It was November, 1956. During the past two years four family members had already left to Canada and now, suddenly, it was our turn.
Six weeks before, my husband and I had already traveled to Hanover in North Germany, where we received our medical certificates and our immigration papers. With us were our two daughters aged eight and six. All went well, we had booked passages on the SS Columbia and our moving crates had been packed and picked up. Due to the fact that our apartment in Germany had come furnished, we were spared the worry of where to live during the last few weeks before our departure – not everybody was so lucky! And then, finally, the moment had arrived to say goodbye to our relatives and this was something we did not look forward to. For our sake, however, they all put on a brave face and we followed their example.
The next two weeks I remember as one, big event with only specific moments standing out clearly, such as on the train, for instance, when passing one of the many castles along the Rhein River, Yvonne looked up and said: “Es war so schon!” – it was so beautiful!. It is at such moments when parents realize how much their children are impacted by their parents’ decisions and wonder if they are doing the right thing. Luckily, Heinz and I were sure we did, but how can you explain this to an eight year old child? Or, the stopover in Köln, where another sister-in-law was waiting to see us off. We were glad to see them one more time, but sad because we knew that there would be no more visiting in the near future.
We stayed overnight in Bremerhaven and the next morning we boarded the ship that would take us across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada. It was an old freighter, converted to accommodate passengers. We even had our own cabin with four bunk beds and a window! And, to the delight of our daughters there was a three-man music band playing in the lounge all along the way.
At one time there was a strong storm – after all it was November – and when some men who had been outside to investigate told us that there was no way to ever get the life boats into the water, it was not very reassuring. Especially when the ship started to lean heavily to and fro, the furniture was sliding around and water was gushing in every time the door to the deck opened. To calm us down the drinks were free and the band kept playing. Against strict orders from my husband to keep the money together, I bought two sailor dolls for the girls because I had my doubts that we would ever survive the trip!
Later on we passed some icebergs near Newfoundland before sailing up the St. Lawrence River. It was then when we had the one and only safety drill of the trip.
On the last day we stayed anchored at the Quebec City harbour, below the Fields of Abraham up on the rock and the Chateau Frontenac across the river. It was a sunny and warm day, considering it was November. We were sitting on the deck while our landing papers were processed and talked. We also learned that this had been the last voyage for the SS Columbia, that as soon as we would be off, it would be taken to a scrap yard. That surely explained a few things!
The next morning showed a different picture: it was windy, rainy and cold and all of us had to wait outside on the deck for our turn at the customs office. But the sight of my sister and her future husband waiting for us on the pier was most welcome and, especially, our children were really excited to see their favourite aunt again.
But what about all the passengers who did not have anybody waiting for them? I have been thinking about them many times and hope they all found what they were looking for.
We, however, piled into my sister’s fiancee’s sporty little Studebaker and with Elvis Presley singing “Love Me Tender” we took off to Toronto and our new home!
Ruth Altendorf is an occasional columnist in The Agassiz-Harrison Observer. Here, she shares a slice of her own history instead of her usual tales of Harrison folks and happenings. This is part three of a six-column series to appear in The Observer over the coming weeks.