Since beginning this project, countless people have told us their own family stories from the First and Second World Wars. We invite you to share words and images from your history, which we will post here periodically. Occasionally, for longer stories rich with photographs, we’ll add a separate page as with Hugh Cook’s wonderful piece, “Miss Morley’s Parrot.” If you have an anecdote or memory you would like to share, either anonymously or with your name attached, please write it down and send it to us. If the story is fuzzy or full of gaps and questions, that’s fine — memories and passed-down tales are often that way. Please note that we are not looking for fiction, but for your family stories and an accompanying photo, if you have one. We also welcome wartime letters or excerpts from journals kept during those years. Send your contributions to us here.
We look forward to hearing from you. Meanwhile, enjoy the growing archive below.
In 1956, my family emigrated from the small village of Loosdrecht in Holland to settle in Vancouver, Canada. Within four years my Father died. Two months later, my oldest brother Roger stepped into an elevator in downtown Vancouver and found himself stared at very intently by the elevator attendant, seated just inside the doors.
Later on the way down, the elevator attendant asked Roger, “Are you Dutch?” The affirmative reply was immediately followed by, “Are you from Loosdrecht?” This puzzled Roger. How can it be that a stranger in this big city would know a youngster like him from a tiny village far away?
The attendant simply said, “I know your Dad. He saved my life.”
It turned out the attendant was a Canadian airman shot down over Loosdrecht and intercepted by the local resistance workers. Dad had spent four days and nights with this airman on a tiny boat criss-crossing the labyrinth of sloughs, small lakes, big ditches and canals, that marked the play ground of his boyhood. By hiding in the tall and plentiful reeds by day and noiselessly moving the boat by night the resistance had smuggled this and many other Canadian airman back to England via France.
It is such intense personal experiences that fuel the deep affection between the Canadian and Dutch peoples that lasts to this day.
Canadian veterans always remark how much they are made to feel welcome when visiting Holland. This was particularly true during the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation. It started at Schiphol where the Dutch custom officers would wave the veterans through with the generous remark, “Fifty years ago we did not ask for your papers, neither will we do so now. Welcome!”
The photo featured here, by Ken Bell, shows Dutch children celebrating Liberation, and is just one of many wartime images that can be viewed at the Collections Canada website.
Keeping the Watch on Christmas Day
When I prepared for work on Christmas Day in 1998, little did I know that this would be my most memorable Christmas, and all because of Norman, an elderly gentleman on our palliative care unit. Norman was a proud man. He was a veteran of the Second World War. He had been a farmer all his life, raising five sons and four daughters. Now he was a widower, but most of his family lived within driving distance. He could no longer care for himself and could not keep his pain medication straight. This Christmas was going to be his last and he knew it, as did his family.
After our morning report all of us nurses made our rounds, dispensed medication, soaked up our patients compliments, had pictures taken with them, admired their gifts, and generally overdosed on all the goodies and chocolates. They were a wonderful group that Christmas. We prepared the medications for each patient who was leaving on a day pass, and we prepared Norman’s as well. He said his family was coming, so his caregivers got him dressed in his Legion blazer and gray flannel dress pants with his beret nicely perched on his shock of white hair. Such a quiet man, shy in a way, but so loving, caring, courteous, and kind to all whom he knew.
One by one the families came to sign the out-on-pass slip; one by one the patients left, bundled up against the chill of the day. They would be back by 8pm, they assured us. Those who were too sick to go home for the day received all kinds of special attention from visiting family and nurses. A young man, who walked with his IV pole and was fighting for his life, had half a dozen young women in attendance, all healthy looking friends who came to help their classmate get through a rough day.
As I settled down to do the day’s mundane paperwork, I noticed one of my senior team members coming toward me, flustered and near tears. “Nobody has come for Norman,” she said. “Where are they all?” She went on to tell me he was parked in his wheelchair in his special place – a strategic spot from where he could see the elevator doors and the stairway entrance. He wouldn’t leave his parking spot. But nobody came. By 11am, it was time for Plan B. We manned the phones and tried to locate somebody for Norman. Nobody answered the calls. Norman refused to eat. He was having dinner at home he said. But nobody came. Time wore on. We jokingly asked him to come and dine with a bevy of beautiful nurses. He smiled and said, “No, they’ll be here.” But they weren’t.
Norman took his pain medication, allowed himself to be wheeled around to visit a few patients he knew, and returned to his parking spot. Still, nobody came. All our hearts were breaking for this dear old man. By mid-afternoon, Norman’s head was drooping. We knew he had to be hungry. What could we do? So the phone calls started again. Still, nobody answered. The young man, with his friends in tow, gave Norman several little wrapped Christmas gifts, bought him a cold drink, and made conversation with him. He would not break his vigil, though. He would wait. Norman knew the roads were clear; he knew the usual time his family had Christmas dinner; but he would not give up. Still, nobody came.
Soon the twilight of the winter evening descended on our little hospital, making the Christmas lights twinkle and reflect off the snow on the windowsills and patio. Cars began to return with our patients. The air was quiet as people were put to bed telling us stories of their wonderful day. The time came when, as team leader, I had to talk to Norman. He must get out of that chair. He was exhausted. With a crew of supportive nurses around me, I coaxed him to come to his room and open his gifts that had piled up on his bed throughout the day. He reluctantly let us take him back to his room. We had punch and cake and encouraged him to open his gifts. We brought other patients in to enjoy it all with him. We took his picture. This man was tired and heartbroken. Half of us were in tears, and, when he started to cry, we were all in tears.
Before I left the hospital that evening, I went to say goodnight to Norman. During our talk, I asked him what his job was when he was in the service during the Second World War. “I was a gunner and a lookout, mostly,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears. “But you know, nurse, this was the longest watch I ever did.” Norman passed away four days after Christmas, quietly, in the middle of the night. In his hand was one of the little gift boxes the young man had given to him on Christmas Day. Norman had left for a better place.
Bonnie Jarvis-Lowe, RN, Rtd.
The photo featured here shows members of the Canadian armed forces celebrating Christmas in Tunisia, and was taken by D. J. Thorndick in December 1944
A Moment of Peace in a World of War
In 1941, the world was embroiled in war. World War II was raging, and no sign of peace was yet to be seen. I was 19 years old and serving in the Royal Navy, a crew member of the Sloop H.M.S. Shoreham. We were patrolling the Red Sea from our naval base at Aden, in the Republic of Yemen.
On December 24, 1941, the Captain advised us that we were assigned to carry out a patrol to French Somaliland. Our mission was to intercept a Vichy French cruiser, which was suspected of supplying German raiders in the Indian Ocean. On Christmas morning, my first Christmas in the Navy, I was on duty from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. At approximately 6 a.m., a large cruiser appeared on the horizon. I got a huge lump in my throat. As the ship approached, my heartbeat accelerated as we went to battle stations. It was understood, without words, that we were in grave danger.
The ship came quite close to ours and trained her eight nine-inch guns toward us. Our main armament consisted of two four-inch guns. We were definitely no match for the larger enemy ship. The tension mounted. Who would make the first move? Then, as both ships stood ready to engage in combat, the enemy ship signaled us a message – a two word message I would never forget: “Merry Christmas,” and our stunned Captain, moments later, responded in like manner. Soon after, we made our way home to Aden, the whole crew amazed by what had happened.
Now when I reflect on the great life that I have had since the war – a loving wife, beautiful children – I often think about that Vichy French ship whose guns had been aimed at us on that Christmas day long ago, and I wonder: If it had not been Christmas, what would have taken place? That incident was indeed a time of peace in a world of war, as two ships stopped, considered the meaning of Christmas, and ceased their fire and trying to destroy each other. May mankind, at some point, cease the killing and fighting and have world peace – the peace that those two captains clearly wanted in those perilous moments on Christmas Day, 1941, in the Red Sea, when they laid down their arms and remembered the true meaning of Christmas.
Stephen Richard Jarvis, Rtd. RCMP
Egmond aan Zee: The Vacation Colony
At age 8 I was sent to a health clinic located on the northwest coast of Holland, near a small summer resort called Egmond aan Zee (Egmond on the Sea). This government-sponsored clinic or resort was intended to “fatten up” those unfortunate children who had been most severely affected by hunger and malnutrition during the war years in Holland (1940 – 45). It never occurred to me then, or now, that I should have been sufficiently anaemic or skinny enough to even remotely qualify for six weeks in a health clinic. My parents must have thought otherwise. Off I went, despite my many protests and last-minute pleas on the back of my father’s bike, baggage and all to the local train station. The train seemed to pull me further and further away from my pleasant surroundings on the far edge of this planet. (Actually less than 100 miles.)
My first impressions of the clinic, called Zwarten Dyke, were that of an old-fashioned brick and mortar institution adorned with multi-trellised windows, which offered little solace to my wounded and frightened spirit. We arrived shortly before noon, just in time for a quick change into compulsory uniforms and lunch. My street clothes were exchanged for a plain blue cotton suit, which most assuredly stripped me of my last visual contact with the familiar world. The aroma, noticeable during the walk to the dining hall, announced the menu – boiled fish. I hated fish, especially boiled and still do. The dining hall was larger than anything I had or have ever seen. The walls were lined with stern looking matrons and the seats were filled with hundreds of equally despondent faces, garbed in the same silly non-descript uniforms. Lunch was followed by the strict observance of a “rest period.” This pause merely allowed me to feel even more overwhelmed with feelings of homesickness.
It was during one of these early rest periods that we were provided with pen and paper and encouraged to write home. “Dearest mother,” I wrote, “I love you, and I miss you, but please, please come an get me and take me home.” It seems this type of request was anticipated by the matrons, and my tearful request was denied and never forwarded.
Gradually I grew more accustomed to my new surroundings as friendships were established. Not that I ever gave up looking forward to that day when we would be finally “released.” Memories of the intervening days are vague, but I do recall community showers (with those matrons being pre-occupied with cleaning navels), sleeping in cribs (at age 8?), practicing songs for the closing ceremonies and most of all the still-haunting institutional theme song:
Zwarten Dijke daar moetje wezen,
Zwarten Dijke daar moetje zijn,
Daar wordje helemaal genezen vanje ziekte andjepijn.
Black Dike there you must be,
Black Dike there you must go,
There you will be healed of all your sickness and pain.
Well, that final day did arrive as promised, and I had gained a new experience and friends but lost three pounds.
London, England: Love Letters from World War II
I helped my mother clear up the effects of my 94-year-old uncle who had recently passed away. After cleaning out his clothes and furniture we found his fortune. More valuable than a cache of money, the long hidden treasure was hundreds of love letters written by tens of women during World War II. The letters were written to my Cousin Gerry who had predeceased his father by more than six years. One of the writers, Sara Tamblyn, wrote almost two hundred of these love letters. Sara’s letters told the story of her love affair with Gerry and her life in London, England, during the war. When Gerry and Sara met, she was a 52-year-old married American woman living in London. Gerry was a 23-year-old American airman stationed near London. They were lovers for two years.
Below is one of the earliest of Sara’s letters. All of the letters found that day are published at the site Dear Gerry.
Tuesday night, Jan. 18, 1944
You are an angel about writing this week, so thoughtful – it helps my loneliness, your letters evoke YOU so strongly, that I am with you when I read them. Yes, darling, it does seem centuries since your leave.
No, darling, I did NOT say I thought the Germans would crack soon! I said that if the Russian drive went on at a rapid pace and they got near Berlin, the German Army would take over to prevent from being smashed up as an organization. It would not be a question of cracking, but one of expediency. Once the German Army realizes the game is over, their last weeks of fighting will be the toughest ever. They will make the idea of peace look good to the Allies.
In your beautiful letter, you spoke of something I said: “My life is a letter written to Gerry.” It is, taking a long, long time to reach him. While it wandered, it was delivered to others, who opened it. They were perhaps, charmed and intrigued by the handwriting, by the beautiful paper it was written on, and the perfume emanating from the envelope – but they could not read it, for it was written in a language they did not understand. The letter was forwarded on its long search, to find someone who could read it. One day, it was delivered to Gerry who opened it and read it very easily. He spoke its language – and he loved what was written. He understood its meaning in a flash, he knew it had a message for him, so he wanted to keep it always. He wanted to read and re-read it, to keep it close to his heart, and carry it around in his pocket where he could put his hand on it whenever he wished.
The letter had traveled a long and hard journey and it was frail, the envelope worn as thin as tissue paper. Not to be handled carelessly or it would tear, and its contents would disintegrate and disappear. Gerry knew that he would not be able to keep the letter always, that while he did have it, it should be caressed with loving care. Yet, when it was time, he would have to let it go on to its final destination, remembered with affection and love.
This, my darling, is just another way of saying I love you. I wish I knew a million different ways of saying it. It is now three o’clock in the morning, a time when one has fanciful thoughts, so forgive me if my imagination has that “dawn” atmosphere. Nevertheless, what I said is true. My whole life is a letter written to you.
My grandfather’s story begins around WWI. He was born in Transylvania at the tail end of the war, into a well to do family of Hungarians. In my grandfather’s adolescence, his older brother ran away from home and died of TB upon his return. He had left some money for my grandfather to use for education. My grandfather spent a single day volunteering at a hospital to see how he would fare, and immediately found his future. He went to med school, and then WWII broke out.
He joined up with the Honved (Hungarian Army), who had been given back Northern Transylvania (after WWI, it had been ruled by Romania for two decades). The Hungarians were part of the Axis, and sent troops to the Eastern Front.
After the war, Transylvania was returned to Romania and my grandfather returned to practice medicine. He took to Communism immediately, and was quite the believer at first (his sister had been part of a revolutionary art movement in the 30s). He rose up the ranks as a professor and army surgeon, and in 1953, he went to Korea on a Communist goodwill mission organized by the Russians. He was in command of a mobile military hospital. He carried a camera around his neck everywhere he went. He witnessed napalm attacks, convoys of orphaned children, and mass starvation.
He adopted a boy who had been orphaned by the war. His name was Yu Ki Bin, and he lived with my family in Transylvania through the 50s, until the early 60s. He went back to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a teenager, and sent numerous letters to my grandparents. He addressed them as “Dearest Mother and Father”. His last letter was tragic. He asked for medicine, because he had gotten sick in the army. There was no return address, and he was never heard from again.
During the Second World War, my father was sent overseas [from England], first to North Africa then to Italy. He was away for three years. My mother had to cope with three very young children, little money and constant worries. The couple exchanged hundreds of letters and most of these survived, and after my parents’ deaths, I placed them on a simple website so that the war experience of ordinary working people like my parents should not be forgotten.
Below is an excerpt from one of Eric’s letters to Olive, dated 1944. To read more of these wonderful letters, click to visit the Olive and Eric site.
“By the way love do you keep my letters? I wondered as I don’t keep a diary and they would be useful to read together by our own fireside and would help one to remember some of the things that happened at various times. I’m keeping all of yours so we will have lots to read and laugh about.
I only want love to be able to sit down in our own kitchen (and living room) with peace in my heart and love all around me. It’s funny love how I always think of our happy moments in the kitchen and not in the front room. I don’t know whether it’s because we use it a lot more, but it always seems to hold all the memories, some of happiness when we are bathing the youngsters or drying them before the fire, some worrying when I was waiting that Christmas night when you brought Michael into our lives, and when you were in Westcoates and I was looking after Keith in his cot in the kitchen owing to the raids. The time we slept on the floor….”
The War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA
As its title page indicates, this “War-time Log” is part of a special remembrance package from the folks at home. The other articles in the packet are more or less perishable, but this is intended to be kept as a permanent souvenir of the present unpleasantness. If you do not want to keep a regular diary or even occasional notes on war-time experiences, these pages offer many other possibilities. If you are a writer, here is space for a short story. If you are an artist (some people are) you may want to cover these pages with sketches of your camp, caricatures of its important personalities, whether residents or authorities. If you are a poet, major or minor, confide your lyrics to these pages. If you feel that circumstances cramp your style in correspondence you might write here letters unmailable now, but safely kept to be carried with you on your return. This book might serve to list the most striking concoctions of the camp kitchen, the records of a camp Olympic, or a selection of the best jokes cracked in camp. One man has suggested using the autograph of one of his companions (plus his fingerprints?) to head each page, followed by free and frank remarks about the man himself. The written text might be a commentary on such photographs as you may have to mount on the special pages for that purpose. The mounting-corners are in an envelope in the pocket of the back cover. Incidentally, this pocket might be used for clippings you want to preserve, or, together with the small envelopes on the last page, to contain authentic souvenirs of life in camp. Perhaps you will discover some quite different use for this book. Whatever you do, let it be a visible link between yourself and the folks at home, one more reminder that their thoughts are with you constantly. If it does no more than bring you this assurance, the “Log” will have served its purpose.
Yours very sincerely,
WAR PRISONERS’ AID OF THE YMCA
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Thank you for such an interesting book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and just couldn’t put it down. There were so many parallels with my family story. My parents got married in 1942 also because the Nazis were picking up the single men. In 1943 my oldest brother was born and a year 1/2 later another brother. Then my sister in 1946 who ended up with rickets because of the malnourishment of the hunger winter in 1945. I have heard many of the stories as I grew up in Amsterdam although I was born in 1948. My grandparents’ house was bombed also. My father also trekked into the country on his bicycle to search for food. My second oldest brother was born in February by the light of one candle and was delivered alone when my father was out in the streets past curfew to get the doctor. My mother also has a fierce faith in God (she is 94 now) and believes that God will provide which has helped her through many similar difficult times as your Oma and Opa (my father passed away in 1997). My mother always felt that there was no future for her children in Amsterdam and although they were in their mid forties, they immigrated to Canada with 5 children in 1957 to a town called Jasper Place, which is now West Edmonton. Talk about culture shock. And unlike Rige, I always told my parents that I would move back (I was 9 years old). Our few belongings also were in a crate that held clothing and our dining room table and chairs and hutch. Our family has prospered in the “promised land” full of opportunities and we are very grateful for the vision of my parents. Thank you again for such a very good, well researched and interesting book.
Amersfoort, The Netherlands
One of the things I remember: Saturday, 4 November, 1944, my mother sent me on an errand at my dad’s place of work. At that time he worked as a baker about a 15-minute walk of where we lived. Being that day my mothers 31st birthday and so far as I can remember it had something to do with it. I went on my way and as a boy of 9 years old it took a little longer to get to my dad. After I had spoken to him I returned on my way home and when I was on my way back for about 5 minutes the alarm went off, and airplanes were seen coming into the direction of the city Amersfoort where we lived. I was just passing a bakery that also was used as a quarter for the civilian guards. My uncle, my dad’s oldest brother, just happened to be on duty and called me in, seeing me. We stayed outside to watch the airplanes, who were on their way to bomb the railway yard, at least that is what it looked liked. We saw an airplane getting hit and it caught fire and dropped its load of bombs. As we could measure the distance from where we were watching, they should fall around the Catholic church, or around there. After the all-clear signal, I continued my way home and when I came past the church there was no sign of any dropped bombs and or damage. So I continued on, until I came around the block and in the street where I lived, and saw a row of houses destroyed or very heavily damaged, and our house was one of them. In the middle of the street was a large bomb crater. Our house was in a row of six houses, and the second and third were destroyed and our house the fourth in the row was very badly damaged. Not only dropped the bombs there but also one on the greengrocers store behind us in his living room, in the street next to the one we lived and one in the yard, a total of six. The damage was enormous and my brother and I went to my uncle where we stayed for a while until the house was ready to live in as good as was possible. That I was afraid of planes or the sound of it during the rest of the war is understandable.
Jan van der Doe
Leidschendam, The Netherlands
Ooooooo where to begin. A very dear friend gave me a copy of your book; she said it reminded her of my mother and father. She had no idea. Imagine my surprise when I realized it took place on Tedingerstraat, in Leidschendam! My parents also lived on this street, #94…I was born there (after the war) My father came from Overschie, my mom from Groningen. Such a small world. Father rarely spoke of war times, but he did dream..many a night my brother and I woke to hear my mother try to soothe yet another nightmare. Father was one of those taken to work camps in the last 6 months of the war. He had gone off to find food…(that was his version, my uncle stated he was in the underground, but I cannot verify) and along with 800 others, was taken to a work camp in Wesel , Germany. My mother and brother shortly thereafter, not knowing if father was dead or alive, left Leidschendam to stay with her family in the Wieringermeer. They were farmers, and she felt she could fare better there, after all she had a small boy to feed. Somehow, after the liberation, they found each other, and returned to Tedingerstraat where they lived (and I was born) until emigrating to Canada. (March, 1951 on the Volendam!!) I do not remember much, but I do remember having my third birthday on board, and the small party they held. Dad mentioned many a time that it was rough crossing, and he was ill the entire trip. On landing in Halifax, he and his small family boarded the train to Bishopton, Quebec, where he was to work for one year as a farmer. Six months later, whatever the reason was, we moved…and we moved a lot during more after, finally settling in the Niagara area of Ontario in 1956. In 1995, after Mom passed away, I took Dad to Holland. He felt he had to “say good-bye” to friends and family, as he felt he had only a short time left. We spent May 5th in Apeldoorn…a time I will never forget. That afternoon, we watched Queen Beatrix lay wreaths at the dam in Amsterdam on television..and when one was laid for those who were taken to work camps, my Father started crying. He said he thought those people had been “forgotten”. Well, a dutch gin or two later, I filled a whole notebook with his memories, and they are terrifying! As long as I remember, my parents were not particularly religious. We went to church in Canada as a family, and I think this was to keep my mother happy. My father’s faith died during the war…he always said a loving God would not let those atrocities happen to his children. He left us to seek out our own truths, and I have tried to follow the same example with our son. My father passed away in 2004, and while he told us many times of his youth, his friends, and his courtship of my mother, there is a distinct gap which he never did fill in. I feel you have told not just your family’s story, but those of many others who lived through this time. Yesterday, while celebrating our wonderful land on Canada Day, I told our son about the book, and that I was going to let him read it. Perhaps, just perhaps he will have a better understanding of the grandparents who suffered so, and who braved an unknown foreign land just so we could have a better life. I have included a photo of my mom and dad, in “happier times” before the war. God bless you for telling this story.
Marianne Bradbury (van Vliet)
Germany and the USA
American Private Orville Phillips was captured in an underground fort on the Rhine River on October 7, 1944. Years later, after seeing a note from a German soldier in his Red Cross journal, his daughter-in-law asked him how the soldier happened to autograph this keepsake book. She retells his story here:
“Get down!” hollered the young foot soldier.
“It’s no use!” screamed his comrade from the foxhole. “The Germans have us surrounded.”
Private First Class Orville Willard Phillips sized up their predicament. “Fellas,” he cried, “there’s nothing more we can do. We must surrender or they’re gonna kill us.” Taking a white handkerchief from his pocket, he tied it to his bayonet. Carefully he lifted it from his hiding place.
“Put down your guns and grenades!” ordered a German soldier in broken English. One by one the American soldiers crawled from their foxhole to stand before their enemies. They were now officially prisoners of war.
The Germans loaded them on the trucks and took them to the train station. There the American soldiers were crammed into boxcars that had been previously used for cattle. The stench was overwhelming. Squished like sardines in their metal prison they began their nightlong ride.
One young lad began to whimper, “Air … I need air.”
Lifting the soldier’s chin above the others, Orville began sing, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come.” Suddenly a chorus of voices chimed in: “Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.” When the choir stopped another soldier would lead out in a familiar hymn, and the mighty chorus would swell again.
Finally, they arrived at their destination. The boxcar door opened. The weary soldiers winced as the bright sunlight blinded them.
“Move it!” barked a German commander.
The Americans stumbled to face their enemy. A time of interrogation and inspection followed. Orville stood before a young German guard.
“What is this?” the German inquired as he held up a small Bible.
“It’s my Bible,” Orville answered.
“Cannot have.” The commander demanded as he opened the front cover and saw a picture of a beautiful young American woman with two small boys.
“My wife…” Orville said as he pointed to the woman in the picture. “My two boys…. Please may I keep???”
Their eyes locked. Awkwardly, the German soldier stuffed the Bible in Orville’s pocket.
“You may keep,” he grunted.
Orville arrived at Stalag 11B. This would be his home for the next year.
Panic interrupted his thoughts as one of the men wailed, “That young guard’s coming, Orville, the same one who interrogated you.”
Orville quickly tucked his Bible back in his pocket and stood as the German guard entered the room.
“You!” he said as he pointed to Orville. “Come with me.”
Orville’s heart raced as he followed the guard just outside the door.
“Here!” the German replied in broken English, as he placed in Orville’s hand a photograph. “My wife and my two boys.”
Orville scanned the photo.
“She’s very beautiful! Your boys and my boys look to be about the same age.”
The guard smiled and nodded his head in agreement as he said, “I was wounded on the Russian front. There are no winners in war. When the war is over your boys and my boys. Be friends.”
Hot tears stung Orville’s eyes as he reached to shake his new friend’s hand. “I would like that very much!”
On February 18, 1945, the same young guard appeared at the door of Stalag 11B and cried, “The war is over! You are free!” (though of course it was not over, and Orville still had difficult months ahead of him.)
The Red Cross had given every soldier a care package containing a journal. All the men excitedly began writing personal notes in each other’s journal. Orville took his and went and stood by the young guard, who had been so kind to him.
“Would you sign this for me?” Orville asked.
“I can’t write in English, but I will write something in German. When you go home you will have to find someone to translate it for you.”
“I will,” Orville promised.
Orville fulfilled that promise. There in his prisoner of war journal was this young guard’s handwriting. Translated, this is what he wrote:
When the war is over,
And we all go back home,
We will always remember our friendship.
Mr. Patberg was right. Orville Phillips, my father-in-law, never forgot his German friend.
The Older Sister
A photograph, yellowed and faded, softened with age, inexpertly repaired, with fragments missing from the edges. I am the older one – Elzbieta Maria. I stand next to my baby sister’s carriage. A smudge over my neck blots out a part of me. Or is it a fancy scarf tied in a bow? It is hard to tell, the shape is indistinct and blurred. You can’t see my hands, but I am not holding anything – no teddy, no dolly. You can’t see my feet. I am just a round face with round cheeks, in a round woolen hat tied under my chin, indistinct bangs over my forehead and scrunched up eyebrows.
You think that I am about three years old; my sister’s age places us in the winter of ’41-’42 and you know my date of birth: November 11, 1938. I am the first child of Piotr and Zofia. You also know that I died as a young child from meningitis, but you have not found my date of death or my grave; you are not even sure where I died. I am imprisoned in this sixty-five-year-old piece of cardboard. Let me out. Tell my story.
Like your grandfather, my father was a florist/gardener, having spent his teen years working in the greenhouses in Amsterdam. He later moved back to Friesland, where he worked about 10 acres in Buitenpost. During the war, he buried a number of large rain tanks in the ground and covered them from branches from the fruit trees. During a roundup, he and number of men would hide in these rain tanks. My mother would bring them food during the night and advise them when it was safe to come out. Many in their village were caught and taken to Germany, never to return. Religion was also a big part of their lives, especially my mother’s. She too had little success in passing this passion to her sons. The pictures on your website look as if they could have come from our family albums, especially those of your grandfather working in the fields.
The South Pacific and the USA
Home movies show my granddad trim, smiling and smart in his Navy uniform. This is shortly after Pearl Harbor, and he is shipping out from California to the South Pacific. His red hair and blue eyes are faded, as are all the colors. He is waving at the camera.
A general surgeon, my granddad was assigned to a triage ship, which would pull up close to shore so that medics could disembark, run to the still-warm battle ground, and do an initial sort of the bodies, living from dead. The wounded, brought aboard, were again triaged by my granddad. Most of the broken men were then ferried to leviathan hospital ships. My granddad tended those who needed immediate aid. He also watched over the dying.
I never heard him talk about any of this, but once.
When winnowing through a lifetime of stuff, in preparation for a move from his lakeshore home – where he had planted fruit trees and sailed a wooden boat and raised a family – to a “controlled community” close to a cluster of shopping malls, my granddad came across a box filled with home movies. 8mm.
Some of the reels, though, were missing.
It seems that there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in war. Doldrums punctuated by terrible storms. When he wasn’t knee-deep in carnage, he and his fellow soldiers were stuck on a boat, waiting. Waiting not for battle to begin, but for it to end. That’s when their work started.
During these waiting times, my granddad painted a map of the South Pacific on the inside of a trunk he made from scrap wood hinged with flattened bomb shells. Through binoculars, he watched the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. And he trained his movie camera on the spectacle of war.
My granddad was an amateur filmmaker of steady hand, repeated takes, composed shots and in-camera editing. He talks of shooting battle preparations, of hundreds of dark war ships powering in from all directions, forming great, precise lines in the water, a harrowing ballet. Then the assault. The pageantry, the immense scale, the fireworks of war. He captured all this on color film.
Many years later, there was some big gathering of WWII veterans. My granddad received an invitation to the event, along with a request to share relevant mementos. Though he was unable to attend, he sent in his war films. He never saw them again, though the loss of the films seemed not to faze him. They must have played anyway on a screen in the back of his mind.
Telling me about these missing reels, and then about the war, in a videotaped interview I did with him when he was almost ninety, my granddad often falls silent. You can see him sifting through images of horror and boredom, logistics and longing. He brings forth only those memories he deems necessary artifacts. Penicillin. Camaraderie. Sympathy for the devil. These are the things that might save us. At the end, he waves his hand in the front of the camera and says, Enough about the war.
German Surrender: Memoirs of a Navigator
It was May 1945 and I had almost completed three years overseas. I was transferred to Tripoli for a short period, after which I was to head to England, and then home to Canada for a much-anticipated leave. On VE Day, I was on duty alone in the control tower at the far side of the airfield when word came through that Germany had capitulated. As this was the greatest news I could possibly receive, it called for a celebration – but how could I celebrate all alone in a control tower miles from the station? I looked at the rows of Very cartridges and distress rockets lined up in the tower and began my celebration the only way I could think of. Taking a Very pistol and a supply of cartridges outside, I started firing in all directions, stopping only to set off a distress rocket now and again. My hand became numb and sore from firing cartridges, but I kept at it until a Royal Air Force truck made its appearance. It was driven by an Italian P.O.W. and was sent by my mess buddies with a supply of beer to do me until my duty tour in the tower was over. It was a welcome relief to have someone to share my jubilation, even an Italian prisoner of war. I handed him the Very pistol and some cartridges and ordered him to start firing. He did as I asked, but with some hesitation as he was supposed to deliver the beer and return immediately to the station. I won out for a short period of time, and we stopped only because I didn’t want to deplete the entire stock of Very cartridges. It was an unusual celebration, but one I will never forget.
Kenneth Livingstone Rutherford
England & Norway
Lost At Sea
Red Cross Street in Southwark, London, England, was a row of working-class brick houses. My uncle, Joe Deverill, was born there on 17 January 1898. His family, including a younger brother and two sisters, were members of the Salvation Army and his dad played a number of brass instruments in the band. The tuba he played was as big as Joe’s little brother. When Joe was only 14, his dad died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Joe as the man of the family to help his mother. What a responsibility for a boy so young! By the time he was 17, Joe had decided to join the Navy. The First World War had begun in 1914 and this would be a good way to have a steady job and serve his country. He left home to enlist in the Royal Navy on 30 March 1915, for a volunteer period of 12 years.
Uncle Joe was small for his age. His Royal Navy Service Record states that he is 4 feet 11 1/2 inches tall as a boy of 17. A few years later on his advancement to a man’s rating he is still only 5 feet tall, has brown hair, gray eyes and a fair complexion. In pictures of him with his Navy mates, he is the small one, and liked to have his picture taken seated so he didn’t look so short. His daughter Joan describes him as having “a quiet personality and kind disposition.” He loved his work and decided to make the Royal Navy his career.
During this time, Joe’s mother became seriously ill, so his siblings were fostered with relatives, and Joe, home on leave, sometimes took his little sister to visit their mother in the hospital.
During the First World War Joe was serving on the British destroyer H.M.S. Mary Rose. On October 17, 1917, his ship was escorting a convoy of 12 merchant ships (2 British, 1 Belgian, 9 Scandinavian) in the North Sea between the Shetland Islands and Norway. The Mary Rose led the convoy, about 6 miles ahead. Another British ship called the Strongbow, was at the rear of the convoy. Two mine-laying German cruisers disguised as British ships crept close to the convoy and attacked at the rear. The Strongbow tried to transmit a warning ahead to the Mary Rose, but the Germans jammed the signal. The Mary Rose heard the firing behind and returned fire, but as the ship turned it was hit full on and sank in a very short time. The Strongbow was badly damaged and was scuttled, and 9 of the 12 merchant ships were also sunk by the enemy. This was a disastrous day. Altogether about 250 lives were lost in the battle, and only ten men (2 officers and 8 men) from the Mary Rose survived. One of these lucky men was my 19-year-old Uncle Joe. Huddled in their lifeboat, battling the winds and waves of the cold North Sea, the survivors eventually reached the Norwegian coast near Bergen where the lighthouse keeper took in the bedraggled sailors, fed them and tended to their injuries.
After the North Sea battle, the first telegram from the Admiralty brought news that Joe was lost at sea and presumed dead. But just a few days later another telegram was received that brought the wonderful news that Joe had been rescued and was in Norway. Sadly this last telegram was received five days after his mother was buried.
While convalescing, Joe made some beautiful hooked wool rugs, and when he married in 1920, the rugs were used proudly in his home. He continued with his naval career, which kept him away at sea for months at a time, and when his younger brother and sisters left England to emigrate to Canada in 1923, Joe was away on HMS Verdun. He wrote them a heart-wrenching letter, saying he was very sad that he was unable to see them off. As the older brother he felt responsible and advised them to be careful with their money, to be wary of strangers aboard ship, and wished them well in their new life in Canada. “Well, dear brother and sisters,” he wrote, “I hope you have a good trip across, and I want you all to remember that although the Old Home has broken up, we are still sisters and brothers and I would like you to write and let me know how you get on.” As it turned out, Joe would not see his three siblings again for 40 years.
When they finally went “back home” to visit, about 1966, Joe was retired, living a quiet life in London, England with his wife and daughters. He still had the beautiful rugs he’d made as a convalescent, and proudly showed them to his sisters and brother. A year later, in 1967, Uncle Joe died of a heart attack.
Before the war my father and his family lived in the town of Yangzhou, China, in Jiangsu Province north of the Yangtze River. At that time my grandfather was a schoolmaster at a local boarding school. The war began in 1937 when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China. As the war approached Yangzhou, my grandfather decided to leave town with his family. Many of the teachers and pupils in his school chose to follow him as well, having nowhere else to go. As they traveled impromptu classes would be held at roadside stops. The greatest danger when traveling on the roads was roving bandit gangs who would steal from and kill passing refugees. To deter the bandits, the students carved wooden rifles from tree branches and marched like soldiers, so that they would appear to be a passing column of army infantry.
Towards the end of the war, around 1944, it became safe for my family to return to Yangzhou, although it was still under Japanese occupation. At around this time my father contracted acute appendicitis. He was about eight years old. The only hospital nearby was the Japanese military hospital, so they decided to take my father there. This decision caused a lot of anxiety for my grandfather, as he was an active member of the anti-Japanese resistance, and was concerned that he would be exposed if he took his son to the Japanese Army base. Nonetheless, a Japanese Army doctor operated on my father, and he remained in the hospital for about three months after developing an infection.
In 1945, as the war ended, negotiations began in Yangzhou to evacuate the remaining Japanese occupation forces and repatriate them to Japan. The townspeople had already looted the Japanese base and hospital. My grandmother gathered some blankets and food. She told my father and his brother to take them to the Japanese army hospital and find the doctor who had operated on my father. When they found him in the hospital he was shivering and nearly naked as most of his clothing had been stripped and taken. He wept as he received the blankets my father had brought. A few days later my father watched the defeated Japanese troops march out of town in a ragged column, including the doctor who now wore only the blankets my father had given him.
Memories of a Nobleton Girl
Our public school in Nobleton, Ontario, was a one-room schoolhouse for eight grades. There was one teacher for about forty kids. During the war, we were divided into three teams – Army, Navy, and Air Force – and we had a great big map on the wall showing North America and Europe with the big Atlantic Ocean in between. There was a plane and a ship and a troop carrier to represent each of the three services, and every Friday we’d take 25 cents or more – 25 cents bought a War Savings Stamp, and you pasted them in a book. Depending on how many stamps were sold that day, the teacher would move each vehicle a little farther across the ocean. It was a great race, each of these three teams. It was up to us to get them there faster.
We collected newspaper and fat and lard and put it in cans, but I don’t know why. “For the war effort,” we were told. A local dad would pick these things up and take them somewhere, but I don’t know where. Lots of things were a bit of a mystery to me. But I know we knitted. A local lady came to the school and brought lovely soft yarn and string. My mother and grandmother were knitting all the time back then. We schoolgirls made these plain facecloths, soft soft soft, using big needles, and they were given to local ladies who packed parcels full of soap, cigarettes, balaclavas, and so on, for the Red Cross to send to the soldiers. My mother also made Christmas cake and packed butter into old baking soda tins – it came in tins back then – and she packed tins of salmon and things like that that would last, and she’d send these care packages to our relatives in England, whose food was more severely rationed than ours.
In Nobleton we used to stand at the side of the road and salute when the army trucks went by to their base in a convoy. And I don’t know if it was every Friday in the fall, but certainly often in September and October we used to go out with these great burlap sacks, and we’d pull milkweed pods* – the white sap was sticky and it would ooze out and there was this silky stuff inside. I think the pods we collected went towards the making of parachutes. In our town there were lots of men who were truckers and they’d collect these things and take them to the basement of the school. That basement was always full of things in those days.
Children from across Canada collected milkweed pods during the Second World War. The silky, buoyant “floss” was used to stuff life vests and aviation suits.
Sometimes, during wartime, a fiction can be as dangerous as a fact.
Rumours had a way of taking on a life of their own and in Liverpool word passed from house to house until it finally reached my grandmother Ruth’s. The rumour was that the German Airforce had invented a new kind of bomb that would explode just above the ground releasing a tightly wound coil that would then spring apart, fly through the air, and chop apart anything-especially people- in its path. This kind of evil device would make itself known by the swooshing sound it would make as it flew through the air.
That swooshing sound had its desired effect on my grandmothers block as residents ran at full tilt during an air raid for cover. Behind them they could hear the coil as it spun through the air slashing everything in its path before crashing in a loud thud against an alley wall. When the “all clear” sounded and their heart rates returned to normal they slowly crept down an alley to view the dastardly device.
Laughter broke out as the top secret coil bomb was revealed to be a metal dustbin lid that had been blown off its can by a shockwave and now sat harmless, but somewhat flattened, on the road. How many others heard the same rumour and had similar close calls with dustbin lids, broken eves, garbage cans and mailboxes we will never know. Hopefully they too had a brief moment of comic relief before heading back home for a few hours of sleep followed by daybreak and a new batch of rumours.
Passchendaele and Canada
My grandfather fought in WW1 in the infantry of the British Marines, I think. He was on the Somme and incredibly survived Passchendaele. When I was about 10 years old my grandfather came to speak to my grade 5 class about the war. I’m not sure why this happened. It could have been because it was near Remembrance Day and we lived close to the school so he could easily walk over. I have the feeling it was a last-minute thing, not at all planned in advance.
Anyway, he came to the portable we called our classroom and spent about an hour talking with us and answering questions. I remember feeling quite proud of him as he talked to the class and skillfully diverted the attempts by the boys, like myself, to tell us how many Germans he had killed or other grisly facts and details. At one point he told us about standing behind the trenches on a quiet day and chatting with a friend. He left the friend and walked a short distance away to see to another matter when a German shell exploded. He turned around and his friend was gone. A minute earlier and that could have been him, he said. Almost everyone he befriended throughout the war was killed.
He ended his talk by telling us there was nothing adventurous or glamorous about war. “War is a terrible, terrible thing,” he said. “I hope you never have to go through something like that as long as you live.” A quiet unease fell upon the class when he said that. Even a bunch of 10-year-old Canadian kids could sense the horror behind those words. After a moment the teacher thanked him and we applauded, then he picked up his cane and left.
The South Pacific and the USA
My father’s war injury consisted of losing half the middle finger of his right hand when the hatch of a US Navy ship slammed down on it. He did not like to talk about his time in the service but made it clear that the worst part of World War II was being at the mercy of the man he nicknamed Captain Bligh (after the infamous leader whose behaviour caused a mutiny on the Bounty) , the commander of his ship. Among many other pointless cruelties, the twentieth-century Bligh used to make his men stand at attention in full-dress wool uniforms in the South Pacific sun until they fainted. My father said that the men who held rank in the Armed Forces during the war were people who held none as civilians at home, and they relished abuse of power.
I remember that he commented that he could not understand the fuss over gays in the military, because there were gay sailors on his ship way back when, and it worked out just fine – except for the one who wanted him to share a bottle of formaldehyde.
Frank Bukowski went to war at age 20 with a full head of hair but came home bald and, at 6 foot 1, weighing 125 pounds. He married my mom and started booming babies (while simultaneously attending university on the GI bill – the best part of the war, according to him) along with the rest of his generation. Later, his short finger proved useful when disciplining rowdy high school students. He just pointed it at them.
My mother’s war was typical for US women: she performed the jobs that had no men to fill them, doing triple duty as a teacher of Math and English and as a librarian, and later a draughtswoman. She became a horsewoman, tennis-player, and pilot. When my father got home he pronounced that “no wife of mine is going to work,” and that was that. He didn’t want her savings, either – he told her to use it for a fur coat and fine china, which she did. My dad’s attitude sprang from seeing his mother worked to death (from “consumption”) when he was eight, but the result was that we were dirt-poor and lived in public-housing projects (with the coat and the china) while he went to school and worked part-time. Thus began my parents’ life-long competition for bragging rights with their peers about who had been poorer and worked harder, a hallmark of their generation.
When I was thirteen years old, Schindler’s List was the movie everyone was abuzz about. With a precocious pre-teen mix of “I’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank ” and “I know everything because I’m in middle school,” I confidently sat at the dinner table and rolled my eyes at my father when he said that he wouldn’t be seeing this movie. “This is one of the most important films made in decades”, my barely decade old self stated. We’d learned about the German holocaust throughout our history curriculum and I had Jewish friends in dance class who had already seen the film two or three times. Confused by what he had against Spielberg or subtitles, I said, “Jessica’s Zadie still has the tattoos from the concentration camp. I now know people who have been through the holocaust, Dad,” to which he replied, “You always have, Adria.”
We aren’t Jewish. We aren’t German. So I couldn’t possibly understand what he was referring to. It was then that I heard for the first time that my grandfather, my father’s father, was a survivor of the Ukrainian Famine, the Stalin era and a concentration camp where he lost all of his siblings. How was it possible that the smiling old man with the broken English that taught me to play chess and pushed me on the park swings for hours had this complex identity and tragic history that I knew nothing about? I have since hung on every word he might have shared with us and any glimpses into this personal story that he imparted were stored away and recounted to my sister and cousins who might have heard other stories over other bowls of Borscht. Often too dark to share, it was these occasional storytelling sessions that make up the mosaic that was a fascinating life, one that I still hope to uncover much more about.
Greater Love Hath No Man
Uncle Sam and John grew up together at Winnipeg, Manitoba. They were like brothers. They joined the same regiment at the start of the First World War and were sent overseas together. In 1915, during the great Battle of Ypres in Belgium, Canadian troops were attacked, completely by surprise, with chlorine gas – the first use of this deadly weapon in warfare. The Canadian forces suffered heavy casualties. Severely wounded by machine-gun fire and his respiratory system virtually destroyed by chlorine gas, Uncle Sam was shipped home to the Veteran’s Hospital near Winnipeg, a living corpse, to die.
I first met Uncle Sam at Uncle George’s farm near Winnipeg when I was a youngster during the 1930’s. My family lived in Alberta and, for several summers, we vacationed at the farm. Sam was brought to the farm from hospital to visit one day. Before he arrived, Uncle George cautioned us children not to be noisy around Sam. He whispered to us that Uncle Sam was dying – that he would not be with us much longer. Uncle George was a big, tough, prairie farmer, with the nickname “Irish.” The years passed and Sam eventually outlived Irish.
John came home to Winnipeg when the war ended having survived many battles. He married Emma who had waited years for his return. They did not have any children – they devoted their lives to Uncle Sam. They established a home in a rural area near the Vet’s Hospital and renovated a large room with equipment to serve Sam’s needs. It had a large window which provided a view of a beautiful park area. Every weekend, they would bring Sam home from the hospital to “Sam’s Room.” He relaxed much of his time during these visits in his wheelchair in front of the large window. During the week, John and Emma visited Sam every day at the hospital, and on many warm, sunny days they took him for a car ride in the quiet countryside.
Shortly before my mother died in 1978 at 85 years of age, she and I were chatting about family and events long past. She mentioned Uncle Sam. I commented that the remarkable devotion of John and Emma to Sam for over forty years was an act of charity beyond human understanding.
She said, “Oh, I thought you knew – Sam saved John’s life on the battlefield at a place called Ypres.”
Memories of a 1938 green Ford Roadster
A short distance from where I live in Victoria, BC, there is a beautiful tree-lined street named Falaise Drive. It is named in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice for their country during the great Battle of Falaise in WWII. This battle was fought for many days in and around the city of Falaise in Normandy during the summer of 1944, shortly after the invasion of Europe. I usually go for a long walk alone on Falaise Drive during each Remembrance Day, lost in memories of that summer of 1944.
The Burkett family lived across the street from where I grew up in Edmonton. There were eight children in the family, which included Tom, who was a few years older than myself, and twin brothers, Maury and Ronnie, who were several years older than Tom. About the time of the start of WWII, the family moved several miles away but we kept in close contact.
Tom was like an older brother to me and was my mentor when we were growing up, and we were constantly together. The twins went off to war serving in the Canadian Army about 1942. Several years prior to leaving, Maury acquired a 1938 green Ford Roadster. The car was in mint condition and Maury spent a great deal of his time polishing and tuning the car – it was the joy of his life. When he left for overseas duty he locked the car in a section of the family garage and instructed that nobody was to drive the car while he was away.
A few weeks prior to the Battle of Falaise in 1944, Tom showed me a letter he had received from Maury. Maury stated that he had “bad feelings” about the future and felt he would not be returning home. He stated that if he did not return, he wanted Tom to have the Ford Roadster – a battlefield will. Shortly after the battle started, Tom drove slowly into my yard one day in the Roadster. I rushed over to the car. Tom got slowly out of the car in silence. We simply hugged each other and wept.
Ronnie was with the same unit as Maury but was a transport driver, not a combat soldier. Shortly after Maury was killed in action, the army was desperately in need of reinforcements because of heavy losses. Ronnie was handed a gun and ordered to the front lines. He was immediately killed by “friendly fire.” During the chaos of the battle, low-flying American bombers inadvertently dropped their bombs on Canadian troops.
Today, in the green, peaceful hills near the city of Falaise there is a Canadian military cemetery. Maury’s grave is marked with the traditional white military headstone. On a stone wall a short distance away, among many other plaques, there is a plaque with Ronnie’s name and other information – his remains were never recovered.
The Burkett family was devastated by the loss of the twins within a few days of each other. Their mother had a complete breakdown and remained a recluse the rest of her life. I never saw her again. The last time I saw the father was after his retirement during the 1960’s. He was suffering from depression. He had been a prison guard at Fort Saskatchewan Jail, near Edmonton. His last tour of duty was guarding for many months a young prisoner named Robert Cook. His last duty was escorting Cook to the gallows. Cook was the last person executed in the Province of Alberta before capital punishment was abolished. He was the same age when executed as Maury and Ronnie when they were killed.
A few years ago, while walking alone along Falaise Drive on Remembrance Day, I was startled to notice a 1938 green Ford Roadster driving slowly towards me, some distance up the drive. There were no other vehicles to be seen. I stood on the curb as if in a trance, my heart pounding. But as the car drove past me, I realized that, although it was green, it was not a 1938 Ford Roadster.
I remember one very cold winter morning in 1940. As a child of about eight I sat in the sled drawn by two horses and I was horrified. My family and I were put on the sled and driven to the nearest railway station. In front and behind us, a long row of sleds were moving with Polish people like us. Women and children cried and men had pale faces. My mother stopped crying now, but I didn’t like the way she stared ahead of her, not paying attention to my baby brother Andrzejek who bawled in her arms. She probably was squeezing him too hard without even knowing it.
We were nearing the curve in the road, when I glanced up at our chimney. And yes, I knew then that I was not to see it again in my life, for I was leaving my birthplace and Poland forever. The awfully scary Russians, who had occupied our country, were deporting us all to Siberia, I heard grown-ups saying. And that Siberia was a freezing place where we were to starve from hunger and die from cold.
For some reason, maybe to make this tragic morning survivable, I went back to the last summer. I’m sitting in the shade of a willow tree by a stream cutting our cow pasture in half. My younger sisters, Jozia and Helcia, and I are making houses out of mud. We make a long street with a couple of houses, including our homestead and the wall that represents the forest. The forest guards our wooden buildings. On the bottom by our feet we make the Lubaczowka River.
It’s late in the afternoon and when feeling hunger I turn to look at our chimney, our dear old chimney. The smoke is coming out of it and I smile at it. “Mama is making a supper,” I say to my sisters. They look up at me and repeat, “supper,” and they lick their lips and pat their stomachs. I’m already drooling just thinking of a thick potato-and-carrot soup with pieces of browned fried onions and salted pork swimming on the top of the kettle.
“Keep that quilt tight around you or you’ll freeze,” my Tata’s voice brought me back to the awful reality.
The sleds stopped at the railway station where, in the rising sun, we saw a long row of train wagons standing on the tracks and looking like huge worn out coffins. The Russians on horses and guns pointing at us, told us to get down and to climb into the awful boxes. We all obeyed without saying a word.
My family occupied a corner on the upper berth on the right. There were two double sets of them divided by a narrow space where an iron stove stood. It looked like a huge pipe my grandfather liked to smoke. Next to the stove was a hole in the floor for us to use as an outhouse, as I found out that day. I settled down by the tiny window with Stas crowding me from one side and Marysia from the other. Stas was my older brother who had black hair and dark eyes. Marysia was my older sister with hazel eyes and straight light brown hair. Next to us sat Tata who was embracing my little sisters. He was praying I could see. His dark moustache was turned upward and its corners were curled. Our pretty Mama was breast-feeding our blue-eyed baby Andrzejek and I was glad.
The wagon was dirty and smelly. It made me think of our barn needing to be cleaned of cows and horses’ poops. Now I would give anything to be in the barn than in this box packed from corner to corner with our people. I heard children crying and grownups sniffling near me and saw tears running down some faces. It’s good thing that Mama’s face was dry now although there was no color on it. I shuddered remembering how she behaved earlier this morning.
There is a horrible pounding at our door and the voice in Russian language orders us to open up in the name of Russia. Tata gets up and lets three men in. There is a Ukrainian man we know and two strangers – Russian soldiers with guns. The Russian with the voice tells us to get out of beds, dress and pack for the road.
“Where are you taking us?” Mama says in already wet voice.
“We have orders to evacuate you to Lwow,” the soldiers answers, his gun points straight at Mama picking up Andrzejek who starts to scream. She wraps him up with the corner of her quilt.
“Why there?” Mama yells out. She covers the baby’s face and I wonder if she wants to suffocate the poor thing.
He shrugs. “Get ready for the road! You have two hours to get your things together.”
Now Mama screams, in awful scary and screechy scream. She is frightening me more than the pounding at our door, which awoke us. I start bawling and so do my youngest sisters who sit in the small bed next to Mama’s. But the bad men don’t care about our crying. The Russian with the voice steps closer to Mama and his gun is much too close to her face. His companion points his gun at Tata, who had just lit our gasoline lamp, placed on the table near the brick stove. Before going to sleep earlier tonight, it was heating our room by burning fat logs. But now it is cold and gray of ashes. Because of heating problem, this large room serves us as a living and sleeping quarters in winters. That’s why the Russians and the Ukrainian person find us all here now.
“We refuse to leave our house!” Mama says in a choking voice but strong enough to tell me that she is awfully angry. “You are lying. You are exile us into Siberia and we know that!”
But the other soldier, who points the gun at Tata, says for the first time, “I advise you to get ready for the trip and to pack things you will need on the road.”
“No! No!!! We are staying in our beds,” Mama screams again. “Shoot us all
here. It would be better to die quickly in our home than die slowly of cold and starvation in your country.”
I close my eyes tight expecting to be shot but nothing happens. The soldier at Tata’s side says coming closer to him with his gun and says, “Get ready or we will take you out in your nightclothes and without your things.”
Mama stops crying and uncovers Andrzejek’s face and I sigh with a relief. Tata is changing in daytime clothes and he tells us to do the same. Then he, Stas, Marysia and even the Ukrainian man begin to gather our belongings. When the large trunk is full, they put some pieces into bundles. I want to take our Christmas decorations but Mama shakes her head.
“I’m thirsty, Tata. I want some water,” Jozia’s voice brought me back to the wagon.
Our first day and night passed away very slowly with us licking frost from the nails and iron parts in the walls. We did scrape and lick so as to ease the awful want for water. While sitting in my tiny window, which was finally opened, I breathed in cold but fresh air and I felt lucky to sit in my spot. People on the lower berths had no windows at all, tiny as they were. When I looked out, once in awhile, I saw the Russian soldiers pacing by the train. Their guns were scaring me all over again. If I only had something to drink I could fall asleep. But later on, after Mama spread our bed covers over the hard planks, I closed my eyes. But I ached from lying still on a side only and having my arms either over my head or straight at me sides. We had to somehow fit in our space that was not large enough for our family. We felt squashed no matter whether we sat or lay.
For three days the train stood on the tracks in Poland and we sat locked in. They gave us water to drink twice and a soup only once. Today we got nothing. Jozia and Helcia kept asking my parents for water and something to eat, but Tata only patted their heads and Mama gave each a hug while tears ran down her cheeks.
When it got dark inside our wagon, we settled down for the night as best as we could. Feeling crowded and uncomfortable it took me awhile to fall asleep. I didn’t know how long I was resting. But something horrifying made me sit up. “The train is moving,” I heard Marysia say near me. I only saw her shadow for we had no light in the wagon. “The bumping of the wagons into one another has brutally awakened us,” said someone in the depth of out berth. “We are leaving Poland,” Mama said in a wet voice. “Dear God they are exiling us to Russia,” voices cried out.
Some women and children on both double berths were crying. Jozia and Helcia did the same, yet I didn’t feel anything but numbness of my chest. “This is the end of my, our world,” I say silently. “Like Mama said that morning in her bed, we are going to die in that terrible place called Siberia.”
Then someone started to sing our national hymn and others followed. I sang too as loud as I could. First we sang, JESZCZE POLSKA NIE ZGINELA, POKI MY ZYJEMY (Poland is not lost as long as we are still alive). We also went through several church songs. Slowly the crying stopped, for the singing replaced it. Our singing was loud enough to muffle the awful sound that the wheels underneath us were making.
For the rest of the night and the next day the train kept going. We all knew that it was taking us away, away from our beloved Poland. But there was nothing we could do but to let it move forward, eastward. Came noon and Tata told us that we had already cross the border and getting farther and farther into Russia. There was nothing for me to do but to sit in the window. I saw villages and small towns, fields and woods covered with snow running backward by me.
Canada, England and Dieppe
Rite of Passage
“Enlist in the Canadian Army” read the poster on the drug store window in Owen Sound. It was an invitation that had echoed through the mind of fifteen-year-old Charles MacArthur ever since he was a wee lad. Charles’ father had been in World War 1 and was overseas right now, exactly where Charles wished he was.
The tall, dark haired, blue-eyed boy had dreamed about wearing the handsome uniform, making the long voyage across the Atlantic, and finally fighting for his country, alongside his Canadian comrades. Charles had always been a determined boy and on this day when the poster spoke to him, he decided he could wait no longer. Fate would be his ticket. He would climb any mountain, sleep in any trench, brave all the elements. Charles was prepared to die for his country. And to lie for his passage into a whole new world called war. Being almost sixteen he reasoned that by the time he got his assignment he might even be seventeen. Who would know the difference? He felt a calling, a hunger, a deep desire to go and prove himself among his Canadian brothers.
One year later, aboard the ship Determinata , Charles clutched his gut and heaved into the bucket once again. Life in the belly of the ship was not what he had expected. He had been on board for three days and felt no relief from the continuous undulation of the waves. Praying for relief, he slept in between the gaps of deplorable, wretched consciousness.
Never had Charles been so utterly grateful to see dry land, as on the day he set foot on solid British soil. Laying on his bunk that first night, seven pounds lighter than when he left, Charles wondered how long he could keep hidden, the secret of his true age. Could he manage to fool his comrades, the army, his country, for a full year more? He was privately grateful for his mature appearance and knew he would have to act the part. Charles drifted off to sleep with his mother’s distant, soothing lullaby wrapped around him.
Charles adjusted to army life easily. He tolerated the food just fine; porridge, mutton, powdered eggs and canned corn beef. Being one of eight siblings, he knew how to handle himself among the gentry he met. Charles was a friendly chap, and struck up friendships with several of the younger men. Army life was swell. Charles felt happy to be where he’d always wanted to be, doing what he’d always wanted to do, live in the lap of armoury.
Two weeks after arriving in bonny England, Captain Radford abruptly summoned Charles to the Main Office of the Camp. Charles decided to play innocent and hope for the best. He stood for three hours in a tiny room, waiting, wondering, waiting, knowing, waiting some more.
After some time, he heard shuffling outside the door and then a voice that made his blood run cold. “What is it you want with me?” he heard the familiar voice say. Captain Radford swung the door open with great gusto and asked the tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed man, “Do you know this boy?” Charles’ father didn’t know whether to gather his son into his arms or cuff him one along the ear. “What are you doing here?” Gray MacArthur asked his son. “Came to fight, like you,” responded Charles, mustering all the courage he had. “Couldn’t wait eh? You’re not of age yet boy.” “No, sir, but I’m here and I can do the job,” countered Charles. “We’ll see about that,” said Gray MacArthur in his commanding bass voice. With that, he put his strong, muscular arm around his son’s shoulder and they exited the Main Office.
Two days later Charles boarded the ship Inevita and waved goodbye to his father and comrades. Slowly, England became a distant dot on the horizon.
As Gray MacArthur waved back, he felt an assuredness in his heart that he was doing the right thing. So many troops had been gathering on the beaches. He knew from his veteran experience that a pivotal, significant attack was about to happen. As he waved the hand that had swatted Charles’ behind and shown him how to build a barn, Gray MacArthur thanked God his son was a liar. It was such a gift to see him face to face even for a couple of days. Then he thanked God even more for Captain Radford who bent Charles’ life’s path forever.
Upon Charles’ arrival back in Canada, the news on shore was that the Canadians had invaded Dieppe. Things had not gone well. Thousands of Canadian soldiers died in the attack. Charles had missed living his military dream. This time, Fate destined Charles MacArthur would live.
My father delighted in telling everyone that he had married my mother in spite of the fact that she was a poor cook
“Mum makes heavenly chicken soup with knaidlach !” I protested. And her fluffy dumplings were a family favourite.
“Yes, she does,” Dad admitted. “My mother’s recipe, of course.”
“And her gribenes ?”
My father always swore that Mum’s chicken fat fried with onions was well worth every one of the half dozen Tums he had to chew after eating it. “They’re excellent,” he said. “Also my mother’s recipe.”
“What about her tomato relish? She didn’t get that recipe from Grandma.”
“No, she didn’t,” Dad agreed. I hoped he wouldn’t remind me how we used quarts of it in a vain attempt to disguise the taste of the meat she served with it. Her hamburgers were so thick and hard we had to spear them in the middle with a fork and gnaw at the edges where they were a little less impenetrable. My brother Ray swore years later that he smuggled them outside and used them as hockey pucks during neighbourhood games of shinny, but this is probably apocryphal.
Mum not only had to cope with poor cuts of meat, she also had to deal with wartime rationing. She made salad dressing with flour and water, and egg yolks when she could get them, tasting and testing while she added varying amounts of tarragon, sage, mustard and chives from her garden. We had no car, so she bartered our gas rations for milk and eggs. She stretched a pound of butter by adding powdered milk and whipping it with a wire whisk, while a shock of her red hair bounced rhythmically over one eye. Her meat loaf was half breadcrumbs and when our meat rations ran out, she served us fish, usually haddock, and chicken and liver, which weren’t rationed. There was no chocolate. Mum tried several ersatz concoctions in her various attempts to make it, but it was very bitter.
Mum’s cooking may not have won any prizes, but she told everyone, “If there’s one thing on which I pride myself, it’s my homemade pickles.” Shortly after they were married, Dad had given Mum a copy of his mother’s special recipe for homemade dill pickles, and although Dad conceded that Mum’s pickles were the best in town, he refused to go so far as to allow that they were as good as his mother’s. My father had unassailable standards: he judged pickles by their taste, texture, and the force and duration of the heartburn he suffered after eating them. He assured Mum year after year, “Your pickles are wonderful, my dear, but they are not, unfortunately, equal to my mother’s.”
“She probably left a couple of ingredients out of the recipe she gave me on purpose,” my mother muttered under her breath and she began to tinker with it, altering the amount of this and adding a bit more of that. Every year my father tasted them and made the same pronouncement: “Excellent, my dear. Really first rate. The best I’ve ever tasted, bar none. Except, of course, for my mother’s. But that’s understandable. She always grew her own cucumbers.” It was then that Mum vowed to devote a special corner of her victory garden to growing the cucumbers and dill she needed to make her pickles.
My mother’s flower garden had always been the envy of all our neighbours, but that first spring after war was declared, on the first good planting day at the end of May, she pulled her straw gardening hat down over her unruly red curls, shouldered her spade and hoe and marched into the back yard as though to battle. All day long she attacked the hard winter-bound earth, pausing occasionally to push her gold wire-rimmed glasses higher on her sun-burnt nose and sip cups of tea which she poured from a china pot set out on a table on the lawn. She dug up her lovely white lilies and phlox and her prize pink peonies and planted a victory garden–not a token plot like our neighbours’, but the entire back yard–with soldier-straight rows of sugar beets, carrots, Swiss chard, peas and lacy leaf lettuce and plump tomatoes tied to tall poles, squash, yellow runner beans, fragrant chive and shallots bigger than my thumb. I had been given the seeds by my school, and the assistant principal himself came to our house and gave me a certificate of merit ‘in recognition of taste, skill, and industry as an amateur gardener’. But the full credit should have gone to my mother, who spent hours weeding and watering and cajoling the fragile seedlings into abundance in the inhospitable sandy soil.
Mum had diligently researched the quality of various cucumber seeds and fertilizers before planting. As the seedlings grew, she stood in the pouring rain, covering the fragile vines with the heavy sheets she used to make our wartime blackout curtains.
Things came to a head one morning in June, not long before my twelfth birthday, when I awoke to the sounds of horrible shrieks coming from our back yard. I jumped out of bed, ran to the window and stared down at the victory garden below. My mother, dressed in her flowered cretonne dressing gown, was running up and down the rows of cucumber vines swatting viciously with a broom. “Out! Get out of my garden!” she screamed, scattering gray squirrels in all directions. She looked up at me. Her glasses were hanging from one ear and she’d lost one of her slippers. “They’ve eaten my entire crop of cucumbers,” she wailed, and burst into tears. My father, in bare feet and pyjamas, led her into the house, sat her down at the dining room table and told me to make her a cup of tea. “How could this happen?” she asked him over and over. “I planted nasturtiums around each seedling and pushed moth balls into the surrounding soil, just as your mother advised.”
My father did his best to console her. “You’ll buy your cucumbers at the Byward Market just as you’ve always done and your pickles will be just as good as ever,” he told her.
“They’ll be better,” she vowed grimly, wiping her eyes with the tissue she kept tucked in her sleeve. “I’m going to make the best pickles you ever ate, if it kills me.”
A week later, my Aunt Lillian called from Calgary with the shocking news that my grandmother had died. My father went out west to visit his family every summer, but this time, instead of putting on his usual gray suit and broad-brimmed Stetson, he boarded the train for my grandmother’s funeral wearing his best black suit, a black bowler pulled low over his horn-rimmed glasses and a black umbrella furled under his arm.
We got a lot of attention as a result of Grandma’s death. Neighbours called with baskets of food–knishes, kasha, strudel, banana bread and lemon cookies. Even Mrs. Kantor, our elderly next-door neighbour, brought over a jar of her own homemade dill pickles. My mother thanked her politely, but when she brought the pickles into the kitchen she was frowning. Mrs. Kantor had at least thirty years more experience at pickle preserving than she did. Later that night, after everyone had gone home, Mum took a bite of one of Mrs. Kantor’s pickles. “Too salty,” she pronounced, pursing her lips with satisfaction.
When Dad returned from the funeral, he sat down in his easy chair with a sigh and sipped a scotch and water while he absent-mindedly sampled Mrs. Kantor’s pickles from a plate Mum had placed on the table beside him.
I opened Dad’s club bag and searched inside. “There are no pickles from Grandma this year,” I said sadly. My grandmother always sent a few jars of half-sour dills home with Dad after every visit.
“There won’t be any more pickles from Grandma, ever,” my mother said, snapping the empty club bag shut for emphasis. It was clear that my mother now expected the title of champion pickle-preserver to fall to her by divine right.
Pickle preserving day at our house always dawned bright and clear on a Saturday in mid-summer. My mother would never divulge exactly how she knew which day was the right one for pickling, but my father compared it to the same instinct which brought the swallows back to Capistrano year after year.
“It’s time,” my mother announced impatiently that morning. She carried several large empty shopping bags. “Hurry up! If we don’t get going, all the best cucumbers will be gone.” She marched us all down to the corner of Rideau and Chapel, where we boarded an electric streetcar for the fifteen-minute ride to the Byward Market. There, Mum visited every vegetable
stall at least twice, pinching and poking. “Humph!” she snorted to my father. “They call these cucumbers! Mine would have been twice as big as these puny specimens!”
“But you don’t really need big ones for dill pickles, do you?” he assured her. “I think these will do admirably.” She reluctantly agreed and proceeded to haggle for the best possible price. We children knew from past experience that, depending on the size of the crowd and the staying power of the farmer’s wife, this transaction could take some time. We wandered through the stalls, eyes feasting on the acres of flowers and fruit and fish and fowl laid out on display. There were dripping pails of gladioli, baby’s breath, cornflowers and larkspur, carmine carnations and tiny iris and sunflowers as big as my face, aromatic herbs and hanging tubs of fuchsia and asparagus ferns, and rows of glassy-eyed fish laid out on mossy beds between mounds of raspberries and blackberries. The butchers tipped their straw hats over their eyes and folded their arms across their bloodstained aprons, while above their heads, trussed chicken and beef carcasses turned lazily in the fly-specked heat.
Mum chose bunches of pungent garlic, celery, aromatic pickling spices and salt, onions and peppers, mustard seed, white vinegar and granulated sugar. At last, laden with packages, we boarded the streetcar for home.
While my mother prepared the kitchen for action, my father took us out to lunch. This was a rare treat. Because he travelled so much on business, he had his fill of eating in restaurants and preferred a good home-cooked meal which, considering his opinion of my mother’s culinary capabilities, was a remarkably loyal sentiment. To tell the truth, Dad was probably reluctant to part with the sixty-eight cents plus a nickel tip it cost to take himself and three healthy children out to eat. However, every once in a while, he broke down and took us to Weiner’s delicatessen on Rideau Street, which was owned and operated by Mr. Weiner with the help of his wife and their three fat daughters.
Mr. Weiner made a point of greeting us and taking our order personally, as a courtesy to my father. It was always the same–a hot dog, French fries and an Orange Crush for each of us, whereupon Mr. Weiner said, “Naturally, Doctor, with such a large order, it will be my pleasure to bring you coleslaw and dill pickles, gratis.”
My father thanked him, and one of the fat daughters brought a tray of clattering cutlery, dripping glasses of water and a bowl of coleslaw, and arranged them carefully on the Formica table. Mr. Weiner himself carried in the plate of dill pickles and put it on the table in front of my father. Mrs. Weiner and her daughters watched and waited.
“My wife’s first batch of the summer, Doctor,” Mr. Weiner said. “They really should set a few more weeks, but we would be honoured to have your opinion.”
My father beamed at this acknowledgment of his expertise, tucked his napkin under his chin, cut a slice of pickle and lifted the fork to his mouth. He bit into the pickle and rolled the pieces around in his mouth. “Superb,” he decreed. “A true work of artistry. Of course, you have never tasted my wife’s pickles. They are quite remarkable. And my mother’s! Well!…”
We arrived home from Weiner’s to find our tiny kitchen mobilized for action. All other household activity ceased. Clothes went unwashed, floors unswept. We were banished from the kitchen, my father to the upstairs front verandah with The Citizen and his pack of British Consuls, the younger children outside, with dire threats as to what would happen if they returned prematurely. In the kitchen, pots boiled like vats in a brewery. Jars bubbled in cauldrons of water, then were fished out with brass tongs (which my father brought home from his research laboratory for the occasion) and laid upside down to drain on dishtowels like giant baby bottles. In the sink, hot water scalded mounds of baby cucumbers which Marie, our maid, scrubbed viciously with a brush. The glass doors of the cabinets blurred with steam.
My mother carefully placed celery, dill, spices and garlic into each jar along with the cucumbers and poured the boiling brine over them, packing the contents tightly. Finally, the last wax seal with its string wick was put in place and the jars were carried carefully down to the cold storage room in the cellar. Marie and my mother scrubbed the kitchen down to its customary state of surgical spotlessness, until a faint aroma of vinegar and dill was all that remained. It was only then that Mum felt she could, in all good conscience, take to her bed in a state of total collapse.
The work was over, but the worry had just begun. “I am not a superstitious person,” she told my father. “But I’ve heard that pickles can be ruined by the proximity of a menstruating woman.”
“That’s just an old wives’ tale,” my father assured her.
“Nevertheless,” she told Marie and me, “you are both forbidden to go near the cold storage room during certain times of the month. After all that work, I’m not taking any chances.”
At last, after weeks of waiting, the pickles were ready to be tasted. My mother brought up the half-sours, which were my father’s favourite, and put them into my grandmother’s cut glass pickle dish and brought them to the supper table. We all stopped talking and eating and watched as my father put down his newspaper and took the first bite. He took full advantage of the situation, tasting and testing and smacking his lips until my mother couldn’t stand it any longer and demanded, “Well?”
My father slowly swallowed the last bits and wiped his lips delicately on his napkin. At last he said, “You’ve outdone yourself, my dear.” Mum beamed, waiting. They’re very good,” he added. Mum raised an eyebrow. “In point of fact,” he amended, “they’re superb.”
My mother was delighted. “I know you think that no one could ever make pickles that could compare to your mother’s,” she told him, “but honestly, now that hers are out of the running, aren’t these the best pickles you’ve ever tasted?”
He took off his glasses, polished them with his pocket handkerchief, then put them back on, curling the ear pieces carefully around each ear. “As I said, these pickles are superb. Truly superb.” He took a deep breath. “However, much as it pains me to admit it, my dear, I’m afraid they’re not quite as good as Mrs. Kantor’s.”
Tilya Gallay Helfield