June 9, 1922 - February 11, 2020
My Opa Hans was born in 1922 on his family farm in what was then northeast Germany. The area is referred to as Pomerania and the nearest village was Altjaershagen. The youngest of 5 brothers, his parents Wilhelmine and Friedrich were farmers and his father also served double duty as the town mayor. They had land, crops and animals including horses to plow the fields and tow their sleigh in winter. Even though he was only a young boy at the time Opa remembered the political campaigns that brought the Nazis to power, and he often quoted his father as saying “if Hitler is ever elected that will be the end of Germany.”
Unfortunately Hitler was elected and in time all 5 brothers (Ernst, Fritz, Kurt, Ewald and Opa) were recruited into the military. Opa was assigned to the Navy as a cook on a supply ship that traveled back and forth between Italy and North Africa running supplies for Rommel’s army. He sometimes recalled the poverty he witnessed in Sicily and the letters he used to send home to his parents. Opa was lucky. While his brothers were all killed on the eastern front (one apparently within miles of Moscow) he was captured in 1943 and taken as an American prisoner of war.
Put on a boat that traveled from Morocco to New York City he recalled seeing the Statue of Liberty and the greeting the POWs received when they arrived. American caricatures that were part of the war effort had vilified Nazis as devils with horns and tails, but when they exited the boat he recalled hearing onlookers say of the soldiers “those are not Nazis. They’re Germans.” His group of POWs were sent to camps in Alabama. Opa started at Aliceville, and was later transferred to Fort Rucker. Opa said they were treated very well there, and he quoted FDR who apparently had said that “the first 100,000 German POWs will be my guest.”
In the POW camps Opa was put to work in kitchen. There he mastered a mixing machine that brought sugar, flour and other ingredients together to make bread, cakes and pastries. He also learned to speak fluent English. When the war ended Opa was sent to the English countryside where he had to spend an additional year there as part of reparations. He was lucky again. Some of his fellow POWs were sent to France and died there in coal mines.
When he was finally released in 1946 he had no home to return to. The area where he had grown up, where his family had lived, had been given to Poland after the war and his parents had been forced to leave as refugees with only what items they could carry. According to Opa his mother had died of a broken heart, but his much beloved father had settled in Walheim, near Aachen. Opa was able to locate his father with the help of the Red Cross. After joining his father Opa got a job as a street car driver.
It was there that he met the love of his life, my Oma, Elizabeth. She would sometimes ride his street car to work and he was smitten. He eventually summoned the courage to speak with her and eventually they dated and decided to marry.
However Opa did not want to stay in Germany. Times were tough and he dreamed of returning to North America. Canada was an attractive option as they had vast amounts of land and were looking for people to populate it with. Opa booked passage on a boat across the Atlantic with the plan of finding a job, establishing a home and then sending for Elizabeth and my mom who was then a young school age girl.
Opa had been given a train ticket by the Canadian immigration authorities to travel from Montreal (where the boat was to dock) to Winnipeg. However, all across the Atlantic voyage other passengers had been advising Opa not to go to Winnipeg, that it was very cold there, and that he should instead consider Toronto. Once on the train, when it stopped as scheduled in Toronto, Opa simply decided to step off.
In Toronto Opa quickly found lodging and then a job at the A&P bakery. Ironically, his work in the POW camp in Alabama on the mixing machine had earned him a certificate of competency for this device. Now 10 years later, that certificate was instrumental in landing him a prime position at the A&P as a mixer on the exact same type of machines.
Within a short time period Opa sent for my Oma and my mom. Opa eventually earned enough money to afford a beautiful apartment on the top floor of a building at 45 Gulliver Road that had a big balcony and overlooked a park. He moved into that apartment in 1965 and stayed there for the rest of his life.
Because of that fateful decision to step off the train in Toronto my mother met my father, also a European immigrant, who was working as a life guard on Centre Island. My parents fell in love, eventually got married and I was the product of their union.
Opa was only 47 years old when I was born. As a kid I remember the big white car he used to drive with my grandmother (she called their Polaris) and how neatly they kept everything. They had an antique German radio in their spare bedroom, many pictures on the walls and beautiful furniture. Because of the radio when I was a young child I used to call him Opa La La.
Opa worked the night shift so that he could spend more time at home with my Oma. She would let him sleep a few hours in the morning when he returned home and then they would have a long breakfast/lunch together at the dining room table, perhaps do some errands in the afternoon and then have an early dinner. She would wake up with him around midnight so that he could prepare for work, and then they would repeat it all the next day. Opa stayed working with the A&P until his retirement at age 65 in 1987.
Opa was an excellent cook. He was particularly admired for his pork chops and poppy seed cake but I also remember with fondness his famous iced tea and open faced sandwiches with liverwurst and pickle. When I was around 10 years old I became interested in little league baseball. Even though Opa had never played he was very keen to help and so in the summers when I visited them in Toronto we would go the baseball field of the park in front of their building and practice hitting and catching. With one arm Opa would try to hit me the baseball and I would practice my outfielder skills catching it. When it was my turn Opa would catch the ball with his strong, bare hands.
Oma and Opa loved to travel. Many times they would take me on excursions in Polaris around Ontario. We visited Niagara Falls, native Indian reserves, museums and art galleries. On their own they travelled extensively in the U.S most often to visit my great, great uncle, Fritz, in Dayton Ohio, his daughter Sandra and her husband Kit in Abbeville, Louisiana my great uncle Wolf in San Antonia, Texas. They also frequently came by plane to visit us in California.
In California my Opa loved to be outside in the garden. He would spend hours each day in his bathing suit and sandals watering the lawn, the flowers, the bushes and the fruit trees. He loved sunbathing by the pool and would always develop an extraordinary bronze tan. Even into his 80s his body was solid, muscular and strong.
Although quiet by nature both Oma and Opa were quite the conversationalists one on one. I recall many times in California and Toronto sitting at the table chatting about one thing or another. They were always most inquisitive, curious to know what I was thinking about, how I was doing.
Sadly, in 1991 tragedy found them. My grandmother was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. Because it was so advanced there was little that could be done. Within a year she was dead, leaving us just a few weeks before I started medical school in Montreal.
Although statistics say that most married men die within a year of their spouse, Opa found the strength to live on. He adapted to being alone in his apartment, and continued to travel frequently to California, Dayton and Abbeville.
For many years he spent the winter months in California and would return again for a month or two in the summer. Until well into his 90s he was able to travel independently. He was very close with my mom, especially after my Oma died in 1991 and even more so after my father died in 2009. When not together, he and my mom would call each other twice a day to make sure they were OK.
He loved to play the lottery although he almost never won anything. For a time he kept log books of all the winning numbers, searching for patterns and trying to figure out what numbers to play next. Most everyone told him the odds of winning were awful but he always said that “if you don’t have a ticket you don’t have a chance.” Had he won his dream had been to buy a Cadillac. Later, his dream car switched to a Mercedes.
Opa was always very proud of his home and even in his last years when both his mobility and judgement were compromised he was steadfast in his desire to remain independent, and living in his apartment. He kept remarkably good care of his things. The refrigerator and stove in his apartment are the originals that he purchased back in the 1950s.
When I think of Opa now I see a man who lived an extraordinary life. From a family farm and a loving family he lost almost everything to the war and had to start over. But he found the will to persevere and was able to establish a new life with a new family in Canada. Many small decisions along the way were life altering… learning a skill in a POW camp, asking a woman on a street car for a date, stepping off a train in Toronto. All of these small things had extraordinary consequences for him and made all of us the richer for it.
And so we celebrate his long, unexpected journey. As one of our family friends put is so well, “don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Opa was the most loving, kind husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather and friend that anyone could have wished for. His trademark was his harmonica which he played for all our birthdays. He was also never without candies in his pocket to share! He will be missed more than he will ever know by family and friends alike.
His long healthy life of 97 years and 7 months was guided by a lucky star.
He will remain our guiding light as we look toward the heavens for his wisdom. One of his favorite phrases was “Enjoy today because we never know what tomorrow brings.” So true. May he rest in peace.
Opa is survived by his daughter Gabriele, grandson Neal and wife Sophia, great grandchildren Alexandre, Ian, Nadia, Anais and Maia, cousins Sandra and her husband Kit and cousin Dieter and his wife Brigitte and cousin Gundul.