Harbin (Heilongjiang, China) Refugees

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During the emerging stages of Communism about 120,000 German-speaking Mennonites lived in Russia, about 75,000 of them in Ukraine. Only 3,500 Mennonites lived in western Siberia near Omsk. They survived economically after the Revolution under the stress of the great famine in winter 1921/1922 and increasing government intrusion into their daily lives. By 1928 Mennonite leaders such as Johann H. Friesen and his family sought other alternatives.

In July 1928 the Friesen/Klassen family (Johann H. Friesen (1875-1934) and Margaretha Funk Klassen (1888-1981) married in Siberia in 1922) left on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from their Siberian village, Alexanderkrone, for Blagoveshchensk, a city of 30,000 in the Amur Oblast, Russia. During the winter months of 1928, the group waited for the Amur River, the border between China and Russia, to freeze so that they might escape on their sleighs. After the river froze, they  made the crossing to Sachaljan in Manchurian China. On Christmas Day 1928, they took a bus to Tsitsihar (Qiqihar) where they caught a train for the 310-mile trip to Harbin (simplified Chinese: 哈尔滨; traditional Chinese: 哈爾濱; pinyin: Hāěrbīn; Wade-Giles: Ha-erh-pin; Russian: Харби́н (Kharbin), an international city of nearly 700,000. They were among the first Russian German families to settle in Harbin among many other white Russian defectors.

Johann Friesen found an old friend Dr. Johann J. Isaak (d. 1956 at Vallejo, California; came to the United States in 1952), an ophthalmologist from Omsk, who had been practicing in Harbin since 1923. Dr. Isaak was extremely influential in making some of the initial contacts with the Canadian and U.S. Consular offices on behalf of Johann Friesen's efforts to emigrate. When the German Mennonites in Russia learned the Friesen family had successfully reached Harbin, other families also crossed the frozen Amur River in 1928. Many of them made contact with the Friesen/Klassen family.

When Johann Friesen and Dr. Isaak contacted the Canadian Consulate about settlement in Canada, they were refused because Canada did not then allow "Chinese" immigrants. When they approached American Consular officials, they were told that America was in the midst of a Depression and, that unless they could document their special agricultural expertise as farmers, they would not be considered for immigration. Dr. Isaak then asked Friesen to write a document that would enumerate the reasons why they had fled Russia and why they wished to immigrate to the United States. Among other issues, Friesen emphasized the majority of the German Mennonites were frugal and industrious farmers who would  be a credit to the America. The document was sent to Riga, Latvia, the immigration processing center for Eastern Europe for its consideration and approval.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peter C. Hiebert, and his colleague M. B. Fast, made contacts in Washington, D. C. on behalf of the potential immigrants. Kansas Congressman Homer Hoch (1879-1949) arranged a meeting with President Herbert Hoover. The MCC representatives pled the cause for what had become nearly 300 stateless Harbin German Mennonite refugees. President Hoover reacted favorably and delegated the working out of the details to Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, with the confirmation of Attorney General William D. Mitchell. The eventual agreement stipulated the Harbin refugees should adhere to the strict exclusionary immigration policy that was in place while the country was beginning to experience an economic depression. Secretary Davis noted that any German Mennonite immigration from Harbin would have to have extremely low visibility. He ordered that the U.S. Consulate allow only about 15 individuals per month to use their German passports to buy steamship passage from Harbin. They were required to pay their own way and to guarantee that they could physically take care of themselves when they got to the United States. This meant that no one with physical disabilities would be allowed entry. This agreement opened the door for Harbin refugees to the United States from 1929 through June 1930.

Since Johann Friesen was central to the leadership of this effort, the informal resettlement advocacy group of Dr. Johann Isaak, Johann Funk (Friesen's brother-in law), H. H. Klassen, George Klippenstein, Henry Mickelson, and Aaron Warkentin chose the Friesen/Klassen group to be the  first contingent to emigrate from Harbin. When thus chosen in May 1929, Johann Friesen and James Isaak, brother of Dr. Johann Isaak, were asked to go to the United States to appeal to California Mennonites both for resettlement possibilities and for loans to assist immigrants without adequate funds to make the trip. Friesen and Isaak made contact with the Mennonite Brethren representatives, largely from California, and agreed upon a plan whereby the refugee groups landing in San Francisco would be assigned a Mennonite representative who would make arrangements to have local San Joaquin Valley (California) Mennonites and friends meet, feed, and take care of them until the immigrants were were settled.

On 24 August 1929 the remaining members of the Friesen/Klassen group became the first group from Harbin to make the trip to the U.S. and join their father, Johann H. Friesen, in San Francisco. The group boarded a train in Harbin that took them through the Manchurian part of China to Pusan, a seaport city on the southeast tip of Korea. From Pusan they traveled by boat to Shiminoseki, Japan, and then by train to Kobe, Japan, where they spent the night. The next morning, 7 August 1929, the 12 members of the Friesen/Klassen group boarded the ocean steamship Tenyo Maru, and became the first Harbin Mennonite group who were "not be be noticed" by the American people, as the agreement required. They arrived in San Francisco on 13 September 1929 after clearing immigration at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

During this period the General Conference Mennonites refugees living in Harbin were told that they might want to consider eastern Washington, which was nearer to some of their churches whose members could support them. Henry Peter Krehbiel of Newton, Kansas,  and editor of Der Herald, and also a representative of the Great Northern Railroad Company, actively promoted this strategy for this segment of the German Russian refugees.

Ultimately, the Nansen International Office for Refugees under the sponsorship of the League of Nations became interested in the plight of the Harbin refugees. By 1932, 373 German Mennonites found their way to the Fernheim Colony in Paraguay, and 397 Lutherans went to Brazil.  By 1934 another 180 Mennonites and 100 Lutherans and Catholics went to Brazil. In September 1931, at a meeting of the Council of the League of Nations, the Chinese delegate called attention to the plight of the Harbin refugees, and requested that the League help to find them a more permanent home. The delegate from Paraguay offered  to place them in the Chaco region of his country  if their transportation expenses could be guaranteed. The German delegate, Count Johann Heinrich Graf von Bernstorff, whose government had been already generally interested in their plight, thanked the Paraguayan delegate for such a generous offer which was then accepted by the League of Nations.

All of these interests played a significant role in the rescue of the German Mennonites after their escape from Russia, from their temporary Harbin home to their final settlement in the Americas.


Conversations, notes, and diaries from the son of Johann H. Friesen, Nick Friesen, and his step-brother George Klassen, both of Reedley, California.

Harms, Wilmer. The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia; the Saga of Anna K. Hillsboro, KS, Hearth Publishing, 1998.

Klassen, Robert L. Life and Times of a Russian-German Mennonite Teacher: Cornelius A. Klassen (1883-1919) and Beyond. Arlington, Va.: Self-published,  2005.

Additional Information

Original Mennonite Encyclopedia article by Harold S. Bender, vol. 2, p. 657

In the early 1920s a settlement of Mennonites from West Siberia was established along the Amur River in Far Eastern Russia on the border of Manchuria, hoping for better living conditions and more freedom from Commu­nist oppression. After a few years, however, the group decided to flee from Russia and in the middle of winter crossed the Amur into Manchuria and finally reached Harbin. Here through a Mennonite physician, J. J. Isaac (d. 1956 at Vallejo, California, having reached the United States in 1952), they made con­tact with Mennonite relief organizations in Europe and the United States. Given German passports, some 200 were admitted to the United States in the spring of 1930, most of them settling in the Reedley area of California. A small settlement made in Eastern Washington near Roseo failed. H. P. Krehbiel was active in assisting the Harbin movement to Cali­fornia and Washington.

The remainder of the Harbin refugees were final­ly moved to Paraguay and Brazil in 1932, with the aid of the Nansen International Office for Refugees under the sponsorship of the League of Nations, and a loan from the Protestant Aid Office, headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Mennonite Central Committee. The first group of 373 Mennonites was settled in Fernheim Colony, Paraguay, in the "Harbin Corner," while 397 Lutherans were settled in Brazil. In 1934, 180 Mennonites were settled in Brazil, also 100 others.


Map:Harbin (Heilongjiang)

Author(s) Robert L Klassen
Date Published July 2009

Cite This Article

MLA style

Klassen, Robert L. "Harbin (Heilongjiang, China) Refugees." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. July 2009. Web. 25 Jul 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Harbin_(Heilongjiang,_China)_Refugees&oldid=131881.

APA style

Klassen, Robert L. (July 2009). Harbin (Heilongjiang, China) Refugees. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 July 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Harbin_(Heilongjiang,_China)_Refugees&oldid=131881.

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