The Intrepid Tales of a Blond China Doll: The finale in a two part profile of Hannelore Headley

As published on Retirement News Weekly/Niagara on July 2, 2010.

During last week’s interview with 74-year-old bookseller Hannelore Headley, I asked her if she could narrow down her love of books to a favourite novel or author. It took her a moment to mentally go through decades of reading before she finally concluded, “I enjoy reading the stories of intrepid women whose sense of curiosity and adventure drove them to want to travel to places that were not open to women.” This week I have returned to Hannah’s bookshop on Queen St. to discuss with her how she ended up in St. Catharines. Living as a refugee in Shanghai, travelling to Canada, and living across the country makes Hannah one of the women she so enjoys reading about, at least in my books.

Hannah begins her story with a date; her birthday. She was born a leap-year baby on February 29, 1936 to Heinz Egon and Paula Kato in Berlin, Germany. It was a tumultuous time for this Jewish family at the brink of World War II. At the age of three, Hannah became a refugee as she and her family fled the country to Shanghai, China.

Always a book seller, her father opened a bookstore in Shanghai during the war. While Hannah doesn’t remember this store, after the war he opened a second on the bottom floor of their two-story home. Hannah spent hours in this store reading everything she could get her hands on, including a book that her father considered unsuitable. She laughs as she tells me that when she was 13, “I picked up a book called Forever Amber, which was a really steamy, steamy book back then. My father took the book out of my hands very gently and said, ‘My darling, this isn’t the book for you.’”

When the communists took over China, her father once again had to close his store and the family realized that they could economically no longer stay in the country. They applied for an exit visa to Canada, where Paula had relatives, and after two years their papers came through; however the problems in Hannah’s story never have simple resolutions.

Two days before leaving, their exit visa was revoked and two days later her father was arrested as a suspected German spy. Her father remained in police custody for fourteen months. The Chinese police eventually realized that he couldn’t be a spy, but punished him with deportation, which worked for the family. They boarded a boat in Shangai heading to Hong Kong. When they hit international waters, the captain entered the cabin where her father was still being detained. Hannah tears up even today as she speaks the captain’s words, “Mr. Heinemann, you’re now a free man.”

The journey to their final destination was long, but filled with exhilarating moments. She recalls her father being reunited with his Aryan step-mother who was his only living relative remaining in Germany. She excitedly describes to me how she saw Pope Pius XII in Vatican City on a cloudy Easter morning and how when he blessed the crowd, the sun shown down for a brief and miraculous moment. She fondly remembers her father searching through a book store behind the Spanish Steps in Rome and finding a first edition of Jacques Cartier’s Voyages in Canada, which they later sold and the family lived off the profits for three months.

Hannah arrived in Canada on June 2, 1953 after travelling by boat for six days across the Atlantic. Her mind is sharp and she explains that it was 1:30 in the afternoon when the ship’s passengers were let out at Pier 21 in Halifax and immediately herded into cages in a concrete shed. The family was processed after ten hours and boarded a sealed train heading west. For three days they travelled, being offered a few sandwiches a day. Her brother, Stephen Heinemann, then six, was the only one who could get comfortable. When the train stopped, Hannah’s mother told them they were getting off. She didn’t know where they were, but after three days without sleep and seeing nothing but Canadian bush passing by her window, Paula had enough.

The family found a small apartment and Heinz managed to talk a local bookstore owner, Mr. Lovely, into letting him run Mansfield Book Mart after only a month of working in the small basement shop that Hannah describes as being as “large as my front room.” It was at this store that Hannah got her first real taste of selling books. “My father didn’t volunteer much information,” she recalls, “but if you were curious and you asked him, he would very carefully and patiently instruct you and answer your inquiries. So I learned a lot. I picked up a good deal of knowledge there.”

Montreal was a literary and cultural centre at the time and Hannah met poets and authors including Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Alfred Purdy. It was Mr. Purdy’s roommate Douglas Kaye that Hannah met and married. The two moved to Vancouver in September 1957 and she immediately started looking for an adequate location to open her own bookstore. She found a narrow, but long, shop and Douglas built a wall dividing the space into a store and primitive home where they lived a “bohemian” lifestyle without a kitchen for two years. Running H. Kaye’s Books made Hannah the youngest independent bookseller in the country at the time.

It was in Vancouver that Hannah had her two children; Paula, named after her mother, and Michael. She and Douglas divorced in 1963. She then met Velmer Headley who was studying at the University of British Columbia, while she worked in the library. The two soon wed and, as destiny would have it, moved to St. Catharine’s, Ontario. Their story in this city is where my first interview with Hannah began.

It takes a moment to absorb Hannah’s life’s narrative. I’ve asked few questions as she’s delved into her past offering anecdotes and tidbits about her fascinating life. Even after hashing out her entire story, Hannah doesn’t make the direct connection that her life parallels the stories of the heroines she enjoys reading about. But I can say without doubt, that Hannah is the most curious and intrepid adventurer that I’ve met.

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