64 years later, immigrant returns to Pier 21
Pier 21 opened to visitors 13 years ago and many, many came.
But Henry Peters still hadn’t made the trip.
In another 13 years he’ll turn 100, the Ontario man said with a grin —acknowledging, in the next breath, that he might not make it that far.
So on a trip to see the Peters’ son in Prince Edward Island, the family took a detour to the pier, arriving Saturday afternoon. It was the first time Peters had set foot in Halifax since arriving from Germany, with no other family, on July 15, 1948.
His ship was called the S.S. Marine Shark, and he kept every paper, every ticket, and even a ship menu offering steak and salad (lettuce and tomato with Thousand Islands dressing).
“I have stories to tell you about food in Europe,” he said quietly.
Displaced persons fleeing to Canada after the Second World War created their own immigration boom, especially between 1948 and 1950. Those who were teens and young adults at the time are now in their 80s and 90s.
Peters is among the last Canadians who will come to Pier 21 to relive their memories of that chaotic time. Someday, their children and their grandchildren will come to get clues about their families’ arrivals in this country.
But the Peters family are still lucky enough to make the trip together, and Henry’s son, Rick, was paying close attention. He’s planning to record his father telling stories at home so Rick’s children, nine and 11, will always be able to hear them.
The elder Peters was happy to let the museum’s staff dig around for records of his ship, said his son. However, he only stopped and became pensive when he saw the water of Halifax Harbour.
“I was getting goose pimples when I came here,” said Peters, looking into the harbour with his wife, Mary. “I had so much luck to be here.”
The couple are both Mennonites originally from the Ukraine. They met as farm workers in Ontario. She came by plane.
At 23, Peters sailed after a war and post-war period spent labouring on farms and helping other Mennonite refugees. At one point, he walked across all of Poland, he said. There often wasn’t enough to eat, and it was hard to leave and hard to hear from the rest of the world.
“In Russia, if you had a letter from another country, you were hiding it.”
When the Marine Shark departed from Bremerhaven, Germany, for Canada, Peters had no idea whether to expect mountains, forests or deserts, and he didn’t care.
“I expected it to be nice,” he said. “It’s a free country.”
The arrival didn’t disappoint, he said. The captain said “I see Halifax!” in German, and Peters recalled looking upon Canada for the first time.
“Everybody was smiling, and so did we,” he said. “I know there was kids, boys, maybe eight, nine, 10 years old. We were throwing pennies (off the side of the boat) and they were diving to get them.”
He had promised the Canadian government to work on a farm for a year, and men off the ship were grouped, six together, and sent to various towns. When they arrived, local farmers would draw straws to see which man they would get. The straws kept farmers from fighting over the biggest and strongest immigrants. That was how Peters arrived in Prescott, Ont., a few hours from St. Catharines, where he and Mary now live.
“I was small, but I don’t know what they were thinking,” he chuckled, recalling the drawing of straws. “I knew I could wrestle the world if I had to.”
Neither Peters nor his wife has ever returned to Europe, which they say is full of painful memories.
During the war, Peters became separated from his younger sister, who ended up in Kentucky, unbeknownst to the family. He didn’t see her again for 49 years, and when he did he didn’t recognize her, he said, looking away to the harbour.
But Halifax was a place he wanted to revisit, said Peters.
“A lot was behind me, up until today,” he said. “Time is running out. We had more or less all our life in Canada, and that’s a lot.”