Soldier, prisoner of war, craftsman, family man. Born on Oct. 9, 1921, in Styria, Austria; died on Dec. 21, 2013, in Kitchener, Ont., of heart failure, aged 92.
Karl Hirzer lived a life of diligence and determination, with abundantly more gratitude than expectation.
His quiet strength was forged from adversity. He and his four siblings were raised in foster homes in Austria after their father emigrated to Canada in search of work during the Great Depression and their mother died of cancer. In 1938, when Karl was 16, German troops moved into Austria in the run-up to the Second World War. Two of his three brothers were killed in that conflict. Karl, after training in Tyrol to become a gebirgsjaeger (mountain soldier), spent most of his military service on the brutal Eastern Front, where he lost two fingers from a hand-grenade blast.
He was captured by Russian troops in April, 1945, shortly before the war ended, and spent the next two years as a prisoner of war in forced labour camps. He was severely emaciated upon his return to Austria but quickly regained his strength by toiling as a farmhand.
Sponsored by his father, Karl moved to Canada in 1950 and settled in Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo area along with many other German-speaking immigrants. At first, he lived and worked on a farm with a Mennonite family. In 1951, while on a visit to Austria, where his brother and sister still lived, he met Johanna Woegerer at a New Year’s Eve gathering. They married less than six weeks later and crossed the North Atlantic in midwinter to start a long and happy life together. They made their home in Waterloo, where they raised their children, Robert and Linda.
Karl was never idle. For decades, he worked as a roofer and tinsmith while his spare time was devoted to woodworking, which gradually evolved from fine cabinetry to artistic marquetry. His backyard workshop, heated by an antique wood-burning stove, was his sanctuary. There he proudly and meticulously built his centennial project for Canada’s birthday in 1967 – an ornate scale replica of the famous clock tower of Graz, Austria.
He also built a roadworthy motorized go-kart for me (much to the dismay of the police chief living across the street) and a travel trailer that was our family’s home near Kincardine, Ont., for many summers. Dad was the go-to handyman for friends and neighbours. He was a church-goer and enjoyed his tea (not infrequently laced with a medicinal shot of plum brandy).
Animals loved him. A tamed squirrel (Chippy) was an occasional house guest and an orphaned crow (Crowley) reluctantly flew to independence after several months of nurturing, but still managed a return visit now and then. Perhaps these influences were what led my sister to veterinary school. I chose medicine. Both of us can still hear Dad’s admonition: “I will pay for your school, but you have to do the studying.”
His extraordinary spirit inspired me to write a novel based on his life and times. The Last Plane, filled with stories about his youth and wartime experiences, was published just 10 days before he died; sadly, he was unable to read it.
Karl spent his last night at home in his own bed, thanks to the loving care of his wife of more than 61 years. Although his final years were hampered by dementia, it never stole his smile or his ability to say farewell with three simple words: “All the best.”
All the best. That is what he gave to so many others, all his life.
Robert Hirzer is Karl’s son.