Detective Work—The Case of “Marianne Berg”

When I was hired to process oral history interviews last fall, I had no idea I would have to become a detective doing online sleuthing in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Hamburg.

On Monday, January 24th, 2022, I set out to track down Marianne Berg. Earlier, in the fall, I had been hired by Alexander Freund to process all of the oral history interviews he had conducted with German Canadians over the past three decades. This process begun in the hopes to donate the interviews to the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre archive so that other researchers could also use them. Back then, Dr. Freund had used pseudonyms for the narrators, but donating them to the university archives required getting their permission to use their real names. And that is why I tried to find Ms. Berg, who was the first person Dr. Freund had interviewed, back in March of 1993.

The field notes that were in her file were scarce — typically the files of other interviewees included a lengthy questionnaire including important dates, names, and places such as the ship they took from Hamburg to Halifax or from Bremerhaven to Montreal in the 1950s. In Marianne Berg’s case I had no such form, only a few handwritten notes outlining what was covered in the interview, prefaced by her birthday, where she was born and an overview of her family including occupations, but no names.

The information in the files, however, is thirty years old. The first group of interviewees I was tracking down were fourteen women who had immigrated to Vancouver in the 1950s. Dr. Freund had interviewed them in 1993 for his Master’s thesis at Simon Fraser University. There is, however, no current information, no addresses or telephone numbers. In 1993, of course, there were no social media. Few people even had an email address or any other kind of online presence. Most of the participants, as I would find out, never made one later on in life.

My first strategy during this process, though it may feel morbid, is to look for an obituary. From the field notes I knew Marianne Berg must be 86 years old and it was important to rule out death. So far, for eight of the fourteen participants that has sadly been the case. I searched “Marianne Berg BC Obituary” yielding no results.

“Great!”, I thought, “she might be alive.”

Next, I consulted the BC White Pages. Most everyone who was interviewed, whether deceased or not, is listed here. I typed in her name, “Marianne Berg” — and again there were no results. So, this was a tricky one.

I looked in the field notes and found no names of her children and no name of her husband. I knew from her interview, which I had listened to several times and transcribed, that she had worked in a photo lab called Modifee Mantra, but there was no information about it online.

In the interview, Marianne Berg spoke about working for her brother on Vancouver Island for nine months before moving to Vancouver and striking out on her own. So, I looked for a piano tuner with the last name Berg. Nothing came up. I found the BC Piano Technicians Guild and found no mention of a “Berg”. I emailed a Piano Tuner, Jim Anderson, in Victoria and asked if he had ever come across a piano tuner with the name “Berg”.

In the meantime, I knew she was married to a famous German artist back in Hamburg before she came to Canada, named Horst Janssen, so I looked him up—he has a lengthy Wikipedia page. It says, “In 1955, he married Marie Knauer and in 1956, had a second child, a daughter, Katrin (nicknamed Lamme).”

“Huh,” I thought, “that’s not Marianne Berg.” I wondered, “was her name Marie for short? Maybe they weren’t truly married—but the timing would be right.”

Then I recalled: while I was transcribing her interview, I could not make out the name of her daughter. It did not sound like any name I had ever heard. So, I pulled up the audio, found the transcript and listened for the unusual name again: “Lamme”—it was clear as day. Marianne Berg was Marie Knauer!

I felt a little silly. Berg was not her maiden name but her last name after she married her second husband. I didn’t have a maiden name on file, but here, thanks to Wikipedia, I had it. So, of course, the piano tuner would have been a Knauer.

I emailed the Piano technician Jim Anderson in Victoria again and he responded with no knowledge of Knauer or Berg piano tuners—small wonder since Berg was never actually a contender.

I did my own search for a piano tuner named Knauer and was directed to Knauer Pianos in Los Angeles, California. The owner, Ben Knauer, a second-generation piano technician with ties to Hamburg, Germany (booyah!), was likely her nephew. I wrote him an email.

With no immediate response, I stumbled back to the White Pages, realizing I hadn’t checked the new name. “Marie Berg” yielded one result. A number and an address in North Vancouver. I called.

Now, I didn’t let my hopes get up too high. I’ve called many of these numbers throughout my journey trying to track down fourteen interviewees between the ages of 80 and 95 over the past three months. Eight participants are deceased, of the others only one has been confirmed to still be living though she is in a care home, suffering from dementia and unable to speak with me. Most often there is no answer. Many numbers of those deceased are still listed. Often, they are another person with the same name.

It was January 24th, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, 3 months and 3 days after I had begun my search for “Marianne Berg” aka Marie Berg. The phone rang…

“Hello?”

“Hi there, is this Marie Berg?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Claudia Dueck, I’m a research assistant at the University of Winnipeg in German-Canadian Studies and I am calling to ask whether you participated in a research study with Alexander Freund in 1993.”

“No, no, you have the wrong person.”

My heart sank, but I heard her voice and wondered aloud, “Hmm, but did you come to Canada from Germany in the 1950s or 60s?”

“Yeah, that’s when I came.”

Forgetting that not all the participants worked in domestic service I asked, “Did you work as a domestic servant?”

“No, I worked with my brother who had a piano tuning business on Vancouver Island and then I worked in a Photo Lab in Vancouver.”  

So, it was her! 

I shuddered at the realization that I had almost hung up. I was very excited and told her somewhat eerily, “I’ve been thinking about you and your life story and looking for you for three months, and here you are, alive and well. I am so happy.”

She had no recollection of the interview, but launched right into parts of her story. We talked for a half hour and she spoke with the same phrasing and intonation that I recognized from the interview. I couldn’t believe I had just called her up and she was living her life in “North Van” all this time.

I asked for the copyright permission and she said, “Why would you want my story? Everything is so different now.” I explained to her that that is precisely why we want to keep and publish her story. She may feel that her life was insignificant, but I have found it to be very valuable as I have studied immigrant experiences. It is precisely the seemingly insignificant lives that give us a glimpse into what regular life was like, and how much things have changed.

Tracking down research participants leads you down windy, twisted paths speaking to piano technicians and looking up German artists. It takes time and persistence, and you need to learn where to look, but it is ever so exhilarating when that voice comes on the line and simply says, “Hello.”

Marie Berg and her daughter, circa 1960

-Claudia Dueck, University of Winnipeg

GCS Reflections: Lars Richter, Representation of Indigenous Peoples in Contemporary German Culture

Part 1: Introduction of the Lecture and the Presenter

As part of the Central and East European Studies (CEES) Lecture Series hosted by the University of Manitoba, Dr. Lars Richter presented a lecture on April 7, 2022 titled “The Representation of Indigenous Peoples in Contemporary German Culture.” The lecture was delivered by videoconference and was attended by myself (Sofia Bach) and our project assistant Claudia Dueck. Richter began his presentation with a discussion about the Indianertümelei, or Indianthusiasm  (Lutz 2020), specifically in the case of the 2018 German board game named Manitoba. It is a game that encompasses all of the stereotypical depictions of the North American Indigenous People without any real attempt from the creator to learn or depict a real indigenous group in Manitoba. Even the title Manitoba is chosen only because the creators Remo Conzadori and Reiner Stockhausen liked the sound of the word. In fact, Manitoba is described as: “wild, fascinating, and almost without any limits: countless lakes, majestic mountains, a vast tundra in the north and endless prairies in the south” (official game material). The highest peak in Manitoba is Mount Baldy standing at a mere 832 meters, so even the geography is inaccurate. This board game is linked to the long-standing German fondness of “playing Indian”, where children and adults alike are fond of dressing up in traditional (or imagined) indigenous garb and endorsing an imaginary “Indian” spirituality and tradition. This point was well illustrated by Richter in choosing to start his presentation with an excerpt of CBC’s 2018 documentary Searching for Winnetou, where the participant in a German dress up camp, Hans Jürgen, explained that “playing Indian”  was for him simply a lifestyle choice and nothing more. In the presentation and during the discussion after the lecture, questions of the origin of this obsession with North American Indigenous imagery were discussed. These were of course linked to German author Karl May, but also to Germany’s lack of colonies in North America – and globally. Germany was late to the colonial race and this is something that also fuelled its obsession with things (East) Indian in German Orientalism in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Todd Kontje, 2004). In the last section of his lecture, Richter introduced a list of contemporary novels dealing with Indigeneity and the experience of Indigenous Peoples. The list of novels is included in part four of this blog series. This was a very interesting and informative lecture, and it has shown that there is still much academic inquiry needed on this phenomenon.

Lars Richter is a settler scholar-teacher and Instructor of German Studies in the Department of German and Slavic Studies at U Manitoba. He studied at Freie Universität in Berlin, Washington University in St. Louis, and earned his PhD in German Languages and Literatures from the University of Alberta with a dissertation on contemporary German author Juli Zeh. His primary fields of research and teaching are twentieth and twenty-first century German literature and culture with an emphasis on the incorporation of politics in literature, popular culture, film, gender, the intersections of Indigenous and German Studies, and ecocriticism.  (Lecture poster)

-Sofia Bach, University of Winnipeg


Part 2: Claudia and Sofia Talk About “Indianthusiasm” and Its Harmful Effects

Claudia Dueck and Sofia Bach discuss “Indianthusiasm,” the documentary Searching for Winnetou, Lars Richter’s lecture and the board game Manitoba.

Audio recorded and edited by Kent Davies

Studio space provided by the Oral History Centre, University of Winnipeg


Part 3: Reflecting on “Indianthusiasm” as a Second Generation German-Canadian

On Thursday April 7th, I attended a lecture offered by the University of Manitoba Professor Lars Richter, about Indigenous representation in German literature and culture. He referenced an article highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration between Indigenous Studies and German Studies. I reached out to him afterwards, and he sent it to me. 

In the article, Building Transdisciplinary Relationships through Multidirectional Memory Work and Education, Dawn Smith, of the Nuu-chah-nulth and Helga Thorson speak about the necessity of a meaningful interchange between Indigenous Studies and German Studies. They write, “By coming together and talking about the legacies of genocide and human rights abuses, on the one hand, and advocating the art and practice of storytelling and cultural resilience, on the other, the fields of Indigenous Studies and German Studies have the potential to converge and create a new way of viewing memory and Memory Studies that is constructive, promotes healing, and gestures towards social change.” (343) 

This shared history of genocide was intriguing to me. Mainly because Germans were the perpetrators of genocide, and Indigenous peoples, victims of genocide. While I will not deal with the topic of genocide specifically here, reading the article sparked an interest in me to explore the ways in which German and Indigenous Studies converge in German perceptions of Indigenous people.  

As a child of a German immigrant I grew up with German children’s books and films that featured caricatures of exotic “Indians”. I traveled to Germany and encountered children playing “Cowboys and Indians”. It was an unquestioned part of every German childhood.

Growing up in Canada, attending Canadian public school and learning about Indigenous history brought this German practice into question. I quickly became very uncomfortable with the German indifference to real Indigenous people and their continued inaccurate impersonation of them. When I would question them they would explain their positive admiration of the “Indian”. They did not see their taking on the persona of a “character” to play as harmful. 

This topic of impersonation was explored during Richter’s talk by way of a 2018 board game entitled, “Manitoba” – it has nothing to do with the province, except that the creator thought the word “sounded nice”. This board game, broadly speaking, allows players to “play Indian” and is an exercise in “Indianthusiasm” – a term coined by Hartmut Lutz, and explained in the articles above.

Throughout his talk Richter highlighted the defensive and dismissive comments made by the creators Remo Conzadori and Marco Pranzo, after receiving minimal complaints about the culturally insensitive board game from players. The creators chalked it up to being simply a board game that didn’t need to be historically accurate.

The board game cover art features all stereotypical indigenous characters, there is the wise old sage, the warrior, the hunter, the gatherer, a totem pole. It is a heinous array of stereotypes, fully unaware of the real people it presumes to depict.

While living in Germany in 2018 and 2019, I often encountered a view of Canada held by Germans that was almost obsessively admiring. It seemed as though Canada was perceived as this saintly country incapable of doing any harm. I made it my personal mission to re-calibrate anyone’s perceived knowledge of Canada to include at least a general understanding of residential schools, missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and the continued water boil advisories on reserves. Most people could not believe it, and once they had accepted what I had told them, they couldn’t believe that they had had no clue previously.

Of course, credit must be given to educational efforts that have gained some traction and spread awareness about the Canadian residential schools, however, in my experience, widespread recognition has not yet been achieved and there is still a disconnect between awareness of  the treatment of Indigenous peoples and the continuing impersonation of indigenous peoples in Germany.

Having attended this lecture, I left discouraged. I had, perhaps naively, thought that such blatantly racist caricatures of other cultures may have ceased to be newly created. I thought that maybe, by now people had understood that this type of thing is problematic. I also reflected critically on my own German upbringing and how to best narrate it. I feel strongly that I must not deny or silence this strange, ill-placed attitude toward indigenous people; I need to be up-front about it. It must be named and interrogated – dealt with, so as not to give it any power. I must vigilantly question sneaky displays of racism that have shaped me, and I would like to call on all Germans and white people to interrogate with grace the subtle, unquestioned but harmful practices alive in their understanding of Indigenous people, continually seeking to learn.  

-Claudia Dueck, University of Winnipeg


Part 4: Further Resources

CBC News. “A totem pole in Manitoba? German board game accused of stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous people”, CBC News Manitoba, 14 September 2018.

DiAngelo, Robin, and Michael Eric Dyson. White Fragility : Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press, 2018.

Jourdan, Thibault. “Manitoba, un jeu de société rempli d’approximations qui fait jaser sur Internet,” Ici Manitoba, Radio-Canada, 7 September 2018.

Kontje, Todd Curtis. German Orientalisms. University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Lutz, Hartmut ,  Florentine Strzelczyk, and Renae Watchman, eds. Indianthusiasm: Indigenous Responses, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2020.

Pranzo, Marco and Remo Conzador. “Manitoba: Spielmaterial | Game Materials | Matériel du jeu,” DPL Games.

Smith, Dawn and Helga Thorson. “Building Transdisciplinary Relationships through Multidirectional Memory Work and Education,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1, 2019): 342-59.

Taylor, Drew Hayden and CBC Docs. “Searching for Winnetou,” Season 1 Episode 12 of CBC Docs POV, CBC Gem, 2018.

Watchman, Renae, Carrie Smith, and Markus Stock, “Building Transdisciplinary Relationships: Indigenous and German Studies,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1, 2019): 309–27.

Novels mentioned by Lars Richter in his presentation:

Thomas King: The Truth about Stories (2003); Indians on Vacation (2020)

Katherena Vermette: River Woman (2018); The Strangers (2021)

Richard Wagamese: Keeper’n Me (1994); Medicine Walk (2014)

Tenille K. Campbell: #Indian Love Poems (2017)

Tomson Highway: Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998)

Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony (1977)

Waubgeshig Rice: Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018)

Eden Robinson: Monkey Beach (2000); Trickster Trilogy (2017-2021)

Cherie Dimaline: The Marrow Thieves (2017)

Announcement: GCS receives the Diversity and Inclusion Grant

We are thrilled to announce that our new project: What They Can Teach Us: Stories from German-Canadian Women, 1950-1993 was awarded the Diversity and Inclusion Grant from the Waterloo Centre for German Studies. As you may have already read on our last post, German-Canadian Studies is creating an online trilingual (English, German, French) interactive collection of edited transcripts and audio recordings of oral history interviews with German women who migrated to Canada in the 1950s. The aim of this online collection is to create a space where students, researchers, and the general public engage with archived oral history accounts from women who survived the Second World War, left their homeland, and made a life for themselves in a new country—at a time when, as one of the interviewees stated, “being a woman was one of the main problems.” The project is being led by Claudia Dueck and Sofia Bach, in collaboration with the Chair in German-Canadian Studies, Prof. Alexander Freund, and German Studies Prof. Kristin Lovrien-Meuwese. The Waterloo Centre for German Studies Diversity and Inclusion grant will be used to cover software, website, and illustration costs as well as to pay for an undergraduate research assistant. We gratefully acknowledge financial support of this project from the Waterloo Centre for German Studies.

“The Waterloo Centre for German Studies is happy to support this project. The University of Winnipeg has collected important oral histories that illuminate not only the impact of migration on women’s lives, but also the impact women have on the migration experiences of their communities (in this case, the German-Canadian community). Not enough is known about these stories, and the project will help fill that gap.”

James Skidmore, Waterloo Centre for German Studies

New Project! “What They Can Teach Us: Stories from German-Canadian Women 1950-1993”

We are excited to announce that German-Canadian Studies is embarking on a new project titled, “What They Can Teach Us: Stories from German-Canadian Women 1950-1993”. It will be an online trilingual (English, German, French) interactive collection of edited transcripts and audio recordings from pre-existing oral history interviews with German women who migrated to Canada in the 1950s. The project is led by the GCS project assistant, Claudia Dueck, and GCS program assistant, Sofia Bach, and receives input from Dr. Alexander Freund, Chair in German-Canadian Studies, and Dr. Kristin Lovrien-Meuwese of German Studies. The interviews are selected from Dr. Freund’s 1993 collection of interviews with German women in Canada.

“The aim of this online collection is to create a space where students, researchers, and the general public engage with archived oral history accounts from women who survived the Second World War, left their homeland, and made a life for themselves in a new country—in a time when, as one of the interviewees said: ‘being a woman was one of the main problems.’”

Claudia Dueck

 They were mothers, wives, and workers. They came from a variety of social classes and had different migration statuses. Some were married, some divorced and one came as a single mother. These women’s life stories give us a valuable window into what it meant to be an immigrant woman in Canada in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Judy McConill, one of the interviewees not long after she came to Canada

This interactive web-collection will feature edited transcripts; will provide contextualization and an introduction to oral history archives; and will include essays and writing activities that are curated for students and the general public.

“Our goal is to encourage the audience to develop and apply critical and historical thinking into German-Canadian women’s history.”

Sofia Bach

The collection will focus on five edited transcripts organized into three sections: (1) reasons for migration and the journey to Canada, (2) being a German woman in Canada from 1950 to 1993, and (3), family and gender dynamics. The website will feature the works of an illustrator through animated avatars of each woman and animations between the items of the collection. The collection will include pictures and maps sourced from the University of Winnipeg German-Canadian Archives and user-friendly digital components where readers can listen to and read the interview excerpts.

The choice of using archived oral histories is also based on GCS commitment to diverge from history’s hegemonic practice of documenting only “the struggle for power, in which the lives of ordinary people, or the workings of the economy or religion, were given little attention except in times of crisis” (P. Thompson, 2015). By using oral history accounts, we choose to focus specifically on the lives of ordinary people, shedding light on a group that was traditionally silenced by the mainstream narrative. By making these interviews of German-Canadian women accessible to a wider audience we are not only centering women’s experiences, but immigrant women coming from countries impacted by war. There were multiple discriminating factors facing these women: gender, being German, being immigrants. Using these accounts and oral histories help preserve history from the “bottom up.”

Stay tuned for more updates as this project progresses!

Sofia and Claudia planning all these announcements

Claudia Dueck and Sofia Bach, University of Winnipeg

Stories from the Archive – The German Society’s Gambit

It seems to me, that there has been a chess revival as of late. Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” has been wildly popular, two months ago, 16-year-old Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, Grand Master of India defeated world champion Magnus Carlson, and even the University of Winnipeg had its own online chess game this winter, called “The President’s Gambit” (the acting president is an avid player).  Chess is no longer an exclusively intellectual game, if that’s what you thought. In fact, this intense public interest is nothing new. In 1950s Winnipeg, there was a similar fascination leading the German Society of Winnipeg to make their own gambit — the creation of their own chess club, as I found looking through the Sickert Collection which was donated to the German Canadian Studies Archive this past fall. 

In the year 1955 the chess club “Der Springer” (“The Knight”) was founded by Erich Bamme in partnership with the German Society of Winnipeg and its members. The first mention in our Sickert Collection is in the Club Calendar October 1955 to January 1956. Roughly translated the creation of the chess club reads, “After multiple preparatory evenings, enough chess players have found each other who are interested in playing the game regularly. Preliminary games will decide who will play in class A and class B. After this, tournaments as well as friendlies will take place.”

Figure 1 Box 1 File 27 Club Calendar October 1955 to January 1956, pg. 5

The group met every Thursday with everyone welcome to show up at any given meeting to be accordingly placed in the appropriate skill class. For five years consecutively, the German Society’s weekly calendar contains the line “Chess Evening” under Thursday’s heading.

Beginning in September 1956 small bi-weekly tournaments between members of “Der Springer” were introduced, to alternate between practice and competition each Thursday. These gatherings were held in the “German House” locale in Winnipeg’s North End, pictured in Figure 2.

Figure 2 Box 1 File 28 The “German House” located at 121 Charles St.

In the Club Calendar from August 1956 to March 1957 it is reported that the chess club was led by Mr. Erich Bamme, one of the best chess players of Winnipeg. The club tournament in 1955 was said to be a success. Class A was won by non-other than one Erich Bamme himself, Class B was won by Theo Scheunemann. These were internal tournaments where “Der Springer” players faced off against one another.

Figure 3 Box 1 File 27 Vereins-Kalender Club Calendar 1959-1960, pg. 21

From August 23 until September 1st, 1958, Winnipeg hosted the second “Canadian Open Chess Championships”, located in the Free Press Building. International players came to Winnipeg to compete for the $1,000 first place prize money.  Four German-Canadian members of “Der Springer” participated.

In 1959 a new club leader was named, Ludwig Bachman. Familiar names, “Bamme”, “Szabo” and “Wiebe” litter the clippings as champions of various tournaments, highlighting the success of the club. Many newspaper clippings boast that the German Club remains unbeaten, against the Winnipeg Chess Club and the University of Manitoba team. These must refer to smaller internal tournaments within the city or between specific clubs, as opposed to larger provincial and national tournaments. In 1959 top player, and “Der Springer” member Sylvester Szabo, won the Manitoba tournament. The German-Canadian chess club was at one point one of the strongest Manitoban chess clubs and even represented Canada internationally.

Figure 4 Box 6, File 3, Thursday, July 17th, 1958

On Thursday February 5th, 1959 the headline in the Courier (Manitoba edition) reads, “‘Der Springer’ Stronger than ever!” The article boasts a win over the University of Manitoba chess team where 18 boards were won by the German Society team. Seems to me, the success of this event indicates that the initial gambit paid off.

Box 8, File 3 February 5th, 1959 The Courier

After 1964 the chess club ceases to be mentioned in the newspaper clippings held within the Sickert collection. Why did this successful club suddenly disappear from the records? Did the players become too busy or was there just general growing disinterest?  

What is displayed above was puzzled together through the remnants of newspaper clippings submitted to the archive. Without them, the story of the German Society’s Gambit, even to this limited extent, would not be. And the answers to my questions can only be answered with further archival research.  What other stories need telling, that might otherwise be forgotten, — that is unless they are preserved in archives?

If you have any personal documents, letters, diaries or photographs you would like to donate to the University of Winnipeg German-Canadian Archives, please contact Claudia Dueck, Project Manager of German Canadian Studies at cl.dueck@uwinnipeg.ca or 204.258.3837.

-Claudia Dueck, University of Winnipeg

Fourteen Friends – Processing Oral History Interviews

Over the past few months, I have made fourteen new friends. However, I have never met them, not even online; stranger still: they do not know me (except one). And even though I know quite a lot about them, they don’t know anything about me.

A few months ago, Alexander Freund, the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, hired me to process all of the oral history interviews he had conducted with German immigrants over the past three decades. The goal was to get the oral histories ready so they could be deposited at the Oral History Centre archives so that other researchers could use them for their own research. The first group of interviews I worked on was made up of oral histories with fourteen German women who immigrated to Vancouver, B.C. in the 1950s. Dr. Freund had interviewed them in 1993 for his Master’s thesis at Simon Fraser University.

Over the next months, as I listened to the interviews, transcribed them and edited the transcripts, wrote summaries and biographies, created topical guides for navigation to the interviews and tracked down interviewees to ask for copyright permission, I slowly got to know the fourteen women. Most of them had worked in domestic service upon their arrival, and many had come over through an Assisted Passage Fare Scheme promoted by the Canadian government, which required them to work for one year as a domestic servant in exchange for a loan on their boat fare.

In the interviews, Dr. Freund had asked them about their lives in Germany, their decisions to emigrate, their journeys by boat and train, their jobs here in Canada, and their lives in general. These one- or two-hour long interviews, though brief in the grand scheme of things, gave me insight into what their lives were like, what their struggles were, and what comforts they had. Their immigration stories shaped them in many ways, and they have shaped our shared history.   

Throughout the process, I feel I have made fourteen friends. I have heard their stories of drastic relocation when most of them where about my age, often younger. While most of them came to Canada and worked in domestic service, their individual lives are all quite different. Many of them came as self-described adventurers, not necessarily immigrants, intent on returning after they had had their fun. In all of their cases, however, they ended up staying and settling in Canada. In this batch of interviews, there is a potter, a seamstress, a technician at a major technology firm, a cook, many mothers and wives, many feminists of their time—many lives well lived, though all contain great suffering, much wisdom, and life experience and most often sustaining humor.

While the original purpose of the interviews was to discuss German immigrant women’s experiences working in domestic service, many different themes come up throughout the interviews. These include, cultural differences such as food and clothing, gender dynamics and feminism, belonging, national identity, and being German Canadian as well as encounters with Indigenous People in Canada.

Sadly, since the interviews took place thirty years ago, many of the interviewees have passed away. As more and more people who lived through those times die, their memories die with them. It is one thing to write history about a time, researched through remaining documents and artifacts; it is an entirely other thing to hear the words from someone’s own experience, the emotion and humanity in their voice.

One woman remembers the first summer after she and her husband immigrated with their children:

 “Then we went picking raspberries for five weeks. The farmer there supplied us with a house, there was stove for cooking and so me and the kids, we were there, and we picked for five weeks; we came back with 220 dollars, which was not too bad in those days. We bought a few furniture with it: few more beds for the kids [laughs].”

This quote, in my opinion, embodies the immense change that has occurred since the 1950s. Making 220 dollars over five weeks of hard work, to be used to buy beds for your children and reminiscing positively, even chuckling about it, gives an insight into the lived experience that a statistic about numbers of immigrants that came to Canada cannot convey. 

These first-hand, personal accounts of the 1950s and 1960s are becoming rarer and more valuable as researchers seek to study the postwar years in Canada. My life has been enriched through listening to their stories, and our understanding of the past and what it might mean for the future hinges on the preservation of such accounts.

– Claudia Dueck, University of Winnipeg

Immigrant Fathers and Sons – A New Research Project at GCS

In her memoir A Very Ordinary Life (1974), German Canadian Phyllis Knight recalls the relationship between her son, Jon (born in 1936), and her husband, Ali (who had immigrated from Germany in 1927). From her perspective, it was a tragic story of regret: “Ali wanted so much to be a father to Jon, to have Jon confide in him and look up to him. Because he was always very proud of his son. But neither of them knew how to go about showing it. None of us were very demonstrative that way. But it really was somewhat sad, because what didn’t come out in affection came out in quarrels. […]” (p. 235).

Yet, Jon (a pseudonym the co-author, Rolf Knight, used in his mother’s memoirs) also remembered good times. In his own memoir, Voyage Through the Past Century, Rolf Knight recounted summer trips into the interior of British Columbia to visit his father, who worked in construction camps . The young teenager was impressed, with camp life and his father:

The first was a dike rebuilding project at Deroche in the Fraser Valley. I stayed in one of the crew tents and on afternoons when Ali could take some time off we drove around the surrounding region and visited the places where he had jungled up, or the crumbling remains of relief project camps. This was accompanied by reminiscences of who he had been with when riding the rods or how they had gotten together the ingredients for a mulligan stew in some little town we now passed through. Accounts of the Hungry Thirties, accounts of events which had happened in the distant past, a decade or more earlier.

(p.34)

Rolf admired his dad’s ability tell stories, recreate life during the “Dirty Thirties” before his eyes, and to relate to strangers: “He had a real knack for striking up conversations with people, a trait I always envied. We might nose around the old coaling berths at Union Bay or the ships’ bone yard at Fanny Bay. Interlaced in these outings were snippets of local history as Ali had heard it.” (p. 34)

Phyllis had not been part of these adventures. Instead she remembered the father-son relationship through her own increasingly troubled relationship with her husband. And yet, despite these contradictory perspectives—in fact, because of them—these German-Canadian memoirs give us a glimpse into a big but often-neglected part of history: the history of fathers and sons and their relationships. A Very Ordinary Life, Voyage Through the Past Century, dozens more such German-Canadian memoirs, and hundreds of oral histories are unique sources and insights that have launched us, here at German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, onto a new research path, one where we explore the history of Canadian fatherhood and sonhood throughout the twentieth century and into the present time.

We use German immigrant fathers and their sons’ experiences as a case study to explore the broader history of Canadian father-son relations. Our goals are to write fathers and sons into Canadian history and to help Canadian society better understand the history and experience of being fathers and having sons, and of having fathers and being sons. Over the next few years, we want to find out how experiences like those of Ali and Rolf—of desperately trying to provide for a family during the Great Depression, of growing up in the rough surroundings of logging camps—have shaped boys’ and men’s lives over the past century. How did German-Canadian boys and men experience the world wars and postwar years as fathers and sons? How did they experience poverty and economic recessions, and what did such experiences do to their relationship? How did they view and negotiate, together or apart, dramatically changing cultural attitudes to masculinity and fatherhood, ever-changing expectations of fathers and sons, and social prejudice and state interventions into immigrant lives?

For Rolf and his parents, being working class during the Great Depression took its toll. Phyllis was physically and mentally exhausted from the constant worry and insecurity. Like his wife, Ali was an itinerant worker for most of his life, in Germany and in Canada. Like many other immigrants during the Great Depression, both worked a few months at a time in various jobs: mining, logging, construction, painting, baking, on ships. But Ali continued this lifestyle even after the economy recovered and against his wife’s wishes, who, according to Rolf, craved security: “I’ve had enough of roughing it,” she told Ali and Rolf as they left for another adventure in the mountains ( p.36).

Although Rolf and Ali did not get along when they were back home in Vancouver, Rolf was deeply shaped by Ali’s experiences. Later, Rolf too worked in remote construction camps, and even though he received a doctoral degree from Columbia University in New York and worked as a professor at Canadian universities, he—like his dad—traveled around the world. Eventually, Rolf Knight became a writer and historian (a storyteller, like his dad!) of the Canadian working class—a monument, in part, to his parents and especially his father.

-Alexander Freund and Sofia Bach, University of Winnipeg.

Classics in German-Canadian Studies

Canada has a long history of German immigration, but despite the great diversity and size of the German-Canadian group, there are relatively few memoirs or personal documents published. An important, but often over-looked German-Canadian author is Rolf Knight (1936-2019), who published several histories and autobiographical accounts between the 1970s and the 2010s.

In A Very Ordinary Life (1974), Rolf Knight recounts the life of his mother, Phyllis Knight, based on a series of interviews he conducted with her in 1972 and 1973. The life story is presented in the voice of Phyllis as she tells the readers about her life. Phyllis Knight was born in Berlin, Germany in 1901 to working-class parents; she was one of five children. In this memoir, Phyllis recounts working in factories during the Great War, the events of the socialist revolution and riots at the end of the war in 1918, the inflation of 1923, and the many adventures of being part of the Wandervögel movement (a 1920s nature-loving, free-thinking, wandering youth movement).

In August 1926, Phyllis married Ali Krommknecht in Berlin (the family later changed their name to Knight). Ali was born in 1902 on a farm in what is today Poland. He also came from a working-class background: his father was a Schweizer (a foreman on large estates who looks after the cattle). As a boy, he was sent to a Catholic school for boys intended for priesthood. He ran away from this school when he was thirteen years old and never finished his formal education. As a young man, Ali trained as a baker in Halle and by 1920 he was a journeyman baker.

After two years of trying to make a living in the city and on a farm, the young couple decided to immigrate to Canada. Ali crossed the Atlantic in 1928 and Phyllis followed a year later. The couple first settled in Toronto, but after many unsuccessful attempts at finding and keeping work, they moved west to British Columbia. Over the next years, they frequently moved to wherever they could make a bit of money: in logging camps, washing gold in the Cariboo, working in construction, baking in small towns. Eventually they settled in Vancouver in 1942, although Ali continued to travel around for work.

Jon (as Rolf—somewhat mysteriously—calls himself in this memoir) was born in Vancouver on March 4th, 1936. He spent his early childhood in working camps all over British Columbia, as his parents travelled from mine to logging camp for work. When Jon and his parents moved to Vancouver, the Second World War had already begun and the family, as Phyllis recalled, was met with hostility: “There was a family on the block who used to invite Jon in to have cookies and cocoa and then would pump him about what we said and did at home. It turned out that the mother of that family spread rumors about how we sang Nazi songs at home and all sorts of other rubbish” (223).

After the war, in 1951, Jon started working in camps like his father, and later he went on to get a university education and became an anthropologist. Phyllis describes in great detail the many ups and downs of Ali and Jon’s relationship, providing a rich and fascinating first-hand account of Canadian working-class family life in the twentieth century.

Rolf Knight authored many other books, among them an autobiography titled Voyage through the Past Century (2013). Rolf Knight presents his life story in a chronological order, beginning with his early childhood in logging camps in British Columbia, his school years in Vancouver during the 1940s, his first jobs on coastal boats and working camps across the province in the early 1950s. He also tells the readers about his trip to East and West Berlin in 1953 and meeting with some of his German relatives, his work in factories in Vancouver through the mid-1950s, and many other travels for his studies and later, for his work as an anthropologist. In this book you will find stories from his trips to Nigeria, Mexico, California, Chicago, First Nation communities in Northern Ontario and Quebec, New York City, Colombian farms, Manitoba and his eventual return to British Columbia.

Rolf Knight died in 2019 in Vancouver, BC. His books are moving and powerful tributes to his parents, to the working-class, and other marginalized communities. Unfortunately, A Very Ordinary Life has been out of print and is difficult to find except for some local libraries. Voyage through the Past Century is still in print. You can find complete manuscripts of some of Knight’s works and picture slideshows here.

-Sofia Bach, University of Winnipeg

Stories from the Archive

Remembering “The German Dances Downtown” : The Importance of a German Canadian Archive

Why do archives exist? Simply put — no archives, no written history! Thankfully, the German-Canadian Studies program is setting up an archive of German-Canadian documents and is calling for collections of personal papers, diaries, photographs and letters of immigration stories to fill that historical gap.

“The University Archives is pleased to be working with German-Canadian Studies on this important initiative,” says Brett Lougheed, the director of the University of Winnipeg Archives. “Many German-Canadians lived harrowing immigration experiences only to go on to make many important contributions to Manitoban society.  It is important that the stories of these German-Canadian immigrants, as reflected in the personal records of these individuals and related associations, are preserved for future generations. By creating this archive at the University, not only can we fill an existing gap in Manitoba’s documentary heritage by assuring the long-term preservation of German-Canadian immigration records, but we can ensure their widespread access and use by students and faculty in the German-Canadian Studies program, those within the local German-Canadian community, and the general public.”

One such collection that was donated is called the Sickert Collection, graciously donated by the Sickert family. In one section it has an extensive selection of the goings on of the German Society of Winnipeg.

When groups of immigrants came to Canada, they often set up societies to help one another, offer services, and reminisce about the old country through cultural events and gatherings. The Germans that came to Winnipeg were no different. They created the German Society of Winnipeg.

Founded in 1892, the German Society of Winnipeg was created “to cultivate German culture, language, customs, and sociability etc.”, as written in the 1954 bylaws under the heading “Purpose and Aims”.

Sickert Collection, Box 1 File 30

And cultivate they did.

A Society booklet, which is part of the Sickert Collection, lists numerous events, accompanied by pictures, event calendars, and newspaper coverage. Dances were particularly popular and included masquerade balls and Sadie Hawkins dances, Valentines’ dances, Halloween dances as well as your regular run-of-the-mill standard dances. There was a German choir, there were gymnastics teams and table tennis tournaments, a library, informational evenings discussing intellectual topics such as diseases and medical advances, German Literature lectures, scientific presentations, teas and wine festivals, shared recipes and advertisements for local German companies. These booklets and pictures give us an invaluable insight into the types of activities German immigrants organized in Winnipeg in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sickert Collection, Box 1 File 27

When I told an older friend of mine about my findings in the new German-Canadian Archive, she exclaimed excitedly: “I met my husband at the German dances downtown!” There are countless similar stories. Currently those folks are still alive, but imagine the change that will have occurred in one or two generations time, when we can no longer listen to the stories first hand from people who were at “the German dances downtown”, and the younger population will have no conception of what that time may have been like. It is then, that we can rely only the preservation of archives like these to give us an insight into those swanky dancing times of the German Society of Winnipeg.

Sickert Collection, Box 1 File 28 

“Despite their long history in Canada, the lives of German immigrants and their descendants are largely absent from public archives,” says Alexander Freund, who is a professor of history and holds the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg. “That is why we want to build an archive that collects German-Canadian diaries, letters, photographs and other documents. We are excited to see what is out there.”

If you have a collection of personal papers, letter correspondence, diaries or pictures that cover German immigration to Canada and would like to donate it to the University of Winnipeg, please contact, Claudia Dueck at cl.dueck@uwinnipeg.ca or call 204.258.3837

Claudia Dueck pictured in U of W Archive

-Claudia Dueck, University of Winnipeg