Father’s war experience chronicled

Marie Donais Calder writes about her father’s relationship with a German family at the end of the Second World War

Marie Donais Calder lays bare the struggles faced by her father and one family he decided to help in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in Europe in her historical fiction series called The Other Side.

The 25 books are based on real people, focusing on her father, Edmond Joseph Donais, who was stationed in Leer, Germany, from July 1945 to July 1946 with the Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers. They were commissioned to repair machinery damaged during the war in Europe.

Donais Calder was fascinated by her dad’s experiences and his bond with a family on the other side: Germans who suffered hardships from a conflict they did not support but were forced in compliance by the ruthless dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.

“When I was a little girl, I would sit on (my father’s) knee on the rocking chair and he would sing to me and show me pictures and tell me stories,” she said.

Donais Calder said her father joined the war in 1943 at a desperate time when many believed Hitler might be unstoppable. He left behind his wife, Frances, and three little boys in Alida, Sask.

He spent months in England and events began to turn. The Allies were gaining control over the dwindling German resources. The Nazis were ultimately pushed back and one week after Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, the war was declared ended.

Within two months, the RCEME were deployed to enemy territory.

Almost immediately, Donais befriended a 10-year-old German boy named Johann Schmidt, who lived with his family across the field near where the Canadians had set up their barracks.

While some Canadian soldiers saw every German as a Nazi, Donais saw an innocent starving family trapped in the madness. He found ways to get food to them. They, in turn, shared their meagre rations with Eddie, as they began to fondly call him. The relationship strengthened; in many ways the Schmidts filled the void created by Edmond’s separation from his wife and sons.

Donais learned that for nearly a year the Schmidts were forced to live in a hole in the ground in their own back yard when Polish soldiers commandeered their home as a military headquarters during the war.

The family also worried over the safety and return of Johann’s older brother, Arthur, and other male relatives, who were given the choice to fight or face the execution of their loved ones.

After the war, many arrived home in deplorable condition after walking hundreds of miles. Arthur, suffering from shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, was treated with new, unorthodox techniques.

In her books, Donais Calder also tells the stories of the difficulties her mother faced back in Canada, waiting for the return of her husband and the father to her three boys, the youngest whom he had never met. There were times when Frances resented the relationship Edmond had with this new-found German family.

The Schmidt family, including Johann in front with shorts, adopted Donais during the Allied occupation of Germany. | Marie Donais Calder photo

When Edmond returned home in 1946, tremendous readjustments had to be made.

Donais Calder, who was born in 1948 with severe myopia (nearsightedness), faced her own struggles. But Edmond and Frances were loving parents who encouraged imagination and the achievement of goals.

Her early years were happy and three more children were born to Edmond and Frances.

Then tragedy struck. Edmond died in a car accident in 1959. Donais Calder was 11 years old. It was the end of her childhood.

“My whole world was turned upside down.”

Her family moved from their home in Tilston, Man., to Redvers, Sask.

She eventually married Darcy Calder, and the couple had three children. While raising her family, Donais Calder completed a bachelor of education through the University of Regina and went on to teach elementary school for 30 years.

Over the years, she and her family lost touch with the Schmidts in Germany.

Then Frances, at age 81, put into motion a sequence of events that changed their lives more than 50 years after the end of the war.

“Marie, I would like to meet the family,” Frances said in a phone call to her daughter in 1998.

Frances, and Donais Calder and her family, were now living in Estevan.

Through the internet, she found names that matched information she found on photos her dad had treasured all those years ago.

They sent away letters, but after several unsuccessful tries, Donais Calder and her mother began to lose hope.

Then a fax came. “We are the family you are seeking,” it said.

Frances and her son, Blaine, Donais Calder’s brother, made the trip to Germany. When Frances returned home, she shared with her daughter a comment made by the eldest of the Schmidt daughters, Diane.

“It was by way of Eddie that we were to be fed.”

It took a while for Donais Calder to digest the impact of these words.

“Mom,” she said, “Someone should write a book about this.”

Edmond Joseph Donais served in the Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers from 1943-46. | Marie Donais Calder photo

Despite her own struggles — her eyesight had deteriorated to the point where she became legally blind — she felt compelled to share her dad’s story.

In 2001, she began what she thought would be one book. That one book turned into two, and then another and another.

“I just kept meeting people and kept finding out things that were pertinent.”

Donais Calder said she never experienced writer’s block, at times writing for up to 16 hours a day.

“I’d been doing research ever since I was a little girl. I had all my dad’s stories and letters. The story that I had been holding inside my heart all these years just came pouring out.”

The Other Side series, published by Borealis Press, can be found at Indigo and Chapters bookstores, through Donais Calder’s website mariedonaiscalder.com or through her Facebook page The Other Side Series.

Donais Calder is currently writing Together Forever In The Clouds, the story of 20 Royal Canadian Air Force pilots and one ground crew member who died in a plane crash at Estevan on Sept. 15, 1946.

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