The Kind­ness of Strangers

Their ex­pe­ri­ence as post­war refugees in Ger­many had been dif­fi­cult; ar­riv­ing in Canada was a dif­fer­ent story

More of Our Canada - - Con­tents - by Christa Stege­mann,

Com­ing to Canada

In May 1953, my mother Nadieczda, my fa­ther Wil­helm and I em­i­grated from Bre­mer­haven, Ger­many, on the Fairsea. Sail­ing up the St. Lawrence River, we landed in Que­bec City. We then spent five days on trains be­fore ar­riv­ing in Cran­brook, B.C. I was al­most 13 years old.

We were taken to a small cabin on the out­skirts of town by our spon­sors, Otto and Selma Tomms. It was one of 12 homes known as the “Green and White Cab­ins.” Some were oc­cu­pied on a per­ma­nent ba­sis while oth­ers housed trav­ellers.

Our cabin con­sisted of one room with a cold wa­ter sink. At the back of the prop­erty was an out­house. The cabin was sim­ple, yet it met all our needs at that mo­ment in time.

Some­one picked my fa­ther up ev­ery morn­ing at 6 a.m. in a “crummy,” a con­verted truck used to trans­port log­gers to and from work, and took him to work at a sawmill in Perry Creek near Wy­cliffe, owned by a Mr. Bill­mark. Pil­ing lum­ber was phys­i­cally de­mand­ing work for a man who pre­vi­ously had spent his life work­ing in an of­fice. The heat was at times un­bear­able. My fa­ther would take a towel to work and dur­ing his short breaks, he would thor­oughly wet it, plac­ing it on his head, un­der a cap. The work­ers did not wear hard hats in those days. Fa­ther told us about this as a state­ment of fact, but he never com­plained. My mother would get up early and walk to work at “Un­cle Tomm’s Cab­ins.” I was al­lowed to sleep in and when I got up, I’d walk to where my mother worked and help her with the clean­ing of those cab­ins. I loved walk­ing through the dry, high grass and hav­ing grasshop­pers jump all around me. I looked for­ward each day to that walk. The sum­mer seemed to go on for­ever, one warm, drowsy day fol­low­ing an­other.

At one point, we saw smoke fill­ing the sky over the sur­round­ing hills and were told that there were fierce for­est fires rag­ing all around us. There was one very fright­en­ing episode dur­ing that pe­riod. One day, my fa­ther did not re­turn from work at his usual time. There was no word from him and my mother was un­able to sleep. She sat at our ta­ble be­com­ing more anx­ious as the hours ticked by.

As dawn was break­ing, we heard a ve­hi­cle stop in front of our door and a man’s voice called out to my mother in bro­ken Ger­man, “Dei Mann is beim Feier,” which meant, “Your man is at the fire.” Then with­out ex­pla­na­tion, he drove away.

My mother be­came hys­ter­i­cal, weep­ing and wail­ing that her hus­band, hav­ing sur­vived the war, might now lose his life in a Cana­dian for­est. We had no idea how safe or dan­ger­ous this work was. She

asked a Ger­man-speak­ing friend, who told her that th­ese for­est fires oc­cur fre­quently and al­most ev­ery­one re­turns safely. She also told her that ev­ery pre­cau­tion would be taken to keep the men safe as they dug ditches to pre­vent the fires from spread­ing too far. My mother re­al­ized she had re­acted hastily and with­out check­ing the facts.

Four weeks later, my fa­ther re­turned, un-be­liev­ably dirty, yet un­scathed. He told sto­ries about the abun­dance of food and long hours of light work, but al­ways at a great dis­tance from the ac­tual fires. My mother just clung to him, not want­ing to let him go.

We soon learned that Cran­brook win­ters are se­verely cold and we knew we could not stay in this small sum­mer home.

ON THE MOVE

Otto and Selma found a small house on Fourth Ave. for us to rent. It was a lovely lit­tle home. There were two bed­rooms, a real bath­room, a liv­ing room and a kitchen with a wood stove. This stove would pro­vide us with heat and a place to cook our meals. At­tached to the stove was a large wa­ter tank, the coils cir­cu­lat­ing the wa­ter through the stove, pro­vid­ing us with hot wa­ter for as long as the stove was kept burn­ing.

We moved into this cozy place in Au­gust 1953. The day we moved in, my mother placed our feather beds and blan­kets on the floor of each bed­room as we then had no fur­ni­ture.

Mrs. Turner, who owned the home, came over that af­ter­noon to see how we were do­ing. By the way, none of us spoke any English at this time. She com­mu­ni­cated with us par­tially through sign lan­guage, ask­ing us where our fur­ni­ture was. We in­di­cated that we had none, but would buy some as soon as my fa­ther re­ceived his next pay en­ve­lope. This kind lady just shook her head and left.

Two hours later, she reap­peared, this time with her two grown sons and a truck­load of fur­ni­ture. We stood in awe as th­ese young men un­loaded the truck, bring­ing in a couch, an over­stuffed chair, a ta­ble with chairs and two beds, one for each bed­room. Then they brought in the crown­ing glory, a won­der­ful an­tique Vic­trola in per­fect work­ing or­der with a large stack of records. Such kind­ness was sim­ply over­whelm­ing to us. We had not ex­pe­ri­enced such car­ing for many years. My mother just wept with grat­i­tude.

Mrs. Turner in­di­cated to us that as we bought our own things, we were to re­turn each item to her. In time, we dis­cov­ered that Mrs. Turner was a Chris­tian and be­lieved the Lord would want her to help us. Our grat­i­tude to the Lord and this kind lady knew no bounds.

The war years and the post­war era had been so harsh on us. As peo­ple of Ger­man ori­gin liv­ing in Poland, our fam­ily fled the in­vad­ing Rus­sian army with thou­sands of other Volks­deutsche in early 1945. Ar­riv­ing in Ger­many as refugees, we were re­sented by the lo­cals who were forced to share their mea­ger re­sources with us. Af­ter eight years of never feel­ing wel­come, the car­ing at­ti­tude we were met with here in Canada over­whelmed us. I am cer­tain that our refugee ex­pe­ri­ences and our re­cep­tion here has made us more car­ing peo­ple. ■

Christa and her par­ents wait­ing in line for lunch in Bre­men­haven, prior to board­ing the Fairsea.

Above: Wil­helm shov­el­ling snow in front of their rental house in 1954; Christa with her mother and fa­ther shortly af­ter ar­riv­ing in Cran­brook, B.C.

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