By the end of 1940, aged only 26, my maternal grandmother Gunda was on a boat to Canada and a whole new life. She had my 1 1/2 year-old mother with her and was pregnant with my aunt Bettina. They were on the last government-sponsored ship taking evacuees from England.
Her ship’s convoy was torpedoed and that same year The City of Benares was hit and 260 people including 77 children were killed. The public’s outrage caused Winston Churchill to end the evacuation project.
The absurdity of war is illustrated within my family.
My German grandmother was at risk of being torpedoed by a U-Boat. Later in the war her brother Heinz became a U-Boat captain in the German navy at the age of 24.
Gunda’s brother Detlev was the pilot of a bomber in the German airforce.
He was killed when his plane was shot down over the Bristol Channel, less than 200 miles from where his English grandmother and aunt lived in England.
Detlev died several months before Gunda left for Canada but it was years before she even knew of his death, receiving the news via her grandmother and the Red Cross.
Her youngest brother, Erik, was 12 when Gunda left Germany. She didn’t picture him involved in the military but at age 16 he was drafted into the Flakhelfer, the homeland anti-aircraft service. In 1943 the German government, I guess running out of grown men, conscripted all teenage schoolboys born from 1926 on, and then moved them into the front line army after about a year.
Erik was drafted into the army before he turned 18.
On his first day of battle he was wounded by an American bullet, which actually turned out to be a lucky break since all but 3 of his unit drowned when their boat sank while crossing the Rhine shortly afterwards.
When the Americans went around the battlefield calling for the German soldiers to surrender, up popped this skinny boy who spoke perfect English. Erik was taken prisoner and spent 14 months in a variety of army hospitals and prison camps.
While in one of the hospitals he was examined by a doctor who had recently arrived from the United States. The doctor read Erik’s name and looked surprised. He asked if his name was in fact Davidson. Erik confirmed. The doctor then asked if Erik was born in Darmstadt. Erik said yes, but how did the doctor know? “My name is Altschüler,” the doctor said. “I brought you into the world.”
Dr. Altschüler had been the gynecologist who supervised my great-grandmother’s difficult 10 month pregnancy with Erik. He was Jewish and had managed to get out of Germany with his wife and their daughters.
For the first two years that Gunda was in Canada she lived in Barrie, Ontario, at the same school that her mother-in-law, Dé had escaped to years before. Dé’s friends had started the school and they took Gunda in as a war guest.
My aunt Bettina was born in Barrie. Gunda made friends in the area and tried to earn her keep by teaching art and languages at the school but having two very young children made it almost impossible. After a couple of years she felt resentment building among other people at the school and she decided to move to Toronto where she might find enough work to support herself and her children.
I’ll write about that next time…
If you'd like to get the next installment emailed to you, sign up here.