On Christmas Eve a century ago, my grandfather, Josef Gärtz, an ethnic German from Transylvania, left his hometown in what is today Romania to embark on a journey that changed the course of his life and made mine possible. I had heard only the bare outlines of his immigration story, but the harrowing details remained a mystery until my mom’s death in 1994.
Among the hundreds of previously unknown diaries and letters my brothers and I discovered when clearing out Mom’s attic, we found my grandfather’s passport, in the back of which he had kept a journal titled, Die Reise Nach America, (“The trip to America”). Written in old German script, it was unreadable, even to a German major like me. Only recently have I found someone who was able to decipher the handwriting so I could translate his century-old words into English.
I have always known my grandfather was often impatient, and apparently he was so as a young man. I learned from my cousin’s family (from the same Transylvanian town as Josef) that he did not want to wait for the long visa process, so he just took off for America before his exit papers were in order. His diary entries show, he almost didn’t make it.
Christ Saturday (Christmas Eve), December 24, 1910
“I left from Hermannstadt [Sibiu] with Lichtneker [a friend] for America.”
Josef’s plan was to hook up with a third friend, Rastel, in a town called Klein Kopisch, and the three would travel together from there. The first snafu occurred almost immediately. When Josef and Lichtneker arrived in Klein Kopisch, they went to get coffee. Sure enough, as soon as they left the tracks, Rastel’s train pulled in. They jumped up, but by the time they found their friend and gathered their luggage, “the train slipped out right from under our noses, and we had to wait twelve hours for the next one.”
Sunday, Christmas Day, 1910
The three friends boarded the noon train to Budapest, where they switched to a fast train to Vienna. Josef urged his friends not to sit together “in case they had to get away quickly, but they didn’t listen,” leading me to believe none of the three had proper papers. Josef followed his own advice and sat with strangers, falling asleep on the long train ride. In Bratislava, on the Austrian border, Josef was shaken awake by a border agent. “I threw him a frightened look, but he asked me in a friendly manner where I was traveling to.”
“And what do you do in Vienna?”
The agent ordered Josef off the train. “I knew what that meant,” he wrote. Thinking fast, he concocted a daring solution. “Sure. No Problem. I just have to fetch my things,” he told the officer.
“I left my luggage behind, went out the door, climbed up the ladder, and lay down on top of the car. I cannot thank God enough for sending me this thought. But when the horrid train started to move, the sharp air cut through me so that I thought I would fly away like a piece of paper, but I held on tight.”
Now picture this: It was December. At best, maybe 25-30 degrees. He would have been battered and buffeted by a frigid windchill for the 37 miles from Bratislava to Vienna – probably for more than an hour. Somehow he hung on.
“When we arrived in Vienna,” he wrote, “I went back into the train car and was very thankful to our Lord God. But, oh, no! My colleagues had disappeared! They must have been hauled off the train. I stood there crying, but managed to pull together fresh courage. I waited for two days in Vienna, hoping my friends would show up, but it was in vain, and I had to set out further alone.”
The photo here of Josef is not dated, but he’s posing with a trunk, on top of which a sign labeled Wien (Vienna) is propped. He is about the right age, so it could be a remembrance of this trip. He was long and lean with an affable nature, ready wit, and another trait his journey reveals: fierce determination.
In Vienna, he boarded a train into Germany, wherein lay his ultimate destination: the port city of Bremen in the northwest of the country. “When I got to the German border, it got a little dicey again. The border officer came into the train car, asking for my passport. Once again, I thought fast. ‘One moment please. My passport is in my suitcase.’” While the agent continued on, checking others’ papers, Josef slipped off the train. “I remained standing outside until [the agent] went into the other car. Then I returned to my seat, and the ordeal was over.”
With the successful crossing of the German border, the threat of being sent back to Transylvania seemed to have passed, but more challenges were still to come.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the United States had pressured European countries to require increasingly stringent medical exams on emigrants before they even boarded a ship to America. A sure-fire way to be left behind was a diagnosis of trachoma, pink eye, incurable – and highly contagious in those days. In Leipzig, he and all others were checked by an eye specialist, and only then permitted to go on to Bremen.
On Dec. 30, six days after leaving Hermannstadt, Josef wrote a letter (also recently deciphered) to his sweetheart, later to be my grandmother, back in Transylvania: “Dear Lisi, I want to tell you that I have arrived in Bremen happy and healthy. Tomorrow, on December 31, 1910, we’ll board the ship if we don’t get sick. Every day we are probed by a doctor. So far I am completely healthy.” Others weren’t so lucky. He met several who had languished in Bremen for up to eight weeks because of eye infections or bad health, denied their dream of America.
December 31, 1910
“Early Saturday morning at 4 a.m., we saw a doctor who looked us in the eyes and inoculated our left hands with four shots. At 7 a.m. we took a two-hour train to the ship. We boarded the ship at 10:30 a.m., and at 11:30 it departed directly for America.
“I was moved by sadness, joy, and fear as the mighty colossus pulled us far out over the waves of the great sea. Everyone on land waved after us with their handkerchiefs as they wanted to share with us a last and friendly farewell. They know such a trip deals with life and death, and we’re never certain if we’ll see each other again.”
Josef truly rang out the old on New Year’s Eve, 1910, departing from everything familiar – and would ring in 1911 with a new life in America.
One hundred years later, I see in his daring trip one of the millions of journeys undertaken by our forebears, and the opportunities bequeathed us by their bold confidence.
Linda’s blog, “Family Archaeologist,” explores a century of diaries and letters and how they illuminate the humanity shared by all: www.familyarchaeologist.com.