Immigration story of Fritz Spiess and Gunild Doerr (German immigrants)

Category: 
Culture : 
Country of Origin: 
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Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2017.290.1
Story Text: 

Fritz and I had known each other since our teens and he had lived with my family since 1946 after escaping from his home in the Russian zone after WW11.

What were the reasons for our wanting to leave Germany in 1951 and come to Canada, a country we knew very little about?
• We grew up in Hitler's “Third Reich”, which was to last a thousand years, but thankfully lasted only twelve.
• Even though we were young we watched with alarm how Germany became less and less a place we wanted to be.
• And after the war, did we want to live among people – some of whom had perpetrated such unspeakable crimes?

So while Fritz and I both apprenticed for our professions after 1945 we were already thinking about leaving Germany eventually. But where could we go? For all the countries that were a possibility immigrants needed a sponsor, which we did not have.
But all of a sudden in the spring of 1951, Canada had changed the policy of Enemy Alien Prohibition, which then allowed Germans to come to Canada. Canadian Immigration offices were opened in Germany. Karlsruhe, near Heidelberg where we lived had such an office.

We had obtained the Canadian application questionnaire in April and were invited to the Canadian Government Immigration Mission on Wednesday, 27th June, 1951.

We said knew absolutely nothing about Canada aside from the fact that the capital was Ottawa and there were two other cities on our atlas, Montreal and Vancouver.

However we did know about two esteemed personalities in the Canadian art world. Yusuf Karsh, the famous portrait photographer and Norman McLaren, of the Canadian National Film Board, famous for his epoch-making, brilliant animation films. We had seen the work of these artists at the American House in Heidelberg.

I should also mention that Fritz had lived in the British zone in 1945/6 in Varel, a little town which had the Canadian army as the occupation forces. We met many Canadian soldiers when he was taking their photographs and liked every one of them for their Canadian civility.

We went to our appointment with Canadian Immigration in Karlsruhe. We brought with us all the necessary documents: birth certificates, identification cards, de-Nazification documents (showing that we hadn't been party members), and Fritz brought a portfolio of his photographs. I can still see us sitting across the desk from the Immigration officer with an Italian name, answering all his questions while he looked through Fritz's portfolio, which contained portraits as well as industrial photographs.

Then he said to us, “Now, where would you like to settle in Canada?” to which promptly replied “Ottawa”. The officer asked us “Why Ottawa?” to which Fritz responded, “because Karsh lives there”. The officer then looked at Fritz and asked, “Do you want to give him competition?” Fritz did not know the word 'competition', but felt that “yes” sounded better than “no”. I was embarrassed, but didn't say anything. I knew Fritz's reason for wanting to go to Ottawa was actually that he was confident that he would get a job with Karsh as a re-toucher. Fritz was an excellent photo re-toucher, and, in fact, that is how he had gotten his job with Tita Binz, one of Germany's top portrait photographers of movie stars, who had settled in Heidelberg after the war. Tita Binz told Fritz about Karsh and his famous portraits, especially the one about Churchill without his cigar, which was taken during the war, when Churchill had come to Ottawa.

This is just some background information for the answer “Yes”. The bemused immigration officer lost no time convincing Fritz to abandon Ottawa and rather to set his sights on Toronto, which had a lot of industry and would be a much better starting place. That was certainly okay with us.

The interview was successful and we were advised to go to Toronto for which both of our professions would have suitable job opportunities.

Of course now we had to dissolve our businesses (dressmaking and photo studio), find and pay for ship passage, pack and ship our professional equipment. At that time we did not know anybody in Canada and we realized what an adventure we had embarked upon unmarried and at ages 25 and 26.

Only a couple of weeks before we left Germany in September we were lucky to meet an elderly couple from Toronto. They were originally from Mannheim (Germany), which they had left in 1938. They had come back to Germany to lay claim to their possessions, which had been taken away by the Nazis. It was very wonderful to meet this gracious couple who gave us very helpful advice on how to start a new life in Toronto. We learned the best way to go about getting a job, how to find accommodation, how much the streetcar costs etc. Etc. They said the motto, “Never complain and never compare” had stood them in good stead and so it did us!

When we came to the train station in Heidelberg to take the train to Genoa (Italy) where we were to board the boat, “we saw a huge truck – the size we had never encountered in Germany – with big bold letters saying, “CANADA DRY”. We had no idea that this is a soft drink, but thought it to be a good omen!

We arrived in Genoa and boarded the “Canto Bianca Mano”, together with other German and Italian emigrants. The voyage was relaxing after those recent hectic weeks. We arrived mid-morning on September 23rd 1951, disembarked and got our Immigration Document. We then identified our luggage which was brought to the CN train station right behind the Pier 21.

When I visited Pier 21 in 2007 with my daughter and grandchildren, I was given a golden sticker, because I was not only a visitor at the museum, but had actually arrived as an immigrant at Pier 21. A lady standing near to me saw the golden sticker and asked whether I might have been one of the immigrants she had helped as a volunteer. She was volunteering in the sixties whereas we had come in 1951 when there was really no help available to new arrivals. Quite often during our visit in 2007, I was asked by fellow visitors – seeing the golden sticker – what it was like to arrive at Pier 21 so long ago.

Before we boarded the train we found a little shop where we could find something to eat for the long train ride. We bought a loaf of “Wonder bread”, which to us tasted like cake and a pound of butter. We were only allowed $10 to bring into the country and we were glad that the bread and butter didn't make too deep a dent into our limited resources.

Then we found our seats on the train (the train fare had been purchased as part of the ship fare) on very spartan wooden benches. I spread out my fur coat and very soon the train would depart in the early evening. After a good night's sleep we admired the endless stretches of trees in gorgeous fall colours lining the side of the tracks. Once in a while a tiny house would appear. It certainly gave us an appreciation of the vastness of our new country.

After just a couple of days in Toronto we had already found jobs and were happy to have made the decision to come to Canada.

We will always remember that we came to Canada under the auspices of a strong Liberal Government under Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent (1948-57), who was still Prime Minister when we became Canadian Citizens on March 13 1957.

Fritz was a cameraman by this time and it was his camera team who covered the television campaign of the Liberals. It was a proud moment for him to be congratulated on his citizenship by the Prime Minister of our country during a photo shoot.

P.S. A footnote: As we know the Liberals lost to John Diefenbaker's Conservatives in 1957. Diefenbaker's campaign was coached by the very successful Joel Aldred, who used the new medium – Television – to the fullest advantage. Fritz remembered that the Liberals did not allow anything which would have enhanced their looks and performances. As an example: St. Laurent refused to have make-up applied, he felt it to be dishonest! His uneven suntan made him look old and may have cost him the election!