Here Was Freedom

Newfoundland offered a true escape hatch to political freedom from the Iron Curtain.

Post Second World War German immigrants to Newfoundland found that “Freedom in all directions and in every respect” was the general order of things; an excerpt from Gerhard P. Bassler’s Escape Hatch: Newfoundland’s Quest for German Industry and Immigration, 1950–1970

The immigrants identified freedom from restraints and freedom to do things as one of Newfoundland’s chief attractions. Electrical engineer Joachim Heintze had not anticipated the relaxed social atmosphere he found on his arrival. At Christmas they were invited to their labourers’ homes for drinks. “And their Newfoundland labourers would say, ‘if no one’s home, just come in and take a drink from the bottle on the table.’ Imagine!” In Germany it would be unthinkable for a labourer to invite his boss to his home for a drink. On Christmas Day 1952, Joey invited all the Germans to his home on Circular Road and “we cleaned out his wine cellar.”

The sensation of freedom—personal, economic, social, political, and natural freedom—was one of the most exciting experiences for Germans used to the many restrictions on life in a highly urbanized, class-conscious, and overpopulated society. Heintze, a refugee from Germany’s Polish-annexed province of Silesia, was fed up with war. Like many other Germans, he had lived through two world wars and the lack of freedom. “Here was freedom,” Heintze exclaimed. “Here you don’t have to report your residence to police; if you went for a walk, there were no fences; you could go anywhere.” Houses didn’t have to be locked, the crimes of urbanized Europe were virtually non-existent, “and there was social freedom—not the titles, snobbery, and class consciousness of Germany.”

For William Binder, a Baltic German refugee from Latvia, Newfoundland was a wild country when he came in 1951 to help erect the cement plant. “That was exactly to my heart’s desire.” Many of the immigrants quickly fell in love with Newfoundland’s natural beauty—her vast wilderness areas; her invaluable opportunities for fishing, hunting, hiking, boating, and camping—opportunities that were fast becoming a world beyond reach for people in postwar Central Europe.

The most prominent friend of nature among the immigrants was Guenter Behr. Arriving in 1952 with an expected two-year stay as production manager of Atlantic Hardboard Industries at Donovans, he liked life in Newfoundland right away. He joined the Rod and Gun Club immediately, became its president, was co-founder of the Salmon Association, started a salmon enhancement program, promoted the idea of fish farming, and for years was president of the Canadian Wildlife Association. As a member of the Canadian Standards Association, he was the only German representing Canada internationally. According to his wife, Karla, he felt strongly that Newfoundlanders did not do enough to manage their wealth of natural resources. The Queen awarded him posthumously an order for his wildlife activities.

For immigrants like Fritz Haller, Fred Heistinger, Tim Neuss, and Franz Schinagl, the freedom to pursue outdoor and other activities was the main reason for staying. Haller decided to make Newfoundland his new home because this was “a free country in every way, not so crowded, great outdoors, fishing and hunting.” Heistinger came from Austria in 1953 by way of Boston to help build the Eckhardt Mills in Brigus. Despite offers of good jobs in Boston, he saw more things to do in Newfoundland. Neuss, too, who came to work with CMIC in 1952, and raised turkeys, chicken, ducks, goats, and bulls as a hobby, appreciated “the freedom to do what you want to do.”

For Austrian auto mechanic Franz Schinagl, who came by way of Toronto in 1958 to work for Volkswagen dealer Import Motors, life in St. John’s would have been unbearable had it not been for the freedom of boating, hunting, and fishing. Erwin Koster, as well as Erwin and Else Mosbacher (arrivals in 1951 and 1953), rejected the opportunity of a better paid job in Germany a few years later because they preferred the challenges of an unstructured lifestyle, that is, the freedom to do different things. Koster wanted more than a dull assembly-line job for the rest of his life. Although the Mosbachers missed the cultural life of Germany, they concluded that “we are happier here. Life is not so formal.” What was it that kept Germans in Newfoundland, Karla Behr pondered. Maybe the fact, she felt, “that they can let themselves go.”

Friedrich Kreyser concluded that life in Newfoundland could not be judged by German traditions, conventions, and regulations. Reporting to the German Ministry of Economics about his November 1950 trip to Newfoundland, he stressed that its natural resources were so abundant that its people did not have to make provision for tomorrow. The impression of “an absolute primordial condition” was putting its stamp on everything, the people and all happenings. Common sense was the supreme judge that made everyone determine whether and how long they wanted to work. “Freedom in all directions and in every respect” was the general order of things. The local people have a “fine sensitivity for everything that interferes with this conception of freedom or threatens it.”

Immigrants Karl Zenker and Lydia Darby understood freedom to mean above all the opportunity for self-improvement and self-fulfilment. Zenker, recruited in 1958 by CMIC, was fascinated by the country’s freedom and size. Even though he would have been better off financially in Germany, he enjoyed the liberty with fellow Germans “to be pioneers here.” The freedom of the country, as German immigrant Lydia Darby termed it, enabled her to rise from an au pair in 1957 to sewing instructor at the newly opened Trades College in 1963. Karl Peters and Klaus Wahrenburg jumped East German ships in St. John’s harbor in 1961 and 1966. For them Newfoundland offered a true escape hatch to political freedom from the Iron Curtain.

Escape Hatch: Newfoundland’s Quest for German Industry and Immigration, 1950-1970
by Gerhard P. Bassler
Flanker Press

Written By

Gerhard P. Bassler is professor emeritus at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a specialist in modern German history and Canadian migration history.

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