Friday, June 30, 2017

An Immigrant’s Thanks

Happy 150th to my home and chosen land!

As a three-year-old immigrant, I didn’t have a choice, of course. But my parents did, and I’ve been forever grateful to them for that decision.

The happy immigrants in Niagara Falls, 1956
They grew up in Hungary - my dad in a pastoral village nestled in the hills northwest of Budapest, and my mom, in a German community far away in the south. Chances are they would never have met had the war not intervened and dramatically changed their lives.

He was 11 and she was 8 when conflict broke out in 1939. My mother’s family just happened to be in Austria, where my grandfather was working temporarily, and they never saw their homeland again.

In 1944, my 16-year-old father was snatched off the street by a passing army unit, and pressed into military service. My grandmother didn’t even know what had happened to him. Sent to Poland with a gun and no training, he was soon a prisoner of the Russians, and lucky to survive.

In Austria, my 14-year-old mother was terrified to be strafed by machine-gun fire from an Allied plane in 1945. She was nonetheless grateful when the Americans liberated them from the Nazis shortly thereafter.

The Potsdam Agreement drafted by the victorious Allies in 1945 instigated “the largest forcible population transfer in human history” and “one of the largest episodes of mass human rights abuse in modern history”.  [R.M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War]   Between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. They lost their citizenship, livelihoods, homes, and all possessions aside from what each person could carry in one suitcase.

My dad’s family had lived in their village for many generations, his father even having to change his surname to something Hungarian because he was a civil servant. He chose “Tavaszi”, meaning “spring”. Among the many relatives married to ethnic Hungarians and therefore not evicted were my widowed aunt and her three children – much to their dismay when they became imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. They eventually escaped.

My mother’s entire hamlet was “cleansed”, and when we visited it two decades later, it was a ghost town: soulless houses – many of which my grandfather had built – weathered doors hanging off broken hinges, windows shattered, animals nesting among the ruins; the cemetery overgrown, barely discernible; my grandparents little farmstead reclaimed by nature. No voices or footsteps other than ours. It was decidedly creepy, but also terribly sad.

The two displaced families became neighbours in former army barracks in the medieval, storybook town of Mosbach, Baden, near Heidelberg. Each family had one room for living, cooking, bathing, and sleeping.

With the influx of so many millions more to feed and house in a defeated land already starving and bombed out, survival was a challenge. I grew up with stories about trading the few remaining family heirlooms and jewellery for food, of carrying heavy bags of nuts scavenged from the forest to a farmer in exchange for a slab of butter or a sack of flour, of daring to steal a few cherries off a tree, to be chased and scolded by the property owner.

But I also heard about the frequent dances held in the barracks compound. The young could make their fun anywhere, but for my grandparents it must have been devastating to have lost everything. It became even worse when three of my aunts died of tuberculosis. Malnutrition undoubtedly contributed.

My parents, Katie and Paul Tavaszi, 1949
My dad was just 21 and my mom, not yet 18 when they married, already planning their escape to a better land. My mother had aunts in the U.S. Perhaps they could go there? But the States wouldn’t take them. Canada sounded good.

I was born in the barracks. When I was three, my family finally had the paperwork to immigrate to Canada, but my father had to go over first and have a steady job for at least three months before we could join him.

My 23-year-old mother had $5 in her pocket and only a smattering of school English when she and I arrived in Montreal on a gloomy October day in 1954. She was appalled to receive a telegram from my dad instructing her to get on a train to Lindsay, Ontario - where the heck was that? - instead of Delhi. He’d been working in the tobacco fields for a Hungarian farmer whose son had started a new business in Lindsay, manufacturing TV antennas. My dad had messed about with radios and such as a boy, and wanted to become an engineer, so here was this amazing opportunity, which did indeed work out.

Having left behind the romantic, hilly countryside of southern Germany, jewelled with ancient towns and stately castles, my mom grew increasingly worried and depressed as the train sped us through long stretches of wilderness and swamps, past villages that resembled frontier boomtowns in cowboy movies, and along a sluggish river, finally depositing us at a railway station where my dad waited, excited to show us the wonders of our new home. My mother loved the movies, so he insisted we weary travellers go to the cinema that evening. I think she was still in shock.

I explored these feelings of displacement, of seeking a better life, of facing daunting challenges in a strange and sometimes hostile land in my novel about pioneer Upper Canada,  A Place to Call Home, which is dedicated to my parents, who were pioneers in their own right.

They both worked at Lindsay Antenna, but on different shifts so that one would always be looking after me. When there was overlap time, I was in the factory, tasked with sweeping floors – as a four-year-old. Should I put that on my resume?

I have only wisps of memories of my first three years in Germany, the most powerful being the distinctive taste of the ice cream there. So my real life began when we arrived in Lindsay, which became my parents’ permanent home, and mine for several decades. Most townspeople embraced us warmly, often with great generosity. Dr. Broadfoot charged us little or nothing at all in those early, pre-OHIP days, when doctors still made house calls day or night.

My friend's father had been captured by the Germans at Dieppe, and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. But I always felt welcome at their house and cottage – which inspired my Muskoka Novels. I dedicated Book 3, Under the Moon, to them.

But we did experience prejudice. Even when I was in high school, I was sometimes jeered as a Nazi.

These themes are part of the adventurous kids’ novel that I co-authored with my daughter, Melanie, who also grew up in Lindsay. The Girl From No-Man’s-Land is set in 1963 “Launston Mills” (AKA Lindsay, as per A Place to Call Home), and is currently seeking a publisher.

Obviously, Lindsay and Canada have shaped my life and career. My novels, which bring Canadian history vibrantly to life, are as much a tribute to my beloved country as they are my joy and pride.

Travelling abroad always reaffirms for me what a truly wonderful and respected country we live in. As a 13-year-old, I was shocked by the menacing soldiers with machine guns on every corner in Budapest, then under communist rule. Visiting the dispirited relatives on both sides – the teens thrilled to receive “American” blue jeans – I was so glad that my parents had been kicked out of Hungary. For many years we sent care packages, which always included those treasured jeans. My parents were careful with every penny, and there was no extravagance in those days, but I realized that in comparison to Hungarian cousins, we lived in a land of plenty and opportunity, and so we were indeed the “rich relatives”.

When my husband, daughter, and I visited northern France in 2007 on one of my research trips, an elderly Frenchman thanked us profusely, with tears in his eyes, for helping to liberate France. The people of Ypres (Ieper) Belgium were equally friendly and grateful for Canada’s heroic contributions in the previous war.

Although my birth to “Displaced Persons” happened in Germany, my mind, heart, and soul are truly Canadian. I’m so lucky, and deeply thankful to my adopted country!


  1. Dear Cousin,
    I deeply envy you that your parents had the courage to go abroad, to leave everything behind. Mine had not. But I don´t want to complain. It was a very difficult decision to stay, especially for my Mom, loosing her best friend: your Mom!!! and for my Dad, loosing his brother, your Dad!!
    But I´m glad, you´re in Canada and we can visit you as often as possible;-)
    And I really admire you for your talent, writing such great books and keep the family stories alive...
    I´m very proud of you- and all our ancestors surely, too!!

    1. Thank you, dear cousin! Hope to see you here again soon!

  2. Thank You so much Gabriele Wills for sharing your own family's story of what "being Canadian" means to the fabric of your own life and our country's history and future! Truly this is the meaning of how Canada has grown into this place called Home, for all of us. Happy Canada Day.
    Every Best Regard,
    Ruth Cunningham