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Copyright 2017 © Dan Propp

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

Published by Dan Propp

Accordion to Dan Publishing


ISBN: 978-1-927626-70-2

Digital ISBN: 978-1-927626-71-9


Two years ago, Daniel José Propp (Dan) asked me to read over the memoirs of his father, Arthur Propp, a German Jew from Königsberg (the main city in East Prussia, since 1945 part of Russia under the name “Kaliningrad”), who immigrated to Canada in 1950. These memoirs consisted of a series of typewritten pages bound into booklets, which were now, after several decades (the author died in 1965), a few moves and other vagaries, in a state of disarray; they were written in Arthur’s native language, German, and were ostensibly a letter to his son, who was then (1956) twelve years old (although in the later parts of the work this is forgotten and Arthur speaks of Dan in the third person). Dan wanted me to select the best passages, which I was then to edit with a view to publication; there was enough material for a book of about 200 pages. On the basis of the published German version I would then provide an English translation of the memoirs. This translation is the volume that you, dear reader, are now holding in your hands.

Despite the poor condition of the booklets and the gaps in the text, it was still possible to extract a coherent and more or less complete narrative, spanning Arthur Propp’s life from his birth in Königsberg in 1890 to his move to Canada in 1950; a life marked in particular by his participation in WWI, his imprisonment in 1938, his escape to England in 1939 and his life as a refugee in Bolivia in the decade 1940-1950. In the downtime, so to speak, between one and another of these major events, Arthur’s life unfolds in the seeming banality of the everyday; yet even there he can find something to philosophize about and experiences from time to time discrimination based on his being Jewish, which does not stop him, however, from achieving great successes in his professional life and becoming considerably wealthy. The keen gaze of this European, always willing and able to adapt to whatever circumstances in which he found himself and to any country he emigrated, was the first thing to catch my attention while I was perusing the manuscript.

Arthur’s life stands out in another respect: his resilience, the fact that he always ends up “landing on his feet”, even as a foreigner and immigrant. One may say that he was, in fact, a foreigner all his life, although he and his family strongly felt that they were Germans and East Prussia was their home, and although Arthur himself displays a deep acquaintance with German literature and culture. The reader can recognize almost at every turn that, in truth, he never did “belong” but was a Jew, a stranger, “other” even in his native Königsberg. And yet he does not omit to point out all the cases in which people helped him, first by giving him contracts and positions that made him a successful lumberman, then by enabling him to escape from Germany and later to move to Bolivia. This kindness in the middle of absolute horror is what gives him, and should give the reader, hope that human life can make sense and human communities can be made to be humane and just after all.

Before and after Arthur’s text you will find a few passages and a poem written by Dan himself. As Dan has inherited his father’s literary skill, he has written a great deal about being the child of two Holocaust survivors. So he decided to task me with choosing passages from one of his books (specifically, Through the Sunshine, which was later republished in expanded form as Landing on my Feet) in order to provide the son’s perspective. This part of the volume is particularly important since it shows the long shadow cast by Hitlerism and the Holocaust even on people who did not directly experience it, to wit, the children of the survivors. Dan’s parts are therefore the most appropriate frame for his father’s narrative.

Domingo Aviles


Well, here it is again, Gibsons, and retired. There’s the old government wharf. I used to catch lingcod off of it. Those planks came from Dad’s little sawmill, Sucre Lumber Company. The little sawmill up on North Road did the cutting

Later when his skin cancer advanced, the graft on the nose at the Mayo Clinic didn’t take even after twenty-three operations, Dad would walk proudly in retirement up and down that wharf wearing a false plastic nose that had to be glued on with strong-smelling alcoholic spirits. They smelled up the bathroom in our house up on Seaview Road.

It was an enormous house – two suites rented out in the basement, one of those huge octopus looking oil fired furnaces that kept breaking down all the time, our living quarters in the middle above the basement and an attic suite above. Dad had purchased the huge black and white monstrosity with plum, apple, cherry trees and even a grape vine with restitution money from Germany. Thank God for Uncle Adenaur, Dad would often exclaim! He was the German Chancellor in the early 1950s that had some empathy for the German Jews who had fled and survived. Fled? Yes. Survived? Perhaps, depends upon what you mean by survived! The kids at Gibsons Jr. Sr. High used to connect the German Chancellor to a daylight saving time joke. What was the difference between standard time and daylight? You add an hour!

It was both awesome, tough, gut wrenching and yet somehow soothing looking at that wharf after so many years! It appeared basically the same, looking at the scene myself and now also retired. Nothing seemed to have changed and yet, in another sense, everything had changed.

It seemed like yesterday, we were living down by the water, the Union Jack was flying, King George had passed away, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth had been filmed and carried by the Royal Canadian Air Force across the Atlantic so it could be broadcast in living black and white over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, coast to coast! In Gibsons there were perhaps a dozen lucky kids who could watch at home.

One of those lucky tykes was Johnny who lived past the swings and the teeter-totter next to a float where we used to fish for shiners, perch and tommy cod. That glowing white Sylvania 17” TV set pulled in a lot more instant friends than it did channels. The roof spotted a huge aerial with channel 2, 4, 5, and 12 heads. On a good day when there weren’t any tug boats or power saws operating close by, Channel 2 in Vancouver and 12 in Bellingham, Washington came in with hardly any snow on the screen at all! Sometimes when conditions were perfect Pinky Lee and the Mickey Mouse Club from Seattle’s Channel 4 and 5 appeared with a picture that was almost acceptable. This invention called television was amazing!

Look at the view! Unbelievable! Over there, that’s where the old bluff used to be, covered with red-barked Arbutus trees, now with monster houses, dozens of them, overlooking the islands, and a with huge Canadian flag flying. I still remember the day Jimmy Sinclair came to our house to say hello during an election year. Mom and Dad both said he was a great Liberal and represented our area well. In fact he saved my Dad’s bacon – no Dad didn’t keep kosher. I didn’t even know what kosher was. I only knew what The Holocaust was. There wasn’t a day that my parents didn’t bring up in some form or another about what had happened! Sinclair was also Minister of Fisheries. His daughter would someday marry a man by the name of Pierre Elliot Trudeau! Today their son, Justin Trudeau is Prime Minister.

How politically correct we have become since! Like the report cards at schools, computer- generated, and wonderful concepts called “projected learning outcomes”.

Comments that should never offend only encourage. Included is a Social Studies curriculum that in its new elements in elementary school no longer stressed teaching the basic history of the land (unless of course, one did so unofficially in a clandestine way). Now an arithmetic additive suddenly stresses fractions with unlike denominators shouldn’t be tackled until at least grade seven because the concepts might be confusing for some.

Dad couldn’t bring in a scow to the government wharf for pickup for transport to Vancouver. The wharfinger had apparently stated, “No Jew is going to be able to tie up here.” Jimmy Sinclair sent a telegram to the wharfinger and from that point on there were no further difficulties. My parents became Liberals for life.

Being liberal with a small “l” is something we learned or absorbed like osmosis. Different lifestyles, particular points of view, are what made Gibsons interesting. I suppose that could be the case for any small town particularly in the 1950s before the Sputnik, the satellite dish and the Internet. Yet television provided a visual link to the outside world.

When the Soviet Union’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev began making overtures in the UN with his shoe, the Goslins on the end of our street began making preparations. They lived in a huge wooden frame house with cats and their waste often left on the bare kitchen and living room for cleanup…eventually. Both Goslins were devout spiritualists, one more practical than the other. He spoke to Napoleon and Queen Victoria quite regularly and certainly was not amused with the impending nuclear war that was always around the corner. Very well-read with experiences in the Boer War, old Jeremy would often be spouting his latest predications of doom and gloom while Mom served tea and cookies and Dad listened with slightly bemused though respectful attention. Sometimes a friendly, neighbourly gesture was to bring over a powerful homemade hootch that when swallowed appeared strong enough to be used as a conventional weapon by itself!

Mrs. Goslin was a more practical type, the business head of the family (cats, not children) and bore somewhat the resemblance and body language of Queen Victoria. When the local Royal Bank of Canada was not cooperative as a money lending institution and Household Finance in Vancouver (HFC) – whose popular jingle on the radio at the time was, “Never Borrow Money Needlessly….But If You Must” – was also “unavailable”, Mrs. Goslin always came to the rescue. Her interest rates were astronomical, though not quite as challenging as the mafia or credit cards, which had not been conceived of yet!

Their pet project, apart from the cats and the hootch, was an underground shelter furnished with canned goods to keep them, and the cats, going for a year or two. After that the radiation levels would hopefully dissipate enough for them to rise to the surface for some welcome fresh air. However how she would handle her loan business upon the return to normal times was another matter.

The best carpenter in town, Bill Spencer, was given ten thousand dollars – a healthy sum in those days – to build the 20 square foot shelter to appropriate safe and comfortable specifications. If the Cuban missile crisis had gone the other direction and Castro hadn’t listened to Nikita, who knows perhaps the Goslins would have been Gibsons’ only survivors. Today, the hundreds of canned goods probably remain intact together with the now retro­-furnished living quarters. What a find that would be for a collector freak – all those neat items! It would be yard sale heaven.

Our two closest neighbours were an antithesis to each other. One side literally provided hope and the other none whatsoever. To our right lived a semi-retired doctor and his wife. Dr. Chrisholm and Grace Chrisholm were about as left politically as you could go except they didn’t quite go so far as having a hammer and sickle as a door knocker nor a picture of Lenin on the walls of their medical clinic downstairs.

On our left lived the town undertaker, Jack Quinn. His regular business was downstairs; to make an extra living he also served as a skillful barber. I used to go to his upstairs facility and, for 75¢, received an excellent crew cut. Going there for a trim and a shave, particularly for older folk, was perhaps a bit of a perceived risk and yet a relief to depart from quickly, happy in the knowledge that they had cheated the downstairs profession once again.

Let me tell you, that wharf – just walking up those planks sends goose pimples up and down this burned-out pedant’s back. No more chalk in my pocket, sharpened pencils and a plastic protractor to make out worksheets at McDonalds with a coffee and cranberry muffin.

Each plank on the old government wharf makes a hollow sound like a kind of drum roll into the past, mixed up with the present and yet hard to reconcile either. It seems like the 1950s and “today” are pieces of bread. I’m somehow the main ingredient of the sandwich, complete with lettuce, mayo and processed cheese. I was processed into a university, trained as a “chalk holder” and when the school pictures were taken, staff and students said cheese or fromage for the sake of posterity and P.R.

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