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Former Abbotsford mayor releases book about family’s history

Henry Braun’s Mennonite parents fled from the Russians during Second World War
Former Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun has released a new book about his family history, titled Follow the Black Lines. (Vikki Hopes/Abbotsford News)

Former Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun can add a new accomplishment to his list: published author.

Braun has released a book titled Follow the Black Lines: The Story of George and Margaret (Siemens) Braun.

It details the story of his parents who, as teenagers, were among the thousands of Mennonites who fled Ukraine from the advancing Russians in the Second World War.

They eventually ended up as refugees in Paraguay – where Braun and one of his brothers (the first of seven children) were born – and settled in Abbotsford in 1953.

The tome has been decades in the making, and credit for the product in its finished form goes to his first cousin Elsie Neufeld, an accomplished author of two dozen books. A book launch takes place this Saturday, March 18 at 2 p.m. at the Mennonite Heritage Museum, 1818 Clearbrook Rd. Braun, his wife Velma and Neufeld will be in attendance.

Braun grew up listening to stories from his parents, particularly from his dad, of the turbulent years before, during and after the war.

In January 1945, after having already left Ukraine and as the Russians advanced, they endured a three-week trek from the German-occupied Meertal, Poland to a train station across the Oder River and then on to Germany.

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Braun recalls his parents talking about how hungry they were along the way. When the German soldiers threw away the peanut butter packets they had consumed, the citizens would pick them up and run their fingers along the remnants.

Braun said his dad, who was around 14 at the time, was always haunted by the image of a wounded soldier on the trek who was in so much pain that he contemplated shooting him.

But his own father – Braun’s grandfather – urged George not to do it because he would never forgive himself, and George did not proceed with his plan.

The book also shares George’s difficult memories of the many young children – most under the age of two – who froze to death along the journey and the German soldiers whose bodies hung from the bridge over the Oder River as they crossed it.

“He saw and heard things that no teenager should ever have to witness, but they did and it taught them resilience … He would never have wished this on anybody, but they just had to deal with it,” Braun said.

Braun later suggested that his dad record his family history, but George didn’t feel confident enough in his writing to do so and suggested instead that Braun do it.

Braun began recording interviews with George in 1985 with a plan to compile the information just for their own family.

The recordings stopped for awhile in the 1990s after Braun became too busy with work. His dad had founded a railroad company, G. Braun Contracting Co., in Abbotsford in 1961. The company was later renamed to Pacific Northern Rail Contractors (PNR), of which Braun became the president and CEO.

The history of the company is also detailed in Follow the Black Lines.

PNR was sold in 1999 and Braun retired at the end of 2002. He then had more time to work on the book.

He continued to interview his dad, many times with his mom adding her recollections, until George’s death from a massive stroke in 2004.

Braun transcribed all of the tapes – about 30 hours in total – but had not yet proceeded with compiling them into a book. His mom, who is now 92, kept asking about it.

“Do I have to die first?” she asked Braun about when he was going to complete it.

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She persuaded him to contact her niece, Neufeld, to help him along. Neufeld reviewed Braun’s 125 pages of transcripts and the tapes themselves, and told him the material was “gold” that told an important part of history.

Braun agreed to proceed with the project, telling Neufeld not to “whitewash” any of the material as she wrote the book.

The result is a 378-page three-and-a-half-pound coffee-table book filled with dozens of family and historical photos, historical context from the periods covered, direct recollections from George and Margaret, and interviews with PNR employees.

Braun had 1,000 copies printed in the first run at a cost of $70 per book. They are being sold to the public for $35 because Braun said it’s not about making money.

“I think it’s a story that needs to be told,” he said.

He was thrilled when he could finally put the book into his mom’s hands last November. She wept to see the finished product.

“She has hugged me so many times and said, ‘Thank you for finishing it,’ ” Braun said.

Doors open at 1 p.m. for the book launch on Saturday. Seating is limited and registration is required by calling 604-758-5667. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the Mennonite Heritage Museum.

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Vikki Hopes

About the Author: Vikki Hopes

I have been a journalist for almost 40 years, and have been at the Abbotsford News since 1991.
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