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Harbin Lutheran Refugees

By Virginia Less
© copyright 1995-2003, by Virginia A. Less

It was an exciting discovery when a large collection of papers that relate to the history of the Germans from Russia were found in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Archives located in Rosemont, Illinois in the Chicago Metropolitan area. Nine members from the Northern Illinois Chapter of the American Historical Society of America in May, 1992, given permission to search the historical archival records, found many records of correspondence between the National Lutheran Council of the United States and the U.S.S.R. dealing with the Volga Relief Society and the American Relief Administration.

Dating back to 1918, the records gave details of the relief effort at the time of the tragic famine that engulfed Russia. Also found were materials from the Executive Committee President, Dr. John A. Morehead, of the Lutheran World Convention, of the years of 1931-1932 providing details of the effort to rescue German- Russian Lutheran refugees that had escaped Russia and were living in dire circumstances in Harbin, China. The Harbin, China materials tell a most profound story of the effort to raise funds to re-locate about 400 German-Russian Lutherans rather than allow the Chinese to return them to Russia.

The story of the Harbin, China Mennonite refugees has been told by a number of people, but mostly from the Mennonite perspective. A thousand refugees were living in Harbin by 1931 of which half were Mennonite and a little less than half were Lutherans. The Mennonite Central Committee had been able to relocate a number of Mennonite families in Paraguay, South America. And some 200 Mennonites were accepted into the USA to settle in the state of Washington. The story of how these people came to Harbin in the first place has been told in various articles and books written by Mennonite authors. I will briefly detail it here.

During the early years of the 1920s in Russia the Russian revolution made life difficult throughout the country. Political struggles in the government affected every phase of life of the people, especially those who were of other ethnic cultures such as the Germans living in the regions of the Volga, the Black Sea and Volhynia. Upon Lenin's death in 1924 a new dictator by the name of Joseph Stalin came into power. Immediately Stalin issued a mandate that all of Russia's agricultural lands be formed into government-controlled "collectives". Anyone refusing to do so would either be executed on the spot or shipped off to Siberia as enemies of the State.

Stalin's 5-year plan was to complete the collectivization and at the same time begin to "colonize" Russia's far northern and eastern regions of the Siberian lands. Slave labor would be used to work in the coal mines and timber areas enabling the Siberian region to assist in the industrial needs of the nation. Rather than give in to the demands of the Russian government, many German-Russian families, especially the Mennonites of South Russia, thought if they went east on their own to the less-formidable areas of the Siberian region they could escape the collectivization plan and be able to live independently and in peace.

Prior to the collectivization program a terrible famine had engulfed the land causing mass starvation among the people. Food produced by the industrious German farmers was taken by the Russian government officials leaving very little if none at all. Those who survived had little hope but to accept the collectivization plan or be declared enemies of the State.

As early as 1926 some German-Russian families began to move east near the Chinese border-lands. By 1929 the taxation demands of the Russian government became impossible to meet. Small groups from various villages near the Amur River that bordered Russia and China began to plan a way to escape from Russia. They made their way across the 3-mile Amur river, crossing at night in the wintertime when it was frozen over.

A majority who left at first were those of the Mennonite faith, but there had to be many Lutheran families as well as the story found in the Lutheran archives which I will share with you today is about the Lutheran families who arrived in Harbin, China. The refugees tried to find work but it was next to impossible. They were unable to sell their holdings in Russia for fear of being caught and their escape plans curtailed. Therefore most of these refugees were penniless when they arrived in China.

Living conditions were quite primitive and Chinese landlords were demanding excessively high rent and pre-payment. Disease and malnutrition swept through the refugee families. Religious missionaries in Harbin helped all they could but the task was overwhelming. Mennonite and Lutheran organizations around the world were alerted and began to find ways to provide relief.

The story in the archival papers begins here. Dr. John A. Morehead was President of the Executive Committee of the Lutheran World Convention from 1923 through 1935. Lutheran historians say he was the most important person in the development of the Lutheran World Movement of his time. His work at the time of the Harbin, China Refugee crisis certainly indicates the type of person who would do everything possible to solve a problem affecting people around the world. The Harbin, China refugee problem was a most profound challenge for him.

In January 1931 a pastor in Texas writes the New York office of the Lutheran World Convention suggesting that the refugees be brought to the south plains of Texas. A member of his congregation has 38,000 acres of virgin soil adjoining his farm that could be sold quite reasonably to the refugees for settlement. Are funds available to bring them to the United States and what would the immigration restrictions be?

Dr. Morehead responds: "To be perfectly frank, because of the economic depression, unemployment and general labor situation here in the U.S. there would be little hope of the government permitting entry to 400 Lutheran refugees from China. And the cost of transportation to the U.S. would be more than what funds could be raised by the Lutheran churches at this time. And since many of the refugees suffer from some form of eye trouble it is doubtful if admission to the U.S. would be possible under these conditions.

We need to provide food, clothing and shelter at least temporarily in China as well as finding a much larger sum of money to finance their removal to another country. Canada has declined to admit them because of their economic depression. Communication has been sent to Australia and Brazil to see if the Evangelical Lutheran Church in these countries could secure permission for refugee entry." Dr. Morehead gratefully thanked the Texas pastor for suggesting the offer and added,"may we count on your prayers and gifts for this saving work of Christian mercy."

In January 1932 a letter to the Nansen Refugee Office of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland indicates the situation of the refugees was desperate. There is need for a less expensive and speedier solution of the problem of the Lutheran refugees in Harbin.

The Chinese government has issued a mandate - either relocate the refugees from China or they would be deported back to Russia. There was considerable political unrest in Manchuria between China and Russia. The Russian government was demanding the return of the Russians to their "homeland". China set a deadline of March 31st for the removal of the refugees.

A plea was made through the Chinese consulate in Washington, D.C. to consider re-location to be in China itself to the area of Shantung where there is an American Lutheran headquarters. They would oversee the settlement and provide counsel to be sure they would become valuable additions to the citizenship of China.

Dr. Morehead emphasized that the majority of these German - Russia Lutheran refugees were once prosperous farmers in the Volga Valley and in South Russia. They are a self-respecting, industrious, frugal and worthy Christian people. The Evangelical Lutheran Churches throughout the world will do all they can to provide assistance to these refugees as they settle in China.

A report told to the Lutheran churches tells of the resettlement in February of the Mennonite refugees from Harbin to Paraguay. Mennonite settlements had been established in the area west of the Paraguay River known as the "Chaco" (which means prairie lands) as early as 1929 by the Central Mennonite Relief Committee. It was noted that 21 denominations, including the Evangelical Lutherans, were providing support for relocating the Mennonite refugees. And now more gifts must come from the churches in order to re-locate the Lutheran refugees.

Dr. Morehead wrote letters to such groups as the Gideon Koiner Trust Fund Agency, and to the Evangelical Lutheran churches of countries such as Austria, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, Australia and others. The need was urgent for funds for transportation out of China. Morehead writes many long letters early in March of 1932 describing the situation - "It is God's will that His people in the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of the world to leave these poor fellow-Christians alone in their terrible plight to perish? I am sure you will agree with me that this cannot be the will of our Master, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."

He continues by acknowledging that "the times are very difficult economically for nations and the Christian churches around the world. There seems to be no practical plan by which this great emergency can be met without interference with the regular and essential work of the churches. We must rescue the Harbin Lutheran refugees and open to them the opportunity of a happy and useful future of service in the Church in another country."

Morehead indicates a possibility of re-locating the group to South America, to the Parana state in Brazil, at a cost of $56,805 for transport and other assistance to start them on the way to earn their own livelihood. Prompt action in this emergency is necessary. he says over and over. Morehead refers to the fact that the Mennonites have been able to bring out 366 adults and 184 children on February 27 to be re - located in Paraguay at a cost of $41,000 for transportation. "Will not the Lutheran Church of your country pledge its support to provide a solution for a Lutheran relief effort?"

In the middle of March (1932) a response arrives from Sao Paulo, Brazil outlining the opportunity for colonization and land purchase of undeveloped land in the state of Parana. A glowing report of the quality of land was provided as well as purchase costs. At the same time a letter from the Mennonite Central Committee in Scottdale, Pennsylvania provides information of how they have been moving people to Paraguay through the Corporacion, Paraguaya who have offices at Asuncion and Philadelphia. "The offices of the Mennonite Central Committee are at your command if we can be of help to you in working out settlement plans in Paraguay."

In the archival files there is a typical letter from a pastor in New York City addressed to members of his congregation explaining the need for special "gifts of love" to be collected as soon as possible. There is not much time for action but similar appeals across the United States and elsewhere must have generated responses in spite of all countries being in an economic depression. It would be interesting to know if anyone today recalls hearing of the Harbin, China refugee story and what kind of response was made by one's own church in 1932.

Because the Chinese government was not receptive to Dr. Morehead's request for the refugees to stay in China a request was made to the German Consul General in New York City asking for a reply on whether or not Berlin had been successful in securing an extension to the deportation date of March 31st. Quoting Dr. Morehead, "It is perfectly clear now that $56,805, the total sum required for transportation and re-location in South America, will not be available by April 1st."

The League of Nation's Nansen International Office for Refugees based in Geneva, Switzerland had been quite active in assisting agencies and organizations in negotiating with steamship lines and land companies for refugee re-settlement. Dr. Morehead's letter of March 30th expresses deep appreciation of their efforts, outlines what the Lutheran World Convention is doing and what is needed from the League of Nations at this time. He is hopeful that all of the refugees can be transported on one ship so that no one would be left behind even though payment can only be one-half of the amount at this time.

The destination of the refugees has been decided upon to be Parana, Brazil. Dr. Morehead indicates in a letter to a California pastor that he has been in "an unsatisfactory condition of health in the concentration of all available energy upon the long and difficult task of gathering the funds and making the arrangements necessary for the evacuation, transportation and re-location of the Lutheran group that now totals 404 persons among the German-Russian refugees stranded in Harbin, China."

In this same letter he says the location for settlement in the State of Parana in Brazil is quite suitable because there are already people of the Lutheran faith settled in the area and the supervising of the new group will be through the cooperating Evangelical Lutheran Synod of the area. The transportation costs of $29,600. have been secured in spite of the hard economic conditions of the times. However, any additional gifts are most welcome to go forward with the rest of the relief action for the re-location of the Lutheran refugees.

Correspondence multiplies as contacts are made to the managing director of the Land Company of the Parana Plantations in Sao Paulo, Brazil and their home office in London, England.

In early May good news arrives. A total of 393 Lutheran refugees were embarked safely on the ship PORTHOS at Shanghai bound for Marseilles on May 7, 1932, with all passengers issued Brazilian visas. The group consisted of 139 men, 115 women, 59 boys, 51 girls, 13 male and 16 female babies. On June 11, 1932 at Marseilles they were greeted on board the ship by a representative of the Lutheran World Convention to say "we accompany you on your way with hearty interest and prayerful thoughts. May God the Lord grant you and yours His rich blessing and permit you in the brotherly fellowship of faith to find a new home in Brazil."

The refugees were informed that the president of the Synod of St. Catherine, Pastor Bergold in Castro, will be ready to serve them upon their arrival. A distribution of "gifts of love" was made to the refugees requesting that the recipients confirm in writing their satisfaction with the distribution. They were told that the Lutheran World Convention has in the unity of faith and fellowship gladly raised the necessary funds in order to make possible for them to journey to Brazil. A contract with the Companhia Territorial in Porto Alegre has been made through the payment of 25,000 marks to assist them in acquiring a new home within the territory of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of St. Catherine.

Included with this letter is a list of the names of the refugees by family groups giving their ages and what relationship in the family. There are 83 families recorded. A second list gives each name with a birth date and place of origin. How exciting it was to have such a list in these files for those of you who may be researching family members that may have been among the Harbin, China refugees. It was for me. As I looked over the list of names and where they were from originally I noticed some interesting facts.

These people were not all Volga Germans. The places of birth included some from the Black Sea, some even originally from Poland and Kurland (Latvia) but a large percentage of the names indicated they were from Volhynia - almost 150. I am doing research on my husband's maternal family lines that originated from Volhynia. I have known that one distant relative had immigrated to South America by way of China. Could this family be among the Harbin, China refugees?

As I looked I found the family names that indicated they had come from the village areas that I have been researching. I quickly called the family who would be immediately related to this Harbin, China refugee family and found out that their South American relatives lived in Parana, Brazil. An address was secured and just recently I have sent a letter to an address that I hope still is current. I will be anxiously awaiting for a response so that the personal stories of this family can be added to the family history.

Back to the Harbin, China papers - there are many pages describing North Parana of the 1930's. The refugees would be coming into unsettled forest land that would need to be cleared. A new railway line would be constructed into the interior as well as ferry and motor roads established, financed by the Parana Plantations Limited.

The land is exceptionally fertile, healthy and high-lying, with no extreme of heat or cold. It is well-watered by good running streams with a high proportion of the land first-class coffee land. The northern section is the richest portion of Parana. It is situated from 300 to 600 miles from the coast and contains some 4 million hectares of land suitable for European settlement, capable of employing 200,000 families in agricultural pursuits. It is the declared object of the State of Parana to develop its land as quickly as possible.

The main crops grown in the district are staple world crops - coffee, maize, rice, tobacco, cotton, pigs, etc. The heat is never excessive - the nights are cool. The annual rainfall is 40 - 50 inches. The settler will be able to erect a timber house for the first years and a more permanent dwelling of clay bricks and tiles a few years later. The paper concludes - "There can be no comparison between the standard of living of the successful settler on the rich lands of North Parana and that of the average small holder in Europe." With these facts it surely indicates a satisfactory haven for our Harbin, China refugees.

In the middle of May Dr. Morehead became seriously ill due to a heart condition and was on a leave of absence until fall. One wonders if the strain of the Harbin, China negotiations has been too much for him as he was at the age of 65. He did return to the Lutheran World Convention committee to continue participating in its work until his death four years later.

The last few letters in the archival papers seems to bring some closure to the Harbin, China refugee story. We read of difficulties in the settlement arrangements. The refugees were sent to a different land area than originally planned that was located in the far southern corner of the State of Santo Catherina at the River Uruguay. They would be under different supervision, one who was not considered very trustworthy, according to the letter writer.

The refugees would be under the jurisdiction of the Rio Grande Lutheran Synod that was at the time without a pastor. And the area of settlement was too small to accommodate the number of families. The settlement also was farther away from the main communities of Castro or Ponta Grossa. And, upon their arrival at the Brazilian port a revolution was brewing in the southern portions of Brazil.

The Lutheran World Convention also needed to collect more funds to bring a successful conclusion to the work. The writer of the letter to the Lutheran Church of Denmark states, "Dr. Morehead started this work as a matter of faith and we want to see it concluded with honor and credit to all who have been connected with it." The letter also indicates that the final cost of the project is now $66,000.

A loan from the revolving fund of the Nansen International Office for Refugees of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland was undertaken indicating that reimbursements would be made by the Lutheran World Convention on a yearly basis through 1937. The agreement was signed in a shaky handwriting by Dr. Morehead on September 26, 1932.

The ending of the Harbin, China story is not yet found. The last two letters in the collection written three years later tells of dissatisfaction and unrest among the German - Russian settlers. The settlers had built small crude cabins and very little improvements have been made in their living arrangements since. They were given a cow and some necessary equipment with which to begin. Pioneer life had been very difficult. Some wished to re-locate in order to be nearer the center of the colony.

The settlement stretches over 35 miles.  Church services were being held in the school houses with the pastor also in charge of the education of the children. Progress had been slow but in the main the colonists were contented except for those who sought relocation. Today, in 1995, it would be interesting to have more information of those early pioneer times on the prairies of Brazil.

The Northern Illinois AHSGR Chapter does plan to return to the Lutheran archives once again to see if additional materials can be found. And, if descendants of any of the original refugees were located and their personal stories told, this would complete the story of the South America German-Russian Lutherans.


for further reading on the Harbin, China Refugees


  • Escape From Russiaby Katie Michelson Melvin AHSGR Journal, Summer 1987 Vol 10, No 2
  • Flight Across the Amur Into Chinaby John B. Toews, AHSGR Journal, Spring 1979 Vol. 2 No. 1


  • River of Glassby Wilfred Martens
  • The Blue Mountains of China by Ruby Wiebe
  • Our Life Story and Escape From Russia to China to Japan and to America by H. P. Isaak