Reflections by Les Sichermann on intertwined life stories
We are honoured to present Les’ writing here-below. His path is written in regular fonts and that of Albert in italics.
I am fortunate to live in an era of relative peace and prosperity and cannot fathom the ravages of war that impacted my previous generation who still live with the memories of death and destruction. I have never enlisted with the military, whether it be the Korean War, Vietnam War or any Canadian mission requiring active military service.
When I left Hungary in 1956 as a six-year-old, I remember Russian tanks rolling by our apartment while picking up empty shell casings left behind as a result of skirmishes between Russian troops and Hungarian resistance fighters. That was my only perception of war on any appreciable level. My parents unfortunately were the benefactors of the horrors of the Auschwitz’s death camps and later refugees of the Hungarian Revolution. They had eleven years to recover following WW2, only to be thrust into the fallout of another invasion that would likely impact their livelihood and usher in an uncertainty under the Communist regime.
I am eternally grateful for the difficult decision my parents chose in leaving behind a country that had been their home and those of their ancestors for hundreds of years, allowing us the opportunity to begin a legacy in our new country, Canada, that I have the privilege to cherish.
A reluctance to relate their war experiences is understandable. No one can fully appreciate the years of suffering and indignities they must have endured unless one was present as a witness. My references to their experience are but anecdotes gleaned from books, movies, documentaries, and holocaust survivors. Unfortunately, I know very little about my parents who passed away when I was quite young.
November 20, 1940
Hungary has joined the ‘axis of evil’ (Hungary became the fourth member to join the Axis powers – edit.). They are now an ally of Germany but playing a dangerous game of deception; trying to appease both Germany and the Allies. My Father is 38 years old and has been teaching in rural Hungary. He is married to his first wife and they have a daughter. I know very little of his life before he married my mother, his second wife, after the war.
Actually, any knowledge of my father’s situation during the war, I can only surmise from events that were part of the history Jews experienced in general while living under a government complicit with their German allies. Doctrines, dating back to 1938 and even to earlier times, restricting Jews from participating in the economy were reinforced in addition to the introduction of a forced labour regime in the frontlines for Jewish men as soon as Hungary entered WW2.
May 18, 1941
About 1700 kilometres to the west, a parallel universe was unfolding that would intersect with mine many years later. Albert Cox, a resident of Leicester, England, had just attained his teaching certificate and was about to go to war. On July 14, 1941, he enlisted with the RAF at Regent Park, London on Bastille Day. From 1940 on, Albert kept a daily journal of military events including adventures that took him to places such as Georgia, Alabama Halifax, Winnipeg, Estevan Saskatchewan, Trenton Ontario, and Italy; places visited that were part of his training regiment as a pilot and navigator.
“I was introduced to military discipline. My rank was AC1 (Aircraftsman First Class). I was fitted out in the traditional blue uniform that showed the world that I was a flyer in training by wearing a white flash in my RAF cap. We learned how to march and drill in unison, how to keep our buttons and shoes shiny, how to prepare for kit inspection, how to salute an officer, in fact, how to become a model soldier. My hair was trimmed short. There was a nightly curfew – and I received a pay packet about every two weeks. I forget the actual amount, but I remember that AC’s receive a mere pittance.”
September 23, 1941
Albert Cox sets sail from Liverpool in a beat-up oil tanker to continue his training overseas. He was given no information of his posting but told to report in Manchester then whisked overnight to Liverpool.
“… It carried about ten aircraftmen as passengers. We slept in hammocks deep in the hold of this wretched smelly ship. …The crew eased our fear of the rats that scurried along the hammock ropes and sometimes over our reclining bodies, informing us that they were too well fed to bother with humans. Cats were in a cat’s heaven. Their natural enemies were fat and sluggish. We were a convoy of about a hundred ships, guarded by a battle ship, a cruiser and quite a number of destroyers and corvettes…We were drilled over and over again as to what we should do when the alarm sounded … and we had lots of alarms. It was a nerve wracking two weeks…It was about this time that I learned from one of the crew that our destination was Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.”
“In mid-Atlantic, we came under attack from U-boats and one of the crew estimated that we lost four ships from torpedoes. The destroyers darted in and around the convoy and on at least two occasions we were surrounded by a black smoke screen.”
“One fine afternoon when the sky was clear and the sea was calm, we were called to the deck by an alarm. We were being stalked by a German Condor aeroplane. The convoy’s anti-aircraft guns opened up. The Condor aimed a salvo of bombs at the battleship but narrowly missed. The worry was that we were pretty certain that the Condor crew had pin-pointed our position to every U-boat in the area.”
December 12, 1941
Hungary, after joining the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, declares war on the United States. Jewish men drafted into labour service were sent to the Russian front. I now recall my father’s inability to write properly as a result of an injury received from an exploding device during the war.
Many Jews converted to Catholicism in order to circumvent limitations and oppression.
September 23-October 7, 1941
“It took us two days or so to reach Toronto where we were met at the railway station by a convoy of RCAF vehicles that carried us to Maple Leaf Gardens. An ice-hockey game was in progress as we arrived… I was fascinated with Toronto and had a three-night affair with an attractive 30-year-old woman who I met at a Toronto dance hall.”
October 1941-July 1942
“We travelled through the states of Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee. Our final destination was the large American military base of Maxwell Field, Montgomery Alabama… It was all a completely new world to me. The meals were sumptuous.”
“The purpose of our three-week stay was to acclimatize us to the military expectations of the Americans. We were not impressed with the American version of discipline training… The menial tasks were carried out entirely by blacks… We were shown many films in all aspects of Venereal Disease which was rampant in Alabama. We were discouraged from having any contacts with blacks. We learned of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. I found the inhabitants of Montgomery to be incredibly bigoted and racist.”
“Our Elysian life changed radically after December 7th, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and brought USA into the war. Off came our suits and on went our blue uniforms. The training that had been illegal under ‘international rules,’ now became legal. We were no longer ‘civilians’ training to be pilots. The Americans were now our comrades in arms.”
After completing his training in the US, Al was transferred to Trenton Ontario and Estevan Saskatchewan where it was determined that a problem with depth perception ended his pilot’s designation and forced him to become an Observer (navigator).
“When I arrived in Winnipeg on July 1942, I was welcomed with a heat wave. … I put up in a rough, cheap hotel quite close to Winnipeg City Centre, Public Library, and there I met my future wife, Miss Frances (Tanty) Cronin. Tanty was an incredibly beautiful girl and I was completely enchanted.”
“I graduated as an Observer on April 2nd, 1943, and was presented with my Observer Wings by the Commanding Officer with the famous Billy Bishop in attendance, who treated us to a pep talk. After the ceremony, Billy Bishop gave an exhibition of stunt flying over the base.”
19 March 1944
Germany occupies Hungary and the Hungarian government orders the deportation of all Jews. My mother and her sisters are gathered from the surrounding regions of Győr into a ghetto of 5 000 people and transported to Auschwitz in cattle cars.
Once more, I am not aware of my father’s circumstances; of his physical separation from his first wife and daughter or the reasons for his survival. By the time mass deportation ceased in June 1944, just about all Jews in the countryside had gone. The final roundup of Jews in Budapest continued well into 1945, in spite of the inevitable liberation of Europe. Germany surrenders May 7, 1945.
My father returned to his hometown, Csorna, Hungary, having somehow survived, only to learn that his wife and daughter had perished in Auschwitz.
In the meantime, my future mother and her two sisters survived Auschwitz and the “Death March.” They eventually made their way back to their home town and tried to pick up a semblance of their previous lives.
My father marries my mother who is from the neighbouring city of Győr.
I was born in 1948. We then move to Budapest and can visualize my first recollection of events as an only child in a happy household. Family members who survived the death camps joined us in Budapest. I can recall visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Győr during summer holidays. I was immune to the impact my parents must have endured during the war years of 1939-1945. Post-war realities of bombed out buildings and bread lines were still evident under the Communist regime, who exacted a punishing legacy for Hungary’s participation in the war with Germany.
September 11-30, 1943
“My son Dennis was born in St Boniface Hospital on August 31st, 1943. Now I held him in my arms for the first time.”
“When I said goodbye to Tanty at the end of September, the future was very much in doubt. At that time there was no sign of any quick end of the war and the odds were that it would be years before Tanty and I would meet again. I’m pretty ‘hard’ but I cried when we parted.”
“We eventually arrived in New York City — but we had no time for sightseeing. We found ourselves on that great luxury liner—Queen Mary. We were but a small part of a large army of servicemen, mainly Americans… The trip this time took us fivedays. The Queen Mary travelled across the Atlantic at great speed without a single escort… the destroyer’s engines were not powerful enough to give the destroyers sufficient speed capabilities. We were relieved when we sighted the coastline of Ireland, and later Scotland…I was back in my homeland after a two-year absence.”
March 14, 1944
Other postings and stops included Algiers, Catalina Sicily, Oran, Foggia and Zara Yugoslavia.
“We became a part of the D-Day Dodgers. We arrived in Naples March 15th, 1944, and Mount Vesuvius welcomed us with one of the rare eruptions… We joined our comrades in 608 RAF Squadron and our role was to protect convoys, report weather conditions near the Mediterranean, carry out armed reconnaissance and take photographs for the army.”
“The greatest danger to our lives, especially at night, was the American fighter plane whose ‘aircraft recognition’ was appalling and the American pilots on a number of occasions shot down Hudsons when they believed they were attacking Junker 88’s.
“In the period after I had finished my pilot training, I survived over 200 takeoffs and landings in a 34-month period. I was fortunate.”
From 1946 to the summer of 1955
“We lived in Leicester. During the period we added three more offspring to our family; Kathleen, Dale (Tony) and Shannon…In June 1955 Tanty and I went by train to London where we were interviewed for a teaching position in Saskatchewan Canada. I accepted the offer of a one-roomed school near Craik and so began another challenging chapter in our lives.”
We had become somewhat settled in our home in Budapest in spite of post war austerities, as a result of Russia’s political and economic stranglehold on the country. I began grade two in September when all hell broke loose in Hungary’s attempted withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Russia responded by sending in the Red Army to quell the uprising, resulting in several thousand dead.
My parents decided that they have had enough of the uncertainties that lay ahead and determined to leave the country before the borders became permanently sealed. My mother and I joined my cousin’s family in Győr. Under the cover of darkness, we assembled at the border with other refugees and began our walk across farmers’ fields, each family carrying a single suitcase with all their worldly possessions. My father and other aunt would later join us with legal documents at our destination. We headed toward lights on the horizon and were met by Russian soldiers waiting at the Austrian border. They had to be bribed with alcoholic beverages to let us through.
We came under the auspices of the Austrian Red Cross. Our first stop was in Strasburg’s refugee camp then made our way to Paris where we stayed with a cousin for six months, while waiting for a country to accept us. My cousin and I were enrolled at a private school just outside of Paris until Canada came through, giving us landed immigrant status.
On May 15, 1957, we landed in Edmonton then made our way to Saskatoon where we were assisted with accommodations and employment. My father and aunt joined us by way of Israel. Unfortunately, my mother passed away from breast cancer soon, leaving my 58-year-old father to look after me. Our family had a six-year stint in Montreal only to return to Saskatoon when opportunities turned up and our grasp of the English language had improved. It took my family about ten years of adjustment to be gainfully employed.
What happened to my father? When my father married my mother after the war, he was 20 years older. Upon me returning to Saskatoon to live with my aunt and uncle in 1963, my father remained in Montreal and died in 1968. By then, I was 19 years old. He had a very difficult time adjusting to Canadian life due to his age, but was an active member of the Montreal Jewish Community. He had gone to the hospital for a minor operation and never recovered due to some unknown complication. I only visited him during summer holidays. Unfortunately, I never really got to know him well. Most of what I know about the holocaust I learned from one of my surviving aunts that lived in Saskatoon. While my relatives were alive, I really had no interest in my past until much later.
Much later, I had a chance to visit Hungary (Budapest in 1971) on my way home, from a year spent in Israel on a kibbutz. (My second visit took place about 5 years ago also to Budapest, where I assisted the Red Cross in escorting an elderly gentleman from Saskatoon to see his long-lost daughter.)
“My first school in Saskatchewan was the one room school of Holmesdale, situated about 7 miles from Craik. We lived in the tiniest of teacherages with no electricity and no indoor toilets. Tanty and I and the four children slept in the single small bedroom… I bought my first car ever and drove to Saskatoon a number of times… My salary for that school year was $2 800 and that was supplemented by $9.00 per month for my janitorial services. I cleaned the school and looked after the furnaces. I was teaching children to read in the same room as I was teaching the grade 10 subjects to 16- and 17-year-olds. It was an excellent educational experience for it gave me a look at the whole wide panorama of education in Saskatchewan.”
Other teaching positions included a stop in Woodrow from 1956-1964 and Saskatoon from 1966-1986, followed by retirement. Albert served as an administrator on various boards such as President of Saskatoon Teachers Association, Commissionaire of Saskatoon Minor Soccer Association and President of the Nutana Legion. He was involved in provincial politics with The New Democratic Party and a guest lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan. He and his wife Tanty, also helped to raise four wonderful children.
My life from 1974
The year 1974 turned out to be momentous. Upon completion of my education, I received employment at the University of Saskatchewan in the Department of Agriculture. I was also active in the sport of soccer, playing for a team sponsored by the Saskatoon Nutana Legion. I can clearly recall the first time my team visited the Nutana Legion; listening to a booming voice with a Middle English accent, emanating from the lounge, I recognized Alf Bibby, our manager, sitting with the owner of that voice. Alf’s wife and a young lady were also at the same table. Alf introduced Albert Cox, the president of the Nutana Legion and his daughter, Kathy. Albert immediately brought us a round of drinks and the rest is history.
When I married Kathy in 1975, I was warmly welcomed into her family, having few surviving members left from my family side. It was truly a gratifying experience being part of a group of people that accepted me without prejudice. We have been married now for 48 years.
After my employment with the university, I was hired by the Saskatoon Police Service and retired after 24 years. Presently, I drive a school bus to keep busy.
I have 2 children and 4 grandchildren. I am an active member of my Jewish community and serve on its board.
Time and time again, I come to realize that my good fortune was a result of decisions made by my parents in leaving their homeland and taking a chance that life in another country such as Canada would provide greater freedoms and opportunities. As refugees, without knowledge of their destination or expectations of the life that would await them, one can only imagine the fears and uncertainty they must have felt in making this monumental undertaking.
I also owe a great deal of gratitude to Albert Cox who risked his life as an airman with the Allies, hastening the defeat of Germany and the liberation of the Nazi death camps. I also am grateful for the decision he and his wife made in choosing Canada their home as well having a daughter who has become my lifetime partner.
Finally, I thank Canada for accepting us unconditionally as refugees in our hour of desperation, but fear for the people of Europe, owing to dictators such as Stalin, Hitler, Putin and the like, that have supplanted democratic rule, creating historical refugee disasters. I am fearful of seeing Hungarian PM Orbán copying Putin’s style of ruling the country and shocked by his close ties with the dictator.
I think that I have led a full and fortunate life.
By Les Sichermann, Canada