Offered as a contribution to the Canada 150 Project, documenting the many contributions made by Canadians of all walks of life to the project that is Canada.
Inscription on the Siegestor, Munich DE reads: “Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging of peace”
The enduring memory I have of my grandparents is of their resourcefulness and their toughness.
In their late 40’s they fled as refugees from war-torn Austria to Canada and built a rich life for themselves and their family. They rebuilt their life savings and became wealthy property owners, starting from scratch in a new land where they did not know the language.
They wanted to leave their past behind them and never talked about their experiences in the old country. Only recently did a clear picture emerge of what they had endured to get to Canada.
(Christoph and Maria Muller refugee photo -1950 Austria)
May 8th 1945 marked the end of WW2 in Europe. The largest military machine ever assembled had come to bear on Nazi Germany. Caught in the middle were millions of guiltless people of all nationalities: this war did not provide mercy for the innocent.
As the world celebrated victory, in the aftermath, everyday people struggled to create new lives for themselves in an apocalyptic landscape.
My grandmother was then living on the street in Austria with my uncle, an infant of 4 months, and also pregnant with my father. She had been bombed out of her house three times in the recent year. Her first husband had been killed earlier in the war and she had a teenage son from that marriage. Her new husband, and father of her infant children, had been ordered to the front and she had no knowledge if he had survived.
She was taken in then by a ‘good Samaritan’ that allowed the family to live in the corner of their kitchen. She welcomed my father into the world in these conditions. One night, months later, she heard a familiar voice by the window; my grandfather had been released from Allied custody and came to find his young family. He had been directed to the house by neighbors who found him searching the bombed out ruins of their most recent home. They stayed up all night recounting their luck and sharing stories. The long walk to a better future together could now begin.
The Muller family was forever changed by the events of WW2, an impact that continues to this day. The family was painfully scattered across the world from Romania to Germany, Austria to Canada. In the bitter struggle for existence whole families were dislocated and scattered across the continents. One cousin recounted: “my father was so haunted by the families split after the war that he was working on uniting them, and neglected his own children. I had to overcome that as an adult”
My paternal grandfather and grandmother were both born in modern day Romania. The Muller family then consisted of the parents Karl and Margarethe, and 13 sons and daughters, and assorted extended families. They were fixtures in the local German community at both church and school, where Karl was a teacher.
(Muller Family Photo – 1904, Galicia (modern day Ukraine))
The Hapsberg Empire had created a multi-cultural landscape across the region that included Germans, Jews, Poles, Hungarians etc all living relatively peacefully as neighbors. The colossal struggle that followed between the Soviet and NAZI states extinguished this vibrant world from existence forever.
The Muller family – 1934 Bukhovina, Romania
In 1940, the Soviet-Axis non-aggression pact assigned ‘spheres of influence’ in Romania to the Soviets. Some areas had high numbers of German population, specifically Bukhovina, Galicia and Besserabia. In advance of Soviets moving in, the German army rounded up ethnic Germans and transported them to Germany for their own safety. They were promised farms and good conditions if they returned home to the Reich. It was well known what would happen to any that remained.
The Muller family, along with 90,000 other Romanian Germans, were transported to camps in Germany. These were ‘concentration camp’ conditions with over 20 people per room. Movement was restricted except for labour, no cooking was allowed and most able bodied men were conscripted. One survivor recounted “now the full realization dawned on us that we had been promised the skies but were in fact in the grips of a powerful dictatorship”.
At this point, the re-settlers were either conscripted into the military (the men) or agricultural work (the women), or some other essential occupation for the war effort (This is a familiar pattern, almost exactly the same happened in WW1). My grandfather was a railroad mechanic and thus (luckily) escaped the draft as an ‘essential worker’. Others that escaped the draft were teachers and preachers in the family.
Although working in an ‘essential occupation’, most of the family remained in ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps in Germany or Austria. Some of the family was lucky and resettled in Poland. Life was very difficult and lacked basic comforts and freedoms. Orders from the authorities could not be refused or protested, especially if one had resettled from the east. Although part of the German community, these were second class citizens, often not able to work or hold jobs.
My grandmother complained bitterly of the camp conditions, crammed into barracks with open frame walls and no insulation. The food was terrible, and the camps were infested with all manners of vermin: bedbugs, fleas, lice.
(The family ‘Personnel Card’ – Internal Displaced Persons Archive – Linz, Austria )
As the war became desperate, housing became scarce and refugees continued to pour in with no place to go. All able bodied men were ordered to the front in October 1944, with my grandfather among them.
Later on, those Mullers that had been settled on farms in Poland endured a 6 week walk in winter from Silesia to another camp outside Berlin. Along the way they could see the countryside burning behind them as the Red Army rampaged across the Prussian plain. Some were lucky enough to survive the Dresden bombings; while others watched the town go up in that infamous ablaze from afar. “Those were unforgettable times”.
Civilian bombing further depleted the housing stock. My grandmother recalled in her memoirs “I suffered for years after the war from the air raids”. Their camp was nearby the Linz nitrogen factory, which was a regular focus of allied bombing.
The family remained in IDP camps until the end of the war, and for many years after as well. This became a permanent situation after the war as most refugees from the east were still not granted citizenship rights. In order to leave the camps, you first had to prove to authorities that you had somewhere else to go. “We tried to leave, and each time ended up back in the bug infested ‘kazern’ (translated – barracks). When there is nothing else, you get used to it”. It goes without saying that they could not return to their home countries in the east. In some cases re-settlers remained in closed camp conditions on food rations, even as late as 1958.
The desperate camp situation caused many to seek emigration to anywhere that would take them. Emigration was easier for those with technical skills, or those that had family or church sponsors. In 1952 the Mullers left Austria for Cranbrook BC, with the help of the Lutheran church and distant family members whom they had never met.
Some members of the Muller family stayed in Germany and attained citizenship, both in East and West Germany where life began to normalize. Others that fought on the Eastern front either perished or were incarcerated in Russia and not released until 1951. Some attempted to return to Romania and subsequently disappeared. Others emigrated to the US, but most settled in Canada. Christoph and Maria Muller successfully emigrated to BC in 1952, with their family. In subsequent years they would help more of the 13 siblings come to Canada.
Christoph and Maria settled in Nelson B.C. Chris worked for many years helping modernize the CPR railway, and was a handpicked technician for that task. Also, they ran a construction company, a dressmaking shop, owned rental buildings, and other properties, generally prospering in their new land.
I remember them as the very hardest workers imaginable, and true characters of determination and dedication. They wasted nothing, saved everything, and prospered through some of the most difficult experiences imaginable.
I think of them often when faced with modern life’s many insignificant challenges.
Christoph and Maria Muller ’85 – Nelson BC