How My Town in southwestern Ontario Canada became THE site for German Prisoners of War Graves.

My hometown, Kitchener, lies in southwest Ontario, surrounded by three of the great lakes, Ontario, Erie, and Huron. Its location makes it easy to traverse to Toronto, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Detroit, and lies just south of the beautiful north vacation lands of Algonquin, Muskoka and the Kawarthas.

All in all we are pretty lucky that whatever life style you choose to pursue it is available somewhere nearby. Big city, camp ground, fishing. We got it.

Kitchener at about 233,000 is a twin joined geographically with Waterloo with a population of approximately 133,000.

But Kitchener was not always so named. On June 28, 1916, 346 people voted to change from the name Berlin to Kitchener. We were two years into the First World War and the change was to prove loyalty and ‘stem backlash against a city with deep German roots.) *The Waterloo Region Record June 27, 2016.

I have never had much interest in cemeteries until recently when my quest for ten thousand steps a day took me to one nearby here in Waterloo where I currently abide (the city that is not the cemetery). That stirred enough interest to visit Woodland in Kitchener where most of my family and friends have final resting places. I’ll tell you about Woodland some other day, but for now I must relate my surprise on day when I came across this:

IMG_20160624_113825654

Somewhere in the past I remembered hearing about people being interned during the war. I knew the Americans had interned Japenese after Pearl Harbour but I did not think beyond that horror.  In researching the above sign I discovered:

  1. Canada operated prison camps for interned civilians during the First and Second World War.
  2. Canada operated camps for 34,000 German Prisoners of War
  3. The camps at Lethbridge and Medicine Hat Alberta were the largest in North America
  4. There was a camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia
  5. The British Government did not want so many German prisoners in Britain as they posed a threat should hand to hand fighting take place in Britain itself, and would provide added support for the enemy if freed.
  6. In each of the Great Wars Canada hosted about two dozen camps across the country
  7. The CBC did a number of articles at the time that can be found in their archives.
  8. While it was generally felt POWs were treated better in Canada there are still some horror stories and some mysteries.
  9. I found out that people who had escaped Nazi Germany in the year before ‘the troubles’ and found their way to Britain considered themselves safe.  However upon declaration of war many of these people found themselves interned as a precaution in case they were spies. Many of them were sent to Canadian camps
  10. The scariest I think was a camp in New Brunswick which housed Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany.  They had been deemed by the British as ‘dangerous enemy aliens, and ended up in a camp with Nazi soldiers, the very enemy they were trying to escape. A wall was finally built to keep the Jews safe.

The 187 dead were brought together in 1970 from thirty-six sites across Canada. Kitchener was chosen since it had largely been a German city and located where family from Europe could easily travel to visit the graves.

I read that many died of ‘natural causes’ such as cancer but that just didn’t sound right. As I walked among the stark white stones I notice that most were between nineteen and twenty-five years old.  Then one day I found an article that said many of those in northern camps were put to work logging and that an unusually large number of ‘accidental’ deaths occurred. No one seems to have questioned this.

As I walk through this little garden of foreign death I consider that it does not matter that they were the ‘enemy’, but just young boys that died way too young and my heart breaks a little for our history.

And when I think of today and all the countries crying out that they will not accept Syrian refugees because there could be a spy or terrorist among them, my heart breaks for our current times.  Have we learned nothing?  I wonder.

 

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12 thoughts on “How My Town in southwestern Ontario Canada became THE site for German Prisoners of War Graves.”

  1. I’ve always appreciated the men and women who volunteer to protect us. But I can never quite grasp the point of leaders wanting our youth to shoot at one another. And the ability that someone has to order someone to war. I mean, I get it, but I don’t.

  2. You are certainly in a central spot to check things historical out. Sometime if you wander into Hanover, I’ll get you to do some family tree research. There’s a grave in a Hanover graveyard for a Mary Jane McNally. Just don’t go there in the dark!

  3. This is very interesting. There was a huge German prisoner of war camp in Medicine Hat, my home town, with also a large German population. They figured it was so far away from anything, the prisoners would not try to escape. They were treated well and were allowed to work on the farms in the area. Many of them returned to Germany after the war, collected their family and returned to live in Alberta. I even met a few of them.

  4. I dont think that the human race has learned anything. Wars wete fought,lost and won but when there is so much hatred amongst the peoples of the world that it seems those that died ,for whatever reason, during the war have simply been wasted lives

  5. An informative and thoughtful piece. I would hope we would learn from our history, but that doesn’t seem to be happening at any great pace. It’s interesting what turns up when you look around your own neighbourhood. I look forward to your next investigative report. Who knows where your 10,000 steps will take us?

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