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The Immigration Story of Elizabeth Erskine (Serbian Refugee)

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.

Culture : 
Port of Arrival: 
Date of Arrival: 
April 29 1949
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2012.793.1

Story Text: 

In April 1949, General LeRoy Eltinge, a small U.S. military transport ship, was returning form Europe, and, I suspect as a U.S. contribution to the efforts of IRO (International Refugee Organization), brought to Halifax a shipment of refugees. The bulk of the group consisted of young men and a few young women who had fled form the U.S.S.R. troops in Czechoslovakia. The rest of us were a few young men and about ninety women in their twenties who, having found themselves as refugees in Germany, did not wish to return to their home lands behind the Iron Curtain.

I'm a daughter of Russianémigrés who, after the Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent civil war, found themselves on the losing side. Both left Russia, and via Gallipoli, Turkey's mainland, Greece and Dalmatia landed in a small town north of Belgrade. Here they finally met and married. In 1944 I started on my own odyssey when our family, minus my father who had died in 1936, was taken to a labour camp in Austria. Now on my own, I was to stop being a refugee, finding a permanent refuge in Canada.

The crossing in April's stormy weather laid many of us low. Several new friendships were forged among us who were not afflicted and looked after the "patients ". Knowing only a few words of English, much was strange. We wondered who "Nahirdis " could be, whom the P.A. system incessantly called for. Months later did I realize it was "Now hear this ", which preceded every announcement. The last night on the ship, we spent already in Halifax Harbour, but enveloped in thick fog.

How eager we all were to see Canada! The first glimpse of it was through shreds of fog, was of a deserted part of a pier where an older man in shabby clothes stood and spat into the water. It was rather amusing as well as a reassuring sight, so similar to what we left behind. Later, when our son played, "I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier ", I could not help thinking about my first glimpse of the country.

Then we were shifted to another site, disembarked, and our papers were stamped with the date of April 29, 1949, making us landed immigrants. We were welcomed by various church groups and treated to ice cream and waffles. I still have a tiny picture of Christ holding a lit lantern in his hand. It was given to me by a lady, with a hug and words which I suspect were "Welcome to Canada ". "Canada " was the only word I understood, and thus learned the English way of saying it.

I have no recollection of the rest of the day, as nothing was translated to us. Then we were on the train to Montreal and faced with the problem of unfolding the wooden seats into something one could lie down on. Colonist cars? Have never seen any like it since. The Maritime landscape, so full of woods, fields, lakes and streams, held us glued to the windows. What a change form Germany's urban sprawls. Closer to Montreal, we saw a large building with a word on the sign. It happened to be part of my seven-word English vocabulary, which I recognized and shouted our, "Fountain pen! " Another contact with the new county was made. In a Montreal suburb, we were brought to what seemed to be a boarding house for a private school. Such luxuries we had not experienced before. I don't know if you require any information past the arrival in Halifax. However, what happened in Montreal was of great significance to us and constituted part of the arrival, as it were.

We were told that we should not be afraid to give out personal information about oneself. No one is going to remove us from here. Someone who has not been through the changing fortunes of war and postwar years in Europe cannot begin to understand what it meant to one. What feelings these words called forth! Not a day in all these years have I regretted coming to Canada. Then we were distributed to several cities. As one of a group of twenty young women, I headed for Toronto, where a one-year contract to work as a domestic in a private home or a hospital awaited one.