Childhood Memories of an Amazing Adventure

For a young Dutch boy, crossing the Atlantic by ship was an unforgettable experience, one of many that followed...

In May 1945, my dad came home to Holland from Germany after being a prisoner of war. He started a business in Rotterdam that made Delft Blue table lamps. Because of the postwar rebuilding effort, however, he was heavily taxed and chose to move from Holland to Canada for new opportunities and a better income. He travelled to Canada alone to find employment and a place to live, and my mom, older brother Bob and I followed him later.

We left for Halifax in October 1951, travelling on the SS Volendam. I was 11 years old and had just completed Grade 5, and I was sad that I had to leave my cat “Miepie” behind. By then, Dad was living in an apartment in Montreal and had found work as a painter in a factory.

Living on this huge ship while we crossed the Atlantic was thrilling for me. One day we had a very bad storm and I went outside on the top deck to really see what a storm at sea was like. Very large waves were rolling in and the ship had to climb and plunge its way through the mountainous sea. When I went back inside, I walked into chaos. Hundreds of passengers were running and stumbling up the stairwell to the main deck because they were seasick. After I managed to find my family, we went into the dining hall and ate some soup and crackers, and did not get seasick.

Coming to Canada - maple syrup festivalCourtesy Johannes Vandenberg
Johannes’ mom Cornelia (left) and his dad Jan (right) at the Maple Syrup Festival held in March 1952 by “the Colonel,” who later invited them to live on his estate.

Upon arriving in Canada, we joined Dad in Montreal. The apartment where we were living was too small and, after about five months of cramped living, Dad decided we needed to move. Around that time, my parents happened to be invited to a Maple Syrup Festival being held at a large estate on Ile Perrot, west of Montreal off the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. During the festival, Dad had the opportunity to meet the landowner—“The Colonel”—and was offered a job that included family living quarters on the estate. Dad had a Dutch friend who already worked and lived there and before long our family of four was living there, too.

One day in early spring 1952, Bob and I found a wooden river raft in a grove of partly submerged trees. We had to try it out, of course, so we hopped on board and started to float out into deeper water. Then, to our amazement, the raft began to sink at an alarming rate. Bob could swim and so he headed back towards shore. I was afraid of water and could not swim, and so cried out to my brother for help. He told me to stay calm and paddle with my hands and feet towards shore. I could barely keep my head above water, but when I tried to, I discovered that I could actually touch the bottom with my toes when I stretched out fully, and so I was able to tippy-toe my way in the right direction. But I was terrified as I slowly moved along, keeping my attention focused on my brother, who was already on the bank. He reached out and pulled me to safety, and I am forever grateful to him for that!

Coming to Canada - boy holding turtleCourtesy Johannes Vandenberg
Johannes with his pet turtles, and his mom on the steps, pictured at home on “The Colonel’s” estate.

While living on the estate, I became fascinated with the large painted turtles that local fishermen often found in their traps. A farmhand built me a large aluminum-screen cage, with a sunken water pail in the middle, so I could keep a couple of turtles as pets. In July 1952, Dad decided that we were going to Calgary by train to live there. I was sad once again at having to leave my pets behind.

After living in several different places, we moved into a bungalow in the Bowness neighbourhood of Calgary in 1954. That summer, my friend and I decided to go biking and wound up at the brand-new Bearspaw Dam on the Bow River. What an impressive sight for us kids! We picked saskatoon berries and went exploring in the many caves along the dam’s reservoir.

I am thankful to my parents for bringing our family to such a rich and bountiful land. Canada: my home, forever!

Next, find out what one recent immigrant wishes he’d known before moving to Canada.

Originally Published in Our Canada