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The Immigration Story of Fedor Szugalew (Russian 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 : 
Country of Origin: 
Port of Arrival: 
Date of Arrival: 
January 18 1951
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2012.1050.1

Story Text: 

ONE MAN'S STORY

I was born in the U.S.S.R. on October 25, 1923, and lived in Leningrad with my family. I was 17 and had one more year of school before going on to university. In the summer of 1941 my parents decided to send me and my 12 year-old cousin to spend a vacation with my grandparents in a small country village. After two weeks of our arrival there, war was declared. In one year I would have been called to the army. I had no passport or other documents if anyone would be looking for me and I decided I should return home. My grandfather took me to the next railway station, some 22 kilometers away to buy a ticket. When we arrived at the station trains were moving back and forth. I was told that no civilians were allowed to go on them as they were taken over for the army and thanks, and nothing further could be done for me. A few days later we received a letter from my parents saying that the military were looking for me for registration. They gave them our address, but we heard nothing further. I went to the local registration office. They said I had not yet been called, as I was not listed there, and I was sent to work on the defense line.

In May or June of 1943 I was taken by the Germans, being forced to work for the German economy. There was an acute shortage of labour as all German men form ages 16 to 60 had been called to the military.

I worked in Pomerania until the spring of 1944. In 1944 the Germans transferred me to Bavaria, giving me a temporary pass to travel by train, and I left to go to Landau city in Bavaria. When the train arrived at Erfort at night the alarm sirens were sounding. The train stopped and everyone was running. Bombs were being dropped on the railway yard. Arriving at the city, there was a cliff about 200 feet high on the hillside from the beach, with a permanent city bomb shelter. People were running for it, but I did not know of this shelter. I saw a park by the river with zigzagging trenches about 5 feet deep, covered with wood and camouflaged with earth-temporary bomb shelters not built to withstand direct hits. I went into one of these. A blast from one bomb flattened me against the wall of the tunnel leading into the shelter and knocked he air out of me, deafening me. The city was bombed as well. After the all-clear siren sounded people came out of the shelters. There were 5-foot deep craters all over, the city and railway yards were on fire, streetcars were knocked over and suitcases and bodies and body parts littered the streets. For three days there was no movement on the railway. Fires lasted for two days, with a shortage of water and no power. I stayed there for two days helping the civil defense in their clearing of rubbish, rescuing people and clearing up the dead bodies. I showed my pass to a policeman; it showed my destination as Landau and he escorted me there. It was arranged that I got to Ettling about 6 miles away, to work for a German priest, and I was taken there. I was once again spared a worse fate.

I worked and stayed on the farm under the supervision of the priest, along with some other prisoners of war who were brought there everyday to work until 6:00 p.m., when they were taken back to their holding quarters under guard for the night. I had longer working hours, rising at 6:00 a.m. and working later into the night until all the chores were done. The priest was a very humane man and treated all the men well as long as the work was done properly. We had enough food to do the work.

In May 1945, the war ended and the Americans came to the territory where we were. The prisoners stayed where they were for two months or so as no one knew where to go. Refugee's camps were being organized. Some went to the Russians zone and others who did not want to go there went to refugee's camps. Registration was started and there was a choice of whether to stay in the camps of go to work elsewhere. I left the farm and stayed in Ettling village. Repatriation officers were in Landau and they along with Russian officers called a meeting and told the mayor to collect all foreigners to the school for a meeting. We were advised that the Russians were to go back to the U.S.S.R. For working for the German, even of not voluntarily, there would be 7 years imprisonment. If we did not go voluntarily, a coalition of England and others would send us by force, and there would be additional punishment. I was 22 years old, and I decided that I would not go back. I had suffered enough and there would be no future for me there. I learned later that those who returned had faced a court in Czechoslovakia and sentenced there without returning to their homes.

I went back to the priest who asked me to stay and help on the farm, as there was no one else left. The Russian officers were around threatening people, and people started running from the camps at night. The American and English talked to people who were coming to Germany from Czechoslovakia and it was said that we would not be compelled to go to Russia. We were allowed to stay in the American zone; I went to work in Munich at an American warehouse where supplies were being sent to the American forces. The Americans arranged for a place where I could stay. I paid them rent from my wages and gave them my ration cards for food, since I had my meals at the warehouse. Food for the general population was very scarce, even with the ration cards.

Emigration was started in 1946. I along, with 5 friends, decided to go to Belgium to work in a coal mine, as the pay was best. We signed a contract for 2 years and were taken to Liege in Belgium. We stayed in barracks that were converted to rooms at a former German air base. We had an 8-hour day working in the mine under very unhealthy and dangerous conditions, eating our lunches in the corridors of the mine, with hordes of mice waiting to pick up the scraps. There was danger of the coal dust getting into our lungs and we were checked regularly and sent to a hospital if symptoms appeared. We decided after one year that mining was not for us. All six of us quit the job, breaking our contract, and roamed the streets enjoying our new freedom. Soon the authorities caught up with us and took us to a "petite chateau ", actually a holding place surrounded by a fence and a locked door. We were free to roam inside it, until they decided what to do with us. We refused to go back to work and were taken to numerous other job sites, but we insisted we wanted to go back to Germany. We had to have our refugee's status reinstated, by application to Geneva, and this took time. We were finally given a ticket to Essen in Germany, and had to find work.

I went to work on another farm for one year and then for a butcher for about year. In November 1950, I went for registration for emigration to Canada, and received a placement for work with the Great Lakes paper Company as a bush worker for a year. There were 8 of us hired fir this contract. It was time to step into the future and leave the past behind. I was finally a free man and had survived. I was alive, but the memories of the war still haunted me for years in nightmares.

We sailed from Bremenhaven, Germany, on January 8, 1951. The voyage took us ten days in very stormy seas. There were hammocks for some to sleep in, which were better balanced in the storm as they were not held down. I had a cot. This would roll with the ship, both up and down and sideways. One moment I was practically in a standing position and the next my feet went upwards. The farther we went, the stormier was the weather. The waves were high, and as the front of the boat dipped, the propeller in the back would rise from the water. Many people were too seasick to be able to eat. The days passed slowly. On the third day we passed the Queen Mary. The Queen Mary gave three short horn signals, and the whole air shook with the power, and in 10 minutes she was over the horizon, without any movement of the boat despite the rough seas.

We arrived in Halifax on January 18, 1951, at Pier 21, on a warm and sunny day and there was no snow. We were impressed with how warm and friendly the city seemed to be. There was no snow in Germany when we left and we were all in summer clothes. I had new brown shoes when we left. They became stiff and white from the salt and had to be thrown out. I was struck by the many people coming to Canada and another 600 going to the United States. On leaving the ship we were each given a Canadian dollar for pocket money. That was the extent of my wealth on coming to Canada, and I spent it on a carton of cigarettes. It took some 2 hours for the customs officials to check and open the baggage, after which it was loaded on 2 baggage cars on the C.N.R. passenger train.

On the C.N.R. we went through Nova Scotia and came to New Brunswick. There were a lot of apple trees, and it started to snow. Stopping at the big cities, some of the passengers left, and by Montreal only about half remained. Arriving in Sudbury there was already a lot of snow. Our destination was Valora. The rest of the passengers went to Manitoba and Alberta.

Arriving at Valora there were some 17 or 18 of us going to the camp and we were met by a Ukrainian man. It was freezing cold, with 2 or 3 feet of snow. We were told to run to the barracks as fast as we could so we would not freeze. We were faced with midwinter and bush all around us. The men said it was like being a volunteer to Siberia. We were fed, and were impressed with the amount and variety of food. A clerk operating the camp store gave us all the heavy clothing needed for work and I hardly carried the load. We were then given a couple of days to rest before starting work. We were given full instructions how the work was to be done. I for one had never done the work before. Each man was to make at least a cord a day to cover the expenses. Two of us working together made half a cord in 8 hours, and we were so beaten we could hardly walk, or hold our spoons at supper. After two weeks I made 1 or 2 cords a day. We coped with mosquitoes and black flies in the summer, wolves howling, and bears raiding the food storage shed. In winter I had an accident when logs were being hauled from the bush. I was sitting on top of the load of logs, which were not tied down to the sleigh behind the horses. The sleigh hit a stump in the logging road, causing the logs to shift and roll, falling towards the horses. I fell with them, landing behind the horses with logs scattering around me. Miraculously I was not trampled by the horses and escaped with a scare and heavy bruises. Yet once again my life was spared. I worked until February 1952, and received $2316.00 clear for one year's work.

I then went to Fort William (now a part of Thunder Bay) and from there to Three Rivers where my friend had settled after coming to Canada. After looking for a job and finding nothing immediately available, I came back to Fort William. I met a friend who was working at the C.P.R. and together we went to ask about a job for me. They hired me to start the following day, June 18, 1952.I started as a labourer and worked my way up, apprenticing to carman's helper and then to carman.

Now that I had a steady job I turned my attention to other aspects of my life, learning some English at night school. I would meet with friends and go to dances on Saturday nights. In April 1953, at one such dance I met a Canadian-born girl, who was to become my wife the following December, and we have had a happy life together. On September 6, 1958 I became a Canadian citizen.

In 1987 I retired from the C.P.R. after working there for 35 years. I was fortunate in having started there when I did, as a newcomer to the country, with no previous experience, and being able to apprentice on the job. There would not be any such advantages for young people at the present time.

It had been my wish to some day go back once more to see my birthplace and in 1989 we decided to go on a group tour, arriving in Moscow on May 28th. On arriving at our hotel, our tour guide was not there and I asked the hotel clerk in Russian as to what we were to do. She was surprised to have a foreigner speak to her in Russian, wondering who I was. Our guide explained my circumstances to her, as she was to do on many other occasions, and I was given a welcome wherever we went, as a lost son of Russia.

We were taken on tours, visiting the Kremlin and many of the other sites through Moscow. From there we went on to Kiev in the Ukraine, and Yalta by the Black Sea. We preceded to Leningrad - "Venice of the North ", my hometown. The city had changed much of course after going through the siege of 900 days during the war. Much of it had been completely demolished and buildings and palaces were still being reconstructed. Our hotel was some 3 blocks from where we once lived, but the area was unrecognizable. There was a huge monument on Victory Square, close to the hotel, in memory of the defenders of Leningrad and the people who had seen the horrors of that war, my family among them, with whom I had lost all contact. After seeing the many sights and the St. Isaac's Cathedral dating from 1858, we proceeded on to the town of Pushkin, then a hydrofoil ride to Petrodvorets, Peter the Greats "Russian Versailles " overlooking the Gulf of Finland, with its Grand Palace and the Great Cascade with 64 fountains and 37 statues in gold all re-created. We also visited the Hermittage, with its famous huge art collection, of which we could only see a minute portion of course.

We had come to the end of our Russian journey, with a farewell dinner held for us at the hotel. I had now seen more of my former homeland than I had seen while living there. My roots had been firmly transplanted, and I was happy to be going home.

This brings us to the present, 2003, when we decided to take a trip to the East coast with our daughter and son-in-law, touring through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Thus it was that we came to see Pier 21, where I had first set foot in Canada. It was another emotionally overwhelming experience for me, bringing back all of the old memories once again on viewing the film of immigrants arriving over the years.

I felt like a small grain of sand washed up on the shores, with many thousands of others. Many had stories, similar to mine, coming for refuge and with high hopes, to Canada. Fortunately my story has a happy ending. I fell as though some greater power must have been leading my unpredictable steps to the right places through the years. I am grateful to Canada for giving me the life I now enjoy. I will be 80 years old on October 25th, and we are celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary on December 4th of this year. We are still looking hopefully forward to some happy years together at the end of our journey.