John Bergen is my Opa, which means grandfather in German. He was born in 1933 in the Mennonite village of Gnadenthal, Ukraine. About 200 families lived in this small farming community. For the first years of his life, he lived there with his parents, Abram and Susanne Bergen, and his older siblings, Peter, Katie, and Henry. When John was six years old, his father was taken away, never to be seen again. This was at the very beginning of World War II. From then on, Susanne raised her children on her own. John remembers the good times he had in this village, especially picking vegetables in the garden located on the outskirts of the village. The village then became under German occupation and in 1943, all the families of Germen descent were told to return to Germany. This included the Bergen family. At ten years old, John took the train with his family to Poland, where they lived for a while, then fled to Germany when the German army was beaten back. In Germany, it was common for John to have to take refuge in a bomb shelter and hear the bombs exploding not too far away. Finally, in 1947, Susanne Bergen decided to join her relatives in Canada. She and her children took the boat to Canada and installed themselves in Manitoba. Throughout his childhood, John went to school in four different countries. He was seventeen years old when he finished grade 6.
Work, marriage, and family
John started working on farms when he was almost seventeen years old and learned how to milk cows. After doing this for a few years, he became an apprentice working with sheet metal (apprenticeship was the most common way to learn a job). Eventually, he started working with air conditioning systems, started his own company and trained apprentices himself. He says he has “enjoyed making people comfortable, summer and winter”. One day, he was invited to go bowling by a girl named Shirley Penner, whom he had seen many times at his church’s youth events. A few weeks later, she accepted an invitation from him to go boating. The two of them fell in love and were married in 1960. They had five children between 1961 and 1968: Carol, Marjorie (my mom), Donna, Nancy, and Richard. All the children got the opportunity to work with sheet metal every now and then. John and Shirley also made sure that their children got to visit their extended family regularly and they were often on the road.
As the children grew older and left the home, John was blessed with twelve grandchildren to which he enjoys telling the stories of his life. Many times, they have gathered around him to hear bedtime stories, always requesting for more. Now, John and Shirley also have 6 great-grand-children. His greatest joys of being retired are spending more time with his beloved wife and with his grand-children and great-grand-children when they come for a visit. He also enjoys working in his garden, a passion that has never left him since he started picking vegetables in the community garden in Ukraine.
Experience with aging
John is now 84 years “young”. When asked if growing older was different from what he had expected, John replied that he had no expectations. In fact, he says he has no dreams for his life: he simply takes every as it comes. He has started experiencing a few health difficulties, namely a frequent ringing in his ears and cancer a few years ago, which he has recovered from. He also cannot work as much in a day: whereas he used to work sixteen hours a day, he now cannot work more than three. However, he says it does not bother him since he does not have as high expectations of himself now that he is older. John is still quite active: he works on renovations in his house, does repairs on his church’s building, goes for walks and works in his garden.
Thoughts about today’s world
When asked how he thought the world had changed since he was younger, he replied, “It used to be that you could believe what people said. That is no longer the truth.” He went on to say that people seemed to seek their own profit rather than the other’s interest, especially in business, and that people were more self-centered. John’s advice to the younger generation is this: “Get yourself trained for a job… You might want to change it later, but you want to have something to fall back on.” He also encourages them to find things that they enjoy doing while they are young, because it will follow them when they are older. He says it is much harder to learn something when one is older.
Philosophy of life
John has a few sources from which he draws life principles: the Bible, teachings of his mother, and his experience. His faith in God gives him a direction in life and his moral guidelines come from the Bible. He has developed a habit to go to church regularly and he says his beliefs have kept him from being tempted to develop bad habits. My Opa lives for helping others. Even when he will no longer able to do any physical work, he says he will still be able to pray for them. He is also not afraid of death because he knows he is going to meet Jesus in Heaven when he dies. Even when he was going through treatment for his cancer, he was at peace. My grandfather takes one day at a time and trusts in God. He says, “I want to give God joy that I am doing exactly what He made me to do.”