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The Immigration Story of Helmut Max Erxleben (German 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.

Category: 
Culture : 
Country of Origin: 
Port of Arrival: 
Date of Arrival: 
December 8 1952
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2012.1900.1

Story Text: 

A German Immigrant Story
by
Helmut Max Erxleben

On the evening of December 7,1952 the M.S. Italia of the Home Lines docked on Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The ship had departed from Hamburg, Germany about 10 days before, and after picking up additional passengers in Southhampton, England and Le Havre, France it headed into the wintry, stormy waters of the North Atlantic to its final destination New York via Halifax. I remember being sea sick most of the time with scant inclination to study my English phrase book. The morning after arrival we were welcomed at the entrance to the immigration hall by a very pretty Red Cross nurse with a cup of hot chocolate and a donut (with a hole in the middle!) for each of us. I wasn't sure if I thanked her properly in my limited English, so if by chance this wonderful person should read this story I would like to invite her to the closest Tim Hortons.

I was a thirteen year old lad at that time and travelling with my mother and fifteen year old brother Horst. We had left Germany with what Shakespeare said an'auspicious and a drooping heart'. Auspicious because we hoped to escape the threat of being in the centre of a future European conflict again, but drooping because of all that we were leaving behind, especially my grandparents. We had experienced the full wrath of the allied bombing of Berlin which turned our district into unrecognizable rubble. Late 1943 we left Berlin for the northern part of Bavaria to live with relatives, however the war did not ignore us there either as we were living in a small village just 15 miles north of Schweinfurt, site of several ball bearing factories and consequently the target of 22 air raids by the US 8th Airforce.

The end of the war brought different problems, the scarcity of food being one, and the lack of accommodation being the other. Because we had been evacuees rather than refugees, and because my mother was a single mother we were at the bottom of the list for an apartment in Bavaria, with the authorities insisting that we return to live in what was then East-Berlin. The solution was to get out of Europe altogether, but where to? My grandfather provided the answer. He had seen action in the First World War and had great admiration for the Canadians and their decency and sense of fairness. And so one day my mother put an ad in the German-Canadian newspaper'Der Courier' looking for a husband. She received only one reply and it was from a recent German immigrant, Karl Messer, whose wife had decided not to follow him to Canada in 1951. Canadian Immigration had granted my mother entry into Canada on condition she would marry this fellow within 30 days after her arrival in Canada.

At 6pm on December 8 our train, which a few years before had transported returning soldiers, left Pier 21 heading west through three days and nights of Canadian winter stillness with only intermittent glimpses of urban life such as the majestic Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City or the bustle of the Montreal train station. Our final stop was the tiny hamlet of Capreol,on the CNR main line in Northern Ontario. It was there that my future stepfather was waiting for us. A former tank commander in the Afrika Corps, he was now handyman at the Inco Refinery in Copper Cliff. He had rented a small one bedroom insul brick cottage with outdoor plumbing for us in Minnow Lake near Sudbury. Water access was from a frozen well at the end of our lane. Two weeks later we celebrated our first and best Christmas in our new country. We were ready to begin a new life.

My parents died in Penticton, BC in February 1988 within three days of each other. Fate had brought them together at the right time and in the right country. I owe a great debt to both of them and to Canada.