Last week, reader Scott Rogers sent me links to interesting accounts of the Mennonite diaspora in Paraguay.
Mennonite settlers came to Paraguay from Germany, Canada, Russia and other countries for a number of reasons: religious freedom, the chance to practice their beliefs without hindrance, the quest for land. Although German immigrants had settled in Paraguay before the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1920’s and 30s that many, many more arrived.
Many of the immigrants from Russia were fleeing from the ravages of the Bolshevik Revolution and the later Stalin repressions. They traveled to Germany and to other countries, and eventually joined the emigration to Paraguay.
Paraguay welcomed the emigrants….
The Mennonites had the reputation of being excellent farmers, hard-workers, and disciplined in their habits. In addition, the rumor of oil deposits in the Chaco, and Bolivia’s encroachment on that area, which resulted in the 1932 War of the Chaco, made it a political necessity to populate the region with Paraguayan citizens. (At the end of the war, Bolivia had lost much of its territory back to Paraguay, but both countries suffered loss of life and credibility.)
In return for religious freedom, exemption from military service, the right to speak German in schools and elsewhere, the right to administer their own educational, medical, social organizations and financial institutions, the Mennonites agreed to colonize an area thought to be inhospitable and unproductive due to the lack of water. The 1921 law passed by the Paraguayan congress in effect allowed the Mennonites to create a state within the state of Boqueron.
Three main waves of immigration arrived:
- a Canadian group from Manitoba founded the the Menno colony in 1926-1927
- a group from the Ukraine and the area of the Amour river came via China and created the Fernheim colony in 1930
- a group of Russian refugees founded the Neuland colony in 1947
Conditions were difficult for the few thousand arrivals. An outbreak of typhoid killed many of the first colonists. The colonists persisted, finding water,creating small cooperative agricultural communities, cattle ranches and dairy farms. Several of these banded together and formed Filadelfia in 1932. Filadelfia became an organizational, commercial and financial center. The German-language magazine Mennoblatt founded in the early days continues today and a museum in Filadelfia displays artifacts of the Mennonite travels and early struggles. The area supplies the rest of the country with meat and dairy products.
My wife’s paternal line were Germans from the Ukraine who emigrated to lands around Menno, South Dakota, beginning in the 1880s. If not actual Mennonites, they were certainly pietists.
Read more about Paraguay’s Mennonites here.