Freedom In The Foothills
Back row from left, Hansl and Serafine Ferchner.
Front row from left, Angela, Kresenzia, Hermine, Aaron, and Mathilde Ferchner pictured in 1942. Photo submitted
Born in Austria on March 8, 1930, Matilde Watkins (nee Ferchner’s) life was dramatically changed when her father, Aaron Lukas Ferchner, was conscripted in the German Army in 1940.
Before Watkins’ birth, in approximately 1925, the family worked and lived in a barn and on one occasion, the owners said, “We’ll look after the babies,” but the Aaron and Kresenzia Ferchner never saw their first born infant twins again. According to Watkins’ son, Jeffrey Myles, By the time his mother, Matilde Watkins (nee Ferchner) was born, the family had moved into the top half of a home that remained the family home for nearly 50 years.
Myles also said that in 1942, Ferchner and his whole platoon were poisoned by a Czechoslovakian cook working for the Resistance. Many died, but Ferchner survived and was sent to Vienna to have half of his stomach removed. He then returned home for a short recovery when the above family photograph was taken.
He returned to serve and when the war ended in 1945, soldiers were simply told to go home, meaning that Ferchner had to walk from Russia to Austria (a minimum of 1,500 kilometers).
Myles went on to say that after a couple of months walking with no money, Ferchner reached the Austrian border but was held in custody for one and a half months, partly because the authorities questioned the shape of his mustache and he had no identification to prove that he was Austrian. Even though the war was over, the authorities didn’t know or couldn’t prove that Hitler was dead, so until news spread, Ferchner was detained.
As for Watkin’s experience, Myles mentioned that because Watkin’s father was in the Third Reich, the government issued the family one pig per month during the war; without which they would not have survived. However, even with growing much of their own food, it was a challenge to feed several children; toward the end of the month, dinner often consisted of rye bread spread with just pork fat and salt and pepper.
“We were hungry and cold,” said Watkins.
Watkins went on to say that she had many positive experiences during the war. She had been sent to a school in the Alps much like summer camp in the mountains. To attend, she rode two trains and spent one day walking the foothills of the Alps to reach her destination.
“The fresh air and water in the lakes of the Alps is something you can’t quite understand. There is so much peace and beauty; it is really hard to explain. It was a very good time and we were very grateful,” said Watkins.
There, Watkins learned farming and sewing skills, and the products were sent to supply the Third Reich. Children slept in hay or bunk beds in a row at the few homes in the Alps. When the war ended, children 10 - 18 years old had to walk home and were surprised to find no trains at the station. Watkins stayed at the train station for a couple of days with no food until a group of drunken Nazi soldiers showed up. According to Myles, the men were very threatening, and things were going to get ugly in a hurry until one brass put a couple of bullets in the ceiling and warned the others that if they hurt anyone he would put a bullet in their head.
Other than seeing a platoon of trucks once in a while, Watkins spent the majority of the war with the comfort of family in Rothenthurm (an Austrian town of approximately 1,400 people). When the war ended, they bussed everyone to Judenburg (an Austrian town of approximately 9,000 people) to the movie theatre where they viewed a film detailing the aftermath of WWII.
According to Myles, to this day, Watkins can’t reconcile in her head having lived an idyllic life in a small town with fond memories of summer camp, not knowing the havoc Hitler had wreaked all around her and around the world.
Watkins travelled to England in 1949 or 1950 with her friend Annie, where she spent a few years as a nanny. She also travelled to Switzerland and back to England before her friend moved to Elliot Lake, Ontario. One year later, in 1957, Watkins made the decision to immigrate to Canada. She had missed a train to her destination, and while at the station, in her broken English, Watkins asked the young man behind the counter about the next train. He ultimately became her husband and father of her children.
Watkins shared an anecdote about one of her first experiences in Canada.
“Although I had spent time in England, when I landed in Canada I did not yet speak fluent English. The fellow at customs said, ‘Male or Female?’ and I didn’t know what it was,” said Watkins.
She quickly learned the language and culture and was able to put her past behind her.
“By embracing being a Canadian, she was able to manage her confusion,” said Myles.
With three of her children living across Canada, Watkins has travelled the country with one of her favourite places being the Calgary foothills because of the familiarity to her childhood home and summer oasis.
“I’m a very fortunate person to have come to Canada and am proud to be Canadian. You just don’t realize; it’s almost like you are in heaven,” said Watkins.
During the past 10 years, Watkins opened up to her family about her younger years and has been able to share similar experiences with friends on either side of the battle including being made to ration things like sugar during the WWII. She currently resides in Stratford, Ontario where she enjoys regular visits with family.