Ep. 61 We may be through with the past …but the past is not through with us![1]

The Farm resized

Gerhard’s farm – it looks better than it smells.

This is where Gerhard let his story end. There was nothing more he wanted to say. The rest was self-evident. He melted into the Yarrow milieu, worked his farm and thirty years later sold it to his eldest sons and retired to suburban bliss in another Mennonite enclave, Clearbrook, BC. He supported every known humanitarian cause to the degree he was able and frequented blood donor clinics draining his entire blood supply eight times over. He upgraded his education and achieved Grade 10 equivalency although you would never know it to hear him speak. He kept up his garden and took up hobbies. He travelled Europe and North America and enjoyed a good life.

Gerhard also had another life separate from the farm. He had sisters and brothers who needed to be found and saved if possible. There were aunts and uncles, friends and friends of friends that needed help. He didn’t hide these facts particularly, and we weren’t particularly interested. Evenings he wrote his letters before bed, before his war-time demons came to visit. In the morning Mary would say the Russians were chasing him again. By day chicken farmer, by night rescuer of sisters and brothers and missing people. The letters he left behind reveal the story.

Lydias request

As soon as he landed in Canada, he immediately sought his family. In post-war Germany, sister Lydia was in dire straits, the letters barely cloaking her desperation.

LYDIA Dear brother, can I ask you for one more thing, don’t think poorly of us, but if it’s possible send us flour, fat, sugar, cocoa, coffee, rice, so we have something to eat. Things are very bad again. Everything is gone. I don’t know what to cook for the children, just potatoes and salt … The children are asking if this year they might have a cake for their birthdays. I told them they have to write their uncle Gerhard and ask for flour because here we get nothing …[2]

Lydia’s son Nick was 14 years old when he wrote to Gerhard but he asked not for flour but for bicycle tires.

Koenig's package requestGerhard sent packages to a Mrs. Helena Koenig in Berlin who would hold them until Lydia could retrieve them. Mrs. Koenig shared her heartache with Gerhard; just as her son Peter was recovering from tuberculosis, her daughter Trudy suffered a nervous breakdown, having witnessed the shooting of her father and sister in the same day:

HELENA KOENIG Now dear Mr. Wall, I would like to ask if there isn’t someone there, a family, that might send us a package, Trudy needs nourishment and also little Peter. If that’s not the case, then that is also fine. If it is too difficult for you to ask, then I understand that, and as you say, things are bound to get better here.[3]

eyes fill with tearsEven though Gerhard was on hard times, he couldn’t resist.

HELENA KOENIG My dear Gerhard, I read your letters over and over. How well you write. And you sent a package for us also, it brought me to tears. You have done so much for your dear sister and her children, I cannot expect you to help us as well. You have to look out for yourself.[4]

With winter coming and her husband Johann scheduled to be released from prisoner of war camp, it seemed Gerhard was Lydia’s last and only hope:

LYDIA Today I received a card from Johann. He is already in Fuerstenland near Berlin at the discharge camp and we plan to meet on the 24th in Berlin. What joy that will be. Only there won’t be enough food. Hopefully the packages arrive very soon. We will probably move, so if you are sending us something more it would be best to send it to Berlin.

The biggest worry now is Waldemar, … I have nothing to offer him. For the last two days Frau Ulrich has given him a little milk. He still hasn’t received his supplementary ration card, and it’s been four weeks since we requested it.

Dear brother have you already sent the wool? I really need it and Willi really needs a pair of shoes, size 36 or 37, and Waldemar could use a pair too, but he should write himself and ask.[5]

Two weeks later there was good news and bad news – Johann was out of prison, but he was another mouth to feed:

LYDIA With great joy I can report that Johann is here, but he hasn’t got anything. The clothes you sent could have been one size larger, and the shoes too, but they’ll do. The coat will be ready tomorrow, but we have no money. Johann is trying to find accommodation here in Berlin, hopefully he’ll get lucky. You must do everything you can to prepare the papers, we can’t hold out much longer.

… Johann is trying to arrange accommodations in Berlin, we can’t stay here. The room is cold and I’m dreading the winter. Probably we’ll still be here because you can’t find a place that quickly. When Johann finds a place, then everything will work out. There is just one thing I’d like to ask: if possible send us some fat, flour and sugar. If you have fat on your body, you won’t be cold. Since things are progressing slowly here, it’s very important that we have wool and socks for everyone. Willi needs long socks, size 8-9, and if you send something, send it to Mrs. Koenig.

Gerhard’s nephew Waldemar was 16 years old in 1948, Nikolaus 14 and Willi 11.

His first cousin Heinrich Lohrenz, who had emigrated to Paraguay, was also in need:

HEINRICH LOHRENZ We haven’t received your money yet, most likely it will arrive in a few days. Many thanks, promise me if you ever need anything you will write so that I can repay you. If it had been anyone else, I would never have written [and asked for money].[6]

The $20 money order Gerhard had posted over four months earlier still had not arrived.

There were other burdens for Gerhard such as getting Lydia and her husband Johann out of Germany. Johann wrote:

JOHANN BOROWSKI First of all I want to thank you for everything you have done for my family. I can never repay you. Only God in heaven can pay that to you. I didn’t want to go to where Lydia is. I’ve tried everything. I registered in the Ruhr province to go mining. If I am lucky, I’ll come to the West and emigrate with them to Canada. But that you would have to do from there (Canada). But how it would work if the family is there and I am here, I don’t know. I have thought a great deal about it, but we aren’t there yet. But if it doesn’t work for me, then I have no idea what I should do. I have no papers, …”[7]
Lydia and Johann and family

That’s Gerhard’s sister Lydia in the middle with her family. Gerhard and Mary at right.

Gerhard arranged visas for Lydia, Johann and the three boys and within a year they were living in a barn on the property Gerhard rented from his mother-in-law. Over the next fifteen years Gerhard found all three of his sisters, Sonja, Mariechen, Katja, and later also his brother Abram. They had been exiled to Kazakhstan. Only his father and brother Nikolai were still missing, and though he never stopped looking, Gerhard would never find them.

His siblings in Russia were also needy. He sent packages of food and clothing and other supplies to his sisters and others, so many that Mary sometimes wished she could have spent that money on her own children. It’s clear from the letters from the 1960s that Gerhard had become the sisters’ mail order retail store. Requests became specific, sizes and colours had to be correct. Wool material, ten metres, woolen jackets and suits, towels, bedspreads, a veil, a banderol, pillows. Sometimes jealousy flared when one sister received something better than another. Wall hangings and glass cutters, supposedly hot sellers on the black market; then for the children, denim jeans, and high-heeled shoes. The letters track the requests over more than twenty years, and Gerhard kept sending packages. And why not? He could afford it.

Soon it became clear the sisters did not like each other, one was too demanding another wasn’t a fastidious housekeeper. Poor Gerhard attempted to make peace by telling them to love each other, but there wasn’t anything to be done from across the ocean. It’s not easy to bring a torn-apart family together again after so many years.

Truly a large part of Gerhard’s heart remained in Europe and Russia. In 1975, 27 years after arriving in Canada, Gerhard applied for a pension to the West German government, presumably for his war-time service. His application was denied but Gerhard felt Germany still owed him something.

* * * * *

 

 

 

As time went on Gerhard began having difficulty forming sentences and relied on Mary to complete his thoughts. Gradually he spoke less and less. There was always something just on the tip of his tongue. At times he would walk too far from the house and forget his way home. So he kept walking until someone found him and brought him back. Once Gerhard taped photos of his parents to the siding of the house and then took photos of the photo. A disease was eating his brain from the inside: how else could he put those memories back in there?

abram-and-ljuba0002.jpg

Abram and wife Ljuba in 2015.

In 1990, Gerhard’s brother Abram wrote to Mary from Ust Kamenogorsk [49°58’32.02″N, 82°35’58.00″E]:

ABRAM Gerhard was the best of our family, we all loved him dearly. He was a good example to us and he was also our second father – what he said had to be done. And now he has to suffer and no one can help him.[8]

In a subsequent letter Abram describes meeting Gerhard in a dream.

ABRAM It was as if I was his guest. He was the teacher at our Kazakh school. He did not greet me in a friendly way and when I asked him why he said: “The headmaster is not pleased that you are here.”

In the dream, I spent the whole day with him, to describe it all would take far too long.[9]

When the police had to be called to find Gerhard, Mary locked the doors of their apartment so he couldn’t get out. A prisoner once more, he spent his days walking from door to door testing each one to see if there was freedom behind it.

Alzheimer’s disease relieved him of his demons, and his memories and speech also drifted away. He spent his last four years in a Mennonite residential care facility in Abbotsford, BC. Mary visited often, frequently shaving and feeding him. He sobbed a lot. Some days she thought he recognized her, other days his eyes were grey and dim. Toward the end he became stiff and bed-ridden, at last his strong body released him and he died of pneumonia on August 16, 1992 and was buried in the Maclure Road Mennonite Cemetery four days later.

 

NOTES

[1] From the movie Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999.

[2] Letter from Lydia (Wall) Borowski to Gerhard Wall, dated July 13, 1948.

[3] Letter from Helene Koenig to Gerhard Wall dated June 7, 1948

[4] Letter from Helene Koenig to Gerhard Wall dated August 15, 1948

[5] Letter from Lydia Borowski to Gerhard Wall, dated October 15, 1948.

[6] Letter from Heinrich Lohrenz to Gerhard Wall dated August 29, 1948.

[7] Undated letter #587 from Johann Borowski to Gerhard Wall.

[8] Letter from Abram Wall to Mary Wall, dated September 20, 1990.

[9] Letter from Abram Wall to Mary Wall, dated May 4, 1991.

3 thoughts on “Ep. 61 We may be through with the past …but the past is not through with us![1]

  1. Dear Ed, Oh my goodness! What an incredible force of a man…but not afraid to use the words.,,love one another…❤

    On Sun, Jun 17, 2018, 1:30 AM Gerhard’s Journey, wrote:

    > gerhardsjourney posted: ” This is where Gerhard let his story end. There > was nothing more he wanted to say. The rest was self-evident. He melted > into the Yarrow milieu, worked his farm and thirty years later sold it to > his eldest sons and retired to suburban bliss in another Men” >

    Liked by 1 person

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