Ingrid Black details her experiences of growing up in Canada as a German refugee and her family’s experience in Germany after the Second World War. Her parents were both born in West Prussia and owned a farm in Veilsdorf, where they lived until they had to flee near the end of the war. Ingrid was born in Volpriehausen, a small village in West Germany, in 1949 and has lived most of her life in Canada. Ingrid discusses the experiences of her mother, father, and two brothers fleeing from West Prussia into western Germany.
In winter of 1945 is when the Russians were coming west and all those places in West Prussia, they were—well, I mean, I know the Germans did bad things to the Russians but the Russians also did bad things—I mean we all know that. There was a lot of this getting back at you. They were basically killing everyone. And my dad at that time was working for the railroad. And he somehow got some news that the Germans were going to blow up this bridge that was going across the river in Graudenz, and then nobody would be able to get across unless they went on the ice and the ice was dangerous. So he knew about that and he left his post and he came home to my mom in an apartment and said “Just pack up what you can carry, I’m putting you on this train because of what’s gonna happen, you won’t be able to get out.” My mom had like 15 minutes to look around her apartment and take what she could carry, and she had the little baby, my brother, but he was like, I don’t know, two months, three months, four months old. And then she had my older brother, Horst. And Horst helped and they pushed the baby buggy, put a whole bunch of stuff in there as well, carried stuff, got on the train. And my dad rode his bicycle back to the station at the railroad and they said they were going to shoot him because he left his post. You don’t leave your post, right. I don’t know what he did, begged, maybe somebody said “No, we just can’t do this now,” but he made it, but he thought “what can I do?”—like he didn’t want his family to die either. So they got on the last train and my brother said as they crossed the bridge and got on the other side, the bridge blew up. And nobody else could get across. But as the Russians were coming, they got desperate and people put their horses on wagons, went across the river but many of them fell in and drowned—the horses and the people. My grandparents went across. They both later died in this flight, but that’s something different. Lots of people tried to get across and ja—you see those are the horrors of the war. But my mom made it and my brother, when he used to tell me about these things, he just said you never knew one minute to the next if you were gonna live.
… they got to a place that was taking in refugees, the people were starving themselves, had very little to eat, so you know and there you’ve got refugees to feed too. So it meant again not having much food. And [my brother] remembers being out with my mother in the fields around that village after all the potatoes have been taken out by the farmers, they would go and dig and see if they could find any little leftover potato in the ground that was still there that they could eat and that’s how they kind of survived for a while you know. It was pretty rough … I mean they lost everything. They lost their little farm. They had no possessions. There were no jobs. That was there—my dad probably said “Well, you know, I don’t want to leave Germany, but there’s no chance here.”
After being displaced for a number of years, the family made the decision to come to Canada because Ingrid’s mother had a brother in Alberta who was willing to sponsor their immigration. Ingrid was three months old and her brother, Horst, was seventeen when they made the trip.
All they knew was that my mom had a brother there living on a farm in Delia, Alberta. They probably didn’t know much really, I mean, they were all wrapped up in their own lives over there. And the school system in Germany—my parents both went to grade 8, and then unless you were going on to become a university professor or whatever, most of the people in the village that was their education was 8 years of school and all in German of course. So no, they probably didn’t know that much about Canada.
They first of all asked—wrote a letter to my uncle in Delia asking him if he would sponsor us. And he wrote back and probably had to fill out forms for the Canadian government and all that, said he would. That meant that he had to pay for us to come over. And then over there, they moved from the refugee place where they were living to near Bremerhaven like that’s the town where the ships went from on the north coast. And they had to wait for quite a few months…. I mean they even got fed at food kitchens, like soup kitchens, everyday sometimes that’s all you would get. I mean it was pretty bad after the war. People don’t realize that the war was bad enough but there was a lot of starvation after the war. … My dad definitely wanted to go ‘cause he couldn’t see any way that he could get a job and you know, he definitely wanted to go. My mother, absolutely not. My brother was kinda half and half.
… And the night before – he went out at night while my parents were asleep, and he decided that he was going to swim across the river. Just to make this the last you know—remember he’s a teenager, silly thing. And he went all the way across, he did swim it, I don’t know how wide it was. On the way back, and it’s dark, there was a barge coming down the river, and the way it was, he was already here [demonstrating with actions what happened] and this barge is coming, and he didn’t know whether he had time to go back or go forward but it was very close. And he thought “Uh, oh. Now here I’m gonna die and destroy everything because my parents are planning to go to Canada and if they can’t find me in the morning and maybe there won’t be a body found and what are they gonna think.” And he said it was just the most horrible thing in his life because he didn’t know what decision to make. He didn’t know how he could save himself from you know the—and of course they couldn’t see him, it’s dark. Well, he said he just swam as hard as he could, and of course, he made it or I wouldn’t be telling you this … He sneaked back into the place, went to bed, and didn’t tell them for years and years and years because he knew they would be so angry—I mean so happy he’s alive, but so angry that he would take such a chance. …
Anyway, and then they went on the ship, and I know that my mom said I was fine on the ship as a baby. And my brother and my dad would go up on top and walk around and look at the ocean, but she said she pretty well stayed below. And anyways, she was mourning because she had to leave Germany. So, it wasn’t that happy of a time. … then they got into Canada, in Halifax and landed. And they realized they had a big train ride—didn’t realize how long of a train ride because Germany’s quite a small country. For trains, you get there quite quick. No, it was days long. And the nurses or I don’t know who it was on the trains, when they found out that she had a young baby, they said “Oh no you can’t mix that milk with water,”—she was giving me milk. She wasn’t strong enough or didn’t have any milk herself, so she was giving me milk mixed with water because that’s what she’d been doing all along. And they said, “Oh no, no, in Canada we give them pure milk.” And she’s trying—she doesn’t know English, but she trying to say, “No that’s not gonna be good for her.” Well, they insisted. So I threw up, and I got sick because it was too rich for me. It’s not what I was used to and she said it was just horrible because she didn’t know how to let them know …. And it took days to get across to Saskatchewan where my uncle picked us up in his pickup, and then went to Delia.
Ingrid continues, explaining her family’s early days in Canada.
I will tell you one story that when my uncle went to pick them up, they came from Halifax by train and my dad and mom, brother and I were met in Saskatchewan—apparently there was a place in Saskatchewan where a lot of these immigrants came. And so my uncle from Delia, Alberta drove there and picked us all up. And there was no room in this truck for everyone so my cousin, my uncle’s daughter who was 14, and my brother who met for the very first time sat in the cab—not the cab, the—you know the box of the truck in the air, and I hear it from both Loraine and my brother Horst, he was trying so hard, he had a little German English book that he was trying to read it, communicate with her, and she was sitting at the other side of the truck box thinking he’s reading his Bible. He’s in there and here they are meeting him for the first time and he’s reading his Bible but no he was trying to read something so that he could communicate with her. And so it’s just funny, that’s how the communication—I mean you know one person is doing this and the other thinks something totally different.
Ingrid discusses the emotions and experiences her family felt as newcomers and explains what life was like as German refugee in the 1950s and 60s.
And my mother said that when she got to Canada, she cried every day for two years because she’d lost her parents, she’d lost a baby, she had cousins, neighbors, aunts and uncles who died, and—but she still had living brothers and sisters in Germany. And she just felt like, “Here I am in a strange land where people don’t like me, they don’t speak my language, its cold in the winter, a lot more than Germany.”
It was all very difficult. Ja, and moving out to the farm in Delia with my other relatives, my uncle and aunt, they had four children. Just trying to fit in, you know. Neighbors would stop by and they are all speaking English. And they’re trying to learn English, but you know when you’re—and they’re so traumatized by everything that’s happened in the war.
They lived in Delia for a while. We bought a little shack, but it was nice it wasn’t bad. And I grew up till I was 3 or 4 there. My dad continued to work around Delia helping on farms but then he—I don’t know if you know this, but Drumheller had a big coal industry and there were nine mines—coal mines. My dad got a job there. And when he got a job there, we moved to Drumheller. We first of all lived this a little shack in Midland. And then we moved to another little shack in Midland. And eventually that house that they bought for like $200 back then, and we lived on … United Nations Street, I call it. And he worked in the mines until the mines closed down.
And on my street, I’ll never forget—I thought the whole world was like this because we had three Italian families, two German families, two Polish families, one from the Ukraine, one from Czechoslovakia, and one from England. And this lady was so kind and wonderful—her name was Susie Cameron—that when all of the other immigrants who spoke broken English if at all needed help filling out government forms or anything like that, we all—they all went to Susie Cameron and she very happily helped them fill it out because she’s the only one that knew good English! Ja, and that was a little United Nations of the time and—because most of them were European immigrants. And we were quite poor when I look back and I think, yes, but we didn’t think we were poor cause all my friends were the same as me, and we had a little what you would call shacks almost, not houses, but—no indoor toilets and everybody had an outhouse. Big yards though. Lots of big trees and houses were just wooden—very small—one bedroom, two bedroom, I don’t know. But like I say, all my friends—we were in the same boat. So that’s kind of what I remember and my brother however, he was 17 when we came over so there was a large gap between us. He had a very difficult time at the beginning because of course there was the Second World War with England and Canada fighting against Germany, and then all of a sudden there are these German relatives who don’t have a word of English. … But my brother had a rough time because he tried to, of course, make friends and he was taunted a lot. But after six months—and he told me this himself—they were all his best friends because he had such a neat personality and he was learning English from them and then went to dances together and parties and he never had any problems. He said it was just getting through that first period when, you know, there was still a lot of this, you know—we fought a war against you guys—you know, that sort of thing.
Ingrid then reminiscences about her childhood experiences and her years growing up in Drumheller, Alberta.
I used to ride horses a lot, loved horses. I used to draw horses, and there was an old farmer that had a farm about two miles out of Midland and a bunch of us kids would come out—he would come and pick us up and we would help him feed his horses and train his colts because he would sell the colts every spring at the spring horse sale in Calgary. And we were quite young—11, 12 years old at the time—and we could get on these colts and kind of break them and tame them down a bit, and then he would take them and sell them as half broken horses, you know, so that the next person who bought them could make them into a good saddle horse or whatever. But he also had the mares. So we would ride the mares and spend every Saturday and Sunday—it was just great—riding these horses.
… we lived in North Drumheller—and you look up at what you see, the hills, we used to—my friends and I—would play right to the very top. And it was nothing to come home from school, throw you books down and head up to the hills then climb up and down and think nothing of it. … And we played in the trees. There’s huge poplar trees in North Drumheller and along the river. We used to actually climb up especially—you know you have to get a good tree where the branches you know are not just up there but there’s some that are 10-20 feet above ground. And then a great big thick one—we’d go up there and just sit, talk and just yeah—we didn’t have a lot of material things, but we sure loved our area you know: the river, the hills, the trees … I had a pretty good childhood.
School was fine because I obviously learned English, but at home I spoke German—I always did speak German to my parents ‘cause they were 40 and 42 and had never spoken a word of English. My mother always spoke broken English right till the day she died. My dad was a little bit better because he had to go out in the work world and he learned it much faster. But for me, I learned English right away. My mother said that I would go outside and play when I was a 2- or 3-year-old with my friends and I would speak English to them. I would walk in the house; I’d speak German to my parents ‘cause I didn’t know they were two different languages. But I knew that those words had to be used with these people and those words had to be used with my parents, and so I just grew up bilingual and it wasn’t even a thing, you know. And I always did speak German to them because it was just easier to get our conversations, you know, more meaningful. And so—but no, school was good and I was always a good student and I went to university. I became a teacher for about five years, then I didn’t really like teaching that much. I worked in offices and for the last 15 years of my working life I was with oil companies working in the legal department. So it was good, and I married my husband along the way. We’ve been married 45 years…. I know, it’s hard to believe these days but—and the time went fast. We’ve had a great life, you know. I can’t complain. Canada’s been good.
Ingrid reflects on her cultural identity and the privilege of being Canadian.
I’m a German-Canadian. Totally. I mean, I have a very strong affinity to being German. And if the Second World War wouldn’t have happened and if I was born, I would have lived probably the rest of my life in Germany. I would have been, you know, living there. And it’s just the way events happened. But I’m very happy to be in Canada. And when people start to complain … I say, “You guys, we are so lucky to be in this country. You might not like the Prime Minister right now, or the last Prime Minister, or you might not like this. But compared to so many countries, Canada has got it all.” I mean, it’s not perfect, nothing is, but boy, we are so fortunate. And to live in the West here, close to such beautiful scenery and the mountains and the ocean isn’t even really that far away. And just to—I don’t know—I really appreciate being here.