SWANTON - Tucked away with treasured family heirlooms in John Warkentin's home is a black shawl worn by his mother when the family fled to freedom.
The year was 1928. Fearing death at the hands of Russian soldiers, the Warkentins secretly set out on a cold November night, leaving a pot of food warming on the hearth and animals waiting to be fed in their stalls.
Days before the journey to America began, Mr. Warkentin's mother rolled money into narrow strips and sewed them into seams of the family's clothes, "like seams of gold hidden in the dark folds of the Siberian mountains." Details of the harrowing, risky adventure have been captured on paper in a book called Seams of Gold, the Life of Agnes Warkentin Rice.
Agnes Rice, 84, who lives in Ottawa, Ohio, in Putnam County, is Mr. Warkentin's sister. They will be featured during a special program at the Swanton Public Library next week.
It took more than a dozen years to put the book together, with Ms. Rice telling her family's story to her friend, Vera Jones, also from Putnam County, who will participate in the library program too.
Mr. Warkentin, who lives near Swanton, recalled that his ancestors were Mennonites from Holland and Germany.
"Catherine the Great came along and offered 150 acres of productive ground in Siberia to Mennonites if they moved there, and they did," he said.
Years later under Stalin's rule, Mennonites who refused to become loyal Communists and give up their allegiance to God were shipped off to work camps. Or worse.
"Mennonites like my parents who carried the Bible were automatically disposed of," said Mr. Warkentin.
"That's why my father took it upon himself to immigrate out of Russia."
The Warkentin family, including parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins, traveled in small groups to avoid drawing attention and suspicion.
It was later learned that the family's elders had spent two years planning the escape. They could have been thrown into prison or killed for leaving the country illegally, and just the discovery of the German Bible that her father, Aron, carried in his clothes could have cost him his life, recalled Ms. Rice.
Taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad, they traveled for days to reach a town where a Mennonite helped them cross the border for a fee.
On foot the Warkentins crossed a frigid river - a red kerchief covering 2-year-old John's mouth to keep the little one quiet - into China.
The Warkentins planned to go from there to Canada or the United States, but were stunned to learn that both countries had closed immigration for Russian citizens. The family lived in China until the U.S. government agreed to allow some Mennonites into the country.
A Japanese cargo ship took the Warkentins to San Francisco on Oct. 25, 1929. Four days later, the stock market crashed.
"I can remember when we got to California," said John. "Dad did not like California. It was too hot."
Aron jumped at the chance to move to Ohio, where he farmed land owned by Bluffton College.
"We crossed from California to Bluffton in a 1927 Chevy truck," said John.
The Warkentin children well remember that truck. "It was a harsh winter, but we were used to such weather," Ms. Rice tells in Seams of Gold. "We were new at truck ownership, however, and learned the necessity of anti-freeze, which no one had warned us we would need."
Here in northwestern Ohio, "the church sponsored us and took care of us. I don't ever remember being hungry or being cold," recalled John who eventually settled in the Swanton area with his wife Myrna after World War II. They met while waiting in line at a Washington bus station and were married a few days later. They were married for 56 years.
Agnes and John's sister, the late Helen Hilty, also lived in the Swanton area. She is featured in the book.
"We based the book on Agnes' memory and her father's journal that he wrote along the way during the trip," said Mrs. Jones. Seated around a kitchen table, Ms. Rice told her story to Mrs. Jones, who hand wrote much of the book until a relative got her a computer. "That made it easier."
"I was 9 years old when we got to San Francisco and remember having to learn the language. Our father said that if we were living here, we had to honor America by learning its language," said Ms. Rice.
The book's first 275 copies are nearly all sold, and a second printing has been ordered. Copies will be available at the library program that begins at 7 p.m. Nov. 17.
The Warkentins will talk about their family's escape to a free country.
"Our dad didn't get a chance to appreciate it," John recalled. Aron, at the age of 35, died the year after the family settled in Ohio.
Contact Janet Romaker at:
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