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The story of Relief Workers leaving through Pier 21

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To Europe for Postwar Relief work 1948-1949

In the summer of 1948 my husband and I left our family and farm home at Kleefeld, Manitoba en route for Europe. We were sponsored by our church, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, to work with the MCC, giving aid to the homeless, suffering, and helpless victims of the war that raged in Europe from 1939-1945. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a Christian, non-military relief organization comprised of various Mennonite Denominations in America, Canada and USA. Their fundamental faith and teachings are according to Bible teachings as Jesus taught to love the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, and not to love our brethren alone but our neighbours and enemies, taking a non-resistant stand.

Our trip began near midnight in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada traveling by CNR, Canadian National Railway. A day and night later brought us to Montreal where we spent one day before making connections for further travel. There we walked up Mount Royal. We were back well in time for the train to Halifax. That night we enjoyed sleeping on berths.

Arriving in Halifax the third morning, we got off the train and worked our way slowly down the board sidewalk carrying our heavy baggage. We found a place to eat then continued our way to the Pier where the Aquitania Cunard Star ocean liner was docked. We saw no high rise buildings in Halifax at that time. There was a strong fish smell which proved that Halifax was important for its fisheries as well as being a busy seaport.

The Pier was quite crowded by 4 p.m. when we walked the gangplank to board the ship where we were shown our state rooms. During the war this ship was used for the military but had been converted back for civilian use. During the war the state rooms were equipped with triple and sometimes four decks of berths. However, after the war they were mostly two decks and I did not find it crowded. I slept in a ladies stateroom and could have my baggage on the second berth. My husband slept in the men’s quarters. Every morning on ship he would come to my door and we would spend the day together.

After boarding we had time to explore the ship before supper. There was a library which we both enjoyed. We also spent much time on deck. We heard the fog horn blow every twenty minutes well into the second day until we were well past Newfoundland. The weather was quiet and beautiful most of the time and the water calm. The traveling was good with little seasickness and we enjoyed the delicious meals that were served.

Sunday morning we attended an Anglican Church service and in the evening a meeting where the Salvation Army and Presbyterian minister each spoke.

The ship stopped at Cherbourg, France to unload and reload cargo as well as passengers. Then we crossed to Southampton, England. There we took a boat-train to London, where we found a private home with bed & breakfast. In the morning a taxi took us to the boat-train station at Harwich, England. It seemed to take hours to go through customs as we filed up to the ferry boat which took us across the North Sea to the Hook of Holland. We got very hungry and I was seasick to the second stage. From there another boat-train went to Amsterdam. A young Dutchman, seeing we were Canadian, kindly took us to a motel to have a good sleep.

The next day was Sunday and, after phoning MCC headquarters, a station wagon was soon there for us and we arrived at our temporary home. Our sleeping quarters had in previous years sheltered Jews until the German Gestapo, during the German occupancy of Holland, found and took them away to their doom.

We spent about two weeks in Amsterdam. This was part of our orientation. MCC in Amsterdam was a large center where relief workers came through, coming and going to different countries. It already existed when relief of clothing and food was supplied to Holland immediately post war. [My husband] helped clean up the storage and I helped with household duties. Holland no longer needed aid as they had already rebuilt their homes which had suffered from the German occupation.

We were headed for Germany, but before we could work there we needed to go to Basel, Switzerland to obtain our visas for Germany. Switzerland had stayed neutral during the war and MCC main headquarters for voluntary work was situated there.

MCC first went to England in 1941 when word arrived of the heavy bombing of the big cities, London and Manchester, etc. and the suffering of, especially the elderly, left homeless, women and children and convalescents. A canteen for food had been set up working together with the Quakers and the Red Cross. In 1945 when the war ended MCC workers had crossed the Channel to Holland and together with the Red Cross gave material aid; food, clothing and assistance in rebuilding.

It was during that time, when the allies had divided Germany into zones, that MCC became aware of homeless refugees fleeing from Communist Russia and coming to the border of Holland. These refugees claimed they originated from Holland, which was true. Most of them were of Dutch origin and spoke the Old Flemish, Low Dutch or Low German, or Plaute Dutch. As non-military people through the ages they had lived mostly occupied with agriculture. In Prussia and Dazing they had reclaimed land from the sea, building and maintaining dykes, etc.

In 1789 the Czarina, Catherine the Great, invited the Mennonites to occupy the Steppes of the Ukraine which had been won from the Turks. In 1874 many Mennonites came to America, mostly to the Canadian prairies and in Kansas and Minnesota of the USA. After World War 1 and the Russian Revolution in 1917 when Communism took over, the men were tortured and shot and women and children were molested and abused. Then a serious Typhus epidemic erupted and a famine occurred during which there were many deaths over all Russia.

American Mennonites at that time sent aid which was when MCC was first organized. Also MCC negotiated with the Canadian Government and the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) to bring a mass of Mennonites to Canada. The following years 1923-1926, Canada admitted many thousands of Mennonites who were willing to settle as farmers. Though many were well educated people and factory workers, they were allowed to come only as farmers.

After about 1929 Russia refused to let anymore leave their country and Canada refused admittance. The Mennonites that remained in Russia, we learned later, suffered greatly by forced labor, starvation and torture and disease.

Therefore, after World War 11, many refugees had close kin in Canada and the USA. Many young people, whose parents came to North America in the 1920’s, volunteered to work under MCC to help refugees in the 1940’s, as their parents were helped many years earlier.

Gronau, West Fallen, Germany was close to the Dutch border where MCC had set up a large refugee camp for the displaced Mennonites, giving them temporary asylum. These thousands of homeless Mennonites, which had escaped out of Russia, lived in mortal fear of being sent back to Russia, knowing only labor camps, torture or death awaited them there. Once they were in Gronau they had hopes of finding a permanent home. Some, however, that were not eligible for emigration, were not so fortunate or happy and permanent homes were found for them in Germany.

IRO (International Refugee Organization) worked together with MCC and the Red Cross in an organized search for new homes for them.

All refugees needed someone to sponsor them and many were able to go to kin in Canada and the USA. Those, who didn’t pass certain health regulations for North America or didn’t have sponsors, were accepted in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Paraguay was willing to admit them, being acquainted with Mennonites from Canada who had settled there under extreme hardships if allowed freedom of religion and exemption from military service. There was a main exodus from Europe to South America.

The camps in Gronau consisted of five large buildings and were previously Sports Plazas. They were confiscated by the British occupation army for this purpose. These camps became a refugee processing center preparing them for emigration.

Many required treatment, especially for TB, Trachoma, etc. A large partially bomb damaged villa was requested to be renovated for a hospital or sick bay. It was equipped with an X-ray and lab with capable personnel for staff. Three doctors and an experienced lab technician were kept busy. MCC provided the supporting personnel. Since I had my RN this is where I was assigned to work.

My husband worked with the material aid, distribution of clothing including shoes and food in the big cities. He was in charge of a feeding program for the elderly in a town whose rations were inadequate. They used food sent from America; soy meal, flour, sugar, honey, apple butter, canned beef and pork, beans, oatmeal, powdered milk and eggs, dried fruits or prunes, raisins & apricots. Buns were baked from the flour. Every morning, except Sunday, five large cauldrons of soup were cooked. Each senior in this large town received a litre each with a large quantity on Saturday (for Sunday). This program terminated at the end of 1948. As the economy improved in Germany, all feeding programs terminated. My husband then worked in the Refugee Camp. Since he was a Gospel Minister, he went alternately to five different camps to conduct devotional periods. All these people had suffered emotionally with fear, loss of home, starvation and separation. Many women knew their husbands, sons, and fathers had either been sent to work in Siberia under terrible conditions or were tortured and shot. These people all needed rehabilitation.

The camps were well organized by their own people with MCC assistance. As people who held responsible positions were eventually able to emigrate, replacements needed to be found. As camp matron, it was up to me to see that replacements were found. There were usually capable replacements. Besides this, it was up to me to escort patients to and from the Sanatorium as was required.

MCC had their own vehicles and there were a number of good drivers on call who were also responsible for the vehicle. Each camp had a house father, house mother, a camp nurse, who was any woman capable of doing first aid, cleaning personnel, teacher and room set aside for school where all children attended classes.

They had their main kitchen and cooks. Germany’s food was all rationed but MCC supplemented the food supply with canned food from America.

The young people, when well and able, were required to find jobs in the city. There were factories and most people found some work. This helped to support the camp.

This tells of our time in Europe after passing through Pier 21, Halifax, Canada. The memories we hold from these people and places are indelibly printed into our lives. When we left Europe we were different people as it were.

Our time in Europe came to a close in September, 1949. We returned by way of Holland, England and then we boarded the ship Mauritania to sail to New York, USA. The Mauritania is somewhat smaller than the Aquitania which we traveled on the year before en route to Europe. The Mauritania had two stacks where the Aquitania had three. They both were of the Cunard Star Line. From New York our travels took us back to our home in Manitoba, Canada.