Berlin Escape, 30-31 January 1947
The Berlin Escape was an operation to help over a thousand Mennonites living in Eastern Europe escape Soviet control and move to western Germany and Paraguay. At the end of the Second World War, many German-speaking people from the Soviet Union, including many Mennonites, followed the German army in its retreat westward. As the migrants who survived the trek reached Germany, North American and European Mennonites began to organize food, housing, and other help for them.
John Kroeker was one of the first people to organize assistance. At the end of the war, he established a small office in Berlin, from which he helped a large number of refugees to the relative safety of the American zone. He obtained assistance from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, as well as American and British military officials, and he also contacted the Mennonite Central Committee headquarters in North America. In December 1945, C. F. Klassen came to Berlin and promised help from the Mennonite Central Committee, particularly in the sending of relief supplies. With more refugees collecting in Berlin every week, Peter Dyck was appointed coordinator for the emigration process.
One day, Peter Dyck received a call from an American, Lieutenant Colonel W. B. Stinson, Chief of the Displaced Persons Division in Berlin, who had arranged a travel permit for Peter and his wife, Elfrieda. Peter arrived in Berlin on 12 June 1946, followed by Elfrieda on 4 July. Elfrieda stayed at the camp and played a key role in its day-to-day management, while Peter worked on making arrangements for eventual emigration.
Peter and Elfrieda received 12 houses from the American military to use for the refugee camp, and they soon had an office and central kitchen set up. They arranged for food and relief supplies, as well as schooling for the children and hospital care for the sick. Peter also acted as a minister for the group, officiating at weddings and funerals.
Meanwhile, Peter Dyck and Colonel Stinson sent lists of the refugees to the Russians, pointing out that according to the Yalta agreement, anyone who was not a war criminal, deserter, or collaborator should be allowed to leave. There was no answer from the Soviets, but in December 1946, C. F. Klassen and Peter Dyck went to the US Army headquarters in Frankfurt to make arrangements with them for transporting the refugees out of Berlin. From there they would go to Paraguay, the only country willing to accept the refugees at that time.
Back in Berlin, Peter and Elfrieda Dyck worked on travel documents for the refugees and finally completed the paperwork. However, just six days after everything seemed to be arranged, an American general, Lucius Clay, called off the deal, citing the risks of transporting so many people through the Soviet zone. However, the American government finally agreed to help the refugees if the Soviets consented.
On 30 January 1947, word came to Peter in Bremerhaven that the Soviet official Marshal Sokolovsky had cleared the Berlin group for travel. Quickly, the refugees packed their bags and left for the train station. Despite several delays, the group reached the train on time and arrived at the port in Bremerhaven safely. Of the 1,115 people who escaped from Berlin, 928 boarded the Volendam bound for Paraguay; the others remained in western Germany. At 4 p.m. on 1 February, the Volendam lifted anchor and sailed out of Bremerhaven, heading for Buenos Aires with 2,203 refugees on board.
For the Mennonites who managed to flee to the west, the Berlin Escape was a miracle from God. Despite the many trials and disappointments on the way, the Mennonites were thankful that they had managed to escape to freedom in the west.
Dyck, Peter and Elfrieda. Up from the Rubble. Scottdale, PA and Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 1991: 132-223.
Epp, Frank H. Mennonite Exodus. Altona, MB: Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council, 1962: 369, 376-383.
Huebert, Helmut T. Events and People: Events in Russian Mennonite History and the People that Made Them Happen. Winnipeg, MB: Springfield Publishers, 1999: 228-236.
Regehr, T. D. “Anatomy of a Mennonite Miracle: The Berlin Rescue of 30-31 January, 1947.” Journal of Mennonite Studies (1991): 11-33.
Reimer, Peter. Interview by H. T. Huebert. Winnipeg, Manitoba, August 1999.
Smucker, Barbara. Henry’s Red Sea. Scottdale, PA and Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 1955: 1-108.
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MLA style: Huebert, Helmut T. and Susan Huebert. "Berlin Escape, 30-31 January 1947." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. October 2009. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/berlin_escape_30_31_january_1947.
APA style: Huebert, Helmut T. and Susan Huebert. (October 2009). Berlin Escape, 30-31 January 1947. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/berlin_escape_30_31_january_1947.