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Immigration story of Bente Willis (Danish immigrant)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

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Stories of immigration are plentiful. The trips across many miles of water are many. Trips and stories is not why a place like Pier 21 exists. It is the emotion that is behind these trips and stories that are unique to each individual that has ever made the journey.

I suppose it can be argued that “what emotion could a 5 year old immigrant possibly remember to, purposefully, make a trip to Nova Scotia 50 years later to try to relive the experience?”
In the 1950’s I’m confident that distressed parents would likely have discounted a 5 year old’s difficult behaviour as just that.

My father decided in 1957 that in order to make a better home for his wife and 2 children we would immigrate to Canada. Denmark was still in the process of recovering from the 2nd W.W. Denmark had been occupied by Germany all through the war, and it had been an extremely dark experience for my parents. My father, in particular, wanted to break away for a new start. My mother was reluctant to leave her family and friends to travel to a land where they knew no one. The fear of the unknown was almost too much for her. However, my father convinced her. They had listened to the promises of the Canadian Embassy of opportunities for new immigrants in Canada. They never got over the fact that they felt they had been led astray. The promises were not realized, in their minds, and they felt they had been lied to. In hindsight, I realize that Canada was recovering as well and was looking for immigrants to help develop their own economy.

But, I guess, the vision of a land of “milk and honey” was just too tempting an illusion.

So, in May of 1957, my parents set off across the Atlantic with my sister, then age 9 and myself, then 4. They packed up what they were allowed to take on board, one suitcase per person and a wooden crate. It was packed carefully by my mother to try and preserve whatever they could of their past. I remember spending our last day in Denmark with family and how my mother cried as we were leaving.

I remember vividly how upset my mother was on the crossing. She had 10 days of nausea and vomiting. I can recall her sitting in the bath tub, on board, vomiting into the bath water. At one point the only thing she could eat was oranges, because that was the easiest thing to vomit. My father was left with his 2 girls to manage, while my mother stayed in the cabin too sick to move. Immigrants tend to stick together, and this instance was no different. We met families on board who were in the same predicament and we instantly connected. One of these families became life-long friends and we still see them today. They had immigrated with 4 young girls, and one of them happily was just my age. We spent hours together on board, and many years after as friends. One day in particular stands out. I celebrated my 5th birthday on May 21st. This was about halfway through the journey. My father had finally got some time to himself and had gone to play Bingo. He had won $1.50 and my mother and he had decided that they would splurge on a birthday gift for me with his winnings. This would have been a huge extravagance for them and I’m sure there must have been much discussion as to whether or not they could afford to do this. However, I got a small Norwegian doll, dressed in folk costume. I can still remember how happy I was to receive a present and I still have that doll today.

Upon, finally, landing on the shores of Nova Scotia at Pier 21, we disembarked. Not too soon for my mother to have feet planted on terra firma.

We were corralled into a collective area to confirm immigration status and to find our meager belongings. When my mother went to collect her crate, it was opened only to find that all her dishes, that she had so lovingly packed, had been broken. There wasn't one piece of porcelain that had survived the trip. I cannot recollect the moment when my mother opened that crate, but I do remember that my sister had a porcelain doll that had been given to her by my grandparents on the last Christmas we were in Denmark and the head had been broken open when she unwrapped it. I recall how she cried when she saw it.

My mother tells me that when we were to travel to Toronto, via Montreal, that “not to worry there would be a meal served on the train”. Mother, a skeptic at this point, decided that this was not likely going to be a positive event. She quickly grabbed some bread and butter from the canteen and, as it turned out, this ended up being a meal of “loaves and fishes”. There was no food to be had, as promised. The butter, that my mother had taken from the canteen had melted in the heat and ended up being poured over the bread and shared with our friends from the ship.

I don’t recall that event, but I have heard the stories so many times I am no longer aware, if I remember it, or have just heard it so often that it has now become a memory. Either way, they are now looked back on as fond memories and not the desperate moments that they must have been.

We landed in Toronto and the immigration department had set us up in a home of a Russian immigrant who had a home on Dover court. I do recall her as a stern, nasty woman with a mean disposition. I can only imagine my mother’s reaction when we were expected to stay there until my father found employment. My father was a “master carpenter”, and had been told that it would be “easy” for him to find employment. Immigration had neglected to tell him that there were thousands of other new immigrants, also carpenters, looking for work.

My parents had family in Denmark who had told them of friends that they had in Toronto. They had been given their address to look them up if they were in need. As it turned out, this saved them from the Russian. It was clear that living on Dover court was not going to work out, so we moved in, temporarily, with the Danish family contact in their tiny apartment. They also had immigrated and met another Danish family who turned out to be a carpenter. He connected my father to a furniture factory in a small Mennonite community in Elmira, Ontario.

My father had gone for an interview there by bus, but was unable to pay for overnight accommodations, so had slept on a park bench all night to make the interview on time. He was hired and we moved, again, to Elmira.

There was, of course, no money by this time so we had to move to a top floor of a warehouse until my father was paid. We had nothing, other than what we came with, so accommodations were bleak.

Elmira is a small town of German/Mennonite descent. The heritage is largely Lutheran. It didn't take long for the church community to realize that there was an immigrant family in need and they came to our rescue. They set us up in a home where an elderly Mennonite couple lived downstairs and we had the upper floor of a fairly large home. My father started to work and we lived with that family for about 5 years as we tried to recover financially.

I can recall many, many times when new Danish immigrants came to live with us temporarily, while they became adjusted. My mother always had, and still has, a soft spot in her heart for immigrants. New Danish immigrants became family, since we didn't have any “real” family in Canada. They were important as a connection to Denmark and the family that they so desperately missed “back home”.

My parents became very active in the Danish/Canadian movement. They were founders of the Danish Canadian Club in Kitchener-Waterloo area and also the Danish Lutheran church. They were instrumental in initiating the Danish Cemetery that now exists just outside the Guelph area attached to a Danish park in Ontario.

There is a large Danish community in the southern Ontario area that unites in cultural events in a Danish park. The park was donated to the Danish people to continue to nurture their cultural heritage. It is the hope that 2nd and 3rd generations will continue with this vision, but that remains to be seen.
As a child, I have wonderful memories of a very unique Danish experience, far away from the country that I was born in.

My parents always struggled in Canada, financially. I knew that there was always “money concerns”, but I never felt without. We were always included in events with my parents.

My father had a stroke at the age of 48, and was never able to work as a carpenter again. It was a devastation to the family. He had finally been able to build, by himself, my mother’s dream home. They had worked long and hard to achieve it, but when he became ill, they were no longer able to afford it. So we moved yet again.

I have heard so many “immigration” stories. They are all unique in their telling. I can recognize and sympathize with their struggles. As time goes by the stories become less about struggle and more about challenges. The common thread in all these stories is the sense of loss for their family that they have left behind.

My sister, brother and I have a strong sense of family connection. Probably due to the fact that we never had relatives that we felt truly connected to. Yes, we have visited with them often, but if anything that is the one thing that we have missed as children. Family, can be taken for granted by those who have them. I was always envious of my friends who were going to visit their grandparents, cousins or aunts/uncles. “Wouldn't it be wonderful to have family to spend special occasions with”. My siblings and I sit in wonder at the relations that our children have with their extended family. They are so lucky and I try to remind my children of that.

As children, despite our limited financial upbringing, we have done well in Canada. We all have comfortable lives and great opportunities. Who would know how things would have been if my father had not made that decision to immigrate. How different would our lives have been? One can only speculate.