Mongols Journey to America, Landing in New Jersey, 1951

By Naran’s Daughter.

Howell, N.J. The Kalmyk-Mongols’ arrival to the Freewood Acres subdivision of Howell Township in the winter of 1951-52 is a storybook ending to a communal odyssey begun nearly four centuries earlier from the heart of Inner Asia.

Political upheavals throughout East and Central Asia at the start of the 17th century caused the nomadic forebears of Howell’s Kalmyk community to migrate from their ancestral homeland in the Altai Mountains westward in search of more abundant grazing for their flocks/herds and greater political stability in the tumultuous era just before the Manchu conquest of China in 1644.

IMG_1910Architectural rendering of Mongol House project in Howell, New Jersey.
Image courtesy of Mongol House.

Within a generation the Kalmyk tribes crossed the continental divide into Europe and settled both banks of the Volga River just north of its drainage into the Caspian Sea. (As a historical reference point, this migration’s end roughly coincides with the Puritan settlement of New England during America’s colonial era.)

The Kalmyks’ checkered relationship with a succession of Russian Tsars is well-documented in Russian history and popular lore; both illustrating the newcomers’ usefulness to the imperial order as a southern bulwark against Tartar encroachment on Orthodox Russia, and, at other times, depicting Kalmyks as opportunistic brigands and practitioners of macabre religious ceremonies whose ultimate loyalty was always suspect.

AutoSave_Mongol House - V3 parking colorArchitectural rendering of Mongol House project in Howell, New Jersey.
Image courtesy of Mongol House.

During Catherine the Great’s reign, the political atmosphere between the Tsarina and her unruly Kalmyk subjects became so toxic that the 18-year-old hereditary “king” of the Kalmyks and his tribal chieftains launched an ill-fated, surprise midwinter exodus from Russia of all Kalmyk tribes and a return to Dzungaria, their erstwhile homeland, now renamed Xinjiang by its Manchu conquerors. Nearly one-third of the Kalmyks in Russia failed to join the majority of their fellow tribesmen in the doomed exodus of January 1771; they are the immediate ancestors of Howell’s Kalmyk community.

Life for this unfortunate group under the reign of an embarrassed and upset Tsarina immediately took a downward turn. Their diminished standing and suspect classification manifested politically in severely reduced territory and grazing lands, restructuring of hereditary tribal leadership that fostered intra-tribal divisions, increased encirclement by Cossack outposts and Russian settlements, holding hostage children of Kalmyk nobility to insure future good behavior, and the bifurcation of the remaining tribes into Don River and Volga contingents. That was the mirthless situation of the stigmatized Kalmyk Mongols of Russia from the end of the 18th Century to the opening decades of the 20th and the advent of Bolshevism. Then, things got worse.

Vladimir_Lenin_and_Joseph_Stalin,_1919Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, 1919. Photo: Wikipedia.

The nationwide conflagration known as the Russian Revolution consumed much of the country for more than two years beginning in 1917 and did not spare the Kalmyk steppes. The “civil war” aspect of the Revolution was not initially as divisive among Kalmyks as it was in other Russian locales; a trend that quickly reversed itself as the cruel reality of Marxist ideology and Byzantine authoritarianism was inflicted on a freewheeling nomadic culture and people.

The Kalmyks’ historically suspect status, coupled to the popular notion of their social backwardness, subjected them to a particularly vicious campaign of cultural devaluation that began by targeting Kalmyks’ literary and spoken language and ended with the complete obliteration of the physical infrastructure of Tibetan Buddhism on the Kalmyk steppe; defrocking, imprisonment or murder of the clergy; and, the criminalization of overt religious worship. So thorough was the destruction of the trappings of their faith that a 1940 Bolshevik-proposed “Anti-Religion Museum” in the Kalmyk capital was scrapped for want of articles to exhibit. That was the disheartening situation for the Kalmyk nation in Summer 1941, just before the bottom fell out.

Scherl: An der Sowjetfront: Fr¸hjahrsschlacht um Charkow.- St¸ndlich w‰chst die Zahl der Gefangenen. Gefangene Sowjets auf dem Marsch durch Charkow. Immer grˆsser werden die Kolonene von Gefangenen, die Tag f¸r Tag durch die sowjetische Grosstadt Charkow ziehen. PK-Aufnahme: Kriegsberichter: Schneider 3230-42 Mai 42
Soviet prisoners of war march through Kharkov in a largely
unguarded column after the battle. 
Photo: Wikipedia.

The largest military operation in human history took place on June 22, 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in a surprise attack that saw immense swaths of Russian territory immediately fall or surrender to overwhelming Wehrmacht forces. Within weeks, both Moscow and Leningrad were besieged and mercilessly bombarded, scores of millions of Soviet citizens subjugated, and millions of Red Army defenders captured.

One unintended consequence of that invasion physically displaced hundreds of thousands Soviet subjects, including Kalmyks, beyond the borders of the Soviet Union by the end of hostilities four years later. Many of these fortunate refugees found themselves under the jurisdiction of the American and British allies of their Soviet nemesis. Meanwhile, back in Kalmykia, their kinsmen and women were facing their greatest indignity.

On December 28, 1943, months after the retreat of German forces from southern Russia, Josef Stalin ordered the political liquidation of the Kalmyk soviet state and the simultaneous deportation of all Kalmyks therein to the furthest recesses of Soviet Central Asia and Siberia for their alleged “collaboration” with the now vanquished German occupiers.

There is small comfort for Kalmyks in the knowledge that the same “collaborator” excuse was used for the dissolution and deportation of several other ethnic minority states of the greater region. One historian has collectively identified the Soviet deportee nations as the “The Punished People” whose tragic stories are virtually unknown in the era that also spawned The Holocaust.

Early in the refugee experience, in the Bavarian hamlet of Schongau, Kalmyks who had been living in exile in Eastern Europe since the end of the Bolshevik Revolution and were now escaping the Red Army march through their former refuges, miraculously connected with their kinsmen who had just escaped the USSR. Together, the entire group numbered just under 1000.

Through other Russian ad hoc refugee associations, this miniscule and unique community, virtually invisible against a backdrop of displaced millions, came to the attention of N.Y.-based Tolstoy Foundation. Its founder, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, was the determinative factor in Kalmyks coming to Howell in that she was one of only a handful of people in post-WWII America who even knew what a Kalmyk was and about our history in Russia. Her familiarity with the Kalmyks was invaluable when individual Kalmyks began to apply for relocation to America under provisions of the Displaced Person’s Act of 1948.

Mongol House site map proposedArchitectural rendering of Mongol House project in Howell, New Jersey.
Image courtesy of Mongol House.

Despite the humanitarian and compassionate intent behind that Act, the underlying immigration laws of America at the time limited U.S. permanent residency and eventual citizenship to members of the “white” race. For obviously Asian Kalmyks, this legal glitch nearly doomed their efforts to remain as a group and to escape continued internment in war-devastated Germany. With respect to Kalmyks, Tolstoy argued, their longstanding presence in European Russia, in fact, made them “Europeans!” Therefore, she concluded, Kalmyks were, by definition, “white.”

Initially rejected by an immigration tribunal hearing the first Kalmyk test cases in Germany in 1950, Countess Tolstoy’s rationale was sustained on appeal to the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals and upheld by the Acting U.S. Attorney General in the summer of 1951. On Christmas Eve 1951 the first 150 of an eventual 600 Kalmyks to come to America arrived at the Port of New York, the grateful beneficiaries of a generous and unprecedented interpretation of “race” in the context of America’s immigration laws. Most of the others would follow in late February of 1952, completing a Mongol “invasion” of America, orchestrated by an expatriate Russian noblewoman; no one seemed to notice.

Befriending many Cossack refugee in one of the German DP camps and through them learned of a new Cossack settlement in New Jersey and was given the contact information for Nicholas Korolkoff, one of Alexandra Tolstoy’s aides de camp, and leader of Howell’s Cossack community. They had to determine whether throwing in with the Cossacks’ burgeoning community would be mutually beneficial and quickly determined that their merger was in the Kalmyks’ best interests.

maxresdefaultTraditions have made Mongol survival possible. Image courtesy of Mongol House.

Some of the first arrivals chose to opt for Central Jersey, while the majority settled in nearby Philadelphia. When the remainder of the Kalmyks from Germany arrived in late February 1952, the split continued at roughly the same.

This decision in early 1952 by two micro-communities of displaced refugees to reprise a centuries-old relationship in central New Jersey, arguably, created America’s most ethnologically unique community and created a demographic pattern found nowhere else on the planet outside of Russia.

The first communal project undertaken by Kalmyk refugees admitted to America was to establish the first Tibetan Buddhist congregation and worship center in the Western Hemisphere in November of 1952. That act of communal piety, arguably, forever altered in the cultural, religious and sociological tapestry of our benevolent host country and impacted the escape of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, from Tibet seven years later and made possible, the Dalai Lama’s American debut in 1979.

Our greatest challenge that we face today is that our younger generations are losing their understanding of the unique Mongolian culture and without a drastic change, they will be left with no knowledge of who they are and what sacrifices their grandparents made to come to this great country.

Mongol House - V4-close bwArchitectural rendering of Mongol House project in Howell, New Jersey.
Image courtesy of Mongol House.

The Mongol House Project, show posters is the proposal of a cultural center built around Yurts or Gers, as said in the Mongolian language. The cultural center will teach the Mongolian language, the culture and traditions, along with culinary arts and sports to not only our community, but also to anyone that may be interested.

I once read, “Passion and Patience becomes Dedication, and when you have Passion, Patience and Dedication, nothing is Impossible.”

Consider The Mongol House Project as a way to make a difference in someone’s life and the life of a community.

Since the first arrival of Kalmyk Mongols in 1951 there have been other Mongol tribes who have arrived since, Hulha Mongols, Ever Mongols, Tuvan Mongols, Buyrat Mongols, Hazara Mongols and others.

Mongol-video-logos-social-mediaMongol House logo. Image courtesy of Mongol House.

The foregoing has been an abbreviated account of how and why Kalmyk Mongolians chose to resettle in Howell, New Jersey from European refugee camps at the start of 1952. We would be happy to answer any questions you may have!

The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation ( There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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