(The Immigrants’ Song)
I and holding two photographs taken in 1947. In one, my mother, age twenty-five, is seated on a chesterfield with two other women Her hair is neatly permed, and she is wearing one of her “good” dresses, nylons, pumps. In the photo in my other hand, Beda, my dad’s cousin, age twenty-five, is posed with twenty-nine other German girls in the Lubercin Labour camp near Moscow, each of them wearing the one sweater they were allowed to knit for themselves in the textile factory where they worked.
On the back of my mother’s picture, faint blue ink tells me this was Christmas with the family. Beda’s photo bears these words: Look at our faces, we’re all young girls but look like old ladies.
I am haunted by the destiny of these two women; one whose family was desperate enough to cross an ocean to a country they didn’t know; the other whose family made the equally courageous decision to stay behind in spite of the threat of their village being obliterated by an advancing Russian army.
Both my mother’s and my father’s ancestors were German farmers who were settled in an area on the Vistula River near Plock in Poland around 1824. My dad’s grandparents and their five children sailed from Hamburg on the S.S. Sicilia on May 9, 1896 to find land in The Alberta District of the Northwest Territories after a decade of turmoil in Volhynia. Religious freedom was denied, military service became compulsory, and anti-Germanism was gaining momentum.
My mother’s family stayed through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, a time when the colonists retained an attachment to Germany through language, culture, and in many cases family who still lived in Germany. But they were expected to pledge their loyalty to Russia as their adopted land and fight for her interests. Their farm land was expropriated and vast numbers of Volhynians were packed into boxcars and sent to Siberia.
There have been no ambitious genealogists climbing around my maternal ancestral tree, so I have no knowledge of my grandparents’ life during that period. But in 1929 they too set out for Canada with their five young children—my mother at eight, the second youngest—and settled in the same area as my dad’s family.
I am a storyteller by lifelong habit, and in the past two decades, by occupation. The reluctance of my own family to share our story puzzled and frustrated me for years. One of the few stories I remember hearing about my mother’s early life in Canada is that she and her siblings were shooed away by the Englische farm wife down the road when they went to ask for water from her well. Barely ten years since Canadian soldiers had fought the Germans at Vimy Ridge and Passchendael, and now these Alberta farmers were to welcome German immigrants as their new neighbours?
We were German. I knew that was the answer to questions about my ethnic origin. Both sets of grandparents spoke heavily-accented English. My maternal grandparents who had come to Canada as adults, unlike the paternal grandparents who arrived when they were children, spoke English with difficulty, and when we visited with my mother’s family, we heard German. We were never taught to speak German. But we listened and understood enough to learn that if we asked questions about “the old country,” the conversation came to abrupt halt because of “little pitchers with big ears.” My mother, in particular, had little patience for questions about the past. I had the sense that being German was not something of which one dared to be proud.
I knew from television, from the caricature Klink and Schultz of “Hogan’s Heroes,” that Germans were the butt of jokes. I knew from more serious drama that the jackbooted, brown-coated Nazi’s shouting commands were the embodiment of evil. None of those portrayals, none of those voices, had anything to do with my gentle-voiced grandparents.
We were Canadian. Yet I knew there was family left behind in Germany. I have Canadian uncles who were conscientious objectors in World War II and worked in Alternative Service camps. I have uncles who enlisted in the Canadian military and fought the Germans. We know that many in the family who’d stayed behind were conscripted into the German military. No one spoke, even long after the war was over, of the possibility that cousins had come face to face in combat with cousins.
I am the child of a first generation Canadian father and a German immigrant mother. When I look at the photograph of Beda, I am reminded that her fate could have easily have been my mother’s. When Beda’s family, German “colonists,” farmers at Nowe Borsyzewo in Poland, fled from an advancing Russian army in January 1945, Beda and the other young women and girls in the wagons that clogged the roads were taken prisoner. The two possibilities for Beda and the other girls were that would be sent to the Russian front as “company” for the soldiers or shipped to Siberia to a labor camp in cattle cars. Beda went to Siberia. In those camps she and the other prisoners were sent to work dawn to dusk on peat farms in the summer, in logging camps in the winter, and finally to the Lubercin labour camp near Moscow to work in a textile mill.
I am not “old stock” Canadian, nor would I wish to be. I feel a kinship to each wave of immigrants who have found their way to Canada during my lifetime. My family were the lucky ones who escaped before we became refugees. Why were we not, as children, encouraged to learn and to speak German? Because we would have retained that identity as “the other.” The identity that sent the Englische farm wife out with her broom to chase my mother and her brothers and sisters away from the gate like stray dogs.
Were I able to wrap my arms around each refugee family who arrives in Canada from their war torn homelands my welcome would be brief: Thank God, you made it! We are all immigrants here.