Canada, Do You Have Room for Us?
Dietrich waited until dark, and then jumped on his horse and galloped away. He had an important mission, and it would not do for other villagers to see him. Everyone lived in fear. Who would be next on the government arrest list? Where would the marauders strike next?
It was 1929, in a part of the USSR that is now the Ukraine. Government forces kept tabs on everyone, while wild bandits roamed the country. Dietrich didn’t know which peril he feared more. His name was on the government blacklist (all preachers were), and the ruthless bandits didn’t care who the preachers were. They rode into villages at random, looting and killing.
Dietrich and Agatha (my parents) had relatives in Canada, and thought of immigrating there with their little ones—my baby brother, Walter, and me, Mary, 11⁄2-years-old at the time. We were living with my mother’s parents, owners of the village mill. They were kulaks (landowners) and could be a target soon. Leaving without them would be heart-wrenching, but they wanted to sell their business and home before they would think of leaving.
Now in the dead of night, Dietrich sought advice from a friend in a distant village who had gone to Moscow and was encouraging people to emigrate. To his horror, police barged in and arrested his friend. Dietrich reached home breathless. “We’re leaving!” he said.
Now, we were not immigrants—we were refugees, fleeing our country. We boarded a train for Moscow from a neighbouring town. Thousands gathered in makeshift camps, applying to leave their homeland.
Every night, police barged in. Breasts heaved in fear as the police called out names. Always men. Broken-hearted wives gathered their crying children and returned to their villages. They could not, would not, leave the country without their husbands. Thousands were shipped in cattle cars to Siberia.
One night, the dreaded knock came to our door. Dietrich trembled as police entered and called out every name in the room. The next announcement stunned them: “You may leave!” Audible cries and cheers! Tears rolled down even the policeman’s cheeks. Dietrich and Agatha, baby Walter and I were among the survivors.