- About MCC Alberta
- What we do
- Get involved
- Stories and resources
- Ways to give
Peter Harms' Refugee Story
Peter Harms lives in Calgary with Serena, his wife. Peter was born in Stalinist Russia, in 1934, in Ukraine. In 1937, his father was taken by the Stalinist forces and was never heard from again. His mother was left alone, with four children. Peter was sent to live with his father’s mother. Peter’s grandmother. His brother John went to live with an aunt. The family was now divided.
When the war broke out, they heard that Germans were going to be sent back into the Urals, or to Siberia. The Harms, like all the Mennonites in Russia, were German. Peter’s grandfather came to pick up Peter and John; their mother and brothers had been evacuated to the Urals by the Soviets. In this time of turmoil, their grandfather asked a Jewish woman who had five children of her own, to look after Peter and John. Her husband was in the Red army. She hid Peter and John until the German army arrived. When the German army arrived, they made Peter’s grandfather the Burgermeister (mayor of the town). He served as translator for the German officers to the Russian people. John, age nine, was taken to the police and worked as a translator there, while Peter became a translator in the hospital. The Germans treated them well; they were given clothing made from fallen soldiers’ uniforms. They were German.
Peter’s grandfather was upset when the edict came that the Jews had to reveal themselves to the authorities as being Jewish. Then, Special Forces were brought in; Peter’s grandfather knew they were exterminating the Jews. They loaded Jews onto trucks, took them into the woods where trenches had been dug, and shot them. Peter’s grandfather had to witness this. He told their grandmother about it and Peter says their living conditions were such that he could overhear their conversations. He remembers his grandfather talking about a woman with a child who was crying. A Nazi officer gave the child something to smell and the child was quiet after that.
The Jewish woman who had hid the boys accused their grandfather of doing nothing to save the Jewish family from the Nazis. She had protected them, but now they couldn’t protect her and her family. And it was true – he could do nothing for the woman and she and her five boys were all taken by the Nazis. Much later, Peter learned that the oldest son had escaped, survived, and ended up in the secret service of Russia.
The German military thought Peter and his brother should have an education and they were taken to Germany for schooling, in October 1942. In Berlin, German citizenship was secured, after which they were taken to an SS Heimschule, a boarding school for boys, aged six to fourteen, located in lower Bavaria. There were Polish and German boys. The Poles were blond and blue-eyed. They had been taken from their families because they were good Aryan specimens. They were punished for speaking Polish, if they did. But for some reason, Peter and John were encouraged to keep speaking Russian. Peter remembers that during their one year at this school, they were taught that they were part of a superior race; the Dutch and Poles were inferior. Each day began with a run, and a flag-raising ceremony. He remembers religious books being burned, but the discipline at the school was so strict he didn’t know they were being taught wrong. Part of the grade two curriculum was learning how to throw a hand grenade.
In 1943, a German army officer adopted Peter and John and they stayed with Col Hans Wolfgang Schoch and his wife from 1943 to 1945, near Dresden. In February, 1945, a day after the Desden bombing, Col Schoch took Peter to an acquaintance in Salzburg. He was on his way to the German front. Peter remembers seeing and feeling the Dresden bombing. His brother and their adopted family fled to Munich on foot when the Red Army approached in 1945. It took them nearly three weeks. They sent Peter to Salzburg because they thought Peter was too young to flee.
In Salzburg Peter stayed until end of April. As the Allies advanced, he had the choice of staying in Austria or crossing to Bavaria, which would mean he was at least in the same country has his brother. So, when he was ten he chose the three-day walk to Truchtling, Upper Bavaria, where the Salzburg family had an aunt, Maria Brunner. She took him in as one of the family and he stayed. Peter remembers that summer as the best of his young life.
In October, 1945, Maria’s brother visited from Munich. He said that Peter’s grandfather, Johan Penner, was looking for him. A month later he was reunited with his grandfather and his brother, John. His grandparents had come to Germany with the retreating German army in late 1943.
The group of four lived in Munich until 1948. As Mennonites, they had the opportunity to move to Paraguay or Canada if they were sponsored. His grandfather’s sister had moved to Canada in 1926. Mr. Penner sent a letter to Sara and George Klassen, Canada. With the amazing help of a postman, who knew someone who knew someone else, the letter arrived at the home of Sarah and George Klassen, in Coaldale, Alberta. They agreed to sponsor them and they moved to Canada in 1948. Peter says that in some ways it has been a life of milk and honey.
In 1950, Peter’s grandfather died. In 1985, they found their oldest brother, Jacob, through a German Newspaper. Peter’s mother had died in 1944 and the youngest brother had also died in 1944, of malnutrition. They had been dumped into a village and he and his mother worked in the forest. There was very little food.
In Canada, John studied written Russian, and they wrote to Jacob and in 1989 they went to Russia. They stayed in Weiburg and met Jacob and their great Aunt, Anna. In 1990, Jacob came to Calgary, to visit Peter and John; tragically, he died there, of a massive stroke.
Peter tells his story to show that “not every German is a Jim Keegstra”. A tremendous source of sorrow for Peter is that he did not know ever know his birthdate. So his adoptive, German family chose April 20, Hitler’s birthdate also, for Peter. It is a constant reminder to him. Peter says that it took years to get rid of the arrogance bred into him – deep down he know there was no distinction in human worth but he had been taught that he belonged to the Master Race. Peter has also carried with him the remorse that his grandfather could not save the Jewish family that saved them.