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Profiles of Mennonite Faith

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Jacob and Anna Dick: From Exile in Russia to Missionary Work in India

Written by Abe Dueck, Winnipeg, Manitoba

One of the most dramatic and unusual stories of courage and faithfulness to the Lord is the story of Jacob and Anna Dick.

Jacob and Anna were born in southern Russia early in the 1900s when life in Russia was still relatively tranquil. But with the onset of war in 1914, the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the civil war, famine, and repression of the 1920s and 1930s, the situation changed drastically and the lives of many Mennonites were changed drastically. As a young lad Jacob lost his parents and had to cope with threats to his life as well as trying to find ways to secure adequate food and clothing.

Jacob and Anna Dick and family

Jacob and Anna Dick and family

At the age of 18 Jacob committed his life to God and joined the Mennonite Brethren Church in Lichtfelde? In 1925 he married Anna Berg and devoted himself to evangelistic ministry and itinerant ministry. often facing acute danger. Circumstances in the Soviet Union became increasingly dangerous under Stalin in the late 1920s and in the purges of the early 1930s. Thousands of Mennonites escaped to begin new lives in North America as well as South America by the early 1930s. Many leaders who remained were sent into exile in Siberia. In 1930 Dick was sent to a concentration camp in Dnieprostroy. Dick was housed in a room with 52 other men, 34 of whom were preachers, Sunday school teachers and choir leaders. Despite attempts to curb their religious meetings, the group met for fellowship. A number of non-Christians became Christians as a result of the witness of these people.

Dick managed to earn ten spare days because of his hard work and secured permission to visit his family who had moved to a nearby location. He became convinced that he should risk the opportunity to flee and the family secretly left southern Russia by train to Moscow. Somehow they had managed to secure some traveling documents. Thus began a long and treacherous journey the nature of which they could not have anticipated. But they were certain that God was with them and would protect them.

Once in Moscow the Dicks met some Christian friends who had secured permission to travel east. There seemed to be no hope to join them, but after prayer a miracle happened and a train official at the station stated that someone had given up passage on the train so that seats were available.

For nine days they traveled east, part of it together with their Christian friends. They crossed the Ural mountains, entered Siberia, then turned south to Russian Turkestan. When they reached Alma Ata they had traveled a total of 4,500 miles. It was now mid-November and it seemed best to stay there through the winter, but circumstances led them to try to reach the town of Djarkent, about 20 miles from the Chinese border. To proceed further required a special permit from police, which was not possible for them. They then tried other means and miraculously were able to purchase a horse and wagon with the small amount of money which Anna had sewn into her dress sleeve. So they ventured out in the snow, rejoicing that the Lord had provided.

It was dangerous to inquire about night lodging along the way. The roads were very difficult and forced them to return to a local town at one point. There Jacob decided to find a temporary job for the remainder of the winter, but quickly changed his mind when he spotted an official whom he had known in southern Russia and who had been responsible for persecuting Christians. So they decided to move on quickly, despite a serious shortage of food and treacherous roads.

One night as they were about to enter a town they were stopped by inspectors who asked them for traveling documents. Jacob responded without hesitation, “Who in the world would be able to live without a document in Russia? Would you?” His bold assertion led the official to wave them on without further questioning.

After six days they reached Djarkent. There Dick was able to secure a job as a clerk in the government bakery. But it was also here that they experience a tragic blowBtheir little son died of measles and pneumonia. Dick had to dig the grave to bury his son and they were alone for the burial. Thereafter they met some Christians with whom they were able to enjoy fellowship in secret.

In spring they decided to proceed and seek to cross the Chinese border, but because of the size of the group they encountered difficulties and had to return at the end of the first day and they returned to their jobs to alleviate suspicion. Several nights later, on April 10, 1933 they set out again. During the day they hid in sand holes in the desert. Water was scarce, and at times they spotted border police but managed to remain hidden. The children were kept quiet by giving them doses of opium. On the fourth night in the desert, just before setting out again, a group of Mohammedans suddenly appeared. But fears were allayed when they offered to help the Mennonites cross the border. A small river formed the border. They managed to cross the river, although some slipped and fell but nevertheless managed to reach the opposite shore.

At night the party proceeded again. The Mohammedans negotiated with the Chinese border police, but soon they discovered that they had been sold to the police who threatened to kill them. For eight days they were moved from prison to prison and dispossessed of many of their belongings. Finally they were forced to head back to Russia. Within sight of the border they decided to refuse to walk further, protesting that they would be killed if they returned.. The Chinese police finally relented and abandoned the group, leaving them to their own resources.

The group now split into smaller parties and the Dick family set out for Kuldja, about 60 miles into China. At times they crawled through mud, the women often held to the horses tails for support as they proceeded in the darkness of night and sought shelter during the day. Miraculously they encountered some Christians in a small town who helped them secure the necessary documents entitling them to stay in China. They procured a wagon and traveled the rest of the distance to Kuldja.

Kuldja was a large city of over 300,000 citizens who were mostly Moslem. Many other refugees had also found their way there and disease was rampant. The Dycks also fell ill with malaria, but recovered after a month. The city was very difficult to access from the rest of the world with the Gobi desert on one side and the Tian-Shain Mountain range on the other. Nevertheless, after a period of three months, the Dycks and several other families decided to risk the trek through the mountains to try to reach Kasgar, about 800 miles away. Others tried to dissuade them, but after much prayer Dyck decided that it was God=s will for them to proceed.

With the little money they had they hired donkeys and left on August 30, 1932. After several days through beautiful forests they arrived at the higher mountainous terrain, much of it above the tree line. Perhaps the most hazardous was the 15-mile crossing of a huge glacier. They sited about a dozen graves of others who had failed to make the crossing. On the opposite side of the mountain range another desert awaited them with the characteristic shortage of water. Finally, exactly one month after their departure, they reached Kashgar where they decided to spend the winter. Dyck soon opened a knitting factory to secure a small income.

By spring the region was threatened by another dangerBcivil war was raging and it became ? leave Kashgar. The local British Consulate agreed to provide the family with an emergency permit to go to India. Local Swedish missionaries were also helpful. Dyck bought three horses and once again the family departed. After five days they met an English official, Lord Allisworth, who offered to help them. So the family joined the caravan and they were able to travel in relative comfort despite the cold. A tent was erected for the family each night and food was provided by the servants. This continued for about three weeks. On April 5, 1933, they climbed the Mintekka Pass to an elevation of about 15,000 feet. The snow was deep and the trail was often very dangerous. They reached Gilgit where they secured a visa to enter India and where Allisworth left them.

At the end of June the Dycks left Gilgit to cross the Himalaya Mountains. Again, the difficulties they encountered were formidable. Finally they reached their next destination of Srinagar in India.

Once in India, circumstances changed considerably. Soon they were in contact with missionaries from various countries and denominations, including the Mennonite Church. Within several months they were also in contact with the Mennonite Brethren mission among the Telegus in Hyderabad. Now a very different decision confronted them: Should they launch efforts to migrate to Canada or elsewhere? Unexpectedly the doors to Canada as well as Brazil became open, but they could not refuse the invitation to become involved in the mission work in India in gratitude to God who had so miraculously protected them and brought them to this place. They began language study and Dyck began preaching in Telegu within a year.

In 1939 the Dicks arrived in Canada for the first time and by 1941 became naturalized as Canadian citizens. The same year they left aboard the S. S. Klipfontein to return to India for a second term of service. This was already during the war and the ship sailed a zig-zag route under black-out to avoid detection by the enemy. Now they were stationed in Wanaparthy. India went through a period of serious difficulty with internal turmoil during this time and achieved independence in 1947. In 1949 they returned to Canada for a furlough. They celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in their home church in Chilliwack, BC.

A third term of service began in 1951. By now several children were left in Canada. They were now stationed in Shamshabad and Jacob was placed in charge of the Bethany Bible School for the training of leaders. Finally, in 1957, ill health and family circumstances forced them to return to Canada. For ten years he served as chaplain at the Vancouver Central City Mission. In 1974 he returned to India for six weeks of ministry. In 1976 his wife, Anna, passed away. In 1977 he married Mary Olfert Doerksen and the couple returned to India for a brief visit and also visited Russia. Dick died on August 8, 1980, shortly before another planned trip with a group to Russia.

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