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Nazi concentration camp connection inspires Prince George woman to organize Ukraine solidarity walk

Russian invasion a threat to world democracy, warns protest walk organizer

Sherry Theuerkauf has no photos of her grandmother Anna.

All she has are memories of time they spent together and an embroidered tablecloth Anna made herself after she arrived in Canada in 1945, having survived the horrors of three-and-a-half years imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

“She was Ukrainian and she died in 2006 and her whole life in Ukraine and then through the war years was harrowing, there was never peace for her, it was always a heavily-contested area and it created turmoil in her life that would continue into the years when she was treated very badly,” said Theuerkauf, the organizer of Saturday’s P.G. Solidarity Walk for Ukraine.

Anna, whose family name remains a mystery to Theuerkauf, met her Jewish husband, Ernest Klemm in Germany and they were married just before the Second World War began in 1939. The young couple, barely out of their teens, heard whispers the Nazi regime was rounding up Jews, Ukrainians and Polish people and they were disappearing from German society. They took refuge hiding in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany in a makeshift camp during the first winter of the war, where they helped a starving man from Poland shivering from the cold, weakened almost to the point of no return, giving him food and the warmth of their campfire until he recovered his health.

“The man regained his strength and he said to my grandparents, ‘If Nazi forces find us, a German man, a Ukrainian wife and a Polish friend, the chances that they shoot us in the head are very high, and so I will leave you and one day I promise I will find a way to repay you,’” said Theuerkauf.

That Polish man managed to escape the war and came to Canada, where he took a job at a mine near Sudbury, Ont. He saved his money through the rest of the war years and asked his foreman if he would offer Ernest Klemm a job if he and his wife was able to come to northern Ontario. It took nearly four years for that day to come.

“My grandparents were caught and taken to a concentration camp, where they were forced labour workers for remaining years of the war,” said Theuerkauf. “My grandmother served soup to Nazi soldiers and my grandfather was a shoemaker and he repaired Nazi soldiers’ boots. They lived in separate areas of the concentration camp and for the whole of the war they secreted notes back and forth and kept looking for one another or had people scout for each other because they didn’t know from day to day if they had been shot.”

Anna was raped, became pregnant and conducted her own abortion, knowing if she did not show up for work she would be killed.

“My grandmother sustained damages which many women in war, and this war in Ukraine, are sustaining to this day,” said Theuerkauf. “The conditions in which she had to live and work just to survive for three-and-a-half years, there’s no wonder in my mind why she never thought she would ever make it out and how she would never talk about it. These things are so painful, they disappear.”

When the Allied liberated the camp in 1945, Ana and Ernest were brought to a Red Cross camp in Hungary and two months later they received a letter informing them that arrangements had been made to provide them safe passage to Canada. The Polish man had lived up to his promise. He paid for their fares and lined up a job in the mine for Ernest.

“I became a Canadian in 1970 because of that,” said Theuerkauf, an Ontario native who lived in Alberta for 26 years before she moved to Prince George (West Lake) with her family two years ago. “I was born here, and my grandmother when I was 16 said to me, ‘Sherry, you’re so lucky, because you’re Canadian, and I had no idea what that meant. And I said, ‘grandma, you’re Canadian.’ And she said, ‘No I’m not, you are. You look Canadian, you sound Canadian, and no one will ever take you from here,’ and it took me 15 or 20 years to figure out what she really meant. She was always afraid, for the rest of her life, that somebody would take her from her country that she called home.

“That’s what’s happening again (in Ukraine) and I just couldn’t stand by and watch it happen without saying this is a dangerous situation we’re all seeing. It may be far away from some people’s eyes, but I remember my grandma’s words and I can’t ignore this, and it’s for her we’re doing this walk. I felt a compelling push to do something that would unite people from P.G. who may never have faced what my grandmother did, but it’s very real and it’s very dangerous, and we should be paying close attention to the news.”

Democracy is being threatened in Ukraine with the Russian invasion and Theuerkauf said the suffering of the people there whose lives have been ruined by the war should serve as a reminder to Canadians of the need to fight oppression and protect their own freedoms.

“For all the people in Canada whose democracy has been a gift and they’ve never known anything else, I remember the things my grandmother could never tell me,” she said. “She never talked about the war, never talked about her life, I learned it second-hand through other relatives, because it so damaged her, she would rather talk about the flowers in the garden and enjoy life and it’s frailties and never look back. But now we’re looking backwards and it’s right in the forefront of our imagination, this is happening all over again and we have to be very cautious of our democracy right now.”

She encourages 100 or so people who participated in the walk Saturday afternoon along the Fraser River to the Yalenka Ukrainian Hall and back to post photos and videos of the event on social media platforms for Ukrainians around the world to see.

“There are Ukrainians in foxholes and in bunkers who need to see that we care and we won’t just pretend it’s not happening,” said Theuerkauf.

“There are between 82 million and 84 million refugees in the world, but only 53 days ago there were 11.4 million less. People from that country 53 days ago were making their children breakfast, planning their supper and doing all the normal things we do, and one day after that, everything changed.

“Our democracy is a fragile delicate flower and we aren’t noticing that to the degree that we should be. For the people who only lived in this privileged life in this country without ever seeing war or family members who have been touched by it, how will they know? The parallels between my grandmother and her experiences and what’s happening right now are too similar to ignore.”

While wars have been waged throughout history since the Second World War, Theuerkauf says the Ukrainian conflict is unique in its scale, where it’s happening and the people being affected.

“I think this one is gathering more attention because Ukrainians look like us,” she said. “They look like Canadians because so many Canadians were Ukrainian first. They live in a similar country to ours, they’re proud in their democracy, they’re farmers, they’re earth people, like Canadians are, but 53 days ago they had peace. No one knew what would happen.

“Putin is a megalomaniac and he is determined to leave a legacy of hate and we should all be on high alert. It think this quote came from (Barack) Obama; he said: ‘Our democracy has gotten flabby,’ and I don’t think there’s a better descriptor for it. “It’s gotten soft and unaware if its frailty.”