(published in The Country Connection Magazine, No. 55 Winter/Spring 2008)
In the early morning hours of July 15th, 2004 Jim Victor was awakened by the sound of running water. His first thought was that his upstairs tenant had been using the washing machine and a hose had somehow become detached. Finding no sign of water filtering through his ceiling, he ventured downstairs in search of the source. He was devastated when his feet sank into the soggy carpet, and he saw water pouring in around the windows. The duplex we now share on Watts Avenue was one of many homes that were flooded that day after 14 billion litres of water dumped on Peterborough, Ontario in under five hours. It took months of frustrating work to clean up the mess. Jim’s basement, including his workshop, had to be completely gutted. While removing the wooden shelves that had held various tools and supplies, he discovered a shipping label attached to the under side of one of the shelf boards. It read: To Dora Emmenegger, c/o Doug Metherel, R.R. #6, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Curious about how it got there and the people involved, we began to investigate. We had no idea that it would lead us to a wartime love story. With the help of an article in The Peterborough Examiner, we tracked down Dora, and she unfurled the mystery.
On August 1st, 1948, while with a friend at the Switzerland National Day Dance in her home town of Aarau, Dora, met Herman Ksander, a young engineering exchange student from Vienna Austria. They shared a few dances, but when Herman offered to take her home she declined.
“I didn’t think it was proper to leave with someone other than the person who’d taken me there,” said Dora.
Herman, however, was smitten. His housemate had also been at the dance, and the next day Herman queried him about Dora. As it happened, this fellow was one of Dora’s friends. At Herman’s request, he arranged a date for them. The next two weeks sped by with Dora and Herman seeing each other often, until Herman’s exchange program ended and he had to return to Austria. They agreed to keep in touch by mail. Through their frequent letter exchanges they got to know each other and their friendship grew into a long distance courtship until, nine months after he’d left, Herman returned to Aarau, Switzerland where he had a job and Dora waiting for him. The couple planned to marry as soon as Herman was able to obtain a permanent visa to remain in Switzerland, but the politics and uncertainties following the end of World War II made it difficult. Finally, after four years of dating, they decided that they’d rather take their chances across the ocean in Canada than run the risk of being forced back to Austria, and possibly even behind the Iron Curtain. So in the spring of 1952 Dora said goodbye to Herman once more when, at Paris France, he boarded a ship for Montreal in search of employment and accommodations for the two of them.
Another letter-writing year passed before Herman had himself established in an engineering job in Peterborough, Ontario and could arrange for Dora to join him. Dora packed her wedding trousseau in several wooden packing crates addressed to herself, care of Doug Metherel, in whose house Herman had found room and board. Dora’s mother and sister accompanied her by train to Le Havre France from where she and her boxes set sail for Quebec on April 29, 1953. On May 5th Dora was surprised to receive, at her cabin on board the S.S. Atlantic, another love letter from Herman. Included was an invitation to her own wedding.
“In order to enter Canada as a landed immigrant, I had to prove that I was getting married, and I had to be married within a few weeks of my arrival,” explained Dora, “so Herman had made all of the wedding arrangements, with the help of the Metherels.”
After work on May 6th Herman climbed into his ’49 Chevrolet with a rose in his hand, headed to Quebec City to reunite with his bride. The Metherels witnessed their marriage just a few weeks later.
Dora and Herman Ksander spent their first few years in a small apartment in downtown Peterborough, until their daughter was born and it was time for a house. Herman put his engineering skills to work to design and build the duplex on Watts Avenue. Dora said Herman was a recycler long before it became environmentally correct, so when he was building shelves for his basement workshop, he used the boards from Dora’s trousseau crates. Several owners have occupied the duplex since Dora and Herman moved into a larger home in 1958, but the shelves remained in the workshop, the label undiscovered, until Jim removed them.
Dora was intrigued to have a look at the house again. We were just as intrigued to see pictures of what it had once looked like, and to hear this wonderful love story. Dora also shared with us pictures that Herman had taken as her ship arrived in Quebec harbour, and as she walked down the gangplank. She still has her original immigration papers, and a list of contents for the shipping crates. She confessed that Jim’s discovery had made her a little melancholy while she once more looked through the fifty-three love letters she still has tucked away with her wedding dress and many pictures.
Herman passed away several years ago in a glider accident, but Dora cherishes her mementos of their life together and she was thrilled to have another one. To create a more compact keepsake for her, Jim cut the plank in half and attached the pieces side by side, then put them into a wooden frame. Next to the shipping labels he mounted copies of the photos of her arrival, and a copy of her immigration papers.
When I asked her what it was like to leave her family and travel alone across the ocean to an unknown land, she simply smiled and replied, “I was in love. I didn’t think too much about it.”