by Dave Yanko
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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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