Thursday, December 13, 2018

Henry the People Mover

The Good Ship Bayern, born in 1921 in Vegesack (Bremen)

I’ve been following the refugee crisis in Europe since I saw the tide turn and Angela Merkel go from Most Powerful Woman in the World to just another politician losing support from her power base. I admire her way of operating in the world. A cool head. Very pragmatic. Very good at listening and at getting people to work together. Never mind that I don’t like her big money politics. I especially admired her decision to allow over a million refugees to enter Germany in 2015. I attributed it, rightly or wrongly, to her Lutheran background, as well as to her stated reason, namely that it was the law of the European Union that someone seeking asylum from war and life-threatening danger should be given refuge. She was, she maintained, simply obeying the law.

Germany was once the poster child among nations dealing with needy outsiders.  Go back and look at those photos of the crowds of folk showing up at Munich’s main train station to welcome the newcomers arriving from Budapest and Vienna after a grueling flight from war in Syria. But it couldn’t last. There is no way to process that many people from alien cultures into middle-class German life without considerable friction. Ever conscious of its treatment of Jews, Slavs and other victims of Hitler-era racism, Germany has bent over backward to show the world it is not that Germany any longer. But it doesn’t take more than a few cases of headline-capturing violence and lawlessness among the undisciplined segment of asylum seekers to bring out the latent fear and racism. To say nothing of legitimate complaints about being asked to bear too large a share of the nation’s generosity toward the outsider.

Very quickly I began shouting at the TV news (it’s on my computer, not my TV these days, but we haven’t updated the term) that all the talking heads in Germany were failing to make the distinction between refugees and immigrants. It’s quite simple, I said to myself in the privacy of my room. Let in the refugees immediately. Feed them, find them a home and a place to work. And make those seeking to immigrate for better living conditions go through the more lengthy bureaucratic process of filing applications and waiting things out. Work on a quota basis, and say no when you have to. Problem solved.

Well, no. Theoretically, there is a clear line between the two groups. But only until you look closely at individual cases. When you do, you see the line blur, and in some cases disappear entirely. Many seeking a new home that are legitimately classified as “economic refugees” are also in desperate straits.  German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, Go, Went, Gone is a wonderful but heart-wrenching read about just those economic refugees in Berlin politicians are trying to keep out, so that there will be more room for the allegedly more desperate cases – the people fleeing war and famine. It brings home the point – obvious, once you get close to it – that “economic” refugees may not have faced dying of hunger, but they have faced devastating misery and hopelessness – and why should they not be given consideration when deciding who stays and who goes?

My interest has shifted away from the European refugee problem to the inhuman treatment of refugees in the United States, the policy of ripping kids out of their mothers’ arms, the cruel insanity of using them to generate fear and loathing of “others” among Trump’s base for political gain, the endless stories of rape and degradation by “coyotes” that people will undergo to get north of the border in hopes of escaping poverty. If you haven't already, see the 1983 film El Norte. It tells the story vividly.

I am a child of immigrants on both sides of my family. My father’s father left Scotland at age 20 to seek his fortune in America, severing all ties with his family, most of whom he never saw again. My mother was born in 1915 in First World War Germany. Her mother was only 20 at the time and found herself without a husband. A single woman with a child had few options under those circumstances, so she gave her newborn daughter to her sister to care for, knowing at least she would not starve because her sister lived on a farm, and there were always at least potatoes and onions.

My mother’s aunt and uncle then became her adopted parents and she was raised almost from birth as just another of what would be four children. When my mother was eight years old, she and Mutti and Vati and her cousin/brother born barely a month before she showed up, found space in the bowels of the good ship Bayern, arriving in New York harbor on October 26, 1923.

That was five years after the end of the war. Vati had come back from the Russian front to find his family in dire straits. “For this, I put my life on the line for the Kaiser?” he asked himself. He wouldn’t talk about his past very readily, but over the years I managed to pull out the information that he had watched men being blown into the air by gas bombs and began to doubt seriously that he would survive. His return at war's end to Germany coincided with the revolution and the birth of the Weimar Republic, but he was never able to persuade himself to join the idealists who believed socialism would bring Germany back on its feet. He started putting money aside and dreaming of joining the many Germans before him who had found a new life in America.

Even after five years, he still didn’t have enough to pay for passage for him, his wife and their two kids. But he had a bit of luck. A distant relative on his wife’s mother’s side, happened to be a “people mover.” “Uncle Henry” we called this man, was not a coyote by any means, and he made what you have to admit was a fair bargain. “I’ll give you the money for passage, and over the next several years you will pay me back.

If you look at the ship’s manifest, you’ll find Uncle Henry’s name. Henry Aust, of Torrington, Connecticut, occupation businessman, was traveling, whether cabin class or third class I can't be sure. Definitely among the 750 in third class were Joseph Bauer of Munich, age 26, mechanic, who lists Henry as his uncle, and Elsa Boldt, housewife, age 28, sister-in-law to Henry Aust. And, of course, my mother Clara, age 8, her brother Paul, also age 8, and their parents, Paul and Johanne Gundelach, “housewife” and “laborer,” ages 33 and 39 respectively. How Johanne was related to Henry Aust was unclear, but Johanne’s maiden name was Aust, so he was probably her mother’s brother. Possibly cousin.

In the postwar years of my childhood, parents didn’t share their personal lives with their children. Whether out of shame or simply because they assumed children’s lives should be carefree in ways their own lives were not, they didn’t give even the slightest hint of the hard times they left behind. Only when they became quite old was I able to get them to provide me with stories. And even then it tended to be little more than the rough outlines, leaving me to piece together the jigsaw connections among the immigrant community in which they lived. Vati and Mutti became caretakers of the Germania Singing Society, an organization I am delighted to know still exists. And members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which we referred to never as “St. Paul’s” but always as “The German Church,” a title that has long since fallen away now.

I knew, for example, that my grandmother, my mother’s birth mother, had a friendly, but more polite than intimate, relationship with a Tante Helene. I don’t remember even whether it was clear to me that Tante Helene was Henry Aust’s wife. I somehow picked up from Mutti and Vati that there was some kind of bad blood there. Mutti never mentioned him, and Vati got kind of serious when his name came up. Looking back, I don’t think it was bad blood so much as a quiet resentment that for the first seven years of Vati’s life in America, he had a hard time getting established because he was working so hard to pay Uncle Henry back. He was, for all intents and purposes, an indentured servant.

When Henry People Mover Aust was a young 47, he crossed the ocean with his first wife, Theresa on the U.S.S. President Grant. That was in 1911. Also on that ship was a young girl named Bertha Rühmann, of Nordburg, a village in Lower Saxony. She was only 16 at the time. According to the ship's manifest, she was traveling with her uncle, Henry Aust, and that is how she ended up in Torrington, Connecticut, working as a maid-servant. Bertha was my grandmother. She managed to get back to Germany and marry herself to Karl Schultheis, who went away to war leaving her with a child in 1915, only to disappear and turn up some time later with another wife, but that's a story for another day. Henry crossed the ocean at least three more times, on the Hellig Olav in 1921, on the Hansa in 1923, and on the Carinthia, in 1932. It's possible there are others claiming Henry as their uncle among the passengers of these ships, but I have yet to gain access to the complete manifests. It's also possible he considered the seven people he sponsored on the three voyages across the Atlantic between 1911 and 1923 whom I've listed above as enough schlepping for any man. 

America has been good to my family. The Scottish immigrant who was my grandfather lived to see his three sons prosper, one of them producing a son who produced several more boys to carry on the family name. (The other two – me and cousin Billy – were dead-enders in the progeny department.) On the Gundelach side, there are lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And already, in my generation and the three following, the German connection is pretty much severed. Clara, my mother, married a husband of Scottish and Canadian parents; brother/cousin Paul, abandoned his own three children but raised four, I believe, from his second wife’s first marriage. Uncle Carl married Italian-American Connie and produced two fine young’uns who have produced fine young’uns who have produced fine young’uns. Rose, the baby of Mutti and Vati’s family, is now, at age 90, living with one of her daughters, and I’ll wager not a one of the last couple generations knows there even was a grandfather who came back from gas bombs bursting in Russia to grinding poverty and lack of opportunity, which drove him to push off for greener North American pastures. I’m the only German-speaking member of this whole tribe left alive; the rest have, as far as I know, little to no interest in their roots or in seeing themselves as the children of immigrants, much less as economic refugees.

But economic refugees we certainly were at some point in this family. I’m not going to pick a fight with the Gundelach progeny, or with my own sister, but it breaks my heart that they are supporters of Donald Trump and his anti-refugee policies.

I can’t do anything about their politics. We don’t move in the same circles and the youngest of the lot, no doubt, don’t know me, by name, and certainly not by face recognition, from Adam. Much less anything about a “refugee mover” named Henry, who lived in Connecticut a hundred years ago and who made their existence possible.

But I can tell their story.

photo credit

The BAYERN was a 8917 gross ton ship, length 466ft x beam 58ft, one funnel, four masts, single screw, speed 13 knots. Accommodation for 16-cabin and 750-3rd class passengers. Built by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack, she was launched for the Hamburg America Line on 2nd Jun.1921. Her maiden voyage from Hamburg to New York started on 13th Sep.1921 and her last on this route started on 8th Dec.1923. Later used on the Far East service. Sold to Messageries Maritimes, Marseilles on 8th Dec.1936 and renamed SONTAY, she was managed by the Union Castle Mail SS Co from 1940-1945 and then returned to her owners. Sold to Panamanian owners in 1955 and renamed SUNLOCK, she was scrapped in Japan in 1959. [North Atlantic Seaway by N.R.P.Bonsor, vol.1,p.416] [Merchant Fleets by Duncan Haws, vol.4, Hamburg America Line]


Emil Ems said...

Dear Alan,

Nice to read about your background from an immigrant family. I am a first generation immigrant myself, but from a time when my host country was screaming after labour. But in my family too, there are some immigrants to the States. After I was a Fulbright student in Berkeley, back in 1976, we visited my grand uncle Ludwig Fassl and his wife in Chicago. He came over in the 1930s, started out as janitor, was promoted to engineer and wound up owning the fine apartment building where he worked. His son was a bomber commander in the war and died over Hamburg. Ludwig tried ever after to get the town to name the square in front of his house after his son, the war hero. To no avail. So he took the matter in his own hands and put up a street sign "Richard Fassl Square". Nobody dared to take it down, not until his dead. When I went back to revisit the house, in 2010, the sign was gone. But a smaller memorial sign had been put up instead. When I told this story in a blog post (see on 4 July 2010), I got three comments from relatives that I did not even know of. In addition, a soldier from the US Airforce informed me that he put flowers on Richard's memorial sign every year on his death day and saluted him. I even got a picture from him saluting the sign. Imagine!

Yours sincerely, Emil

Alan McCornick said...

Appreciate your joining in, Emil. You bring home the realization that if you view a refugee/immigrant family (still want to do much more to explore where the line is between those two descriptors) over time, you see an evolution, usually from "have nots" to "haves." And the "haves" often forget their "have not" roots and take on attitudes and opinions they would not have held had they been in their grandparents'/ancestors' shoes. Marx was right about a lot of things.

Bill Sweigart said...

For many years now I have held that it is tragically ironic that a nation comprised almost entirely of immigrants and the immediate descendants of immigrants could become so indifferent to the desires of families that want to make a better life for themselves. I especially like your used of the term “economic immigrants” as a way of beginning to clarify the stilll murky distinctions we draw between “refugee” and “immigrant.” Thanks also for sharing your fascinating family history as it relates to this issue.