Stablach Then, Dolgorukowo Today

Another place that I managed to get close to, back in 2019—but still didn’t get to visit—was the former Stablach, East Prussia. Once known as the Gartenstadt (Garden City), what’s left of the town sits in a forested area between two rivers in the southern area of the Kaliningrad Oblast near the Polish border. Now forlorn and neglected, dotted with ruins, connected via bad roads lined by stately linden and chestnut trees, it’s sparsely inhabited by relocated Russians. 

Stablach was first established in the mid-thirties and by 1939 it had almost three thousand inhabitants. Back then, this entire rural area bustled with growth.  Construction of the nearby Berlinka Autobahn had slowed down, while energy was redirected towards constructing support networks for the military. Stablach became an important military training centre for the SS and others in the Wehrmacht. A new church along with new homes were built for military staff, with plenty of room for the Aryan soldier’s dream family and their gardens. Another priority was a new prison, hastily erected by the first crop of Polish prisoners in 1939.


My mom lived in one of the newly erected barracks built for the munition factory workers. Being about eighteen kilometers southeast of Kreuzburg (now Slavskoye), which I did get to see, I could imagine my mom cycling on nearby tree-lined roads to visit her aunt and uncle.  My mom had been recruited—like many single women—to work in Stablach’s ammunition factory.  By then the prison (Stalag1A) would have been filling up with Poles, Belgians, French and fellow Germans.

The place is now, as part of the Kaliningrad Oblast, called Dolgorukowo. Supposedly the church was not damaged during the war and later used by the Russians as a horse stable, a cinema, and has now become a cultural centre. I’m curious about what this cultural centre shares.

There’s so much more to explore and how I would love to go back! My mom left the Stablach munitions factory in January, 1945 when the Soviets were closing in to finally destroy the madness of the Third Reich. It’s been so fulfilling for me to retrace her steps, especially as she moved closer towards the hell of the Second World War.  I hope my new book will bring these times to life. 

 

Baltiysk, once Pillau


Pillau 1945, Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1989-033-33

One of the Baltic ports that I didn't get a chance to visit back in 2019 was Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad Oblast. It's situated on a narrow spit, separated from the mainland by the Vistula Lagoon.

To visit Baltiysk (Russia’s western-most town, population ~32,000) requires a pass from the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service), so I didn’t see it, but I sure heard it.  As we cycled along the Baltic Coast, past Yantarny (former Palmicken) with its amber mine, we could hear nearby military hardware exploding and could feel it rumble the earth under our tires. 


Leftovers from German times near the former Fischhausen

We got to within about ten kilometers of the militarized area, changing direction again when we got to Primorsk (the former Fischhausen). Hearing the explosions from such a distance was the closest I’ve been to such lethal weaponry and it made me shudder with a vague realization of war’s power.  


Ruins near Primorsk

Once known as Pillau, the Baltiysk port was renamed after the Nazi defeat. Originally a fishing village, it has a storied and much-conquered past. Swedes, Lithuanians, Teutonic Knights and pre- Soviet Russians all left their mark on the town. Located on the Vistula Spit, the Germans used it primarily as a harbour for passenger ships, (although it did have a sub building industry) with commercial shipping routed on towards the improved and expanded Königsberg (Kaliningrad) docks.

Back in the final months of the Second World War, Pillau was the coveted goal of many an East Prussian . . . people like my mom. Until the second half of January, 1945, civilians had been told to stay put and believe in the ‘final victory.’  Like me, she never got to see Pillau, now Baltiysk, either.  The Vistula Lagoon was mostly frozen in the winter of 1945. In the bottom photo, a fellow cyclist looks over the Vistula Lagoon towards Baltiysk.  This lagoon, shrouded in fog, was the slippery path forward for the desperate women and children. Many a horse and wagon crashed through the ice as the Soviet bombers strafed them from above.

Of course, I had to explore this further by writing another book. Coming out next spring. More details available soon.


Exploring the Hanseatic League

“Part of the Hanseatic League.”  I heard that descriptor repeatedly as I traveled through cities of interest during my historical novel research.  Enthusiastic tour guides in Riga, Klaipeda, Kaliningrad, Elblag, and Gdansk made references to the centuries-old trade union. ‘Hanse’ root word of Hanseatic, is a German word and refers to a union of merchant traders along the sea. The air industry appropriated ‘hanse’ with the well-known Lufthansa Airlines.  

P. D. Hanseatic Trading Route

Perhaps a modern equivalent on this side of the ocean would be the USMCA (US, Mexico, Canada) trade agreement, better known as the former NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). 

The original Hanseatic League existed from about 13th to 17th centuries. Up to 200 cities along the Baltic and North Seas benefitted from the lucrative trade deals. Other port cities would include Talinn (Estonia), Hamburg (Schleswig-Holstein), and Gotland (Sweden).  There were a fair number of inland cities included in the trade pact, too, including the Russian city of Novgorod on the Volkhov River between Petersburg and Moscow and Krakow, Poland on the Vistula River.  A new Hanseatic League was established in 2018 with many of the original cities included. 

During walking tours in the cities of Riga (Latvia), Klaipeda (Lithuania), Kaliningrad (Russia), Elblag (Poland) and Gdansk (Poland) it was the Hanseatic past that came up repeatedly.  The term helped me appreciate how closely connected these places are and that political borders may come and go, but the geographic influences remain the same. I know some people shun organized tours, but these were small and intimate, led by knowledgeable and enthusiastic historians. I found them extremely useful as a key to unlocking the past. 

Hamburg's Hanseatic Flag
My dad grew up on the North Sea near Hamburg (also a Hanseatic port) and his favourite old German sea chanties also became mine. Having the opportunity to be a "tourist" in five of these historic cities back in 2019 was a privilege . . . something neither of my parents got to be when they lived near those Hanseatic ports.

Reconciliation with Past

1968. I was thirteen and in grade eight at Ness Junior High here in Winnipeg.  Our music teacher, Mrs. Lohr, gave us an assignment: pick out a piece of music and share why you like it. It was a fun assignment for most of the class, but caused me a fair bit of anxiety. My church frowned upon rock and roll music and I’d had little exposure to it. So, while the other students were bringing in evil 45s like “Lady Willpower” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap; the syrupy “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro or the angry political hit “Sky Pilot” by the Animals—I brought in the theme from “Born Free.” I was allowed to be in love with the baby lions . . . Little Elsa, Jespah and Gumpa, but I was not allowed to have crushes on any pop stars. 

1968. The year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. I remember feeling that the world was a dangerous place. I remember thinking I didn’t want to be an adult.

1968. The year that Prague was repeatedly in the news, but I had little comprehension of where it was or what was happening.  For me, Eastern Europe was as far-away as the moon.

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

1968. The year of anti-Vietnam protests. Those made an impression in my young life. The hippies and the flower children strumming about peace . . . also taboo . . . as it was laced with drugs, long hair and free love.

1968. Student protests in West Germany that led to changes with how that country dealt with its Second World War history. Being a German-Canadian here in Winnipeg, I missed out on that history lesson. My parents didn’t talk about the war and at school they taught me nothing about Germany’s guilt and recovery. My parents taught me little. We might have spoken German in the house, but we didn’t discuss German guilt or the Holocaust. Maybe that’s why I’m still so fascinated with it. 

If I’d been living in Germany in 1968 as a teenager, I might have been more aware of  that country's student protests.  I might have become aware of the changes forced upon German institutions, as they reckoned with their war history and demanded that ex-Nazis be removed from positions of power.

1968. When German society began to face its past. Monuments were built, textbooks were re-written and Nazi crimes were confronted.  Meanwhile, over here, I focused on American protest movements about Vietnam and women’s lib. There was no re-education here for children of German immigrants. 

Remembering Stutthof Camp

The 1968 student protests in West Germany led to a wake-up call. While West Germany had prospered economically, there was more needed for that country to heal. Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The Germans love long words. It means, ‘coming to terms with their past.’ We Canadians are going through it right now with the ‘truth and reconciliation commission.’ German young people, born post-World War Two, were tired of the hypocrisy of their leaders . . . many with Nazi pasts still in power.  Now here, in present-day Canada, young Indigenous people question the colonial mindset that has named, honoured and controlled much of this country. 

It takes courage to admit guilt and silence doesn’t make the past go away. It just keeps festering, getting infected and causing problems. I think as Canadians, during this official week of Truth and Reconciliation, we’re trying to own up to the wrongs of the past. And I dare say, the Germans have tried, too. 


Ode to the Linden Tree

I noticed a social media post about it being National Tree Day yesterday, September 22,

(different day in every country) and thought I’d share, a day late, a bit about one of my favourite trees, the linden. 

Thirty years ago, I’d planted a linden tree in my garden because it reminded me of my mom. I remember a song she would sing about the linden tree and it seemed to me that my sparsely treed garden in suburbia wouldn’t be complete without the nostalgia of a linden tree. The sapling has grown big and strong. It’s graced my garden with spring blossoms, summer shade and amber fall colours. Squirrels, blue jays and various migrating birds seem to love it, too. It lends support to my summer clothesline and could have been a perfect hammock supporter if I’d been clever enough to space the trees properly. But that’s okay . . . the green ash and Manitoba maple have assumed that job. 

When I travelled through the former Volhynia in current-day Ukraine, our roots group was led to aging, broken lindens . . . damaged by war and by lightning strikes. Thick stumps stand as markers to past villages and lived lives. In The Kulak’s Daughter (aka Red Stone), it’s blossoms of the linden tree that help sustain the exiled family in Siberia by brewing linden tea.

In my own garden, the linden tree also stands as a measure of time. Three decades of raising three kids. . . weathering sunny days and storms, always growing . . . reaching up towards the light.

Famous lindens in German culture include the Berlin street known as “Unter den Linden,” and the linden tree that marks Werther’s grave after his suicide in Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (a novel which had a big impact on me back in university along with most everyone who's read it!)

But mostly, when I think of lindens, I think of my mom, softly singing. 

Vor dem Haus steht eine Linde/Sie weht ihr Äst im Winde/ Da sitzen davor ein altes Paar/Sie sitzen als waren sie schon immer da/ Sie denken zurücke/an Jugend und Glücke/Vorbei, vorbei/Mein Schatz vorbei.

Translated:  In front of the house stands a linden tree/It waves its limbs in the wind/There sit an old couple/They sit as if they’ve been there forever/They think back/on their youth and their joys/It’s over, it’s over/My love, it’s over.

I’ve searched the internet for this song and have still not found it. I only have the snippet of these words and melody . . . sourced from memory. But like the linden tree itself, it’s rooted deep into my life. 


The Great Purge

I missed out on having grandparents and as I got older that lack became a need to know WHY. Discovering my maternal grandfather’s signature on his interrogation papers back in the secret police files in Zhytomyr (now in Ukraine, in 1937 part of the

My mom, top right.
USSR) back in 2004 changed my world. It meant he was real . . . that he existed. 

September 19th continues to have a special meaning to me. The NKVD Troika found the former kulak guilty of counter-revolutionary activities under Article 58 (SFSR Penal Code) and in 1937, at 3:13 in the morning, Eduard Ristau was shot in the back of the head.  That was 84 Septembers ago during the Great Purge (aka The Great Terror). Why was he found guilty? He had letters from his children who were now in Germany . . . letters with money in them. He was obviously selling state secrets to the fascist enemy. 

Once, Eduard Ristau (called Franz Halter in my novels) was a husband, a father of several children, a farmer and a windmill owner. His wife died back in 1931, faraway in Siberian exile, his youngest son died enroute, but his older children made it to safety with relatives in another country.

My grandfather managed to survive the famine years of the Holodomor, hiding and always running, but in the end the NKVD got him. . . a penniless, persecuted man. Still, he tried his best and I wouldn’t be here, if he hadn’t found a way to send his children, and my future mother, to safety. Rest in peace, grandpa. And, thank you.

And thanks again to Don Miller, author of Under Arrest, who helped me find the files in the Zhytomyr archives. 


The Hyphenated Canadian

Just finished reading Being German Canadian, which was released this past May by the University of Manitoba Press. This collection of essays by various academics contains writing styles that vary from hard-to-digest to accessible. Writing style aside, I recognized a fair bit about my own experiences as part of the immigrant community.

I already knew that Canada's prime minister, Lyon Mackenzie King, had been a Hitler supporter . . . but reading it in this book underlined it for me. I was also fascinated with how one of the contributors connected the German intergenerational guilt with the contemporary Canadian reconciliation with its own blemished past . . . the treatment of Indigenous Peoples who lived here before the European invasion. 

I love when a book sends me off to research in another direction. This time, I want to look at the 1968 student riots in West Germany which became the turning point for that country's efforts to educate its own about the atrocities of the Holocaust. It's something that the immigrants to Canada missed out on. 

In spite of some essays with challenging/off-turning (to me) academic prose, I recommend this book to those interested in the German-Canadian experience. If you read only a part, then read the Afterword by Roger Frie.

This book reaffirms for me the power of novels and my favourite Kipling quote (sub-heading on my blog). Dry facts are fascinating, but on their own they lack the power of engagement that an empathetic character can provide. Some folks see fiction as untruths, I see fiction as a way to illustrate truths. 

Okay, now on to explore those 1968 German student riots. I’m glad somebody’s writing nonfiction. I guess we do need all kinds of writers . . . researchers, historians and novelists. . . to figure out who we are, where we came from, and where we might be going. 


Riga Hangars


It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I visited the town market in Riga, Latvia. That had been the starting point for our 12 day cycling adventure along the Amber Coast. What made Riga’s central market so memorable was the huge former zeppelin hangars. When I think zeppelin, I think of the doomed Hindenburg that caught fire after crossing the Atlantic back in May, 1937. Before that, however, they were— for a short while at least—considered a viable way of air travel.

Riga's zeppelin hangars were built originally for German zeppelins but in the 1920s they were remodelled and incorporated into the city’s vision of having a Central Market place. By 1930, the Riga Central Market was considered the biggest and also the best market in all of Europe. After the Soviet takeover it was renamed the Central Kolkhoz Market. Kolkhoz is the Russian word for collective and the market sold meat, eggs, potatoes and vegetables, etc. produced by over sixty Soviet collectives. On weekends, more than a hundred thousand people would visit and shop for produce. 

In 1997, with Latvia once again an independent country, the Riga Central Market was named a Unesco World Heritage site.  

Only ten minutes from our hotel, the market was our first stop after a fifteen-hour plane ride. Hungry and curious, we got a great taste of an area overflowing with charm and history. Rather than tearing down structures no longer needed for out-dated zeppelins, these hangars are a striking reminder of the past. 

The city of Riga is a real treasure. There’s much to explore in this proud Latvian capital that’s seen plenty of struggle during the violent 20th century. I love how they embrace their history. When we visited, everyone was buying flowers. It's a Latvian tradition for students to bring their teachers bouquets for the start of the new school year. 


Silent Mysteries

I grew up in a house with different kinds of silence. I won’t call them all secrets, because some were born of ignorance and not deliberate. My mom’s family past, for example, belonged to the former. She didn’t know what happened to her dad. She didn’t understand the politics of communism and then later, Nazism. She was an uneducated pawn, shuffled around for authoritarian agendas. First as a kulak child, later as a munitions worker, still later as a forced labourer. I couldn’t judge her as guilty, merely naïve.

My dad’s silences, however, were deliberate secrets. Some of these were based in guilt, others based in shame. The difference, you ask? In its simplest form, guilt is based on others’ judgment of you, while shame is a self-judgment. My dog might feel guilty because I caught him stealing the cat’s food, but he has no sense of shame. I might tell him he’s a bad dog, but all he wants is my approval. In fact, his only goal is to next time not be caught in the act. 

German soldiers talking to French women 
 Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-129-0480-25 / Boesig, Heinz / CC-BY-SA

My dad voluntarily joined the Luftwaffe when he was 18 in 1936. He participated in the invasion of France and once shared how he drank cognac in Cognac, France. That’s where I—the know-it-all, Canadian-born daughter—judged him as a guilty perpetrator of war. I didn’t want to hear more of his war exploits. So he kept quiet around me.

But he had other secrets. One included a failed first marriage and dead children. That was a silence I wish he’d broken, and a secret I wish he’d shared. It took a bit of sleuthing on my part, but now I can only pity him when I finally learned the details about that secret. That was his private shame. It’s a book I’ve been working on. Complicated . . . filled with guilt and with shame. There’s nothing like a mystery to keep me exploring and writing family history. 





About Refugees

Like everyone, I’ve viewed videos of the horrible scenes at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Was there no way to avoid this calamity as the Western forces withdraw and the Taliban re-establishes its sharia rule of law?

I’m reminded of what it might have been like for the East Prussian refugees clambering to board ships in the Baltic ports like Balitysk (once Pillau) and Gdynia (once Gotenhafen) under Operation Hannibal. That could have been avoided if the Nazis had only admitted defeat a few months sooner.

The desperation and fear of the Taliban, both men and women, is comparable to the desperation and fear that the German civilians had of the Soviet surge. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-092-05 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Back in '45, women and children lost track of each other in the mayhem at the harbours.  They had trekked to the coast to try and board ships to the relative safety of northern Germany. They tried desperately to avoid the revenge-seeking Red Army. Winter conditions were miserable. Yet the ships, like the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff and the von Steuben, offered only temporary refuge . . . torpedoed hours later on the icy Baltic.  More than ten thousand, mostly women and children, drowned. 

In the news report I watched this week with the desperate Afghans clinging to loading ramps at the Kabul airport, I could only see men and wondered what had happened to the women and children. 

Being a refugee, today from Afghanistan, a few years back from  Syria, or back in 1945 from the Soviet Army is something I’ve been lucky enough to avoid. But the word refugee or ‘Flüchtling’ in German is a word I’ve been all too familiar with. It was a label describing my own mom in the church community where I was raised and it continues to resonate with me—evoking feelings of loss, despair and poverty. 

I wish today’s refugees and their children Godspeed, but they will carry the impact of this crisis with them throughout their lives. If they’re lucky, their homelessness will be temporary, but their sense of self will probably be forever damaged. Being a refugee is life-changing. 



More about Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Full Film)

I've blogged about Sophie Scholl before and recently watched a documentary about her. What an excellent, if heart-breaking, film inspired by the two siblings behind the doomed White Rose movement. Sophie, 21, and her brother, Hans, 24, were university students in Munich when, in 1943, they were caught spreading leaflets promoting the Nazi war as a lost cause. If you haven’t seen it, and have any curiosity about the German point of view during that terrible war,  I highly recommend that you watch it. 

 Scattered Pamphlets Memorial
remembering White Rose Resistance


Hans, a medical student, had spent time on the eastern front to help out with the injured during the Stalingrad battle, which many say was the turning point for the Nazis. Hans witnessed much suffering and upon his return to Munich to continue his studies, he and fellow students began writing anti-war pamphlets. This undermined the Nazi’s new approach and motto of “total war.”  

Goebbels gave his infamous speech at the Berlin Sportpalast (broadcast on radio to the rest of the country) under the banner, “total war/shortest war” on February 18, 1943. It’s the exact same day that the doomed siblings were arrested.

The film highlights how fear turns people into cowards. It’s ironic that while Hitler and his cohorts were rewarding fearlessness on the battlefield with Iron Crosses and status, it was weapon-less and naïve young people who managed to conquer their own fears and call out for the truth. “The Emperor has no clothes” . . . a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale applies here. I hope the little boy of the fairy tale met a better end than the White Rose students. 

Sophie Scholl’s legacy is a hard one to follow. I have to look at my own life . . . how can I find courage to defend truth? Can I risk being ostracized for having a different viewpoint? Would I risk my life?




Using our Senses in Writing


Life is a sensory experience and we deepen our writing by using all five senses. I try hard to weave them into my stories. 

Seeing. This is an obvious one. Describing landscapes, faces, clothes, etc. is an essential part of setting and character building. The trick here is to see the detail and to focus on what matters to the story. In Tainted Amber the setting is East Prussia and I needed to travel over to that part of the world so I could see the Baltic, the chestnut and linden trees and, of course, the ubiquitous amber. 


Tasting
. This is a most intimate and private sense. Very subjective and very powerful. Through food, a writer has an opportunity to be culturally specific and also to use food as metaphor. Taste can also be used to show character or illness. All for the book, I got to taste-test some Jägermeister Schnapps and Königsberger Klopse

Smelling. Smell evokes memory. Who hasn’t experienced the déjà vu of smell? Whether it’s a specific soap, the scent of a real Christmas tree, or a baby’s hair . . . we often have a visceral reaction to smell. For Tainted Amber it was smell of salt spray off the Baltic and the sweet smell of September hay that stayed with me. In my current WIP it's the smell of Kölnisches Wasser that sends me deeper into the story. 

Touching. Again, this is a private sensation. Touch works well in showing relationships. It’s underused and has the ability to lessen distance with the reader. It’s a way to show love and reveal character. A tight handshake. A stiff hug. Touch can show also temperature. In Tainted Amber Katya's deepening relationship with David is shown using only the slightest touch of a hand.

Hearing. This is a shared sensation. You can hear sound with others. Whether it’s crashing waves, the crunch of boots on snow, a roaring motorcycle or the keys of a piano, using sound adds a dimension to writing that a film or audio production takes for granted. Accessing story through sound has been an important part of my writing journey.  Sound is also a way to build tension and fear as any horror film will quickly affirm. In Tainted Amber I let the roaring sea, the power of a motorcycle and the insidious music of the Horst Wessel Lied add a sense of danger to the setting. 

All five of our senses have the ability to ignite emotion and it’s emotion that connects a reader to the characters and makes them come alive. 


Zoos, Butterflies and Books

I visited the Assiniboine Park Zoo here in Winnipeg last week. The coordinator at the Immigrant Centre where I volunteer had given us passes and I was curious . . . I’d not been there for quite a while. 

Our local zoo used to be quite affordable, but now it’s a rather expensive outing for a family. Of course, my kids are way past an age where going to the zoo would be considered fun, but I’m not sure who this renovated zoo actually caters to. Rich, entitled tourists? Definitely not young families with limited disposable income and definitely not the animals trapped inside.

We have to maneuver our conversation around the roar of ascending and descending planes . . . the zoo is under the airport flight path. How do the animals, with their sensitive hearing, manage? I think of the special events during the winter when even long winter nights get lit up for our entertainment. What a barrage of sensory pollution we force upon them. 

The polar bears provide us with entertainment in their pool of water. Orphans rescued from Churchill, they seem to have the largest area to roam. Seals dance underwater to unheard rhythms, while the grey wolf towers above us on his artificial rock ledge. Does he miss his pack?

Camels meditatively munch grass, while antelope and buffalo flip their fly-swatter tails back and forth. . . politely ignoring us. People point and gawk, lick cones and sip from water bottles. 

Most beautiful is the Amur tiger (also known as the Siberian tiger).  Pacing, pacing, back and forth. I’m reminded of the book by John Vaillant, set in eastern Russia: The Tiger: A True Story of Vengence and Survival and I can’t help but feel sorry for this magnificent creature.

My mood improves immensely in the butterfly cage. Glorious colours. Wings and blossoms. Fluttering. Constant motion. I connect the butterflies with art and with life. So many stages to the butterfly. The egg, the caterpillar, the pupa or chrysalis, and finally the letting go and flying away. 

So it is with writing a book. You have the idea. You let that idea grow, gorging it with words and more words . . . let it grow big and fat. Then you let it sit. This is the pupa or chrysalis stage. Okay, maybe the comparison falls apart here. 

Every writer knows that there’s more whittling and shaping required before that butterfly emerges ready to take off. We don’t have quite the magic or privacy of the butterfly whose big changes happen hidden from view. But in the end our idea gets wings and takes off into the world’s big garden to live its short and fragile life . . . hopefully laying eggs along the way. 


Reducing, Re-using, Recycling: Creating a Story


Mom was into reducing, reusing and recycling long before it became trendy. Clothes were patched and re-patched. Nothing was thrown out. Dresses became skirts, pillow cases or if I was lucky, doll clothes. Eventually they became rags. Zippers and buttons found new uses. So it was with everything in our house when I was growing up. There was no waste. And now, I’m into recycling her life. Making it into something new. Unravelling it and re-knitting it

Katya is eighteen in Tainted Amber. She’s all grown up. She’s independent. She’s naïve and a bit insecure; tenacious and curious. I am my mother’s daughter and in the compost pile of my writer’s mind, our lives become one. While it’s her stories that I’m reducing, reusing and recycling, it's my imagination that feeds them.  The result? Tainted Amber. A love story created from the leftovers of my shared experiences with her.


About Reviews

I have a hard time reviewing books. I keep forgetting that reviews are about selling books not discussing subtle nuances or reading between the lines. It’s especially difficult when you know the author. I’ve come to the abrupt realization that it’s impossible to be anything but a cheerleader . . . especially in these days of social media. The internet's power must be treated with respect and utmost care.

Perhaps I spent too many years reading books and writing critical essays during my university years. Dead authors don’t care about my critiques and I  explored, with honest intentions, how the characters dealt with their relationships and how they interpreted the events in their novel world. I loved digging in between the lines of my favourites like Heinrich Böll, Robert Musil or the short stories of Gabriele Wohmann. But I digress.

Writing a book and getting it traditionally published, in today’s competitive world, is a miracle. It’s a success story, no matter what a niggly reviewer might say. 

If I ever come across too harshly in a review, I want to apologize in advance. Never take what I say too seriously . . . and never take it personally.  I like being the devil’s advocate. I like controversy. I like a conversation. I don’t like cheerleading. 

That said, Rah, Rah, Rah. Canadian writers amaze me with their fascinating stories. Never stop! We're a small community here in Canada and we need all the support we can get.

Like Thumper said in the Bambi movie: If you don't have somthin' nice to say, don't say nuthin' at all. 

Ah, so much for the energy of controversy. 



The New Arrival

It's here . . . my book, Tainted Amber. I walked into my local bookstore, McNally Robinson, and there it was. Years of research, hours of plotting, of imagining, of writing, of re-writing, of hunting down the right publisher, of being discouraged and then encouraged, of doubting and of believing. It's just a little book. About 250 pages. But only another author can know the backstory . . . the mindset that it takes to hold your book in hand. 

We're a tenacious, curious bunch, us fiction authors. We find power in words . . . mere marks on a page. Lives past, present or future. All from our imagination.  We've got to be crazy. God knows we can't help ourselves. 

We'd have it no other way. Thank you, Ronsdale!

Eugenics

Some might consider eugenics an invasive practice belonging to the evil politics of the dictatorships in the first half of the twentieth century. However, forced sterilization was not banned in Canada until 1972. 

Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-167
The Nazis enacted eugenics by introducing the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseases in Nuremberg in 1935. A disturbing 12 minute video, Das Erbe, was often presented before main features at German cinemas promoting forced sterilization. Other countries, including Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Japan and more, including the USA, introduced similar laws, as far back as 1907. The people targeted were diagnosed with conditions like epilepsy, bipolar, schizophrenia and some forms of deafness. Addiction to alcohol was also included under the Nazi laws. The poster tries to show that without sterilization of undesirable elements in the Aryan race, the strong and healthy would soon fall into the minority.

In the 21st century we take a less political or institutionalized approach to eugenics. Our contemporary society offers “genetic counselling” or “family planning” and gives the individual or couple an educated choice. 

In Tainted Amber, I explore the consequences of losing that freedom to choose whether or not to have children. What is a perfect human anyway? Is perfection even a worthwhile goal? As Leonard Cohen so poetically chanted, “There is a crack in everything . . . that’s how the light gets in.” We don’t want any government to impose discriminatory laws about what makes a perfect citizen.  Canada is now dealing with the consequences of its own disturbing attempts to create perfect Canadians through residential schools.

Hitler had it all wrong when he tried to create a perfect race. It’s our imperfections that define our humanity and make us perfect.  A paradox to ponder. 


Keep in Touch!

With the blogger Feedburner subscription service ending in July, I've switched to a new subscription service via Mailchimp. (Top right corner of this blog).  I'm hoping that you'll continue to read my blogposts here and follow my novel adventures. 

I won't flood your inbox with daily posts—once a week has been my goal—and even that is not a promise. My posts focus on research behind my novels with the occasional reflection or update on the writing life. 

I'm not too active on social media but try to make an effort. I'm a bit more of an earthworm than a social butterfly. I'd rather meet you for coffee or for a walk than in this cyber world. But the internet has opened many doors and I will not shun this amazing technology.

Only by being social, do I discover new worlds, interesting books, along with the fascinating people who write them. Writers and readers . . . we can't have one without the other.

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Ethnic Germans

After having read Magdelene Redekop’s book, Making Believe, which describes the differences amongst the Mennonites of Manitoba (mostly centered on the Kanadier and Russländer distinction), I reflected on differences amongst other Germans in this province. Germans are the second largest immigrant group in Manitoba, second only to the English and ahead of the Scots. Here’s an interesting fact: according to Alexander Freund, in a 2012 Winnipeg Free Press article, he wrote: “most German-Manitobans were born outside of Germany.”  

Assembly of Volksdeutsche in Lodz
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J09396 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

These are what is known as “ethnic” Germans or Volksdeutsche. These are people who were born outside of Germany, but continued to identify with the German culture. For example, my mom’s family immigrated from West Prussia (Gdansk area) to Volhynia in Ukraine, in the 1860s. Those Germans built schools, churches, established newspapers and communities in a Russian and/or Ukrainian dominated country. When Ukraine became part of the USSR, my mom ended up going to a Soviet school where she learned Russian, beside her Ukrainian classmates. So, until the age of twelve, Mom could speak in any of three languages without too much trouble. German at home, Russian at school, and Ukrainian amongst schoolmates. After the war, Mom’s language skills helped her survive in the forced labour camps. 

My Volksdeutsche mom
and Reichsdeutscher dad
Later, Mom was proud and relieved to marry a “real” German. Maybe he didn’t have quite the right Christian faith, but as a Reichsdeutscher, he helped her establish a citizenship that had eluded her most of her life. Having gone through the purges of the Second World War, establishing citizenship outside of the Soviet grasp would have been so important to her.

One of Hitler’s goals was to repatriate all the ethnic Germans, or Volksdeutsche, into German-occupied lands. This was done, under the slogan, “Heim ins Reich.” For the Nazis, it was all about race. To be able to establish that you were a proper Aryan, meant that you were one of the them. (Unless of course, like my character, David, in Tainted Amber, you have an inherited disease. Then you were not such a perfect Aryan, after all.) 

It goes without saying that the Nazi policies regarding race were flawed and it’s incredible that they could flout such an idea in a place like Europe which had such fluid borders. After all, even Nazis saw Aryan features in some Polish children and deemed them as trainable subjects for the Third Reich. 

The Heim ins Reich motto allowed one of my older friends here in Winnipeg to leave the Soviet Union before Operation Barbarossa—the June, 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. As a young girl, she lived in what the Nazis called Litzmannstadt . . . Lodz in Polish, west of Warsaw. Lodz was part of the Nazi’s Warthegau region (an occupied part of Poland).  As a Volksdeutsche, my friend’s mother received a house that had been forcibly taken from its Polish owners. 

Hitler’s insistence on racial segregation and his perceived threat of all things non-Aryan, had a huge impact on my parents’ generation. In my growing-up years, my dad—once a Luftwaffe pilot—expressed only shame about how he let himself get manipulated by the Nazi vision of world domination. 

Volksdeutsche in Lodz, Public Domain

So when is a German, not a German? I have a reichsdeutscher father, a volksdeutsche mother, a husband with a Scottish-born mother and a Canadian-born father and 3 Canadian-born children. I live in a country where Indigenous People were pushed onto reserves, not unlike what Hitler did to the Poles. Maybe I’m just another European colonist looking for Lebensraum (living space) and maybe we have something to learn from the Indigenous People:  we don’t own the land, we share the land. That could prevent wars. 

This blogpost was written here in Winnipeg which is located within Treaty No. 1 Territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinabe (Ojibway), Ininew (Cree), Oji-Cree, Dene, and Dakota, and is the Birthplace of the Métis Nation and the Heart of the Métis Nation Homeland.


Learning about Manitoba Mennonites

I’ve just finished reading Making Believe, by Magdalene Redekop, a book about Mennonites and their relationship to art. It was nominated during the recent Manitoba Book Awards and received the Mary Scorer Best Book Award by a Manitoba Publisher Award. (University of Manitoba Press). 


I picked up this book because I’ve always been aware of, and curious about, the Mennonites in Manitoba. This book, along with a few friendships along the way, has given me some insight into this sizeable population of our province.

I was not raised as a Mennonite, but I lived in a parallel universe being raised as a German Baptist. There are differences and similarities between the two faiths. While I no longer consider myself a German Baptist, I get the sense that someone born a Mennonite is always a Mennonite.  Mennonites often marry other Mennonites, go to Mennonite schools, live in Mennonite-centric communities and keep in close contact with their extended family and fellow churchgoers. 

Redekop’s memories reminded me of the many similarities between her Mennonite upbringing and my own German Baptist one. Dancing, make-up, movies, rock music etc. was taboo. Baptism was not to be done at birth, but as a conscious decision when one grew older. I appreciated her musings on the evangelization of the young. Those big meetings were carefully choreographed scripts and German Baptists are much like the Mennonites when it comes to manipulating the young through music and guilt. 

Redekop’s book also showed the complicated (to me) differences within the Mennonite culture. Types of Mennonites depend on the times of immigration. For example, there are the Kanadier and the Russländer Mennonites. Then there are the Mennonite Brethren (more like the German Baptists) and the other Mennonites, like the Swiss. All new to me and a bit confusing.

What I found most interesting is how the Mennonites have continued to be an insular group, easily identified by their names.  My own maiden name, Schroeder, could be seen as Mennonite, although my father was Lutheran and from the Hamburg area. As a young woman, I was eager to remove any connection to Germans or Mennonites and ended up with a married surname that has sometimes been mistaken as the Jewish Goldstein.  Goldstone might have South African or British connections. A student once called me Mrs. Goldrock and I liked the non-ethnic sound of that.

A huge difference that I noted between the Mennonites of small-town Manitoba and my German Baptist upbringing in the big city, is that our congregation was quite diverse. My church was a ragtag of displaced war survivors from different parts of eastern Europe.  Men were at a premium and my mom married a Lutheran. That guaranteed that I’d never be a genuine German Baptist and I grew as an outsider. 

Redekop writes about the noticeable ‘renaissance’ of Mennonite writers, specifically from Manitoba. There’s Toews, Bergen, Klassen, Friesen, Wiebe, Brandt and many more. Now there’s a newly minted children's novelist from my writing group with the last name of Driedger.  Why are so many Mennonites writing? I’d like to think it’s for the same reason I like to write. Every church service I attended when young was focused on studying the word of God or singing. Since my singing or piano playing was not encouraged, I found power in the written word.

I recommend Magdalene Redekop’s book, Making Believe, to anyone curious about the Manitoba history of Mennonites and art. You need a bit of tolerance for her academic approach and there were some parts I struggled to digest. Mostly, I appreciated the snippets where the author revealed herself. She didn’t hold back and I connected with that authenticity. For the most part, a non-Mennonite like me found it to be a compelling read.


Wayne Arthur Gallery

First off, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BEV!

Bev Morton, a friend of mine, owns and operates one of Winnipeg’s little treasure chests and like all good treasure chests, it’s stuffed with precious gems. The Wayne Arthur Gallery—at 186 Provencher Boulevard in old St. Boniface—overflows with Made in Manitoba creativity. 

Bev’s passion for art is matched only by her tenacity. She’s had some extreme health challenges over the

Robert and Bev

past few years and then she suddenly lost her longtime partner, Robert, (a longtime friend of mine, too) right at Christmas this past year. Without the comfort of friends or the closure (and hugs) that a memorial service can provide, Bev is back at the gallery promoting the art of fellow Manitobans with her intrepid spirit to carry on. 

Bev at the Petersfield Mallard site 
Curious about her passion, tenacity and vision, I asked her some questions during a recent visit and she’s let me share her answers here on my blog. 

How long has the Wayne Arthur Gallery been operating at 186 Provencher?

The gallery opened on Provencher on November 30, 2002, after first opening in St. Andrews in 1995 when I opened it with my late first husband, Wayne Arthur, and then on St. Mary’s Road in 2000.


Tell me about the name. Who is Wayne Arthur?

Bev with Wayne Arthur

Wayne Arthur was my first husband who passed away on November 30, 1999. He was a well-known sculptor, who sculpted three town monuments in the Interlake using fiberglass: the King Buck in Poplarfield, the mushrooms in Meleb, and the mallard in Petersfield. He also sculpted the Caring Hands at Deer Lodge Centre and two pieces at The Forks, (a family of bison being hunted by indigenous hunters wearing wolf hides. These two sculptures were in Tyndall stone.

What are the challenges of operating a gallery in Winnipeg

Enticing people to come to the gallery. 

How are these challenges exasperated by the pandemic and restrictions?

With the restrictions it is now impossible to have artist receptions. I look forward to the day that changes. Also the gallery has at times been totally locked down. In one case I attempted to have my group show in December online. It wasn’t very successful, although I was able to display it on gallery walls near the end of January and into February.


What are the rewards of operating a gallery in Winnipeg? 

It is a joy to exhibit Manitoba artists to both local people and tourists when the pandemic doesn’t prevent travel. I also enjoy meeting many artists and introducing them to each other and the public.

How do you promote the shows? 

I have a website waynearthurgallery.com and also a gallery Facebook page. Most advertising is too expensive although some organizations have electronic newsletters that list member showings.

How many artists have been on display in the Gallery?

Since opening in 1995, I have had 574 Manitoba artists. In some cases they have had shows and in other cases they have participated in group shows or just have placed work in the gallery.

How does an artist approach you for a showing?

An artist would have to show me their work and when I am booking shows I consider who is available. I also display work on the walls that aren’t on the featured show wall. These pieces don’t change as frequently, but I usually limit them to one painting per artist.

What keeps you returning to the gallery day after day, even during hard times?

It is a joy to sit in the gallery and look at the beautiful art. However it is more fun when customers or friends come in. 

Why do you think art is important? 

It is important to surround oneself with beauty. Art is one of the beautiful things in this world.

You’re an artist yourself, not just an art proprietor. Tell me about your own work. 

In 1978, I had intended to make my first fabric piece. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that I learned how to do it without sewing and I have subsequently been working completely in fabric.

Many of my fabric pieces started as paintings and I have recreated them in fabric. Others are from my photos of vacations, family photos and photos taken in the gallery and at home. 

I am focusing on where I live, work and dream: interiors in my home and in the gallery and places I have been to or dreamed of.

I use distinct lines to define form and colour, and include a lot of detail and pattern. I want to enable the viewer to see all that I see. I believe the simplicity of my pieces allows the viewer to complete the experience. 

Imagine you’re a magician and you could wave a magic wand, what would you create?

A gallery big enough to showcase the work of more artists.

                                                                  *******

Thanks Bev. Thanks for letting me meet so many wonderful Manitoba creators over the years. Thanks for showcasing their work and being a conduit to appreciative buyers of art. And thank you to the artists who dare to wave their magic wands and create. Being an artist is a gift but the rewards are often not measured in dollars. 

Support local. 

Support art. 

Support local art!  Manitoba Proud! 

The Wayne Arthur Gallery, located at 186 Provencher Boulevard in old St. Boniface, is just a ten minute walk from The Forks. Make it an outing! We have a beautiful city, vibrant with art, and Bev's gallery truly is a treasure chest.

Open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11 AM to 5 PM.



Unmarked Graves and the Drunk on Main Street

Going to church on Sunday mornings was always a race against time. We lived on the opposite end of the city to avoid all the Germans, but for Sunday morning worship we’d rush to the comfort of the immigrant faith community that had nurtured my family since arriving in Canada.

At Whitter Park* in St. Boniface
Going to church involved driving through the notorious Main Street strip that was littered with cheap hotels, empty liquor bottles and meandering street people. One Sunday morning, a bedraggled-looking man collapsed on the hood of our mint green Mercury as we waited at a red light. With bloodshot eyes he blinked right at me and I couldn’t look away. I saw his pain, his desperation and his isolation.

Papi honked at him, the light changed, and the man hobbled on. I cranked my neck and watched him until we turned off Main onto the lane leading across the Disraeli Bridge. His eyes have been imprinted into my memory. At the church I’d pray for him. We were told to pray for the homeless and the addicted. They needed Jesus in their lives. They needed to be born-again. Why did they end up in such a sad state? That I was never told. Half a century later, I’m getting distinct clues about the why.

There’s been a lot of attention recently about the discovery of mass graves of children near a residential school near Kamloops, BC. Without doubt, it’s upsetting. Having two grandparents (one in a ditch, another in a snowbank), two child uncles, along with other relatives in unmarked graves as a result of Stalin’s collectivization efforts, I appreciate how my mother was damaged by that pain. I appreciate, as well, how the pain of our broken family was passed down to me. I appreciate the potential damage of inter-generational trauma.

Ditch where my grandfather ended up
Back when that Winnipeg drunk was on the hood of our car, I didn’t understand. He was just a drunk Indian, someone who couldn’t hold his liquor. Now, I understand that it was his peers—his young brothers and sisters—who were buried in unmarked graves while he kept his body alive. He survived the abuse and the humiliation and then he was let go. While he was not buried as an innocent child, he had his identity pummelled enough that he could be a successful nobody. He got to survive and walk the Main Street drag with his body, but without his soul. They don’t need mass graves to bury souls.

So while we mourn the little children of our Residential School system in Canada, let’s not forget those that didn’t die . . . those who grew up to be confused adults and moved into the ghettos of our modern cities . . . those who had their faith, their culture and their families crushed by us white people . . . in the name of saving their souls.

I can connect, in a small way, with that despair . . . all done in the name of some faith. For my grandparents it was for the glorious anti-religion of communism. For the Indigenous Peoples here in Canada, it was for the glorious religion of Christianity. Re-education or racism . . . it sucks the life out of people.

                            ______________________________________________________

About the photo: I took this photo of Fort Gibraltor  (a replica) about a month ago. After going through my hundreds of photos, I realized that I don't photograph too many ugly things. This is the best I could come up with. 


Treason and Truth

I’ve been following with shock and trepidation the arrest of the 26-year-old Belorussian journalist and blogger, Roman Protasevich, and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Sofia Sapega—a Russian university student studying in Lithuania. This targeted attack of young truth-seekers makes me shudder with fear and sadness. Belarus, soaked in blood from the Second World War, has yet to find peace.

The recent arrests remind me of the arrests of young Sophie Scholl and her brother, Hans, who were executed (via guillotine, no less) as part of the White Rose movement back in 1943. The siblings, both university students in Munich, were found guilty of treason in Nazi Germany because of  pamphlets they printed and distributed throughout the campus. (Today it's blogging and social media.) 

My grandfather was also charged with treason and a victim of the Stalin’s Great Terror campaign in 1937. He lived under a pseudonym in the last months of his life but was finally arrested in early June and charged under Article 58. . . guilty of counter-revolutionary activity. 

Why were powerful dictators from the past like Stalin and Hitler so ruthless? Why do present-day dictators like Putin and Lukashenko follow in their footsteps?  Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps they really are weak and vulnerable. 

Perhaps young people like Sophie Sapega, Roman Protasevich or Alexei Navalny have some invisible power that doesn’t need guns and armies. Perhaps words of truth can change the world. We don’t need strength and weapons . . . just courage and words.  It’s obvious these dictators have zero courage and a fear of words.

The lilacs in my garden have begun to bloom and they remind me of my grandfather. When visiting Ukraine, I’d accessed the secret police files and read his interrogation by the Troika. Along with his forced confession and signature, the files gave the address where he was living, under a pseudonym, at the time of his final arrest. I visited the location. It was the end of May and the lilacs were blooming like they would have been when he was arrested back in early June of 1937. My grandfather, armed with only a bible—who had already lost his family, his land and his very identity—was viewed as a threat to Stalin’s power.

My heart goes out to the parents of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. Raising children to do what’s right has never been so complicated. It might be spring in Belarus, but it’s a dark and dangerous time for freedom.


Fear of Books

What do Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann and Helen Keller have in common? All three authors had their books banned and burned during the Third Reich’s campaign to control ideas through literature. Back in May of 1933, more than 25,000 books were burned during a one-day blitz by university students across Germany. Thousands more were pulled from circulation. Why were these writers so dangerous?

Hemingway?  His book, Farewell to Arms, showed the tragic side of war. For the Nazis, war was only positive.

Thomas Mann? Mario and the Magician warned about the dangers of dictatorship. Hitler saw democracy as weak. 

Helen Keller?  Her book was How I Became a Socialist.  The blind and deaf activist supported the weak and the disabled. Nazis could not tolerate anything less than their idea of perfect. 

And here’s a curious book that the Nazis banned:  Bambi written in 1923 by an Austrian called Felix Salten.  Two years later, in 1925, another Austrian publishes a book. It was called Mein Kampf.

Crazy? It happened in my parents’ lifetime. Nazi Germany was dominated by a culture of fear and mere words on a page could be dangerous.  It shows the power of books . . . 

In Tainted Amber, Katya reads Thomas Mann, inspired by the idea that he wrote in his summer home on the Baltic Sea not far from where she sat reading his novella. 

Here in Canada, books are now being published that tell our own country’s stories of abuse. Ronsdale Press, who’s publishing Tainted Amber, recently released  St. Michael’s Residential School by Nancy Dyson and Dan Rubenstein. 

Books share ideas.  It's up to us to give them power.  But sometimes books are only entertainment. Sometimes an orphaned deer is only an orphaned deer.


No Endogamy

Reading an interesting book right now . . . a book that’s right up my alley, discussing post-Second World War immigrants, religion, ethnic Germans . . . in short, discussing my very own family. Not only that, but Imagined Homes, Soviet German Immigrants in Two Cities, was published here by my alma mater, the University of Manitoba Press, back in 2007, by a University of Winnipeg scholar. Why didn’t I hear about this book sooner?  

In spite of its academic writing style, the book has been un-put-downable for me. The immigrant issues around broken families, work, religion, culture and assimilation in the dominating culture resonate with me and my own search for identity. My current WIP is set between war-torn Europe and 1950s Winnipeg. It explores the chasm caused by the trauma of war, homelessness and immigration. 

As a child, I frequented the neighbourhoods, churches, ethnic grocery stores and bakeries that new Germans built in this city and I appreciate how Hans Werner has laid out the facts and figures in his book.  He interviews people that my parents would have encountered in their lives. I recognize the names!

The third section, Reproducing the Community, was particularly compelling. Here, Werner discusses the re-building of normalcy. My dad’s own first family, dissolved because of long-term separation and death, meant he wasted no time establishing one here in Canada. My parents arrived in Winnipeg in 1953 and I was born the following year.  My dad was a reichs-deutscher (from Germany), my mom was a Flüchtling (refugee from the east). They’d both been through the Soviet prison camps and embraced the affordable houses and job opportunities that Winnipeg of the 1950s offered. 

Endogamy. I had to look that word up.  It’s the practice of marrying within one’s faith or culture. Werner writes: “Winnipeg’s immigrants had expanded their social contacts during the war and, because of the scarcity of male partners, endogamy broke down while they were still in Europe.” (page 153). Neither my mom or her two sisters married within their faith. Lack of endogamy defined our extended family.

My parents raised me with a divided sense of self . . . with a foot in two worlds. My father, the Lutheran, from Germany 'proper' and my mom, the Baptist, a daughter of Soviet kulaks. My dad was determined to forget the past, but my mother held onto her Baptist identity like a passport necessary for freedom. The German Baptist churches, guided by William Sturhahn’s missionary zeal and in cooperation with the CCCRR  sponsored many refugees and arranged my parents’ boat trip and early employment as farm labourers. 

I was subsequently raised in a German Baptist church surrounded by other German Baptist refugees displaced mostly from Poland, Soviet Union, and east Germany (including dissolved East Prussia). The ethnic German Baptists of my childhood church stuck together and my Lutheran dad was like a duck out of water in such a close-knit community. Even as a child I felt the cold shoulders and those of us with ‘non-believer or unbaptized’ fathers soon found support in each other on the sidelines.

No more endogamy in my family and it’s left me a bit of an outcast. Werner writes, “They (ethnic German immigrants) lived in two worlds, both distinct from each other, the one religious and the other secular, without experiencing a significant degree of dislocation.” (page 174) With the divide obvious in my own family, between a more secular Lutheran and a more pious Baptist approach to integrating in the new world, I disagree. There was significant confusion about my identity. Yet, in retrospect, sitting on the fence has given me a great view, as has reading Hans Werner’s book. 

Of course, the book tells much more than just the Winnipeg immigrant experience. The author compares Winnipeg’s experience to the German city of Bielefeld’s acceptance of ethnic Germans. I can’t comment much on that, except to say, I’m grateful my parents ended up here in Canada. While growing up as a German Baptist in Winnipeg always made me feel like a bit of an outsider, Hans Werner’s book has helped me understand why. 


Just a Car or Inter-generational Baggage?

So I bought a new car recently. It happens. Living in suburbia in Canada sort of makes a car a necessity. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but in spite of living close to a bus route, driving a car has become a convenience I’m loathe to give up. I drive a car to take pets to the vet, patients to the doctor (I live with two non-drivers), and to exit the city and hang out in nature. (Okay, I drive a car for a lot of mundane things too . . . like when I’m too lazy to walk, time-conscious, or too much of a wimp to face the rain, north wind or the darkness of late nights.)  

The thing about cars is that they wear out. My little red putt-putt was starting to cost lots of money to keep on the road and so I made what I hope is a smart financial decision and got a nearly new used car . . . big enough to haul lumber to repair the broken fence, to carry my bike, tent, inflatable kayak and, of course, the dog.

public domain

I’m a happy soul. 

I had a budget and I stuck to it. Now I could have got myself a nice little German import for that price, but my dad—dead now for almost thirty years—stopped me. His resentment towards the Germany that detoured his life for fifteen years, and impacted it for a lifetime, echoed in my ears. “Why would I buy a German car? I’m not supporting that country now, I’m done with Germany.”  That country . . . the one he served through military service for nine years . . . joining the Luftwaffe in 1936 at age 18. That country . . . the one for whom he spent an additional five years in a Soviet POW camp. Why would he support that country’s car industry? And why would I? I know, it’s not a Nazi country anymore and yet . . . VW was created in May of 1937. It was to be the people's car and employees had automatic withdrawals from their pay checks to fund this national endeavour. But then Hitler decided to have a war instead.

In my father's memory, I don’t buy German cars. It’s funny how I still hear his voice and feel his influence all these years later. Germans might have a reputation for making good cars, but they’ll forever carry a tainted history . . . at least in my driveway.


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