November 27th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 48
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Tales from the Cookie Box Bakery
The Gunter Koci Story
Looking Back
courtesy wikipedia
Battle of Koniggratz in Bohemia- Austro-Prussian War
For 36 years, from 1956 until 1992, the Cookie Box was the bakery center on main street Blairmore. The story of how this iconic business came to be and the remarkable man who ran it is as classic as any Canadian immigrant story you will ever find. It has all the elements that form the storyline of coming to Canada for a better life. Poverty, war, lack of opportunity and yes, racial prejudice.

So, as I did with the Pass Herald four-part Czech immigrant Frank Wejr story in 2018, here I will attempt to back up this, the Gunter Koci story, in a similar fashion to where it all started. It is important to understand Gunter’s family roots, why they left Bohemia in the first place and how this eventually led to a bake shop in Blairmore. I have spent several hours chatting with Gunter and he was very matter-of-fact about sharing all there is to know in his life. In his words: “It is what it is.”

Some of his life story will make you smile, make you laugh and shake your head in amazement. He insists he was lucky all his life but some of it is pluck, at least from the outsider’s point of view. I’ll let you decide.
continued below ...
Gunter was quick to point out that despite coming from Germany, he is not German. So let’s back up his family history to Mostek in the province of Bohemia in1845 where his great grandfather Franticek Koci was born. I should preface this by saying that Gunter’s brother, the renowned local artist Franz Koci, documented their early family history some time back. I will be drawing heavily from his important recounting of their story.

Franticek from Mostek eventually married a girl from the same village and in 1866, at the age of 21, went to war, fighting against the Prussians in the Austro-Prussian War. The main campaign of this seven-week war occurred in Bohemia and just 75 km from his hometown, Franticek was wounded while defending his country and lost an arm.

After the war, as a veteran, he was granted a tobacco concession for the district by the government with which he made a small living selling smokes and tobacco. In January of 1869, his son, Gunter’s grandfather, Franz-Josef Sr., was born. When Franz-Josef was only ten years old his mother died and Franticek, unable to care for Franz, sent him to work for room and board with a local farmer. Little Franz had a room above the horse stable and despite his poor treatment and only two years of public school managed to educate himself and learn the Czech and German languages.
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In 1881 a horse dealer came to town and: “took a liking to the boy and asked Franz to work for him.” On discovering that the farmer had not paid Franz any wages, he took it upon himself to represent Franz in court and brought a suit which eventually gave Franz two year’s wages. With this, the then 13- year-old Franz bought his first real set of clothes. Franz worked for the horse dealer for many years and saw adventures that included a trip to Russia to buy horses where, on the way back, they were attacked by wolves. According to the family history, the horse dealer and Franz put the horses in a circle with their heads facing inwards, with Franz in the middle. The attacking wolves were viciously kicked and driven off and some were killed.

Franz eventually left the horse dealer to work in Prague driving a coach taking customers all over town. There was a certain hotel he used to stop at that had a good- looking cook by the name of Antonie Marlir. Antonie could neither read nor write but she was very intelligent and an excellent cook and it did not take long before they were married and moved to the town of Teplitz in Bohemia. In 1898 they had a daughter Maria, and two years later, in July 1900, a son Josef-Franz, Gunter’s father was born.
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At the turn of the century an expansion of German coal mines led to agents travelling to his homeland offering good wages and housing. So it was that Franz and Antonie packed up Maria and Josef and settled in the town of Duisburg-Hamborn in Germany in 1903. Life was good and wealth was accumulated in currency of silver and gold. The plan was to save and return to Bohemia and buy a farm but instead they decided to set up a greenhouse business where they were.

Gunter’s father Josef-Franz Jr. finished school and secured an apprenticeship in a gardening business in another town but became so homesick he returned home. And then it happened. World War 1 broke out and their hard-earned money was changed from gold to paper and, as we know, lost most of its value. The family adapted by raising their own livestock and Josef-Franz Jr.’s father gained a reputation as an expert raiser of canaries, which he sold to commercial outlets and even abroad in the United States.

Josef-Franz Jr. was drafted into the German Army in 1917, serving in Italy until its end. He went back to work in the coal mines alongside his father Franz-Josef but because he was still a Czech citizen he was drafted into the Czech army in 1924 for two years. Returning to his parents in Germany Josef-Franz Jr. met Selma Walter (Gunter’s mother) and they were married in 1927. That year Gunter’s brother Franz- Josef was born and Gunter Oswald the following year, 1928.
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Gunter’s father’s work at the mines ended with the terrible après war depression that overwhelmed Germany. Most were unemployed then but Selma had learned dressmaking from Maria and started her own business to try and keep the family going. Gunter’s father worked at repairing radios, bikes and cars and as money was scarce, was often paid in barter. A bag of fruit for a car repair!

In 1933 Hitler came to power and all Germans were put to work but because Josef-Franz Jr. was considered a foreigner he was one of the last on the employment list and for seven long years could not find work. Eventually he went to work for a construction company as a bricklayer and, as Franz the family history writer states: “The pendulum of the Koci’s fortune seemed to swing around again.” Alas this was short-lived, as yet another war broke out bringing more misfortune to the family.

Here, once again,is how Gunter’s brother Franz described what unfolded. “Bombing, scarcity of food, devaluation of money and general suffering were the order of these times.” Gunter’s dad was ordered in 1940 to report to a provincial courthouse in Dusseldorf, about 30 km south of where they lived. There he was told to sign a paper: “which made him and his two boys, with a stroke of the pen, German citizens, even though the boys were born in Germany of a Czech father and a German mother. They were considered Czech citizens”.

Gunter spoke of what it was like to be in school there where he said they were referred to as “volksdeutsche”, a Nazi term for those who did not hold German citizenship. Gunter recalls that, once a month, officials would come to the school and ask all those who were not German citizens to stand up and tell their nationality. This of course brought scorn onto them by those who were.

When both Gunter and Franz finished school their mother Selma made sure that they were to learn a trade. Franz wanted to be an artist but learned, for a time, the hotel business, while Gunter chose to become a baker.

So I know there are a lot of Franz’s in this story and it does get a bit confusing but I think that I have finally narrowed down the storyline to the two Koci boys that eventually came here to the Pass. I will, in the next installment, focus on Gunter, his training as a baker, a remarkable close call he had at that German bakery where he trained and lead you through his story of coming to Canada, creating opportunity and putting his skill to work for 36 years in Blairmore.
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November 27th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 48
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