Ep. 60 The happy part of the ending

Gerhard might have said his journey began the day he stepped off the train at the small Mennonite enclave of Yarrow, BC. Everything that had happened was merely prelude, now as a free man in a free country he could fashion a life. The past was the price of admission, of freedom, paid in full; the currency tragedy, torture, pain and horror, with a hefty surcharge of moral ambiguity. The time in the woods was a purifying respite from the time of war. The deep snow, the horses, the camaraderie of men of similar experience, put distance between himself and the things he had seen and done. He had been on the run for most of his life, as a Russian citizen and as a German soldier and as a traitor to Russia who could never return home and finally as a homeless immigrant in a strange land. His aspirations were chipped away bit by bit, he would never be an estate owner like his forefathers, he would never be a teacher, he would never be accepted in Russian society as an enemy of the state: in the last days of the war as he wandered westward through the smoking forests of Germany, his highest aspiration was simply to be permitted to live, echoing the wishes of the first Anabaptists of five centuries ago. Whatever was to come could not be worse than what he left behind. He was alive and in a free land. Maybe he could leave it all behind him now.

Yarrow waterways circa 1900

Wild Vedder River.

A generation before Gerhard stepped off the BC Electric commuter train on the Vancouver to Chilliwack run, Yarrow was barely inhabitable. The Vedder River and its various tributaries wandered carelessly about the valley floor emptying into a shallow, mosquito-infested water body known as Sumas Lake. Every spring the nearby Fraser River flooded tripling the size of the lake and forcing the Vedder river and other creeks to flow back upstream. By 1924 a canal diverted the Vedder from Sumas Lake back to the Fraser and pumping stations had drained the lake to produce 33,000 acres of dry land, now known as Sumas prairie.

Yarrow waterways

Tamed Vedder Canal.

Local land baron Chauncey Eckert extended generous terms to the penniless Russian Mennonites from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta who could no longer bear the cold. When one settler asked what was the least money required to constitute a legal transaction, Eckert replied “One dollar.” “I’m sorry,” said the settler, “I am not in possession of one dollar.” Eckert gave the man a dollar and completed the sale on credit.[1] The Mennonites rewarded Eckert’s trust and paid their dues; by 1938 2,000 Mennonites gathered to celebrate the community’s tenth anniversary.[2]

1940s Central Road looking west

Central Road, Yarrow, photo http://www.yarrowbc.ca

The Yarrow pioneers had built a village reminiscent of their villages in Russia. A broad central street lined with tidy homes on either side. The community even purchased 200 acres of land from the Meilicke brothers for a common pasture.[3] They built their own churches and schools. In the beginning they all worshipped together in a single church, but soon the single cell divided like paramecium in a petri dish and henceforth those who considered themselves Mennonite Brethren seldom worshipped with those who considered themselves General Conference Mennonites. Fifteen new businesses – three general stores, two woodworking and cabinet building shops, six gas stations, a butcher shop, a shoe repair shop, watch repair and jewelry store, a blacksmith, machine shop, general electric and farm implement premises[4]  – conducted their transactions in German, Low German and increasingly, in English.

Martens Motors credit Dennis Martens wwwyarrowbc

Martens’ Motors, photo http://www.yarrowbc.ca

At the dawn of World War Two, Yarrow Mennonites were quick to pledge allegiance to Canada, inviting RCMP, local police and leading citizens of the Fraser Valley and Vancouver to a meeting conducted in German with English interpreters: they called upon their centuries of non-resistance and martyrdom to advise officials of their devotion to the British Empire and “… would help Canada in any way possible” … “within the limitations of their religious faith, which faith forbids the bearing of arms.”[5] Apparently Rev. J. A. Harder, the religious leader of the community, was not aware of the Selbstschutz activities in Russia 20 years earlier, or had conveniently forgotten to mention that Mennonites will bear arms when their immediate well-being is at stake.

On April 27, 1942, Yarrow Mennonites exposed the sham of their pacifism voting 76 percent in favour of a nationwide plebiscite which made it easier for the federal government to enact conscription. Yarrow Mennonites strongly favoured conscription although the truth is most were afraid to take a stand since only 59 of the 375 people on the voters list cared to vote.

medals of Henry Ratzlaff Courtesy of Mennonite Historical Society

Henry Ratzlaff’s World War Two medals, photo http://www.yarrowbc.ca

It wasn’t just their objection to their military duties that bothered the surrounding populace, the rapid growth of the community also created tensions among the locals, who had lived on the mountainside above the whims of the flood waters since before the Mennonites arrived.

Meantime, in Vancouver, Tom Reid, Liberal MP for New Westminster said: “I think it’s a mistake to bring groups into Canada and settle them in groups. I don’t think we should allow Doukhobors, Mennonites or even Scots to come to this country if they are going to stick together in communities. I can take you today to parts of the Fraser Valley where English is never spoken. That’s not good enough.[6]

Chilliwack corn and hop farms

Cornfields and hops, photo: tedsphotographs.ca

Gerhard was blissfully unaware and focused on survival. He was still a penniless stranger among his own people, twenty years too late. The best land and the businesses were owned by earlier immigrants. His first real job in Canada was in the original beer-garden, the hop yards. In those days Mennonites did the work no one else wanted. Picking hops.[7] Picking tobacco. Picking strawberries. Picking raspberries.

GERHARD I would like to remark that the Lord was exceptionally good to me. I was exiled in 1934 for five years and often asked myself why me, why not my countrymen who are also German? But now it has worked in my favour because in 1937 all the men were exiled and only one of them has ever returned. The others are all dead and no one knows where they are.

 And so I began to consider a future since I was already 37 years old.

Gerhard’s friends and former colleagues in Germany were ecstatic for him that he had made it off the continent. S. Schwarz was likely a fellow soldier:[8]

 Thank God you are alive. I was speechless with joy when I found you were in Canada. How lucky you are. How did you do it?

Now the only bad thing is the loneliness and the yearning for our loved ones at home. That pain will last our whole lives. I had held on to the hope still to see my loved ones, but now I don’t think so.

Dear Gerhard, I thought about writing home but my aunt in the Russian Zone said I should not. And when you think about it, it’s no use – they can’t come here and I can’t go there. It would just make it worse for anyone who is still alive. Dear friend Gerhard, if I was to see them again, I would need great good luck, don’t you think?

Friedrich Treu was a childhood friend from Gerhard’s hometown:

In any case, my dear Gerhard, may I say thank God you went over so quickly. You have avoided all the bad things that will come our way in the new year. Darkness lies before us. Every day we question what will become of us; or what will become of us in Europe?

PS If you don’t have work, go to J.J. Wiebe, Box 85, Steinbach, Manitoba. He knows us well.[9]

His Nipigon Lake woodcutter friend Jacob Voth wrote to Gerhard in December 1948: “It is probably high time you took something under your wing, eh? All the boys are going ahead like Blücher[10] only you seem to be missing the boat, and for you it is high time. Enough now about our striving for our hopes.”[11]

Gerhard was the outsider in Yarrow; his buddy J. Regehr tried to encourage him: “I heard you are still a bachelor and that you have said you are the leftover one, written off. And now you write that it’s not so easy to get close to the young people there. If it was anyone else I’d believe it, but you are from your head to the soles of your feet G. Wall, and that’s who you’ll always be.”[12]

It must have been odd to arrive in this place in 1947. Gerhard, less than two years removed from the Wehrmacht with nothing to show for his service but his life, in a village of so-called pacifists where only one third of the military conscripts chose the conscientious objector option and two thirds served in a Canadian uniform.[13],[14] Many of the service men and women and alternate service corps would have returned to the village only months ahead of Gerhard.[15] How strange to imagine Mennonites fighting each other on opposite sides of the war.

GERHARD Then I went to Vancouver to earn better wages, I worked in a factory that made various articles like ladders of various lengths and ironing boards, but every Sunday I came back to Yarrow by street car. The line ran from Vancouver to Chilliwack and I went to church in Yarrow almost every weekend.

It was a long walk from Aunt Anna’s house to the church and the lady across the street, Justina Wiens, had a car. I asked her if we could get a ride to church. Her daughter Mary was a beautiful and decent girl and I fell in love with her. Mary worked in Vancouver in a hospital and as it happened, we went to church together.

When I was at Aunt Anna’s and the girls across the street were together with my cousin Sophie, I said to Aunt Anna: “I’m going across to the Wiens’s for a visit.” My aunt said: “There are no boys over there, it’s not fitting to go when there are just girls present.” So I had to pass that Sunday by myself.

In the evening I took the streetcar back to Vancouver. I got Mary’s address in Vancouver from Aunt Tina and wrote her a letter asking if we might meet.

 

1937 Abram and Justina.jpg

That’s 16-year-old Mary at the back left.

On January 9, 1949 28-year-old Mary answered:

Dear Mr. Wall, I will finally answer the letter you sent to me. I was really surprised to receive a letter from you. I am not good at writing letters, but since you expect it of me, I will do it to the best of my ability. (Namely I am not comfortable writing in German.)

 The Lord says in Psalm 143:10 ‘Teach me to do your will, for you are mine; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.’ I too want to put my ways in the hands of the master. He leads wonderfully.

If you still want to, we can be in correspondence. I must close now and wish you God’s blessing in the new year.

Greetings,

Mary Wiens

My address is: 5821 Cree Street, Van. B.C.

A second letter from Mary Wiens followed ten days later.

Dear Mr. Wall,

Will try to answer your letter. We have set aside the formal ‘you’ (Sie) and now we say the informal ‘you’ (Du). I wanted to write sooner, but I didn’t get to it (for me writing letters is a difficult task). If it suits you, I am inviting you for Friday evening. If you can’t make it, we can talk after church.

I live just two blocks from the church on Cree St. on the left side.

I work on Sunday during the day. I like my work, it’s not too busy. When you work with sick people, you realize that health is worth more than wealth. So I am glad God gave me pious parents instead of rich ones.

Mother is here now, going home on Friday.[16] Must close, goodbye.

 Your friend

Miss Mary Wiens

* * * * *

GERHARD We met at Mary’s brother-in-law’s house and we asked God to give us his blessing. After that we met each other in the church and on March 27, 1949 we had our big day.

I moved into Mary’s mother’s house and we rented her raspberry farm.

Sunday was our wedding and on Monday I went to work again in the hop yards.  I worked ten hours a day in the hop yards and earned 60 cents an hour. Mary pruned the raspberries and after work I’d hoe another row of raspberries. We were happy and felt blessed. Mary’s mother taught me a lot about raspberries – they are a lot of work. When it was rainy, no one wanted to pick and so the farm had its losses.

The next year we bought her farm and Mary’s mother stayed with us one more year before buying a house in Vancouver.

76020034.jpg

Mary was pregnant for four-and-a-half of the next six years and by 1964 they were raising a family of seven children.

Like many immigrants, Gerhard anglicized his name and was now known as George, and among the children’s names there was not a single hint of their eastern European heritage: Gerard Arthur, Walter John, Edwin Peter, Eleonore Margaret, David Harold, Linda Mary, Robert Henry.

GERHARD Since the farm already had a chicken barn, we tried to make a business of raising chickens. I worked at Henry Wiens’ sawmill for a couple of years until it went broke and closed, and then we started with the chickens. We tried with the old chicken barn that had been built by the father-in-law, but it was too much work to maintain, so we built a bigger barn and then the Lord blessed us with children. And so we were never short of work or worries – how will we make it, so deep in debt. There is a saying: If you’re not in debt, you’re not in business.
76040001.JPG

That clothesline was also a zip line.

Gerhard forged ahead with his new life and gradually it became a good life. The five-acre farm had a large garden, several varieties of apple, cherry, pear and plum trees, a raspberry patch, and enough pasture for a Holstein cow, often pregnant with a calf, and a pig, but it was the laying hens that paid the rent. At one point Gerhard had more than 20,000 hens producing eggs. The children worked in the barns collecting eggs morning and night and mucking out the manure on weekends. This life rolled along with its own momentum, lurching from expense to expense and egg cheque to egg cheque and Gerhard knew he was the luckiest man alive. The present was a wonderful place to be. No one wanted to kill him, he was a free man.

 

 

NOTES

[1] Baerg George G., A Brief History of Mennonites in British Columbia, Yarrow’s Pioneers and Settlers, http://www.yarrowbc.ca/pioneers/mennonitehistory.html, accessed May 28, 2018.

[2] The Chilliwack Progress, Wednesday, February 23, 1938, Thankful Mennonites Mark Anniversary of Settlement, http://www.yarrowbc.ca/settlers/settlers1936_45.html, accessed May 26, 2018.

[3] Epp Harder, Esther, A Chronology of Yarrow, B.C. at http://www.yarrowbc.ca/other/chronology.html, accessed May 25, 2018.

[4] The Chilliwack Progress, Wednesday, February 23, 1938, Thankful Mennonites Mark Anniversary of Settlement, http://www.yarrowbc.ca/settlers/settlers1936_45.html, accessed October 30, 2017

[5] The Chilliwack Progress, Fraser Valley Mennonites Pledge Loyalty to the Empire, September 27, 1939.

[6] The Chilliwack Progress December 4, 1946, Deny 2,000 Are Coming Here From Europe Mennonites Say Immigration Story “Wishful Thinking”, http://www.yarrowbc.ca/settlers/mccyarrow.html accessed May 24, 2018.

[7] For an excellent description of hop picking during this period read  Hop Season, an essay by Thelma Reimer Kauffman in Village of Unsettled Yearnings – Yarrow, British Columbia: Mennonite Promise, edited by Leonard N. Neufeldt, Horsdal & Schubart Publishers Ltd., Victoria, BC, 2002

[8] Letter from S. Schwarz to Gerhard Wall dated March 14, 1948

[9] Letter from Fredrich Treu to Gerhard Wall, dated January 2, 1948

[10] Named for Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the Prussian victor of the Battle of Waterloo, the second of five Admiral Hipper-class heavy cruisers of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine, The Blücher was the flagship for the force that was to seize Oslo, but was sunk in the attempt. Source:  https://www.wikiwand.com/en /German_cruiser_Blücher, accessed July 19, 2017

[11] Letter from Jacob Voth to Gerhard Wall dated December 24, 1948

[12] Letter from J. Regehr to Gerhard Wall, January 5, 1949

[13] Schmidt, Michael, Split Loyalties, Fraser Valley Mennonite Service in the Second World War, University of Fraser Valley History Project, 2011, http://app.ufv.ca/fvhistory/studentsites/wwII/ mennonitewwIIservice/militaryservice.html, accessed May 24, 2018.

[14] The Mennonite Menace – Real or Imagined, Mennonite War Effort: Mennonite Soldiers: Kelsey Siemens, 2011, http://app.ufv.ca/fvhistory/studentsites/wwII/mennonitemenace/page3.html, accessed May 26, 2018.

[15] Dyck, Harold J., Sawatsky, Marlene A., Yarrow’s Soldiers, essay in Village of Unsettled Yearnings – Yarrow, British Columbia: Mennonite Promise, Leonard Neufeldt ed., Horsdal & Schubart Publishers Ltd., Victoria, BC, 2002, page 102.

[16] Was this their first unsupervised date?

8 thoughts on “Ep. 60 The happy part of the ending

  1. Thank you Ed for the incredible amount of effort, thoughtfulness and wisdom you exhibited in your work of love. You have encouraged and inspired me as well of my children. Gerhard’s legacy will live on.
    I was hoping that you would also relate Gerhard’s equestrian proof when he showed you to saddle and handle the horse you traded your panel van for.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Dear Ed, Finally…a free man! Tearing up with this one…beautiful mother, amazing father! No wonder you are such a kind, humble person…it is their eyes!!

    Liked by 1 person

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