Finding Home in the Bain Co-op: Dagmar Baur's Journey from Poland to Toronto

Created by Laura on 20/05/2010
Dagmar wrote the following autobiography for Heritage Toronto where it is still available on their website. FINDING A HOME IN THE BAIN CO-OP Dagmar Baur's Journey from Poland to Toronto One evening last summer I sat on the bench in the South Oaks courtyard of the Bain Co-op in Toronto's East End, enjoying the flowers, the serenity of green, the peace of twilight. It was one of those magic moments - just me and the kitties keeping contented company. I heard the comforting domestic sounds of dinner preparations and muted talk between parents and children (techno rumble was blessedly absent). The roar of the city seemed far away from the shelter of our small valley and it felt so safe. I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude - for so many reasons. One reason was right before my eyes - the garden. It was the result of much loving labour - mine and many others. I continue to take joy in our accomplishment and know exactly how God felt on Sunday. Except God had to do it all alone; whereas I had the pleasure of working with my neighbours. Although I rant and rail about this and that, I love the Bain Co-op with a deep and abiding passion - the people, the process, the possibilities - those fulfilled and those that are not. For I have received much in learning and kindness during the past 28 years that I have lived here. Above all I have enjoyed a sense of stability that comes from the clear knowledge of belonging somewhere. It wasn't always so. MAKING SENSE OF THE PAST My 30 years of life before Bain consisted of at least 18 moves between continents, countries and dwelling places. They included fascism, war, dispossession, refugee status, the deaths of many in my extended family, and avoidance of a marine disaster that made the Titanic look like a "mini-event". It meant starting over in new countries, with new customs and languages. Popular wisdom holds that the first five years of our life shape who we are for the rest of it. If so, then I had a difficult start. It seems that all my years on this earth comprised an effort to make sense of my memories and experiences, those of my parents and family, and even those I own genetically. Living in the co-operative community of Bain helped me in this quest. I was born on March 17, 1941 of a Polish mother and German father in a house on a hill nestled into the edge of a forest overlooking Gdynia, Poland. Gdynia is a small harbour town and naval base on the Baltic Sea by the Bay of Danzig, and the place where the Solidarity movement started many years later. My first happy memories are of sunlight slanting through trees and walking the forest with my parents and brother. Early on I demonstrated leadership skills and a need for community. At three-and-a-half I organised my playmates to go on a cherry-picking raid to a neighbour's garden, and once, I ran away from my mother to a kindergarten because I felt lonely for other children. My other memories are of people in gas masks, bombing raids, sirens, being grabbed out of warm sleep to flee to underground bunkers where women keened in fear and children cried. And always the bombs, starting with a high whine and ending low before exploding. For many years I was tortured by nightmares in which I wandered grief-stricken through desolate ruins looking for my family. When I looked up to the sky I saw bombs falling in slow motion. I was rooted in place and couldn't escape. LEAVING HOME January 1945 was bitterly cold. While the winds drifted snow higher than anyone could remember, my mother walked weeping from one room to another, picking up this and that and putting it down again. We were packing to go because the Russian armies were breaking through the entire Eastern front, swinging up to encircle Gdynia. Retreating German units of the Army Group Vistula with their wounded, and thousands of civilian refugees were pouring into our city. The German government, together with the military and the navy, was organising a safe escape for as many people as possible. Those among the Jewish population who read the writing on the wall left before Kristall-Nacht. The ones who stayed were forced into concentration camps. A few were able to hide with the assistance of compassionate Poles and Germans. My father helped one Jewish person escape by providing false documentation and letters of reference. By doing this he risked his own life and that of his family. My Mother feared for my thirteen-year-old brother already conscripted into digging anti-tank trenches, because even fourteen year olds were drawn into combat with the Volkssturm ("folk-storm" or "people's army" consisting of men unfit for regular duty and very young boys). The German population knew it was time to go. Ships lay anchored in the harbour ready for boarding - among them the "Wilhelm Gustloff," an elegant recreational liner on which we would have loved to sail. Family myth has it that my father had instructions from my mother to procure tickets but wasn't successful. THE SHIP I DIDN'T DROWN ON My parents locked the door of our home for the last time and we walked out with our lives packed into several suitcases carried on two sleds drawn by my father and brother. I sat on top, whining about the loss of my pacifier and a large doll that had to be left behind. Upset, I fell off into the snow but was rescued by my brother. We headed for the whaler "Walter Rau." My mother bedded me on one of the sleds, below some huge machinery for processing whales. Water sloshed on the floor and people panicked for space and food. On the night of January 30th while en route to the relative safety of Western Germany, the "Gustloff" was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and went down with over 10,000 women and children, wounded soldiers and all hands - the largest marine disaster in history. Only a few hundred were rescued. In later years I obsessed about the circumstances that spared our lives - it's called survivor guilt. Searching the past for this writing brought answers via the Internet and conversations with my brother. I found a website dedicated to the sunken boat and learned that Wilhelm Gustloff was a Swiss anti-Semite who fomented hatred against Jews and was shot by a young Jewish student. The Nazis elevated Gustloff to martyr status and named a boat after him which provided pleasure cruises for German workers who supported the "Reich." We didn't get tickets for the Gustloff not through my father's dereliction. It was his being a socialist with a Polish wife (and definitely not a Nazi) that failed to get us onto this boat. We were low on the totem pole and did not qualify. The "Wilhelm Gustloff" was meant for 1,800 people - it held over 10,000 when it went down on that bitterly cold day, January 30, 1945 while we waited in the harbour for another berth. Our own odyssey continued safely. We landed in a small town near the border of Denmark and made our way on trains packed with other refugees - inside, on top and clinging to the doors - to Hamburg, in Northern Germany. There we found refuge on the edge of the city in a small garden cottage belonging to a relative who was waiting out the war in another city. THE END OF WORLD WAR II Because my father was technically a deserter (he claimed failure to receive his conscription letters) we could not avail ourselves of ration-coupons or other help available to civilians. We survived the first summer by planting a garden and bartering for my mother's sewing. During that time we sheltered another deserter with whom we shared our meagre resources. He was an innkeeper from Southern Germany, who had accidentally stumbled into our temporary home while looking for shelter. When he finally started his long walk home from the Northern city of Hamburg it was a cold day and he shivered in the light shirt and pants provided by my parents. My father rushed back inside and lent him his one and only coat. (It would have been dangerous to be caught in a German uniform, both for the innkeeper and for us. Before the end of the war deserters were often strung up on the next available lamppost; after the war they became prisoners of the occupying armies: the French, English, Russians and Americans). We also survived the continuous bombings, both night and day. I recall the entry of the Canadian troops who marched right past our house and that I, along with other children, threw gravel at them. REFUGEES IN GERMAN POST-WAR RECONSTRUCTION The next seven years 1945-1952 were spent close to a forest in the town of Goettingen. We lived with my grandmother - five people, three rooms - in barracks built for a World War I military camp. We had a wood-stove, cold water, the luxury of an indoor toilet, and the bathtub was brought in on Saturday night. (As the youngest I bathed first, with much pleading from my brother that I should not pee in the water.) Again, a garden kept us going, as well as geese, chickens, rabbits, sewing-barter and my father's moonshine traded to farmers for meat and potatoes. With the permission of the farmers we gleaned sugar beets from harvested fields to make moonshine. To make the still, my teenaged brother used our grandmother's encyclopaedia (found in the attic) as a guide. I've always claimed that this early successful experiment led to his becoming a scientist. You never know where youthful experience will lead you. We were very poor then, but I never knew it. In my grandmother's attic I found books with sentimental stories about starving children and I wept at their misfortunes. I felt so rich playing with my mother's costume jewellery. Besides, we always had food to share with any soldier footing it home or a refugee looking for respite at our kitchen table. My father joked about stretching the soup with water and there was always a piece of bread, a cup of tea for those who called. (One day a knock on the door brought back my father's winter coat and we all wept with joy). I remember that lovely, small, medieval town with ambivalence because of this passage in a book I still own: "During the war (Goettingen) was essentially spared, but at the end was forced to accept about 30,000 refugees of whom 20,000 were from territories east of the Oder and Neisse."[1] Well, that was us, folks! In Gdynia it was "Poles, Jews and Dogs, Verboten" and in Goettingen it was "refugees not welcome," although we were German.[1.2] But the far eastern Germans were "Untermenschen" (sub-human) and not quite as acceptable as those from the "Reich." What to do? THE WRETCHED REFUSE YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE We heard of relocation programmes for refuges. My father received instruction from my mother to start looking for a better place and he applied for Australia, South America, Canada, and the U.S. We were generously accepted by the U.S. and headed for New York on a navy liberty transport ship (the U.S.S. General Hershey) in 1952 as part of the "wretched refuse yearning to breathe free." [2] The lady with a lamp welcomed you, but we found out that she charges admission. We had the great American immigrant experience, living in a three-room flat on New York's Lower East Side. My father washed dishes at Schrafft's, my mother sewed baby-bonnets in a garment factory, my brother worked as a soda jerk to save for university. I went to school where they told me scary stories, one about a man who dared to say that he hated America, so they put him on a boat and never, ever let him touch land. On Fridays school children had to wear white shirts, blue skirts or trousers and a red tie and pledge allegiance to America and salute the flag. I resisted. I was eleven then and told my teacher that I wasn't ready to do the pledge of allegiance. I refused to wear the clothes. If I couldn't mean it then I wouldn't do it at all. My parents supported me in my decision. One day my father came home from English lessons and said "Everyone is asking how we like the American way of life. What do they mean?" We learned that they want you to love America the way they think it's right to love America and if you don't then they tell you to go home. Well, in the end, we did all come to love and support America but not the way they wanted and it took many years. My moving continued. Minneapolis, Montreal, interspersed with stays in Europe, travels in North America - East Coast, West Coast, Mexico - university education, marriage, divorce, work in publishing, film and television. It's my childhood that took forever, all the rest is brevity. Finally I came to Toronto and the Bain Co-op. It wasn't a Co-op when I first moved in, but I did know that I didn't ever want to move anywhere else again because it felt like home. BAIN AND THE BLACK FOREST CONNECTION Why did Bain feel so familiar? I wasn't to learn the answer until 1994 when I returned to Europe and my dear brother drove us down the insane highways of Germany to our paternal homeland - the Black Forest and mountain valley of Bernau in which my ancestors had lived for a thousand years. For the first time in my life I sat in a room with twenty other "Baurs". That room, that house, reminded me of Bain for it has narrow balconies below overhanging roofs, paned windows, small rooms, low ceilings and steep, narrow stairs. The writer William Dendy, in a book called "Toronto Observed" comments about the architect of Bain: "...the choice of Eden Smith...(was important) for "the Arts & Crafts ‘Cottage Style' that he had perfected ... provided the right image for these flats. Popularly and romantically associated with a simple country life, this style featured rough brick and stucco walls, half-timbered gables and bay windows, with verandas and porches that stepped out into gardens. (He) clearly devoted considerable time and effort to giving the flats a pleasant domestic association... (by designing) steep shingled roofs with broad shadowed eaves that clearly symbolised the comforts of a good home."[3] I believe the memory of my ancestral home is inscribed in my DNA along with the colour of my hair and eyes. WHAT MY ANCESTORS AND EXTENDED FAMILY TAUGHT ME In the 1990's I made two journeys to Europe - one to Germany and one to Poland. They were great gifts: from my mother who left money for the travels; from my father who re-established the Black Forest connection; from my brother who drove me there; and all the relatives who opened their hearts and homes and so generously shared their knowledge of our common past. I received much understanding of who I am in relation to my ancestors and family. I discovered that I share likes and dislikes with my relatives, medical conditions such as a tendency to obesity and problems with feet. I discovered that I come honestly by my love for the forest, and my enjoyment of gardening, teaching, public service and protest. After all, my name, ‘Baur' means farmer and I learned that through the centuries the Baurs had served as mayors and teachers in their villages. One Dionis Baur, mayor/buergermeister, participated in the German revolution of 1848 and went to jail for his courage. [4] On the Polish side of the family we are also descended from farming people. A marriage certificate of one of my direct nineteeth century ancestors lists his profession as "landowner / nobleman." My mother's name was Borkowska, which means ‘people from the forest.' A number of my relatives fought in the Polish resistance and their names are inscribed on a monument in Warsaw. Recently I learned via the Internet that one of my cousins is head of the Supreme Court in Poland and his wife is Deputy Mayor of Warsaw. In Bernau, Germany, my brother and I visited the local church with an altar painted by my great-uncle Hans Thoma and a museum dedicated to his work. He depicts my relatives and the "simple"' rural life in the nineteenth century. There are paintings of children dancing around maypoles, resting on logs in the forest, gathering flowers in spring, making music and singing, reading in the garden at twilight, grandmother telling stories to children, a marriage procession through yellow fields of summer, among many others. We are fortunate in the Bain Co-op to share ways of living and celebrating that are reminiscent of long ago. We too sing and make music together, weave maypoles in spring, spend summers in our gardens, raise flowers on our balconies and once, I recall, we even went in procession to a funeral. We walked up the hill from the Co-op to Broadview Avenue, down the steep hill below the trees, over the footbridge and the Don River and through Riverdale Farm to the Necropolis where we said farewell to a neighbour. I think our celebrations provide healing, and the years of living together bind us into a community similar to kinship. With my brother I researched the parish records in Bernau. A letter fell out of the pages of a ledger that inscribed in spidery, gothic writing the births, marriages and deaths of the people whose blood flows in my veins. The letter was from the registrar of New Orleans and dated around 1860. It certified that one of my relatives had died of fever in their charity hospital and was interred in a pauper's grave. His widow, who stayed behind, needed verification of his death in order to claim a small pension for her survival. That's the key to all of our stories - survival. We go where we go, we do what we do, in order to survive. I was sad thinking of him leaving that small valley with such great hope. I imagine he travelled by carriage and sailboat only to land in the South on the wrong side of a war in a time of illness and famine. (I visited New Orleans in the 1970's without knowing that I have blood-kin in that soil. Had I known, I would have paid my respects and left a flower.) I was much luckier than my hapless relative. I came into a time of growth and prosperity, received an education, found interesting work, causes, friends and support systems in and out of the Co-op. WHAT HOME MEANS TO ME AND REYNOLDS PRICE The Southern writer, Reynolds Price wrote an essay called "Home: An American Obsession."[5] I too have been obsessed by questions regarding home. I kept copies of the article and have given them away since 1977 because his words moved me so. I love the way the images unfold in his sonorous prose. He writes: "Every American (and Canadian) including the Indian, is here because he left somewhere else ... for a tangle of spiritual, economic and physical reasons, a heavy reason in many cases was ‘family.' The ‘somewhere else' put so irretrievably behind was mostly the home of family - the endless slough of blood and duty, the puppeteer hands of the older generation. It was only with the first generation born here that what had seemed a clean impulse to freedom began to seem a doom instead, a curse in the seed. The children grew on the labour involved in clearing land or spinning thread to feed family mouths; then once grown, they tore loose and lost themselves in the unimaginable distances provided by America...the plains and forests so patiently eager to swallow and hide. Think of all the sons and daughters-laboured over, nurtured for years in the natural hope of eventual return (a tended old age) who one day said plain farewells and rode off westward, out of sight and voice forever: no phones, no regular mail, disappearance. Any country's history may be seen with some justice as a series of dramatic genres-tragedy, farce, melodrama, and vaudeville turn. A large part of 18th and 19th century American history was a vanishing act; a large part still is. It's our ingrained North American restlessness then, unique in the world for geographical scope and endurance, that demands we nurse -in our various temporary camps - the idea of home as icon and amulet. It is gross sentimentality and bedrock truth simultaneously; a truth that has borne these centuries of violation, but is murderously roused against us at last. The ignored centres of sane human life - literal homes, houses and towns - are killing us over what we thought were safe distances we'd put between us, in our need and fear. The fear ... if reducible to a word... is time. If we stay at home, we acknowledge a past that as one of its functions has given birth to us; and worse, we see that past die before us - our parents age, sicken dissolve in pain: we tend them as they go and learn our own mortality. But flight, ah flight! To leave all that is to cancel its claims. In a strange, far place we are free to be ourselves, not subordinate units of a larger hive; and the chance of evading decay and death is real, worth the wandering. But being alive, we require companions-the touch of other bodies. That touch is the friction which begins to wear us; and time finds us anywhere, the ultimate police." HOW TIME FOUND ME AT BAIN AND WHY I CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN Well, time certainly found me here. I am grateful to be in the same hive with companions to hold memories of years gone by. I've had such a rich and diverse life. I've been acknowledged in my comings and goings and challenged in my opinions. I've learned about socialism as a community experiment; cooked countless pots of food for events and neighbours; seen children grow into responsible adults with children of their own; celebrated the passing seasons, births, marriages and deaths; assisted the process of Co-op renovations and the building of our splendid community centre. I have co-created beautiful gardens and struggled for justice, both within and outside of the community. Young people have thanked me for contributing to their lives and teaching them survival skills. And I just thought I was having fun. Members of my family in Poland often asked me whether I would consider coming back. As much as I love them I could not go back to either country of my ancestors. What holds me then on this continent? Certainly my brother, his wife and children; friends of many years; the springtime with the redbud, trilliums and dogwood blooming wildly; the flaming trees in fall. I am also bound by all the years and the immense effort of learning about Canada; its history and flora and fauna, customs, humour - the whole enchilada. On both of my recent trips to Europe I would sneak off and hug the occasional North American tree and greet flowers from this continent like long-lost friends. My family also wanted to know whether I feel more Polish, German, American or Canadian. To this I answered that all inform my character, that I feel loyalty and love to all but patriotism for none. I am a citizen of the Bain Co-op, of Riverdale and Broadview Greenwood . I love Canada and can't imagine living anywhere else in the world. Besides my blood brother I claim as siblings all the warriors for restoration, and the trees, flowers and animals. I feel patriotism for the earth and this corner familiar to me now. I feel loyalty to the children who will inherit this earth. My father always told me, "Dagi, try to leave things better than you found them." The poet Archibald MacLeish expressed his commitment for North America in a piece called "American Letter for Gerald Murphy." [6] In it he discusses the difficulty of being from two places, loving both, yet not going back. He concludes: Therefore we will not go though the sea call us. This, this is our land, this is our people, This that is neither a land, nor a race. We must reap The wind here in the grass for our soul's harvest: Here we must eat our salt or our bones starve. Here we must live or live only as shadows. This is our race, we that have none, that have had Neither the old walls nor the voices around us, This is our land, this is our ancient ground- The raw earth, the mixed bloods and the strangers, The different eyes, the wind, and the heart's change. These we will not leave though the old call us. This is our country-earth, our blood, our kind. Here we will have our years till the earth blind us. GROWING CABBAGES AND GETTING PAID FOR IT: OR SUCCESS STORIES OF BAIN I learned about community gardening by helping to transform both the North Lindens and the South Oaks courtyards and the whole south side of the Bain Co-op, as chair of the Courtyard Representatives Committee. When we first started to tear up the asphalt to make gardens in the 1970's many people said, "It won't work, the kids will destroy it, they'll steal all the flowers." Whenever a child picked a lone tulip it seemed to provoke a community crisis. I kept thinking, "Let's plant so many flowers that a few blossom won't be missed. Children need to pick flowers and berries and leaves." This has come to pass because through the years I facilitated grants, tools, plants, know-how, experts. The work I have accomplished here has had many outcomes. It allowed me to garden and teach professionally, it resulted in the Bain gardens being part of the "Secret Gardens of Riverdale" tour. We received the "best native community garden award" from the North American Native Plant Society and various awards from the City of Toronto. We have successful partnerships with diverse environmental organizations and recognition from the Recycling council for our huge composting programme. We enjoy visitors from many organisations, co-ops, and even other countries. I'm not the only person who has benefited from volunteering in the Co-op; there are examples more notable than mine. Peter Tabuns served on Resident's Council and was Finance Manager for a time. He then served as Councillor at City Hall and is now MPP for our riding. Marilyn Churley became a Councillor, then Member of Provincial Parliament for our riding and even Minister of Consumer Relations during the NDP government. There are many other success stories at Bain: people who are known in their skill, craft, or profession and are saving the world, their corner, family or sanity. There are mothers who received high school degrees in their twenties and gained entry to major universities; a senior who achieved an honours degree in her seventies; a street person who first hid in the Bain garages and was helped to get a home and a renewed start in life by compassionate members; kids who left Bain for the streets and who came back home again and kicked drugs; parents who quit alcohol; some who quit drugs and became community leaders. Many here, including myself, have calmed down and learned to trust and grow in spirit and courage because we have that most precious thing, a stable home in a safe community. All those mentioned, to some degree could make positive changes in their lives due to the support of the community as well as the extreme challenges presented by our democratic process. WHAT I'VE LEARNED I've learned much in my rich, diverse and eventful life: about creativity from my mother, optimism and the rewards of public service from my father; humour as a survival tool and love of nature. I have learned that poverty need not be a barrier to achievement and that it is good to help people and share what you have and what you know. I found a logical continuation of the values my parents practised in my years of co-op living. Yes, my father was a Socialist, but how does this affect one's daily life? Standing up for others and yourself is an important part. My family not only helped a German deserter but also assisted the escape of a Jew from persecution. A recent New York Times Magazine article The Good Germans [7] tells us that it took 20 to 50 Germans to help one Jew survive the war and that there were more who helped than got credit for their efforts. Many perished themselves. I have always wondered where people get the courage to take risks for others and living here has provided some answers. I learned from the courage of my father. During World War II he served in the Luftschutzwarndienst "Ground-observer corps" in Holland and found it difficult to be shunned by the Dutch population. So he volunteered for radio night duty. He made sure to lock up securely and then listened to the BBC and Radio Free Europe. He learned what was going on and shared it with others when he felt he could risk it. He received a commendation for practising good security measures. I'm grateful for his example and that he spoke a lot about the war and what it meant to him. He feared that anything good Germans had achieved would be negated by the evil. He was very ashamed of being a German and felt much sorrow for what had transpired. For all of his life he was an ad hoc goodwill ambassador for Germany. I have always taken a great deal of pride in being part of a community that created itself by uniting against great odds. It also tries to hold to egalitarian principles. The first member handbook stated: "The General Meeting of members is the highest authority at Bain Co-op. All policies, rules, regulations and by-laws must be approved at a General Meeting before they are put into effect. The General Meeting, by a majority vote, can change decisions made any other group or person within the Co-op."[8] It was interesting to note the attempts of the Mike Harris government to erode our rights. Bain had a period of many struggles that mirrored those in the larger world. It has always been a microcosm reflecting the larger cosmos. Since I was born in a time where a totalitarian government obliterated my world, killed millions, destroyed cities and cultures and made other millions including myself, homeless, I get nervous when people start talking about taking away my decision-making rights. It's important to maintain vigilance and to keep abreast of information. This I know with every fibre of my being. I've learned that the fears of our ancestors can influence us. For example; I have a fear of hunger and squirrel away food the way others put money in the bank. Yet in spite of all the bad things that happened I was never hungry myself. My mother saw to that. I was intrigued to see that my niece, who grew up in middle-class prosperity in Chicago, shares this trait. She visited me, bringing bags of food and said earnestly: "You never know, we might get trapped in the forest on the side of the 401 and have to survive on our provisions." That's probably also why I enjoy cooking up great big pots of food and sharing them with my neighbours. All I am is the result of my own memories and stories and those of my family, near and extended, and the countless generations before me that have vanished into time. I have tried to use them well. *** That's what I was thinking that evening in the courtyard while enjoying the perfume of the flowers and the blessed green. Then a friend, one of the finest restoration gardeners in Toronto dropped by and said "Hello" and kissed me on the cheek and sat down beside me. We had quarrelled, so I was happy to see him again. He looked at the garden and said: "You did good, Dagi!" Thank you. This is a traditional First Nations prayer for Elders [9]: O Great Spirit Whose voice I hear in the winds, And whose breath gives life to all the world, Hear me! I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever Behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made And my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand things You have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons you have hidden In every leaf and rock. I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, But to fight my greatest enemy-myself. Make me always ready to come to you with Clean hands and straight eyes. So when life fades, as the fading sunset, My spirit may come to you without shame. HO! Dagmar Baur, Bain Apartments Co-op, Riverdale Toronto, February 28, 2000