Friday, June 30, 2017

An Immigrant’s Thanks

Happy 150th to my home and chosen land!

As a three-year-old immigrant, I didn’t have a choice, of course. But my parents did, and I’ve been forever grateful to them for that decision.

The happy immigrants in Niagara Falls, 1956
They grew up in Hungary - my dad in a pastoral village nestled in the hills northwest of Budapest, and my mom, in a German community far away in the south. Chances are they would never have met had the war not intervened and dramatically changed their lives.

He was 11 and she was 8 when conflict broke out in 1939. My mother’s family just happened to be in Austria, where my grandfather was working temporarily, and they never saw their homeland again.

In 1944, my 16-year-old father was snatched off the street by a passing army unit, and pressed into military service. My grandmother didn’t even know what had happened to him. Sent to Poland with a gun and no training, he was soon a prisoner of the Russians, and lucky to survive.

In Austria, my 14-year-old mother was terrified to be strafed by machine-gun fire from an Allied plane in 1945. She was nonetheless grateful when the Americans liberated them from the Nazis shortly thereafter.

The Potsdam Agreement drafted by the victorious Allies in 1945 instigated “the largest forcible population transfer in human history” and “one of the largest episodes of mass human rights abuse in modern history”.  [R.M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War]   Between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. They lost their citizenship, livelihoods, homes, and all possessions aside from what each person could carry in one suitcase.

My dad’s family had lived in their village for many generations, his father even having to change his surname to something Hungarian because he was a civil servant. He chose “Tavaszi”, meaning “spring”. Among the many relatives married to ethnic Hungarians and therefore not evicted were my widowed aunt and her three children – much to their dismay when they became imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. They eventually escaped.

My mother’s entire hamlet was “cleansed”, and when we visited it two decades later, it was a ghost town: soulless houses – many of which my grandfather had built – weathered doors hanging off broken hinges, windows shattered, animals nesting among the ruins; the cemetery overgrown, barely discernible; my grandparents little farmstead reclaimed by nature. No voices or footsteps other than ours. It was decidedly creepy, but also terribly sad.

The two displaced families became neighbours in former army barracks in the medieval, storybook town of Mosbach, Baden, near Heidelberg. Each family had one room for living, cooking, bathing, and sleeping.

With the influx of so many millions more to feed and house in a defeated land already starving and bombed out, survival was a challenge. I grew up with stories about trading the few remaining family heirlooms and jewellery for food, of carrying heavy bags of nuts scavenged from the forest to a farmer in exchange for a slab of butter or a sack of flour, of daring to steal a few cherries off a tree, to be chased and scolded by the property owner.

But I also heard about the frequent dances held in the barracks compound. The young could make their fun anywhere, but for my grandparents it must have been devastating to have lost everything. It became even worse when three of my aunts died of tuberculosis. Malnutrition undoubtedly contributed.


My parents, Katie and Paul Tavaszi, 1949
My dad was just 21 and my mom, not yet 18 when they married, already planning their escape to a better land. My mother had aunts in the U.S. Perhaps they could go there? But the States wouldn’t take them. Canada sounded good.

I was born in the barracks. When I was three, my family finally had the paperwork to immigrate to Canada, but my father had to go over first and have a steady job for at least three months before we could join him.

My 23-year-old mother had $5 in her pocket and only a smattering of school English when she and I arrived in Montreal on a gloomy October day in 1954. She was appalled to receive a telegram from my dad instructing her to get on a train to Lindsay, Ontario - where the heck was that? - instead of Delhi. He’d been working in the tobacco fields for a Hungarian farmer whose son had started a new business in Lindsay, manufacturing TV antennas. My dad had messed about with radios and such as a boy, and wanted to become an engineer, so here was this amazing opportunity, which did indeed work out.

Having left behind the romantic, hilly countryside of southern Germany, jewelled with ancient towns and stately castles, my mom grew increasingly worried and depressed as the train sped us through long stretches of wilderness and swamps, past villages that resembled frontier boomtowns in cowboy movies, and along a sluggish river, finally depositing us at a railway station where my dad waited, excited to show us the wonders of our new home. My mother loved the movies, so he insisted we weary travellers go to the cinema that evening. I think she was still in shock.

I explored these feelings of displacement, of seeking a better life, of facing daunting challenges in a strange and sometimes hostile land in my novel about pioneer Upper Canada,  A Place to Call Home, which is dedicated to my parents, who were pioneers in their own right.

They both worked at Lindsay Antenna, but on different shifts so that one would always be looking after me. When there was overlap time, I was in the factory, tasked with sweeping floors – as a four-year-old. Should I put that on my resume?

I have only wisps of memories of my first three years in Germany, the most powerful being the distinctive taste of the ice cream there. So my real life began when we arrived in Lindsay, which became my parents’ permanent home, and mine for several decades. Most townspeople embraced us warmly, often with great generosity. Dr. Broadfoot charged us little or nothing at all in those early, pre-OHIP days, when doctors still made house calls day or night.

My friend's father had been captured by the Germans at Dieppe, and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. But I always felt welcome at their house and cottage – which inspired my Muskoka Novels. I dedicated Book 3, Under the Moon, to them.

But we did experience prejudice. Even when I was in high school, I was sometimes jeered as a Nazi.

These themes are part of the adventurous kids’ novel that I co-authored with my daughter, Melanie, who also grew up in Lindsay. The Girl From No-Man’s-Land is set in 1963 “Launston Mills” (AKA Lindsay, as per A Place to Call Home), and is currently seeking a publisher.

Obviously, Lindsay and Canada have shaped my life and career. My novels, which bring Canadian history vibrantly to life, are as much a tribute to my beloved country as they are my joy and pride.

Travelling abroad always reaffirms for me what a truly wonderful and respected country we live in. As a 13-year-old, I was shocked by the menacing soldiers with machine guns on every corner in Budapest, then under communist rule. Visiting the dispirited relatives on both sides – the teens thrilled to receive “American” blue jeans – I was so glad that my parents had been kicked out of Hungary. For many years we sent care packages, which always included those treasured jeans. My parents were careful with every penny, and there was no extravagance in those days, but I realized that in comparison to Hungarian cousins, we lived in a land of plenty and opportunity, and so we were indeed the “rich relatives”.

When my husband, daughter, and I visited northern France in 2007 on one of my research trips, an elderly Frenchman thanked us profusely, with tears in his eyes, for helping to liberate France. The people of Ypres (Ieper) Belgium were equally friendly and grateful for Canada’s heroic contributions in the previous war.

Although my birth to “Displaced Persons” happened in Germany, my mind, heart, and soul are truly Canadian. I’m so lucky, and deeply thankful to my adopted country!






Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Salisbury Cathedral

Places that inspire or intrigue me usually end up in one of my novels. I’ve just set a scene in Book 4 at Salisbury Cathedral and its Close during WW2. Fortuitously, one of the historic houses in the Close is for sale, so I was able to tour the rooms online, and envision my characters there.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds - by John Constable, c. 1925
My first glimpse of the cathedral was across the water-meadows from our inn, the view instantly reminiscent of John Constable’s famous painting, above. My husband and I were on our honeymoon, guided by a book entitled “England on $5 and $10 a Day” – yes, many decades ago! Our hotel straddled a shallow stream and had once been a mill, with parts dating back to ecclesiastical beginnings in the 13th century. It was all delightfully quaint and ridiculously romantic.

As we followed a footpath across the meadows and rivers, the magnificent cathedral rose out of the deceptively pastoral landscape. From the narrow, medieval streets of the inner city, we passed through a battlemented stone gate into the Cathedral Close – the largest in Britain at 80 acres. Other superlatives describing the Gothic cathedral, primarily constructed during the 13th century, include having the largest cloisters, the tallest spire, the finest of the four remaining 800-year-old Magna Cartas, and Europe’s oldest working clock.

That lofty spire may well have saved the cathedral from bombing during WW2. From the map of a downed German plane, it appeared that the steeple was used as a navigational aid.

In any case, the Magna Carta and other priceless documents were stored in a secret government repository during the war, along with other national treasures. My thanks to Cathedral Archivist, Emily Naish, for her helpful information.

Visiting the cathedral again two decades later with our daughter, we took a fascinating "Tower Tour" into the rafters and up to the base of the spire, where there's a terrific view over the city and countryside. You can see a bit of it in this short video.

Of course this is all grist for the literary mill!

For more info about Salisbury Cathedral, visit the official website.








Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering.... Always

CWGC Cemetery at Etaples, the largest in France with 10,773 WWI graves - copyright Melanie Wills
Although the war is over when Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels, Under the Moon, begins, it lingers for many of my characters. It’s perhaps hard for us to imagine trying to rebuild lives shattered in trenches or aerial warfare, and to carry on without friends, husbands, and sweethearts when life is just supposed to be beginning. Little wonder that became known as the “lost generation”.

War veterans were reluctant to talk about their horrific experiences, especially to those who weren’t there and wouldn’t truly understand. Many couldn’t readjust to civilian life or were haunted by unforgettable experiences, including their own participation in the brutality. How does a young man, brought up to believe in the sanctity of life, reconcile that with his requirement to kill? Survivors often felt guilty that they didn’t lie alongside their comrades.

A few eventually wrote memoirs or thinly disguised fiction, possibly to help exorcise the demons, leaving us with valuable insight.

One of the most compelling is Vera Brittain’s classic, Testament of Youth.  After her beloved younger brother, her fiancĂ©, and their closest friends joined up, feisty Vera delayed her Oxford education to do “her bit” in the war by becoming a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. Through her eyes, we witness the carnage of war and feel the profound sorrow of so many young lives shattered. She wanted to ensure that no one ever forgot that sacrifice.

A powerful, moving film adaptation of Testament of Youth was recently released. Here is one of the official trailers.


Vera’s memoir was an important part of my research, since my Muskoka Novels are told mostly from the viewpoint of women and their often unsung participation in the war, especially in Elusive Dawn. By sharing their experiences vicariously, we can perhaps have a deeper understanding. I shall certainly never forget.



Monday, October 26, 2015

Lusitania Medal

The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 by a German U-boat is an important chapter in The Summer Before the Storm. Although she was a passenger liner with almost 2000 men, women, and children aboard, she was also carrying empty shell casings and over 4 million rifle cartridges, unbeknownst to the public. The Germans claimed that she was a legitimate military target, and had given people fair warning.

The German embassy had placed a notice in American newspapers stating “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters [adjacent to the British Isles] and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

Tragically, 1198 people died when the torpedoed ship sank off the coast of Ireland in only 18 minutes. People worldwide were shocked and outraged, and even a few German newspapers condemned this attack on civilians.

A few months later, a Munich sculptor, Karl Goetz, privately created a commemorative medal of the sinking as a satirical statement, blaming the Cunard line and the British government for allowing the Lusitania to sail into perilous waters.
British replica of the Goetz medal
The medal attracted so much attention that the British head of Propaganda decided to use it to keep stoking anti-German feeling. Replicas were made by Selfridges, and profits from the sales of 250,000 medals were given to the Red Cross.

I’m thrilled to have just received one of those replica medals, thanks to the generosity of John Reynolds, a fan of my Muskoka Novels. It’s exciting to hold something so old and, to me, significant.

Here is the document that came with it, which explains what’s on both sides of the medal. The reverse side is pictured below. 

Reverse side showing Death at the Cunard booking Office

If you're interested in seeing the original medal in more detail, visit this website.

You can also sail aboard the doomed ship with some of my characters in The Summer Before the Storm.





Thursday, October 22, 2015

Secret Rendezvous

Ungerman-Gateway Park, Gravenhurst  copyright Gabriele Wills
This rocky waterfront park in Gravenhurst was once part of the private Calydor Sanatorium, referred to as the Lakeview San in Under the Moon.  This is also an important location for the new novel.

"Claire's Rock"  copyright Gabriele Wills
 I call this spot "Claire's Rock" because it's where sweethearts Claire and Colin met secretly in Book 3.  Fictional Hope Cottage sprawled on the shore south of the Sanatorium, around that bluff.

This is where Book 4 begins.....