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.

Recent Posts

The Fabric of a Community: a tribute to Bev Morton

June 6th would have been Bev Morton’s 74th birthday.  In her honour an opening reception was held to celebrate her art at The Studio of La M...