Born in Usolsky, USSR, in 1931, Emmy Fercho’s family suffered as farmers under the Soviet government. After moving from Siberia to Ukraine, Emmy’s community was targeted by the Soviet regime for being ethnic Germans. When the German Army invaded in 1941, they sent Emmy’s family to Poland. Her father was drafted into the German Army, after which she rarely saw him before he died in the Soviet Union. As her family escaped into western Germany, they decided to immigrate to Canada. While she struggled to adjust to her new life, she worked as a nanny in Calgary and met her husband while attending English classes.
Emmy begins her interview by discussing her parents’ jobs in Russia while she was growing up, her siblings, and the difficult conditions that forced them to give a child up for adoption.
Well, it was farming work, for the government. So then they were not that lucky. And that was in Siberia. So my parents tried a few times to get out, maybe go to Brazil. Many people left that way. But they—as things was, and then they just decided to go back where they were born. They were born in the Ukraine…. And then my parents had to work very hard. We had one cow, and then two other siblings were born so we were six then. We didn’t have no flour. They just—they made from corn they made some flour. It was yucky. [Laughter] I still remember that. I was a kid then. So those things were very tough—tough years. And it went on like that. Then my mom had another baby, but we didn’t had a cow—nothing. So they gave it up for adoption.
And I still remember the people who came and got him. They made a visit to Moscow so they got a lot of good stuff so my brother what they adopted—he had it good. But I remember I was crying and my mom she didn’t have no diapers—nothing. And as they came to pick him up he had everything. But they said they can come to see him and we went quite often but I was so nosy all the time. I was always allowed to go.
As ethnic Germans living in Russia at the start of the war, Emmy’s community was targeted by the Russians. They came in black cars and took away small groups of German men.
Stalin always said the people in Germany—they died from hunger. But it was the other way around. We [in the Soviet Union] were dying. So then, my father—they took him. They had to dig holes for the war. I guess the way how I remember, they were preparing. They knew that Hitler’s coming, and then all the men they took away. And I still remember that I cried all night—my dad was gone. But I did not know where he is or what—but after the Germans came in, and he showed up. And there were no men any more. The Communists took all the men. My childhood—in the afternoon, it would start to get dark, it was probably towards winter, the black car came. Then I remember they said, the black car is coming again, so we didn’t have very many men. They all left.
Ja, they took them—first they took them to Dnipropetrovsk. My father went once there [on his own, before they took him away]. He saw some of them behind a big—fenced in. And then they came and told my father he’s not supposed to come back anymore. Otherwise they put him in behind that. So that was all before the Germans.
Emmy speaks of the dramatic change when the Germans came, first bringing the young people out, and then sending her family to Poland.
So they came in. Well, of course we were so happy and they had bread…. We were kids. We did never saw any white flour. So, all that good stuff, that came to us…. Everything for us changed to the better. But then we heard we had to leave. We heard the whispering with our parents, you know, the whispering. And as I say I was a nosy child. So I kept alot. And then the time came—we supposed to leave…. Then at once, [the Germans] took [the young people]. They said they’re going to take them to a better place. They load them up, took them to Germany. But most of them died through the bombing…. We went with the railroad away to Poland. And that was—I think it was German Litzmannstadt, and then it was I guess in Polish Łódź. I’m not sure but I think that’s how it was…. So they decided they go to Poland. And he’s going to work again in the railroad. And that’s what happened. So he had a good job. Everything seemed like ok, but the whispering went always on. I didn’t like…. [A]s we ended up in Poland, we are in a camp, and it was wintertime, and it was one family—the little boy died and it was cold, and so my father—we both tried to look after that family, and we were supposed to go see that little boy who died, and I don’t know why they picked always me, but probably I was so nosy, so he took me along. I had a brother that was two years older than I am, but I remember I went along with him, ja. Soon I thought, I am going to see that little boy, but it was the boy’s body! But that’s how life was.
Although they were finally in the care of fellow Germans, life in the camp was still very difficult. Eventually they moved from the camp into a town, and the children were put in the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls, despite her parents’ attempts to keep her brother out of the program. Her father was drafted into the German Army.
As you got there, they took your clothes off and put it in the oven to bake it. You got it back again. Well you never saw your mother nude?! The people were just like animals—they put them in. If you were female, you know, then you were in one room, so that’s what the Germans did. But I mean they meant well. Then as we went through that camp, by the time that we finally got into a town, and [my] father worked again for the railroads—but it took a long time in the camp…. Not what the parents wanted to do, but they made them do, ja. So you had to join—the boys they had to go to Hitlerjugend [Hitler Youth], they called it. And the females—it was named…. Ja, deutsches Maedel, deutsches Maedchen. [German girls, German girls]. I still remember my parents—they didn’t want us to wear that uniform. Then we always believed in God, ja, and then we were afraid. But then things got better, you get used to—but I still remember my dad didn’t want my brother—he is two years older than I am—at that time he must have been in the Hitlerjugend—they always said to him, “No you don’t need that.” They had to buy some uniforms, and they always dragged that out. They always said, “Oh, no, we haven’t got the money.”
Then my mom got pregnant again, so one child was given away and she got pregnant again. My dad was stationed in Berlin. So she was ready to bear—they told him they bring him back to Posen, so he is closer to his family. But that was not the Hitler word: “I got you from the Ukraine. You going to go to the front.” So they took my dad, ja. I still remember, it was January 10. My oldest brother—two years older than I am—we were allowed—then my sister was just born in November, so that was in January, so we were allowed to go to Posen. That was where he was stationed—to see him. So we went there. That was January 10. My mom, she cooked some pudding. He loved that so much. We brought that along. So we got there, and he had that uniform on. But he couldn’t get close enough to us two kids. So by that time I was 13. That was January 10.
Without Emmy’s father and a newborn sister, the family was forced to flee because the Soviets were so close. Emmy’s mother was already reluctant to go, but then all their luggage was stolen before they were put in cattle cars and sent to another town.
… then we were told we had to leave. We have to flee. The Russian is there already. So my mom said they’re not going. They said, “Yes, you have to go. The Polish guard there—he’s going to take you to the station.” They put all our stuff on—what we just had. It was January cold. Put the stuff on and he was there with a horse and buggy, and we get out and he was gone! So we had nothing! So my mom said, “I told you I’m not going. I’m not going.” And she cried. She said, “I’m not going to go.” The soldiers, they said, “Put your [unclear] into the boxcar.” It was a cattle wagon. So we had to go, get away from [the Russians]…. And there, as we got there, my dad’s cousins—he had two families, two cousins—sitting there, and looked after us. And the one aunt, she just lost her husband in the war, so they had six kids and we were six, so we lived all in that one apartment: 12 kids and two adults. Her husband—he died during the war, so she was there with six kids and my mom with six kids. My father was gone.
In Germany, they experienced hardship: twelve children living in one house with nothing to eat. Then the Soviets appeared again. Emmy recounts a story of her aunt travelling to get some food, but a Soviet soldier shot her. So Emmy’s mother had to care for the now parentless cousins with the help of another of Emmy’s aunts.
So we were living in Germany. Nothing to eat. We were eating cat. Cats. You can’t get—so that was cooked, ja, fried, you ate that. But it was not given to you. You had to get it. That’s how it happened in Schwerin, ja. We went to church and my aunt was very religious so we all went there to church. So the Russians came, took us over again. So she went—my aunt—to Gustrov. At Gustrov, she had a cousin there, to get some food. So her youngest one was younger than my youngest sister. So she went there to the cousin to get some food. The cousin was in company with the Russian soldiers for food. They came in and out, the soldiers, but she knew Russian, but that aunt of mine came to get food. So the Russian fella comes in [pause]. He saw the picture, and, well, the man was dead already. He fell during the war. But the picture was there with her and he took the gun out and shoot her in the head. [pause, crying] So she came, she didn’t get more food. So her sister went from Schwerin to Gustrov to get her. She was in the hospital. She was paralyzed. She could not talk anymore. And she had those six kids the same age as we were. So then we had those six kids. So that other cousin of hers—the other sister of hers—about that aunt that I am talking to—they came three years before the war from Brazil, back to Germany! So then they had the rest of their kids there, so anyway there were six kids without parents. The one who was the same age as me, I am still in contact with her. There we were—all those kids. We were lucky. We had a whole apartment, already. They had else, ja. So that aunt—the sister of the one who died—she had to take care of all those kids, and she had herself three, and her husband came back from the prison. He was a soldier, and he finally came back, and he helped all of us. So that was in Schwerin. So then he went to the West, and he got some food all the time. We all shared … but some people, they want to go back, to Russia! They were lot of people, stupid! They went back! And of course they went back far into the—where there is nothing, not Siberia, even further. That’s where they put my father later on too. And my father he begged and he begged for food. [unclear] relatives, from my mom’s side, they were still there in Siberia. They were living there. He asked my grandma [unclear] but he starved to death. He died in ’48. [pause, crying] I’ll always get through it. I’m a strong woman.
Emmy’s family escaped to Berlin and the British flew them to West Germany. Her family debated where they should go next.
And then finally, they flew us over to the west, to Ölsen, do you know Ölsen? Ölsen used to be Sommerlager [summer camp]. So they flew us over, we were 12 people in the plane, so of course I got sick, just a small plane. They gave you a bag right away. So with 12 people they didn’t take any chances. I think it was the English. We landed in Ölsen—Ölsen is close to Wipperfürth. So we ended up in Ölsen, we got unloaded, there was a big, big, fun—I liked it. I must have been 17. I think so. You know, when you’re 17, you’re so happy to see other 17 years, and I remember we were peeling potatoes and the first time somebody unloaded us up from the camp, brought us to that big kitchen, there we were helping out. I felt so like an adult, so grown up. You got to know your own age. Now the doors were open for you. Really I would say that was my best time in my whole life.
Then my brother, he got engaged. So he’s going to go wherever we go—two years older than I am. I still remember, we celebrated then at once he made our mind up—my dad has a cousin in Victoria, we are used to cold, we came from Siberia. You can see, he says it’s not cold in Victoria. So we’re going to Canada. So we have to go in the camp again, I had to get a job, I worked for—where they made cars, the firm was called Hebmüller. It was very familiar. I was sewing—big sewing machine. But to get that job you had to be good. But I always said “Ja, I am a sewer, in Germany.” … Never in my whole life saw a big sewing machine [like that]…. I had a good job. I didn’t want to go to Canada. I didn’t want to go. I had very good friends still. I still feel bad where I should have stayed.
She explains the medical requirements of emigration.
Oh yes, in Bremen, you didn’t go just through. You had to see the doctor that came, and they checked you out, if you had something on your lungs, if there was a black spot on the lungs, you did not go. So they were very, very strict, but very good. So that diphtheria broke out, you get in touch with them, no. So the boys looked out of the window, that’s all, ‘til we got all healed. I don’t know how they are now, they should give you the good treatment and I handed out—I was in the kitchen, but you couldn’t go in the kitchen either if you looked sickly—they checked you out and then you were able to go in the kitchen. So I worked in the kitchen.
Suffering from sea sickness along the way, they finally arrived in Quebec. Emmy describes her first impressions of Canada.
We got to Quebec and I looked—my goodness it was cold. And they always talked about French, no I don’t want to be here. But you were listening and you were working up here so okay you want to hear Quebec. So you’re going to the rest, then we end up in Montreal. But now, need to know the language, nothing….
After two days in Montreal, they arrived in Alberta. They had immigrated as sugar-beet labourers, but because of the many immigrants assigned to do the same work, it was difficult to find a farmer who would hire a whole family. Emmy’s family moved from farm to farm in the region of Coaldale, Picture Butte, and Taber.
… then as we came on in Lethbridge, of course it was not Lethbridge, it was Lettebrück. So now there comes the farmer, he’s going to take you, so now what’s going to happen? But he doesn’t want that many people. My brother was married, okay that’s the one. But still there’s so many people to work in the sugar beets. So finally he picked us up, we went to Picture Butte. So there we are in Picture Butte—no, he doesn’t want that many people. So we had to go to a Russian—still don’t know what the town was, it was close to Raymond, but he didn’t talk—didn’t know any English, he didn’t—I think he must have been Russian. But we couldn’t communicate. Just was nothing. Then finally other farmer picks up, so we went to Coaldale, we were there. Winter came—well, actually I went, after the sugar beet fields, I went working—I went to Lethbridge to work out, not enough money.
And then we went to Picture Butte. In Picture Butte we stayed a while… I felt myself alone. We went to Taber, it was still a little farm. It was very nice, the people were very nice, and you looked after the kids, and whatever you had to do you did.
As the second oldest, Emmy felt responsible to help pay back the Lutheran World Relief who had paid for their journey. She decided to move to Calgary to find work and the friends she had met on the boat from Germany, some of whom she knew had moved to Calgary.
And then I decided I can’t stay there, I have to pay the fare back. Not just for myself, I was the oldest in my family and I have to have a job that I can pay. So it was my decision after the sugar beets I have to go to Calgary and then I had friends from the boat, but I didn’t see on the boat—I was sick. They were in Picture Butte some, there were some in Raymond, and all around there—Coaldale. So then I heard that some of them were already in Calgary. So then I went, I decided to go to Calgary, so then my sister, she wanted to come along. I says, you ask mom. There was five years difference between us. So she was 17 and I was 21. My sister and I took the bus, we came on in the afternoon, five to four. Where do you go now? They’re closing up, [unclear] unemployment office. They gave us jobs. I was able to walk there. That was gutsy too, you don’t know English, nothing, and you’re going to walk there and just give them the paper. My sister, she got picked up, so my sister she worked with a couple with two kids. I worked for a couple with four kids. I got $57 a month. But I was the one who has to pay the bill. I was the oldest.
Emmy’s $57 paycheck was not enough to pay all her bills, but she eventually got a job with the Crosses, a wealthy family in Calgary who paid her $100 a month. While working for them, Emmy also attended English classes at Western Canada High School.
For Crosses I stayed there for two years and I got to know my husband. As I got to know my husband, he had a car. But I didn’t miss the car—the Crosses, I could go into town, they paid for that, I could take the taxi—took the taxi and midweek I got half a day off, or a day off and then Sundays to go to church, so I mean, I had a way, it’s not that I needed my husband’s car. But I want to let you to understand—that time, you know how people thought, when you got to know somebody you want—dependent, you need the car. I did not need a car. So then I got to know my husband. Matter of fact, I went to school…. I could walk to school…. [When] you went to Western High, you were in Little Germany.
Church was another place of connection for Germans, and Emmy began at Immanuel Lutheran Church, but with the encouragement of friends, Jehovah Lutheran (later renamed St. Matthew’s) became her home church.
No we actually went first to another church, to Immanuel Lutheran Church, we got in there and they looked—on one side is men, the other side, the women. I thought, that’s not our church, that’s different. So we stayed. Then we thought, we’re going to find out if there’s another one. Then our friends, they found out. So we went there, and the church was so full. They had chairs and still with people standing up…. We got married there [at Jehovah Lutheran]. The kids got all baptized there.
Despite having a strong community of friends, getting married, and having kids, Emmy still struggled to feel at home in Canada. She describes her thought process and reasons she missed home.
Well, just let’s see. When you’re hungry, you put up with a lot. If you need money, you put up—some other things, but I never would have thought I want to go back to Germany. Mind you, I was 21. I turned 21 the day I arrived in Calgary.
Ja, I missed the people. From the beginning I missed the job. Very, very badly. That was the most thing that I missed was the job. And then, you made friends, you tried other jobs, but you didn’t get the job that was in Germany. And the people here, you had to make new friends. But I guess God knows why. … I was very happy to go back to Germany for a visit, after that I guess I must have gave up and settled.
After a visit back to Germany, Emmy finally felt settled and made Canada her permanent home with her young family. When asked how she identifies herself, Emmy replied:
German. I call myself German. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a Canadian. I am a Canadian. But I mean, I don’t know how to say. Well, let’s just say. Still going to a German church, so I guess that’s why.