Many Pier 21 alumni endured great hardships before arriving in Canada. They have since embraced Canadian life and have contributed to it in many meaningful ways. A perfect example is Mary Majka.
Born in Poland in 1925 to a Czechoslovakian countess and a Polish school principal, Mary’s early days were passed in privilege and love. The death of her father plunged the family into poverty and began a devastating chain of events that would eventually see fourteen year-old Mary separated from her mother and brother and sent to a forced labour camp during the Second World War. After years of backbreaking work the war ended. Her mother found her working in the camp hospital and Mary began to piece her life back together. The first step would be continuing her education.
Mary chose to study medicine in Innsbruck, Austria where her future husband, Mike Majka, would be a fellow student. Rustic conditions at the school didn’t stop love from growing and the couple were married in 1948. In 1951 they began making plans to immigrate to Canada and on, August 22, 1951, a liberty ship brought them to Pier 21. The couple began their life in Canada (and their family) in Hamilton, Ontario. Mary decided not to practice medicine but instead to focus on her young family and mastering the English language. Never feeling completely accepted in Ontario, the Majkas decided to move once Mike’s medical career afforded them their pick of Canadian locations. “We picked New Brunswick quite by accident.” says Mary.
It was in New Brunswick that they would finally feel at home and it was there that Mary would begin her life’s work, saving wildlife environments, preserving historic sites, and educating Canadians about the natural world. Mary’s television show Have You Seen? ran from 1967 to 1974. Pier 21 General Manager Mary Tulle was growing up in New Brunswick during those years and says, “While most eight and nine year olds were sleeping or watching cartoons on Saturday mornings at 8:00 am, I was always waiting for the Mary Majkas show to start...Mary Majkas' nature show was a highlight every Saturday morning for me for years”.
In addition to her show Mary Majka joined the Atlantic chapter of the Canadian Society of Fish and Wildlife and lectured in schools and to special interest groups across the Maritimes. In 1968 she was honoured by an invitation to study at Maine’s Audubon Camp and by 1972 she and friend David Christie had established the New Brunswick Federation of Naturalists. She would make countless contributions to wildlife preservation and heritage trusts over the following years.
Mary Majka never forgot Pier 21 and her introduction to Canada, the country that she would grow to love and affectionately call her own. In 1999 she returned to the newly renovated shed on the Halifax waterfront. She says, “…we realized another dream when we took our 16-year old Polish foster child to visit the newly opened Pier 21 Immigration Museum in Halifax where we retraced the steps of our beginning in Canada… For thousands and thousands among us who passed through Pier 21 and did well in Canada, it stands as evidence that when you work hard and strive to fit in, your dreams can and do come true.”
This past August we were thrilled to welcome Mary Majka, her family and friends, back once again, this time to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of her arrival in Canada. It was an emotional day for her and for all in attendance. Mary Tulle was especially eager to visit with one of her girlhood heroes. Mary Majka’s anniversary celebration reinforced the significance of Pier 21 and the profound value of offering the shed’s alumni a place that they can return to for celebration and remembrance.
Mary Majka’s quotes were reproduced with the permission of Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and taken from her chapter on Mary Majka in the recently published People in Transition.