Friday, December 18, 2009

Coming to America

On this Veteran's Day there is a lot of buzz about being an American and the freedoms that allows us. I wonder how many of us really contemplate what that freedom truly means? I presume that for many Americans it's not something they think about --except on holidays such as this or Memorial Day, Independence Day, and maybe Thanksgiving. And that is sad.

For me being an American is part of my family heritage and an important part of my testimony. My mom emigrated from her Yugoslavian born heritage via the Queen Elizabeth, arriving at the port of New York's Ellis Island on February 24, 1950 at 11 years old. After escaping the third ethnic cleansing camp Gakowa (also known as Kakowa and Gakova) on August 10, 1947 a few months before her 9th birthday, they walked over 100 miles to the first steps of freedom crossing into the Hungary border. Can you imagine their relief and elation taking a step into a country where they were no longer in daily fear of losing their lives? To understand what 'Freedom' looked like, you have to understand from the situation in which they came. For three years they were under the Russian Red Army control. Over the duration of three years they lived in three Yugoslavian towns -- Molidorf, Gudriz and Kakowa -- converted into concentration camps, surrounded by armed guards. They had been stripped of all their worldly possessions and all the documents that gave them their identity. They were prisoners of war who had no proof of who they were or where they came from. They did not exist in the eyes of the government of Yugoslavia and had nothing to present to explain their identity. All the documents of today: birth certificates, passports, driver's licenses, state identification cards-- none of them existed for them any longer. They had all been destroyed in the attempt to wipe out the Yugoslavian country. They were people without a country. Literally. Stepping out of a country of bondage to the first steps of freedom. You can almost hear the sigh of relief.

The third camp Kakowa was known as the 'escape camp'. If you were fortunate enough to be taken there and had the financial or physical means to bribe a guard, escape was entirely possible. My family is among the 'lucky' ones who were able to convince the guards to turn a blind eye to their escape, even aiding them to start out on their trek for Hungary. Walking was done only at night in the darkest hours so they could not be seen. Refuge from the day had to be found in fields or barns and often in the safety of homes and farms along the way who were sympathetic to their cause. No one had much in this time of war but people were generous in sharing what they had. Our family had nothing but a kind smile, a thankful word and a grateful heart to give back. The journey lasted nearly a month. Another image plays in my mind when I think about this long, arduous journey. My great grandparents were in their late 40's by this time but their bodies were broken. To quote my grandma's newspaper interview "My mother was beaten with slats with nails in them because she would not tell where (her husband) was. She could not. She did not know. She was like a clump of dead meat, all black and blue. She died several years ago, never able to fully recover from the mistreatment she endured". My grandma, who was sent to Russia to work as a slave laborer while the rest of the family resided in the camps in Yugoslavia, endured her own terror as she would worked to the bone, nearly dying from overwork. These physical ailments had to be overcome to travel the hundreds of miles that lay in front of them. And my mom traveled at the tender age of 8 -- incomprehensible to me to endure what she did in what should have been a carefree childhood. Personally, I cannot wrap my brain around the pain and fatigue and fear that accompanied  their every step.

From Hungary, my mom, my grandma and great-grandparents then traveled on foot to Austria where they lived with distant relatives. It was reaching Austria that they finally felt safe. Now in neutral territory they no longer had to fear being turned over to their homeland. From Vienna via the train, they travelled to a refugee camp in Schalding, Germany. It was there they found a sponsor, a distant relative (The Andersen's) of my mom's to leave from the port in Cherbourg, France to sail to America on the Queen Elizabeth. From New York they traveled to Chicago to work for the Andersen's as indentured servants for three years.

To finally arrive in America and to live in freedom for the first time in many, many years was nothing less than a miracle. God's hand of protection was with them at every turn. They were given a second chance to create a life--a new life. And they did. They worked hard taking nothing that they had been given for granted. They learned the language and worked hard to become honest citizens of this great country of America but never forgetting the life that they had left behind and the men and women who sacrificed to save them.


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