Siegfried Hermann was born April 28, 1935, and immigrated to Canada with his family after the Second World War. They sailed on the Beaverbrae with the help and support from family sponsors who were already in Canada. During his interview, Sigi talks about growing up in Germany, his journey to Canada, and settling in Alberta.
Sigi Hermann talks about the shock he felt as he looked at the destruction of his town and country due to the war.
Once I watched that home disappear I thought, “Oh my God, will I ever be able to come back here again?” and then the horses at the nearest town that I already mentioned to you twelve kilometers away from Schwiren, where we lived, they were taken away on us and we were packed on a cattle train, so to speak, with straw and we had to sleep in there and we were transported into Lauenburg, Germany. That’s where we stayed, and that’s where my little brother Edward that had come with us died because he had apparently some disease—and I remember him, he was struggling with that. And I wasn’t allowed near because it was infectious disease and they wouldn’t let me in but I could see his little feet through the crib and that was very sad—[begins to tear up]. So we lived there for about a year, that was total devastation too, again for me I didn’t—for me as long as I had enough to eat and I could play with someone. But we were sitting, we were stationed and a totally destroyed three-story building with no windows in it or anything. We slept in it, and that’s probably maybe why my little brother caught this disease. What did he have? I forget the name of it. Bronchitis or whatever he had. And uh, times weren’t very good. We made do. My dad would stay a very short time and they allowed us after that, 1941, when the front moved back towards Russia and gained and we were allowed to go back to Lithuania.
Sigi explains the impact of the advancing Soviet Army. He talks about being shipped from different farms every so often, the food shortages they faced, and how it all impacted his family.
When you get older the second time when we were expelled from Lithuania when the Russian army came very close, the Germans pulled us all back and they stationed us in Poland. We were there for a whole year, 1944, and that was by Gdansk, which is by the Baltic Sea, and it was called Borschestowo. I don’t know where exactly that is, but I could see exactly the raids they had on Gdansk. I could see it on the horizon, so it must have been not too far away. I’d gather about—maybe 30 kilometers in the distance that I could see, so we were in that again, a little farmhouse that was owned by Mrs. Kraus, Frau Kraus was her name. She was walking around on crutches, and she was compelled in a way, but she done it graciously. She kept us all in that house and she shared whatever she could with us. That wasn’t always the case in other situations. And we were all there in that house and my relatives were very close by, we sort of kept in touch with the relatives, and so we were there for a year and that’s when the Russians overtook us and that’s when it was not too pleasant anymore ‘cause I was already then, nine? Ten? And I could see that my mother had to hide being afraid that she might get—be misused at nights when they came in with their guns stuck in front of them and that was a frightening situation with me as a child, I was frightened. So then the times were not as pleasant. We had food then, and then after this time, after the Russians came in I guess they must have made, or decided, that we better be transported all back into Germany, and that’s what happened to us again. They put us back in the cattle train with the straw and they transported us to Mecklenburg, Vorpommern, and that was by the Baltic Sea, you know where that is. And on the way we went through Berlin, I don’t know why they went through Berlin but that’s the route that we took and I with my own eyes had never seen such a devastation except now that I look at the Syrian thing that they have. The same thing. Totally shelled out, there was hardly a brick on top of the other. Totally devastated. And the train on the way, I might as well tell you, that was interesting I remember—I was the oldest in the family being—the other two brothers, they were younger. The train engineer, the locomotive engineer must have been, we thought, German because the transport from Poland to Germany must have been also in the fall, because the train had occasionally just stopped in the middle of a potato field and everybody out. Everybody out digging as much as they could. The understanding was from the locomotive engineer that if anybody after three whistles does not comply, they will be left behind. They were greedy. And I remember I dug some potatoes and I had them, and in the train itself we had taken along some dry bread hanging off the ceiling and a can of water and every time the train would stop it would spill some of the water. Every family, we had about five families in that train, that cattle train. So they all had their basic necessities and you could see that sort of spilled but anyways, when you stopped again, somewhere at a different station then it was my job as the older, filling in for my dad, I was ten already and I had to go down and saw down some posts somewhere and cut it up in pieces and make firewood from that. And then we had the potatoes and then some of the bread that we had, the dried-out bread and whatever we found. I put three rocks sort of and put the pot on the rocks, and the fire under the pot and I lit that and we were all wherever we could do cooking and making due with the basic necessity. And then when we landed in a little town not far from Wismar. Wismar where I went to school, but anyway, before that we landed in quite a large farm home with many rooms, and they again these families were compelled to take us—take families in, and were about one, two, three, four! Four families in that one home. We had to share the water pump. It was a manual. There was no such thing as a water—pressurized system.
Sigi explains how much the war impacted his daily routine and his family’s safety at night.
Big, big, ruckus. Devastated, confusion, everything—It stopped the opportunity for me to go to school because I was floundering around from one place to the next and university was totally out of the question. And it robbed us of our dignity, of our—like I said the parents suffered mostly. They were robbed at nights by gangsters.
Sigi talks more about how his life was disrupted and about how his dad was forced to be a soldier for the Nazi regime.
The Nazi Party and the—and my mom and dad were not really party members at all. They had nothing to do with—they were forced to go in. Dad was forced to—was hauled out to go to the, well to the Wehrmacht they called it, which is as a soldier. Yes it, uh, it disrupted everything.
Religion played an important role in Sigi’s family.
Oh, we had Lutheran, yes. My little Grandma was always a very devout Lutheran. She prayed always during that time, she was with us. In Langen Jarchow, like I said in Germany. And I used to ask, “mom, why is she kneeling in front of the bed in the evening? What is she saying?” and she explained it, she prayed for our loved ones, you know, for all our family and everything. And she used to attend the worship service that was about two—two, three kilometers away we had to go walk that distance
Sigi explains how his family made the decision to leave Germany and move to Canada.
Once he went through the political hearing and all that, they had a system that families should stay together, and then they were allowed to come around, and that’s where the process started to go to—you’re flown into Hamburg. We were there, stationed for about a year. Hamburg-Wentorf was it called. And then Bremerhaven is when my uncle, already in Canada said, “Come here! This is a beautiful free country! You will have anything you want!” And they used to send us presents down there. And so, then in Berlin was his help. He applied for us from over there and paid for the fair with the Beaverbrae.
Sigi explains that his family was not part of any of the immigration schemes, such as the one that brought Germans to work on southern Alberta sugar beet farms. Instead, they were sponsored by someone already in Canada.
We were processed by the legal authorities. Where we’re going, what we’re gonna do, etcetera etcetera. So being that we had sponsors, then they would be responsible for our well-being. I think that’s probably what they wanted to know. That’s what they were aiming at. And so, we made out ok.
After Sigi and his father were briefly separated from his mother and other siblings, he talks about how he and his dad were able to ‘escape’ from East Germany that was under the communist rule at the time.
I should mention also when we escaped in the morning, dad and I, from Langen Jarchow, we had decided yes, we’re gonna go. So, we got on this bike and we had to bike six kilometers to a little town with the train, the train that we had to catch to Berlin. And the bikes were checked in and as far as I know I always keep saying the bikes may still be there because we never claimed those bikes again. So, but we went to Berlin, and they had already then borders, they wouldn’t let anybody across, a lot of people got shot. But in Berlin they had spot checks and I was scared. Dad and I were seated on that train. “Machen Sie den Koffer auf!” In other words, “Open your suitcase!” “Next! Next!” Bypassed us. The Lord kept us safe so we were ok. If they would have caught us they would have sent us back. Would they done anything? I don’t know. But the Russians they had the KGB there. They kept a record of everything.
Next, Sigi discusses his family’s first days in Canada.
My impression was not initially when we landed in Quebec. It was pretty good as I sort of had done my studies and at home—I had done my studies in Germany. I looked at the longitude of the atlas and I saw it was the 49th parallel, I thought. The climate in Germany is very pleasant. I had four seasons. Summer, winter, fall, and spring and I looked into—I thought it’d be the same here. And I thought it would have the vegetation and the trees they had in Quebec and I was pretty happy. Then they put us on the train and they drove us through Toronto, Ontario, in that area and it’s not bad. Oh my God we came to Saskatchewan and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were shacks leaning sideways. They never saw paint. A bucket of paint for years. And the tumbleweeds everywhere and the prairies wind howling. Oh my God I had never seen anything like that I was—what was I, 17 then already. I’m going back. I didn’t like it here. Except for all the chocolates and things but if I’d had the money I woulda gone back. I had friends down there. We shared things, I could speak the language. We didn’t speak a word of English here. I knew all the swear words if you wanna know. I was working out. They gave me a large wrecking bar in the PFRA in Spring Coulee. … That’s the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation, irrigation sort of, that’s government owned. And I had to pick these rocks on an embankment. Dig out the rocks, roll them down the hill, and then the CAT with a front-end loader would pick these rocks up, and then load up—load them in the truck and then they would riprap, with these rocks embankments like a river or so, that it wouldn’t wash out. So that’s the job, and I was trained in Germany. I had a pretty good education. I was a technician already. … So, I had to do these jobs and the words that they used for swearing and these things. My God, I said, what kinda country is this? And so, I wasn’t happy, no. I was—that was sad.
When he and his family finally settled in a small town close to Lethbridge, they struggled to find work in the area.
It wasn’t easy. There weren’t that many jobs available then, no. On farms, dad had the option to go to a farm. He was also a Lithuanian that immigrated a long time ago. Ja, he must have immigrated—ja, ja, he must have. And so, he didn’t wanna go there. He wanted to be independent so he went—what did he do—he worked, they worked in the sugar beets to in Raymond, then there was a sugar beets factory. That’s where my uncle used to work every year, excuse me during the harvest times when they had the sugar beets. They had this job to work there, and they got a pretty good wage, average, and whatever they got, 85 cents and up. They got 85 cents an hour. I remember those days.
Eventually, Sigi was able to settle into a career.
Canada Packers for 17 years. I was—right away, I didn’t get into any packing or anything. I couldn’t hack it. I was sensitive to the smell in the killing floor and all that. It just give me the heebies. I couldn’t hack it. So, I—there was an opportunity came for me to be scale repairman, and I got in there and I took that job. It was really quite interesting to me and then I was in the maintenance department. I done all the repairs in the intricate machines in the sausage kitchen and all the wiener packaging and things like that. I enjoyed that. That was really good. I was in charge of—whatever I ordered they recognized that as ok. I was my own little—I loved it. It was good.
In Canada, religion continued to play a large part in his family’s identity, as it had in Germany.
Big time. Yes, religion played a major role in Canada because my Uncle John and Taunte Anna were the ones that paid for our fare. They were religious, and my dad and my mother also picked up on that—more so mother than dad. And I went to youth gatherings and we were quite faithful in our, yes, in our religion. And then we were members of the St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church for a number of years. And we were married already, 33 years our children were baptized, confirmed. We were wed there so we had everything here in Calgary from the St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, yes. That’s where we worshipped.
Sigi describes adjusting to life in Canada.
They were all pleasant surprises. As we grew here and especially with the younger age like me, I could pick up the language quite well. And I took a—took classes, like you know evening classes. … So, we had this—that we were getting ahead. A pleasant surprise. We were making do and we were not afraid to take a broom or take any kind of job. … We didn’t hesitate to—whatever job we got, even if it’s cleaning toilets, doesn’t matter, we done it. … We were all, we were all working! We just had to work. We worked and—what’s wrong with us? Anyway, that’s just the way I see it now. So yes, the surprise then was very pleasant for us and we wanted to make this our home.