Over the years I have acquired a collection of stories that I call “Coming to Canada Stories” they are stories told to me by new immigrants, about the route that led them to our shores.
When I was growing up almost everyone I knew had been born in Canada … and most of their parents had been as well. And if they were like me – then their grandparents and great-grandparents were also born in Canada.
Then when I entered into my late teens and twenties I started to meet people who were new to Canada. They were from Hong Kong, or the Caribbean or even Great Britain and I got to know some of their stories.
But the most interesting man with the most interesting story was Herb. I worked with Herb at one of my earliest jobs. He was a great mentor and a character I will never forget.
The first impression of Herb was that he was one of the biggest men I had ever seen. I don’t remember him ever admitting his actual height but he must have been 6’7″. He had very broad shoulders, a large head and the biggest feet I had ever seen.
I remember walking into his office one day to catch him with his feet on his desk. I was looking straight at the soles of his shoes and all I could think to say was, “are those a couple of row boats on your desk, Herb?” Herb laughed and confessed that he wore size 15, quadruple E shoes, and that he had to go all the way to Toronto to buy them.
Herb and I worked together for about four years and over the course of that time I heard his story in bits and pieces. Herb loved Canada and he would tell us that Canada was the best country in the world because he started off in this country in jail in Halifax and within a few years he was working at the most top secret facility in the country.
Of course I was shocked to hear that Herb had ever been in jail. He was just not that kind of guy. He was warm hearted, and caring, and he had the greatest sense of dry-humour. And now — because I asked — he told his story.
He was born in Estonia but had been working in Germany for some length of time during the second world war. That in itself was fascinating to me and I wanted to know all about Germany during the was. What was it like. Herb told me that he had to make the Nazi salute and yell, “Heil Hitler” all the time. He said everyone had to do it.
He was concerned that the salute was a brain-washing technique – so every time he had to make the salute – he would say a silly little rhyme to himself. I don’t remember it exactly but something like “willy, willy, willy, Hitler is a silly“. He said that it kept him from forgetting who he really was.
At the end of the war the Soviets had taken over all the countries to the east, so he could no longer go home, and he did not want to stay in Germany. He now had no country, no home, no passport, no papers.
He managed to make his way to Sweden and then ended up stowing away on a ship so that he could leave Sweden. Now he was stuck on the ship — same old problem — no papers, no passport, no way to get off. He ended up working on the ship for a couple of years. He finally jumped ship just to get off. That is how he ended up in Halifax — where he was promptly arrested and thrown in jail.
When the authorities figured out that there was no place to send him, as the country he had been born in no longer existed – they invited him to become a resident of Canada.
He had been some sort of engineer in Europe, but like many immigrants I have talked to who could not provide proper credentials for their education, he was just a technologist when I knew him. But within a few years of his arrival in Canada, he was working at the Chalk River nuclear plant. That was at a time when most people in Canada did not even know it existed.
I miss you Herb — you really were a memorable personality!!!