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Visiting Pier 21: A Journey Through Family Memory

Visiting Pier 21: A Journey Through Family Memory

Baba’s hand lay heavy on my forearm as I lead her through the Pier 21 museum in Halifax. We move slowly, her speed hindered by two hip replacements and cataracts. The heavy thud of her palachka—a wooden cane—resounded against the hardwood floors. Her gaze flitted across the room as she took in the array of photos and quotes, the display of luggage, and the floor in front of her with her mouth agape.

It was late October of 2014 when my Baba and aunt came to visit me in Nova Scotia. The city was special for them both. For my aunt, it had been home years before I was born. For my baba, it was where she first set foot in her new home after fleeing Serbia in 1950.

While both claimed that I was the reason for their visit, I knew they had their own histories to face as well.


Visiting Pier 21

We decided to visit Pier 21 so Baba could return to the port that had welcomed her to her new nation.

Upon arriving, my aunt had promptly abandoned us to wander through the attached train car at a quicker pace.

I led my Baba towards the rows of benches in the middle of the room, where the new arrivals to Canada were said to have waited to be approved by immigration officers. It was hard to imagine my eighty-five-year-old grandmother, who was slowly easing herself onto the low seat, making such an incredible journey all alone when she was just twenty-one years old—a year older than I was at the time.

I could barely handle grocery shopping every week, and yet she was able to leave her family in a refugee camp in Trieste, unsure if she’d ever see them again, to travel to Canada in the hope of being able to sponsor them once she arrived.

Once Baba was seated, she rested both of her hands on the polished handle of her cane and surveyed the room. “They’ve made this sound much nicer than it was,” she told me, as she set her eyes on the leather trunks artfully displayed to our left. Her heavy Serbian accent marred her words though she spoke perfect English—she’d taught herself English and French by reading books when she was growing up. “Our suitcases were cardboard-made; a sorry sight.

“We were all a sorry sight.”


A Journey Through Family Memory

My Baba was known for sharing the stories of her past, to the point that I could recite most of them from memory. In my twenty years, I had heard the tale of her trip to Canada at least a dozen times, but I was a sucker for a good story and encouraged her to tell me again about her voyage across the Atlantic.

She settled back against the bench, resting her palachka against her stomach. Her eyes were focused off into the distance, above the fake immigration desk a row ahead of us, as she transported me to 1950.

“I was the only one accepted by the Canadian Immigration Authorities to come to Canada as a ‘city domestic’.” Her mother, aunt, uncle, and younger cousin had been outside of the age bracket and had to stay in the refugee camp in Trieste. After a “torturous” two-day train trip to Germany where she said, “my feet were so swollen I was barely able to take off my shoes,” she embarked on her sea voyage.

Her ship, the S.S. Goya was a freighter “with no comforts of today’s cruises,” she said, referring to her own myriad of cruise journeys in the past decade. “The cargo space was partitioned so men and women each had half. One cabin accommodated approximately 30 people.” She tightened her grip on her cane and shifted in her seat as if remembering the discomfort of such tight quarters.


Memory Comes Alive

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Posted @withrepost • @jimbobwaay @pier21_quai21 is home to the #CanadianMuseumOfImmigration, housing both a physical artifact collection and a vast Oral History collection. #Pier21 operated as an an ocean liner terminal and immigration shed from 1928 to 1971, processing nearly one million immigrants to Canada and is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada. The facility is often compared to the landmark American immigration gateway Ellis Island. A permanent exhibit is the “Pier 21 Story” exhibition, showing visitors what it was like to immigrate through the terminal, from the harrowing voyage on a ship across the ocean, to disembarking the ship and waiting in the assembly hall, to the colonist car taking immigrants to their final destinations across the vast country. #BlueNoseMarathon #BlueNose2019 @bnmarathon #Halifax #NovaScotia #Canada #🇨🇦 #marathonnumber107 #provincenumber3 #marathon #running #marathonglobetrotters #marathonmaniacs #doubleagent #teamnuun #nuunlove

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Something about the room seemed to spur her memory, inspiring her to include details she’d never bothered to before. Being in the museum, in the very spot where she disembarked seemed to fill the story with a greater purpose for both of us.

The museum itself seemed to come alive, the weight of such a journey made real by her presence. It was more than mannequins and mechanically voiced films; it was the first place to welcome a young girl who had to manage life on her own.

Her vigour had me leaning forward, anxious to soak up every detail.


Homesick Tastebuds

Everyone aboard the ship had to work, prompting my Baba to refer to it as somewhat of a “slave ship”, to the concern of a young tour guide. “I was employed by the ship’s secretary, Elsie Verplancke.”

It was amazing that she could remember this woman who’d briefly touched her life over sixty years ago when I could hardly remember what classes I was taking next week.

visiting pier 21
A photo of my gorgeous Baba, Vera Jelich, when she’d built up her Canadian life.

“I helped her prepare the landing documents for everyone immigrating.” She was given a cabin, and access to paper and typewriters to do the work. “Elsie offered to get me any kind of food, but I just wanted spicy Balkan food.” Baba’s eyes softened at the only mention of any homesickness in her tale, of any desire beyond helping her family.

She released her palachka, letting it rest against her as she folded her hands in her lap. “We were at sea ten days and I was sick every single day.” This, coupled with the unfamiliar Norwegian food, meant she ate little on the journey. It was a far cry from the plump women before me who had consumed four cups of Turkish coffee and two spanikopitas an hour earlier.


First Sights of Canada

visiting pier 21
Photo from Unsplash

Her energy faltered until she reached the last legs of her retelling. “Around 2 p.m. I heard an announcement that we have just entered the territorial waters of Canada.”

I don’t know if the following description is accurate, or her memory dramatizing a profoundly hopeful moment, but my Baba claimed, “The sea was no longer as choppy as before. Even the sun peaked out from behind a cloud—until now it was grey, cold, and ugly.”

Her eyes lit up at a memory that was unfolding for only her to see. Her permanently hunched posture seemed to improve and a wide smile wrinkled the skin around her glasses. She gestured dynamically, painting a picture with her hands in the air so I could follow along.

“I was standing with a group of passengers and one of them produced a herring, which he had ‘appropriated’ while on kitchen duty. The stolen herring was divided into approximately ten pieces. Each piece was pierced with a match and handed to the members of the group. It was the tastiest morsel I ate in at least a month,” she exclaimed gleefully. Her hands, cupped as though she were still holding the piece of fish, trembled with her enthusiasm.

It was while eating that herring that she caught her first glimpse of the Canadian shore and felt hopeful for her future in this strange, forested land. The rich green of the coastline called to her, like the Serbian forests of her youth. Before her father and sister had died. Before the war. Before she was alone.

By 6 p.m. they were docking at Pier 21.

“Land at last,” she sighed. The memory seemed to slowly slide away as she turned to smile at me and reached for my hand. She gasped it tightly, revealing the invigorating power of her memory, and shook my fist lightly with hers, almost victoriously, as if to say, We made it.

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