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Learning How to Eat a Banana in Quarantine at Pier 21

A brave little girl named Aljas Peep spent her first days in Canada under quarantine. She was born in Estonia in 1941 during the first Soviet occupation. She and her mother fled to Germany in 1944, just ahead of the Russian re-occupation.

By 1949 things looked bad with the Berlin Blockade, so her mother looked to get them as far from Europe as possible, she explained. They were fortunate to be accepted to emigrate to Canada to join her future stepfather who was already here as a contract farm labourer.

Aljas’s dominant memory of the early part of the voyage to Canada is being fascinated by the wobbling of green Jell-O. But the fun was short lived.

“A few days before our arrival I came down with a high fever and was put in the ships infirmary,” Aljas recalled.

“When we reached Halifax on, I believe March 27, I was carried off the ship to a quarantine hospital section right in Pier 21. Who knew what I had?

“When I came to a few days later, I discovered that my mother was locked up in another section of the building.

“I spoke Estonian, some remnants of a South German dialect and of English, the following, Hello, Thank You, and wastepaper basket. Not much to enable a conversation.”

Not unlike the way many of us are measuring our days in meals and snacks, childhood memories are often dominated by food and Aljas’s are no exception.

The first meal I remember was some kind of porridge and milk which I recognized. There was also something I presumed was a kind of fruit. With considerable difficulty I bit into it. It was tough, stringy and bitter, and I spit it out. A nurse came in and rolled on the floor in amazement and laughter, and finally by demonstration explained that this was a banana and to be peeled before eating.

“Most unusual; you don't peel apples, pears, plums, or for that fact lemons which we had eaten peel and all, dipped in sugar, which UNRRA (United Nations Refugee Relief Org.) had provided us as an antiscorbutic.

“I was also highly amazed at the way Corn Flakes was packed and served in individual cut-open boxes. Finally I was diagnosed as having measles and released from quarantine and "landed" on April 5, 1949…Thus, my arrival to Canada, never to be regretted.”

I love the way her diagnosis and release from quarantine is far overshadowed by confusing fruit and ready to eat cereal boxes.

You have to wonder what it is that we will remember about these long days. I hope it’s our personal equivalent of the banana and the laughing nurse.

Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (S2012.698.1)