Hope at Pier 21

A mother and sister flee the devastation of the Second World War, and hear a Salvation Army band

December 19, 2009 by Andy Kalnins


illustration_inside_currieEvery year, I try to donate whatever I can to The Salvation Army. With the times being what they are, I’m glad that I can help the less fortunate. Another reason I give generously to The Salvation Army is that the good works they do are especially close to my heart. Here’s why:

December 24, 1949, was almost balmy for a while in Halifax, but by the time darkness fell and Christmas Eve settled in, the temperature had dipped to below freezing.

Some folks likely stayed home with family and had dinner and cheer at home. Others, perhaps, were
getting ready for midnight mass. Many took advantage of the fact that the big New York City radio stations
like WOR and WQXR turned their signals out to the Atlantic at night, which meant that even Haligonians could celebrate this evening as if they were part of the Big Apple itself.

A Joyful Noise
None of that was known to my sister or mother. As the sun set, they were still out in the Atlantic, in a ship full of DPs heading for Pier 21, the great Canadian terminal for immigrants at the time. They hardly spoke English but they knew that “DP” stood for Displaced Person, a fancy term that meant they did not have a home. My mother and sister had been forced to flee their native Latvia to escape the Soviet occupation after the Second World War, had languished in a refugee camp in Germany for over four years and were now heading for the only light on the horizon—the lighthouse that guarded the entrance to Halifax Harbour.

They were grateful and resentful, excited and frightened, happy and sad. Soon they sailed past the lighthouse into the harbour. There they were, in an unknown city, in a strange land. What’s more, it was Christmas Eve and, as the ship came alongside Pier 21, they were told that no further processing of refugees would happen that night. They would have to spend another night on the ship. If only
there were a sign, perhaps a small glimpse of what was to come.

illustration_cover_currieOut of the darkness from the pier there suddenly came the sound of a brass band playing Christmas carols: Joy to the World, Come All Ye Faithful, Silent Night. It was a Salvation Army band. I can just imagine the joy and serenity that wafted over the decks of that rusty old ship.

No doubt every musician on the dock was away from family and friends that night to play music in the frigid air. No doubt that once they got home, it would take a long time to thaw their lips and warm their fingers. But the hearts of my mother and my sister were filled with something that had not been there for many years: hope.

Merry Christmas to anyone who has ever played in a Salvation Army band.

Illustrations: Dennis Currie

Comments

  1. Dianne Thompson says:

    Hi Andy,

    What a wonderful story! Very well written – I enjoyed it very much.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Dianne

  2. For Halifax Salvationists Pier 21 is really sacred ground. The sheer amount of help that the city’s Salvation Army community provided the newly arrived immigrants at Pier 21 is astounding – something impossible to achieve if God were not working through them. There’s a wonderful display at the Pier 21 Museum dedicated to the Army’s efforts in this area.

    By the early 60s, Pier 21 ceased to function as a receiving centre for foreign peoples (as transatlanic travel by boat was quickly becoming a thing of the past). Immigrants arrived in airports by way of larger urban centres such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. But here in Halifax, we have recently resumed our ministry to newcomers (immigrants and refugees) who have decided to make the Maritimes their home. What a blessing it is to lend both practical aid and spiritual care to people who are truly starting their lives over in Canada.

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