Ever since I could remember, a dingy wooden trunk with weathered rope handles and a rusty padlock sat in the cellar of my parents' house, our family name and some mysterious numbers boldly hand-painted in white on its lid. I was surprised when this rustic, lacklustre artifact found its way into our brand new suburban home in 1959, where it occupied a corner of the furnace room for decades – a place where my mom would do the laundry and my dad would make his delicious dill pickles.
I wasn't sure what was kept inside that musty old trunk for all those years, and didn't dare open it. But when I got a bit older, I learned that this very trunk had accompanied my parents and my sister on the boat that brought them to Canada. The trio bravely boarded the retired navy vessel, the USS General W.C. Langfitt, in Bremerhaven, Germany on Sept. 21, 1948, to set sail for a new country and a new life. While their hearts were filled with myriad hopes and dreams, the trunk was packed with their worldly possessions: two satin eiderdowns, an assortment of German china and porcelain plates, a large cobalt-blue crystal fruit bowl, and a cherished silver candelabra, for the Sabbath candles.
My late parents had managed to survive the Holocaust, on the run and in hiding for the last two years of the war, after both their families had been decimated. The young Jewish lovers, who'd grown up in the village of Kozowa, a small shtetl in southeastern Poland (now Ukraine), miraculously avoided being captured by the Nazis by depending on their own wits and the kindness of strangers, hiding in barns and attics and bunkers in the Polish countryside. Their untold fearlessness and tenacity saw them through the hell they experienced, and they recount their remarkable story in their memoirs, Joy Runs Deeper, which was published by Canada's Azrieli Foundation in 2014.
When my parents were liberated by the Russians in 1945, they had no choice but to rebuild their shattered lives. "I felt that I was alone among so many enemies, so many strangers," wrote my mother in her memoir. "I cried and cried, and finally decided that I had to face reality. I had paid such a huge price for staying alive that nothing could be quite as bad any more. I decided to close that chapter of my life and see what lay ahead. I had a life to live and I was going to do just that. I was going to start all over again …" My dad wrote, "We can no longer experience the life that once was. But life must go on."
With those convictions, my parents decided to have a child – my sister Marilyn – and lived in a Displaced Persons camp in Austria for three years, as they awaited the opportunity to emigrate to Canada. My mother's uncle, who'd immigrated to Canada well before the war, sponsored them. They may have been penniless, but their courage and optimism saw them through.
The rough, month-long Atlantic crossing was a gruelling affair, with both an active young toddler and their severe seasickness to manage. My mother, who was travelling in steerage, told me about how she was relegated to mopping the deck one afternoon. But nausea set in and, unable to speak a word of English, she motioned to the man in charge that her head was dizzy. Apparently, the sailor thought that by circling her finger next to her head, my mother was telling him she thought he was crazy! He became enraged. I can only imagine her terror and frustration. Eventually, on Oct. 21, 1948, my parents landed at Halifax's Pier 21, and soon after, boarded a train to Toronto.
With no money, no language skills, and few connections, they moved in with my great uncle and aunt and went out to look for jobs. My dad landed one in a paper box factory, and later, a slipper factory, and my mom found a job at a pants factory for 12 dollars a week. They scrimped and saved, and four years later, in 1952, the year I was born, they managed to put a down payment on a three-storey house in a family-oriented neighbourhood in Toronto's west end. My parents, my sister and I occupied the main floor, while a colourful and constantly changing assortment of international "roomers" inhabited the other two floors, helping to subsidize our mortgage payments and giving us a sense of extended family.
My father, intent on being his own boss, started his own little slipper manufacturing company in the cellar, later moving to a small factory on Adelaide Street West, while my mother, who'd quit working when I was born, became a full-time housewife. And so, they managed to raise my sister and me, instilling us with important values: a strong work ethic; a love of family (though ours was miniscule); an impassioned drive to succeed; and a great appreciation of the arts.
My dad constantly reminded us that he wouldn't be slaving away at a slipper factory if he had the opportunities afforded to those lucky enough to be born in Canada. So he always encouraged us to follow our dreams, and most importantly, be independent. My mom, having lost all those she'd loved in the war, was intent on trying to keep us close, but she must have been torn: She knew we had the right to lead big, exciting lives, so she, too, encouraged us to pursue our dreams. Still, I remember feeling embarrassed sometimes that my mother spoke with an accent, and because my dad worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, that we weren't living the easy, seemingly carefree existence that so many of my other friends' families seem to be enjoying.
I now know I'd never have become who I am – have dreamed as big and had been so driven – if I didn't have the parents I had. They taught me about resilience and hanging tough, and how to put one foot in front of the other and just keep going, no matter what life throws at you.
As the child of immigrants, a profound love of this country was instilled in me from the beginning: This was a free and beautiful place where you could actually work for anything you wanted and realize any fantasy you dared to dream. Because my parents' youth had been nipped in the bud, and their aspirations cut short, I felt I had to make up for all they missed, and most of all, make them proud and show them how much I valued their leap of faith, sacrifices, and all the hardships they'd endured not only by being subjected to the horrors of war, but by stooping so gallantly to pick up the pieces and finding a way to both rise again and truly thrive.
This weekend, I'll be at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, talking about my parents' experiences and reminiscing about what it was like growing up as the child of immigrant parents. More poignantly, my family is proudly donating our old wooden trunk to the museum's permanent collection. We're hoping that, beyond being emblematic of the hopes and dreams of a young immigrant family, this precious artifact that accompanied my parents to Canada almost 70 years ago will serve as a touchstone to celebrate humble beginnings and to remember all that's possible in this amazing country of ours with hard work, courage and tenacity.
As my mom said several years ago, when interviewed for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, "I'm happy I could come to Canada and I could live to raise a family and see a new life. And imagine, I think sometimes I lived four lifetimes. I come from a horse-and-buggy town without electricity and now they're going to the moon … So I lived an interesting life I think. Although it wasn't so easy."
Jeanne Beker is a journalist, author, and a Globe and Mail Style columnist.
WHAT WE TOOK WITH US: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL