Monica Fercho was born in Calgary in 1957, to a German family that immigrated to Canada after the Second World War. She is the oldest child in her family and has two siblings. When discussing her family, she mentions the hardships they faced starting a new life in Canada.
I was the oldest sibling in my family but also the oldest of the cousins on my mom’s family and the second oldest was an older male cousin on my dad’s side. So we had a lot of gatherings in our family where we would get together with big groups of our families …. When I started school, I got a different sense of what being German was that I didn’t have, having been more involved with the family growing up. There was discrimination. I remember my parents saying, “Don’t tell them where your parents are from. Don’t talk much about the war and your background,” and yet I still found, because my parents had accents, it was difficult at times because people would say, “Oh you’re a Kraut,” or, “You’re a Nazi,” and I would try to—as I got older—I would try to explain that we weren’t. You know, things like snowballs thrown at you by the kids when you were walking home through an area where three of the four houses on the corner were Jewish families and being afraid of walking through that zone.
Monica outlines some of the differences in the way that she was raised in Calgary, in a neighbourhood that was a rich mixture of German and Italian immigrants and refugees. As she explains, one thing that was certain was just how much their religion meant to them.
Yeah, but what I guess they were brought up to understand and so that was some of what I experienced. Very strong connection to the Lutheran Church, which—I call it the village church where my parents went: St. Matthew’s in Calgary. All of us were baptized there. Most of the family of my parent’s siblings were married there, the funerals were there, and we also went to German service there. As I started school, there was a Sunday school program in the area at Grace Lutheran, so then I started going to Grace Lutheran—my parents—the pastor there said he would look after us kids and mom and dad could go German service. And so we became a part of the community of Grace Lutheran as a result—the kids. …
Well yeah, Bridgeland is the area where they called it “Germantown” at one point— “Cabbagetown”—and so there was a lot of Germans and Italians that were refugees or immigrants that lived there. So, [St. Matthew’s is] the oldest German Church as I understand in Calgary. Many of the ones who came through the First World War and onwards ended up going to that church so many of the families were either related to each another or were friends of people that were related to each other. It was very much a feeling of you felt like you knew everybody or knew someone that knew someone and you kind of looked after each other.
Although church was a major factor in their lives, there were many other things were important to them, that helped them as they worked to integrate into Canadian life. For instance, Christmas events organized by her father’s company and by the Carpenters’ Union made them feel included. Friends were also important. Monica describes how many of her friends were from immigrant families, with parents who didn’t generally speak English. She and her friends assisted their parents in adjusting to the English language.
We would have to translate, as we were getting older, complex documents and things as they sort of crossed our paths. Both my parents went to English school at Western Canada High and that’s where they met each other as adults. We read the newspapers a lot and they watched the news all the time. But yeah, we were in a leadership role of having to translate and just guide through some processes. Looking back, I felt that was I kind of like a parent figure growing up and having a lot more responsibility than the average child that was raised in Canada.
Looking back on the Second World War, Monica’s family experienced a significant amount of displacement in their lives. The war had also left her paternal Grandmother with a depleted family. Monica cannot begin to recount how many times her family was displaced and adds that, throughout her childhood, she wondered what would happen if war and conflict ever came to Alberta.
I would go to sleep at night and think about if our country became at war in Alberta, where would we escape to? It really was a part of my psyche that I would think about a plan about how to get away. And it meant that we had an uncle that had a hunting lodge in BC and you know, he would come get us with four wheeled drive trucks and we would go through the logging roads and roads other people wouldn’t go on because the highways would be blocked and full. This was the kind of thinking that I grew up with because of what I had heard. … When the war was done, of course, [my paternal grandmother] had four sons. One was missing in action and the other three were in prisoner of war camps. She didn’t know where they were. Another significant piece I recall that I really appreciate is the Red Cross, because once the war was over, she and my Oma on my mom’s side were dependent on what the Red Cross could provide in reconnecting the families, and even to this day, we’re registered to see what more information is released on my Opa from Siberia and my uncle that’s missing in action.
Soon, Monica’s family began to plan to leave Germany and immigrate to Canada.
Well, from my understanding—and I, having just gotten back from Germany—there was real discrimination in Germany by the people that were born and raised in Germany—multi-generations. There are families where my research shows not actually in Germany from about the mid to late 1700s onwards. They were German Russians, they had left Germany through Poland or straight down to those areas in Russia because they didn’t have land or there were other reasons like their belief system being Lutheran. There was a lot of pressure because some of those areas were quite Catholic and my documents show that they were actually separatists, some of them, and others were Lutheran. When they got back to Germany with the Flüchtlinge[refugees] as in the flight—get out, against the Russians—they were considered second class citizens. They didn’t actually belong there according to the German people and there was discrimination so they were looking for places to actually start over on their own. My dad had an aunt and uncle that came in 1910 through Ellis Island and ended up in Saskatchewan and he was sponsored by his cousin in Saskatchewan as a ranch hand at my uncle and aunt’s ranch. My mom was sponsored by Canadian Lutheran World Relief—her family all came together. My dad came first and my mom’s family ended up in the Lethbridge-Coaldale area—as labourers in the sugar beets. One of the other reasons they came to Canada was that they had a relative in Victoria and my Opa had said, when he was still with them, that he wanted them to go to what he called “America” so that was his wish they ended up there. … Then, my dad worked first to pay off his fare. It took him a year to pay that off and I didn’t really understand that, not like the refugees now, but they had to pay. Everything was a loan and they had to pay it all back. There was no infrastructure with healthcare plans or with ESL or anything like that. They made it all on their own. He then saved enough money and my uncle came over with his brother and then. I don’t know if my other uncle came at the same time or a slightly different time—and then those ones saved enough for the rest of them to come. They came in stages.
Monica’s father came in 1950, followed by her mother in 1952. Neither of her parents knew much about Canada upon arrival—just that there was snow.
I don’t think they really knew much. I know they knew there was snow! I know my dad said when he was almost finished the first year in Saskatchewan and he said he was ready to go back and he said that to be on the prairie you just finished shovelling or plowing yourself out on the road from the farm to the main road and you turn around and it would be all drifted shut. So, not knowing the language and not having a sense of community which they had grown up so much was very hard on them. … They didn’t have much money obviously and they were in their early 20s so it was harder to learn the language but they still recognized the value this country had to offer versus going back because the country that was their homeland really was not accessible and so they accepted that.
Monica describes her parents’ journeys to Canada. Her father came on the Beaverbrae, while her mother sailed on the Arosa Kulm. Monica also notes the hard work of trying to get established in a new country.
She was very sick on the ship. My dad wasn’t. My dad actually met people on the ship that came from his area and so he ended up reconnecting with them eventually in Calgary. That became his new community—he is still friends with the ones that are alive in the family so that’s how strong that tie was. Mom’s was—she was sick on the ship they came across Canada and they were working on the sugar beets but she recognized she needed to get out of there as soon as possible—it was very, very difficult labour work—so she went with her sister to Calgary and they got jobs as maids for wealth families in Mount Royal and they saved enough to bring their family to Calgary—so that was part of their journey.
Growing up in the home of German immigrants, Monica remembers the way food was an important cultural link back to life in Europe.
We had a lot of German food. I remember asking to have Kraft Dinner at home because I’d gone to lunch at a girlfriend’s in elementary school and I thought that was so great. They got Kraft Dinner and they looked at me like I was really strange that I would think that this was really special. We grew up withDampfnudeln, Knöpfle, Spätzle, Wurst—Saturdays my dad would go to the delicatessen and I would go along with him and we would bring all these delicious foods back that we would have on Saturday and Sunday that were fresh:Fleischsalat, Speckwith Zweibelnor onions and garlic—we had very unique foods. My mom was a very good cook, and everything was kind of regionalized. You’d go to someone else’s house and they might not make it quite the same way if they came from a different area. There was a slight derivative change. My Oma—my dad’s mom—would rotate around from each of her kid’s family’s house and stay there for a week or two, and she would make volumes of Kuchenand then that would be stored in the freezer. Or horseradish, from scratch—like I would remember coming home and walking in the door and being overtaken by the smell that was so strong. So yeah, there was a lot of cultural food things that I guess I took for granted that very much—and they were very—because they were hard working physically, the food was digested really well and quite healthy, or we felt it was. Now people are looking at maybe not so much. But I also recognise that they grew up in environments that were very organic, so they did not use pesticides and stuff from where they were growing up. Those are some of the other things that I recall.
Family was a very big part of the Fercho family, especially her grandmothers, since her grandfathers were both gone. They did their best to spend time together on holidays.
The Omas were kind of the center of the family, that you would get together for—my one Oma was not in Calgary, my mom’s mom, initially. So we would get together for mother’s day, … which also was her birthday. We would get together for Easter, and Christmas and sometimes New Years. And they would rotate homes for Christmas, one year it would be this family that hosted, then the next year it would be this family and you would have a lot of people—20, 30 plus people, so the tables always had to extend into the living room, or the kids—if there was no room—would eat at a different table or a different room. Church was always a part of Christmas, Heilige Abend, Christmas Eve you’d go to service first, you’d come home have Chinese food and then Christmas day was the big meal. There would be church service in the morning but generally the key church service was Christmas Eve, which was very different than the North American culture, where they would have to wait to open their Christmas presents and we never had that. It was always Christmas Eve. With the Santa Claus coming, with either the—you were good or you weren’t, and he would come with a Weihnachtsmannwith a switch, a thing to hit—it was like a branch, right? And so you’d be worried that you were going be bad and that’s what you would get, or you would get presents. … And we’d always have to sing, like a hymn or something, or a song before gifts were given out. … I think those Christian events are really key. Easter too, with service, and you’d get a new outfit or something and church was always really important. They also preserved the sense of Sundays was a day of rest. You would dress up and go to church and Sunday school in the morning, and you would take your good clothes off at lunchtime and have a cold lunch and then you would have a little nap in the afternoon and then we would always go out and visit family members—extended family. And my dad liked to go without announcing where to go, and my mom always wanted to phone ahead. So that was a bit of friction. But we also on Sundays had a day that they must have also had, these family gatherings, in the old country, so go to Bowness Park and have a picnic with extended family or a barbecue at somebody’s house—because they didn’t have much money, play soccer in Bowness Park, have a picnic shelter. We also had family reunion every year and that was very significant. Or we would go on fishing trips, either camping or fishing for the day, because it was free. And I notice now watching immigrant families—they’re doing the same because it’s free and you can use the fish. That was the other thing that I think they did from the old country, that they brought here.
Family played a significant role in the Ferchos’ life, as they tried always to do things together, even if it was just spending time together after church on Sundays. This was a crucial part of their early years in Canada. Over time, their family began to adopt practices that were “Canadian,” while in other ways they remained “German.”
The language—we talked, started speaking more English than German, and we’re almost always communicating in English. If we wanted someone not to hear what we were talking about, we would switch to German in public. … their sense of thriftiness, that’s still very Germanic, that came with them, saving things, very Germanic—you know, I don’t know, identity wise, what—sense of watching the news every night. They really felt it was important to know what was going on and to be able to be in the know with things, to either dialogue with different people, but I’m also recognising it was way of figuring out if there was going to be stirrings of another war or conflict. It was like they wanted to be in the know, for various reasons. And also I think the newspaper, the current events. So that was very much merging and belonging. The sense of going to university, saving to go to university, because nobody had an education, university education, so they wanted to make sure our family achieved that, or given that opportunity, very proud of that. Fitting in with the way you dress, and things like that too, they’ve adapted well. … Yeah, hard working and freedom to have your opinions and be safe to have your opinions in this country. That and the freedom to vote. That was very—and is still very important to them and to us.
In Monica’s eyes, her family was not wealthy, but had enough for what they needed.
I never felt like we were lacking, but I felt like we weren’t part—or I didn’t feel like I was part of the neat crowd at school, I was always coming home going “why can’t we have this?” fashion wise, or whatever. So that was an adjustment, noticed especially in high school. But we weren’t poor, we were not, they weren’t really wealthy. But we were loved and we were given opportunities to go on trips and things—my dad would drive long distances to go camping, or even down to Denver to see family and stuff …. it was very important that we get out and see places—the ability to do that, and do that on the one income basically, with a little bit of my mom’s money coming in. But we were loved and we were rooted in the Lutheran church, we were all confirmed.
Monica goes on to describe her family’s connection to family back in Europe.
They were very—my mom’s family was very cut off because there were mostly all in Russia. Until the wall came down in ’89. There was a couple of family members that visited before—we didn’t even know they were arriving, they literally showed up at the door. That was quite something. We got a sense of what—validating what we were told what communism was like, they had experienced when—mom more so. Seeing these relatives that were still living in that kind of a vein, 50, 60 years, 40, 50 years later, educating them on democracy and how that worked, so that was the connection with my mom’s side, in terms of what was going on with her family. Most of them then immigrated to Germany when they were able, when the wall came down and they got out. And some of them came and settled in Canada, but most of them are there. My dad’s side, some stayed in Germany and settled. Lots of them came over for visits. My dad’s aunts, two aunts and two uncles came over in the 60s and it was very—I remember the excitement and also my uncle coming over, the excitement of them coming—first of all, going to the airport at McCall Field and them arriving after these lengthy trips on an airplane. And wearing suits, their best outfits, and walking all of us dressed up, it was a very, very significant event and the emotion among the family that was here—you could feel it, and see the crying and—when they bonded, because they hadn’t seen each other for so many years. And then sitting back and listening to these fascinating stories of their lives and their connections. I found it very intriguing and very interesting to hear about these relatives on the other side of the world. It was a very big event, a big deal.
Her family continuously felt very strongly about their culture, and strongly identified with being German-Canadian, an identity of which they are very proud.
In the cultural community, they would say they were German, and then when they were asked where they were born, they would always have to explain—with the German community here they didn’t have to explain it much because most of them were refugees, so people would understand that if they weren’t born in Germany and they came from a German community outside of Germany, what that was, that they were actually German. They weren’t challenged. The ones that were German here that came from Germany, from born and raised German families, my mom made a real point of speaking High German, which was the higher-class language, dialect, and so to fit in and belong. But you could see that there was a distinction with those Germans in terms of them saying they were more German than we were. But my parents would say they were Canadian generally here, except people would right away hear their accents and ask where they were from. Then when they went to visit in Germany, they would say they were Canadian. They were very proud to say they were Canadian. They were called American, and then we would always correct them and say, “No, no. We’re Canadian,” and explain the difference.
Monica herself feels strongly Canadian, but having recently visited Germany and Ukraine, also feels deeply attached to her family’s homeland in Bessarabia.
… having the realization that, for over 200 years my ancestors—everything I see, the agriculture that’s planted in Ukraine, and these communities and the churches, which are beautiful Lutheran churches, the villages that they built from nothing, that was just prairie and all rolling hills, and knowing that my ancestors brought the first vine cutting from Germany into Bessarabia, there was a real sense of pride and identity with the colonies that were founded there by the Germans—that those are part of me.… It’s this bond to the area of where they colonised, and where they grew up for these generations from 1700 onwards. And the pride around that and the recognition—because when I was there, the recognition of those communities of the Germans. Which I didn’t grow up here, having a sense that the German community was recognised for something positive and I really feel there’s a lot of qualities that Germans have, especially the ones that were the refugee, immigrant Germans, that are very different than what the Canadians feel are the labels of what Germans are known for. So I’d have to say that my heart is German, and my status, my passport status and my appreciation is for being proudly Canadian—like I identify with the heroes from this country, the icons, the musicians from this country, the things that we—sports teams and those kind of things, but my heart would have to be more like a German immigrant from the areas where my family was from. …
A real sense of pride of what my family achieved by coming here, and the opportunities they were presented and how—the massive accomplishments they made coming with nothing except their faith, not knowing the language and instilling those qualities in us …. I don’t think this community has been allowed to have the recognition for the value and contributions that they’ve made to this country and also the identity of who they were and the good of who they were and are and have passed on. I think it’s really valuable that this is now happening because I think we come—the generations that are here, come with multigenerational guilt, as a result of growing up in a country where education system is based on the Allied story of the wars, and Remembrance Day has a very different context for me and others like myself, in terms of the losses and not being able to—it’s not celebrate, the word, the word is to appreciate the losses from the other side and how to grieve or understand those losses in an open, public way. I’ve been able to use Remembrance Day to remember my family and my people for what they contributed and were positives that are not well known, with my dad’s story on the front and others, as to what they did and what they achieved, the many people that they salvaged and saved from the Russians and who became many millions of refugees and just being proud to have that background.