An Immigrant's Journey

The story of my grandparent's journeys to America and the freedom they found here.

By Sophie C. from Royal Oak High School in Michigan

Wartime takes a lot out of a country. It leaves a country with depleted resources, a lower population, and if they’re the losers, it leaves them with shame. World wars especially have taken a heavy toll on countries, even more so if the war was fought on their land. When I picture postwar times, I picture them as sad and dark; lives being mourned, economic troubles, and rebuilding. After World War 2, Germany was in ruins. The war had been raging in their country, so there was a lot of rebuilding and reconstruction. Germany had been defeated by the Allies -Great Britain, the US, France and the Soviet Union- so after the war, these powers ran the show. Germany was divided into “East Germany” and “West Germany.” My grandpa lived in a town called Hof, right at the edge of this divide, luckily on the west side, which was controlled by the capitalist powers of the US, Great Britain, and France. The East side was controlled by the Soviet Union and was much more restricted in their freedom; people weren’t even allowed to leave until 1989. My grandpa described this divide, saying there was a town not too far from his that was split right through the center with the Berlin Wall. He even had an aunt who got stuck over there, but luckily managed to escape through the woods with her son before the wall was put up. Despite being controlled by these world powers, German society was still in shambles and facing many problems, some being hyperinflation, depression, a food crisis, coal shortage and massive unemployment. My grandpa himself described the country as “somber,” “in recovery,” and having “minimal opportunity.” Due to all of this, many Germans decided to emigrate, understandably. A source I found from the European Library of Congress called the “European Reading Room,” says that “Between 1951 and 1960, 580,000 Germans immigrated to the United States,” my grandpa and his family included. My grandpa was only 10 at the time they made this two-week voyage, full of seasickness and bad weather, over the Atlantic to come here. My grandpa's father, or my great grandpa, was very optimistic about the move; he saw much more opportunity and a brighter future in America. They needed a sponsor to come, and my great grandpa knew multiple families, some in New York, and some in Detroit. They chose to come to Detroit because of the booming car industry and better job opportunity. This was a good decision, since my grandpa ended up going into and finding success in engineering. Hearing about the hardships of my grandpa’s early years has made me realize how lucky I am to be living in a country with all of the opportunity and freedom that it has. The struggles my grandparents have gone through and their success in America has shaped my American Creed, or my view on America, and has helped me realize all of the opportunity that I have here.

When my grandpa got here, he didn’t know English very well. Since he was so young, he was able to pick it up pretty quickly, going to English classes each week and being surrounded by it at school and in public. He recounts America as being “much more open than Germany,” saying everyone was very helpful and accepting. His teachers helped him a lot in school and were very understanding of the language barrier. Not only did he spend this transition time learning English, but he also went to German class each week with his two brothers, and had to speak German in the house. They still had family back in Germany, and his parents thought it was important to keep up the language, not only be able to keep in touch with the family, but also so they didn’t forget where they came from. My grandpa recalled being grateful for this, for he still calls his aunts and cousins to catch up, and if he didn’t know German he wouldn’t even be able to communicate with them. Along with maintaining his language, he also went to German and Lithuanian Clubs with his family. These served as a community for them; my grandpa described the group as “close knit,” always having dinners and parties with each other. They’d dress up and get together, making their cultural food, singing, dancing and just having fun together. My grandpa said this community was especially nice for his parents, who had lived in Germany and Lithuania as they grew up, and it was nice to be surrounded by something familiar in this new place. Over the summer my grandpa would go to Cass Lake, where there was a German club called The United German American Recreation Society of Oakland County. An article from the Oakland Press talks about this club’s 75th anniversary at Cass Lake, “The founding members were alone in a new country. They had left their families and friends behind and did not have a large support group. First, the group was the center of their social lives -- it was their family.” This is very similar to how my grandpa described the groups his family belonged to; close knit, like a family, always getting together for dinners and dances, very excited to see each other, supporting one another. This also confirms my grandpa’s account of what these clubs meant to immigrants, summed up in “it was their family.” I’m glad my grandpa and his family had a support group like this when they came here. I can’t imagine going to a new country and feeling like you weren’t accepted. With this community and the accepting manner of America, it sounds like this transition was made a little smoother for my grandpa.

My grandma had a different story, one that intersected with my grandpa’s and changed the course she was on. She grew up on a farm in Canada with 10 other siblings, and she was exactly in the middle. Her days were full of chores: taking care of the garden, cooking, doing dishes, and taking care of her younger siblings. She never imagined she’d come to America. At the time, she didn’t know a ton about America, she just thought of it as a big country with a lot of money. In her late teens she had a job as a secretary for a doctor who had gone to America for his college education. This doctor owned a Cadillac, which she’d never seen before, and seemed very wealthy. He was the only person she knew who had been to America, so seeing him and his success could’ve played into her image of a wealthy America. When my grandma was 24 on a ski vacation in Montreal, she met my grandpa and they fell in love. Two years later she made the move to America, and a year after that she got married. She could hardly speak English when she came and had to go to the International School in Detroit. My grandma’s transition to the new country was similar to my grandpa’s, she liked America and thought everyone was very welcoming. In 1996, my grandma finally got her citizenship, which was a very proud day for her. She described her emotions as “overjoyed” and “thankful” to finally be an American citizen and to be able to vote. My grandma also described her and my grandpa as very patriotic; they had a flag out at all times and were very proud to be Americans. I believe that since they had the experience of being in another country that didn’t have as many freedoms or opportunity, being in America was more special to them. They had earned it, they weren’t just born here with wealth, they made their path to the top. This has made me realize that I will never truly be able to experience their feelings for America, for theirs come with the hardships of their past. Learning about these hardships has still affected my view on America though, because it has opened my eyes to how lucky I am. Being appreciative for America has reminded me of a song I once did in a play. It was the summer before 4th grade and I was at a summer theater camp. In these camp plays the director would write the script and include a variety songs. The last song we performed was “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood. I can still remember standing up on the stage, singing and waving my hands to this song. At the time I didn’t truly understand the meaning of it, I didn’t realize the horrors of the world and I didn’t know that not all countries had the freedom or opportunity that I was given. Now, when I think back to that moment I feel emotional. It really sums up my feelings for America; I’m proud to be in a country where I have all of the freedom that I do, and I’m very thankful that my grandparents set up this great life for me.

When asked to describe America in one word, my grandparents chose the word “freedom.” Both of them thought that they would not have been as successful in their home countries, and said that there was a lot more opportunity for this success in America. They also both thought they really did live the “American Dream.” Though it wasn't always easy for them and the transition to a new life was hard; they didn't know the language at all, they still had family back in in their home countries, and they didn't want to forget their culture, in all, the move was a good thing. They were very successful in America. My grandpa went to college for engineering and eventually worked at GM. The benefits from GM were amazing and he and my grandma are still financially supported. Their stories show me that I can really do anything in America. They went from poor and in a new country, to successful and proud to be an American, and set up a bright future for me. Being a junior in high school, there are many big choices ahead of me. I’ve been going on college tours and I’ll have to start applying to colleges soon, I took the SAT a few weeks ago, I’ll be applying for my first job soon, I have an idea of what I want to major in, but I have the freedom to change my mind and be anything I want to be. My grandparents had it very differently at this time. My grandpa pretty much had to be an engineer since that was the job market that was booming at the time, and grandma didn’t even have the choice to go to college. I feel very lucky to have this wonderful future set up for me by the generations before me, and I’m thankful that I still have my grandparents to talk to and learn from during these momentous times in my life. It’s nice to get their advice and learn about how different their lives were. Knowing how easy I have it has made me more thankful for my life and I really am proud to be an American. I hope to one day be as successful and as wise as my grandparents, and their story has me believing that I can be in a free country like America.

Royal Oak High School

AP Lang 2019

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