My parents wanted to leave Germany, hoping to find a home somewhere in North America. They had done all the necessary paperwork to emigrate to the U.S.A. All our papers were in order when we received a visit from an American Immigration official who questioned us. The vetting was intense because no one in North America wanted anyone who had been affiliated with the Nazi Party to infiltrate their land and perhaps disseminate the evil doctrine there which destroyed six million Jewish people. My father had not ever been politically involved so we passed with flying colours. We were told that we would hear from the Department of Immigration within the next six months.
Five months later, we received a letter of apology, stating the quota for immigration had been filled and we’d have to start proceedings all over again when a new quota was announced. My parents were very discouraged and shelved the whole idea of emigrating. The year was 1949.
In 1953, we heard Canada had opened its doors to a huge number of immigrants. My parents decided to once more try to leave Germany and proceeded with providing the reams of necessary paperwork.
At last we received a letter stating that our papers were in order and the Canadian authorities had accepted us for immigration to Canada. We had no idea where, in that vast land, someone had decided to sponsor us.
We had been living in a small village in northern Germany for the past eight years, after having fled our home in Poland, where my two sisters and I were born. My oldest sister Xenia had died some time after Hitler invaded Poland. My other sister, Annemarie, was married and would not be emigrating with us.
The Canadian government graciously lent us the money for our journey to an unknown destination. Times were difficult and it was impossible for us to raise the kind of money it would take to make such a long journey. My parents were told they had a whole year to repay the money.
“We need to give all your toys away before we leave for Bremen,” my father said. This greatly saddened me, but my father made me see the wisdom of such a sacrifice. He also suggested how much other young girls would appreciate receiving my gifts.
At one time I had been given clip-on roller skates by my sister’s father-in-law. His children, much older than I, used them long before the war. My father had made a wonderful dollhouse for me four Christmases previously. Another one of my treasures was a fantastic zither.
There is a story attached to my father purchasing this lovely instrument. New things were just not available only five years after the Second World War. Christmas was coming in four weeks and my father had bought a well-used doll for me. The purchase price for such a coveted gift was a certain sum of money, together with many food stamps. My parents sacrificed gladly to obtain such a wonderful gift for me.
When walking along a certain street, my father saw a sign in a store window that said the person wanting to sell a zither, together with approximately 50 song sheets, would like to have a doll plus a small amount of money, plus many food stamps in exchange. My father came home after work and discussed with my mother whether they could possibly afford to buy such an extravagant gift for me. They both agreed and when Christmas Eve arrived, I was the happiest child in the village.
Now the time had come for me to part with my much-loved treasures. My parents and I took each precious item, carefully carrying it to another child’s home in the village.
Having been forced to flee our home and leave all our possessions once before, made it comparatively easy for my parents to now leave everything again and trust the Lord God to take care of them wherever they would find themselves.
Excitement filled our hearts as we boarded the train to Bremen. Upon arrival, we were assigned to one room, together with another man and his wife. The five of us lived in those cramped quarters for the next four weeks.
There were several hundred families living in similar rooms throughout a huge complex made up of many dreary-looking, grey-stuccoed buildings.
The purpose for this gathering was to make certain none of us was diseased, or otherwise deemed unfit, to embark on the long journey ahead of crossing the Atlantic in one of the large immigrant ships.
Having passed all requirements, the time came for us to proceed to the port at Bremerhafen. Having never seen the ocean, I was awed by the expanse of water.
Written in huge letters on the side of the ship to which we were directed, was the name FAIRSEA. Together with hundreds of people, we walked up a ramp, at the top of which we were greeted by officials, who looked closely at our papers and directed us to a large room where ship’s personnel assigned each of us to a designated space.
My mother and I were shown to a huge room deep in the bowels of the ship and were each assigned a hammock. This is where we were allowed to keep our personal possessions for the duration of the voyage.
My father was taken to a different location. This room was designated to be occupied by single men, and those men whose families consisted of four or less people. Families of more than four were allowed to occupy a whole stateroom.
Some time later in the day, we went on deck. What a sight! There were hundreds of people on the dock below. Many were holding one end of paper streamers while the ones on deck held onto the other ends. People, both on deck and on the dock below, wept openly while yelling parting words to each other. A band played heart-wrenching melodies about how sweet our home is and how sad to be leaving it and those we love.
At last the ship’s siren sounded and we slowly pulled away from the dock. One after another of the paper ribbons tore, leaving bits of paper in the hands of those on deck and those left behind on the dock. We stood at the railing, watching as people on land seemingly became smaller and smaller, and buildings finally faded from sight.
Our hearts were heavy. Travel was not common as it is today and no one knew if we would ever see our loved ones again.
My mother came and put her arm around me, saying: “take a good look at the land we are leaving behind because you may never see Europe again.”
Now began the daily routine of standing in line for meals and finding things to occupy our time for the next nine days.
The following day was a Saturday. My father and several other men met and discussed where we would meet for a service on Sunday. They also made decisions who would preach because there was no pastor on board. A man, who later became a friend of our family, offered to preach and my father would sing a solo and also lead the congregational singing. There were approximately 40 people who participated in this service. The main theme was one of thanksgiving to the Lord, while prayers were offered for safety on the sometimes treacherous crossing.
Atlantic storms can be fierce and devastating. Waves, the size of houses crashed against our vessel. No one was allowed on deck for several days. The dining room was all but empty as one passenger after another succumbed to being seasick. My mother and I continued to appear for meals, while my father remained in his hammock where we visited him. His skin took on the hue of limes as his body became very thin.
Icebergs were sighted and we were told by the ship’s personnel the amount of visible ice was surely less than half of what lay beneath the water. We could easily envision the reality of the Titanic, that almost 50 years before had struck such an iceberg and tragically sunk beneath huge waves, leaving 1,500 people dead.
Nine days later, excitement became almost tangible as land was sighted. Anticipation of the next phase of our great adventure filled us all.
Part 2 Next Month.
(Christa Stegemann is a Saltair resident and frequent traveler/adventurer).