Finding Home: A War Child’s Journey to Peace
A Choosen Path: From Moccasin Flats to Parliament Hill
November 4, 2013
Review By Christian Lieb
Frank Oberle wrote his two-volume biography primarily for his children and the people he and his wife befriended over the years “to give them,” as he says, “some insight into the past which may have shaped [his] character” (14). In the end, however, these memoirs may be of interest not only to BC, political, labour, and immigration historians but also to a wide public both within the province and beyond.
Finding Home begins with a description of Oberle’s early childhood in the small town of Forchheim in southwestern Germany, the war years in a boys’ school in Poland, the arduous journey back to the safety of his ancestral home ahead of the advancing Red Army, and, finally, the reunion of the whole family and the early postwar years in western Germany, where he finished an apprenticeship as a baker. To escape from the tight social bonds and to leave the haunting memories of his youth behind, Oberle sought a place that could afford him peace and freedom. Therefore, in late 1951, at age nineteen, he immigrated to Canada. After a short stay in Halifax, he arrived in Vancouver in early 1952. From there, he experienced life in remote logging camps and mining communities before starting his own business and establishing his home in Chetwynd, a small developing town in the Peace River District. The second book follows his political career, from becoming the mayor of Chetwynd to being elected as Conservative MP for Prince George–Peace River. Finally, under Brian Mulroney, Oberle reached the peak of his career as minister of science and technology and, later, minister of forestry.
The two volumes are distinct in several respects. Finding Home offers a story that is more or less typical of an early postwar German immigrant. I have heard many similar stories from immigrants who arrived in Canada in the decade after the war – stories of the horrors of war and the challenges of making a new beginning in a foreign country. Like Oberle, most of them did not speak English and often had no prospect of success in their learned professions. Many of them spent their first few years in Canada moving from job to job and occupation to occupation in order to make ends meet. Sooner or later, most earned enough money and learned sufficient English to settle down and to start their own businesses.
Oberle’s political career, described in A Chosen Path, is highly unusual for a “newcomer.” Unlike most Continental European immigrants, who focused their energies on building a secure and comfortable life for themselves and their children in Canada, Oberle ventured into the public realm, where he represented his BC constituency in Ottawa for over two decades. This is unusual in at least two respects: first-generation immigrants rarely went into politics, and even fewer became cabinet ministers.
Though a significant part of Finding Home is set outside British Columbia, the biography has a special appeal to BC readers. Oberle describes 1952 Vancouver from an outsider’s perspective and provides insight into work and living conditions in logging camps, mining communities, and developing northern towns. He provides a clear picture of the various conflicts between First Nations, old settlers, and newcomers in one of the small northern towns that suddenly profited from one of W.A.C. Bennett’s megaprojects and the concomitant exploitation of coal and other mineral deposits.
At the beginning of Finding Home, Oberle portrays his hometown of Forchheim as “primitive,” as having remained basically unchanged since the Middle Ages (19-24). Though he claims that Forchheim was bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, before the Second World War it had such amenities as a railway station and a communal steam thrashing machine, and a sewage system was built in the 1950s – amenities that Chetwynd did not have when Oberle arrived. Moreover, Forchheim was only eight kilometres away from Karlsruhe, a major urban and industrial centre. Socially, Forchheim was highly stratified. Oberle had no prospect of advancement, which he attributes – not entirely convincingly – to the fact that his father had been born in a town less than one kilometre to the south and, therefore, remained an outsider (21–2). Chetwynd was also highly stratified, the difference being that here earlier settlers, and especially Aboriginal residents, occupied the lower socio-economic ranks and had little chance of rising. In contrast, newcomers such as Oberle could become part of the elite and enjoy opportunities beyond what they could have achieved at home.
Oberle’s memory of his childhood and youth in Germany is sometimes faulty. He gives the wrong date for the beginning of the blitzkrieg against France and erroneously assumes that only boys were included in the Kinderlandverschickung, through which children were sent to rural areas to protect them from Allied bombing raids. His German spelling is rusty, and his editors do not appear to have been familiar with the language. Nevertheless, the first volume is certainly well written, fast-paced, and in many places highly entertaining. It is especially appealing since Oberle draws a very human picture of himself, without omitting his feelings, doubts, fears, and mistakes. This allows the reader to suffer with him through the war years, feel the excitement of the journey across the ocean, experience his bouts of loneliness, and share the joy of his reunion with his later wife Joan.
A Chosen Path is quite different. Though it retains the entertaining writing style of Finding Home it is almost completely dedicated to Oberle’s political career. Starting with his fight, as the mayor of Chetwynd, for the Native housing project at Moccasin Flats the book recounts his successful career in federal politics. From a BC perspective, the first 130 pages are likely the most interesting as they deal extensively with the development of Chetwynd and the situation in Prince George–Peace River before Oberle went to Ottawa in 1972. The remaining two-thirds of the book provide insight (albeit partisan) into the workings of the political system in Ottawa and the inflexibility of the bureaucracy that frustrated some of Oberle’s ambitious projects and left a number of reports collecting dust on shelves. While Finding Home generally follows a chronological order, A Chosen Path tends to jump back and forth in time and is therefore somewhat confusing in places.
On the whole, however, Frank Oberle’s memoirs are an insightful and highly readable account of an extraordinary life that took him from his native, war-ravaged Germany to British Columbia, where he found a peaceful home that offered him the freedom to try his hand at many different occupations, from logging and mining to business and politics. Oberle’s occupational experiences certainly provide special insights into the social and economic situation of British Columbia beyond Victoria and the Lower Mainland. In addition, the memoirs are one of the very few published life stories of a post-war German immigrant to British Columbia.