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  Sudeten Saga

by Dave Yanko
Rudy Leiter
Rudy Leiter

The old crank-style telephone on display near the front of the Goodsoil museum came from a pioneer family that used barbed-wire fences as telephone lines until real ones were installed in the region.

The makeshift lines apparently worked quite well, especially in winter. But in summer time, rain tended to short them out. And any practical joker with a pair of wire snips could easily scuttle the network.

Saskatchewan's pioneers were an inventive lot. What they couldn't buy, they made. And what they couldn't make, they made do.

The vast majority of European immigrants who populated the province during the first two decades of the 20th century were farmers attracted here by an international marketing campaign promising virtually-free land and a bright future. Their inventiveness was borne of necessity; they had to be self-sufficient to survive. Yet, although the land and climate were different from what they knew in the "old country", their agricultural background and rural resourcefulness left them well equipped to adapt to life in the new land.

All the more curious, then, is a display located in the back room of the Goodsoil museum. It depicts the experience of a group of German tradesmen, teachers, journalists and intellectuals who were bounced from their urban existence in pre-war Czechoslovakia and forced to begin life anew in the wilds of northwestern Saskatchewan - as farmers.

Rudy Leiter, the son of a bricklayer, was only six in 1939 when his anti-Nazi family was secreted by British authorities from their newly-constructed home in the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, and transported to Goodsoil to take up a life of farming in the then recently-settled and still largely-wooded district.

"The changeover to this country was awesome, to say the least," Leiter, a retired school principal, recalled during an interview at his lakeside home near Goodsoil.

"The old log shack was just that. You didn't want to snore at night because the mice might fall into your mouth from the ceiling. And, of course, the folks new nothing about farming."

The Leiters were one of more than 300 Sudeten refugee families resettled in northwestern Saskatchewan and British Columbia following extensive international negotiations aimed at saving them from Nazi concentration camps or death. They were Germans who found themselves living as a minority among Czechs and Slovaks in a country created out of the treaties following World War I. Their German Social Democratic Party lobbied the national Czechoslovakian government to meet its promise of fair treatment for minorities.

In the 1930s, with National Socialism on the rise in nearby Germany, the social democratic Sudetens found themselves at odds not only with the Czechs and Slovaks, but with fellow Sudeten Germans who embraced Hitler's pledge to protect Germans living under Czechoslovakian rule. When the Sudetenland was ceded to Hitler in 1938, life became dangerous for those who didn't support the Nazis.

"I have memories of guys banging down the door, throwing people out of bed in the middle of the night and poking guns in their ribs," says Leiter. "At the time, I had no idea why this was happening. But I was certainly aware of the terror."

Leiter's dad, Rudolf Sr., and others active in the German Social Democratic Party, were forced into hiding while the British organized (and largely funded) escape and resettlement plans for them and their families.

The Leiters' escape plan called for the three children and their mother, Antonia, to travel by rail to Prague, where they'd re-unite with Rudolf Sr. and carry on to England together. But the Nazi occupation of Prague came faster than anticipated, forcing the senior Leiter to flee the Czech capital and leaving the rest of the family to deal with a confusing and frightening journey through occupied territories.

"I remember one occasion in Prague when a (British) consular lady came banging on the door in the middle of the night saying 'you have 20 minutes to catch a taxi'. We went careening through the city to another location. The escape route was through Gdenia, which is now Gdansk, in Poland. But of course by the time we got there, Poland was occupied, too. . . .

"Occasionally the Gestapo would confiscate our passports. We have no idea what maneuverings went on to get them back."

After a "very, very stormy" trip across the North Sea to England, the Leiters were re-united in England, where they spent several weeks in an internment camp before sailing to Montreal and then travelling by rail to St. Walburg, SK. Some 150 Sudeten families and 27 bachelors arrived in northwestern Saskatchewan, virtually penniless, between April and July of 1939.

European powers ceded the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia to Germany in the infamous Munich Pact of 1938.
European powers ceded the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia to Germany in the infamous Munich Pact of 1938.

In her book Sudetens in Saskatchewan, author Rita Schilling uses first-hand recollections to paint a picture of one of the first encounters between these new "farmers" from Europe, and the St. Walburg residents who came to greet them at the train station:

"The majority of St. Walburg men were in heavy overalls, plaid shirts, well-worn windbreakers, felt leggings and rubber boots. . . . The women were also dressed for comfort in heavy-knitted sweaters or plain dark coats and kerchiefs. . . .

"A Sudeten girl recalls that her father wore a pin-striped business suit, white shirt and tie, a hat, of course, and black leather shoes. Her mother looked very elegant in a grey wool suit, large felt hat, (and) a beautiful silk scarf draped over one shoulder. . . . She remembers the young (Sudeten) boys looked uncomfortably cold in their navy blazers, and short grey pants."

At St. Walburg, the refugees were housed two to three to a boxcar while they awaited transport to one of the quarter sections of land set aside for them in the St. Walburg, Loon Lake and Goodsoil regions. The Canadian National Railway (CNR) oversaw the Sudeten resettlement in Saskatchewan, while the Canadian Pacific Railway looked after an equal number of Sudetens destined for the Dawson Creek area of British Columbia. Much of the land procured for the Saskatchewan Sudetens was of marginal quality, purchased by CNR agents from farmers who couldn't make a go of it during the Depression.

Northwest Saskatchewan was chosen by the Canadian government, in part, because a significant number of German immigrants had settled in the area over the previous decade. Apparently, the authorities thought this was enough to insure the Sudetens a warm welcome and smooth transition. It wasn't quite so.

The existing German community was strongly Roman Catholic. Most of the Sudetens were either agnostic, or had shed their connections to a church they felt was siding with the Nazis. In the summer of 1939, before Hitler's grand and evil scheme fully unfolded, some of the existing German settlers in the area were decidedly pro-Nazi.

Vince Schoen, who was 14 when his family arrived in the Goodsoil district, tells the story of Sudeten bachelor who arrived in the area around the same time he did.

"They put him on a quarter of land - there was nothing broken, just the garden," says Schoen, a semi-retired farmer who lives about 10 minutes south of Goodsoil.

"There were two other bachelors living in a house, and the first thing he saw when he entered that house was a picture of Hitler. That gave him kind of a shock - the first thing he saw!

". . . After a few years, though, things started to straighten out. People got along better."

The most serious problem facing the Sudeten refugees who settled in Saskatchewan, of course, was that none of them knew anything about farming or rural life. Planting crops was out of the question that first year. Building houses or shoring up existing ones, and clearing enough land to at least plant a garden, were the first priorities.

Vince Schoen
Vince Schoen

The CNR was to provide each new family and bachelor with the basic necessities required for farm life, including food, stoves, beds, cookware, dishes, tools and livestock. Used farm equipment like plows, harrows, wagons, sleighs and seed drills was to be shared among the group until individuals could afford to buy their own. But the acquisition and distribution of the machinery was slow and uneven.

Local German-speaking men were hired to teach the Sudetens the most basic country-life skills, like how to milk cows, feed animals, chop wood and repair machinery. CNR supervisors, meanwhile, instructed the new families in all aspects of agriculture, from planting gardens, to clearing and plowing fields, to sowing and harvesting wheat.

It was steep learning curve for the Sudeten city folk.

Not long after Schoen arrived, for instance, he was employed by an experienced farmer to stook (bundle sheaves of wheat and set them upright in the field) more than 100 acres of land. It was tough job, but a wonderful opportunity to learn a basic farming practice and earn some money, to boot.

The kind farmer decided to lend Schoen a horse he could use to travel home on the weekend. Schoen, who'd never been on a horse, was excited about this new adventure. The impromptu riding lesson he agreed to in the field went well until he entered the farmer's yard.

"I couldn't stop the horse - I didn't know what to do," says Schoen.

"(The farmer) looked at me, and he was laughing. . . . Finally, he said 'Whoa!', and everything stopped."

In the years that followed 1939, many of the Sudetens moved to Canadian cities to apply their old-country skills in settings more similar to the ones they left behind. But a majority of them stayed on the farm, won over by the freedom and independence of life in rural northwestern Saskatchewan, as well as by the unspoiled natural beauty of the region.

The occasionally thorny relationship between the Sudeten settlers and their German-Canadian predecessors evaporated over time. Leiter recalls there were early efforts to instill in the Sudeten kids the old-country beliefs and traditions so dear to their parents. But the kids were growing up in a different environment. They belonged to a new country.

"Either the folks who did this weren't the best of mentors, or the acclimatization to this country's way of doing things just got to us faster than they could. I don't know.

"But it just faded away. It didn't excite us. We were in Canada. We were Canadians."

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