Breaking the Waves

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By Ed Staskus

Even if it is a 500-foot long 12-thousand-ton carrier like the S.S. Marine Flasher, sailing the North Sea in late November is sailing that sea at the wrong time of the year. Daytime temperatures average less than 50 degrees and it is water-logged gloomy foggy. If it’s not raining, it will start raining soon. Sometimes it is so foggy that ships have to slow to less than 5 knots with horns blaring.

It is hurricane season through November. There are about seven hours of daylight. Windy skies and strong sea swells make plowing through the cold water like trying to break through waves of lumpy mashed potatoes.

“I was on the boat for nine days and I was sick for nine days,” said Angele Jurgelaityte about her crossing from Hamburg, Germany, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the Marine Flasher, converted from a troop ship to hauling DP’s. Not only were big waves breaking over the sides of the ship, in the aftermath of the war, hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical weapons had been disposed of by being dumped in the North Sea.

“The ocean didn’t leave a good impression on me. Whenever we threw up, we called it Going to Riga.”

What they meant was that the water flows north, so when they threw up over the side, the vomit was swept north up the Baltic Sea past Poland and Lithuania to the mouth of the Daugava River, where Riga, Latvia is.

The Marine Flasher was built at the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington. She was launched for the United States Maritime Commission in May 1945. The ship sailed to San Francisco, Okinawa, Korea and returned to Seattle. The next year the Marine Flasher sailed to New York City and from there to Bremen. For the next three years she ferried refugees from Europe to North America, by way of Canada and New York City, and then went back to Germany.

Angele shoved off German European Old World land for good on November 17, 1948. The next day ration scales for IRO refugees became uniform in the British, French, and American zones. It didn’t matter to her anymore. She ate better on the boat, no matter the seasickness, than she had in a long time.

“There was a canteen on board, and we all got two dollars a day,” she said. “The food was very good. We ate well.”

There were widespread food shortages in Germany immediately following the end of the war. The supply of food was impacted by the prolonged warfare, including the destruction of farmland, silos and barns, livestock, and machinery. Many Germans were forced to live on less than 1,500 calories a day. The average adult calorie intake in the United States at the time was more than 3,000 and in the overseas U.S. Army more than 4,000.

The civilian population suffered hard times during the severe winter of 1946 – 47, exacerbated by shortages of fuel for heating. Displaced persons got more generous rations, supplied by the Army, the UN, and relief agencies, but even they averaged less than 2,000 calories a day.

There were 535 refugees bound for Canada on board the Marine Flasher. There were almost 3,000 more bound for the United States, men women children baby carriages. They steamed into Halifax the afternoon of November 26 and spent the night on the boat, tied up at Pier 21. Angele hadn’t been able to get into the United States, but she had been able to get to the next best place, Canada.

She wasn’t stuck behind the Iron Curtain, she wasn’t stuck in Nuremberg, and a two days later she boarded a train for Montreal. It took all day and all night and part of the next day to get there, but she wasn’t stuck on it going nowhere.

“It was almost 30 hours, but the train was comfortable, with beds,” she said.

When they arrived, everyone designated as a nanny or a domestic were segregated.

“Those who already had sponsors left. The rest of us, about a hundred of us, boarded busses and they took us to a camp.” They were housed two to a room and interviewed. “They wanted to know what we had been doing in Germany.”

They had to fill out one form after another.

One of her roommates at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg had emigrated to Canada a few months earlier. She was working and living in London, Ontario. It is in southwestern Ontario, just north of Lake Erie. The city is a hub for education and healthcare. There are parks and greenways where it lays along the Thames River.

It was a military center during the first and second wars, but the wars were finally over.

“Ele wrote me that I should ask to go to London, or second best, Toronto,” Angele said. “I started thinking I would join her in London. When I filled out the forms that they gave me I wrote down where she was and that I wanted to go there.”

Three days later she was presented with a Canadian visitor visa and found out where she was going. She knew she was on the list for the Lapalme family. She hoped she wasn’t going there. An official gave her their address in Sudbury, Ontario. They were Florence and J. A. Lapalme, a prominent family in the mining town. They were known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury.” Their children numbered fourteen, although Angele would only be responsible for five of them. Since she had worked in the Children’s Ward at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, she was seen as the kind of nanny capable of caring for multiple boys and girls.

“They were so young,” she said. “The youngest was nine months and the oldest was only 7 years old.” Francois was the youngest, Aline the oldest, Gilles Muriel and Marcel in the middle.

The domestic who cleaned and helped in the kitchen was Lucille Pharand. She worked in several big houses. Lucille was well known as a hard worker, built like a fireplug, and for her blueberry pies.

In the spring 1949 she and her husband Leo built a home in in the new town of Minnow Lake, three miles from Sudbury. The first few years there was no indoor water and there were no sewer lines to the house. Leo drove to the nearby lake every day with a neighbor, carrying a tub and pails, where they collected water for dishes, laundry, and bathing. They got their drinking water from a well a couple of houses away.

In time Leo and Lucille gave the Lapalme’s a run for their money, making a large family for themselves of ten children.

“I asked again to go to London, but again they said no,” Angele said. “They said nobody was going there.” She wasn’t sure if it was true or if they were just telling her that. In the end not a single refugee went to London or Toronto.

“But I couldn’t complain.”

There wasn’t anybody to explain and complain to, nobody who was going to change the destination that had been determined for her. If you were a European refugee, you were going somewhere where there was work. Men punched a clock digging out ore, cutting down trees, and laying roads. Women knuckled down cleaning cooking and caring.

Angele had struck up a friendship on the Marine Flasher with two other young Lithuanian women, Inga and Laime.  Laime in Lithuanian means happy. They had their hearts set on going to Alberta. They told her there were many rich men there.

When the train reached Sudbury, Angele and six other women, all Russians, and a man, another Russian, got off the train. Everybody else, including Inga and Laime, went on to Alberta and British Columbia. Angele was the only Lithuanian on the train platform, more than four thousand miles and several languages from her home in Lithuania.

“There was no one to understand how unhappy I was.”

The end of World War Two saw the movement of people all over the world from one place to another. Between January 1946 and December 1953 over 750,000 immigrants came to Canada. In June 1947 the federal government had authorized the entry of 5,000 non-sponsored DP’s. Two years later the number had risen to 45,000. Ottawa established five mobile immigration teams composed of immigration, security, medical, and labor officials. They were sent to Austria and Germany to select refugees deemed acceptable for emigration to Canada.

Displaced people from the Baltic countries were ranked high on the list of the immigration teams. They had been in UN-run camps after their countries, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were caught in the middle of the Russian and German battle zones. Their small countries had become independent after World War One, then occupied by the Russians in 1940, then invaded by Germany in 1941, and in 1944 overwhelmed by the Russians.

In the space of 25 years they had gone from enslaved by tyrants to enslaved by new tyrants.

“When we got off the train there were two men waiting for us,” Angele said. They helped the eight refugees sort themselves out and get to where they were going. One of them told her she was lucky to be going where she was going.

The Lapalme’s introduced themselves and their children, arranged her living quarters, and quieted her fears about there being no other Lithuanians in Sudbury They explained there were, and the next day Dr. Valaitis, a Lithuanian doctor and friend of the family, drove to the Laplame home and sat down with her, telling her there were many other Lithuanians in Sudbury.

“Some of them have been here more than two years,” he said. “They make a good living working in the mines.” He gave her the names and phone numbers of several nearby, told her about the Polish church they shared for services, and the local hall where they staged dances and folk performances.

“The kids I had to care for were so small,” Angele said. She was just 20 years old. “They spoke French among themselves and English to me.” She spoke to them more in gestures and pantomime than not at first. Angele spoke Lithuanian, German, some Russian, but less English.

“When Vytas and I were together in Nuremberg he encouraged me to learn English, but I didn’t want to. Whenever I saw him coming with his grammar book I ran away.”

Vytas Staskevicius was a young Lithuanian from Siauliai she had left behind in Nuremberg, but who she was waiting for, waiting for him to come to Canada and join her. He had fled the Baltics in 1944, like her, and been displaced in Germany, like her, for more than four years.

She started taking English classes in Sudbury right away. She wrote Vytas often, at night, pages and pages in cursive, in their native language.

“The Lapalme’s have been good to me They are Catholics and go to church every day, seven days a week. They have a food warehouse, which is their business. We eat very well, so it’s not bad in that respect.”

Florence was J. A. Laplame’s second wife. He placed ads in newspapers and hired her, a young out-of-town woman, to watch and care for his children after his first wife died. He had seven children, some of them teenagers, some not. It wasn’t long before one thing led to another and he proposed to her. He was nearly thirty years her elder, but she accepted, and over the next decade-and-some gave birth to seven children, bringing the family up to record-breaking speed in Sudbury.

“Florence does the cooking,” Angele wrote. “She has a part-time woman come and help with the cleaning and cooking, but Florence does the main cooking. There are usually eleven or twelve of us at the dinner table. She is in the basement every night doing laundry, too. I don’t clean or cook. My job is to watch the children.”

Whenever Florence was ready to deliver another baby, since her husband had several business interests and was often out of town, Florence drove herself to St. Joseph’s Hospital. “If it was close, she called a taxi,” said Angele.

Roger Lapalme, grown-up and the only one of the family who had gone farther than high school, sat next to Angele at the dinner table whenever he was at home. “Roger liked me, but Vytas was the one for me.” He was barking up the wrong tree. “He was handsome and a lawyer, but I told him I already had a boyfriend,” Angele said.

He took her motor-boating on Lake Ramsey until the day he got too enthusiastic at the helm and she fell off the boat. She told him it was enough of that.

One of the LaPalme sisters had suffered a nervous breakdown. When her boyfriend, who she expected to marry, killed someone in a car crash, she broke down. She told her father her life was over and went to work in the nickel mines. She was rarely at the house.

Vytas Staskevicius had a sponsor in the United States, an uncle in Boston, but delayed sailing there. He also stalled going to Australia with a friend of his who thought they could make passage there. He became determined to get to Canada. J. A Lapalme had already promised Angele he would give Vytas a helping hand.

“The year is ending soon,” she wrote him. “I have been here more than three weeks. When can you come?” She knew the sailing season wasn’t going to be for several more months. Her man had to break the waves. She knew it wasn’t going to be soon enough.

“Be good and write me often,” she wrote at the start of the new year.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”