Excerpt from the Introduction
Lies My Papa Told Me
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 memories inflate while good ones trickle away. Some get locked up in boxes to hide 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 stitch together the snippets of fabric, to explain why our family’s quilt is patched with faded swastikas. When I was a child growing up in Canada, I didn’t know what to call Adolph Hitler’s rotten fascist ideas as they wriggled in and out of my young world like maggots, borne as they were mostly from my German father’s mouth.
Much of what I’m writing about happened more than fifty years ago, so it’s been 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 leave out the hated swastika, that much I know. She says she has chosen to remember only the good things about being raised a hyphenated German-Canadian, even though Hitler's ghost hovered all around us when we were young. It is much easier to hide the unsavoury bits, I suppose. I can see that. My sister just wants to be proud of her German heritage.
But the ugly patches—the ones no one can be proud of—these are woven into our story. They remain real. And I needed to make sense of them so I could reclaim my identity as a German-Canadian, the person I have become. I can't just shake off the part about 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 hiding, forgetting, leaving out. Amnesia is too convenient. So it is all these years later, I feel compelled to come to grips with how the fascist dictator landed a leading role on the stage of our tale.
Most pieces of my story have disappeared into the sinking sands 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 to their graves all their experiences of living through the years of fascism and war.
But some memories remain. Here’s one of the first bits I can home in on. In early October 1957, twelve years after the Second World War ended and just when the Atlantic starts to roil and churn, 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 the museum at Pier 21 in Halifax (where most immigrants landed), that the Arosa Kulm was a converted First World War American troop carrier. The old tub was decommissioned 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 hopelessness of war and its aftermath, a tattered German Fatherland, food and housing shortages, and unemployment. My father was thirty-eight years old on the crossing. Half his life earlier, the man who would become my father had donned the steel-grey uniform of the Wehrmacht and fought alongside eighteen million ordinary German soldiers in the Second World War.
My mother was a schoolgirl of fifteen living in Westphalia when the war thundered into her world. She was a young woman of twenty-one when the guns fell silent and the Thousand Year Reich promised by the Nazis came crashing down. In the twelve years after Hitler killed himself in his bunker, my parents managed to meet, get married, and have three children before they cast off for Canada.
We chugged away from every living relative and dead ancestor, including the bones of my first-born brother Joachim, my uncle Günter who teased my sister and I and pulled my braids, and my mother’s uncle Theo, who'd 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. I don't have sharp memories of 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.
It's possible my mother, dressed in a fashionable warm tweed suit with wide lapels, blubbered into a white linen handkerchief and dabbed at tears while waving farewell to my Oma and Opa and her favourite uncle. Perhaps she directed my five-year-old sister and me to wave through the ship’s railing to our relatives dotted on the shore below.
Soon we were herded below deck into our stuffy sardine-can cabin with two wooden bunk beds. We spent the next eight days churning across the angry Atlantic, elbow to elbow with a boatload of other Germans anxious to escape the horrors and devastation of war-torn Europe, to start over in the land that promised milk and honey.
There's a black-and-white photo of us on the crossing, taken the only day the sea was calm enough for us to venture out on deck. My father is holding me by a shoulder, and my small, round face is scrunched into a scowl. His nerves are frayed and he has just slapped me with his broad hand after I dashed toward the ship’s railing, drawn by the swooshing wake.
My father did not have a strong stomach, so I faintly recall the sound of him retching into a bucket from his narrow lower bunk. Me recoiling from the the stench wafting from the tin pail.
All our worldly belongings—dark blue enamel pots and pans, puffy eiderdown comforters, a set of sturdy Solingen cutlery, a rectangular red tin box filled with black-and-white photos, a blond wooden shaving box—were crammed into two large rough-hewn wooden trunks my father cobbled together at my Oma and Opa's house, where we lived in cramped upstairs rooms.
Arriving so young, I had no memory whatsoever of the war and its traumas. But my parents dragged along their wartime phantoms, and these pushed their way as vague shapes into my consciousness. What I remember most vividly though, is the baggage my father carried. Adolph Hitler's and the Nazi Party's warped nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic ideology had cleaved itself deep inside my father's head. It was shaped by his place of birth and the turbulent times in which he lived. Soon, Hitler's rot would lurch out, all slanted and twisted, together with the pots and duvets, Solingen cutlery, and photos carried in our trunks. Here it would get stitched into the patchwork quilt we were to weave in our adopted country.
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