German Immigrant Helga Recounts Her Struggle to Start over in 1959

Helga (b. 1934), a German immigrant, came with her family to Canada in 1959. The first years of hardship almost drove them back, but Helga’s tenacity won.


I moved here in 1959 with my husband and daughter from Germany. I was 25. There was lots of advertising in Germany for people to come to Canada, and we wanted to start a new life. Other people were getting their fare paid, but then they had to work to pay off their fare wherever they sent you. We saved our money and paid our own way so we could choose what we wanted to do.


The immigration process took about a year; they were very strict with questions and getting vaccinations and stuff like that. Then we came to Vancouver where didn’t know a soul. What were we thinking? We wanted to go a city, somewhere that wasn’t too cold. We were looking for adventure and we just hoped for the best.


It was hard, much harder than we thought. We rented a house on 41st and Fraser St. My husband was a… how you say, stuccodor, plasterer. He paid the $150 to get into the union, but then they said “Oh no, you have to find your own work”. And he said “What did I pay you for?” That’s how they did it then. I had trained for three years to be a salesgirl in Germany, but here I didn’t know the language. We didn’t have any help, not like they have today.


We moved to Knight and Kingsway and we shared a place there with another family for a little while, a half and half. I remember I went to the store to buy flour, but I couldn’t read the writing, so I was looking for the package with the Robin Hood man on the front. I bought the bag and took it home, but it turned out it was oatmeal with the Quaker Oats man!

At first, Helga had trouble reading product labels in English.
Pictured: an old Robin Hood Flour display
Image credit: Jack Lindsay, public domain

After a couple of years, we thought of packing it in, because it wasn’t easy, but then we thought no, we made this step because we wanted to, and so we stayed. I sent my daughter back to live with my mother for almost a year, and that made life easier. My husband got a good job and then started painting, cleaning, and trying everything until he made his own business. John the Painter! He was a handyman and did everything people needed. Life got better. We bought a house at Ford Avenue and Nanaimo, after renting it first. We renovated it and lived there for many years.


I got a job cleaning houses. I cleaned many places in the West End. Many of the people who employed me helped a lot. First, I followed announcements in the paper which were for the hardest work: scrubbing walls, climbing ladders- all the heaviest spring cleaning, and then they didn’t need you again. Then I met a German woman who cleaned the house of a prominent family, but she didn’t want to stay there anymore and asked if I would want to take over. I said yes, and started cleaning for one family and gradually added another; I was their permanent cleaner for 35 years. I’m still like a member of these families. They treated me like a friend; I went to their weddings, funerals, and I know their children. Then I started cleaning for their children! When my husband retired, I wanted to be with him but it was also hard to leave my families!

The West End was home to some of the most affluent families in Vancouver.
Pictured: a West End mansion in 1968
Image credit: Nicholas Russell, copyright City of Vancouver

I’m not sorry I stayed in Canada. We struggled, but I have a good life now. I cannot complain. I have two grandchildren and three great grandchildren. From the three of us, my family is growing. I learned to hold onto my money and I try to teach my children this, but they don’t understand. You have to have go through bad times to really know how to spend and save. Maybe if I hadn’t had have a mother in Germany to look after my daughter, we would have gone back. If we had had to pay for childcare to work, it would have been too hard, and we didn’t that much money. Even my daughter doesn’t realize how hard that was.

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