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Remembering Wolseley’s favourite Oma

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Irma Hiebert read her copy of Herman Wouk’s Second World War novel Winds of War so often the spine cracked in half. It was probably weakened by the many times she threw it across the room.

Mensch!" she’d cry in disgust at the fictional retelling of events that were all too real to her.
Irma was born into a wealthy industrial family in Hamburg, Germany in 1919. The injustices she witnessed during the reign of the Nazis scarred her for life.

They also sent her along an improbable path that ends halfway around the world on a peaceful corner in Wolseley.

Irma’s Lutheran family was spared the worst effects of Nazi oppression, but she would later tell of her horror at watching her countrymen turn on people who had been their friends and neighbours.

Music was the one thing that could overpower Irma’s grief over the events of the war. Operas such as Bizet’s Carmen or Puccini’s Madame Butterfly left her shaking with equal parts joy, sorrow and rage. It was a bad idea to even mention Wagner in her presence.

"Hitler loved Wagner, and that did not endear him to her," said Nancy Pauls, Irma’s youngest daughter.

Irma’s mother died of a heart attack shortly after the war. Her father began acting erratically, married a woman Irma’s age and signed away his children’s inheritance.

This drove Irma to answer a job posting from a Jewish family in Winnipeg that was looking for a nanny. She boarded a freighter in 1953 and sailed to Canada, a place she had never been.
Soon after arriving, she met her husband, a young farm boy from Steinbach named Peter Hiebert, at a dance.

The couple and their three young children settled in Winnipeg after a brief return to Germany so Irma could reconnect with her relatives.

Irma poured her heart into the local music community, volunteering with the Manitoba Opera Society, working to raise money to build Winnipeg’s first opera house.

Her experiences during the war taught her that no one should ever be marginalized because of who they were.

"She didn’t see it as being tolerant, she just saw it as being real," Pauls said.

Irma’s sense of justice was inherited by her children. Pauls and her sister Jackie formed Grain of Wheat Church in Wolseley. Social justice and inclusiveness were central to the church, and Nancy later helped found Tall Grass Prairie Bakery.

After Pete died, Irma moved in with Nancy in the house where Grain of Wheat started, at the corner of Home Street and Preston Avenue.

For 10 years, people of all backgrounds came through the house and were inspired by Irma’s life story. Universally, they called her Oma. When she passed away at the house on Dec. 11, 2012, dozens of residents came to pay their respects.

The amount of grief and love shown to Irma Hiebert at her death was matched by the amount she showed to everyone in her life.

No one ever need wonder if she loved them. She would grab your face with both her hands and tell you directly.

Cameron MacLean is a community correspondent for Wolseley. You can contact him at cameronkdmaclean@gmail.com.

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