Thursday, February 24, 2011

Coming to America: A New Beginning

President Roosevelt delivered an address on December 8, 1941 about "The day which will live in infamy", referring to the previous day's Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese. He was absolutely correct that it would be a historic date that still holds a lot of significance in our nation's history. But for me, February 24. 1950 is the date that lives in infamy for me.  Not only is it the birth date for my great-grandma Anna on my mother’s side — it also happens to be the date that my mom, grandma, and great grandparents arrived at the port of New York on the R/S Queen Elizabeth. Last year marked the 60th anniversary of them arriving on U.S. soil after surviving the Yugoslavian genocide. It’s for this reason that I love this date.

After their first taste of freedom in a refugee camp in Schalding, Germany, they began their new lives. The genocide had taken everything from them. They had been forced out of their homes and had everything taken from them. They had nothing–not even birth certificates or any identifying documents to prove their existence. They were not welcome to come back to Yugoslavia. They were people without a country.

It was while living in Germany that they began to receive packages from America, from my great-grandpa’s cousins, Roy and Helen Andersen. As a young girl of 11, my mom was told that America was filled with ‘streets made from gold. A land of milk and honey.” These packages were just as magical. Gail, the Andersen’s daughter who was a few years younger than my mom, would send gifts specifically for her. In addition to some clothes, she remembered getting a much-cherished doll, some M&M’s and a beautiful, sequined purse.

Fortunately, the Andersen’s agreed to sponsor their trip on the Queen Elizabeth. After guaranteeing jobs and boarding for my grandma’s family, they funded the journey from Germany to Cherbourg, France, where the four of them boarded the ship on February 15, 1950.

When asked about what she remembered about her journey on the famous liner, my mom would laugh. She would have loved to tell stories of exploring the big vessel, playing with the other children–dreaming of what life would look like in America. Instead, the entire family spent most of the trip being seasick and vomiting over the sides of the ship. When she was well enough to explore, she recounted getting lost in the bowels of the ship. Not exactly the exciting adventures one would hope to have on their maiden voyage. It was on the ship that she recounted her first memories of a language barrier between their family and staff. With no one able to speak English in the dining hall, she recalled flapping their arms and saying ‘bok, bok, bok’ to tell them they wanted chicken. It’s that story that always makes me smile. She also remembered swimming in a salt water pool on the ship.

After reaching Ellis Island, they settled in Chicago to work for the Andersens. My great-grandparents Anna and Thomas and grandma Anna agreed to work as indentured servants for three years at the Andersen’s hunting and fishing club in Fox Lake appropriately named the “Wing and Fin Club” During that time, they also gave them room and board on the property. About a decade later, my parents would hold their wedding reception there.

Over the years I’ve wondered about the Andersen’s. There is no record of them in my mom’s phone book, which surprises me. By now, if still alive Helen and Roy would be in their 90′s, while Gail would be nearing 70. Do they ever think of the family they so graciously helped? Was the story of the Dernetz family passed down to future generations like it was in the Olsen family? My mom had referred to them as ‘angels’ over the years. Her family was in deep gratitude to the not-so-simple gesture as to make their journey possible. Without their willingness to pave their way to America, the story of Anna and Thomas, Anna and my mom Hilda might have ended so differently. And for this reason, I too am truly grateful to the Andersen family as well. I think Neil Diamond says it best:


We've been travelling far
Without a home
But not without a star

Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

On the boats and on the planes
They're coming to America
Never looking back again
They're coming to America

Home, don't it seem so far away
Oh, we're travelling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm

Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we'll say our grace
Freedom's light burning warm
Freedom's light burning warm

Everywhere around the world
They're coming to America
Every time that flag's unfurled
They're coming to America

Got a dream to take them there
They're coming to America
Got a dream they've come to share
They're coming to America


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