1928 - 2021
Ernst Wilhelm von Graevenitz was born on December 2, 1928, in the small village of Schilde, in Brandenburg, Germany, where his family had lived on the same land for over 600 years. His childhood was idyllic but ended abruptly when he was drafted into the German army at 15 years of age. The Eastern Front literally rolled through his basic training unit, and after days on the run in the chaos between the German and Russian lines, with tanks and gunshot everywhere, he was captured and spent 4-5 months in a Russian POW camp at Sagan. He was one of the lucky ones to be released and returned home, only to find his family had fled months earlier and their home occupied by Russian soldiers. It would be several more months, and through word of mouth, that he was reunited with his family on a farm in Dankersen, near Hameln, in the British Zone of Occupation, where the family lived for the next decade.
In 1953, Ernst immigrated to Canada with his best friend Hardy Treviranus. The first year, they worked as farm hands in Mississauga to pay for their passage overseas, and then set off to work as lumberjacks in the wilds of northern Ontario.
But their goal was to become farmers, and so they pushed on to Saskatchewan! They started, as many new Canadians at that time, as farm hands, living in bunk houses, learning fast, working hard and living lean. He had the great fortune to be hired by a young farming family, Matt and Dorothy Sattler (with their two young children, Matt and Dan), in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, and they became his support network and adopted Canadian family.
This was particularly important when he developed tuberculosis and had to go to Fort Qu'appelle Sanitorium – where he literally lay in a body cast for 1 ½ years. His only visitors were the Sattlers and his mother, Margarethe, who sold her jewelry for passage to Canada and found a job in the village. When it became obvious that Ernst could no longer manage hard farm labour, the Sattlers applied for a scholarship for him through the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. With that $75 and their kindness, he was launched back to school. Through more luck – and better chess abilities than English – he was accepted into the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Department of Agriculture, where he worked at the U of S chicken coops and lived upstairs. Through the International Students Association, he met many lifelong friends, and eventually married Alice Helene Hamp in April of 1960. The wedding was a quiet, seven-person event at the Hamp family home on Saskatchewan Crescent.
Ernst’s first job as an agronomist was as crop inspector in Chatham, Ontario. He loved being outdoors and hiking on the farms and had an easy rapport with farmers. Two daughters, Leta and Heidi, were born in Chatham, before they returned to the prairies in 1968, to Winnipeg, where their third child, Eric, was born. Ernst continued working as an agronomist at the Federal Building near Portage and Main until his retirement in 1993, where he was a major voice on most of the grain issues nationally for 1-2+ decades. Ernst always preferred getting out of the city and into the fields, and even won the best legs in the office contest one year! On any road trip, he took a strong interest in the various crops along the way – and their weed content. He would return to the Sattler’s farm for harvest, with his new bride, with his growing family, and later by himself, or with Eric, for the next six or seven decades, spending long, dusty hours in the combine until past sundown.
Ernst was a consummate introvert. Alice would complain, “Can’t you just go out for a beer after work, just once?!” But being an introvert made him the best father ever. This meant bicycle rides to Assiniboine Park after work and weekend camping trips. We were the only family in our neighbourhood who cross country skied, and Ernst was continually cutting trails and going off-trail, with his children in tow wondering if there wasn’t a better way to move through the bush than with sticks on our feet! (We hadn’t heard of snowshoeing yet.)
Ernst loved camping, a love he shared with all 3 children. Some more memorable and terrifying trips were: 1. Getting blown along a beach on Lake Manitoba while trying to hold down our massive flapping and hopping canvas tent – from the inside – as Dad ran back and forth to the car, emptying its contents. 2. the Rye Bread Incident: Dad loved his German rye bread, but the real stuff was often very difficult to find. Once, in Kootenay National Park, we were just bedding down for our much-deserved mid-day nap after a long, morning hike, when a clanging sound drifted up from our firepit. Dad peeked out the tent flap – I remember him yanking on his black converse running shoes – a black bear was rolling our food cooler, and the latch had just sprung! – Out he jumped. Oh no! The black bear seized Dad’s prize rye bread and ran off into the thick BC bush with Dad in hot pursuit! Things got very quiet for a while… He returned – it felt like half an hour later – with the slightly mangled loaf and yelled at us for not waiting in the car, “because bears are dangerous!” And, of course, we proudly ate bear-mangled sandwiches for lunch! 3. The night we learned our father has a terrible sense of direction was when we came across the same rock for the 3rd time on an after-dinner hike while wild-camping along the Ontario border. Eventually, after hours of tromping and circling around, we overnighted on a large rock with swarms of mosquitoes & blackflies, but we could make a fire because Dad smoked. The next morning, we followed the sound of trucks in the distance, wading through swamps, climbing over tumbled-down tree trunks, until finally stumbling out onto a gravel road and into the path of a very surprised truck-driver, one very relieved and disheveled man with two young daughters.
Ernst was vehemently atheist and apolitical – having been abused by ideologues as a child – believing that actions speak much louder than words. If he worshipped anything, it was nature and the natural world. He could quietly sit and watch a bird, bee, or squirrel for hours, but never needed to “identify” it. On a camping trip, we would wake to find our father sitting quietly watching, listening, being entertained by squirrel chatter and scamper, birds dipping in and out, the sway of the wind in the trees. Talk about the weather was not mundane small-talk, but a real dialing-in on how things were going in your world. Ernst was a staunch environmentalist and proud Canadian. He was the first in our neighbourhood by decades to compost, a master of the 2-minute shower, and dedicated to public transport. He loved canoeing and would take off with his canoe for the weekend, alone, and return with stories of almost getting swept across Lake Winnipeg. There were countless canoe trips in the Whiteshell, Dryberry Lake, Rushing River, and the North Saskatchewan and the Athabasca Rivers in Alberta.
In his twilight years, when lack of mobility prevented him from getting out in nature, he would sit on the back deck for hours watching the birds, squirrels, rabbits and various trees and plants. He was particularly proud of his milk weed garden when it started attracting monarchs laying eggs. During the winter, he never bored of watching the Love Nature channel.
Ernst loved the Winnipeg Folk Festival and was a regular volunteer throughout the 80s with Rosie Neufeld’s crew at the Handmade Village. Rosie and Grant and their volunteer circle became life-long friends, and many a birthday and anniversary were celebrated on their farm. Ernst was also a curler and avid curling fan. We learned never to call during the Tournament of Hearts or the Brier. Favorite music choice: Beethoven’s 6th, the Pastorale and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Ernst is survived by his loving wife Alice of 61 years, by his daughters Leta, and Heidi (Mike Nahir) and Eric (Holly Pearce) and four grandchildren, Daniel, Hannah, Wolfe and Bjorn. He is survived by his sister Heily and sister-in-law, Antje, and numerous nieces and nephews in Germany and Holland.
Thank you to Dr David Breckman for his years of patience and care. Thank you to the wonderful people at PRIME, our most incredible and important support team, especially Nancy Fiebelkorn and Dr Russell Albak’s kindness and gentle guidance. Over a relatively short period, Dad came to respect and care for them deeply. And thank you to our wonderful caregivers at Right at Home, in particular Paula and Freda, for whom dad had a special fondness. Thanks also to our wonderful neighbours for their support and friendship over the years. And finally, thank you to the amazing staff at Riverview.
Donations may be made to the Canadian Wildlife Federation or Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
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