by Judy Yung
Nick Friesen, a former Angel Island detainee who I had the good fortune to interview in 2008, died of a massive stroke on January 4, 2011. I was told that he had purchased a three-wheel bike at a thrift store in Reedley, California, and was riding it home when he had the stroke. He was 97 years old. I thought to myself, that’s so like Nick—active and on the move to the very end.
Nick’s family were Dutch Mennonites who had migrated from Prussia to Ukraine to farm at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1789. When the Mennonites came under attack during the Russo-Japanese War, the Friesens moved to Siberia, where they became successful wheat farmers. But they lost everything when Stalin came to power. In search of freedom and a better livelihood, they stole across the frozen Amur River into Manchuria. They waited eight months in Harbin for visas before sailing to America on the Tenyo Maru in 1929.
Nick Friesen and film maker Jeff Chin at AIISF 2009
Annual Gala event.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, the family of six was taken to Angel Island, where they enjoyed a “good dinner” and were shown to their sleeping quarters. The next day, after a brief physical examination and interview, the entire family was formally admitted into the country as skilled farmers, an arrangement that the Mennonite Central Committee in Kansas had made with Secretary of Labor James Davis on behalf of 225 Mennonites in Siberia.
The Friesen family was taken directly from San Francisco to Reedley, stopping only for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Merced. They arrived late Saturday night, attended church on Sunday, and started work on Monday, picking figs for 40 cents an hour. Nick married Helen Klippenstein in 1930 and became a successful farmer in Reedley while raising a family of four children. Widowed at eighty-three, he married Mary Krueger, a German Mennonite from British Columbia, in 1999. The couple traveled all over the world and fulfilled Nick’s dream of someday returning to Siberia, Harbin, and the Amur River.
Every five years since 1980, Nick faithfully attended the “Harbiners reunion” to commemorate their deliverance from Soviet tyranny. He was one of the ribbon cutters at the Grand Re-opening of the Angel Island Immigration Station on February 15, 2009. When asked what Angel Island meant to him, Nick replied, “The Angel Island Immigration Station played an important part in our coming to America. We were so happy to finally be in the United States, Angel Island represents freedom and nothing but happy memories for me.”
Mary and Nick Friesen with Eddie Fung and Judy Yung
at a book talk in Fresno on November 6, 2010.
Nick Friesen’s story appears in Chapter Six, “In Search of Freedom and Opportunity: Russians and Jews in the Promised Land,” of Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. A short film of his life and journey to America can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zqwq0wlkS-k or below.
Place of Origin
Place of Settlement