“This time you really did it, girlie!”
It was the greatest love story in Canadian history: the arrival of 47,783 women, mostly British, at Pier 21, Halifax, newly hitched to their handsome Canadian soldiers and ready to take a chance in a new country after World War Two. My mother was the only war bride to arrive in Canada from Russia: the only one to survive both Hitler and Stalin.
Her Canadian fiancé smuggled her out of Germany, by disguising her in a Canadian army uniform, wedging her between two prairie boys in the back of his army jeep, and ordering her to ‘hide your hands, and keep your head down’.
“I felt like a bloody clown!” she exclaimed. But she understood her life was in danger. It wasn’t the first time she knew a split second decision could mean the difference in survival.
Aided by a mystery priest from Edmonton, attached to the Canadian Army liberators stationed in Bad Salzuflen, the trio made a run for the Dutch border, via Oldenburg, a medieval town in the British zone of occupation. They weren’t evading the Nazis. That war was over. In the chaos of post-war Germany, they were fleeing the Russian Red Army, rounding up its own soldiers who’d been German POW’s or Hitler’s Slaves, to bring them back to Russia for another round of imprisonment or ‘repatriation’ on their own soil.
In Stalin’s eyes, there was no such thing as a Russian POW, they were all traitors. And that included my mother, a Russian Red Army soldier, trained on the bazooka, who had survived more than three years of captivity in the hands of the Germans.
(In 2012, I investigated the archives for the region of Lippe, and discovered how close she actually came to being apprehended by Stalin’s special squads. A matter of another 24 hours delay could have cost her, her freedom once again.)
Private Jack Pfeil from Bruno, Saskatchewan married Agnes in an Amsterdam cathedral in February of 1946.
What happened to her before they met that summer afternoon when she was picking raspberries in a German field, is another story. An epic story of survival. Of mud, tears, resilience, blood, and an inextinguishable desire to live. One-thousand days in which my mother disappeared. What happened to her? How did she survive? Who was she before the largest fighting force in history devoured her?
The story of those one-thousand days is at the core of my new feature-length documentary “The Traitor’s Daughter”. It is an international detective story that will take me through Germany, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and the ghost towns of Saskatchewan.
I’m going to ask you to help me piece the story together. Over the next several months, I will be updating this blog, posting new clues, sharing leads, and soliciting the help of the brainy, the imaginative, and the curious.
This photograph of the RMS Mauretania steaming into Halifax is a piece of the puzzle. It is the actual ship, the actual morning, Mom made her first steps on Canadian soil. Perhaps you can say it is the final piece.
The task of retracing those missing 1,000 days begins at Day 1,001.
I will begin then, by working backwards from that extraordinary morning of August 24, 1946 as war brides disembark at Pier 21 in the Halifax harbour. I search for her face among those women on the ship-deck about to being a new life in a foreign country.
It was one of those rare, sparkling brilliant sun-drenched mornings, as the HMS Mauretania steamed into harbour, arriving at 8 am. As usual, with such a large ship, the platforms were packed with curious on-lookers, anxious families, and, lucky for me, a military photographer who took the shot, capturing the images of all those hopeful women, embarking on a life they could not imagine.
The image above is an extraordinary ‘find’ for a daughter on an emotional archeological dig, in search of the mother she never really knew.
The detective work begins with the photograph and a question: Is there someone on the deck of the converted troop ship still painted in camouflage grey, who remembers the petite red-head bride traveling alone who couldn’t speak English? (Her Saskatchewan soldier has not yet been demobilized.)
On the crossing, the English-speaking war-brides mistook her for German. They shunned her. She was isolated for reasons she could not understand, asking herself, “what did I do?”
Only Maria, the Yugoslavian bride heading for Edmonton could communicate with her, as they both spoke Russian. Neither understood this other language that sounds like everyone speaking with hot potatoes in their mouths.
Is there someone who remembers the Captain getting on the public address system and alerting the entire ship that there was a Russian war-bride on board, not a German?
She rarely spoke of that crossing to me…except to say, she spent it on the deck, puking her guts out. As did so many of the girls on the rough passage from Liverpool. As the years past, and one decade slid into another, she never responded to any of the invitations to join the war-bride anniversaries or celebrations. The inexplicable shunning left a bitter memory on a day that should have held the promise of a new future.
But in a few days, she is going back to Holland, for the first time since she left Rotterdam, steaming towards a foreign land, somewhere on the other side of the blanket of fog and the incessant fog-horn that almost drove her crazy. She is returning in spirit to the place where love flourished among the chaos and rubble of post-war Europe.
In my next post, I will explain how.