The Nazis by the Dumpster: My Favourite Story

Toronto, ON – October 2016

I’m sitting in Propeller Coffee Shop in Toronto’s Lansdowne-Bloor neighbourhood with my friend Dana. It’s a cool Sunday morning. The crisp autumn breeze has just coaxed the maple trees to begin shedding their leaves and blanket the streets with their red and gold litter.

It’s my first time at Propeller Coffee Shop. My first impression—I like it. The place looks to be a retrofitted mechanics garage or manufacturing shop. The white-washed walls and hanging patio lights instantly put me into a good mood. It’s a complete hipster joint. There are dads in plaid reading newspapers I’ve never heard of before, professor-types in peacoats toting hardcover books the size of cinder blocks and denim-wearing students with their sticker-covered Macbooks intent on studying. There were multiple retractable glass garage doors lining the walls, long Oktoberfest-inspired communal tables filling the centre space and an open-concept work area for the barristas and kitchen staff. There’s a band playing through the speakers that kind of sounds like the Vines, but it’s not the Vines.

I ordered a Cortado. I don’t know what a Cortado is, but I ordered one anyways. I was in a good mood, so why not.

I like this place. The coffee shop is nestled in the midst of an old industrial red brick and mortar-style neighbourhood. It’s the only commercial sliver of life in an otherwise abandoned part of the neighbourhood. This is my favourite type of place. It’s like an oasis in the desert—a true diamond in the rough—my style of hidden garden. I search for these types of places wherever I go and bask in their mysterious existence. They draw a satisfaction from me that can’t easily be explained.

It’s an inspiring place to be.

As Dana sits across from me focused on her laptop, I noticed that Jake Bugg is now playing over the speakers. It’s very relaxing and a great working atmosphere, so I open my Moleskine and smooth out a blank page with the shaft of my pen. I take a sip of my Cortado and decide to write a story. It’s one of my favourite stories. Maybe even my best story. I call it The Nazis by the Dumpster.

Thunder Bay, ON – August 2013

In the heyday of my DIY phase I found myself confronted with a problem. Now looking back on the subject, I think it’s more accurate to describe it as a compulsion. During the Summer of 2013, I went on a mad spree of scavenging and buying old picture frames on the cheap. Why? At the time I was doing a lot of painting and I believed that old and rustic picture frames would add an additional level of character to my work. The more ornate, the better. Anything that was mildly Victorian or Art Deco or Art Nouveau was exactly what I was looking for. I would wake up early on weekends to scour garage-sales across the city. I would search the newspaper classifieds for church fundraisers and estate sales. I was invested. The hunt became intoxicating.

I was picking up old frames for pennies and created quite a collection in my basement. Some of them needed a patch or paint here and there, but hey—that’s just part of the DIY fun…right? After a while I realized that the quality of most of the frames I’ve collected made them unusable, except for maybe as firewood.

My collection was vast. Vast to the point where I was flirting with becoming a hoarder. I even had other people hunting down frames for me.

And this is where our story begins.

Every so often I would get calls from my family and friends who would find old frames they thought I’d like. Some were good, most were bad—my collection grew.

On a sunny day in August, my Mom called me and asked me to drop by her house because she had two wooden frames that she picked up on her way home from work.

Sure. Why not.

They weren’t ornate, they were an unusual size and they were covered with dings and dents. The frames were really old and made of hardwood, so the dings and dents added a beautiful character that made them immediately interesting to me. Each frames contained a black and white photographed portrait of a seated old man wearing some sort of metal neck chain. Both frames had nice glass as well, preserving the amateur mounted photographs underneath. I knew I couldn’t use these frames for my paintings, but I was certain I could find another use for them.

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I decided to keep the frames. I brought them home and placed them downstairs in my workshop leaning against the wall beside a new painting I was working on. It wasn’t until a week or two later when I was downstairs painting in the workshop that I set my eyes on the old frames again. In particular, the old men in the photographs staring at me as I worked. They were quite stoic and regal looking with their perfect posture and fine uniforms. They were both quite serious like they’ve seen things in their life. They kept me company in the quiet basement while I painted. I liked them. It was nice having company while I worked. Their faces provided a silent conversation that helped the time pass by faster. Since we were fairly well acquainted now, I considered them part of my team. So I gave them names. They looked very European, so I named them the most European names I could think of—Hans and Klaus.

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A week or two later, Hans, Klaus and I were painting in the basement and I noticed out of the corner of my eye that only Klaus’s image was an actual photograph. Hans’ photograph was just a print. I do enjoy old photography, so I thought to myself, “well, I guess it’s pretty cool to have a seventy to eighty year-old photograph?” As I continued painting, I started to count the decades backwards in my head until I came to the realization that Hans and Klaus’ portraits must have been photographed between 1930–1950.

Huh, that’s interesting.

I stepped back from my easel and thought to myself, “these would have been photographed in the World War II era.” Both Hans and Klaus look very European and they were both wearing what looked to be some sort of honorary military neck chain. I stepped further away from my easel towards the workbench where the frames were propped up. I leaned in to inspect the fine details of Hans’ golden military neck chain. And like a lightning bolt to my brain I discovered the smallest, yet most incredible detail. My eyes widened and my heartbeat raced because my assessment of these two men was correct. Hans and Klaus were military men. They were European. The photographs were taken between 1930–1950. How do I know this? Because both Hans’ and Klaus’ honorary neck chains were covered in ornate…golden…swastikas.

They were nazis. Holy fuck…

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I don’t know how long I stood in my workshop staring at the photographs. I was in shock. My heart raced, but my mind was blank. I left Hans and Klaus in the basement and went upstairs to call my Mom.

“Hey Mom.”
“Hey honey, how’s everything going?”
“Good, good. I have a question for you.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Where did you find those old wooden picture frames you gave me a few week ago?”
“Oh, I found those on the ground sitting against the dumpster outside of the Finnish Church next to where I work.”
“Oh…interesting.”
“Why? Is everything okay? Can you use them?”
“Um, I don’t think so, but the photographs in them are pretty cool.”
“Really? Those creepy old men?”
“Yeah, um okay—thanks Mom. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay, bye honey. Talk to you soon.”
“See ya Mom.”

Finnish Church? Dumpster? Does Thunder Bay have Nazi sympathizers? Do I have Nazi memorabilia? Should I be excited about this? Should I tell anybody about this? Should I keep them? Will people think I’m a Nazi sympathizer f I keep them? All of these questions whipped through my mind in a fraction of a second.

My heart was still racing, but my head was no longer blank. I had so many questions and I suddenly felt very morally conflicted. I felt conflicted because I’m sure Hans and Klaus did monstrous things, but these photographs are living history. What should I do with them? Is there a reasonably responsible way of dealing with this type of situation. I needed answers.

I did what any sensibly confused person does—I consulted Google. I thought that if I found out more information about their past, then maybe it would indemnify me from the Nazi sympathizer label. 

On a sunny Saturday in August, I went down the Nazi wormhole deeper than I ever have before. Just as I was ravenous in my pursuit of old picture frames, I was equally as committed to finding out the story behind the photos. I used the photos of Hans and Klaus in Google image search, but nothing came up. The neck chain was the key. If I could find what the neck chain meant, then it would lead me to who Hans and Klaus really were.

After a good amount of time, I hit pay-dirt. Hans and Klaus were both definitely European, they were both definitely in the World Wars and they were definitely not Nazis.

Oh…what?

It turns out that Hans and Klaus are from…Finland. And not Nazi Germany. It turns out that like many pre-Third Reich cultures like the Norse, Hindus, Jainists and Buddhists, the Royal Finnish Air Force also used the swastika as their official emblem (until 1963) before it became the universal standard for hate, cruelty, racism and genocide.

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The military neck chain is called the Order of the White Rose, and is awarded for military and civilian merit. Even though Hans and Klaus are heroes, suddenly their photographs became a lot less interesting to me. And I’m sure I’m the first person in the history to say this…but I was a little bit bummed out that they weren’t Nazis. Now, I was back to having two shitty old wooden picture frames that I was thinking about throwing across my workshop! I gathered my composure and slinked my way upstairs to find something to take my mind off of what just happened.

>> Fast forward two months >>

Hans and Klaus are still hanging out in my basement and unfortunately for them I felt the need to purge. I still liked the worn-quality of their frames, so I grabbed a slotted screwdriver and started popping out the rusted staples to remove the photographs. The frame should have been laying flat on my workbench, but I was in a rotten mood, so I was holding the frame up in my hands while popping the staples onto the cement floor below. As I removed the last staple, the backing gave way and a rush of loose papers fell out and scattered onto the floor.

That was weird.

I bent down to pick up the scattered papers and suddenly realized…they’re not just papers—they’re posters!

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I turned over the four seemingly white sheets of paper to reveal original screen printed posters for Scandinavian-American Line passenger ships. Each poster was advertising passage over the Atlantic Ocean from Halifax and New York to Scandinavia. The posters were used between 1931 and 1932—a precarious time in European history right before the beginning of WWII.

Once again, I was in disbelief.

I spread out the posters along my workbench and looked at them with awe. They were beautiful. The coloured ink was visibly raised and sitting on top of the paper. The groupings of typography was eclectic and in perfect hierarchy. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have these posters fall out of Hans’ frame. Then I realized…”I have two frames!” Could opening Klaus’ frame reveal more posters?

I grabbed the slotted screwdriver and feverously dug into Klaus’ frame. Rusted staples started flying everywhere. I didn’t even bother picking them up off the floor. Then finally, after the last staple popped off, four more posters slid out from underneath Klaus’ photo! My rotten mood had suddenly been transformed into a state of pure bliss. They weren’t Nazi posters; but who cares, I was holding history in my bare hands!

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I’ve never been through a rollercoaster of emotions like I’d been through discovering the contents of those two old wooden picture frames. Until this day I look back on how drastically my mood had shifted and marvel in the spectrum of highs and lows I experience. I went from having two useless wooden picture frames, to having nazi memorabilia, to having useless Finnish photographs, to having a small collection of 86 year old pre-WWII screen printed posters.

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Coincidentally enough, I found myself living in Halifax, Nova Scotia—one of the departure points noted on the posters. In a roundabout way I’ve come to where these posters were originally used. After giving it a bit of thought, I decided that it would be fitting to return the posters to a place where they’ll have a proper home and be appreciated for their historical value.

I contacted the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. We had a great conversation about their museum and I told them my story of how I discovered the posters. They didn’t act as excited about the story as I thought they would, but whatever. They were excited though to take the posters off my hands and add them to their collection. And of course I said yes. I kept two posters for myself because I love their design and also because I never want to forget this story. I want them to be a reminder to me about how fast things can change. And how there is always something potentially below the surface.

The End.

There is one comment

  1. Mom Dubeau

    So glad you took them to Halifax where they should be and not in the land fill site. As a private caregiver of a Finnish immigrant I have heard many a story of this time pre and post WWll. Although Hans and Klaus are not from the third Riech there is a very significant role that Finland played alongside of Russia and Germany. Ilma’s husband was from Russia and he had relatives in Germany. As a young boy at a tender age of 15 he was sent to live with his Aunt and Uncle in Germany. His whole story is documented if you google Fedor Szugalew. It was posted on the pier 21 memories website. Quite a story and I have been honoured to care and hear so many of these stories personally which helps put some of the puzzle together.

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