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Chapter 1

Mr. Hitler’s ghost arrives in Canada

It is peculiar how some memories stick with you and others recede into haze. Does the heart really magnify the good ones and shrink the bad? Or maybe it’s the opposite and the worst ones inflate while good ones trickle away. Some get locked up in boxes to blunt their sharp edges. Others get reshaped by new generations, like art restorers touching up a faded old painting.

I need to lay out the bits I remember from my family’s story, to try to stitch together the snippets of fabric, to explain why our family’s quilt is patched with faded swastikas slapped here and there. When I was a child growing up in Canada, I didn’t know what to call Mr. Hitler’s rotten fascist ideas as they popped in and out of my young world like maggots, mostly out of my German father’s mouth. I’m not calling him “Mr.” as a sign of high regard, that’s for sure.

Much of what I’m writing about happened more than fifty years ago, so it’s filtered through the ragged memory of my adult self. My sister Marianne, who is two years older, would tell a different version. Her quilt would surely leave out the hated symbol; that much I know. She says she has chosen to remember only the good things about being raised a hyphenated German-Canadian, even though Mr. Hitler bounced all around us growing up in Canada. It is much easier to close the door on the unsavoury bits, I can see that. My sister just wants to be proud of her German heritage.

But the smelly patches are woven into our story. As I got older and the parts no one can be proud of came into sharp focus, I needed to make sense of them so I could reclaim who I am, who I have become. I cannot just shake off the part about Mr. Hitler like something nasty you scrape off your shoe with a stick. As I reach back to discover where my family came from, I refuse to do this scraping, forgetting, leaving out. Amnesia is too convenient. All these years later, I feel compelled to come to grips with how the dictator landed a role smack dab on the stage of our tale.

Most pieces of my story have disappeared into the sinking sand of the past. All I have left are scraps and glimpses. Imagined scenes drawn from history books. The people who knew our whole story, my German parents, are long gone. They have taken all their experiences of living through the years of fascism and war into their graves.

Here’s one of the first bits I can home in on. In early October 1957, just when the Atlantic starts to roil like a bucking bronco, my father Heinrich, my mother Hildegard and my sister and I scrambled aboard the Arosa Kulm at Bremerhaven, Germany. My mother always called the ship we crossed over to Canada on “the old tub.” I guess she was right because I found out years later when visiting Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where most immigrants landed, that it was a converted First World War American troop carrier. The old tub was mothballed only two years after we stepped ashore, but not before it had hauled a tsunami of immigrants including us across the ocean to start new lives.

We left behind the tattered German Fatherland, the food and housing shortages and unemployment. We chugged away from every living relative and dead ancestor I had, including the bones of my first-born brother Joachim, my uncle Günter who teased me and pulled my braids, and my mother’s uncle Theo, who languished drooling in a mental hospital ever since he suffered shell shock in the First World War.

The crossing was two months shy of my fourth birthday, so I do not have clear memories of our actual departure. I don’t recall picking my way up a shaky metal ramp, clinging to the ship’s railing, seagulls shrieking overhead against a dull sky, fall dampness squeezing under my collar as the upturned faces and waving hands of my kin faded into specks and then vanished, the old country and my history along with them.

I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible my mother, dressed in a fashionable warm tweed suit with wide lapels, blubbered into a white linen handkerchief embroidered with tiny lilacs and dabbed at tears while waving farewell to my Oma and Opa and her favourite uncle. Perhaps my mother directed my five-year-old sister and me to wave through the ship’s railing to our relatives dotted on the shore below, Marianne clutching a doll with blond hair under one arm.

Or maybe it was pelting icy rain the day we sailed and we were herded below deck into our stuffy sardine-can cabin with two wooden bunk beds after a quick wave to my relations. We spent the next eight days churning across the angry Atlantic, elbow to elbow with a boatload of other Germans looking to shake off the war and start over in the land that promised milk and honey.

In one black-and-white photo snapped on the voyage the only day the sea was calm and we could venture out on deck, my father is holding me firmly by a shoulder, my small, round face scrunched into a scowl. Nerves frayed, he had just slapped me with his broad hand after I dashed toward the ship’s railing, drawn by the swooshing wake.

My father was 38 years old on the crossing. Half his life ago, the man who would become my father had donned the steel-grey uniform of the Wehrmacht and fought alongside millions of ordinary German soldiers in the war. Like millions of ordinary Germans, he fervently believed in everything Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party promised: a united German Volk, with more Lebensraum, living space, for all Germans. Jobs and prosperity! An end to the Jews’ meddling in the economy! World dominance for the superior Aryan race!

My mother was a schoolgirl of 15 living in Westphalia when the war thundered into her world. She was a young woman of 21 when the guns fell silent and the Thousand Year Reich came crashing down in a heap of disillusionment and defeat. In the twelve years after Mr. Hitler’s body lay decomposing in an unmarked grave, my parents managed to meet, get married and have three children before they cast off for Canada.

My father did not have a strong stomach, so mid-Atlantic he left half his guts in a bucket. The rest of us weren’t as seasick. I faintly recall the sound of him retching from his narrow lower bunk, the stench emanating from the tin pail.

All our worldly belongings—dark blue enamel pots and pans, fluffy eiderdown comforters, a sturdy set of Solingen cutlery, a rectangular red tin box brimming with black-and-white photos, a blonde wooden shaving box—were crammed into two large rough-hewn wooden trunks my father had cobbled together where we lived in upstairs rooms in my Oma and Opa Orf’s house.

Looking back, I see plainly that Mr. Hitler’s warped Nazi ideas had cleaved themselves deep inside my father’s head, shaped by his place of birth and the tangled times in which he lived. They crossed the Atlantic together with our possessions stuffed in the ship’s dank hold. If my mother agreed with those views, she didn’t broadcast the fact in Canada. I never heard her utter a word of praise for Mr. Hitler. Maybe she wanted to leave all that behind and write a fresh chapter for our family.

But the rot lurched out, all slanted and twisted, together with the pots and duvets, Solingen cutlery and family photos, and got stitched into the patchwork quilt we wove in our adopted country.

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