German Honorary Consul Winnipeg 1981-2009 Oral History Project

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The “German Honorary Consul Winnipeg 1981-2009 Oral History Project” was initiated in 2009 by Dr. Alexander Freund, Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg. It was motivated by the retirement of Gerhard and Deborah Spindler from the office of the Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany in August 2009. The objective was to document the experiences and memories of the office’s two main staff members who, as honorary consul and main administrator, had been instrumental in the running of the office between 1981 and 2009.

 

On August 31, 2009, the Honorary Consul of Germany, Gerhard (Gerry) Spindler, retired from his position and closed the office of Honorary Consul (HC), at least temporarily. Gerry Spindler worked as HC from 1986 to 2009 and during that quarter century came in contact with and was an important influence in Manitoba’s German community. Deborah (Debbie) Spindler, his wife, worked as the main administrator in the HC office from 1981 to 2009. She too came in contact with and was an important influence in Manitoba’s German community during those nearly three decades. Gerry Spindler came to Canada during the early 1950s. Debbie Spindler was born in Canada and learned German at university. Both had professional careers outside of their work at the HC office: Debbie Spindler worked in the administration of the University of Manitoba; Gerry Spindler worked as a financial consultant. While Mrs. Spindler is still working, Mr. Spindler retired from his position as consultant in 2006.

 

Debbie and Gerry Spindler were in office during important phases in the history of Manitoba’s German community. Manitoba, like the rest of Canada, saw its major immigration from Germany between 1947 and 1959. There was only very little German immigration from the 1960s to the 1990s. From the late 1990s onward, however, a new wave of Germans immigrated specifically to Manitoba.Thus, during the 1980s, the Spindlers saw many of the postwar German immigrants apply for pension from Germany, reapply for German citizenship, which they had given up when they received Canadian citizenship in the 1950s and 1960s, make claims for retroactive child assistance from the German government, and deal with a host of other problems, such as run-ins with the law or fathers who had returned to Germany and no longer paid any child support. It was also during this time, from 1974 to 2000, that the Spindlers came in contact with some of the 135,000 German soldiers stationed at the Canadian Forces Base Shilo, Manitoba.2 During that time, these soldiers, some of whom married Canadian women and had children with them, needed the Spindlers’ help in negotiating the bureaucratic labyrinth of German immigration and citizenship laws.

 

In 1989/1990, the Spindlers witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany from a specific perspective: geographically removed, yet at the centre of attention and public inquiry in Manitoba. In the following years, they received inquiries from East German refugees who had settled in Manitoba and were wondering about East German properties they had lost after 1945, about sponsoring East German relatives to immigrate to Manitoba, and about investment opportunities in East Germany. Other political dates that were important during their tenure included the 40-, 50-, and 60-year anniversaries of the end of World War Two in 1985, 1995, and 2005.

 

During the late 1990s and especially during the 2000s, the Spindlers also saw an increasing number of German immigrants coming to Manitoba. Most of these were so-called ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union, especially from Kazakhstan, who had lived in Germany during the 1990s but found it difficult to integrate and be accepted. Manitoba employers recruited them as low- and semi-skilled workers in agriculture and industry in South Manitoban towns such as Altona, Morden, Steinbach, and Winkler. Many of these immigrants came in groups and formed their own Protestant (Mennonite, Baptist, Lutheran etc.) churches and communities apart from the German-speaking churches already present in Manitoba.

 

Thus, over the decades Gerry and Debbie Spindler were acute observers of the German community and learned of the fates of many individuals. Their knowledge and memories of German-Manitoban society and culture stretch far beyond their routine consular work of renewing passports and filling out forms. At the same time, they were involved in the diplomatic affairs of the consular and embassy staff of the Federal Republic of Germany in Canada and observed myriad changes. The files of the German diplomatic corps are under a rolling 30-year lock, so that we currently have access to files at the Political Archives of the German Department for Foreign Affairs (Berlin, Germany) only up to the early 1980s. This oral history project documents and preserves Mr. and Mrs. Spindler’s knowledge and memories as a historical source for future researchers. The Gerhard and Deborah Spindler memoirs serve as a historical source for researchers studying the history of Germans in Manitoba and the history of Germany’s diplomatic corps in Canada.

 

The project includes the recordings and transcripts of five audio-recorded interview sessions, conducted by Alexander Freund for the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The interviews were conducted at the home of Mr and Mrs Spindler between 19 January and 12 February 2010. The total recording time is 11 hours, 24 minutes and 28 seconds. Lindsay Baker transcribed the recordings and Allison Penner audited the transcript. Alexander Freund edited the transcript. The narrators reviewed and revised the transcript. Allison Penner proofread the final version. The final transcript contains 111,907 words on 352 double-spaced pages.

 

Select additional documents were provided by Gerhard Spindler. These, together with interview notes, questionnaires, consent forms, release agreements, and other documentation make up the “German Honorary Consul Winnipeg 1981-2009 Oral History Project.”The project was funded by the Chair in German-Canadian Studies.The project may be read, quoted, and cited freely. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part by any means, electronic or mechanical, without written permission from the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Work at the Consulate in the early 1980s

In this story we cover work at the Consulate in the early 1980's.

Audio File:

A selection of clips from Alexander Freund's project on the German Honorary Consul in Winnipeg. This selection of audio with interviewee Deborah Spindler covers work at the consular office during the 1980's

Video:

A selection of clips from Alexander Freund's project on the German Honorary Consul in Winnipeg. This selection of audio with interviewee Deborah Spindler covers work at the consular office during the 1980's

Transcript:

Deborah Spindler: But there was a position advertised for the German consulate and I thought, “Wow; that would be really neat.” Because in one of my German classes I remember there was a girl who worked in the French consulate and I thought, “Oh that would be such a neat job.” But I really didn’t take it seriously, because why would they hire me? I have, you know, a limited amount of German and I’m not really an office worker, etc. etc. But then I got home and I thought -- I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I thought, “Well, you know, there’s no harm in trying. The worst they can do is say no, you’re not getting the job.” So I phoned about the job and Mr. Thiele, the Honorary Consul at that time, had me down for a job interview the next day. I still remember it was pouring rain and I hadn’t even had time to do my CV in German, like everything was in English that I had and I felt really badly, and I said, “I can only type forty-five words a minute.” So he called over to Mrs. Gummelt, his assistant, and he said, “How much do you need.” “Forty-five would be fine,” she said. So, “We really need someone who can speak English and has German knowledge and blah blah.” So they gave me the job. And I was ecstatic.
[…]
Alexander Freund: What kind of a person was Mr. Thiele? What were your impressions of him?
Deborah Spindler: Mr. Thiele. He was a very loving person and quite a gentle person. You know, he would get upset about some things but, I don’t know, I just always found him to be a very gentle man. And he loved children and children loved him. Kids would come in, they’d be screaming and he’d go over and sort of go and pat them on the head or touch their face and they would be, you know, just really liked him. He liked -- he wasn’t as strict as Mrs. Gummelt in terms of, like, quality of work and so forth. He would be more willing to say, “Oh, it’s fine that way.” Whereas she would be quite a stickler. I can’t --
Alexander Freund: What did he look like?
Deborah Spindler: Oh, he was a very large man. Like tall and strong looking, yes. Very big hands, big fingers, he had a great laugh and, you know, “Um Gottes Willen.” You know, yes, “Alles quatsch!” [Laughs] Things like that. And or, you know, expressions I learned from him like etepetete and -- what other ones did he like to use? Gosh, it’s been so long I’ve forgotten now. But he was a dear man, I remember. And he, I remember at one point, now why was that? Maybe when he retired my mom decided she would send flowers. Well, you know, and she sent a card saying, you know, “Thank you for always being so nice to our daughter.” And he could not get over the fact that my mother, who really didn’t know him from Adam, would send him flowers. He just found this bizarre. And he really liked that; I remember him phoning her up and thanking her and stuff. He was a very well-travelled person and -- he was a good speaker although, you know, his English was really not very good but he always used to introduce Mrs. Gummelt as his right hand and I was his left hand when we were at receptions. And there were a lot of receptions in his home. I thought, “Oi oi oi oi, I’m not going to do that!” But I did and it was fun. And he loved his children very much and was very proud of them.
[…]
Alexander Freund: And finally I guess Mrs. Gummelt. … What kind of person was she?
Deborah Spindler: Well, I mean, I appreciated the fact that she demanded perfection, but it was difficult. I felt like I, you know -- initially I thought, “I can never please this woman, it doesn’t matter what I do.” You know, so I would often come away from work feeling rather discouraged. However, once that first year was up and I stayed on, she grew to be -- because at first she was always comparing me to her other colleague and, “Oh no, I need you to do it this way,” and she already had told me that five times. That would, hadn’t sunk in yet. And that kind of thing. And as I got to know her better and then everything changed. Once I had the job and wanted to stay on, I can remember initially she’d say things to me like, “Well, I’ll show you how to do this, if you’re interested, but maybe you’re not interested.” And I said, “Well no, of course I want to learn; I want to learn everything.” So, and then it got to the point where she was always talking about, you know, her other colleague and that, and then I would hear, overhear conversations where she would be talking about me. And, well, you know, “My little colleague this or that,” and I guess I had gone up a notch in her esteem; at least that’s how it felt to me. And later on when we took on somebody else, then everything else was, “No, no, Fräulein Blair does it this way.” So, okay, I finally made it. But as, you know, as I got to know her I grew to love her very much. I mean, she had her hardness about her but when I learned that she, when she first came to Canada and all that she had been through during the war and what she endured here when she first came -- she had a job like working at Chicken Delight plucking the chicken feathers off just because they needed the money. And the things that she had done, and then she landed a position in the consulate and that was quite a coup. And she, the way that she was treated was with harshness in the job. They had to do, she would tell me about the audits that would happen and if there was one thing out of place or one mistake, like, you were reprimanded. They were taken into rooms and interviewed about other people, what did they feel about so and so and how were they doing their job? And all kinds of things. She said that it was really horrendous.
[…]
Another thing that we did a lot in those days, not so much now, but people would try to prove that they were German and if you didn’t have -- like when you came to Canada if you were staatenlos [stateless] or you didn’t have the right papers that said you were a German, then in order to get a German passport you had to prove it. Even though a lot of times it would be clear because you look at the family names and you can tell, but that’s not enough for the authorities so the Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis, citizenship paper, would have to be applied for which is a long, horrendous process. I remember one particular case, it stands out in my mind because it was so long and drawn out and because the people were so unhappy. I remember them crying in my office and I said, “You know, it takes a long time to get used to Canada.” It’s like for them it was like a cultural no-man’s land and everything was just, you know -- they tried but they just couldn’t get used to it here. They hated the winters, they were just lonely and homesick and really wanted to go back, and they had been in Germany not because they were German; I think they’d come from Poland and so they, but they’d been a long time in Germany before a decision was reached that they could not stay. Their only hope would have been to get a German passport. Interestingly enough, in their background there was German. But you had to go so far back, it would have worked except for I think on her side of the family. Like on his side of the family we went so far and then it didn’t work out, so she was still a hope that maybe her grandmother or great-grandmother, and yes they had been German but because she married a non-German -- and in those days your citizenship was sort of revoked when you married somebody who was a citizen of another country.
Alexander Freund: Poor woman.
Deborah Spindler: Yes. So it just didn’t work out. And I just remember they were just devastated and you know? I don’t know if, whatever happened to them. They had two little kids and, yes, so I don’t know. And that’s the sad thing. I don’t know if they ever managed to get used to it, but, you know, she just wasn’t willing to give up that; she thought that there would be some way. So then really the only way is if you become a Canadian and you get a job over in Germany and you apply to go over that way and hope that maybe eventually you can stay. But yes. So there were a few heart-breaking stories like that.

Images:
  • Deborah Spindler, Mrs. Gummelt and Mr Thiele at the Honorary German Consular office in Winnipeg

Making Difficult Decisions

Gerhard Spindler, or as he is known n in Canada more or less since about a year after he came to Canada as Gerry Spindler; was called Gerald and a few other things like that. he came to Canada in 1954, when he was thirteen years old, with his parents. He was able to attend grade seven immediately upon arriving in Winnipeg because he had four years worth of English language classes as a student in Germany, in Hamburg. So therefore he had a fairly good background in English and he was able to carry on all my schooling here in Winnipeg, right up until 1960 at which point he graduated from grade twelve. Within the week after leaving school he obtained a job with the Royal Bank of Canada and stayed with the bank until 1993. In other words, thirty-three years. In 1987, he was asked by a retired Honorary Consul, a Mr. Rudolf Thiele, if the bank would give permission to him to be appointed as an Honorary Consul if he was approved. And after checking with senior personnel and head office people, he said it shouldn’t interfere with my job or create a conflict of interest. His investiture as an Honorary Consul happened April, 1988. And he has been doing it ever since, until he resigned at the end of August of 2009.

Audio File:

A collection of interview excerpts from Alexander Freund's interview with Gerhardt Spindler about his time at the German Consulate in Winnipeg as Honorary Consul from April 1988 to August 2009

Video:

A collection of interview excerpts from Alexander Freund's interview with Gerhardt Spindler about his time at the German Consulate in Winnipeg as Honorary Consul from April 1988 to August 2009

Transcript:

Okay, my name is Gerhard Spindler. I’m known in Canada more or less since about a year after I came to Canada as Gerry Spindler; also I was called Gerald and a few other things like that. I came to Canada in 1954, when I was thirteen years old, with my parents. I was able to attend grade seven immediately upon arriving in Winnipeg because I had four years worth of English language classes as a student in Germany, in Hamburg. So therefore I had a fairly good background in English and I was able to carry on all my schooling here in Winnipeg, right up until 1960 at which point I graduated from grade twelve. Within the week after leaving school I obtained a job with the Royal Bank of Canada and stayed with the bank until 1993. In other words, thirty-three years. In 1988, actually at the end of ‘87, I was asked by a retired Honorary Consul, a Mr. Rudolf Thiele, if the bank would give permission to me to be appointed as an Honorary Consul if I was approved. And after checking with senior personnel and head office people, I said it shouldn’t interfere with my job or create a conflict of interest. My investiture as an Honorary Consul happened April, 1988. And I’ve been doing it ever since, until I resigned at the end of August of 2009. That’s twenty-one years.
[…]
Alexander Freund: Yes [laughs]. Okay, maybe back to the work as a consul. You’ve explained sort of the main tasks that you did. What would you say were sort of the most important decisions that you had to make?
Gerhard Spindler: [Whistles] Well, there’s some specific rules on decisions as to which legal documents I can sign. Under certain, what’s called an Unterschriftsbeglaubigung or verification of signature, and things especially to do with Vollmachten or powers of attorney. There’s a long list of documents which only a consular or diplomat or a government employee can sign off on. So you had to decide, can I do this or can you not do it? And there was a situation many, many years ago, unfortunately Mr. Thiele’s days, where he thought he was still the consul, but of course he wasn’t -- he was the honorary consul and he signed a document which, quotation, “hit the fan” later on and somebody decided to sue the German government in Berlin of course -- well, in Bonn in those days -- as well as of course Mr. Thiele, and he shouldn’t have signed it. It came out, of course, the German government has unlimited resources legally speaking and the case was thrown out. It involved a large transaction in land or something here in Canada. And Mr. Thiele shouldn’t have signed this document. So I was with this in the background that I knew about, I was very careful and, what do I decide to sign or not to sign. In many cases of course the people, and there was a lot of discourse, a lot of bad blood sometimes. People would come and they would just slap this thing in front of me and say, “You just going to write this signature; it’s nothing.” I said, “No, I’m going to read it first and if I can’t do it I’ll tell you.” So in most cases I said, “You leave me the document or if you want I’ll charge you for photocopying every one of the pages that you have and I’ll read it at home, you can take the original back.” Ended up with a lot of heated arguments saying that they couldn’t understand that I had certain rights and non-rights to sign their documents. A lot of bad blood actually. A lot of people they couldn’t understand it. And, because, “Well you’re just witnessing my signature.” Yes, but if something goes wrong guess who’s going to get sued. You should have told me that if once I signed this document that if this thing hits the fan then I could be sued or counter-sued or something. I tried to explain people that this is what goes on. You need independent legal advice, but I’m not trained in the Jura or the legal department of the foreign affairs department where I could give you that independent legal advice. Every lawyer does an independent legal advice here in Canada and I knew that from the bank. So those are major decisions which we had to make and they were; fortunately Debbie had experience, I had experience as a banker. So it was not pleasant most cases, but one of the nice things about doing them if I could do it, the fee was based on the value of the transaction. So if you sold two million euro property somewhere in Berlin and you were getting fifty percent with your brother; the fifty percent was one million and there was a fee schedule that one million dollars is so many hundreds of dollars for my signature if I could do it. So that was one of the reasons I could keep the second secretary because sometimes I would collect a couple thousand dollars a year for the fee based on the value of the signature. And if somebody says, “Oh, I’m just giving power of attorney to my brother who will look after selling mom’s and dad’s house.” I said, “No, you’re selling fifty percent. I want to know the value of the house that you’re going to get later on.” Says, “Well no; you just sign your signature.” I said, “No, this is based on the value of the property.” And I said, “If you aren’t prepared to give me that in writing black and white,” I said, “you go back and talk to three real estate people; I’ll take the average value of this property even though you haven’t sold it yet, or get something from the lawyer who would put his name on this letterhead that this is the value.” That created a lot of hardships there because again they couldn’t understand it. What’s it got to do with the value? And a lot of people stormed out and I never saw them again. At least one or two a year happened like that. That was the unpleasant but also very decisive jobs we had to do. I’m a very -- and on top of that the thing that makes it very interesting, I’m a stickler for proper documentation. You have to be in the bank, of course. But a lot of people that come in with the passport application and they would hand you the old passport and say, “Well you know, there’s a passport application in the name of Hans Mueller,” let’s say. And then I look at the application, said, “Well, where’s your birth certificate that indicates that you’re Hans Mueller?” It turns out he’s a Hans-Joachim, with a hyphen. I says, “No, you’re no longer Hans, you’re Hans-Joachim on your new passport.” They were not so careful by the way years ago. Then they finally said, “We want copies.” They usually go and do passport apps based on the previous passport. They didn’t even look at the birth certificate. After all, if you have one before you must have been born. So now you had to prove every time what your real name is and there are a lot of changes came about. Elizabeth with a z or with an s, Marie or Maria, and all these things. Or a lot of people in Canada anglicized their names. Right away they were Günther with an umlaut. A lot of things like that. And so I was able to go out and play detective and I insisted on it, and I finally got it into the ladies that it says from now on it goes exactly by the paper trail and if they don’t have a birth certificate and say, “You gave it to me last time.” Said, “No, we’re not giving it to this time until you bring it in.” Then it turns out, which I find surprising, a lot of people says, “Well, mom or dad has it in Germany.” I say, “You’re a fifty year old man, why wouldn’t you have your original birth certificate? You’re going to need it when you’re doing your C.P.P. application to prove what your name is and what your date of birth is so that you don’t make an application when you’re sixty-four,” you know, sort of thing. Said, “Yes, okay.” So I changed a lot of things. But only because I was a stickler [laughs].

Images:
  • Gerry Spindler being appointed as honorary German Consul

Working Together as a Couple

With our last interview we discussed a the subject of what was it like for the two of you to work with your spouse in the office? This raised several interesting conversations including the opinions of others of a working married couple together in an office, differences of opinions and the openness of their relationship within that environment.

Audio File:

A collection of excerpts from Alexander Freund's interview with Debbie and Gerhardt Spindler about their time spent working together as a married couple in the German Consulate Office in Winnipeg

Video:

A collection of excerpts from Alexander Freund's interview with Debbie and Gerhardt Spindler about their time spent working together as a married couple in the German Consulate Office in Winnipeg

Transcript:

Alexander Freund: I think with our last interview, Debbie, you already anticipated one question that I had for you and that is, what was it like for the two of you to work with your spouse in the office?
Deborah Spindler: Do you want to go first?
Gerhard Spindler: I’ll go first. What was it like? But you should also ask is it a problem? I would say definitely not a problem because during the day we had so many things to look after, business things to look after; interviews, clients and so on, that we never really had much time to go out and get into any personal dissertations or discussions, so that between 8:30 and 12:30 we hardly, you know, we saw each other but only fleetingly. And then, of course, at 12:30 most of the time we went back; I took Debbie to the university or we went home for lunch. So I think it was a piece of cake. There was, absolutely no one would even know that we were married. Very few people even knew Debbie’s name because we never had business cards that we passed out. At least Debbie never did. I had business cards with my name on it. But I would say less than ten people of all these years knew that we were married because she just went by Debbie [phone rings] sort of thing. Okay, maybe stop it. [Recording is stopped and resumed] – give it to John.
Deborah Spindler: Okay, whatever.
Alexander Freund: Okay.
Gerhard Spindler: Okay?
Deborah Spindler: Is that all you have to say?
Gerhard Spindler: That’s pretty well all I have to say.
Deborah Spindler: Oh, okay. Well, I have a lot more to say. I’d say there are both negative and positive points being a married couple working together. I always remember Mrs. Gummelt warning, saying that it’s never a good idea for a married couple to work together, you know, you’ll see. And especially in the foreign office, you know. She said they really discouraged people being together. I mean, there were couples even in the consulate that worked together there.
Gerhard Spindler: At the embassy in Ottawa; remember the people that went up to Churchill?
Deborah Spindler: At the embassy. But probably not in the same, yes, but probably not in the same office.
Gerhard Spindler: One was politische Abteiling, die andere war, the other one was in the press department.
Deborah Spindler: Yeah.
Gerhard Spindler: I forget their names.
Deborah Spindler: And as far as the negative aspects go, both of us tend to be people that have fairly strong opinions about things. When I think I’m right, I think I’m right and I’m very stubborn, and Gerry tends to be that way too.
Gerhard Spindler: I agree.
Deborah Spindler: So many times there would be differences over what we believed was the right thing to do; however we did manage to solve those problems. But I think under ordinary circumstances, where you’re not related to your boss, that you would take a much more respectful attitude and many times I was not. I have a lot, too much to say because I have worked in the field for so long and there were times when I did know more and times when I didn’t. So, you know, in the end I suppose that evened out. That’s the negative part. The positive part is in that kind of work you really can’t talk to very many people about it. For one thing it’s the confidential nature, and for another thing most people just aren’t really interested. They have no interest in that kind of thing or they don’t understand it enough to know. So a lot of times we’d have great discussions over lunch or supper together, and at least we could be very open and discuss things totally together which is very nice. So that was a positive aspect. But overall, especially in the early years, Gerry really wasn’t at the office most of the time. He came in to sign so there really weren’t issues at that time. But I think that the more we worked together then the more those things –
Gerhard Spindler: Only the last four years.
Deborah Spindler: Yeah, but the more those things came to light. That we had differences of opinion.
Gerhard Spindler: Three years, three years.
Deborah Spindler: Otherwise when Gerry wasn’t around I could just go and do whatever I thought was right anyway. And he usually forgot so it was okay.
Alexander Freund: [Laughs]
Gerhard Spindler: Thanks. But I did sign your stuff without changing your documents.
Deborah Spindler: Yeah, most of the time. You, yeah, you didn’t like my editorial comments most of the time either.
Gerhard Spindler: Correct.
Deborah Spindler: But you have to remember that’s my job at the university, so. So yeah, so that pretty well sums that up I guess.
Gerhard Spindler: Not much negative stuff.
Deborah Spindler: That was great because I had a ride to work every day.
Gerhard Spindler: And a ride to your second job.
Deborah Spindler: [Laughs] Well no, I often took the bus.
Gerhard Spindler: Well, except for the last three, four years.
Deborah Spindler: Well, then I was visiting my mom though, so.
Gerhard Spindler: Yeah, yeah, right.
Deborah Spindler: Yeah, so that’s about it.
Gerhard Spindler: That’s about the answer, you’re right.

Images:
  • Deborah and Gerry Spindler at the German Honorary Consul

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