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Immigrant Voices: Diverse Reactions to the Transatlantic Voyage from Europe to Canada’s Shores

From 1928 to 1971, Pier 21 was an active immigration shed. Over one million immigrants, refugees, war brides, and evacuee children came through its halls before setting out across the country to begin their new lives in Canada. Upon arriving in Halifax, and in the years after, many individuals relayed their immigration story to us, stories which are now a significant component of the Museum’s holdings. At the Museum, our Story Collection is one of our strongest assets. This collection includes primary accounts of what it was like to come to Canada including: travelling by ship, first impressions of Pier 21 and Halifax, and train travel across the country. Below I share a few of these accounts to draw attention to some of our collection available online.

The experience of leaving Europe and crossing the Atlantic Ocean for North America garnered a multitude of diverse reactions from individuals and families who sought to resettle in Canada. For example, on February 14, 1948, Jewish war orphan Celina Lieberman arrived at Pier 21 aboard the General S.D. Sturgiss. In fleeing the devastation caused by five years of war in Europe, Lieberman remembered that “for those of us who had experienced so much during the war, going across the ocean was not such a big adventure, the big adventure had been our survival.” According to her, the transatlantic journey was a matter of necessity or “something we had to do.”[1]

As a Latvian refugee, Ernests Kraulis noted that the ocean remained calm as he enjoyed the company of dolphins that accompanied his ship, the Capry, in August 1948. Later during his journey, the weather changed leaving “waves as high as the roof of a two-storey building...” Kraulis also feared that the storm in the Atlantic would eventually “swallow our boat and everything in it.”[2]

Although some individuals believed the journey across the Atlantic was a positive experience, others viewed it differently. Dutch immigrant Hendrika Los travelled aboard the Beaverbrae and arrived in Halifax on February 24, 1950. She reflects that the “ship was not a luxury liner, nor was it a honeymoon cruise for Jake and I. It was a huge disappointment. You were not able to buy anything onboard. But even more disheartening were the sleeping arrangements. Jake and I had separate sleeping quarters. Jake slept in the front of the ship and I slept in the middle of the ship. I slept in a large room with approximately 90 other women and children. What a honeymoon!”[3]

Emilio Poggi and his family attempted to emigrate from Genoa, Italy where they resided. In a stroke of bad luck, the ship that was to take them to Canada, the Andrea Doria, sank in the summer of 1956. As a result, the family was forced to depart from Naples aboard the Saturnia. Poggi recounts that “the departure was one of the most horrid and disorganized experiences we have ever had to endure. It truly seemed as though they were embarking animals onto the ship and not passengers that had paid the full amount for their voyage.” Eventually, the Poggi family arrived at Pier 21 on Christmas Day in 1956.[4]

In its final year of operation as an immigration shed, Pier 21 witnessed a decrease in the amount of newcomers arriving in Canada by way of ship. English immigrant Peter Matthews came to Canada on the last Atlantic voyage aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam — a part of the Holland America Line. Matthews noted that the ship provided good service and his son in particular found the ship’s pool “was the bath to end all baths.”[5]

Although the transatlantic voyage for many immigrants, refugees, and war orphans varied, many of them remember their arrival as a positive encounter with Canadian customs officials and volunteer service agencies including the Salvation Army and the Sisters of Service. In the coming months, I hope to shed more light on the experiences of newcomers to Canada as they arrived at Pier 21 and then permanently settled across Canada.

Currently available on our website is part of our Story Collection which is divided into ten categories: British Evacuee Children, British Home Children, Child Migrants, Displaced People and Refugees, Hungarian Revolution Refugees, Immigrants, Jewish War Orphans, Pier 21 Staff and Volunteers, Veterans, and War Brides.

Browse the online Story Collection at http://www.pier21.ca/research/collections/online-story-collection. (Stories are available in the language in which they were submitted).

Stay tuned!


  1. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (hereafter CMIP21), Story Collection, Jewish War Orphans, Celina Lieberman, 14 February 1948.
  2. CMIP21, Story Collection, Displaced People and Refugees, Ernests Kraulis, 20 August 1948.
  3. CMIP21, Story Collection, Immigrants, Hendrika Los, 24 February 1950.
  4. CMIP21, Story Collection, Immigrants, Emilio Poggi, 25 December 1956.
  5. CMIP21, Story Collection, Immigrants, Peter Matthews, 21 June 1971.