Episode 74 – From Holtum Geest to Canada

Today Holtum Geest is a beautiful little semi-rural village of about 800 people, between Bremen and Hannover, in the District of Verden an der Aller, in the province of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony). The town dates back to the year 935 A.D. It has seen and survived many, many changes, yet remains a place of traditions. My cousin Helga (aunt Lydia’s daughter) and her husband still live in Holtum, but the story of how they ended up living there goes back to the Mandau family’s arrival as refugees in 1945.

Between 1945 and 1949 Lower Saxony was part of the British zone of occupation. Refugees from the former Prussian provinces of East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia (all now part of Poland)) settled in and around the town. Refugee/displaced families like my dad’s effectively doubled the population of Holtum in the late 1940’s, which must have put a significant strain on the village’s inhabitants and resources.

I have a very few family pictures from that time, but not many stories to go with them. My grandparents arrived in Germany as “old people”, so would not necessarily have been expected to work. I don’t know how they paid for their food and lodging. Were they able to bring money out of Poland? Would it have been worth anything? Did they have jewelry to sell? Did they sell their horses and wagons? So many questions…. and no answers. My aunts certainly would have done either domestic or farm work. I think that might be how my aunt Lydia met her future husband; what I do remember hearing is that her mother-in-law was not impressed with a displaced person for a daughter-in-law.

Dad worked at least for a time cutting trees, but for much longer as a labourer in the village grist mill. When Ted and I visited Holtum Geest in 2016 we could not tour the mill, since it is now on private property, but it had been fairly recently restored and was in the process of being designated a local historic site.

The (refurbished) mill in Holtum Geest as it looked in 2014. Now it’s a piece of history, but in the 1940’s it was a working gristmill.

EDIT: (Information from my Aunt Martha, received after posting the original blog entry) Having reached Germany in March of 1945, the family was assigned lodging in Holtum Geest, where residents were not given any choice but to take arriving refugees into their homes. Not everyone was thrilled to be billeting “foreigners”, and all able-bodied refugees were assigned work in return for their room and board being paid by the government. The family was able to be housed together near the Norden Mill (pictured above). Dad worked for a while at the mill, and later doing construction in Verden, the main town nearby. Martha worked, and lived during her employment, at a farm near the burgermeister’s home. Lydia worked as a housekeeper/au pair at a home in Verden, and later as a cleaning lady in the British Army offices.

It seems that by 1950 there was less work available for the growing refugee population. There was some suggestion that dad was going to be relocated to work in a coal mine (perhaps the Zollverein mine in Essen?). That prospect resulted in the decision to emigrate to Canada, along with his sister Martha. They were sponsored by their half-sisters Augusta and Amalia Nickels, who, having emigrated earlier with the help of the Nickels family’s connections to Canadian Mennonite organizations were settled in the Leamington/Kingsville Ontario area.

From left: Heinrich Thies (who later became Lydia’s husband), Lydia Mandau, Martha Mandau, and Wilhelm Mandau (my dad). Circa 1950 in Holtum Geest, Germany.
Dad in Holtum 1950 (21 years old). He appreciated a well-made suit even as a young man. In all the years I knew my Dad, no matter how tight finances were, he always had one new good suit (with a second pair of pants) custom-made about every 3-4 years by an Italian tailor in Hamilton. It came out on the Saturday nights that he and mom went dancing, and on Sunday mornings for church.
The Mandau family circa 1950. Front row: Oma Emilie and Opa Wilhelm. Back row: Aunt Lydia, Dad, Aunt Martha. This is the last family portrait before Dad and Martha left for Canada. My grandmother is just 60 in this picture – multiple children and years of wartime stress (plus, from everything I’ve heard, the stress of being my grandfather’s wife) made her look much older. My grandfather is 76; like my dad, he aged well.

By July 1951, dad and Martha were in Bremen, ready to board the SS Beaverbrae (the same ship that had brought my mom to Canada), with their documentation verifying their status as “displaced persons”.

On July 12th, Martha wrote a postcard on their behalf to Lydia.

Addressed to: Miss Lydia Mandau, at Number 84 in Holtum Geest, in the District of Verden on the Aller

Dated at Bremen on 12 July 1951

Dear Lydia!

First, we want to make you aware of (the appearance of) our little ship. Next, Willy would really like to have 100 cigarettes. Could you find those for him? Please come on Sunday afternoon. We will wait for you at the train station. It would be nice if you could stay until Monday. We leave here at 8:30 on Monday via buses. There are many people here from our corner (of the world). Everyone speaks Platt (a local dialect). Edmund (a cousin) will probably also stay over on Sunday, otherwise they will touch base with you. Greetings, Martha.

Martha and dad posing on the ship’s stairway. Access to the deck behind them is labelled as prohibited (verboten).

My aunt Lydia had saved this postcard among her keepsakes for 65 years, and showed it to us as we sat around her kitchen table in Holtum in the summer of 2016, drinking coffee and eating her wonderful plum cake. Dad had been gone from us for 10 years by then, but I didn’t need to ask him in person why he’d wanted those 100 cigarettes. He was ALWAYS a schmoozer, and cigarettes were better currency than Deutschmarks at that time. Those cigarettes, carefully doled out, would have made him friends among the other passengers and, more importantly, among the crew. Plus, even before the years of his pack-a-day habit, he would have needed some himself on a 2 week voyage.

By all accounts, Dad’s crossing was much smoother than my mom’s had been, although having grown up on a river he was also much more comfortable on and around water.

The siblings arrived in Leamington in time for the tomato harvest, speaking no English at all, but welcomed by family members who were ready and willing to get them started in their new lives.

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