Erwin Leitz relates his mother Helene Hein’s immigration story, because she is over 100 years old and speaks very little English. (Often, during our interview, they speak German together, then Erwin explains her story.) Helene was born in May 1915 in Manukbejewka, Bessarabia, in southeastern Europe. Erwin begins by explaining some of Helene’s childhood experiences.
She went to school, three hours a day, only in the wintertime. In the summertime, they were too busy with chores, and the rest of the time she was working at home, helping out on the farm. … Her dad died when she was three years old, so she was raised by … her mother only, and … bake, wash, there always was something to do. You know, on the farm there’s always chores to do: feed the chickens, the geese. They had all kinds of animals so she was responsible to help out on that. She told me that when she was nine years old she had to do the cooking already. Whenever she could she had to start cooking, because grandma was all by herself. She had no men in her life the first little while, so she had to pretty well help out with anything.
It was mainly—the only pleasure that they had is Sundays going to church and then doing games that were played in church. You know she told me that they had—what do you call— sack races and then she had spoons with eggs— they would run across a line. Stuff like that. … They were very strong Lutheran. Very disciplined. Every Sunday they had to go to church. They didn’t have a real church—it was done in other peoples’ houses, you know, the first little while.
On behalf of Helene, her son Erwin begins to describe how the Second World War affected the family, starting with their displacement in 1940.
We were brought out, we had 48 hours to get out of our country. We were put onto wagons, shipped to the nearest railway place, put on the railway. We went to— I can’t remember—Yugoslavia, or one of those countries—and then put onto the ship on the Danube, down the Danube into Austria. In Austria, we were put into a camp, which was Hitler’s observation camp. He wanted to see if those people— if we were communists or Russian-influenced, or German. After a year they came and put us into a train. We didn’t know where we were going. We were put into Poland, because Hitler promised us land the same as we had in the old country, and he kept his promise. He threw the Poles off of their farms, and put us into their place, and we had to work the farms. In 1942, Dad was told that he had to go and serve in the army. He refused. The SS told him “We will come tomorrow morning. If you’re not ready, we’ll put you against the wall and shoot you, so you got a choice.” So he was drafted in the army. Then the Germans came and took the horse, the horses that mum had for working the farm. They took that away and they gave her an old ox and she had to plough the fields with that. Also, they gave her two war prisoners, a girl and a boy: Anton, and Antonia, and they had to help with the farm chores. She had to—she did that from ‘40 until ‘45 when the Russians came in.
Helene and her son Erwin were living in a different town than her parents at that time, and as the Soviet Army advanced into Poland, they made their way to her parents’ home. Helene and Erwin continue their story.
We no sooner got there when the Russians started advancing into the town, so we were told to get out as fast as we could. Grandmother—she wanted to get a lot of materials onto the wagon—it was all done by horse and wagon. Grandma—she wanted her sewing machine and she took a long time, and the people that were directing us, they said “Come on, let’s go. You gotta get out of there. The Russians are coming in. They’re attacking, and you have to leave as soon as possible.”
After escaping by wagon and then proceeding on foot, Helene and her children were separated from her parents. Miraculously, they were reunited, then settled in a town, where Helene’s father earned money roasting canola and making oil. One day, the town’s told Helene’s family that a train was going to take them back towards Russia, to Bessarabia. Erwin continues the story.
And then grandfather and grandmother and my aunt were given permission to go onto the train but mum didn’t …. So mum was standing there crying and this mayor came over and he says, “Why are you crying?” and she says, “Well, my parents have permission to go onto the train and go back to the—and I’d like to join them.” And he said, “I’m gonna give you the papers. You’re gonna go with them.” So, he gave us the papers and we were allowed to go with grandma and grandpa onto the train. We got into the train. The train was a boxcar. There was—stacked full with—refugees, no, we didn’t have any place to pee. I had a bottle and mum was able to utilize that. Otherwise there was no way. And then of course when the door was opened, we poured it out—she poured it out or I poured it out—can’t remember. Anyway, there was an attack one night, and the train was going—we didn’t know where we were going—and all of a sudden, the doors opened. We looked—we were in a railway station that was all bombed out. There was glass all over the place, and we ended up in Lubeck, east—northern Germany.
Now in the British Occupation Zone, Helene and her two boys soon taken by an English officer to be housed in the grand home of a land baron, who was not overly welcoming.
I can still see him standing at the door, and it looked to me that he didn’t want us there, but I noticed that the Englishman went for his pistol and then the German said, “OK, they can come with us.” So he gave us a room in the castle on the far corner. It had a little kitchen, and we stayed there for quite a number of months or even a year. While mum was there, of course, he found out that she was able to milk cows and he had a big—what do you call it—barn with a bunch of cows in it so she was able to milk the cows and of course she brought us some milk and we had some to have. They were actually quite stingy. They didn’t give us that much. I remember mum one day—they were butchering geese—and the Germans didn’t eat the heads, or the gizzards, or the liver and that they were throwing onto the—oh, what do you call it—[unintelligible], manure pile. So mum seen it and she says, “Can I take it?” And that was all the feet of the geese, the gizzard and that. Well she cleaned it all up and we had a little bit of grain that she had gathered together, and she made noodles, and then we had chicken noodle soup, and it smelled so good, the owner came down and said, “Oh, what do you cook?” And mum told him, you know, and he couldn’t believe that we could eat that, you know, ‘cause Germans didn’t eat that, and back in the old country we used everything.
Helene and Erwin then explain how they found her husband.
OK, then our grandfather and grandmother were working on the same farm. They were kinda employed by this landlord, and everybody at that time was searching for somebody, and mum was told that Dad had died in the war. Mum wouldn’t believe it. She said, “No, he’s alive.” So there was a lady who came to visit and she says, “I know where your husband is. He’s in Mannheim,” and mum says, “then I’ll”—or, she had somehow written him a letter and he got a hold of it and he came down, and then they worked on the farm together for a while.
After being reunited with the family, Helene’s husband and brother were able to procure living arrangements in Godorf, near Cologne. Also around this time, Helene’s mother began communicating with relatives in Canada via the Red Cross.
Grandmother put a letter into the Red Cross. She knew that she had a sister in Canada, in Alberta, but she didn’t know the town, or anything about it, you know. She just know the name, and that she was in Alberta. And it took two years and she got a letter from her sister. She was in Hanna. So they started communicating back and forth and they decided to go to Canada. So 1948, my grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle were gonna go to—or went to Canada. My aunt didn’t quite make it because she was pregnant at the time and you weren’t allowed to immigrate to Canada when you were pregnant. So she had to stay behind for a year, but then she immigrated after that. We of course were still in Godorf, and Dad wrote to—or my uncle wrote to Dad, you know, how good Canada is and blah, blah, blah. And Dad, one evening, around dinnertime—I can’t remember exactly when it was—but he came and said, “We’re moving to Canada,” and I said, “Where the heck is Canada?!” [Laughing]
I didn’t know where it was. I knew it was in America, you know. We didn’t know Canada existed, because in Germany, everybody talked about America. So then I did a lot of reading, and I got an atlas and I looked it up and I said, “Oh, that’s where the cowboys and Indians are,” because I read a lot of Karl May’s books, which used to be a famous writer.
OK, my dad got a letter from my uncle in Canada, and then we decided to go to Canada, so we made the application and we were accepted. My uncle paid for all the cost that was involved to bring us over. We left Canada on the first of June 1953, the day that the Queen was inaugurated. We were on the ship, I believe—I can’t remember for sure—eight or ni—eight or ten days. We ended up in Quebec. We got transferred. We went through customs … I can’t remember exactly what all transpired in there. Anyway, we got onto the train. We were four days in the train. We ended up at Calgary at 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon and were greeted by my uncle and aunt. That’s how we got to Canada.
Helene and Erwin go on to describe their feelings upon arriving in Canada.
Well, it was scary—it was exciting. We didn’t realize how big the country was. I remember Dad standing on the window, when we got to Winnipeg, and he says, “We got to come to the place where the world comes to an end,” you know, because we didn’t realize how big the country was. We were scared and excited at the same time, you know. It’s hard to put that into a real feeling, you know. It’s—we were glad that we had a place where it seemed to be peaceful and quiet. In Germany, we were not liked. We were the Low Germans, and we were called the Flüchtlingsdeutsche [the refugee Germans], you know. I got more spanking in school because I was a foreigner, a foreigner in Germany. You know, the teachers didn’t like us, and the people in general was the same thing. And of course, when we came to Canada, it was a little bit different, although there was some people that called us Nazis or DPs, but, you know that— … And, we were homesick, I mean, Mum and I, I remember, we cried quite a bit, and said if there was a road going back we’d go back. You know, it hurt, because I didn’t have—or we didn’t have any friends. The only thing was relatives, and we couldn’t really speak with them because they spoke English, very broken German, so it was hard to communicate, so it was very difficult. Mum never did learn the language. She never had the opportunity because she always stayed at home. She did clean houses for some Jewish people but then they speak German too, so she didn’t have a chance to learn the language. Myself, I wanted to learn it really bad, and really fast. I said, “If I’m gonna be here, I wanna learn.” So what I did—I started working right away. I wanted to go back to school but mum and dad said, “No, we need the money. You gotta go to work.”
Finally, on behalf of his mother Helene, Erwin reflects on his experiences and identity as a German-Canadian.
I take great pride in my German. I am fluent in the language. I read a lot of German book. My music, I must say, is practically all German. I can’t stand the—I’m sorry [laughing]—your young jitterbug music. I just can’t hack that. I still do a lot of German food. My mum taught me a lot of the foods, so I do a lot of the different dishes that she used to make—or I try to make them. She says I do them better than what she done, which is not true. But, no I—but I would not trade this country for any other country. I’m Canadian. I’ll fight for Canada.