By Mavis Gallant
Standard Staff Writer
Mary Golubeva is one DP who is adjusted to her new life. But among her 40,000 fellow immigrants many who are confused, maladjusted and unhappy.
More than two years ago in September, 1947, the first DP workers arrived in Canada. Ten young girls, pledged to a year of domestic service, they were the vanguard of 40,000 to follow. The newcomers were questioned and photographed. Did they like Canada, they were asked, having just set foot in Halifax? Didn’t they think the food was much nicer than the food in Germany? What did they think of the Germans? Of the Russians?
And as the immigrants set about their year of being maids, miners, lumberjacks, and cook-butler-chauffeur, the labour scheme was debated and housewives exchanged anecdotes about their new DP maids.
But when the year of compulsory service ended, as it has for most of them, there was a follow up to see what became of this transplanted group. No records were kept to show how many remained in domestic work. It is not known if they are happy or miserable; if they are good or bad citizens.
And finding the answer would involve 40,000 interviews, for there are as many answers as there are people. There is no such thing as a typical DP. But tracing even a small percentage of this group shows that left to sink or swim in a strange, competitive society, they swim if not always expertly.
Many have found their feet, recovered from the first year (no one liked it) and put the past out of mind. Others dwell on old grievances and, full of hostility and suspicion, cling to their national groups as if they were their only salvation.
In short, some are already good citizens and would have been so anywhere. The rest, less resilient, have reacted badly to what war and history did to them. As one former DP put it, “They get together so they can cry louder.”
The DP, admittedly, is not an ordinary immigrant. He was hand-picked, expected to be healthy, literate and without political taint. More than three-quarters of those interviewed for this story, for example, were well educated. Some say high education standards were required for admission. Others say exactly the contrary: that doctors and lawyers pretended to be cooks and peasants to meet Canadian standards.
Psychiatrists say that the DP is under unusual stress. He has lost everything, including his social status and his identity. It is revealing that many who had survived the war and the peace in Europe had mental breakdowns in Canada. The financial problem for most of them was acute and their pride has taken a terrible beating. Resentment is a human reaction. Even at that some escape it. Mary Golubeva is an example.
She is 26, a student of social work at Mcgill University. Even without the handicap of a foreign language, she would have odds against her. She has no money, no family, and is almost entirely alone in the world. Less than a year ago she was a domestic servant. Before that she was one of the rootless thousands who had become known as displaced persons.
She has, however, the twin gifts of humour and intelligence, and uses both to keep herself steady. Mary was 19 and a university student during the first Russian occupation of Latvia. When she was 22 during the German occupation she was sent to a chemical factory in the Sudeten district. She never saw her home or family again.
The factory was staffed with foreign labour, but Mary was the only Latvian. Most of the time she was cold, lonely, frightened, and overtired. She slept in her clothes because of the cold and often got up in the middle of the night and stayed up because of her fear of being late at the factory.
Shortly before the end of the war the factory was destroyed and the workers scattered. In the confusion Mary set off on foot in a vague southwest direction. It was a mixed caravan, including French, Czech, and Italian workers, two German army deserters and at one point, some British prisoners of war. They stole potatoes and boiled nettles for soup. At night they slept in the woods.
They were on the road six weeks before they reached the first U.S Army lines. A GI let them through against orders. Mary got lice, but she was fed. She was out on a train with other wanderers. They traveled for miles and were turned back by the British. When Mary finally stopped travelling she was south again, in Bavaria. The war was over. When Mary left the train, she discovered she was a Displaced Person. She was put in a camp where she got bedbugs. But she was fed.
She had always been able to speak a little English. Before the war, in Riga, she had spoken her first English sentence to an American student who asked her to dance. “Thank you very much,” she had replied, “but it happens that I have just sprained my ankle.” Her English conversations were now on a different level. She became an interpreter for UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) and later worked for the International Refugee Organization.
In the course of her work Mary met a Canadian girl from Toronto who was with UNRRA and became “the only friend I have in the world.” The Canadian government was recruiting domestics and her Canadian friend advised her to apply. Mary’s work with the IRO had convinced her she wanted to become a professional social worker. She came to Canada and was sent for a year to be a priest’s maid to a French hospital in Montreal.
The pay was $16 a week, $6.50 of which was returned for room and board. She slept in a dormitory with hospital workers. Only at the end of her term did she discover she was entitled to a room of her own. Like many DP workers, she lost weight and became ill shortly after her arrival.
Evenings she studied English and French.
Her living expenses come to slightly more than $16 a week. Most of her clothes are hand-me-downs and she cooks on a hotplate in her room. She has another year ahead at McGill, after which she must begin paying back her debt. By that time she will be nearly 30.
Is it worth it?
Mary says it is. She is not, as herself says, an outstanding student. And the profession she is sacrificing so much to enter is one of the lowest-paid professional groups in Canada.
Yet with all this Mary is a happy person. She feels she is getting what she wants through her own efforts. She is an attractive girl and undoubtedly makes friends easily, given time and the opportunity. She likes Canada, although her life here has been far from easy. She applied for Canadian citizenship two months after her arrival.
To an outsider, the past eight years of her life would appear wasted. She has lived in places she disliked and been forced into jobs she hated. She has been without money, often without friends, in one strange environment after another. What she says is: “I cried in Germany, But I don’t cry now. I was a spoiled brat before the war. It took these experiences to toughen me, make me see what the worlds was like and make me want to work for others.”
Unlike Mary, some DPS feel overwhelmingly handicapped by the language barrier and by their age. It is comparatively easy for Mary to start over at 23. It is more difficult over 40. Julian Banassak is 42. He was a high school teacher before the war in Western Poland. When he was 36, he began years of camp living, first in a German work camp then for three years in a British DP camp in Wesel. Camp life, as one DP puts is, is a deteriorating experience.
Two years ago, when Canada was offering the labour immigration scheme, Banassak came as a farm worker. He was sent to a farm near Three Rivers, Que. He will not discuss his life there, but it is revealing that he did not learn a single word of French although he was working for a French-speaking family. His pay was $45 a month and room and board. His only comment is: “When people import you to work, they expect work.”
At the end of his year, he came to Montreal and registered for work at an Employment Service office. He took (cannot read the rest of this sentence)
Like the Finnish Army veteran, they had to go somewhere, and the door to Canada, if not open, was at least ajar. And, like the Finnish veteran, not all of them appear to have been dragged into Germany kicking and screaming. They went quite voluntarily for a number of reasons: to get better jobs, to avoid the Russians or because the industry for which they worked was evacuated with the personnel.
“I am tired of being asked if I was in a concentration camp.” one DP said. “I wasn’t political and I wasn’t Jewish, so why should I have been?”
Contrasting with her are the DPS who wear on their forearms the brand or tattoo marking their term of imprisonment. Nevertheless, politically, the DP picture is confusing for Canadians accustomed to thinking in black and white terms of Communist-Nazi-democrat.
An example is a Russian girl we can all Aniela. She was born in Leningrad shortly before the revolution. Her father was a doctor and she “always grew up knowing there was another world.” But she was not unhappy. “ I had my family and the ordinary life of the student.” She became an architect and married. Her husband was in the Red Army. During the siege of Leningrad she was evacuated to the south, in a an area which the Germans shortly surrounded. When the Germans moved back, anyone who might be useful was either taken by force or offered a job in Germany. Aniela was offered a job and took it.
She worked for a firm of architects in Berlin from 1943 until the end of war. Then she fled south because she was being “sought.” She cannot say at what point and decided not to return home to her husband. She knows that he appealed to her over the radio to come back, but she didn’t wait to hear more. She says she was afraid for both of them: that she would be shot for having worked for the Germans from 1943, and that he would be shot too, just to be on the safe side.
Aniela came to Canada as a domestic. She was to be admitted to the United States, but there was a three-month delay and she could not, or would not, wait. She is completely unsuited to domestic work. Like a great many of the DP domestics, she had never washed a floor in her life. Her instability in the new life shows in the fact that she changed jobs four times in the first year, “which seemed like 10 years.”
She now works as a draftsman. She is a silent, shy and extremely confused person. “I could write an interesting book,” she said, “because I have lived under three regimes, the Soviet, the Nazi and democracy.”
“Which do you like best?” she was asked. She thought for a few minutes, “Well,” she said, “”the Nazi was like the Soviet, only there was more to eat and a higher standard of living. There was no real freedom anywhere. Here you have to buy your freedom. If you have no money you have no freedom. And if you are poor and old and sick no takes care of you.”
“In that case,” said the interviewer, somewhat nettled, “If you haven’t been able to purchase your freedom you must be very sorry you came.”
“No,” said Aneila unhappily. “In Russia I would have been killed. And it is a very hard life. Nothing is produced for the people and the government does everything. In time of war, when the government is preoccupied only with war, the individual is lost. There is no private business so he has to work for the Germans or wherever he can. Women work very hard too. Here women think too much of being beautiful. Of course, I never worked so hard in my life as here,” she added, in total chaos.
To many DPs the amount of work was not the main objection. It was what they called “the attitude.” Emilie Strasdin, for example, a highly intelligent girl, was so crushed by the attitude of her employers (“They didn’t want me to read anything or know anything”) that she left her job as a domestic and paid $12.50 a month to the Receiver-General of Canada for the balance of her year, under the terms of the contract by which she came here.
Emilie once a Latvian government worker is now a teller in a bank. She was promoted and received two raises in salary within 12 weeks of beginning at the bank. Her former employers she recalls, tried very hard to instill in her the proper domestic servant attitude, but failed completely.
The people with whom Emilie now lives, also DPs had a totally different experience. A married couple, sculptor and painter by profession, they were sent as domestic help to a hotel in Bobcaygeon, Ont. The people for whom they worked were extremely kind and they still correspond. Ludwig Kalnins painted some murals for them before he left and there were good feelings all around. He now works for a sculptor who makes monuments and casts. A YMCA official got the job for him very easily, by making a few telephone calls.
Some of the domestic mixups were funny. In one case, a Canadian of Hungarian descent applied for a Hungarian DP, stipulating that she be a peasant. “I understand the mentality,” he explained to his friends. He was given a Hungarian girl who turned out to be a lawyer and spent the entire year in his service pulling strings to get her fiance, who was a Yugoslav judge out of Europe.
In another case, a Canadian housewife had asked for some reason for an old and ugly domestic. She was presented with an 18 year old blonde Estonian beauty who threw the household into an uproar for a year. A friend of hers also a DP, explains: “Such a doll, they didn’t know what to do with her. So when she left she became a model. So there she is. In a business again where it is first love, then promotion. And she is a very good girl.”
After a moment she said thoughtfully: “You know, that girl will never get ahead in Canada.”
– Montreal Standard, April 22 1950.