Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Like many of the old photographs in her collection, Helga Rechenbach-Sarkar remembers the years growing up in Germany as devoid of any colour.
It’s the hardships she suffered as a child and in her adolescence that paint a vivid portrait in Rechenbach-Sarkar’s new memoir, “The Goodness of Strangers.” The title refers to the acceptance she had longed for and eventually found upon coming to a country she knew little about.
“Until I came to Canada, my life was more or less black and white, but mainly grey,” Rechenbach-Sarkar says.
She was still an infant in 1945 when, panicked over the approaching Russian military, her mother took her own life. Her father, a soldier in the Germany army, returned home 10 days later, just in time for his third wedding anniversary, to find his wife already buried.
It was a turning point in both of their lives. About a year later, her father re-married, but Rechenbach-Sarkar says the woman never accepted her as a daughter. Her father became more distant and controlling at the same time.
Rechenbach-Sarkar was nine before she learned, purely by chance, that her stepmom wasn’t her biological mother.
“My father would never sit down and speak about my mother. I had to accept that which was.
“He was so traumatized. He was so much in love, but now that (my mother) wasn't there he just wanted to get on with life and expected me to do likewise.”
Rechenbach-Sarkar lived with different relatives, even spending time with her stepmother's parents, whom she didn’t know. Soon after she reached an age where she could make her own decisions without fear of retribution from her father, she left for Canada.
“My father had exercised his parental rights to the extreme ... he told me until I was 21 I had to do what he told me, and he held that over me.
“So here I was, 22, and I decided to do something that he could not hinder me from doing.”
Despite not speaking a word of English, Rechenbach-Sarkar says she immediately felt at home in Canada. She met a generous landlord who provided her with a fully-furnished room in the High Park area of Toronto. She soon found employment as a non-registered nursing assistant at St. Joseph’s hospital.
Two years later she married Bishu Sarkar, whom she had met at a dinner party. His work as an engineer took the couple to various cities in three provinces. Together they have two children and two grandchildren.
In many of those cities, Rechenbach-Sarkar would speak on behalf of a Christian women’s organization about her life’s journey, and how she felt God had helped her to overcome the many challenges.
After her speaking engagements she would often be asked when she was going to write her memoir. But it wasn’t until one day a few years ago when a package in the mail arrived with a series of old letters – correspondence between her parents before they were married – that Rechenbach-Sarkar says she had the confidence to tell her story.
“Through those letters I got to know my parents a little bit better,” she says, noting her aunt back in Germany, who discovered the letters in an old dresser in an attic, also came to visit her and was able to fill in some more blanks about her past.
Published by World Alive Press of Winnipeg, the memoir, described by Rechenbach-Sarkar as “an honest account of the life of an immigrant who found happiness in a new country,” is available locally at the Gospel Lighthouse and through Amazon.
Upon retirement, the couple moved to Stratford in 2001 and opened the Eaglerest bed and breakfast.
Rechenbach-Sarkar says the seeds for their move to the Festival City were planted back in 1962, when as a nursing student in Germany she performed in a production of The Imaginary Invalid.
Twenty-eight years later, while living in Brampton with her husband, she saw an advertisement for the Stratford Festival’s upcoming production of the same play with William Hutt in the title role and knew she had to come see the play. By the end of their three day visit they had agreed to retire in Stratford.
Rechenbach-Sarkar, who this June will turn 70, has come to terms with her upbringing; she says her father apologized on his deathbed for how he had treated her and asked for her forgiveness.
But she has never regretted her decision to leave and come to Canada.
“Without fail, wherever I lived in Canada, it was the goodness of strangers that time and time again assured me I had not made a mistake coming to Canada. And because of the goodness of others I have become somebody like that as well.”