Pier 21 and the Little Estonian Ship of Freedom (5)
There are many reasons to visit Halifax. Dominated by a stone fortress that sits high astride a hill, it is a maritime city with a bustling harbour, elegant seafood restaurants, a rich history, and rugged coastal beauty.
The best reason, however, is on a dock at the south end of the downtown waterfront in an unassuming large brick warehouse. Called Pier 21, it is a place that has shaped our country and about 20% of Canadians have a direct link to this place. Nowhere will you gain a better perspective of the cultural mosaic that is such a vital and vibrant characteristic of Canada.
Today, gigantic cruise ships dock here, and disembark thousands of smiling tourists to the welcoming swirl of kilts and bagpipes. But from 1928 to 1971 this was the gateway to Canada, where over a million immigrants landed seeking a better life and freedom.
In 1999, Pier 21 was opened as a National Historic Site with award-winning displays recreating the experience of newly landed immigrants. There are many heart-rending stories and the short film, [i]Oceans of Hope[i], leaves hardly a dry eye in the theatre as it shows emotional vignettes of immigrants arriving at Pier 21, and the painful experiences of young Canadian soldiers who went and came from this dock in the thousands during the war.
Pier 21 is particularly poignant for Estonians. In the years after World War II the Soviet Union, claiming that Estonians and other Balts were Soviet citizens, placed strong pressure on Sweden and Finland to deport them. When Sweden capitulated and sent 167 refugees back to Russia, many Estonians, my parents included, sought safety in Canada.
As I wandered amongst the displays, I could picture my mother and father here in 1950 all their possessions in a clutch of suitcases, not speaking English, and with me (age five) and my one-year old brother in tow. An interactive computer display yielded information on the ship, [i]Samaria[i], on which we sailed in third class. The resource centre provided more
information and application forms to release the details of our arrival from archives.
One display, in particular, captures the desperation and fear at that time. It tells the story of a small ship, the [i]Walnut,[i] which carried 347 passengers, mostly Estonians, including 70 children, from Gothenburg, Sweden, across a stormy Atlantic to Pier 21. The [i]Walnut[i] was purchased by the passengers and, probably in fear of Soviet reprisal, was registered in Panama and flew the blue and white Honduran flag. For safety reasons, Swedish authorities allowed only 298 people aboard. The remaining 49 people skirted the problem by hiding below decks.
The voyage lasted 26 days, and must have been sheer misery. The [i]Walnut[i], a wartime minesweeper, was not designed for passengers and was badly overcrowded with the passengers living in makeshift "mail slots." As the captain later reported, few passengers ate well or regularly. And those with food likely did not keep it down long, for the North Atlantic in
December is a treacherous place, and two storms blew the tiny [i]Walnut[i] far off-course, tossing it about like a matchstick.
The problems did not end when the ship finally reached Halifax on December 13, 1948, for the arrival was illegal and the passengers, none of whom had valid visas, were placed in detention. But the news media and the local population championed these brave refugees and they were soon allowed
entry. That Christmas season was joyous indeed for these new Canadians, who demonstrated their national talent by forming a choir and singing at the Halifax Lutheran church. "DPs make merry at New Year," read a headline in the [i]Halifax Mail[i].
Now those refugees and their children and grandchildren are spread all across Canada, and the [i]Walnut[i] is but a distant memory.
Leaving, I looked back at the big brick warehouse and goose bumps formed on my skin and a small tear welled in the corner of my eye. After many decades, a window had unexpectedly opened and cast a beam of light on my personal past and on my national heritage. I was pleased that these memories will be preserved and showcased here on this Halifax wharf.
More information: www.pier21.ca