A story of coming to America
by Kaethie Schwager
On the Good Ship to America
Today for some reason my thoughts reach back to the 1950s… which is a long long time ago. Who am I thinking of?
I am thinking of Toni Braunstein! Toni was a young man who also was waiting with his family to be shipped out… immigrate to America. That was a time when all of our lives kind of hung on a string… not knowing literally, what lies ahead of us.
But the young ones among us left the deep worries still to our parents, and we tried to make connections with other young people around us… having as normal a time as these circumstances allowed. There were “English-classes” held within the compound. And since we still were in Karlsdorf by Muenchen (Munich), where we waited to be shipped out to Bremerhafen, there were a lot of Saturday-night dances to go to. I was surprised that my mother, who was so overprotective of me, gave me permission to go.
Naturally it had to be with someone that she truly trusted. Like her cousin’s daughter and son-in-law. They were really nice people… full of fun. I had a very good time over there in that big dance-hall. Don’t know where this was, but the music was very rhythmic… very good, for it played all the songs I could dance to if someone would come and ask me to dance. And… someone came and did ask me.
And that someone was “Toni Braunstein”! He was maybe in his early twenties.
Blond, with blue eyes… and smiling at me
I don’t know where this young man arrived from, whether he knew someone around the table where we sat. But all I remember of him is that he asked me to dance… and I was so happy… all evening. Apparently he gave me a lot of compliments, because I remember laughing a lot, mostly because I knew that I couldn’t be as pretty as the words that he showered me with. In those days I had a very hard time accepting compliments in the first place… I was just not used to them.
Anyway, our quota-number came up… and we left for Bremen. Again, we were living in the Kaserne, waiting to be shipped out… to the United States of America. In those times, the U.S. shipped its soldiers to Germany and brought the Displaced Persons (DPs) to America. Most of us slept in the soldier cots.
My mother and my three little sisters lived in the bow of the ship and one could hear the ocean-waves just hitting the bow in a to-and-fro motion… “shhhhh..woooo… shhhhh..woooo”… day and night without stop.
On top of it, the ship “danced” in the water up-and-down… up-and-down. Most of the grown-ups in the bow were sea-sick… threw up… wanted to just lay down and die. But not the kids. They enjoyed this sea-saw game. They were dancing around their “yammering,” moaning and groaning parents.
We were still at Bremerhafen when I saw Anton (Toni) Braunstein again. He and his family had to wait for another ship to come in. But I remember that he came over to our compound, with his family. And our parents started a conversation as to where they came from, where they were heading to in the USA?
They told us that they have relatives in Youngstown, Ohio, who paid their fare. Which meant that they would have a cabin for themselves and family. We, on the other hand, came through the Caritas-Organization… and were told, whoever is able to work needs to work on ship.. for our fare. Which was very generous anyway. Who would not work for a trip over to the promised land? Most especially when the “Caritas” paid for six people and only two of them were able to work. That was my Dad and I.
As I mentioned before, my mother and the children were down in the ship’s bow. Those passengers whose fare was paid, stayed in cabins, and those who came through the Caritas were separated. Men with men, women with women. It worked out well… till the third day, when the skies broke open and a big thunderstorm rocked the ship like a feather in the wind. Up and down, up and down… we all got sea-sick.
I still very vividly remember where it hit me… I came down the stairs, stepped onto the next step and that step rose up to my foot. The next step was farther away than I had reached for, and I felt my stomach coming up to my throat. I opened the door to the outside… ran to the railing and spilled… till nothing came up anymore. Oh how sick I felt! I tried to go back to my cot, but on the way up, the floor-manager stopped me. I told her, “Ich kann nicht arbeiten.” (I can’t work.) My job was to clean the cabins. But the lady insisted: “Du musst arbeiten!” (You must work!) And so I did. And the storm passed and we were fine once again.
Incidentally, on that ship I ate my first grapefruit, which I mistook for a big orange. Up to then I can’t remember ever seeing a grapefruit. Anyway, when I went to bed, rather to my cot, there on my pillow lay this “big orange.” Since only the little night-light was on over my cot and I was really hungry to sink my teeth into this juicy gift… I peeled it, bit into it and ate it, the juices running down my jaws… hmmm was it good. The next day was that big storm! And that orange… along with all my supper… went “overboard.” And because my introduction to the grapefruit was directly connected with my seasickness, I couldn’t taste another one of these heavenly fruits for years and years to come.
 Editor’s Note: The Hercher family was one of many ethnic German families affected by the post-WWII disposition (actually, dispossession) of lands and peoples in central and eastern Europe. This little known tragedy is referred to by those affected as The Expulsion, and several important books have been written on the subject, one of which I review here. Many relatives and neighbors of the Herchers were among millions of unsung victims. Indeed, the Hercher family was lucky to escape by being in Germany (Bavaria) when the Russians and, more devastatingly, Tito’s Partisans, marched into their home town in the Batschka (now Yugoslavia) in November 1944. [For some additional background, this Carpathian Club link provides a concise description.–ed]
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