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Helmut Sass' Story

War exacts a heavy toll, especially if you come in second.

I was born in the summer of 1942. It was the middle of World War 2. Our family consisted of my father, mother, my one year old sister Erika, and now me. When I was just nine months old my father was drafted into the German army. He was sent to fight on the Russian Front and sadly never returned. Because of my young age when my father disappeared I have no recollection of him apart from pictures and family stories that were passed down to me.

After the war ended in 1945 we were ordered off our family farm when the territory reverted to Poland. Nearly all of the German inhabitants were forcibly repatriated to Germany. My mom, now a 30 year-old widow with two young children, hitched one of our horses to a wagon and loaded my sister and me on it along with a few belongings. We joined the seemingly endless caravan of refugees heading west. After weeks of travel, we finally arrived in a small town in north central Germany. We were subsequently provided accommodations on a 200 year-old estate which became our home for the next seven years. My mother worked in the fields and also helped care for the landowner’s livestock.

God directed us to a group of believers in a nearby city. On Sundays we would walk more than an hour each way to attend church meetings. During these difficult times we met precious people who remained friends for life. Although I did not understand it at the time, my mother had a profound faith and total trust in God. I clearly see now that He provided for all of our needs during those unsettling days. I remember my mother always being grateful for what we had. She would thank God for never forsaking us. I began to learn that God is indeed a “Father of the fatherless, a defender of widows.” (Psalm 68:5)

In the early 1950s we learned of opportunities to immigrate to North America and were encouraged by others to apply. On January 31, 1953, we boarded the Beaverbrae cargo ship with upwards of 700 other immigrants and sailed for Canada. Men and women were housed separately aboard the ship. I was 10 years old and assigned to the men’s quarters. Here the metal framed beds were stacked three high and I was relegated to the top bunk.

After 13 grueling days at sea our ship docked at St. John, New Brunswick. An additional four day train ride brought us to our destination—a farm near Taber, Alberta. Our first home in Canada had two bedrooms and a kitchen. There was no electricity or running water. Our family of three also shared the cramped quarters with my aunt, uncle, and two younger cousins. We were obligated to work on this farm to pay for our travel costs to Canada. It was winter and we would not get paid until late summer. I recall being in a store and my mother speaking with the store owner in a language that I did not understand. I later learned that my mom persuaded the owner to sell us food and supplies on credit. Once or twice a week I walked or hitchhiked the four miles to town to do the shopping. This I enjoyed as it was a pleasant relief from working in the fields. 

After our first year working in Alberta, our income was sufficient to pay for our boat fare as well as our account at the local store. Since all had gone well we agreed to remain for another growing season. After the second season we boarded a Greyhound bus heading east. With one suitcase and several carry-on bags comprising all of our earthly belongings, we arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on October 31, 1954.

We make minor choices which have major consequences.

My mother decided to live in Winnipeg, which at the time seemed like a minor decision. In retrospect, however, this had a major impact on the remainder of our lives. My family’s first dwelling in Winnipeg was two rented rooms in a rooming house on Alexander Ave. It was within walking distance to McDermot Avenue Baptist Church, which became our church home for over 40 years.

Due to many years of hard physical labour my mother developed serious health problems. I was encouraged to begin working full time to help support our family. So, at the age of 15 I left school in order to find employment. To do something like this today is almost unheard of in Canada given all of the social support systems that now exist. Nevertheless, the Lord’s hand preserved me in it all.

When I was 17 years old I made the most important decision in my life—I gave my life to the Lord and started to follow Him. The Bible refers to this as being “born again.” Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) This all-important decision to whole heartedly follow Christ benefits not only this life but also our life after our physical death. I do not have to fear death because Jesus has conquered its grip on believers. And as a follower of Jesus I can now participate in building His church and eternal kingdom. I have also learned that God supplies all of my earthly needs when I put Him first. Jesus taught, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) God has been faithful even at times when I haven’t been. God always keeps
his promises!

In July, 1969, I married Shirley, whom I had met years before at our church. It was an exciting time as we began our life together. One of the first things I embarked upon after marriage was to start my own business. Admittedly I have dabbled in a few ventures. The first, major business venture that my wife and I were involved with was a soft drink bottling and retail operation named Pic-a-Pop Beverages Ltd. The business began on Stapleton St in Winnipeg in the early 1970s with our factory producing multiple flavors of soft drinks. We sold them, in case lots, directly from the factory to the consumer in reusable glass bottles. Because we eliminated major distribution costs and retail markups we were able to pass these savings on to the consumer. I recall selling 24 bottles of 10oz pop or 12 bottles of 30oz pop for only $1.50. 

Every new venture has a ‘learning curve.’ Because of inexperience I made many mistakes. We were fortunate, however, to attract valuable help and many employees remained with us for the duration of the business. The concept and the quality of the soft drink product were popular with consumers which enabled us to expand rapidly, primarily through franchised operators. From one location in Winnipeg, we expanded in a few short years to 14 factories and hundreds of retail outlets in Canada and the USA. We even opened a bottling plant in Hawaii. I recall one year flying to Hawaii numerous times for work. But I don’t recall going to the beach even once that year!

Markets change and so do the habits of consumers. Returnable glass bottles were replaced in the soft drink industry with aluminum cans and plastic containers that could be sold more easily in big box stores. Savings gave way to convenience and after 20 successful years we experienced a major downturn in sales. We eventually sold the Winnipeg operation and it closed shortly thereafter.

Another of my ventures was within real estate. This was a logical transition because our pop business entailed a heavy real estate component which gave me useful experience within that sector. We formed a company named Triple S Realty Inc. and began acquiring multiple family and commercial real estate properties in downtown Winnipeg. We were able to do this by borrowing large sums of money. At that time interest rates on mortgages started at 12% and eventually ballooned to as high as 22%. I began to experience first-hand the painful reality that the Bible describes in Proverbs 22:7, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” I was now in bondage to the banks and the mortgage companies. Our larger properties were primarily heritage buildings requiring major upgrades and improvements. To do this, I borrowed additional funds totalling millions of dollars. The additional costs were not sustainable and in order to avoid bankruptcy we began selling our properties. Through it all God remained faithful. Our family never lacked any good thing. After years of struggle, and many sleepless nights, God enabled us to sell our properties and pay off our debts.

I have been asked many times, “Helmut, what happened? What went wrong? You appeared to be doing so well.” I could make many excuses, such as blaming the economic conditions of the 1980s, my inexperience, lack of a formal education, etc. However, God hates all sin, and one sin that the Bible points out as particularly grievous is pride. I was guilty of pride! The Bible says, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) When things went well I took the credit! I once heard the following definition of pride as: “Believing that I have achieved something, that in reality God and others have done for me, and through me.” 

Although I still remain active in real estate work I now approach it from an entirely different perspective. I want the Lord to lead me, not my personal ambitions. It has made a world of difference in my walk with Him!

I am now almost 80 years old. I see the Lord’s sovereign and protective hand all over the details of my life. I have been married for 52 years to an amazing wife who has remained by my side despite some ‘difficult waters’ to cross. We have four amazing daughters who, with their husbands, have given us 22 precious grandchildren. It has now been over 60 years since I committed my life to Jesus Christ. I do admit to many mistakes and there are things that I would certainly now do differently. But to pursue and trust the Lord is a decision I have never regretted.

I leave you, dear reader, with some life changing advice: If you do not have a personal relationship with God, you can know Him today! Admit your need, your sins, and place your faith in Jesus Christ as your Saviour. He is the living Truth in a world that is so dominated by error and lies. Will you trust Him today?

Helmut Sass