Life by Luck: Escaping Refugee Family, 1945.

 Swabian Refugees from Bessarabia find a Home in Canada, 1930-1967.

 After Helmut’s 83rd birthday-celebration at The Mandarin Restaurant, ‘the Clan’ visited the Pine Hill Cemetery, in Toronto. There they visited the former reigning matriarch, Oma, in her final resting place. Also resting there are, Opa, their daughter Hilma and her husband Ernst. The cemetery is located across the Street from Oma and Opa’s first Canadian house. These four shared a strenuous journey as refugees coming from Eastern Europe. The interview was conducted to try to discover more about this trip. The exact transcript has been changed and edited for the sake of clarity.


H – Helmut Burkhardt

N – The Niece and Interviewer


Helmut Burkhardt is a retired physics professor and undefeated family badminton player. He has dedicated his life to thinking about solutions for creating world peace. He is a Swabish-German, born in a village, located in Eastern Europe. His family’s identity forced them to flee for their lives at the end of WWII. Then they moved around German trying to regain stability. He begins the interview, by explaining that the same village where he was born has changed nationalities several times over the course of his father’s life.


H: I should explain, Bessarabia used to be part of the Ottoman empire. After the Russia Turkish War 1768? It became part of Russia. In 1815 the Russian Czar Nikolas II called  German settlers and they founded some 30 German villages in the area. Each village was named after a battle that Napoleon lost. I was born in Beresina, neighbouring villages were Krasna, Borodino, Leipzig, Kulm, all names of battles that Russia an Prussia won against Napoleon. Then, after WW1 Bessarabia became part of Romania. Then it was Russian again and then Ukrainian. That’s what it is now.

N: Is Russia trying to get it back again?

H: They are trying. They are trying.

This is… European history. The village: My father was born in Russia. Same village: My mother was born in Romania. Same village: We emigrated from Russia. Same village: is now Ukrainian. (Laughter)

N: Oh.

H: So that’s turbulent European history.

N: Wow.

H Ok and that package of history are written right down there. (Points to the grave) Bessarabia to 1940. Bessarabia, that’s the district where the village was. It had the same history. West Prussia is a district. It’s now Polish. Baden Wurttemberg, that’s the German district and then Ontario, that’s a translation.


N: So, how did Oma and Opa meet? That’s my first question.

H: They… Oma’s parents died. And then there were 6 sisters that had to be married. Ok and so uh they got sort of placed in certain places. However, Oma’s next youngest sister went to another village. The youngest one went to yet another village and Oma had a…. a person, who was you know suing.

N: Sowing, a seamstress?

H: No, no, he was uh trying to get, to marry Oma but she rejected him. (Laughter) And then my father Otto came along and she liked him so… He was twelve years older, he was. He was established; he had a workshop with woodworking and metal work at the same time. So he was well established in business and Oma went for it.

(*Note: Oma was a legendary firecracker and that means that Opa was a fairly exceptional person for her to even accept a marriage proposal.)

N: How come Opa didn’t have to go to war?

H: Because the Germans, the settlers had privilege. They didn’t have to go to war because they were there to build vital economic industry. That was in Russia in the early days. Then in Romania I guess there was no war. Then we left and went to Germany and I guess he was maybe to old for war. Also he ran a sawmill, which was a very essential operation for the military. They needed his wood. So they accepted him not going to war. He had to run the sawmill. He did it so well that he became the iron cross for it. It’s a cross of merit. For good, for good work.

N: So that sawmill was where?

H: West Prussia.

N: In West Prussia.

H: That’s the… 40-45. He had about 20 polish workers on the sawmill and he had about 20 Russian prisoners of war on the sawmill. And he actually built a house for them. They lived on the grounds of the sawmill and they got… I don’t know how they got food, anyways, that was the arrangement. Closer to the end of the war the German officials told him he had to run the sawmill. If he leaves he will be shot as a traitor. So he stayed, as they said he should. One day they secretly disappeared. All the police, all the German officials disappeared. The Russians troops were coming. He was there with 20 poles and 20 Russians, his supposed enemies. You know what they did?

N: What?

H: They killed a pig put it on a wagon, hitched the horses and wished him a good trip. (Laughter.) Anyways that was the end… towards the end of the war. He was alone among all these so-called enemies, but they were his friends, I guess, otherwise they wouldn’t have helped him get away safely. Germans who were caught by the Russian army were sent to Siberian work camps until death, which due to the harsh conditions wasn’t long. Even if the German’s were born in Russia.

And then he went away with the horses and in a barrel there was the slaughtered pig. In there couple of sacks of grain, just foodstuff ok? And also furniture and uh grandma – grandfather clock they put that and a sowing machine. And the horses got tired so he got all the furniture off but he kept the food.

Then he went west with the cannons roaring at the back. He went west and as he crossed the river Oder, that’s a river of Germany what’s now Polish, they blew up the bridge right after him.

N: Oh my gosh!

H: So he was lucky other wise he would have been stuck on the east and came to Siberia or whatnot. So he crossed over the bridge and then when on further west.

N: How did he know where to go in Germany?

H: He didn’t. He just went west. That’s it. And uh he didn’t know where we were, and we didn’t know where he is.

N: When was that?

H: 45… April. In March-April.

N: It was 45 you where in Poland, no?

H: My mom, sister and I left earlier. We left in January. Opa had to stay back until February or March. He ended up going west not knowing exactly where to go. By accident, some friend of ours, from Bessarabia, he stayed over night where we stayed in Mecklenburg. That’s a district in Germany in the East part. He stayed over night where we were, and then next day moved on and he met my father by accident.

N: Ohh!

H: So, Opa said “Where do you come from!” and he said, “I come from your family!” (Laughter) whoa (laughter) That was a big thing and hour later we were reunited.

N: Wow and if that didn’t happen then we wouldn’t be here.

H: Maybe not, (laughs) I would be I Siberia maybe. I don’t know. So but um anyway,

N: How old were you at the time?

H: 12. Getting 12. I was 11 turning 12. What happened then, we went further west. The farmer where we stayed in Mecklenburg, the farmer’s wife was there and he was soldier in war. She said “Why don you stay here we can need your help on the farm?” but my father “no.” We are going further west. We aim to Hamburg. You see, and I think he had in mind ahh Hamburg – harbor – you can emigrate to America or something. So that must have been in the back of his mind. He didn’t say. But why would we go Hamburg? When we are Swabians, which is southern German. Hamburg is in the North right. So we settled in a chicken coup. (Laughter) On the way from east to west, we met by accident again, one of my cousins from the family. And so together we went together to live in the chicken coup.

N: He fixed it up to like a really nice place to live?

H: Yes he did! Being a sawmill operator he quickly found some sawmill people near Hamburg. Bought a tree somewhere and then we cut boards. I was part of it. We cut it to boards and then he put on the inside of the chicken coup which was single walled building, we put these new boards on the inside and stuffed paper on the in-between so it was warmer. Ok.

N: So you guys were in Hamburg for some reason I thought you guys settled in Ludwigsburg.

H: That’s later, I’ll tell you the story, as we come to that. In Hamburg, they couldn’t understand the farmers because they speak Plattdeutsch dialect, which is quite different from Swabian the dialect we speak at home. Ok? So um people where nice we had no problem but um they couldn’t understand really the people.

So after a year they decided to go south to Stuttgart. We had a, one of those railway cars put the horses and the wagon and the furniture and everything we still had. Put it in there, and went south towards Stuttgart. Then we settled in Stuttgart first. In a camp. And there I lost three teeth due to malnutrition. Cuz there was no food in the city.

And Eisenhower who was commanding General he sort of listened to the advice of Morgenthau. Did you read about the Morgenthau plan? It was a plan made by Churchill and Roosevelt to starve the Germans.

N: Oh my god. Even after the Second World War?

H: Even after the Second World War. So 46-47 we were in Stuttgart, there was no food or very little, just scraps here and there, so I lost three teeth as a teenager. Yep, then sort of the cold war coming up, they changed their mind and then they helped Germany to get up again.

The Marshall plan they call it. Marshal was the minister of foreign affairs, I guess, of the states … and he set up a plan so that Germans got food and we build the country to…

N: Just the west part?

H: Just the west part, yeah. So anyway after the war Eisenhower was pretty hard on the Germans.

N: So you settled in Stuttgart and then you went to Ludwigsburg?

H: After a year or so in Stuttgart we found a horse stable in Ludwigsburg. (Laughing) So we graduated from a wooden chicken coup near Hamburg to living in a solidly built horse stable in Ludwigburg. (Laughing) That was ok. It was a solid building and big. So he set up a workshop, his carpentry workshop. He made and built all the machines he needed from wood, and they worked. Of course there were some parts, metal parts, he had to buy but the structure and everything else was wooden and it worked beautiful for many years. He earned his living with his own self-built machines.

N: Were you able to buy a house?

H: Form the house stable, he had a workshop, you know. So then he started building a house in Hoheneck. That’s where Peter and Charlotte are born. We lived there for a couple of years. I went to school in Ludwigsburg. Hoheneck is near Ludwigsburg sort of a suburb near Ludwigsburg. Ok. And they bought a house in Ludwigsburg near the railway station. Actually right down town Ludwigsburg. And that’s when they emigrated then. Because Hilma was here already in Canada.

N: They sold their house?

H: I sold the house when they were already here.

N: How old were you?

H: I was in my 20’s then.

N: So when you sold the house were they able to use that money to buy a house in Canada or it was just enough money to cover the costs of emigrating?

H: No, no. It got them a start here. Yeah, yeah… The house in Ludwigsburg was quite good. They had a workshop there and some rental units. So they were ok. But they wanted to visit Hilma who was in here Birchmount across the street. (Points in the direction.) Hilma lived right over there. They later bought a house on Birchmount. 610 Birchmount. They wanted to visit Hilma. So they wanted to apply for a visitor visa and the Canadian immigration officer said yeah, well why don’t you take an immigrant visa because you may want to stay there. So they said ok. (Laughing) So they said OK! And they stayed and never moved back.

N: So they didn’t have the intention to stay forever.

H: No they didn’t. They wanted to visit. Ok, but then the immigration officer said, “may as well take an immigrant visa because you may want to say,” and they did.

N: Why not?

H: (Laughing) And they did.

N: Did you apply as working immigrants or refugees kind of?

H: No. Immigrants.

N: And when did you guys decide to come?

H: I finished my degrees in Germany. And then I decided to get married and then we decided to come here in 67. Hilma was here in 58. I think my parents came in 59 or so. Then I visited here in 60. I was an exchange scientist in New York. From New York I took a trip here and visited. And then we were all here in Canada.


– This is the end of this interview. –

I think that I will do a second interview to draw out more of the experiences of a 12-year-old child traveling across Europe with his mom and sister, his experiences with interrupted education, or the time Helmut was almost shot by American soldiers for playing with a toy gun. As well I would like to focus on Oma’s role in the story. For example the time she got a bag of flour from red cross and sold it to buy a sowing machine even though she had two starving teenagers.


Unfortunately, Refugee stories are not a thing of the past. Hearing the old and new voices, telling of such extreme conditions, I feel, has a role in finding solutions to the conflicts causing these lived experiences.