I realized as soon as I started writing these blogs that there are far more things I don’t know than those I do. There are big gaps in information – events and times that no one talked about, at least not in my hearing. There was an active conspiracy among the women on my mom’s side of our family to shelter the generation born in Canada from unpleasant facts. They coped by either squaring their shoulders and moving past them (my grandmother), or by internalizing them forever (my mom).
As a result, I have no idea how my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother actually got out of Hungary and into Germany, or what hardships they encountered along the way. It’s 600 km by car on modern highways. The nearest train stations existing today are Budapest, 150 km from their home town, and Passau, 30 km from their destination. I don’t remember ever hearing about, or seeing a picture of, a car in their town, and I don’t know if they had a horse and wagon, although it would not surprise me at all to learn that my grandmother could drive one.
I also don’t know why they picked their destination, although several other Nagyszekely families also ended up there. The town is on the Danube, not that far from the area where their ancestors had lived in the 1700’s, but that could just be a coincidence. EDIT: After publishing this post, I found documentation that indicated that Vilshofen was the location of a refugee camp (Pleinting 85).
Did they have savings? Money sewn into the linings of their coats? I can’t imagine. It certainly wasn’t a seller’s market when they left Hungary – I expect they pretty much abandoned the house and vineyards to whoever wanted them. My grandmother and her last husband went back to visit in the 1980’s. The house was still there, but no vineyard, and the village was full of “old people” – no children at all. Those left behind under Russian rule had collectively decided not to bring children into the world under the communist regime.
My great-grandmother was already considered to be an old lady, so she would have stayed home once they found a place to live in Pleinting. My grandmother found occasional work as a cook, maid and seamstress, and my mother helped by taking in laundry while going to school to learn English, and secretarial skills.
EDIT: Documentation for immigration help found after this blog entry was initially posted shows my mother working briefly in Frankfurt as a telephone operator, in between period of unemployment when she lived with her mother and grandmother. It also “rates” her language skills: fluent in reading, writing and speaking German and Hungarian, and speaking English “slightly”.
We had relatives already in Canada, who had gotten out of Hungary in the period between the two world wars. One of my grandmother’s first cousins, Katharina Holzapfel, had immigrated with her husband in 1937; their daughter, whose name was anglicized to Catherine, was only a year younger than my mom but had immigrated with them at only 9 years old, so was quite Canadian. They had a small dairy farm in Ontario, that I remember vividly because the barn was physically attached to the back of the house; you could go out the kitchen door, down a short hallway, and directly into the cow stalls! They sponsored another of my grandmother’s first cousins, Katharina Berg, (nee Holzapfel, and you’re seeing a pattern in first names here, right?) and her husband and son in the late 1930’s. By 1948 they owned a thriving tobacco farm in Paris Ontario. Unfortunately, under the rules of the time neither of those families were eligible to sponsor my mother, since she was further removed than a first cousin.
Not having a personal or Canadian refugee society sponsor my mother might never have made it to Canada, until some unexpected news arrived from distant relatives then living in Galt (now part of Cambridge, along with the former towns of Preston and Hespeler): Johann Neidert, mom’s father, was alive and living in Hamilton with his new wife and their son John. Her father was known as John now too, instead of Johann, was a Canadian citizen, and was eligible to sponsor his daughter – but she was a daughter he had no real interest in acknowledging. I’ll never know who guilted him into doing it. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he agreed to complete the paperwork.
Again I have no information about how they managed it, but somehow enough money was earned to get my mom to Bremen and pay for her passage to Canada. Her father may have done the paperwork, but he wasn’t financing anything.
The route from Pleinting to Bremerhaven, the port of Bremen, involved multiple trains. Mom was 21, alone, had never travelled without her mother, and had certainly never been on a ship before. I don’t know what she expected, but it probably wasn’t sleeping in bunkbeds stacked three high, in steerage, with 750 other passengers, in a German submarine tender ship that had been turned over to the Canadian Government and Canada Steamship Line and retrofitted to carry passengers. She often talked about the two week voyage: being seasick the entire time (thanks mom, looks like I got that from you), not being able to keep anything down except the one orange each day that a sympathetic crewman brought to a pretty, sick girl who spoke perfect English, and had no family to look after her.
Since her crossing was during the summer, the S.S. Beaverbrae was able to navigate down the St. Lawrence to Quebec City, instead of stopping in Halifax. After clearing immigration, mom boarded a train to Hamilton, armed with her stamped German passport, refugee application, and her father’s address. How her steamer trunk got on and off that train is a complete mystery to me, which makes me wonder if it really came over with mom, or later with her grandmother. At any rate, once she reached Hamilton her father met her at the station and took her back to his home overnight. The way mom always told it, in the morning he gave her $20 and the address of Mrs. Miller’s Boarding House in Galt. Why Galt? Mom later realized that there were lots of families from Nagyszekely settled there; people related to her on her father’s side of the family who she either didn’t know or didn’t remember. Whether he had reached out to any of them to take in his daughter was doubtful – he had been in Canada longer than most of them, had married a Canadian (Ethel Victoria McEwan, 14 years his junior) and – after all – was legally dead as far as his first family was concerned.
When I was young, the relatives that we socialized with most were from mom’s maternal line, but occasionally we would travel to Galt (usually for a funeral, less often for a wedding) and suddenly I’d be in the midst of adults with last names related to mom’s paternal side: Knoch and Koch, Heimbuch and Hamburger, Volk, and a whole slew of Neiderts. Hungarian was spoken there almost as much as German. Although my Dad spoke no Hungarian and needed mom or grandma to translate for him, he did speak beer and csabai (a spicy Hungarian dried sausage similar to chorizo), which was pretty much all you needed to hang around the men. All the women were Katharina, Elizabetha, Margareta, or Dorothea (usually in that order, from eldest to youngest in each family), and the men were all Johann, Heinrich, or Philip. My dad was the only “Willy” in the room (but wait until we get into HIS family tree!).
My mother never forgave her father for “rejecting” her a second time, and never saw him again after leaving him for Mrs. Miller’s. It was only when he died in 1961, when I was 5 years old, that I overheard the whole story for the first time, although it was repeated with great bitterness many times in the years to follow.
Mom wasn’t at the boarding house for long. She had places to go and things to do in order to fulfill the goal of bringing the rest of her family to Canada. There are more stories to come.