Salmon Arm man, one of 14 siblings, recounts family’s journey to Canada

Alfred Schalm shares biographies of father, uncles in new book

By Barb Brouwer

Contributor

Three books wrapped into one tell the story of a family’s roots in Eastern Europe and the experiences that led them to Canada.

Longtime Salmon Arm resident Alfred Schalm has woven autobiographies written by his father Wilhelm and his uncles Gustav and Adolph into, “Start Packing We’re Moving: A Family History.”

The brothers, two sisters, their mother, stepfather and his four children were farming in the small eastern Poland village of Syczów, when the First World War erupted in 1914.

The region was under control of Russia, whose border was about 20 miles away. And, although they were considered to be Russian citizens, all Germans living in the area were removed from their homes and sent to Russia for the duration of the war.

“The Russian government felt they might corroborate with the German military so they gave them about a day’s notice and said ‘you have to leave,’” says Schalm, who notes people packed up their wagons and, accompanied by a Russian officer, left Poland behind. “Once they got into Russia, they had to sell everything and were put into boxcars and sent to remote areas.”

Gustav was 20 and drafted into the Russian army, Adolph was 15 and Wilhelm 14.

Many people died during the travels, including one of the stepbrothers, because of unsanitary conditions, lack of bathrooms and prevalence of cholera and other diseases.

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When the family arrived in Siberia, they were welcomed by people who had heard they were running from the German regime, given food and housed with families in surrounding communities.

“My father thought the Russian Government spread the rumour so people wouldn’t think they had been forced to leave everything they had,” Schalm says. “It was kind of a public relations gesture.”

When war ended in 1918, the Germans were given some flour to tide them over and returned to Poland in freight cars.

When they arrived at their farms in Syczów, they discovered Polish people had occupied their homes. The Schalms appealed to authorities and were able to get their farm back.

“Then they had to pick up from scratch,” says Schalm. “The farms had been neglected for four years and all their possessions other than clothes were gone. And there were no animals.”

The brothers later married and began to have families of their own. Hearing from neighbours that land in Canada was inexpensive, Schalm’s father and Adolph packed their bags and travelled to Saskatchewan in 1928. Gustav in the meantime had studied theology and was ministering to the local congregation.

Unfortunately, they arrived as the great depression, known as the Dirty Thirties, began, making it very difficult to get work.

Wilhelm worked for local farmers, packing up and moving from place to place as work became available. Wilhelm went to Regina and when that didn’t pan out, went to Northern Saskatchewan where he was awarded a homestead in 1935. Adolph and his family followed.

Schalm was three-and-a-half and says moving to the homestead formed his first memory. Schalm’s parents raised 14 children, half born before the homestead and half after.

He was eight when in 1941, the family packed up again. A visiting preacher with a huge old car, drove the entire family to Onaway, Alta. in the middle of winter.

“We lived in an old abandoned house and from January to May, nobody went to school.”

Schalm says his father’s heart was never in farming and the family moved several times, ending up in Gardenview, Alta., where Wilhelm built a community store and was awarded a contract by the postal service.

When one of Wilhelm’s sisters, a Vernon resident, told him B.C. was more like Poland, Schalm’s parents agreed to move and advertised that they would exchange the store for a place in this province.

“Dad traded with Roy Ryerson and ended up, sight unseen, with a farm in Silver Creek in 1951– one of the best deals he made in his life,” Schalm says.

Gustav, Wilhelm’s older brother, remained in Poland during the Second World War but had to run for their lives, says Schalm.

“When it was over, pretty much all of them ended up in Canada, mostly in Vernon.

Schalm lived on the family farm for four years before returning to Alberta where he met and married one of the women who had fled Poland. The couple raised three children and retired to Salmon Arm in 1997.

Schalm will host a book launch from 3 to 4 p.m. Friday, March 7 at the Salmon Arm Library.

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