by Dan Conlin, Curator
One of the most compelling artifacts in our exhibition Refuge Canada is this desk set that contains a secret message for help.
This desk set was given to a Canadian Immigration Official by a family in Germany about 1946.
The official, Traugott Otto Francis Herzer, was in charge of immigration for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
He helped arrange ocean liner passage across the Atlantic for thousands of refugees and displaced persons in the years immediately after the Second World War.
He was given this desk set, which is a lovely handmade ornamental desk set designed to hold pens, and paper clips and ink bottles made of lovely wood veneer.
He was given it by a family in Germany but what’s really amazing is underneath the ink blotter is a secret message for help.
We’ve had it translated from the German and it essentially reads, “Dear. Dr. Herzer would it possible for God’s sake for you to arrange citizenship for me and my husband.
We’ll do anything. We’ll work on a farm. We’ll pay for our own steamship passage. Yours thankfully Maria and Nikolaus Reschke.”
Now from the research we’ve done on their names and some of the maker’s marks on the desk set, we believe them to be Black Sea Germans.
These were German farmers who were living around the Black Sea in Russia before the Second World War, and during the long fighting in the war, they fled to Germany.
At the end of the war, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, he wanted them back, he considered them traitors.
The Black Sea Germans were destined for the Gulag, the system of Soviet work camps in Siberia.
So the Reschkes, were, we believe, desperate to avoid this fate and were sending these secret messages for help to try to get sanctuary somewhere in the Western world.
Now what’s really sobering about this message is we don’t know what happened to the Reschkes.
In our research, we’ve been unable to find their names on the lists of anybody who came to Canada at that time. Most of the Black Sea Germans were in fact deported to Siberia.
It’s a real sobering thing to think about their fate.
The use of this message gives you an idea of the desperation, but also the determination and ingenuity that refugees often have to muster in their quest to find sanctuary and safety for themselves and their families.