I always find it amazing when I walk along a street and stare at passersby, wondering what their story is. Everyone has one and many are quite interesting. I am privileged to be able to delve into the history of many people, and see how fascinating their makeup is.
Hendrik Weiler is such a person. He now resides in Port Perry, with his wife Catherine, but has lived in some of the world's most exotic places. Many of us have had opportunities and misfortunes, but not everyone takes a positive approach on how to deal with them.
Hendrik Weiler was born in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a year before the start of World War II. It was an extremely difficult and volatile time in that region, as the Russians were advancing and the Germans were retreating. This put Estonia right in the centre of the turmoil.
Hendrik's grandfather was involved in the publishing industry, and was a good friend of the President of Estonia, which was OK during peaceful times, but a bit of a risk during those of war. His grandfather was wise enough to foresee the future and booked passage for his immediate family, including Hendrik, his parents and brother and sister, on a fishing boat.
They set off in the middle of the night, and suddenly came upon a boat with German soldiers. His mother, quite an attractive woman, did a little flirting and handed over a few boxes of cigarettes, and the Germans let them pass. "We were very fortunate," Hendrik explained. "Usually if you were caught escaping, they would simply shoot you."
They continued through icefields, with gunfire all around them. "Although I was only six, I recall it vividly," Hendrik continued. Eventually they made it safely to Finland, where they stayed for four months. Finland made a pact with Russia to return every Estonian back to their homeland. From there, it would only be a matter of time before a visit to Siberia was in the plans.
Hendrik's grandfather once again arranged passage on an old wooden ship, and the family was packed like sardines among 300 refugees, heading for Sweden. A violent storm nearly toppled the boat several times, but somehow they made the voyage.
"The Red Cross in Sweden was excellent," Hendrik explained. "We had no medicines, and I had whooping cough. They kept me in isolation for four months, and after I recovered, I joined my family. We rented an old house, and my grandfather and father both found work in the newspaper business. We had no passports, so we were unable to leave."
The Soviets were putting pressure on Sweden to deport Estonians to the Soviet Union. Workers were needed, but life in the USSR would not be worth living for the refugees. Hendrik had an aunt who lived on a farm outside of Lethbridge, Alberta, and through many months of negotiation, the Weilers were allowed to leave and head for Canada. "It took quite a while," Hendrik said. "We took a ship from Stockholm, to New York City. From there we boarded a train to Toronto. Then another train took us to Medicine Hat, and then yet another train to Lethbridge, where my aunt and uncle picked us up."
The family stayed with their relatives, who had been given a small parcel of land. It was quite primitive, as there wasn’t any running water, no electricity or sewage. They had to dig a cistern to collect water for their use.
Eventually the family moved to Toronto, where Hendrik attended Western Tech. Part time jobs included a pin boy at a bowling alley, a Spittoon cleaner at a pool hall, peach picking in Niagara, a soda jerk, a labourer in construction, and a job at a potato chip factory. He stuck with his studies, and in 1966 attained his PhD.
He obtained a position with the government in Ottawa and was then moved to Burlington. His strengths were in the field of oceanography, and he worked hard to create a positive environment for anyone in the fishing industry. In 1975, Hendrik was appointed Deputy Director of Industry, Trade and Commerce.
"I moved around a lot in those days, and it was difficult for my three children." He was relocated to Europe, and handled Canadian affairs for the European Union. "It was enjoyable, but stressful and when an opportunity to retire came at 56, I took it."
His wife Catherine, a teacher, had an chance to work in Cairo and the couple set off to explore the Middle East. They also lived in Uganda and Jordan, but Egypt had a draw for them. "When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, we had to camp in tents at the airport while we tried to get a flight out." They were finally evacuated to France, but after two weeks, returned to their home in Cairo.
They stayed another seven years until Catherine's mother, a Port Perry resident, passed away and they returned home. I asked Dr. Weiler what he loved most about Port Perry, especially after having lived in some if the most exotic locales around the world. "The town has everything one could ever want," he answered. “I walk everywhere, people are friendly, and it is so clean and picturesque. Why would you want to live anywhere else?"
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.