PART ONE - CANADA

John Krafchenko


In the spring of 1914* a tragic event occurred that made headlines throughout Canada: Our small one room bank was robbed. The manager, Mr. Arnold, murdered.

There were only two eye witnesses: sister Rose, about seven at the time and myself, eight and a half. Although Rose died a few years ago without leaving any written account, we often talked about it. We agreed on every detail. Our family, especially Mama, knew the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. Today, Eighty two years after that sad event, I see it as clearly as though it happened yesterday. But a strange twist has intruded.

While writing my autobiography I have corresponded with the Postmaster of Plum Coulee. She was kind enough to send me a copy of the Altona Echo: printed on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the province, the Arnold tragedy is the main feature.

I was astonished. I am certain the reporter must have mixed up two different events. Unfortunately none of my generation remain in the village; the current crop of adults learned the details of the tragedy from a much later, inaccurate, account in the Winnipeg Free Press. It could not have been copied from the original of 1914.

What follows is an accurate account not only of the actual event as witnessed by Sister Rose and myself, but also the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, as recalled by Mama from first hand information. I hope to interest the Winnipeg Free Press in my version.

John Krafchenko arrived in Canada with very little money or worldly goods. He knew no one. Understanding only a few words of English, yet he managed to find his way to the immense wheat fields of the prairie province of Manitoba. Having spent his life in Romania's grain growing center he easily found work. He was hired by one of the local Plum Coulee Mennonite farmers.

At first he earned mainly his food and lodging, with a promise of substantial compensation after the harvest. He attended the village church, after the services joining the parishioners on their Sunday stroll. People greeted him as a friend.

Among the farmer's numerous children his pretty seventeen year old daughter Hilda** stood out. John could not resist helping with her chores. Inevitably the two young people fell in love.

And one day the farmer discovered the lovers holding hands. He was furious. He ordered John to pack and leave the farm immediately. Hilda's help was needed on the farm, besides, marrying a foreigner was unthinkable. With his meager belongings John walked from farm to farm looking for work. Somehow within hours the story had spread over the entire area. No farmer would hire him. He had become a pariah.

After a few days, hungry, desperate, he began walking the main street, telling all he met if he did not find work he would rob the local bank. He boasted he would do it at high noon.

Where he found the gun remains a mystery. True to his word, exactly at noon on a bright June day he entered the small one room bank. Pointing the gun at the lone occupant, Mr. Arnold, he demanded money. Pocketing a handful of bills, warning Mr. Arnold not to follow, he dashed out the rear door into the alley.

At this precise moment my sister and I were walking through the alley passing the rear of the bank. We took this route from school daily, going home for lunch.

As we arrived at the bank John bounded out the rear door, Mr. Arnold, screaming, a few steps behind. We watched John turn, aim and fire his gun: once.

Mr. Arnold spun around, fell face down into a pile of ashes. The pile became streaked in bright red. At that moment an open touring car drove up. Krafchenko, leaping on the running board, shouted "Winnipeg": the car raced off down the alley.

The crime was a sensation throughout Canada. Then, as today, murder and bank robbery were rare occurrences. I cannot recall how long it took the police to locate Krafchenko, but I remember when our family returned to Winnipeg in 1915, we were on the same train, in the same car as the witnesses going to the trial; no one paid attention to us. Krafchenko was locked up on the second floor of the Winnipeg jail to await trial.

He was not chained; after a couple of days, by breaking a window, with a line made from a ripped bed sheet, he escaped. Unfortunately the line ripped: falling, he sprained an ankle.

He must have intended to leave the city, but, disabled, he had to hide. He rented a room on College Street. Within a few days he was back in jail: his landlady, seeing his picture in the paper, had informed the police.

His trial was short: found guilty of murder, sentenced to hang, the sentence was carried out the next day in the jail yard.

For my family there was a sequel: The day after the execution we received a letter from Krafchenko. Written in Romanian, it was addressed to our parents. Native Romanian, they were the only ones in the village who could read the letter.

Krafchenko asked Mama to let Hilda** know how much he loved her. He begged forgiveness of the Arnold family, swearing he had fired only to warn, not to kill.

The tragic story was soon forgotten: not a word of remorse or contrition was ever heard in the village.

I do not know whether Mama or Pappa ever met Krafchenko; the Free Press story treats him as a hardened criminal, but as far as we knew he was a decent young man

I never heard Krafchenko called by any other than his last name. Obviously he must have had an accomplice. No trace of one was ever found.

Much of the newspaper accounts vary from what my sister and I witnessed. Contrary to January as reported, the crime had to have occurred in late spring or early summer. My sister and I were not dressed in winter clothes. We would not be walking through a snow filled alley. No car could drive through the town's unpaved streets or alleys in winter, especially January. We rarely saw a car, even in summer.

The account of the blood stained bills makes no sense. Krafchenko was at least twenty-five feet from Arnold when he fired his gun. He entered the getaway car immediately without turning back to the body or the pile of ashes.

The report states further that not only Mr. Arnold, gun in hand, but another man, not identified, rushed out of the bank. Both gave chase for a block or so. There Krafchenko fired the fatal shot, then boarded the getaway car.

The report correctly stated that Mr. Arnold fell into a pile of ashes. But the pile was no more than four or five feet from the rear door of the bank, not a block or two away.

Would there be a pile of ashes in the middle of an alley? Mr. Arnold with no visible gun, rushed out the back door. He was alone.

My sister and I saw the car stop in the alley directly in back of the bank. There was no two man chase. It made no sense for the getaway car to appear down the road as the chase progressed. The murder took place a few feet from the bank's back door.

No one besides Mr. Arnold followed Krafchenko. He took only a few steps before he was shot. The pile of ashes was directly in back. Where else would Mr. Arnold dispose of them? Yes, although it was spring the ashes were still there. Sister Rose and I saw Krafchenko board the car which stopped for him in the alley directly in back of the bank.

There is another reminder that this all took place in spring or early summer. There are conflicting dates: The Echo Centennial of Wednesday, November 25, 1970 gives it as December 3, 1913. My sister and I had to be walking to our original home located at the opposite end of the village from the school The Arnold home was located on the same street as the school. We would not be walking through the alley to get there.

Mr. Arnold's wife and children moved away shortly after he was murdered. My family occupied the home a month or so later. My brother Jerry was born in that house. He was delivered by Dr. McTavish February the fifth, 1915. The birth is listed in the town's records. We had been living there for over a year.

A second account states the staff were out to lunch, and that Mr. Arnold rushed out the back door carrying a wad of bills and waving a stick. I wonder who made all that up? There never was a staff; I saw no stick, no bills were scattered in the yard. The Free Press account reports that Mr. Arnold was armed with a gun as he pursued Krafchenko. Carrying bills, a stick, a gun? He had only two hands!

Mr. Arnold was not only the manager. I'm sure he owned the bank.

My mother did not make up the letter from Krafchenko: My parents, as well as the whole town knew that he had warned everyone he met he intended to rob the bank. No one listened.

This is a tragic tale. Since the young girl was about seventeen in 1914, there probably are no others living with any knowledge of the real story. Perhaps a grandchild of the original farmer might exist somewhere. Perhaps a play based on the my account would produce one. I would be happy to collaborate.

* [Editor's note: In 1972, Ben's brother, my father, Jerry Bertram, recorded a conversation with Grand Pop Jack/Jacques Bertram (Jacob Abramovich). Grand Pop remembered that the robery and murder ocurred either on his birthday, December 4th, or the next day, the 5th.]

**Not her real name, which I never knew anyway.

On to Winnipeg 1915-1923


Last revision: 11/17/97

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