Guenther Froese, in this photograph, circa 1955, taken in Germany before he came to Canada for a new life.
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, May 7, 2022)
Peace can be a strange thing.
When I turned 12, my father sat me on the cement ledge at the front of our house to tell me about it. When he was 12, he was taken prisoner by the Russians. Then his escape. And other stories. Hard stories. I needed to know, now that I was a man, so to speak.
My father, who grew up in Nazi Germany, easily shared these things, his scars. Even in recent years, before leaving his presence, you’d often be asked, “So what do you think about Trump?” Or, “What do you think about Putin?” Then you’d listen.
By this day in 1945, May 7, the day Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally, my father was 13. About 200,000 people had just died in the Battle of Berlin. Hitler had put a bullet in his own head. And my father, like millions across Germany, now despaired for a morsel of food as much as a morsel of peace.
Eventually, after refugee experiences, and after training in post-war Germany as a therapeutic massage therapist, Dad Froese found his way to Canada. He became a citizen, established himself in Niagara, and went on to practice massage therapy, not the world’s easiest vocation, for more than 50 years. Fifty. Years. He became a recognized therapeutic guru.
With hands that helped heal many, he also restored a run-down, 1870s estate home which he then ran for more than 20 years: first as a nursing home, then a community home for people who were broken in one way or another, often with no family or home of their own.
This was the home, our home, where my father sat me on that front ledge when I was 12. By then he’d already been a widower for some years, finding whatever help he could to raise his children as a single dad. This is my father: stubbornly strong and an enormous influence on me.
He could be a bear. If you were an official – maybe at his door for a routine health inspection on the home – you might be asked to leave. My father did things his way and sometimes suffered, even publicly, for this.
One evening he sat me in his office. I’d left home and found journalism and my life direction. It deeply hurt and angered him for a long time. Family, especially Mennonite family, doesn’t leave family. That night he talked while I listened. Until after sunrise.
But even in his most bearish times, I never doubted my father’s love. And in an era when fathers weren’t known to say much, or show affection, he did so naturally, even when my own children came along. Well into his 80s, he stayed lucid with an intelligence buoyed by a lifelong love of books and learning. With my wife and children, I’d often greet him with “How are you, young man?”
And Germany? He never returned.
It’s just a sketch. An incomplete picture. But an important one. Because, at 90, my father has breathed his last. Near the end, at his bedside, loved ones held his hand.
My father’s death is my personal loss. It’s also another loss, a loss of one of those distinctive post-war immigrants, Canadians who’ve helped forge both families and communities across this nation. It’s something to remember when you see an immigrant. Appreciate who they are. Their stories. Their unique contributions.
One day war itself will die. Isn’t this what the old, wide-eyed prophets say? Swords beaten into plowshares so peace can rule for all time. Somehow. But after a full life, my father is living his lasting peace now.
Today, in a Kitchener cemetery, Dad Froese’s loved ones will have a small gathering to say some words and put his body in the ground. This is the day, May 7, Germany’s surrender day, part of weekend reflections for VE Day. This is the day that marks my father’s own final surrender.
It’s all rather fitting. And mysterious. This peace.