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Submitted by:
Elizabeth Heinz, Nanaimo, BC
24 August 2015

For the past 120 years, my extended family has had the privilege of blazing a trail to and from Pier 21. Whether it was to find refuge as new immigrants, depart for military service, visit for pleasure or pilgrimage; the iconic Pier continues to have a key role in our family story.

My people were part of the large and widespread ethnic group referred to as the ‘Germans from Russia’. These were German speaking people who migrated to Russia by the thousands during difficult times in the German states during the 18th century. They came at the invitation of the Russian government which was seeking settlers and made attractive promises to such newcomers. However the Russian Czars of that period reneged on promises their predecessors had made to first attract settlers. This was also during the time when both Canada and the US had enacted Homestead Acts offering land to any settlers willing to live and make improvements on the land. This culmination of events in the late 1800s and turn of the century lured settlers by the thousands from Russia as well as many other countries.

My great-grandmother, Justina Flaig, fled Bessarabia after the Russian revolution in 1905. She arrived in Canada at Pier 21 as a young widow with 5 young children, including my grandfather Emmanuel.

Meanwhile, in 1907 my great-grandparents Edward and Helen Ruff left a tumultuous Crimea with their four children, including my grandmother Rose. They arrived via New York City and then north to Canada.

old portrait of man and woman

Helen (Gittel) and Edward Ruff, circa 1890

The two families travelled cross-country by train and settled in Hilda, Alberta. Edward established a blacksmith shop in the prairie town. His shop was a fascinating place. The sight of the white hot metal, sounds of hissing steam, ringing of the hammer striking the anvil, the smell of the coal forge all made for great entertainment. The local children were always welcome to gather in the doorway and watch the action from a safe distance.

Emmanuel, as a young 16-year-old, helped build the Canadian National Railway through southern Alberta. A railway that helps connect the whole country – to Pier 21.

old portrait of man and woman

Rose (Ruff) and Emmanuel Flaig, circa 1933

Rose and Emmanuel Flaig married in 1921 and had 4 children; Ray, Lloyd, Bertie and my mother, Ida, born in Hilda in 1923.

Ida married William Heinz in 1947. His grandparents were also part of the wave of ‘Germans from Russia’ in the late 1800s having first settled in Nebraska then north to the Hilda, Alberta area where William and his five siblings Elroy, Ella, Harry, Edna and Herb were born to John Heinz and Lydia Lehr.

During WWII, the four Heinz siblings who were of age voluntarily joined up and all shipped out - via Pier 21 - to serve in the UK or Europe. The three brothers served with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and their sister Ella with the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

William had a very horrific start to the war while still on Canadian soil. On Dec 27, 1942 his troop train was travelling from Western Canada to Halifax, Pier 21 to embark on their troop ship to the UK. At 8pm that winter night he was shaving in the tiny washroom aboard the train. Near Almonte, Ontario, their 13-car troop train thundered straight into the back of a parked passenger train resulting in one of the worst train disasters in Canadian history. Upon impact he gouged himself badly with his shaving razor. He and his fellow soldiers spent the next days combing through the mountains of twisted wreckage, assisting with the rescue and recovery of the 39 dead and 150 injured. Today, there is a monument in Almonte, honouring the dedication and heroism of those who did their utmost and responded that night.

As a result of the tragic delay, they were overdue arriving in Halifax and went directly from the troop train - through Pier 21 - onto their ship. This prairie boy had been looking forward to his very first glimpse of the ocean -- and a chance to dip his finger in the water to taste how salty it actually was. That small pleasure would have to wait.

On June 6, 1944 William was part of the D-Day invasion force with the 47th Canadian Infantry, landing on Juno Beach the morning of his 23rd birthday. As he drove his transport truck off of the landing craft onto the beachhead, he catapulted directly into a huge bomb crater and sunk like a stone. Frantically he struggled to exit his submerged truck, and then made several attempts to surface while desperately trying to shed some of his 100+ lbs of combat gear. A non-swimmer, he finally surfaced, thrashing wildly and gasping for air only to be choked by all the blood, fuel and debris in the (salt) water as he ducked the shells, bullets and bombs overhead. Happy birthday.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, Rose Flaig and a beloved school teacher, Mrs. Montgomery (who had taught all 4 Heinz children, now serving overseas) organized Red Cross work bees in Rose’s home where all the local women and girls gathered to assist. Throughout the small farmhouse, kitchen counter and dining table were bolts of fabric that were sewn into pajamas, pneumonia prevention vests, bandages, slings and other invaluable comfort items for the troops. Their handiwork was then bundled up and sent to Medicine Hat and transported via train across the country to be loaded onto ships – at Pier 21 – and sent to the front lines.

Click each image to see the full size photo.

There were several occasions during the 3+ years that the four Heinz siblings were deployed that they were able to meet up with each other while on leave in the UK and also in Germany when the war ended. What joyous reunions those were! They each returned to Canada - via Pier 21. Back home to Canada safe and sound, at least physically. They never spoke much about the war, and if they did it was to share a funny story or anecdote about the lighter side of their experience. They each went on to lead full, productive lives; married and raised families of their own. Among other things, my father and his brothers helped to build the Trans-Canada Highway through southern Alberta. A highway that helps connect the whole country – to Pier 21.

It is a very humbling experience to visit the Pier. As troops or immigrants, one can only imagine how daunting it would have been to embark on a ship not knowing if or when they would ever return to their homeland. One of the last buildings they would have seen when departing Canada and one of the first coming into view sailing into Canada whether returning home or arriving for the first time, would have been beloved Pier 21, a beacon for the soul. Oh, the tears, fears and cheers - in both directions.

To acknowledge the service and sacrifice of my Dad and his siblings, we purchased plaques for them for the WWII Wall of Service at Pier 21. Also, this fall after making a trans-Atlantic ocean pilgrimage of my own, plaques for my grandparents will be installed on the Sobey Wall of Honour when I arrive at the Pier. To acknowledge the grit and fortitude they showed in coming to Canada to start over from scratch and help build this nation during very tough times. We owe those who came through the Pier so much for our freedom and our proud Canadian history. As the saying goes, we are all immigrants with varying levels of seniority – a powerful statement that shows just how much we all have in common.

young woman in front of plaques on a wall

Elizabeth Heinz
Wall of Service
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

As a Canadian, as a member of the global village, it’s a privilege to support Pier 21 by honouring those who came before me. Those who blazed the trail for us to have landed in this country. Those who helped build this nation. Those who fought and served to keep Canada strong and free.