What's Your Story What's Your Story

'I knew things would be better': leaving 1940s war-torn Europe for Canada as a child

'We were going to a new land; we were going to have a new family.'

Canada 2017

November 06, 2017

Margarita Bruehler, age five in spring of 1943, in Vosnesensk, Ukraine, 'the only photo I have of myself from the U.S.S.R.'; and today. (Margarita Bruehler)

In 1943, Margarita Bruehler's family escaped communist Russia to cross many borders of war-torn Europe. They spent nine months living within Auschwitz as civilians before the war ended. Eventually they were able to make a crossing to Canada.

Throughout 2017, we're asking Canadians "What's your story?" Bruehler, of Vancouver, shares hers.

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'Our last camp [in Germany] was near the harbour of Bremenhaven. We boarded trains, arrived at the docks and 750 of us filed into the SS Marine Tiger bound for the promised land, Canada.' (Margarita Bruehler)

It was the 18th of October, 1948. We were aboard the ship.

I was filled with both dread and excitement. Dread because I had never been on a boat, let alone a ship. To a then seven-year-old girl, the thought of being afloat on all that water was terrifying.

As soon as we sailed into what I know now was the North Sea, we hit a storm. The ship heaved and rocked in gale force winds for several days and nights. At last, a calm ensued and the clouds lifted. Through the greyness we watched the disappearing cliffs of Dover and headed out to the Atlantic.

I remember passing through the Gulf Stream and the warm breezes. The ship, though dilapidated, held delights and surprises for the children, some of whom were my friends from the camps.

I had never had a real home before, so did not know what that meant, but I knew things would be better.

My biggest treat was to be able to buy peppermint chocolate patties for five cents in the concession with the little spending money allotted to the children. I had never tasted anything so delicious before. Oranges were also a new taste.

I spent many hours alone on the top deck watching the endless blue waves. I remember singing to myself, consumed with gratitude and hope. I sang Nearer My God to Thee, a hymn we had learned in one of the refugee camps. For the first time in my life, I felt an indescribable peace and well-being, a sense of lightness. Everything was going to be all right.

Before the journey, left: 'Autumn, 1944, Auschwitz, Poland. In front of house where [our] family was housed by the Nazis, within the parameters of the camp.' Right: Christmas 1944, Bruehler, six, with her brother and mother. (Margarita Bruehler)

We were going to a new land; we were going to have a new family. I had never had a real home before, so did not know what that meant, but I knew things would be better.

The days wore on. I was enthralled with what to me was absolute luxury compared to the camps. My mother and my brothers shared our very own private cabin. My father had been relegated to the men's quarters in the bowels of the ship. I don't remember the food specifically, but it was plentiful.

There were movies in the meeting hall at night. This was magical. I had only seen one movie before then, in post-war Germany.

'A train stop somewhere on journey from Halifax to Chilliwack.' (Margarita Bruehler)

On October 28, 1948, we spotted the grey outline of Halifax. The journey had taken 10 days. We disembarked wearily at Pier 21.

The immigration process took another two days. It was all a blur for me. We boarded the train for the magical place called Chilliwack, B.C.

My first memory of Canada is of the beautiful fall countryside of what was probably New Brunswick.

The train journey seemed long. We did not have berths. What sustained us was the excitement of getting nearer and nearer to our goal: relatives and a new home.

Slowly the world outside grew colder. It was the beginning of November. We came to a place called Winnipeg. The streets were covered with sheets of ice and snow was everywhere. When we changed trains we felt the first bite of a Canadian winter.

The last of our shipmates left the train in Saskatoon. What strange names! Now our little family of five was alone with the Canadian passengers who reassured us with non-understandable English and sign language that Chilliwack was a real and nice place. I felt comforted by their friendliness.

For the first time in my life I felt an indescribable peace and well-being... Everything was going to be all right.

We must have entered the Rockies at night, because when we awoke, it was a world of white wonder.

Dizzyingly high trestle bridges and steep snow-covered forests reminded me of the first winter train ride out of Ukraine five years before, but I had never before seen such high mountains. It was the Rogers Pass.

Eventually the snowy mountains gave way to a lush green valley. There were still remnants of the big Fraser River Flood from earlier that spring. Huge banks of silt lined the train tracks. Old wooden barns showed the high-water mark. At long last, on November 4th, 1948, mid-morning, we pulled into Chilliwack station.

'1949, Chilliwack, B.C. First formal family portrait of newly arrived refugee family.' (Margarita Bruehler)

Uncle Gerhard H. Penner, the husband of my mother's aunt, was at the station to meet this strange refugee family. He had come on his bicycle. We piled into a taxi with all our worldly possessions in two suitcases.

A few minutes later we were met by our Tante Tina, my mother's aunt, my second cousins Rhoda and Henry and their spaniel Charlie. They welcomed us into the safety of their open arms and hearts.

So began our new life.