Oma and Opa
How time has flown.
You’re seven years old now, and a big boy. I’ve always enjoyed interacting
with you, but I think that the times we share together now are extra special.
I love hearing about what is important in your life. Your curiosity
about the world around us allows us to talk about history, politics, science,
and religion. What a treasure is a young mind.
I’m forty-seven years
older than you. My father, your Opa, was almost that much older
than I. I loved my dad very much and miss him now that he’s gone.
I could never talk with him the way you and I can. He was always working
to support the family. Because he only attended school for several
months in his entire life, he didn’t know as much about some things as you
do already at your tender age. Still, I loved to hear about his life
as he grew up. He was born in 1904 in a German settlement in Poland.
As the first world war loomed in 1914, the Russian Czar shipped many Polish
Germans to Siberia. Opa's family travelled by train, in a cattle car,
with bales of straw as insulation against the cold. The trip took
six weeks, with numerous stops, sometimes for days at a time, between Poland
In 1917, the Communists
overthrew the Czar and forced their own abuses on Russia and eventually
on what came to be known as the Soviet Union. Years later, the German
Nazis started the second world war and invaded Poland. Because Opa’s
family had been allowed to return to Poland from Siberia after the first
world war, they suffered again. I never knew the two uncles who died
as a result of the war, nor my two brothers who died of cold and hunger
in January of 1945. My mom and dad got separated while fleeing the
advancing Russian army and she had the two boys in her care. They travelled
on foot through the winter snow for weeks, often sleeping outdoors. The
boys got sick and died in northern Germany. My mom and dad found each
other in July of 1945, shortly after I was born. Enough was enough.
We left for a hopefully better life in Canada in 1949. I was not quite
four years old.
How things have changed
since my dad was a boy. In Siberia, his family and dozens of other
displaced Germans, were dumped alongside a railroad track and were left
to fend for themselves. It was already October and it was cold. The men
trekked for miles trying to find some signs of civilization and thankfully
found a Mennonite settlement. The Mennonites took in all the hungry
people and fed and housed them until spring came. When the ground
thawed, each family built a one-room sod hut to live in. My dad, his
seven brothers and sisters and their parents, all lived in one such hut.
The brutally cold Siberian winters were endured by the heat of wood stoves
and candle light. The only reading material available to them was a German
bible. That’s how my dad learned to read. Every day he read
five chapters in the bible, a habit which he maintained until he died at
When we arrived in Canada
in May of 1949, my parents owed money to a farmer in Alberta who had paid
for their trip across the Atlantic in the S.S. Scythia, a ship of the Cunard
Lines. They were given a chicken coop as their new home. They
cleaned out the chicken droppings, put in a wood stove, and spent a very
cold Alberta winter waiting for spring, so my dad could go to work as a
field hand to pay off their sizeable debt. My brother Alfred, your
uncle, was born in November, and spent the first winter of his life in
that frigid place. I can still remember perpetual ice on the walls, several
inches thick at the floor, and tapering up as the air got warmer higher
Do you know what always
profoundly affected me, Zachary, as I grew up? Never once did I
hear my parents complain about the hardships they endured. They
faced each new problem as it arose, dealt with it as best they could, and
life went on. They made mistakes sometimes. Yes, even our parents
aren’t perfect, as you will discover soon enough through your experiences
with me. But whatever happened, as long as I lived at home, both my
mom and dad always tried to be fair and reasonable, and tried to teach me
to behave in the same way.
I don’t know if I can ever live up to the standards set by my parents, but I do try. I can only hope that when you get to be my age, you will love and respect me as much as I do my parents. My dad is gone now, but my mom is still with us, showing by example how we can live a rewarding life in a sometimes thankless world.