Photo Connections to Stalingrad

Inge and Peter in 1942 or 1943
My German cousin, Ingrid, died last week in Schleswig-Holstein.  She was the daughter of my dad’s favourite sister, Anni, and one of my last surviving German cousins. Back in 2010, when Ingrid came to Canada for a visit, we leafed through an old photo album from before my dad’s 1953 immigration and came across a photo of a little girl and a pudgy toddler. “That’s me!” my cousin declared. Turned out that there was a fascinating story behind the photo taken in either 1942 or ’43 connected to the Battle of Stalingrad. 

The toddler was my half-brother, Peter, oldest son of my father’s first family. Peter died at the end of the war, presumably of hunger. Ingrid, or Inge, as she was called, had been visiting little Peter and his mom because her own mother, my dad’s sister known to me as Tante Anni, was heading to Stalingrad to visit her dying husband—too wounded to make the trip back to Germany.  That’s why “Der Arzt von Stalingrad” must have been in my dad’s library and that’s also why the once popular book, first published in 1958, is now on my summer reading list.  Here's a link to a curious and very dated movie trailer made in 1958.  A memory of the horror of war. 

Inge and me in 2019

As the people directly affected by the Second World War fade from us, taking their memories with them, it’s only through stories that old photos come alive. Knowing that Cousin Inge once played with my half-brother, Peter, makes him a real person for me and gives credence to the heartbreak my father must have known. It also gives me the motivation to keep writing.

Rest in peace, cousin Ingrid.

About Immigrants

I’ve been working on two novels about the Canadian immigrant experience and volunteering with newcomers helps me stay in touch with the current crisis. 

A long journey war-torn Europe to a train station
in Winnipeg, July, 1953
Spending time with Ukrainian immigrants helps me appreciate the human cost of the Putin’s invasion—but barely. It’s not my home town that stands empty and destroyed. It’s not my family back there still trying to eke out a living. It’s not my cousin wounded or missing on the front line. It’s not my life on hold. It’s not my diploma that's no longer valid or my language skills that are suddenly useless. As the mayhem of violence continues on the disputed borders with Russia, immigrants here in Canada start all over again, like high school students. 

The Ukrainian women I’ve been fortunate to coach have such beautiful names and faces. They’re so determined, so resilient, so positive-minded. Maybe they had management positions in Ukraine, here they’re grateful to clear tables, make beds or labour in sewing factories … while their children make friends, become fluent in English and grow without fear.

Immigrant ship, the Beaverbrae

I can’t help but think of my parents. Immigrants to Canada after the Second World War, my mother had no home to return to while my father lost his first wife and two young sons. Canada took them in and gave them a safe place to raise a family. 

My father could fix or build anything and he flourished in various construction related jobs while my mom ended up in a potato chip factory with other displaced people.  Neither job required English skills.

Canada's many challenges include climate change, housing and support for diverse populations. Also, we’ve only recently recognized the indigenous peoples who were manipulated and abused by European invaders. That healing will take time.

Yes, we’re all from somewhere else, but we all want the same things ...  fresh air, a safe home and a welcoming community.

Light View

I’ve always had a heart for fiction. For me, it tells the truths that mere facts can’t explain. That’s why, years ago when I was young and naïve, I opted for an MA in literature rather than something more financially rewarding, like a teaching degree. I did a catch-up on that after my three kids were born, but by then it was too risky to change gears. Instead, I walked my way to a retirement pension. C'est la vie!

So now I’m an old woman (this is not a bad thing!) but it’s the fiction of my youth that haunts me here in my shady reading nook. I’m pulling out Alice Munro and Gabriele Wohmann story collections. (I did my MA thesis on Gabriele Wohmann). Both women wrote about the prisons of domesticity. As my husband lies in the hospital, waiting for vascular by-pass surgery, I’m again finding respite in my old short story friends, again finding truths that facts can’t explain.

While waiting in an ICU waiting room earlier this month (what else would one do in a waiting room, after all?), I pondered the wall art. I was struck by the similarity between the book I’d brought along, having grabbed it from the top of my summer to-read pile. The cover of Afternoon Light by Ralph Beer looks a lot like the waiting room wall hanging. Beer’s book, which follows an American draft dodger into the BC interior back in the early 70s, is a book about young love and idealism. I wonder where it will end up? In some ICU waiting room like an Alice Munro short story? You never know. 

No matter. I’m grateful for summer light, for dappled shade, for wonderful friends, and for the magic of fiction. 


The title of Hilde Ostby’s new book, The Key to Creativity: The Science Behind Ideas and How Daydreaming Can Change the World, would have caught my attention if I’d seen it in a bookstore. It was, however, an interview on CBC radio that introduced me to the book’s hook. The author suffers a concussion from a cycling accident and that becomes the catalyst for her journey down a rabbit hole of creativity. Living with a brain injury survivor for the last 38 years, I’m always curious about other survivors. Of course, every brain injury is different and every person is different, too.

This was an engaging read that I took my time with so I could indulge in the nuggets of wisdom spread throughout. I didn’t need to be converted by the idea of daydreaming being a good thing. I’ve deliberately tried to be less busy and to let myself idle without to-do lists and schedules. Free-falling down the rabbit hole can be scary but it’s that vulnerability that makes creativity so elusive and yet so enticing. She writes about the enduring power of story and the intimacy of reading as it spawns ideas in readers. 

Then she writes about gardens, quoting Oliver Sacks, who says, “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process.” Amen, I say. She tells of Virginia Woolf’s overgrown garden along with other creative people who need nature to nurture their minds.  This, in opposition to the schools, with its constant system of judging: “a system that creates losers must have its dark side.”  (p.189)

My favourite lines come near the end of the book. Ostby writes, “writing a book—any book—is like making a time capsule and sending it into the future, hoping that someone will find it, hoping that it will overcome time itself.” (p. 255)

Like any good book, Ostby’s work has me wanting to check out more authors, like Anna Fiske, for example. I admire Ostby for using the challenges of her own concussion to explore the nature of ideas, of creativity, and of embracing daydreams. Highly recommended. 

Summer Reading

It takes time to read a book. Even longer to write them. In our world of instant that’s sometimes hard to swallow. But slowing down makes time move slower and the hot, hazy days of summer are a good time for slow. 

What are you reading this summer and why? My summer reading list includes: 

The Postcard: Anne Berest Why? A postcard was the catalyst for my own work, currently out on submission. 

Afternoon Light: Ralph Beer Why? Recommended to me by a good friend. 

You, the Story: Ruta Sepetys Why? Love this author’s historical fiction. 

The Crow who Tampered with Time: Lloyd Raztlaff Why? Crow in the title. 

Paper Roses on Stony Mountain: Diana Stevan Why? Read an earlier book by this author. 

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv: Erin Litteken Why? Recommended by several writer friends. 

The Lost Daughters of Ukraine: Erin Litteken Why? Highly recommended by friends. 

Bündnis der Herzen: Sibel Daniel Why? Second World War, German point of view 

Der Artzt von Stalingrad: Heinz Konsalik Why? In my dad’s book collection.

Maya's Memories Gene Kirichenko  Why? A thoughtful gift from a friend.

I'm looking forward to a wonderful summer of books. Wishing you safe travels, whether it's by air, sea, bike, kayak, foot, or in a hammock in the shade. Take time to take it slow. 

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