Gertraude Rose emigrated from Germany in 1953, settling in Edmonton, AB. In 2014 and 2015, she wrote out her memories of the end of the Second World War in the German (later Polish) town of Stolp, her time under Soviet occupation in Poland, her immigration to Canada, and her first work experience in a clothing factory.
The Way I Experienced the End of World War II
It is a long time ago, but my memories are deeply embedded from what happened on March 7 and 8, 1945. The time seemed endless as we had orders to wait for my father to be called in to the reserve army. The end of the Second World War was close. But we did not know how close.
Our little packet hand wagon stood in front of the door, when a group of PW [prisoners of war] came by and took it with them. They too knew that the end of the war was near, and they would be free again. If it had not been for my brother’s quick action, we would have lost everything that was packed on it. Hans ran after them, and claimed the wagon back.
It was a cold day and snow covered the ground, and we had prepared to leave everything behind. My mother had told us to put on as many garments on top of one another as we possibly could, because this morning we would leave the city behind and start our walk toward Danzig, a port city 136 km east from where we lived. Trains were not available to us anymore. And since we did not own any other transportation, we had to walk.
For days the unmistakable sounds of cannon shooting had come closer and closer. Realizing the danger, we were more than ready to flee. It was not until later that we learned how close the front had been. Only 16 km away from our city.
But we had orders from the government to stay where we were. Our goal had been to catch a boat that would take us to Denmark. Although this was no sure way to escape either. Many boats were bombed and went to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, taking hundreds of refugees with them. I still don’t know why we were not allowed to leave sooner. But this was the day when we could leave our city Stolp [now Słupsk, Poland], a city in northeast Germany close to the Baltic Sea. My mother had packed the most necessary items. There was no room for luxuries. We were ready to begin our journey. My brother Hans and sister Lydia pulled the wagon, and my mother and I pushed. It was hard work. To exit the city, we had to climb a steep hill. My father had asked us to pick up his mother and two aunts on the way out of the city. Oma was only in her seventies, but she was not strong enough to walk long distances. So, she was put on top of their little wagon and they went ahead of us, but close enough that my brother Hans, and sister Lydia could help pushing their cart, and at the same time pull ours.
The day before our father had been called into the Volksturm, a last-ditch effort to increase the military. So, he was unable to be with us. At age fifty, under normal circumstances he would not have been drafted. But nothing was normal anymore.
With a heavy heart I had to leave my beloved dolls behind. There was no room for items like that on the cart. And yet I loved them like an eleven-year-old girl can love dolls. They were so dear to me. I had dressed them in their best clothing and had hidden them under my pillow before we left. Just to make sure that when the pillagers came in, they would not see them. Looting was rampant after people had vacated their dwellings.
The highway was lined with people on foot with hand luggage, knapsacks. Others like us had little carts. Amongst them were horse-drawn wagons covered with oriental rugs to serve as a roof. There was no shortage of military equipment, such as trucks, tanks, cannons and the like among us. The ditches were lined with cars that had been abandoned because they had run out of gasoline. Their owners, like us, they too had to walk.
Dragging behind horse-drawn wagons were goats, dogs, and all types of livestock. Amongst us were groups of prisoners of war on foot. Prison doors had been opened and the prisoners still in their prison garb, were free to go where they wanted too. Many inmates mingled with us. We were barely out of the city when we witnessed a shooting of a PW because he was unwilling or too weak to walk. My mother’s sigh annoyed the guard, who had just committed the murder and he warned her, if she did not shut her mouth she would be next. A lesson learned for the time to come where we saw things that nobody should have witnessed. We had no choice but to take in all those impressions and deal with them. Even when someone’s life was taken from him in our presence. Mother would try to block our view from such cruelty as well as she could. But kids have a way to see what they should not see. It was good that we had left in the morning, because the Russian troupes had entered the city in the evening. Their vehicles had driven through parts of the city with flares, and had set it on fire. Eyewitnesses had told us that the area where we lived was included, and the houses had burned to the ground. I sat in a quiet corner and cried; my dolls were gone.
For my birthday, which was only days before we left, my mother had a tailor sew a new coat for me. It was roomy enough to wear over my old one. Walking beside the wheel of the handcart all day, I discovered in the evening that the rubbing of the wheel sadly had taken a big chunk out of the corner of my new coat. It is amazing how far people will run when driven by fear. The first day we only ran 18 km, until it was dark; we slept in some farmer’s hayloft. It was dark and because our city lay in a valley, we could see the red reflection of fire in the sky. The following day we walked until we could not walk any further. March 8 was one of those days where we, being totally exhausted, checked into an inn in a small village. The innkeeper was visibly drunk but after asking where we could stay for the night, he pointed to the upstairs. To our surprise, the room was dark; only faint light came through the window, casting a shadow on the people who sat on a straw-covered floor. It was a large group of people who, like us, were totally exhausted and not able to walk any longer. After we squeezed in, we found a place to sit on the floor. Sitting like the rest of them, we fell asleep. It did not matter that we could not lie down, or that we had to share the room. No one had suspected what happened within the next few hours. At midnight we had a rude awakening when the first group of Russian soldiers came into our room with flashlights, looking for soldiers that could possibly be hiding amongst the women and children. When they found none, they left. It seems that that was their only assignment. Their uniforms were not impressive. Their head-coverings were made out of fur, their boots were heavy felt, and their jackets were quilted, similar to what we wear here in the winter. They all carried machine guns with long bayonets which they waved freely in front of us. It was a very frightening experience.
We realized that we were overrun by the Russian army and did not know what would happen to us. There was fear that we all could be shot. My mother had hidden my 16-year-old brother behind her, because he was still wearing his Hitler Youth uniform, with a swastika banner around his arm. They were the warmest clothes he had. As soon as the first group of soldiers left, my mother made Hans change his clothes and she quickly shoved his uniform in an oven. Then she informed us that, for us, the war was over. Good! Or so we thought. We had no idea what was awaiting us in the next two years. A blessing in disguise. I believe that God’s protection was with us. Then came another group of soldiers. They wanted gold and leather. My mother’s wedding ring looked inviting to a soldier and he tried to get it off her finger. But she had worn it for more than twenty-five years and it was deeply set into a grove. The next target was the leather boots she was wearing. They belonged to my father, but she decided to wear them on our journey. Her feet were so swollen from walking all day that no one was able to take them off her feet. How would my mother have been able to walk in subzero temperatures without shoes?
The next group that came had celebrated their victory downstairs in the bar. And the molesting of women was on their mind. Younger women were called out several times during the night. God was ever present to protect us. My 14-year-old sister could have been an easy target. But with the Psalmist we can say, “He had given charge to His angels to watch over us.”
The exhaustion and the fear of what was going on had brought on what we think was a heart attack in my aunt Helen. She was screaming in pain. The anguish must have been excruciating, because she begged the next soldier that came into our room to please shoot her, which he was willing to do, had it not been for his comrade who pushed his hand down and said, “Don’t shoot this woman. She is the mother of these girls,” pointing to Lydia and myself. God had protected us again.
At dawn the next morning, we gathered our few belongings and left the place that had brought great distress upon us. We run as fast and as far away as we could. Hunger made us stop at a vacant house to look for some food, but we only found ajar of preserved cherries of which half had already been eaten. It did not matter that someone else had eaten out of the glass. The spoon was still in it. We did not even wonder who had eaten the other half. We finished it and looked around for more food, but found none.
We entered the next house that we assumed had been deserted, but to our surprise, we found a single Russian soldier in the kitchen. He was in the process of frying potatoes in the largest frying pan I have ever seen. Frightened, we were ready to turn around and leave, when he motioned us to stay. I believe it was God’s provision for us to get something to eat. The portion that he had fried, would have been way too much for one person. Never before or after have fried potatoes tasted as good as the ones the soldier shared with us. When he saw that we were ready to leave, he gave us a large can that contained sugar. We thanked him, and went on our way homeward.
But it was not as easy to go home as it sounds. Chaos was everywhere, and we had no protection. Any soldier could have shot us, without consequence. For the most part, we walked in groups with other refugees. Fear was a constant companion.
When evening came we looked for shelter in a forest just off the road. Other refugees had already begun building shelters. We must have borrowed either a knife or hatchet from others because we had neither to cut branches from the low hanging spruce trees that were to be our shelter for the night, to keep the snow and cold out. We were almost done when word came to inform us to leave at once or we would be considered partisans and we would all be shot. Exhausted? Yes, but we grabbed our stuff and headed back to the highway.
A little ways down, we stopped at a stately house. It looked vacant and we planned to stay there overnight. Upon entering the house, we had a surprise. One room was overfilled with refugees, while the rest of the house was empty. Amazingly fast we had found out that we were safer in groups. People were lying like sardines in a can, on the floor that didn’t even have a straw cover.
We joined them. It did not matter who lay next to us. We all had just one desire to escape in sleep for a few hours and forget what turmoil we had found ourselves in during the last twenty-four hours since we had met the front head on. More people did come into the room, but for them it was standing room only. The wall was their support.
Early the next morning we left the crowd behind. Just like on the day before, the highway was still congested with military vehicles and with horse-drawn wagons. Often, they had tied some livestock to their treks, and there were large groups of people on foot like we were. This time traffic was going in two directions, because everyone was heading homeward, and home was not necessarily in the same direction. The pace had slowed down, because we were besieged. There was no hurry to get anywhere, unlike two days before when we tried to run away from the front.
We were walking on the highway when we suddenly heard the sound of low flying airplanes. When we looked up, my brother quickly identified them as German bombers.
Only for us, the war was over. The German Army was not yet ready to give up. The war was still on until May 8, 1945 two months later.
Everyone tried to clear the highway as quickly as possible into the ditches and the nearby open fields. The attack lasted only a few minutes, but when it was over many people were dead or wounded. God had sent His angels to protect us. Nothing happened to us. A mother next to us pleaded with my mother to take care of her three children, she was sure that she was going to die. Her injuries were close to her heart. We stayed with them for a few weeks, and witnessed the metal working its way out through the back, without any medical help, or from any doctor.
The bombs had come down on us like rain. Why our saintly aunt Helen was so badly wounded that she was unable to walk we don’t know. One of her legs was riddled with bomb slivers. But God provided help for her. A Russian army nurse came to her and cleaned and bandaged her wounds. But walking was out of the question. She had to be put on a cart that Lydia and Hans pulled. That left my mother and me to take care of our belongings and grandma. God had miraculously protected the rest of us from any harm. Hans had sought shelter under an oil tanker. Unthinkable what could have happened to him if the tanker had been hit.
The distance that had taken us only two days to where we met the front, took us two months to return. Disturbing news had come to us by word of mouth about the things that were happening in the city. The chance of not starving to death was better in the country where some of the farmers, as was customary, had stored piles of potatoes, carrots and turnips in their fields at harvest time the previous year. A straw and earth cover protected them from frost.
People who had arrived before we did, had started to open these storage piles, and there was plenty of food for quite a while. When the reserves were depleted we would move on to the next village. These items were our main foods for the next two months. We had no facilities to cook because we did not have a pot or a pan. Everything was eaten raw. Our meals consisted of turnips and carrots, as often as we felt like eating. Depending on which village we stopped and decided to stay we ate the same food morning, noon and evening.
The next village had a large supply of grain, rye, wheat and barley. The villagers were ordered by the Russian commander to thresh the harvest from the year before and the grain would then be shipped to Russia. We children hung around on threshing days, and when it was time to take away the full sacks, while the machine kept running, we would cup our hands, and fill them. That too was eaten raw. Potatoes were also available to us. But we had nothing to cook them in. So, we found a way to make baked potatoes by collecting field stones, and making a little circle kind of a fireplace, then we put them directly into the fire. Dried branches kept the fire going. Sometimes the potatoes were a little too burned, that part had to be discarded. But only that particular part. Often we ate the potatoes raw.
Slowly organization by the military administration took place to some extent. We stayed in one village where at one time a very rich land owner had built for himself a castle-like building. The ceilings were high and were decorated with beautiful art edged with what looked like gold. Of course, it was not but it looked like it. No one knew what had happened to the owners, who were treated with great respect by the villagers, because they often employed the whole village to work in their fields. When found by the army they were often shot to death. The Russians didn’t like capitalists. The place was very elegant and portrayed wealth and reminders of the good days the owners must have had when they lived in it. It was too good for us, but lent itself well as a refugee camp. It had a hotel-sized kitchen in the basement; the large stove came in handy and served many. The kitchen was stocked with all the kitchen utensils that were needed to cook. It was available to everybody. The glamorous dining room, the library, and dancehall were now a home to refugees. The floors were covered with straw, and the rooms were overflowing with people. When we arrived, the only place that was available to us was the attic where perhaps hundreds of others had slept before we did. During the nights we often heard owls making their presence known. There was no shortage of superstitious people that connected those cries with the killing of all of us. We did not need that kind of talk. And thanks to God we did not believe those omens. But many people did, and added to their fear.
It was there that I witnessed a mother in distress. She had a small little boy who was very sick. I remember the child crying almost all the time. The mother was stressed to her limits, and said things to the sick child that made me want to pick him up and cuddle him. In a few days, he had passed away. No one knew what caused his death.
I think this was the place where we picked up lice and fleas. The fleas had a way of pestering my brother at night. My sister Lydia and I were plagued with head lice that bit their way through the skin of our heads and then thrived on our blood. We had nothing to kill them with, and had to endure those pesky critters for a long time.
It was a relatively quiet time that we spent in that particular village. But we were still under Russian jurisdiction. Since we had no radio or any other communication, we had no idea whether the rest of Germany was still at war or not. We could only suspect that the war was still in progress, because no one came to rescue us.
One morning it was announced by the Russians that all refugees had to line up morning and evening, to supposedly be counted. Several soldiers were assigned to choose the most fit from the group. Generally, they were chosen to walk with a herd of livestock to Russia, or they were taken by force to Siberia.
On one of those evening “counts” my mother and my brother were ordered to come out of the lineup. Lydia was 14 years old and I had just turned 11. We were left standing alone crying. They along with others were taken away from us. We had heard that most people did not return. Many simply disappeared. This was our biggest fear that we might never see them again.
While Lydia and I lay on our straw bed and had cried ourselves to sleep, my mother and brother Hans along with others, were taken away and they were ordered to fill the tank of a locomotive with pails of water that they had to carry from somewhere a distance away. The locomotive had a large hole in the bottom. As quickly as they poured the water in, it ran out. It was not until they stood knee deep in mud that they were allowed to go back to where they had been taken from. Tired but happy they returned to us in the early morning hours. For the next night my mother had thought out an escape plan. And so it was in the dark of the night we fled. Leaving my two aunts and grandma behind. Even though my aunt had recovered enough that she could walk again, my mother had enough. She may have never have been forgiven for that move.
But to save her sanity, she had to do it this way.
While on our way back again we saw the ditches filled with valuable items that people had discarded to ease their or their horses’ load. No one cared whether it was picked up by others. It had become a burden, and was thrown away. My sister Lydia was the only one of us that took a souvenir in the form of a silver spoon, which she brought with her to Canada and that is still in her possession.
We had only a glimmer of hope that the things we had heard about the state of the city were just rumours, until we saw it with our own eyes. For us there was no home anymore, fire had truly levelled the area where we had lived. The bricks had tumbled unto the street. Amongst the ashes we saw the iron stand of my mother’s sewing machine, and a few kitchen utensils hanging on the wall that had withstood the heat of the fire.
I still remember my mother’s reaction. She folded her hands, looked at the rubble, and said. “The Lord gave it; the Lord took it away; blessed be His name.”
New Beginning in the City
Now we had to find a place to stay in the city for the night which was relatively easy. The city looked still desolate. The majority of the people had fled and had not yet returned for whatever reason. At that time, we could have occupied any dwelling, but safety was only where other people were. And that is what we looked for. We checked into a house that looked as if the neighbouring houses were occupied. From our window we could overlook the street. It was one or two days after we had moved in, when we saw a group of Russian soldiers go into every house. They either wanted to plunder or were looking for women that they could do awful things too. We feared that we could be next. We prayed earnestly for protection, and God did send His angels to protect us again. The soldiers passed our dwelling by, and went into the next house. God had done marvelous protection for us all along. Nothing had happened to us physically during all this time.
Fearing that we had isolated ourselves, we checked out the place where we had lived for 18 years and where I was born. We found it empty—well, semi-empty. One room was occupied with an old dying man. He did die a few days after we moved in. I do remember that he was carried out of his room. The lice and flea-infested body was wrapped in his own blanket that my mother and our neighbour had stitched up around his body. I don’t know who took him or where he was taken to—possibly to the dump.
Having the same neighbours, old buddies, we felt a little more protected.
They had decided not to leave the city, because their daughter was due any day to give birth to her first child. Sadly, it died shortly after it was born.
Now we had a new worry: where could we get some food? The people that had stayed in the city had plundered the grocery stores after their owners had left, and they had an ample amount of food stored, but since they did not know how long their food had to last, they protected their loot.
The city was in chaos; nothing was organized. The store shelves were empty, and no one was available or able to reopen any of the stores. Period.
For the next almost two years we had to rely on God’s mercy for food. I still hear my mother say, “Elijah’s raven have fed us again this day,” when someone had shared a little food with us. The people that had vacated the suite that we had taken up had left some kitchen utensils which were available for us to use. Now when we had one or two potatoes we could shred them and cook a water soup from them. If we only had had a little salt. Finally, at the streetcar depot, we found some red salt that was used to melt the snow from the streetcar rails. It was rosy coloured, indicating that it was chemically treated, which we did not know until Lydia and I developed puss boils shortly after consuming it. As if the lice that we had picked up and had to cope with were not enough. The straw beds that others had slept in, and we had followed, where the perfect breeding place. They thrived on our infections. In desperation my mother repeatedly told us the answer to our dilemma would be to cut off all our hair as many others had done. Because for us there was nothing available to get rid of the lice. Lydia’s and my plea made mom change her mind. We really should not have worried; we didn’t even have a pair of scissors.
There was a ray of hope. My mother’s sister lived in the country, but it was 17 km away. It was decided one morning that we were all going to walk there. Not only was my aunt happy to see us, but she had the solution for our lice problem. In the evening she poured petroleum oil on our heads, and bound a tight scarf around our head before we went to bed. That did it. In the morning all lice were dead. That was the end of lice; we never had them again, and our wounds healed too. Living in the country, she was also able to give us some food to take home.
One day a Russian officer and his common-law wife knocked on our door. They had a baby that needed a babysitter. We were cut out for that. Little Tamara, only a few weeks old, was a ray of sunshine for us. Lydia and I loved babies. These two would come by daily to nurse little Tamara, and then they would disappear. When they came, they would sometimes bring some bread for us as payment. It meant that we had something to eat for a few days. No money was exchanged. It would not have helped us anyway. Absolutely no stores had reopened. Only God knows where the owners were. The shelves remained empty. The plunderers had wasted no time emptying them.
In the month that followed, I don’t know where, but one day we found a salt block, the kind that was given to cows to lick so they would drink more water, and consequently give more milk. We soaked it in water, and used the water to cook whatever we had for the day.
We lived like that for several weeks, when the Russians commander had a plan for us. My mother found a job dismantling railroad ties. This was done in two’s. Two women had to go round and round all day with a large t-shaped tool to undo the nuts that held the rails to the ties. The rails then were shipped to Russia. The pay for this work was one loaf of bread per week; without feeding the workers, they would not have had the energy to do the work.
During the next few weeks, sewing machines and pianos were collected and they also were destined to be shipped to Russia, but they were left standing outside in the spring rain and probably lost their function forever.
My brother had found a job 10 km out of town to dismantle machinery, which was also to be shipped to Russia. He was given a bowl of soup a day, and one slice of bread as his daily ration. He lived on the water soup only, and saved the bread which made up a loaf after six days then he would bring it home for us when he walked home on the weekend. I recently I asked him why he sacrificed the food for us. His answer,” I felt responsibility for my little sisters and my mother.” What a noble thought of a then 17-year-old boy.
With Mom gone all day, and my brother working out of town, that left Lydia and me to spend a lot of time alone. I don’t know what Lydia’s favourite pastime occupation was, but I liked paper dolls that I had first to design out of any scrap paper I could find, and then I designed clothing for it. It was an endless task that I enjoyed immensely. Too bad I did not save them; I would really like to see what they must have looked like.
After the Russians had taken everything they wanted, our province was given over to the Polish government. What the Russians did not take, the Poles did. The plundering went on.
News was spread by word of mouth that everyone twelve years of age could come to a certain place in the morning, to help to clean up the city. Bricks that had crumbled unto the streets, when the buildings had burned down, were to be picked up and piled up. Streets needed to be swept. Although I was only eleven years old, I too went and worked for a slice of bread. During the month that followed, we went to the garbage to look for stuff that was saleable to the Poles at their daily flea market. Anything that people had thrown out before they moved into a house, we cleaned and sold. My brother had in the meantime returned to the city. I guess his work of dismantling machinery was completed.
The three of us then went to unoccupied empty houses and removed switches and lamps, which we then took to the market as well. We never had a problem selling those items. Some other stores had—during the two years since they had occupied our city—opened under Polish management—some grocery and other stores. For the zlotys (Polish money) we received for the used items, we could buy a little other food besides bread.
In time the Poles opened up our schools for their children, but only for theirs. We were not given the choice to attend. I should have been in grade five and six during that time, but for two years, I could not go to school a single day. My brother was concerned for me. In order for me to see what I had missed, he would say, “Traude, we have to play school or you will remain as dumb as bean-straw.” He often became my teacher. We did some fractions, dictations, reinforced the timetable, and anything he could think of without having any textbooks.
During all this time my mother was concerned what had happened to my three older siblings—Maria, Ruth and Elisabeth—and my father. We had no idea whether they were alive or not. Unknown to us, my older sisters were lucky to escape to West Germany before the war ended. They were already away from home holding military related jobs when we fled. Father, shortly after he joined the army, became a prisoner of war in Belgium and was also released into West Germany. Thanks to the Red Cross, mother was able to find out that all were alive and well. They were equally concerned what had happened to us. But it was not until March 1947 that we were reunited as a family. The next four months were very eventful, and things improved immensely.
Written in March 2015, by Traude Rose
My Immigration Story
With great anticipation, I opened the long-awaited letter. It would either contain acceptance or rejection of my application to immigrate to Canada, a land I knew very little about. Yes, it contained my visa! And also the itinerary. So that gave me permission to come to Canada. Now I could make my final preparations for the journey that I was to start on November 28, 1953.
A short time later, on November 26, I was in Bremerhaven. Only a few days later, we were to sail to Canada. The November storms worried me a bit; they could be nasty. But at the present time, I was still safe on land. Other than that, I was excited to go on a seafaring journey.
Canada. What could I expect? I was assuring myself that if I did not like it there, I could come back to Germany. After all my boss had assured me that I could come back to my job if I did not like it in Canada. Then came the time to board the ship. The ramp leading up to the vessel had large letters on the side which spelled IMMIGRATION. Since I did not know English I read “immigrazion,” the German way to pronounce it. Honestly, I did not quite know the meaning of the word. Everything since I applied for my immigration happened within a few short months, and I did not have opportunity to go to night school to learn English.
As I took the first steps unto the vessel, I noticed an impressing dining room. The windows which were in plain view as I entered, had elegant curtains of wine-red velvet with golden tassels. Since I grew up near the Baltic Sea, I had seen good size fishing boats, but they were just that. It was only later that I learned that the Beaverbrae really was not big, nor luxurious at all. In fact, it was only a freighter that took immigrants one way, and carried freight the other. And to my disappointment, the lovely dining room was reserved for the captain and his crew. I never saw the inside of it.
The rest of the day was spent exploring the boat—in particular the eating and sleeping area. To my surprise, everything was very makeshift, very primitive. In the bowl of the ship was a kind of cafeteria-style area with bare minimum service. We stood in line and various shipmates handed us—in the true sense, from hand to hand—each a bun; the next shipmate would fish a small piece of butter out of an ice water pail, and the third one that had in front of him an apple box handed each passenger one McIntosh apple. I am sure we had a warm meal too, probably served in the same manner, but I don’t recall how we got it.
It was evening when the ship finally left port, I still see my father and my brother who had come by motorcycle to wave goodbye as they disappeared in the distance. I cannot imagine what went through my father’s heart. Just three months earlier he had seen my sister Lydia off to Canada, and my brother Hans was to follow me.
During the night we crossed the English Channel, where the water is usually choppy. Most of my worries were in vain, with the exception of one early morning where I had to rush on deck where I had hoped the fresh air would help me feel better. But for the rest of that day I sat on deck, violently seasick. Michael, a young man who was my new found friend that I had only known a few days, came periodically to kiss me gently on my cheek, said some encouraging words and brought me water. Maybe he was an angel in disguise.
Sleeping quarters were also on the lower deck or berth deck. Bunk beds were divided by tent awnings. If anyone had a problem sleeping, he could listen to a snoring concert. Nobody had to remind us that we were on a freighter, poorly equipped to transport passengers.
After nine days at sea, we saw the rocky coast of Saint John, New Brunswick. We knew that our journey would end fairly soon, and we greeted the sight of land jubilantly.
We were well into the month of December, as a matter of fact, on December 7, 1953, when I stepped on Canadian soil for the first time.
My immigration papers were checked again. I then boarded a bus that took me to Montreal, from where I took a four-day trip by rail to Edmonton. On the train I experienced the first taste of Canadian hospitality. We, that is the people that had shared my voyage, were greeted by a group that came on board the train to bring gifts for children. From the back, my short blond hair must have looked like that of a child. I was given a necklace too, that I wore for many years with happy memories. What a surprise it must have been for the giver to look into the face of a 19-year-old instead of that of a child. But nobody requested of me to return the gift.
I missed Michael. Our trains were separated in Winnipeg. Michael went by Canadian Pacific to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and I went by CN West. Winnipeg is where we said our goodbyes and never saw each other again.
From the train’s window I could see colourful Christmas decorations all across Canada. Another thing that I noticed, no matter how small the little houses were, all had a car parked beside the house, and often a very high TV antenna. This was a different world alright. Small house, a car, TV—I classified them as luxury items. On December 11 at 7 o’clock in the morning I arrived at the CN train station in Edmonton—alone. Nobody was there to greet me.
My First Days in Edmonton
As I stepped out of the old CN train station, I looked down 100th Street and thought, “Where is everybody? Are there no people in Edmonton? Germany is bustling at this time in the morning.”
It was a mild winter morning; the ground was merely dusted with clean snow that could have fallen during the night or early morning hours. It glittered in the dark and looked beautiful.
I later learned that a group of friends—some I knew others I did not, including my future husband—had come to the train station to greet me on the evening of December 10—11 hours early, at the wrong time, wrong day, and wrong station. It would not have happened had we had cell [phones], which were unheard of at the time.
After I had dealt with my disappointment, I went to a pay phone to notify my sister Lydia of my arrival. Lydia had landed three months prior. We had planned to come together to Canada, but it did not work out. So, she too came alone.
A yellow cab took me close to the university; that is where my job was. Mrs. Smith and her two young children greeted me friendly and paid for the taxi. Mrs. Smith and her husband had guaranteed me a job as a domestic.
On my first evening in Edmonton, I was invited by my friends to a welcoming dinner. I did not know how to find the address where my friends lived. With the address in my hand, Lydia had instructed me to take bus number 5 from the Calgary Clock on Jasper Ave. “And when the bus makes a sharp turn around the corner of 95th Street,” she said, “then get out.” It worked! I had never heard of Jasper Avenue or the Calgary Clock or 95th Street. The Calgary Clock was a landmark in downtown Edmonton.
Several people from Central Baptist Church were invited too. Among them was my future husband, whom I did not know. My first impression of him was, a spoiled mama’s boy. The latter was totally wrong. He honoured his mother but was anything but a mama’s boy. I am glad my diagnosis was wrong.
Christmas came very fast. Christmas songs were heard everywhere, but they meant nothing to me because they were different and I could not understand the words. My English was limited to “yes” and “no.” The rest I had to learn and am still learning. I was so glad that we were able to speak German in church. Every Sunday new immigrants were greeted. The German congregation grew weekly and outnumbered the English speaking one.
A few days before Christmas, the young man whom I had sized up wrongly and named Giesbert Rose invited me to come with him to the MacDougal United Church on Christmas Eve. He said, “There is a Christmas concert, and they have a nice pipe organ.” And so we went, enjoying our first Christmas together.
Bert, as most people called him, had come two years prior to my arrival in Canada and had discovered many interesting places in and around Edmonton that he wanted to show me. I thought he was well to do, because he had a car—a little Hillman—even though it stalled occasionally, unannounced. Many young men were not fortunate enough to have a car. Bert and I enjoyed many dates, and a year and a half later, we were married in Central Baptist Church. Understandably, my roots are deep in Central and I have seen many changes, and people come and go.
Before I left Germany, my father gave me the address of Central Baptist Church (the present Mustard Seed Church) and the pastor’s name. And I remember my father saying, “This is where you will worship when you come to Edmonton.” Another thing he had stressed strongly all through my teen-age years, and again before I left: BE NOT UNEQUALLY YOKED, especially when it comes to choosing a husband. My father knew the problems that could arise if this biblical advice was not headed. God gave me a husband who was a well-grounded Christian. Together we raised our two sons in a Christian home, and shared 52 years of our lives together. Until death did us part. On January 26, 2007.
Written on December 12, 2014, by Traude Rose.
I am looking for a job
“I am looking for a job.” With those words, my then boyfriend, my future husband, let me out of the car to apply for a job at the Great Western Garment factory. Then better known as GWG. This company was willing to hire people who had little or no knowledge of the English language. “Exactly what I needed.”
Walking in with slight hesitancy, I repeated the verse that Bert had taught me to say. “I am looking for a job.” The lady at the front desk gave me an application form that had a minimum of questions. I had no problem filling it out. No further questions were asked. Good. I would not have understood them anyway. I had only been in Canada a very short time, and speaking English was limited to a few words. An interview would have been very trying for both of us.
I started the job the next morning. What a surprise, when I opened the door to the plant. In front of me was a huge room filled with endless rows of women sitting in front of sewing machines, ready to sew. Later I learned there were over 400 employees. The smell—I don’t know why; it may have been the dye of the blue jean material—it reminded me of the smell of a horse barn.
I too was assigned a sewing machine. I was given maybe half an hour or a little more to get acquainted with the speed of the machine. It seems my sample material was slipping faster to the floor than I could catch it. No sooner had I put it under the sewing foot, and it was gone. Then I was given a bundle of twenty blue jeans on which I had to perform the hemming of forty legs, and then pass it on as quickly as I could to the next machine operator in front of me, who had another job to do on it.
No English needed. Nobody took time to talk anyway. The work was monotonous, repetitions and self-explanatory. I never bothered to find out what the next person’s job was. I learned quickly that nobody wanted to talk. Maybe for the same reason—I could not talk. It was piece work and paid a net wage of $19 per week minimum wage, unless one became really fast at the job and exceeded the minimum pay, which some people did. I was not one of them. Not that I did not try, but sewing was not my gift.
In the month that followed, I noticed that pregnant women worked until the nearly last hour before they gave birth to their baby. They came fully equipped to work with a small suitcase with baby clothing to go directly from work to the hospital to deliver their babies. And they were back amazingly soon. No maternity leave in those days.
I later learned that some women had worked at the plant for thirty-plus years. They had taken on a robot-like behaviour. When the bell rang to indicate that the break was over, they were ready like race horses to start sewing. I found no challenge in hemming forty legs that came in bundles of twenty pairs of jeans. The machine speed was controlled with my right knee. I had a hard time learning to control the machine They were so fast, that I had to pick my bundles up from the floor more often then I cared for. This influenced my sewing time. Each bundle had a ticket attached with the amount that the job paid. After I had done my assignment, I took my nine cent stub off the card and passed the bundle and card on to which the remaining tickets were attached. Since I was the first sewer in the row, at least twenty other workers had to perform their job on the same bundle of Jeans after I had done mine. The last person to receive it was the controller, and when my hem was not up to standard, I had to open it and do it again, for nothing. Talk about frustration. I did this job for one year. After all, it paid my rent which was $25 a month for a basement room, which was within walking distance of the Old Central Church. So, in one week I could almost earn enough money to pay the rent. The rest of the money was mine to spend as I pleased. It also allowed me freedom of time after work. Unlike the first job I had. Bert and I were still at the stage of getting to know each other, and enjoyed spending time together.
When my sister Lydia saw how my lifestyle had changed, she too joined me at GWG. Now we worked together, lived together, and shared our expenses. Life was getting better.
Then came the day when I was accused of having lost the card to which the stubs for my succeeding sewers were attached. It indicated how much each sewer was paid for the job they were to do. To this day, I don’t know what happened to it. But I was told that I had to pay for the 19 other sewers that had their turn after mine. With the little English that I had learned, and some sign language, I told the forelady that this was my last hour. And with that declaration, I turned my sewing machine off forever. No regrets.
Written in April 2015 by Traude Rose