I am the daughter of immigrant parents who came to America in the early part of the Twentieth Century. My mother was brought here at age five from Austria, a German-speaking country where her father, a garrulous, gentle soul, had failed in his efforts to start his own businesses.
My father was brought here as a child of six from Russia by German parents who’d been farming Russian land in a program to build up the economy. They came to America to escape the rise of warring Russian factions that threatened the lives of peasants like themselves.
Both families came with no English and little money.
They came through American ports without the sort of barriers we see today for immigrants — no armed Border Patrol, no cages, no waits in the heat, no rejection for their lack of status. As white Europeans they were allowed to come to America legally. Later their parents became naturalized citizens as soon as they learned how to master the rules.
Both families eventually found their way to California. As a young woman, Mother wrote a column for The Los Angeles Times about her life. I treasure her poem about her father, my Grandpa, which she wrote at age 18. It was published in her column “By the Way:”
I shall always remember
My father coming home
On bitter, cold nights,
After a long ride
On his bicycle.
And the way
He used to put newspapers
Under his coat
As a shield
Against the wind
And cold . . .
My father’s family was deserted by their father. He abandoned them in favor of life in San Francisco with his musician friends. His six daughters and wife were then in the hands of my father, the only son. After my parents married the sisters lived with us, or were farmed out. I recall our small house in a Los Angeles suburb that teemed with women who laughed a lot, sang a lot, and sometimes conversed in German. Despite my father’s huge responsibilities, I knew him to be handsome, fun, and generous.
My parents met and married in Los Angeles, and after my sister and I were born we moved to a town outside the city that was quiet and beautiful, dotted with orange trees. We were never marked as unworthy immigrants by the neighbors, even though the war in Europe raged in those years. Germans were our enemies, and our neighborhood play often included contests with toy guns to kill the Germans. We thought of ourselves as Americans ready to defend our country as we made fun of Hitler with his odd mustache.
Our home had a European flavor. The dining room was decorated with little paintings of German scenes and people in Austrian peasant dress. We were taught from a book of folk tales with pictures of children from European countries — and we recognized the names Mozart and Bach. We heard the German language spoken, though were not taught to speak it. We sang German songs like “Ach du Lieber Augustin” and the lullaby “Guten Abend-Gute Nacht.” I remember the mysterious vegetarian food at a family camp with other German immigrant families. Looking back, I’d characterize that German group as communal and earthy. They sang a lot too.
I sensed a sadness in my father about the War in Europe and was reminded of it again in the recent documentary on PBS, The US and the Holocaust. We viewers witnessed the Nazis attack and murder Jewish men, women and children, exterminating millions. My father never seemed to sympathize with the Germans, but he didn’t condemn them either. I knew enough to be silent on the subject and never asked about the concentration camps and the murders. What would he say?
Mother had a wartime sorrow too. Her older sister, Louise, was left behind in Austria when the family immigrated. Louise was caught in the Austrian bombing devastation, and I remember sending CARE packages to her during that time, a humanitarian arrangement that allowed us to help even though Louise was in a German sector.
My grandparents also maintained silence about a war in which their homeland had become the very definition of evil. I can only imagine what they must have thought as we kids stormed the empty lots with our toy weapons, chasing Germans. They didn’t condemn our play or explain the war to us. Instead, we sang “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht” as we celebrated Christmas, and Grandma’s pet parrot spoke with a German accent.
As I look at the suffering of immigrants now, killed as they try to walk through the deserts, shunned as second-class persons, and threatened with the loss of their DACA status, I’m aware that the opportunities and good will my family found here no longer defines America.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.