Walter Wagner was a German immigrant from Löpsingen-Nördlingen. Born in 1936, he grew up on a farm with his parents, two brothers, and a sister. Remembering his hometown’s history was important to Walter’s identity, which was rooted in his Lutheran faith and childhood in Germany.
One of Walter’s older brothers died on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, while the other was captured by the Americans. Younger and living at home, Walter describes his own experiences as a schoolboy living under Hitler’s government.
Yes, when I grew up, I was the youngest. … We had the public school was up to 7 and sometimes—at the beginning it was 8 years and then it became 9 years I guess, something like that anyway. But it was limited knowledge you get when you were a farmer: “Oh, you don’t need to know all this.” Ja, ja, ja. That was silly. Ja, we had also problem with teachers because the good teachers had to go to war. It was not nice…Hitler had it so organized that just like more better than the communist. It wasn’t communism. It was so that you had to give a certain amount of your product you had to give to the state, to the army it was called. You know: “That’s for the army, the state.” And so, you—that was your taxes, so to speak, because you could pay—couldn’t do it with money alone. You had to produce a lot, to the limit. And also, some—you could only have pork. You couldn’t eat beef. That was all for the army and horse meat and whatever. So that was the restrictions… Hitler did a good thing in the first 4 years. And then the next 4 years was ok too, but as soon as he found out that he could take over the whole country—and they loved him so much. And he made sure that they do love him through the Gestapo if you’ve heard about that. …
Walter notes the fear felt by his family, and how Hitler became a harsher and harsher leader.
My dad always said, “Just shut up. Don’t say much. And don’t say we’re losing the war,” because they put me in jail for it. Everything that was suspicious, it was eliminated or put in jail. And that’s how [Hitler] operated. And he was good until I would say it’s like—what’s his name, the English Prime Minster, Churchill said, “He would have been as good as Bismarck was as a leader if he would have stopped in ‘38 and kept it to Germany and not expanded and run over countries.” Until then, he was good. He was looked up on as a good leader because it was kind of—but they didn’t know of course everything, I guess.
Toward the end of World War II, Walter retells the story of how the war ended in Löpsingen-Nördlingen.
So, when the end of the war came, the bombs were flying from ‘43 when they had control of the—what I said, the power over the air—like, until 43’ Germany had the power in the air. And then the allies took over. They just came in [unclear] like in Lancaster, they came over us. They bombed us. We were 60 kilometers away from the—Augsburg was the city where they produced big diesels. On anything that had industry like that who helped the war, you know the armies, they were bombed. But then at the end it got a little out of hand too. And it was funny, some Catholic churches were not bombed, but the Lutherans were. [laughter] And especially that was in the East, in the East Germany. And then the Russian, they blew up any Lutheran church there was. And as the war came closer to our town, and there were the Americans—we know it will be ok with the Americans. We tried to stay away from the Russians because we heard bad things about the Russians. And the same with the French. They weren’t bad—I mean they were—later on they had an army, before they didn’t. But then the English, they were very nice too, human like. They were not like the Nazis or the Russians. The Russians were under Stalin. So, when the bombs came closer to us, they bombed our train station. We could watch it form our backyard. It was only 5 kilometers away. You could see the bombs come out… We woke up sometimes—we had to go up because we didn’t know we were gonna get bombed too because sometimes at night when they came and bombed that city around us, whatever they thought it was worthwhile bombing, you didn’t know whether they’d miss sometimes. And they did. And our fields became big craters sometimes. So, as they came closer then I remember the last thing—there was raining for 3 days, and there was a fight about 7 kilometers west of us where the Americans came in….
Walter explains how the retreating German Army blew up the local bridge and how the Americans captured his town. He also discloses how his Christian faith provided an anchor for their family in the war, and how their prayers were answered for a peaceful surrender.
I just want to make that one statement that God is with you and it doesn’t matter which side you’re on. If you trust Him, He will help you, even in the worst situation which you had—were part of it or not, it doesn’t matter. Because my mother was, and most women were, very Christian-like people who know how to pray. And they prayed before the Americans came. There was that three-day rain and was poured and actually we heard the fighting over there at 7 kilometers. And then my dad said that, “I don’t know, it won’t be very long.” And sure enough, all of a sudden, the fighting stopped and the [German] soldiers came through our town—whatever you call soldiers you know, the young guys. Some are old ones. They were I guess, leading. And they had to register and then my dad said, “We give you bikes, anything if you want, just to get out.” Go up there. They always said we gotta defend it up in the mountains, that’s where Hitler is hiding [laughter]. So, we said, “Go ahead, we give anything to make sure you get out.” And so, they gave them the bikes and they ran, of course. And guess what? The Americans, we found out, after the rain stopped, they said, “Well, there’s no more resistance. We don’t need the bombers. If they wouldn’t resist again,” they said, “We not gonna lose any blood over these few people there.” … And my mom said, “Ja, that’s—prayers are answered.” And because the rain make sure that it didn’t come to that. And then when the sun came they could just drive in with no shots fired. So, they went through our town and then that was the end.
After the war ended, Walter’s family had to stay put. His father, who had been mayor, was retained in his position until the occupation authorities were established. Then came the Cold War.
The Americans said, “Well, we have to feed the Germans and build them up so that they stop them,” because they were for it that we stop them. And so that’s why we were privileged again. And we got new money, and we got money to build up—and to this day the Americans were our friends because of it. And they knew that the hardworking Germans would be not disappointment. And so, they didn’t mind investing in.
Walter describes how his brother’s in-laws were the reason his family came to Canada.
So, these immigrants my oldest brother married into, they had an uncle in—I think it was here in Alberta. Ja, a farmer. Somehow—I never met him—somehow, they were—all of a sudden, they got the support—what do you call it—sponsors. That they can come to Canada because he would look after them… And he was probably help paying for the trip. And also, the congregations, they did that. They—like I had a member—the Lutheran church was involved in—so many had to give things to the church here who sponsored them so they could come over. And things were very primitive in Germany in that time after the war. You know, I mean we had to go back and make wool again and spin and all that. So, in the cities were ruined. And you know the—our houses were built with the rough rocks and they were—the walls were big, white, but they were full of moisture because we had a lot of rain that they would soak it up. And then it was frozen in the winter. Inside the building where you put heat in those rooms, the water runs down the walls. You know, the kind of moisture, it wasn’t very healthy. Now they build great things, but anyway. This is what a lot of people said: “Well, it takes a long time before we get up where we should be, so let’s go there where it’s easier.” And so, they went to Canada.
Walter’s older brother John wanted to go to America but ended up in Calgary, where he worked in construction and eventually established John Wagner Construction. Then Walter immigrated to Canada, sailing from Cuxhaven on The Italia. He tells about his arrival and how learning English was one of the early challenges for Walter.
When we arrived, you know, they didn’t even gave me a—of course, I didn’t speak English. Sorry. The only English I knew was “Oh, may I have your pass” or something like that, or “Okay” and then “Sure.” A few words, that’s all. And the rest I had to learn from here. So, but when I came, these people here were so generous and accepting you that when you didn’t speak well and you said “Oh, I’m sorry,” they said “You’re doing fine!” They always encouraged you. And they didn’t mind—sure the younger, they kind of sometimes—I remember we went out to the airport—in those days it was out in the open more or less, ja. … Anyway, to make a long story short—so when we went out there, we were dressed like Germans of course, in suits and everything. Here they run around in blue jeans. [laughter]…Well, it took me well—well, comfortable I would say was when I started working in the city. I went from the construction—I worked for a company first like we could get along with German. And the other guy—you learn as you go. I mean, you have to learn. But enough to get around and some—and then especially when you want to study, you study the codes, the electric codes. So, you go from your book to the dictionary, from the [laughter]—it’s always that circle you know. So that you know what you’re doing. And that’s how I learned. I mean, there was no other way around.
Over time, Walter established a new life in Canada, though he still maintained his German identity too, which is closely linked to his Christian faith.
I’m a Canadian of German descent. And I—my heritage, it hangs on me. I can’t help it. We have a German channel. And we get all the news from there in English and in German. And it didn’t bother me and nobody said we shouldn’t do that. And now we have still a German congregation, that’s the only one left in St. Matthew. And so, I’m helping out there. I’m doing reading sermons. And I love my faith. That’s one thing that helped me all the way through because I was growing up like this. We were always—I just loved the services. I know that during the war the pastors were few, and they had to travel around between congregations like they did here too. And then all of a sudden, we didn’t have the—we called it the Kindergottesdienst—that’s the service for the children where you get more or less the gospel, you know, in a children way. And though the organ played, and we could sing along. It was beautiful. And I just loved that. I grew up in it and I respected it ….