A treasure trove of old letters has recently come into my possession from another family member’s storage space. The letters are mostly from my mother to her parents, ranging from 1946 to the 1980’s. My grandparents in Germany had kept all those letters and after they died many years ago, two boxes of letters were sent to our family along with other possessions, shipped by container. My mother had a very close relationship with her parents, and even though we children grew up a continent away we also had a close relationship with our “Ami und Api” as we called them.

Back then when long-distance phone calls were rare and emails non-existent, they wrote letters, many letters! I have just begun looking at some of these, pulling them out quite at random thus far, and am amazed at this rich correspondence. These letters are like a journal from my mother, and all the more moving as they show what a close relationship she had with her family.

Food descriptions figured prominently in the post-war letters, especially the early ones from 1946 and 47. No wonder, as they went through very hungry times after open hostilities ended in 1945. 

The second letter that I happened to pull out of the box is the one my mother (Editha – aka Didi – Schmilinsky) wrote while sailing across the Atlantic on her voyage to Canada in 1952. This was momentous, as it was her emigration voyage leaving Germany to begin a new life in Canada, joining her fiancé – soon to be husband – Otto Schaefer. He had emigrated one year earlier in 1951.

Almost all of Didi’s letters start with the complete date including the year, but not this one. Also, most of the letters are still in their envelopes with a postmark, but again not this one. It took me a few minutes to figure out when and where this boat voyage was, and when it became clear to me – what a thrill it was to be holding this particular letter in my hands!

Unfortunately the mice had got ahold of it, and the last page is only half there, but I’ll do my best to translate a few bits and pieces.


Tuesday, April 2nd  7 pm

Dear Parents!

Now we have the situation that everyone can eat as much of everything as they want, because about half of all passengers did not show up. Had 2 portions of fried liver at lunch, and just now enjoyed 4 portions of pineapple ice cream.

Since emerging from the channel, the storm is picking up. Windspeed 8 knots, and you feel like you are on Mars or on the moon, when you walk you sail 2 or 3 meters through the air, but just for a few seconds and then in the next moment your weight doubles again. Yesterday afternoon we were still basking in the sun, and today it is really hazy and stormy, raining on and off. Just now I almost fell off my chair.[…]

I went on the bridge, and from there you have a wonderful view. From there you can really watch how the big ship seems to dig down into the sea, and in the next moment the nose reaches into the sky.

Thank God everyone in our cabin is still well, or at least there have not yet been any foul messes.

Almost all passengers are emigrants, many from Swabia and Berlin (right now it feels as though we are on a derailing train, that is the wind shaking the ship as the bow goes up). Many are going to Toronto or Ottawa. The 6th bunk in our cabin stayed empty, as the Brit who was going to be there didn’t show up. Another thing about the emigrants: most are young guys, born 1937-38, who do not want to join the army. Also many youth from England.

The trip through the Channel was so interesting. For a long time I thought we are sailing into an English inlet, until finally I realized that France was to our left and England on the right. Excuse my writing things as they pop into my head, but there are just so many new impressions… Did I already tell you that I found my missing suitcase?[…]

Washing my laundry is easy, as there are sinks and hot running water plenty, and a drying room to hang it. I just remembered I want to take my black-and-white film that I filled up for developing – it should be ready in 2 days.

Friday the 5th.

The last two days were so wonderful, that I didn’t get to my writing. Wind and sea kept getting stronger. Midday today it was 9 knots, after that it got even stronger. I spent the whole day on a deck chair in a protected corner, wrapped in blankets, watching the fantastic drama of the waves. I am so glad to experience this – they say it is unusual. We are making slow progress and our arrival will be delayed.[…]

We are out of the warm Gulf Stream and today it was really cold. We have had hail and snow, in between sun, and the sea takes on the deepest of blues and greens. My hat flew away in a giant arc. Now I always tie my hood tight.

I don’t eat quite as much anymore, because I just can’t, but since I have the privilege of eating the remaining ice cream portions every evening, I will keep that until the end. I have never had so many days in a row of eating so well. Midday it is a 4 course meal, all kinds of appetizers, fish, meats, veggies and salad tidbits with complicated names, then soup, the main meal delicious meat, fancy potato dish, sauces, vegetable, then desert. Supper consists of 3 courses. In the afternoon there is coffee and cake. With every meal there is coffee, cream, sugar, white bread and butter (no dark bread unless you ask).

At the moment it feels like a truck driving very badly over cobble stones. [the handwriting shows it!] Of course every evening there is a dance – but I am not participating because there are few ladies there – and a movie. Last night I went to the movie, but I don’t think I will go again.

Maybe the prices will interest you. Meals of course are all free, part of the fare. Cigarettes (American, English, Canadian) 20 in a pack 15 cents, filter cigarettes 20 cents. There are some really very good varieties, also for our taste! (I never knew my mother to smoke☺︎) 

continued Sunday the 7th, 8:45 am

1 glass of beer 15 cents, lemonade or Coca cola 10 cents. I can’t think of anything else right now, and it doesn’t matter anyway.[…]

Yesterday it was pretty cold, but I went outside anyway in the morning. It is a funny sight when 6 or 7 deck chairs go tumbling across to one side, and before the people can hold onto the railing there, they go sliding right back to where they came from. I spent the afternoon in one of the lounges, talking and playing cards. I met some people with whom I could travel all the way to Vancouver. In the evening I did go see a movie again after all, but I don’t remember the title.

We should see land this afternoon if the air is clear and if we are not too far south of Newfoundland. Tuesday we expect to arrive in Quebec. Everything is icy on deck, and foggy, but it looks like the sun is coming out. The storminess has let up, and many passengers are breathing easier now and daring to come back out of their cabins after spending most of the voyage in their bunks. The lounges are filling up.[…]

Monday the 8th of April

Yesterday evening it was the last dance and I danced a bit. The atmosphere was like at Carnival, with decorations and colourful hats (they passed them out at dinner), and a moving dance floor (quite literally). I met a nice couple who are visiting their daughter and son-in-law who have an orchard at Oliver in the Rocky Mountains. They want to make a tree nursery there.[…]

Since last night we are travelling among icebergs, sometimes our ship was an icebreaker. We are moving pretty slowly.

I am sitting in the smoking lounge now with Max and the Düsseldorfer. It is so gemütlich! (there isn’t really a word that properly says “gemütlich” in english, but “cozy” comes close) The whole ship is like a Hotel or a small town, where everyone knows everyone […]


That is where the page ended, chewed off by the mouse.