For Gerhard Furstenau, or Gerry as his friends and neighbour call him, paradise is a little lot in North Saanich off West Saanich Road kitty-corner to Deep Cove Elementary school.
Furstenau has owned the half-acre lot since 1955. He purchased it with one of his younger brothers for $700 after having arrived from Saskatchewan, where the siblings, tiring of the hard winters, had heard of a distant, magical place called Vancouver Island and vowed to themselves to travel there once summer came around.
When Furstenau closes his eyes for the final time, this private refugee will turn into a public park bearing the name of Wolfgang Orchard in honour of his brother, one of Furstenau’s four brothers and five siblings, under a donating agreement with the municipality on the condition that North Saanich preserve the plot in his current state. Wolfgang Furstenau is 10 years younger and currently lives in North Carolina.
But if Furstenau’s sharp, sardonic wit and dry humour on display during his 95th birthday celebrations (July 15) offer any evidence, he may enjoy his own private paradise for many more years to come.
“I have very few acquaintances left, when you are 95 everybody else is dead,” he deadpans in his still noticeable German accent, which stems from his birthplace north of Berlin.
Sitting underneath one of his plum trees for cover from the afternoon sun and surrounded by a diverse group of friends who sip tea and speak a variety of languages, Furstenau sketches out a life shaped by events current generations only know through the history books.
Born in historic Prussia, Furstenau served in Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht as a teen-aged conscript who volunteered for the German tank forces (“I volunteered for the tanks, because I didn’t want to walk with the infantry, with 60 pounds of weight”), fighting through 1944 into 1945, the deadliest period of the war.
A wireless operator, Furstenau fought by his own count in 28 major tank battles, first against British soldiers in Holland (including as he later discovered, one of his eventual neighbours in North Saanich), then Americans in France, and finally against Russians just outside Berlin during the final days of the war.
“They [the German government] still owe me a medal,” he said in a flight of dark humour. “I have been knocked out of a tank four times, but luckily I got out. … A guy behind me got shredded. Can’t be helped.”
Experiences like those ultimately convinced Furstenau to consider a different life, when West Germany re-armed itself as part of NATO. Having lived through the horrors of war himself and still young enough to be drafted for a second time, he left for Luxembourg, then Belgium, where he secured paid passage to Canada after having initially considered Argentina as his new would-be home.
“I just wanted a quiet, peaceful life.”
Trying to ease the burden on his mother, who had lost her husband in what Furstenau described as a Russian concentration camp after the war, he took along his brother. What followed was perhaps nothing short of a professional odyssey that took him to remote logging camps in British Columbia and a mental hospital in Vancouver, where he was training as psychiatric nurse.
“So be careful what you say and what you do — you’ll be analyzed immediately,” he said, drawing reverberating laughter from his birthday party.
Along the way, he raised one daughter, who now lives in the United States, along with three grand-children and two great-grand children. “Luckily, they are far away,” he dead-panned. “They are in Phoenix — so they can’t cross the border.”
Over the years, Furstenau had to deal with the death of siblings from various forms of cancer and he himself survived a bout with colon cancer. But these experiences appear to have given him an even deeper appreciation of his life and the people within it.
He has struck up friendships with people from various backgrounds including two Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War as well as the children and teachers from nearby Deep Cove Elementary.
Since some five years, he has allowed students to garden on his property, starting with two garden boxes that have since grown to nine, all built by Furstenau himself, who continues to keep his professional carpentry skills sharp. He has also shared his passion for reading with teachers by bringing them foreign-language newspapers collected on international flights.
“He wanted us to be literate as he is,” said Louise Beaudry, who teaches French immersion at the school, and helped to organize the party.
Furstenau himself continues to read. While he sounds regretful about not being able to recite the opening passage of Goethe’s Faust in full as he used to be able to do, he nonetheless quotes lines from it. Furstenau also does not hesitate when asked about his favourite book — Thus Spoke Zarathustra by the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche — before quoting his favourite line from it.
“Fear nothing — your soul is going to be dead before your body is dead.”
Nothing could be less applicable to Furstenau.
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