Thursday 2 June 2011

Bon Voyage!

Fifty-six years ago today, a ship named the Castel Felice sailed down the Saint Lawrence and dropped anchor at Quebec City. An Italian boat, it was filled with Canadian immigrants from Europe including the Neumann family. Elfriede, a war widow, was fleeing communist East Germany with her two children, Irmgard and Manfred. Frau Neumann had nothing other than the clothes on her back and had borrowed the money to purchase the tickets for the voyage from her sister, Doris. Although she was a little bit sea sick on the trip, her children enjoyed themselves playing tennis and getting to know the other passengers on board.

Disembarking from the Castel Felice, the Neumann family stood at the dock and took in the magnificent view of the Chateau Frontenac. For Elfriede, it reminded her a bit of the Koenigsberg Castle she used to visit as a child in East Prussia, reduced to a smouldering ruins during World War II. Manfred, a young teenager, was introduced to his first chocolate bar, handed out by a Red Cross worker. He savoured the sweet delicacy, something rare in post-war Germany.

Making their way to the train station, the Neumann's soaked in the sunshine, remarking on how hot it was in Canada. Boarding the train to Toronto, they were relieved to be starting the final stretch of their journey. Young Manfred looked at the window, struck by all of the open spaces once they reached the countryside of Quebec. He was amazed by all of the church steeples and by how each driveway was filled with a very large automobile, in contrast to the small East German cars owned by a privileged few back home.

The train steamed into Toronto several hours later and they stepped on to the platform at Union Station. Struggling a bit to read the English signs, they managed to find their luggage and transfer to another train which would take them to Hamilton. The threesome settled into their seats and the train took them through town after town until they spotted a crystal blue lake surrounded by lush trees. This was most definitely the prettiest part of the trip. It was Cootes' Paradise, an inner pond on Lake Ontario.

A few minutes later, the train whistled as it lurched to a stop at the North End Station in Hamilton. The Neumann family retrieved their luggage one last time. They searched a sea of faces on the platform and smiled as they recognized Elfriede's sister, Doris, who had immigrated to Canada only a few years before. "Welcome to Canada!" Doris greeted them with her husband Ernst and five-year-old daughter Ursula, who was relieved that her cousins made it in one piece. Her first memory of Hamilton was of a train wreck that had taken place a couple of years before, only a few blocks from her home. She could still picture the train car turned on its side.

They piled into Ernst's vehicle and headed for the Schiemann house. Driving south through downtown, Elfriede noticed what looked like a mountain ahead of her. She commented: "This mountain doesn't look quite like the mountains that I lived near in Ruhla." Doris explained that it wasn't a mountain but rather the Niagara Escarpment. Regardless of its name, it was quite pretty, covered in greenery now that it was Spring.

As Ernst made a right hand turn off of Main Street,he announced: "This is our street." Elfriede saw the green and white sign "Liberty Street". How appropriate, she thought, that I escaped from East to West Germany to Canada and now I am going to live on Liberty Street. The car stopped outside of the house, its riders got out and one by one they walked into the house. Elfriede Neumann and her two children were now Canadians. God Bless Canada!

P.S. This post is dedicated to Elfriede Neumann, my husband Rob's Oma. She lived in Hamilton for forty years and then moved to Brantford for 10 years. She passed away on October 15, 2007. A wonderful mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, we were privileged to have known her and she enriched our lives immensely!

Photo below courtesy Museum Victoria.

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