Alice Ruth Ramseyer of Bluffton has compiled letters sent between her parents and her aunt and uncle in the 1930s into a 200-plus-page book titled Life in North China in a Time of Turmoil: Letters from the Pannabeckers, 1937-1938. Her family were missionaries in China in this time period and were separated by the Second Sino-Japanese War, when the mothers and children returned to the United States. Ramseyers father and uncle remained in China and corresponded with their families by mail. (Photo by Jeannie Wiley Wolf)


BLUFFTON — Alice Ruth Ramseyer’s grandchildren received a special Christmas gift this year, a book titled “Life in North China in a Time of Turmoil: Letters from the Pannabeckers, 1937-1938.”

The 211-page volume compiled by Ramseyer contains letters written when her parents, along with her aunt and uncle, were missionaries in China at the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

“I thought my grandchildren should know something about their history,” the Bluffton woman said.

Her parents, Floyd and Sylvia Pannabecker, and her uncle and aunt, Lloyd and Lelia Pannabecker, were missionaries with the General Conference Mennonite Church.

“My father and uncle were identical twins. They liked to be together, I guess,” said Ramseyer.

Her parents met at Bluffton College and were married in 1921. For one year, Floyd taught chemistry at Bluffton College, and their eldest son, Richard, was born in 1922. The following year, the family left for China.

Meanwhile, Lloyd went to medical school. He and his wife, Lelia, were married in 1924 and he earned a medical degree in 1926.

Both families spent a year at language school and were then stationed in Kijo, where Floyd taught in the Bible school and Lloyd worked as a physician.

Ramseyer and her brother, Robert, were both born in China. Later, as social and political conditions deteriorated and the war between China and Japan got underway, the families were advised to return to the United States.

“The mothers and children came (back to the United States) in April and then the fathers came in August,” Ramseyer said. “They wrote letters back home to family, but also they were separated and so they would write to each other.”

Coming to America

The most engaging letters begin in January 1938.

“That’s when they were separated, and that’s when the story is really interesting,” Ramseyer said.

Now 88, she still remembers living in China as a child: “It wasn’t really very scary, except when the bombers flew overhead, and then we’d worry about bombing. But otherwise, for me, because we went down to Hong Kong to escape the war, it was interesting down there.”

In one letter, her uncle talks about traveling on the top of a train and trying to cross a river at night.

After leaving China, her family returned to Bluffton where her grandmother lived.

“I used to get the children’s activities magazine in China and many of the things they called for we couldn’t get. So that was a real adjustment to come to America and realize we could just go to the store and buy those things,” Ramseyer said.

Attending school in Bluffton was also a different experience.

“I had been in a small class, very small. In fact I was the only one in my grade, but there were about five missionary children. I always thought it would be so much fun to be in a large class,” Ramseyer said.

She met her future husband, Robert Ramseyer, in high school. They both attended Bluffton College where Robert’s father, Lloyd, served as president from 1938-1965.

Ramseyer said she became interested in doing mission work, possibly because her parents had served as missionaries.

“I wanted to go to the Orient, and China was not an option at that time. We left in 1954 for China and came back in 1995. We were back in the United States for awhile, but I figured out once it was actually not quite 30 years of mission work,” she said.

They lived in several cities while they were in Japan including Miyazaki and Nobeoka. The last 12 years their home was in Hiroshima.

The couple had four children. Eldest son Mark was born before they left Ohio while their three daughters, Joy, Sue and Jeanne, were born in Japan.

She said she and her husband never regretted their decision to serve as missionaries, even though the work was hard.

“In Japan, it isn’t what you’d call a big success story, so you just plug away and you’re glad for the people who want to be Christians. You make good friends, and you have to be satisfied with that,” she said.

Most of the Japanese people are secular, she said, explaining that they go to a shrine when a baby is born and they go to the temple when someone has died.

“So they’re both Shinto and Buddhist, but more important than that, they’re Japanese. And so Christianity is a foreign religion, so a big part of our job was trying to figure out ways that the Christian faith could be at home in Japan,” Ramseyer explained. “And that’s what pastors worked at, because anybody who becomes a Christian is sort of considered, not an outsider, but not quite Japanese.”

Upon returning to the United States in 1995, the couple lived in Elkhart, Indiana. When it came time to retire in 1997, they decided to make Bluffton their home. Ramseyer’s husband died in 2016.

Future generations

Ramseyer started the letter project in 2011.

“They told me there were these letters, but I didn’t realize how extensive they were,” she said. “And then when my brother died, my sister-in-law kept them for awhile and then when she moved to Maplecrest, I said, ‘I’ll take the letters’, and she was happy to give them to me.”

The letters had been placed in chronological order by her brother.

“So I knew which two years had been the most disrupted, so I went and took out those two folders and there were so many letters, many of them about trying to get back to our home,” she said.

Ramseyer said it took time to figure out how she wanted to format the book, but she eventually decided it was best to retype the letters. A friend from college, Joanne Niswander, volunteered to proofread the manuscript, which also included pictures.

“One picture has a candelabra. My mother said these were popular with missionary women in Peking, and she wanted to get one, too. And she was able to get one in Peking. This was 1938,” Ramseyer said.

Looking back now, she said it looks like a menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day observance of Hanukkah.

“This was a time when there were a lot of white Russians escaping from Russia, and I wondered if they were in Peking selling their valuables in order to buy food,” she said.

Ramseyer got a chance to revisit Kijo last year when the church there celebrated its 100th anniversary.

“There’s a Mennonite organization called Mennonite Partners in China, so their director asked missionary children if they wanted to go back for that anniversary celebration,” she said.

She returned with several of her family members.

“The exciting thing for me was back when I was a little girl I had a friend, a Chinese friend. It turns out she’s still living and we got to see each other. And she was living right across the street from the hotel,” she said.

Ramseyer added a postscript to the book about the trip in May. She had 70 books made and gave all but two away.

“I’m not sure my grandchildren will be interested now, but they can put it on their shelf and keep it for genealogy,” she said. “They will have it, and I know I did my bit.”

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