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Refugees from post-war Germany find a new home in Pictou County


It had rained during the day, and it was cold and damp on a late October night when we stepped off the CN train that had taken us from Levis, Quebec to the village of Hopewell, Pictou County.

As we stood on the platform of the small railway station, some villagers watched silently as this curious collection of strange, tired, hungry and poorly-dressed refugees emerged from the cars, looking around in bewilderment for someone to take them somewhere.

We were a motley group of 37 Estonian men, women and children, survivors of a world war, displaced persons camps in the wreckage of what was left of Germany, who had somehow found a sponsor in rural Nova Scotia. The luxury liner Samaria, converted to a military transport during the war, dropped us off in Quebec City, instead of at Pier 21 in Halifax where the majority of European refugees usually disembarked.

It was 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War and we were part of what has been described by historian David Nasaw as “the last million”; those refugees who had somehow managed to survive the war and the death camps, and had lost their homelands; and far too often, members of their families.

Most of the lucky ones had found sponsors in the United States, Canada, and Australia. But hundreds of thousands still huddled in European camps waiting for countries to allow them in.

Arthur MacNamara, Canada’s deputy minister of labour in charge of immigration policy, was cautious about the number of displaced persons (DPs) who should be allowed into Canada.

Major M.C. Bordet, second-in-command of the Eighth Army Corp’s DP camp section, said a great deal of sympathy was wasted on displaced persons. He had negative things to say about certain nationalities, but surprisingly concluded that “Latvians and Estonians are honest, ingenious and good workers. They would make good immigrants.”

Gertrude Soosaar displays her knitting and some wooden items with Estonian themes.

Our expectations were low as we took our seats in Pictou County Power Board buses that first evening and travelled over a barely passable road, a two-mile stretch to Marshdale and the farm of our sponsor David Wilson, a former Canadian officer who was converting a part of his farmland into a handicraft village.

Wilson, a teacher and part-time farmer, was working in Germany for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in the months after the war. He had been impressed by the work of Estonian craftsmen and women in an Estonian camp at a former German aircraft parts factory in Schwarzenbek. After more than a year of correspondence he got permission from the Mackenzie King government to bring over a group of refugees to his farm.

Among those welcomed to the Wilsons’ home that first evening was our family: my father Olaf, mother Gertrud and brother Henn-Ants.

After a warm welcome and meal we could only have dreamt of, we retired to our two-room huts, each with bedding, groceries and a blazing country stove.

That first weekend, as dozens of cars carrying curious villagers lined the road; the kids venturing out were warned not to get too close in case Communist agents were among them. These agents had been active in the camps, urging people to return to their Communist-ruled homeland. They were known to infiltrate émigré communities in Canada. Adding to the anxiety was a spy scandal that had just broken in Ottawa when Igor Gouzenko, a Russian embassy cipher clerk, had defected to Canada.

The hospitality shown us by the Wilsons and other Pictonians over the weeks and months was overwhelming, led in large part by publisher Harry Sutherland of the New Glasgow Evening News, who urged Pictonians to help.

Residents of mainly Scottish ancestry—whose sons and daughters had recently served as overseas allies of the Russian army—suddenly felt they wanted to help what one reporter described as the “flotsam and jetsam of war,” even if most had never heard of Estonia. In some cases, their sons and daughters had left for Upper Canada to seek work after leaving the military. Farms were sold or left to their parents to run.

Clothes, furniture and household utensils by the truckload arrived as snow began to fall and the men wrapped their huts in tar paper, built outhouses and cut wood for stoves.

A truckload of salt cod from a Lutheran congregation in Lunenburg was welcome, but no one knew what to do with the heavily-salted fish.

As we settled in, the inability to speak English was the first obstacle to overcome.

Annie Crockett, a retired teacher and a devote Presbyterian, took the boys to her farmhouse to teach us our first words in English. The Lord’s Prayer was her priority, even though we didn’t understand a word.

But as time passed, and with the help of radio and comic books, children managed a few words and slowly the language fog began to lift. By the following fall we entered elementary school in Hopewell.

The adults had a more difficult time and there were instances of humour. Shortly after we arrived, people often asked us how we liked Canada. Our reply was always, “good.” One of the few English words we knew.

For the ladies, Archibald’s grocery store in the village had some humourous encounters with the genial grocer. Asking for butter, one lady was handed a pound of putty and in another instance asking for a dozen eggs was handed an axe. It was all in the pronunciation. My mother, who spoke several languages and learned some English in school, often went along to help.

Pig’s heads, which the grocer threw out, suddenly became a part of everyone’s grocery orders, as Estonians turned them into delicious pork dinners following old country recipes.  Suddenly, the often-wasted pig’s heads were a profitable commodity at 50 cents apiece.

The men were busy building a workshop as their tools arrived from storage.

The following year they were ready to display their work at a special exhibit in a New Glasgow department store. Although locals were amazed at the quality of the leather and knitted goods, hunting knives, pipes and inlaid intarsia plates with Estonian motifs, few were ready to buy.

Nova Scotia’s economy was stagnant in the post-war period after years of wartime expansion.

In time, some contracts were signed with companies in Ontario, but with young families, a regular income was a priority. Thoughts turned to Quebec, Ontario and further west, where large numbers of Estonians had settled and were beginning to thrive.

One evening as my parents sat despairing about the future with two young boys, only a rudimentary grasp of the language and no income, the future looked extremely bleak. Suddenly there was a knock on the door and local lumberman Gordon MacKay and his son Elmer stood there offering work in the woods at nearby Trafalgar for anyone interested.

Most signed up and eventually bought a used military vehicle to bring them back on weekends.

Meanwhile, Wilson was able to bring in more  Estonian and Latvian refugees to Canada.

A new optimism grew in the community. Gardens were planted and vegetables harvested and milk and other dairy products were delivered. The refugees were amazed at the abundance of food in stores as Frank Sobey had just opened his first supermarket in New Glasgow.

When a farmer delivered bottled milk by sleigh that first winter, residents who had nothing but powdered milk for years were amazed at the cream popping out of the ice cold bottles.

As the language barrier faded, nearby residents began visiting and friendships were formed.

Gradually, families began leaving for Quebec, Ontario and beyond when it became evident that the handicraft experiment failed for lack of sales.

But some refused to leave the county, moved to New Glasgow, found work and eventually purchased or built homes and saw their children through the school system.

Our family moved our entire house along with our possessions to a hilltop property in New Glasgow overlooking the town. Then work began to enlarge the house, plant trees and a garden and raise chickens to supplement Dad’s income as a carpenter at Eastern Woodworkers.

In 1973, when my father passed away, our old supporter, publisher Harry Sutherland recalled in an editorial in The New Glasgow Evening News, our early days in Marshdale and how a small stubborn group of refugees were determined to stay in Nova Scotia.

“But some refused to go; they elected to stay where people had been friendly to them. They did fit into our county. They took our hard times. One of the Estonians was Olaf Soosaar, whose end came last week. He came a displaced person. He went as a Pictonian, a Nova Scotian and a Canadian. He was a good citizen. Respected.” 

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