former board member of the Bert Nash Community Health Center, has published a book of childhood diary entries about his family's escape from the Russian Revolution.

LAWRENCE -- Before he was 20, Henry Remple had watched most of his family die of disease, fled religious persecution against Mennonites in the wake of the Russian Revolution and emigrated to Nebraska to learn English while becoming an American.

And during most of those years, the now-retired Lawrence psychologist kept a journal of the events.

Nearly 80 years later, he has translated his diary from the original German and used it as the basis for a new book, "From Bolshevik Russia to America: A Mennonite Family Story."

It is a story he admits he "repressed" for decades, only to change his mind at the behest of relatives.

"I was thinking of writing it for my family, so they would know what happened," he said in a voice still accented from his German-Russian upbringing.

Henry "Rempel" was born Nov. 25, 1908, in the Mennonite village of Alexanderwohl, Ukraine, to Dietrich and Aganetha Rempel.

"My early childhood was a very happy one," he said. "We were well-situated. My father was mayor of the town. My mother came from a fairly well-off family. We were in very good shape until World War I came along."

Many of the Mennonites were descended from German immigrants who had arrived in the region a century before -- and many still spoke German as their main language. It was an unfortunate characteristic for people living in a country fighting against the Germans.

"Since we were German-speaking people," Remple said, "we must be enemies of the state."

The Russian government ordered Mennonites to sell their land or hand it over to the government. That order was revoked during a democratic revolution late in the war.

"But shortly after that, the Communists took over," Remple said. "And that changed everything."

Property was nationalized, grain from farms was confiscated and religious freedom was abolished by the Communists.

"We could no longer teach our children anything about religion," Remple said. "Children were persuaded to report if their parents were teaching religion anyway.

"Eventually, it became a question of survival. My family decided to try and leave."

An application for an exit visa was denied by Russian authorities. So on April 6, 1922, the Rempels gathered their nine children and headed for the open port of Batum (now Batumi) in the Russian state of Georgia.

"Altogether, some 300 Mennonites gathered there with the same intent," Remple said, "but a third died from malaria, typhus, a combination of things."

Among the casualties: Remple's parents; his sisters, Katya, Mitya and Annchen; and his brothers, Abram, Michi and Hans. Henry, then 13, survived the terrible diseases, along with his sisters Agnes, 15, and Agatha, 19.

Americans with the Mennonite Central Committee came to the rescue, providing food to survivors. MCC also found American sponsors willing to pay the trip expenses so Russian Mennonites could emigrate to the United States.

Remple and his sisters went to Constantinople to wait for their turn under the U.S. immigration "quota" system.

"We had to wait until there was an opening for us," Remple said. "For that, we had to wait in Constantinople for six months."

There, Remple started his diary -- at first with a few scraps of paper, but then with a full notebook.

Eventually clearance came through. The Rempel children sailed to Cherbourg, France; and from there to New York aboard the Saxonia.

Henry Remple arrived in the United States early the morning of Oct. 7, 1923. He was processed at Ellis Island. Still weak from his sickness at Bartum, he feared being sent back.

"There was always the fear a hitch would come along and we might be sent back," he said. "My older sister was particularly afraid they might find something wrong with me."

But he passed the physical and arrived at his new home in Henderson, Neb., on Oct. 20, 1923. He knew a few words of English but settled down to learning the language in high school. He also changed his name from Rempel to Remple.

"They always pronounced it Remp Ell," he said.

Remple went on to attend college at Tabor College in Hillsboro and the University of Minnesota. He eventually received his doctorate in clinical psychology from University of Kansas. During World War II, he joined the Army to use his language skills to interrogate German prisoners of war.

"After all the hardship and dangers we had come through, I was grateful to be in a free country, a safe place," he said. "So if I could do something to help the country, of course I would do it."

After the war, he worked for the Veterans Administration in Leavenworth and served on the board of directors for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence for 14 years.

Pine Hill Press in South Dakota recently printed Remple's memoirs.

"When we left home we had no way of knowing where we would end up," Remple said of his family's flight from Russia. "We were getting away from danger, and we did. I'm grateful my two sisters and I made it to our final destination."

He paused.

"My life has been a good life," Remple said, now the sole survivor of his family's migration from Russia. "But I think of myself as a poor wretched little fellow who was given up for dead. ... But I'm here now. I'm here."

Reprinted with permission of The Topeka-Capital Journal

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