Back row (left to right): Margaret, Willie, Nettie.
When our family moved to Morden in 1951, I met Nettie Dyck, my first friend. I was 7 years old and had already lived in three communities in Ontario and was now in my fourth community in Manitoba. Nettie’s family had moved many times also but for entirely different reasons. My dad was sick and trying to find work he could do while Nettie’s parents were fleeing a brutal regime in Russia.
We lived in our grandmother’s house on the corner of Thornhill Avenue and 4th Street in Morden. Nettie and her family lived directly north of us on 4th Street. We were both in the same Grade 3 class at Maple Leaf School and we walked the 8 blocks back and forth to school together most days. On days we weren’t allowed to go to each other’s homes after school, we conspired to bring our dolls and accessories to the edge of each of our properties so we could still play. I felt that I, like Anne in Anne of Green Gables, had found a kindred spirit.
I knew that Nettie’s parents did not speak English as well as my parents did. I also knew that they had come from across the ocean and were sometimes referred to as DP’s (displaced persons) in a derogatory way. But I did not know their story. Nettie’s father would have liked to share some of their history with us but we were not interested. When Nettie’s dad tried to bring up past experiences in Russia and Germany at home, her mother said, “Ahhh! Those old stories. That happened so long ago. Let’s forget about them.” While researching my Mennonite history, I discovered what Nettie’s family went through in Russia before, during and after World War II.
When Mennonites were persecuted in The Netherlands for their religious beliefs they fled to Prussia, later called Germany. As they began prospering in Prussia, they again felt threatened by the ruling class. Then Czarina Catharina of Russia invited the Mennonites to settle the vast grassy steppes she had won in a battle against Turkey. Many accepted her offer. They were given land, the right to educate their children in their own schools and the right to be exempted from military service.
Although Mennonites had lived in Russia for 100 years, they still considered themselves German. They talked Low German or High German in their homes and their children were taught High German in their schools and churches. Only the men who needed to communicate with Russian officials learned Russian.
My Mennonite forefathers, along with 200 other families, emigrated to Canada in 1874 when offered land in Manitoba. Other large groups of Mennonites came until 1888. Those that stayed in Russia felt the political climate had improved. Most also had beautiful estates and prosperous farms they did not wish to leave. They built their own primary and secondary schools and universities. They built hospitals, nursing homes and mental institutions. They were farmers, business men, educators, doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers and entrepreneurs. They isolated themselves from their peasant Russian neighbours but hired them as housekeepers, nannies and farm labourers. These Mennonites thought their good life in Russia would last forever!
Then came the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1917, one year before World War I began, an uprising by the Red Army overthrew the czars and kings. Anarchy reigned. Makhno, a notorious criminal who had lived in the Mennonite area, and a gang of other hardened criminals, terrorized the Mennonites. Wealthy estate owners were the first to be targeted. Often entire families were tortured, raped and killed in their homes. Sometimes the women and children were spared but forced out of their homes to wander with only the clothes on their backs. Everything was lost.
Both in Germany and in Russia, the Mennonites had lived in colonies. They now realized that without weapons their way of life offered no protection. Some managed to escape to Canada during this horrendous time, some to the United States and others to South America. Some remained in Russia and hid in villages among the Russian peasants. Others were captured and sent to Siberia. They never again owned large homes and prosperous farms in Russia.
Nettie’s family was living in the small Mennonite village of Rosenort in Russia when World War II began. Her dad was the village school teacher the year she was born in 1942. Many of the other men and young boys had been dragged away to serve in the Russian army despite Catharina’s earlier promise about bearing arms. Now, most of the villagers were desperate. The Russian soldiers were brutal in their treatment of the Mennonites. They stole their food and livestock. They took over their homes.
Hitler in his fervor to dominate the world was determined to reach Moscow. German army divisions were dispatched across Russia. When groups of German soldiers came across Nettie’s village and the other Mennonite villages scattered along the Dnieper River, they were astonished to find German-speaking people living there. They asked to have their soldiers billeted in these homes. In 1943, when Germany began losing badly on all fronts, their armies were ordered to retreat. They were told to take these German-speaking Mennonites back to Germany with them. The German officers knew the Russians would massacre the Mennonites for billeting German soldiers. Because Mennonites had not felt safe in Russia since the early 1900s, they did not hesitate to flee once again. Along with the soldiers, they fled by train, by wagon and on foot.
Nettie’s dad was fluent in Russian and German and so was conscripted to be a translator for both the Russian and German armies at various times during the war. He was also a survivor and knew to feign loyalty to Russia to avoid disastrous consequences. When it came time to flee, Nettie’s parents were separated and Mrs. Dyck with one year old Nettie had to begin this chaotic and terrifying journey on her own. She talks of running and hiding in the ditches when Allied bombers flew overhead. She remembers being tired and hungry. When they finally reached Berlin, they found it in ruins. All of Germany had been bombed relentlessly during the last few weeks of war. Hitler finally conceded defeat in 1945.
Post-war Germany was a time of extreme uncertainty for its citizens and especially for the refugees. Food and shelter were difficult to find. While the Americans and the Russians debated the division of Germany, people slept among the rubble in the streets and starved.
Nettie’s mom knew they needed to make their way to the western region of Berlin. She had heard that the Americans would be given control of this region while the Russians would be given the eastern region. So without her husband and with a baby in her arms, Mrs. Dyck found her way to a refugee camp in West Berlin called Ruhlitzt.
Later, these refugees learned that when the Russian government discovered some of its people had escaped to Germany, they were hunted down like animals. All who were found in East Berlin were taken back to Russia. Entire families were sent to Siberia and sentenced to hard labour. Others were imprisoned, tortured and killed.
Miraculously, Nettie’s dad showed up at the refugee camp where Nettie and her mother had been living for several months. Nettie’s younger sister, Margaret, was born in this camp in 1944 while their father was still away. They spent over four years there waiting for a sponsor. While waiting, Nettie’s dad found work for a farmer in a nearby village. He was finally able to contact an uncle, George Dyck, who lived on a large farm south of Winkler, Manitoba. This uncle agreed to sponsor Nettie’s family, Nettie’s dad’s sister and her family and a cousin with two daughters. These three families arrived in Canada in 1948.
When they had scraped together enough money for fare, Nettie’s family boarded an ocean liner at Bremerhaven, Germany. Many passengers, including Nettie’s mom, became violently sea sick as their ship ploughed through the huge waves of the Atlantic Ocean. They were all happy when they arrived at Pier 22 in Halifax after 7 – 10 days at sea. Now, they would have to make their way by train to Quebec City and then on to southern Manitoba. Nettie says her mother talked more about this journey than she did about her amazing escape from Russia. They worried about finding their way to Winkler where Mr. Dyck’s uncle lived.
Once in Manitoba, Mr. Dyck worked for several farmers in the area before moving his family to Morden. The Mennonite immigrants who settled in southern Manitoba did have one advantage. Most of the farmers and business people still spoke Low German and High German. Only the children were immediately immersed in English. Nettie started Grade 1 in the small English-speaking community of Thornhill. As she struggled to learn English, she felt isolated and lonely surrounded by chattering classmates. Her mother tried to help by studying a school reader together with Nettie every evening. Education was important to Nettie’s dad as he and his father had both been teachers in their former village.
The Dyck family knew before they left for Canada that Margaret was handicapped. They also knew they would not be allowed into Canada if Margaret’s condition were known to the authorities. Margaret was only four but when she was asked her name, she smiled and said, “Margaret.” That response was all that was required of such a young child. Eight years later the Dyck family excitedly welcomed a third child, son William, into their home. Then came the devastating news! Willie was also handicapped. Although the Dycks keenly felt the loss of what might have been, they carried on with the same drive and determination that had brought them to this new country.
Mr. and Mrs. Dyck, along with two other local families, worked together to plan the first special needs school in Morden. The ARC (Association for Retarded Children) School was established in the early 1950s, long before government grants and funding became available and long before educating children with special needs was considered a government’s responsibility. Mrs. Saunders was their first teacher. Nettie often felt she bore the brunt of what it meant to have two handicapped children in one family. Expectations of her were high! She felt the pressure to succeed at school and the need to be protective of her family in public. Later, while raising her children and working, she realized how much Margaret and Willie had contributed to her patience, understanding and empathy for others.
Nettie’s family appreciated the good life that Morden offered them. Her dad worked in Mr. Riediger’s flour mill for a few years before he was hired to manage Riediger’s turkey farm just outside Morden. After about 20 years, a career change was needed. Mr. Dyck became an orderly in the Salem Home in Winkler and at the Morden General Hospital until he retired in 1980. Mrs. Dyck volunteered in their church and at her children’s school. When the two younger children were older, she began working at the local sewing factory.
The Dycks embraced their new country. They became Canadian citizens and worked hard to support themselves and to become solid contributing members of their community. Although Mrs. Dyck had been so courageous in travelling on her own, she suppressed detailed memories about that time. Her stories of fear, terror and homelessness are lost to us. She was happy and relieved to be living and raising her children in a free country and did not want to burden them with knowledge that might be hard to bear. Mr. Dyck died in 2010 at the age of 91 years and Mrs. Dyck died in 2014 at the age of 91 years. Margaret died in 2016 at the age of 72 years and Willie died in 2006 at the age of 54 years.
Nettie and her husband live in Chilliwack, BC, while my husband and I live in Penticton, BC. We don’t get together as often as we would like but when we do, it seems as though we have never parted. We reminisce and laugh about childhood memories and our school years together. Nettie became an RN and worked for many years in hospitals in Manitoba and British Columbia. Her two children, their spouses and her four grandchildren live in Castlegar, BC, and on Vancouver Island. Nettie’s story is only one of many thousands of successful Canadian immigrant stories.