Walking Orie Miller Street in FiladelfiaBy John E. Sharp
Recently, I walked the 14 sandy blocks of O. Miller Street (Calle in Spanish, Strasse in German) in Filadelfia, Fernheim Colony, in the Paraguayan Chaco. It runs parallel to and one block east of Avenida Hindenberg, the main thoroughfare. It intersects with such streets as H.S. Bender and B.H. Unruh.
Why does Filadelfia remember Miller, Hindenberg, Bender and Unruh?
During the closing months of 1929, some 13,000 Soviet Mennonites fled their homes and flocked to Moscow seeking permission to emigrate. They had survived the disastrous effects of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, famine and disease. About 22,000 had emigrated to the Prairie Provinces of Canada between 1923 and 1927. Those who remained faced Stalin’s disastrous forced collectivization.
Desperate to escape Soviet horror, they surged to Moscow and daily lobbied Soviet officials for exit visas. If they could find temporary asylum in Germany, where German-speaking Mennonites felt an affinity, then they hoped to follow relatives and friends to Canada. The Soviets refused visas, captured anyone on outbound trains and sent them back home to certain starvation or exile in Siberia.
German Mennonite B.H. Unruh went to bat for them — pressuring, even badgering the German government to offer asylum. After a “storm of secret communications” between Berlin and Moscow, the Soviets finally agreed to let them go, and Germany agreed to take them. By that time, only half of the refugees remained.
German President Paul von Hindenburg offered hospitality and dipped into his own pockets to assist the refugees. Mennonite Central Committee sent H.S. Bender to Germany to make travel arrangements to a final destination. In Pennsylvania, Levi Mumaw of Scottdale and Orie Miller of Akron worked behind the scenes.
MCC had faded after its major relief work in Russia from 1920 to 1926. Many assumed its work was finished. But the refugee crisis in Moscow and Berlin brought it back to life. David Toews and the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, who had managed the immigration of 22,000, pressed Canada to admit more. Canada agreed to take 1,000. Where would the others go? MCC recommended the Paraguayan Chaco, though it was a forbidding wasteland.
Already in 1927, Russian Mennonites from Canada had founded Menno Colony. The government had granted privileges: freedom of religion and education, military service exemption and self-government. When asked about receiving the Soviet refugees in Germany, the Paraguayan government said, “If they are Mennonites, let them come.”
Two thousand refugees went to Paraguay and founded Fernheim (distant home) Colony. About 1,000 more settled in Brazil. More came from Poland and others by way of Harbin, China, after a daring escape across the frozen Amur River. MCC raised $100,000, managed the relocation and assisted in the resettlement.
It was a grim beginning in a land of improbable success. Some Fernheimers remember the story of a meeting of colony leaders with Orie Miller, where their very survival was at stake. Solutions seemed so elusive that Miller excused himself from the meeting to have a good cry. He returned, and the meeting continued. In the midst of the hopelessness, a plan emerged to form cooperatives, the major key to economic success and prosper-ity.
MCC took the lead in building the 250-mile Trans-Chaco Highway, a five-year project, that connected the colonies to markets in Asunción, the capital city — another key to success. When Miller was asked where all the money would come from for such projects, he answered, “Our people will pay. They always do.”
That’s why Filadelfia named streets for Orie Miller, Harold Bender, Benjamin Unruh and Paul von Hindenberg.
John E. Sharp is an instructor in history at Hesston (Kan.) College, on leave in 2011-12 to write a biography of Orie O. Miller.
Comment on the article Walking Orie Miller Street in Filadelfia
Please keep comments civil. MWR editors reserve the right to remove any comment. When posting a comment, you agree to the MWR Comments Policy. Name and comment will be posted; commenters are strongly encouraged to give their full name. Email address is for follow-up only and will not be made public.