Originally published in the Prince Albert Daily Herald on January 18, 2018
Imagine losing touch with your siblings due to war, and never seeing them again for decades. You never know what happened to them – as far as you know, they are dead. There’s no way to find out, especially when you live the isolated life of a trapper in northern Saskatchewan.
This is what happened to John Albrecht, a man I wrote about in an earlier, two-part column – “A Reporter’s Encounter with Nan Dorland, Prospector.” Circumstances of two world wars separated John from his family for decades, yet the family ties remained strong – strong enough to miraculously bring them back together after almost 40 years of unimaginable challenges. This reunion was brought about in the mid-1960s thanks to the efforts of a Prince Albert resident, S. E. (Bob) Lee, and the German embassy in Toronto.
Bob Lee brought this incredible story to the attention of the Prince Albert Daily Herald back in 1968. An account of John Albrecht’s reunion with his sister, Mrs. Anna Gumboldt (or Gumpoldt), was published on April 16, along with a photograph of the two siblings, Anna’s daughter Margarete, and Bob Lee. The newspaper devoted almost a full page to the stories of the brother’s and sister’s lives. Both siblings experienced adventure and adversity, yet their experiences could not have been more different.
According to Dr. Klaus Lehnert-Thiel’s account of John’s life, published in The Northerner at the time of John’s death in 1991, the Albrecht children led a rather idyllic life in the Memel area of East Prussia on the shore of the Baltic Sea where their father ran the lighthouse. Born there on December 7, 1898, “John spent his youth in an unspoiled environment of unmatched beauty,” Lehnert-Thiel writes. “Fishing, hunting, trapping, skating and sailing were activities which the young John Albrecht enjoyed from a very young age.” The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed everything.
At the beginning of the war, the Imperial Russian army invaded Albrecht’s homeland of East Prussia. Sixteen-year-old John volunteered for the German army. For the next two years he served as a machine gunner until he was captured by the British in 1917. He spent three years in a British prisoner-of-war camp. After his release in 1920, he returned to his home country, now annexed by Lithuania. Continuing struggles in the Baltic region led John to emigrate to Canada in 1929. He waved goodbye to his sisters and brother on the pier at Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), not sure he would ever see them again.
Albrecht arrived in Saskatchewan during the Great Depression. After two years of working on farms, Albrecht headed north to Wollaston Lake where he trapped for two or three years. He gained a reputation as a skilled canoe paddler and portager — acknowledged by Indigenous and white trappers alike — which brought him to the attention of American traveller P. G. Downes. Albrecht was engaged as Downes’ guide on an epic journey into the Northwest Territories which became the subject of the American’s book, Sleeping Island; The Story of One Man’s Travels in the Great Barren Lands of the Canadian North (1943). Klaus Lehnert-Theil later wrote that this book, “which describes John in great detail, even his mannerisms of speech, is probably John’s most lasting legacy.”
Click here for more about Downe’s and Albrecht’s adventures during the summer of 1939.
After Albrecht and Downes parted ways, John moved further north. Perhaps, with the outbreak of World War Two, Albrecht feared internment due to his German heritage. Albrecht settled at Stony Rapids in 1939 and spent the next seven years trapping from a base on Selwyn Lake near the Saskatchewan-Northwest Territories boundary.
In August 1948, Albrecht and his partner Roy Tobey, working under the Saskatchewan Prospector’s Assistance Plan, found pitcheblende (uranite or uranium-rich ore) on the north shore of Black Lake. After their discovery, the area was divided into concessions by Saskatchewan’s Department of Natural Resources. In the fall of 1948, Albrecht and Tobey sold the Nisto Mines Concession to Transcontinental Resources for a considerable sum of money.
That same year, 1948, Albrecht “struck it rich” again when he met US radio star, Nan Dorland. Nan travelled by dog sled to Stony Rapids to seek out John. She wanted him to help her find some uranium. John and Nan married in Toronto on April 29, 1950. Nan died in September 1950 a few days after giving birth to their son. (Their story is covered in older blog posts.)
While John was experiencing many adventures in northern Saskatchewan, his sister Anna was having a much more difficult time. During the Second World War, her husband, a doctor, had been drafted into the German army. He was captured by the Russians, and died of starvation in 1948 on a prison train as he returned home from a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. Anna herself escaped death several times during the war. Massive numbers of ethnic Germans were evacuated from East Prussia and the Memel territory by Nazi authorities as the Red Army approached. Anna and her family, including her mother and her four daughters, were among the remaining Germans who were conscripted by the Soviet Union for forced labour. They endured 13 years in a Russian forced labor camp. Anna told the Herald reporter that her children suffered the most. Starvation was always with them. Her daughter Margarete was hit in the head by a Russian rifle butt, leaving her with a permanent scar. Her daughter Sigrid lost some of her toes to frostbite.
With the children of other families in the camp dying one after another, Anna refused to give up. “I’d steal, beg and do almost anything to get something for the children to eat,” she recalled. “If I had been caught, it would probably have been Siberia.” Anna returned home from the fields one evening to discover that her mother and two of her daughters, 4-year-old Margarete and 5-year-old Bridget had been taken away on a forced march to Poland. That night, Anna and her two remaining daughters slipped away from the camp and began what became a six-month search. When she found them, her mother had died and neither of her daughters could walk. Carrying the young girls on their backs, Anna and her older daughters travelled back to the family home in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. By the time they got home, two of the girls required stomach surgery due to the horrors they had endured. Her daughter Bridget never recovered, and died a few months later in her mother’s arms. In 1957, with the help of relatives and the German embassy in Moscow, Anna Gumboldt and her three remaining daughters were able to leave Communist-occupied territory and move to Konigstadten near Frankfurt, West Germany.
Albrecht family reunion
Fast forward to 1968, when Anna Gumboldt, along with her daughter Margarete, reunited with her brother, John Albrecht in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. “It’s a miracle we ever found John,” Anna said to the Herald reporter. “We all thought he had died in the wilderness of northern Saskatchewan where we got our last letters from him.” “Yes, you thought I was dead,” John replied, “and I thought you were all dead in the war. Now we find that almost the whole family is still living.” Margarete eventually moved to Canada to live with her uncle, first in LaRonge, then in Langley, BC. In 1978, John left La Ronge in order to live with Margarete, who cared for him until his death in 1991 at age 93.
War divides and separates families and tests familial bonds. But the ties of a family transcend war and through trying times remain intact no matter the challenges endured.