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.