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I loved writing this piece. It took me out of my comfort zone and into a style of writing that I usually do not attempt.
There it was! At last, after weeks of deathly motion sickness and bland boat food, Jan Weildstein-- a Jewish teen escapee from Germany-- could see the vague outline of Prince Edward Island in the evening mist. Jan knew that life in this unfamiliar country was going to prove to be challenging. This thought, however, he kept at the back of his mind. The only thing Jan knew for certain was that the shattered life he had in Germany was left far behind. Soon the young teen-- who had abandoned everything and everyone he knew-- would once again have a polished, innocent place that he could call home. A home untouched by the poison of power hungry men.
Jan gathered the few things he had and made his way to the portside of the ship, leaned over the railing and breathed in the salty ocean air. Within one hour he was at the docking station, leaving the boatlife behind and embracing the next portion of his journey, full of hopeful motivation to seek out a better life.
After asking for a couple directions in broken English, Jan had determined that the people in Canada were genuine. He was able to find his way past a little general store to a boarding house not far from the boat docks. He would line up a place to stay and look for work the following morning.
The man sitting at the front desk wore thick glasses at the tip of his nose and had no hair on his head. “I imagine you’re looking for a place to stay,” his voice rumbled, “is that right?”
“Yes, sir. My name is Jan Weildstein, and I’ve arrived from Germany just a short while ago.” he began scuffling through his bag for identification papers.
“Germany you say,” the bald man sounded surprised, “We haven’t seen many of you come to this part of the country. I hope you find your place, son.” and with that he grabbed Jan’s paper’s and began filling out some documents of his own.
“What did he mean, ‘not many of you’? What place do I need to find?” Jan wondered.
That night, Jan couldn’t shake the feeling of uncertainty and confusion that the old man’s comment had left with him, “I’m already where I aimed to be. I have a safe place to stay. The people here are nice enough. Surely there are people I can make friends with. What more could I possibly need? Maybe there is more to a new home than just simply finding a safe place to sleep.” he pondered this until he had drifted into slumber.
Life in Germany before the persecution began was humble and kind. Jews lived in little shtetls made of tight knit families who looked out for each other. Traditions brought everyone together. The land seemed to smile with the laughter and love of the people it housed. It wasn’t until the early 1930’s that persecution took rise. What once was deemed an innocent gleeful town, turned to a melancholy shadow of pain and hopelessness. Repairing the damaged hope, Jan would soon learn, would be much more complicated than just leaving it behind. Jan would have to learn that there was hidden meaning beyond home.
Jan woke the next morning early, to set out on the goals he had in store for himself. He started by going to the docks to look for work. Encouraging himself all the while, “Surely someone will be in need of a young hand, like me. And maybe I’ll come to know a few folks.” he couldn’t help but fear the unsettling, unclear feeling of what hand of cards he would be dealt for the day.
Jan scoped out what looked to be the dock manager. He noticed his attire, a freshly pressed, sun stained shirt rolled up to his elbows and a wide toothy grin hidden behind a bushy mustache. Jan meandered over to the man, tapped him on the shoulder and worked up what little English he knew to say, “Excuse me sir, I’ve recently come to Canada and I’m looking for work,” he explained, “I was wondering if I might have a chance working at the docks.”
“Why, you’re just a young’n’. Where ya, from son?” he chuckled.
“I’m Jan Weildstein, and I’m from Germany.”
“Well, I think you’ll find that you are one of a kind here, kid,” there was that comment again. “Let me give yea a tour and we’ll see what we can get ya doin’.”
The dock manager was right, not one of the crew hands were like Jan. Each of them talked different, and in telling them where he was from and his family background, he learned that none of them shared the same religious or cultural traditions that he considered a part of him.
Jan’s mother, a Jew who grew up on a kibbutz, often told him and his siblings stories of her childhood and how proud her father was of the nation he was apart of. She always strived to be the kind of mother to her children that her father was to her. She taught Jan to never be ashamed of who he was, that this was the most precious possession he could ever hold. Jan didn’t ever understand what that meant. He would just smile and soak up the loving feeling from his mother; clinging to every word. Even after persecution came to their little village Jan’s mother could never imagine keeping the precious history of her children’s culture from them. Afterall, the purge had made the desperate need for unity and heritage ever so crucial.
But now Jan was alone. His family was still in Germany, they couldn’t afford to send everyone across, so Jan went under his mother’s wishes. She guided him to find a new home and to once again find a place where his heritage could be protected. Still not knowing what his mother meant, Jan embarked on what he viewed as an enthralling adventure.
Standing in amongst all these men, whom he had nothing in common with, Jan felt completely and utterly homesick. He had nothing but his mother’s stories that were ever so slowly beginning to connect to Jan’s fledgling mind. If only he could earn enough money right now to send for his family, if not all of them, just his mother.
After a lengthy, laborious day, Jan retired back to the boarding house to rest and strategize for the weeks following, “How am I going to go day in and day out feeling like this?” he thought, reflecting on the previous eye opening day massed with uneasy emtions. Realizing that home was more than a bed to lay his head on, Jan pondered on what made Germany his home. Why was his mother so proud of where she was from? What made a true home so special?
Jan concluded that he would continue to go to the docks and earn a living, so that one day he would be able to send for his family. Working at the docks would also give Jan the opportunity to continue to get to know the folk of this town, that Jan felt like he would never become accustomed to.
The following morning Jan sauntered to the docks, with a sense of unresolve. He had figured out that there was something beyond home, that would make his transition to Canada significantly easier, but he didn’t know what it was, or how to find it. Jan worked in the warm sun all morning loading imported goods off boats and goods that needed to be exported on to other ships. From time to time he would help couples and families unload luggage and do his best to make each of them feel welcome. Jan observed each family, picking out the patience the mothers had for every single one of her children while the father would ask directions or finish unloading their belongings. He admired the way the young children clung to their older sister’s hands and pulled on their brothers pants. It all reminded Jan of the feeling of home in Germany. These families reminded him of his family.
“Maybe home is a sentiment of belonging,” Jan considered. And with that thought he left for a break. On his way to the general store he passed the day before, Jan came across a group of men. They were different from the other people Jan had interacted with. The men had different accents and still had their luggage piled at their feet from the prolonged journey. Jan stopped for a minute to welcome them.
“Good afternoon,” he started, “where are you from?” Jan asked. Curiosity had gotten the best of him. Two of the men said they were brothers from Belfast, Northern Ireland. The other three men stated that they were from London, England and had met on the voyage.
“We’ve been wondering where we could get a meal in us,” one of the brothers explained. The others nodded in agreement.
“Well that’s a coincidence! I was just going to the general store to get a meal myself,” Jan stumbled over his English.
Jan guided his new acquaintances to the small shop. They chatted along the way about their various experiences on the boat. The unbearable motion sickness, the flavourless food and the unbelievably long, sleepless nights. The men couldn’t help but chuckle, and express their gratitude to finally be off the boat and on this beautiful country they had all heard about.
Jan and each of the men pitched in to buy a loaf of bread, cheese and a bottle of soda pop for everyone. As they sat outside the General store the Irish brothers began to tell stories from their hometown. They recalled one Christmas when their mother had made too much pudding. So they shared with their neighbourhood.
“Everyone came to sing and dance.” the older brother declared, “The crisp winter weather couldn’t stop the warm kinship between complete strangers.” Jan enjoyed this sentimental memory, it reminded him of the sense of belonging his mother described in her stories.
“Funny, how people who don’t know each other can come together like they were family,” Jan thought.
One of the older English men re-told a similar memory of brotherhood when all the men in his area of town would gather in the streets to play football. While everyone was sharing their precious memories Jan felt that same kinship being described. Once again he felt like he was at home in Germany, clinging to his mother’s words.
Jan’s turn came, “What about you, boy?” one of the Irish brothers asked, “What sorts of things did you do in Germany?” all of the men sat on the edge of the boardwalk.
Jan pondered a little before choosing his mother’s favourite story to tell, “My mother told me stories of her father and the traditions he passed on to her,” he began, “her favourite memory was sitting on her father’s lap while he read Jewish poetry to her. It taught her about her heritage. When she grew up and had children she did the same thing.” Jan smiled as he recalled this memory, “She read us Mascha Kaleko, Heinrich Heine, and Else Lasker-Schuler. My mother told me the meaning of the poetry and told me that my nation’s history was worth remembering.”
Something clicked in Jan’s mind. For the first time he knew what the man at the boarding house, and the dock manager meant. No, not very many Jewish people immigrated here. No one would be like him. He was unique and had his own identity that was stripped from him in Germany.
“Now I have the freedom, to pass on and protect the heritage of the nation my mother was so proud of,” Jan grew excited at this sudden clarity, “I can become the person my mother was. I can share my stories and build my true self here!”
For the first time in his life Jan felt pride for his national identity. And though he did not yet know how to build one amongst people so different from him, he had a starting point. That being, this group of five men who too were also looking to find their identity here in Canada. Yes, Jan may have been alone in his culture, but he was in the midst of other individuals fighting the uncertainty of the future to create a home here. A home beyond a bed, a home beyond simply surviving.
Jan ended his break and finished his day at the docks. Working with a glow of confidence that wasn’t there before. Fear of the vague future foggy, and pushed to the back of his mind. He rushed to the boarding house. The place where he was going to shape and mold a home.
Jan sat down at a little desk in the corner of his room and pulled blank paper and a pen from his bag. He began writing what would be a carefully scripted letter to his Mother. Before he began, Jan looked out the window overlooking the docks and grinned, he was going to find belonging and identity, he was going to accomplish what his mother sent him to Canada to do. Jan was determined to create identity and purpose beyond home.