December 14th, 2017

German traveller grateful for local hospitality

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on August 14, 2017.

Dear Mr. Hancock (Lethbridge Herald publisher):

For four weeks I have been back again from my five-week trip through the western part of Canada, which started on May 24 in Lethbridge. I have an old dream fulfilled with this trip. My stepfather was interned for several years in Camp 133 in Lethbridge as a prisoner of war, and had told me a lot about your beautiful country during my childhood. Therefore, I decided not to celebrate my 70th birthday in Germany with a big party, but to present myself with this trip. And therefore my first goal was Lethbridge, where I hoped to find some traces from the time over 70 years agoÉ

It will certainly take some time until I have “sorted” all my impressions from these wonderful weeks. I have travelled through Alberta and British Columbia for over six and a half thousand kilometres, have met many wonderful, nice people, and had beautiful experiences. However, my thoughts go especially back to Lethbridge and to the people I could meet there. It was a great start for me and I feel the need to say thank you for the kindness and helpfulness that has been offered to me everywhere. I had not expected that. I am writing to you because I want to express this.

Always I will remember the warm welcome and the great hospitality of Enid and Herman Gom, the owners of Enid’s Bed & Breakfast, where I spent this first week. These good people and their friends gave me from the beginning the feeling not to be in a country, which was completely strange for me, but in a kind of home. As if that were a matter of course, they have taken me into various excursions that they have undertaken with their friends, for instance to Waterton and to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Not to forget the many valuable tips I have received. Not to forget, too, the help of Enid, who very perfectly repaired my jacket, which was torn during my flight to CalgaryÉ

On the first night in Lethbridge, after a long flight from Germany and an hour-long drive from the airport in Calgary (under still very unfamiliar traffic conditions and with an unusual big rental car), I was tired, but above all hungry. Thankful I think of the nice service in the restaurant “The Keg Steakhouse” (my very first restaurant in Canada I visited), which helped me with much patience over my initial helplessness.

It happened at the Shell petrol station at Scenic Drive South near the Galt Museum. I had to refuel for the first time and was quite clumsy in the handling of the unknown equipment. A woman in work clothes appeared with her pickup. It seemed that she was in a hurry, but she enjoyed it to show me how it works with the credit card. Then I was well prepared for the next time – at the end of my trip, I had consumed more than 340 litres of gasolineÉ

I owe many thanks to Andrew Chernevych from the Galt Museum’s archive. I was there to learn more about the prison camp. Andrew helped me in every conceivable way. He showed me Georgia Green Fooks’ factful book “Prairie prisoners. POWs in Lethbridge,” which was published 15 years ago by the Lethbridge Historical Society. It is, unfortunately, the only copy that exists there. I could take some photos. Even a later personal discussion with Mrs. Fooks regretfully brought no possibility to purchase another copy, which she also very much regretted. I would give a lot to have this book, which in a very detailed way describes all areas of this camp É After that I have tried several times to thank Andrew by mail again for his friendly support, tried this through other contact possibilities in the museum, too. However, all mails returned as “undeliverable.”

It is a pity that I forgot the name of the young student, who carried me through Fort Whoop-Up. He knew so much about the history of it and had a very knowledgeable answer to all questions. We talked about his studies at the University of Lethbridge, how he finances it, how he lives É When I went back to my car, he came after me to wish me a nice trip.

I met another student who was working during the holidays. That was Ashley Young, who worked as waitress in the Italian restaurant “Georgio’s Food & Spirit” on 3 Avenue South. Ashley is studying music. She told me that she wants to be a teacher. She also told me that she especially loves the music of Franz Schubert, one of our great German composers. I promised her to send her some of Schubert’s works. In the meantime, I did so, sent her some sonatas and the very popular “Unfinished Symphony.” Unfortunately our contact seems broken. However, I hope that she has received my shipment and that she is doing well.

Friends of Enid and Herman Gom brought me in touch with John Willms from Coaldale. John took me by car to Coaldale and to the property far out of the town, which was once the farm of his parents. He told me that his father also employed prisoners of the camp who worked in his fields. They had done well with him, were treated well. On the site is still the building, where the POWs were accommodated. For me it was a time trip back. I got an idea of the conditions there 70 years ago. I do not know if this has been so. However, I imagined that my father had also worked with John’s dad and slept in that barn É After this impressing “historic sightseeing tour,” we went into a bar. I think it was John’s favourite one, because he knew the men who were already sitting there. John introduced me to them. Their friendly, open manner towards me as a stranger gave me the feeling as if I would always go in and out there É Of course, I ordered a Canadian beer. It was not a lie when I said that the Germans should not think they had the best beer in the world. This amused John and his friends.

To an unforgettable experience and in some way the highlight of my whole trip was the encounter with Terry Vogt of CTV. There was the idea to make a television interview with me, in which I should talk about my motivation for this trip and its family background. At first, I panicked and was extremely nervous, especially because of my not good English, which is still “refined” by the Saxon dialect, which is even in Germany often mocked (I grew up in Saxony in East Germany)É However, Terry and his cameraman dispelled my doubts and took away my fears. Finally, this “epochal” TV interview near the former camp site happened and was broadcast on the CTV news.

I on Canadian TV! At first I could not see the film and had no idea how it has gone. However, a friend of mine in Germany found the link and sent it to me. My sister, who is an English teacher at a high school, emailed me that she could not hold back her tears when she has seen the interview – he was her biological father, she loved him very much. She was happy that she had sent me the photos of him before I left for Canada. They had been taken during his time in the camp. Thanks to the photos Terry’s report became more authentic and personal. My sister, also others, has reassured me: My English had been not as terrible as I feared. Still today, my TV appearance in Canada goes around among my friends. When I booked my flight in February, I could not even dream of experiencing such a thing.

For many decades Lethbridge was just a word for me, something imaginary, not imaginable. A place that only appeared in early tales of my stepfather. For many years, when I was still living in East Germany, where I spent my youth, I would not have been allowed to go to Lethbridge (or to any other place in the western world). Theoretically, it was only possible for me after 1973, after I was allowed to move to West Germany. Before that, I was imprisoned in East Germany for a year and a half because of an escape attempt. During the four weeks after my stay in your city, I met more nice people and had more wonderful experiences. However, Lethbridge was, for me, emotional and mental, a wonderful reception for Canada. Moreover, in Lethbridge I could open a window to the past, where still something was left in the dark. I am grateful for that.

With best regards

Peter Michel

Ravensburg, Germany

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