Finding Help, Find a home
MENNONITE STUDY COMMISSION 1920: FIND HELP, FIND A HOME
Following the First World War in 1918, war, famine and anarchy ruled the land in South Russia, the home of many Mennonites, most of whom came from Prussia in the 1800s. Instead of peaceful villages, starvation, murder, rape and pillage were rampant. Their situation was desperate
In their dire need they named a Study Commission in 1919 to go abroad find both food relief and a safe haven for them to immigrate to. This committee was to be funded for one year, after which time they were to present their report and recommendations. Members of this committee included Dr. Benjamin Unruh, noted theologian, Cornelius Warkentin, the owner of a hospital, and J Fast, who had been the mayor of a large city and my father, A. A. Friesen as its chair. I was told he was named to this position because “he was impartial”. The carefully collected rubles, which were to pay for the Commission, were suddenly worthless. The first hurdle was to find new funding, which they did. Step One.
Since Mennonites were connected historically with both Holland and Germany, the delegation approached these two countries first. However, the war had rendered them in great need themselves, and they were unable to help the Russian Mennonites in their plight at that time.
Shortly after arriving in the States both Dr. Unruh and Mr. Fast returned to Europe, where Dr. Unruh continued to work on behalf of the Mennonite people, building a vital conduit from the Ukraine to Germany to USA and Canada and the reverse.
My father, AA Friesen and Mr. Warkentin remained in the States where they met with Mennonite, political and financial leaders, including Nebraska senator Peter Janzen and Bluffton College president Samuel Mosiman in search of finding sources of material relief for the Mennonites in the Ukraine. Already individual Mennonites were sending aid to family and friends in Russia, but they lacked accurate information about who needed what and how to get assistance to the right people. At that very time when my father was searching for help, Mennonite leaders from all over the States were meeting in Hillsboro, Kansas, to co-ordinate their relief efforts. They invited my father to meet with them and provide the specific information they lacked. On the basis of the information my dad provided, they organized the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to give immediate aid to the starving Mennonites in Russia. MCC continues to be one of the major organizations in the world which get the right aid to the right people in the most effective way. My own grandmother survived the famine thanks to MCC’s soup kitchen.
My father and Cornelius Warkentin moved on to fulfilling their second mandate for the study commission:finding a new home for the Mennonites. They chose the United States as their best option for several reasons. Firstly Mennonites had been living there since the late 1700s. Secondly, both the climate and the culture there were similar to those of the Ukraine. And thirdly, America was a nation at peace, thus promising to provide the ideal homeland. Unfortunately, the U.S. policies at that time excluded immigration from Slavic countries. The doors to Canada appeared to be closed also at that time. The two men then investigated Mexico. Their conclusion: the government was unstable and the culture and climate were very different, posing great difficulties for immigration there; however, the country was accessible. South America was open to immigration, but again, unstable governments, a very different climate and culture made a move there very difficult. They also considered and rejected both New Zealand and South Africa, feeling they had insufficient information to make an informed decision.
In my father’s final report to the Mennonites in the Ukraine f he recommended that efforts be pursued gain permission to immigrate to Canada. Even though the population was smaller and opportunities for non-farmers were fewer than in the US, language, customs, and climate climate in Canada were similar to what Mennonites in the Ukraine were familiar with. They would be able to retain their faith, but should no longer expect tp live in isolated communities. Thus the commission completed its mandate.
All documents of the study commission are contained in the archives of Bethel College, Newton Kansas. I am Helene Wieler, member of First Mennonite Church in Kelowna.