Making Canada home
Marianne, left, with her father, Otto Echt, and sister Brigitte. (photo from Canadian Museum of Immigration [CMI] at Pier 21)
Marianne Ferguson’s family missed the train that was supposed to take them to Montreal from Halifax. Just 13 at the time, she and her sister were mostly excited at the prospect of something new, although they were sorry to leave friends and family behind in Europe. Their parents, however, were apprehensive, worried about starting a new life in a foreign country. And that was before they got stuck in Halifax – where, almost eight decades later, Ferguson, née Echt, still calls home.
In Europe, the Echts had lived in a little resort town called Brosen, just outside of the Free City of Danzig, which is today the Polish city of Gdansk. Ferguson’s father, Otto, was a pharmacist and a hobby farmer, and they lived well. Her mother, Meta, had multiple maids; the children – Marianne, Brigitte and Reni – had a nanny, and every spring and autumn a dressmaker would come into their home for a week to create new wardrobes for the upcoming season. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Ferguson’s family was relatively unaffected in the beginning. Even so, her parents saw what was coming and began making contingency plans.
Ferguson’s father kept homing pigeons on his farm. He would go to Poland to deposit money, and send the pigeons back home with coloured ribbons tied to them for Ferguson’s mother to decipher. A yellow ribbon meant he had arrived, for example, while a red ribbon meant he had deposited the money. He was able to get away with this scheme because the guards at the Polish border assumed he was entering his pigeons into competitions.
The Echts continued living in Brosen as the situation deteriorated for Jewish families. When the fair-haired Ferguson traveled to Hebrew school in Danzig with her sister, Hitler Youth would yell at her to ‘Stop walking with that Jew!’ When the Jewish children in the region were no longer allowed to attend school with their peers, the Jews of Brosen opened their own school on a local estate. The estate was at the end of a long street inhabited by Nazis, and it was understood the Jewish children all had to be in school and off the street by 8 a.m.
One day, when Ferguson was about 11 or 12, her streetcar to school was late. As she was walking alone down the long street to her school, a man sent his police dog after her. The dog attacked her, biting her on the elbow.
“And all of a sudden, somebody raised me up. Must have been an angel, really,” said Ferguson in a recent interview with the Independent from her nursing home in Halifax.
It was the milkman. He put Ferguson in his wagon, drove her to school and deposited her inside the gate. Ferguson said that man saved her life.
For her parents, it was the last straw. They decided they had to get out. A member of the Canadian consulate informed them that the country was not accepting pharmacists. Fortunately, though, the consulate worker saw their little farm and suggested sending them as farmers. And so it was that the Echts found themselves coming through Pier 21 in Halifax on March 7, 1939.
When they arrived at the pier, someone called their names and frightened Ferguson’s father. How did people here know who they were? But the woman calling them was Sadie Fineberg, from Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS). When the Echts missed their train, Fineberg put them up in a boarding house run by a Yiddish-speaking woman, and many Jewish families came to visit them.
“My parents said, ‘The people were so nice to us, and how do we know what it’s going to be like in Montreal? Maybe we should stay in Nova Scotia.’ And then they helped us with finding the farm, they drove us out … and we moved over there,” said Ferguson.
The farm was in nearby Milford, about a 45-minute drive from downtown Halifax. The Echts had to stay and work the farm for seven years as a condition of their immigration and, after their term ended, they moved to Halifax. Fineberg became a close family friend, and her nephew Lawrence became Ferguson’s husband.
Ferguson’s extended family was not so lucky. Her parents had applied to bring 11 of them over to Canada, and they were supposed to arrive later in the year. Cutting through all the red tape took time, but the process seemed to be progressing. Ferguson’s 11 family members went to meet their boat in Hamburg – but it wasn’t there. That day was Sept. 1, 1939, and the Second World War had just broken out.
“My father had bought a second farm. We were so lucky, it was right next to our farm. We thought we would all be together in the two farms. But it wasn’t meant to be. They were all killed,” said Ferguson.
When the war ended, Ferguson began volunteering with JIAS, helping Jewish refugees find their way in Canada. Many of the displaced persons were children traveling alone. Ferguson remembers one 17-year-old boy in particular who came through Pier 21 in 1948 and needed money to get to Montreal. Ferguson and her mother gave him $20 and some food. They also told him that he would become a good citizen, and he should work hard and make something of himself. Meanwhile, Ferguson continued to volunteer at Pier 21 until it closed in 1971. She began volunteering there again when it reopened as a museum in 1999.
Unbeknownst to Ferguson, the boy listened to her. His name was Nathan Wasser, and he had survived multiple camps in the Holocaust, including Auschwitz. He was trained as an electrician in Munich after the war, so that’s the work he first did after arriving in Montreal. In 1952, he met his wife-to-be, Shirley, at a parade for Queen Elizabeth, who was still a princess at the time. Together, they started a family, having a daughter and a son, and he ventured into the business world. Wasser eventually came to own his own shopping centre.
Through it all, Wasser – who passed away in 2015 – kept in mind the two women who had helped him when he first came to Canada as a scared and overwhelmed teenager.
“So I said to him, ‘You know, you have this vision of two volunteers. Would you like to go back to Pier 21?’” said his wife Shirley Wasser in a phone interview with the Independent. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ll never find anything.’”
Despite his doubts, Wasser contacted the Atlantic Jewish Council in 2003. The council connected him to Ferguson (her mother had already passed away), and they arranged to meet when the Wassers visited Halifax later that year.
On the appointed day, Ferguson and her granddaughter waited in the lobby of Pier 21 for a man with a blue shirt. Unfortunately, it seemed as if every man was wearing a blue shirt that day. Finally, a couple entered. The man was wearing a blue shirt and carrying flowers.
“My granddaughter said, ‘I think that’s for you.’ And, you know, he recognized me,” Ferguson recounted as she started to tear up.
Ferguson and Wasser stayed in touch until Wasser’s death, and she is still in contact with his wife. Whenever the Wassers came to Halifax, the Fergusons would have them over for Shabbat dinner on the Friday, then the Wassers would take out the Fergusons for dinner on the Saturday. Every birthday and holiday, Nathan Wasser would send a bouquet of flowers to Ferguson.
“He had no words for her, how grateful and how appreciative he was to the pier and the volunteers,” said Shirley Wasser. “I think [Ferguson] was one of the finest ladies I’ve ever encountered.”
“He did save his money and he listened to what we were saying. He said he owed it to us to do well. He was so grateful,” said Ferguson, speaking of her late friend somewhere between laughter and tears.
Alex Rose is a master’s student in journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He graduated from the same school in 2016 with a double major in creative writing and religious studies, and loves all things basketball. He wrote this article as part of an internship with the Jewish Independent.