In 1903, my Great Grandfather and Grandmother came to the United States from what is present day Croatia. Hearing my Grandfather tell of his early years there, following shepherds, milking cows, hunting with his dog, life prior to WWI and II in the Batschka region seemed reminiscent of the Shire.
My Great Grandfather “Karl” was a big guy, 6 footer, and had dreams of making it rich in the US, raising his family here, and then going home to a big farm he’d buy with all the money he had saved. He’d been sending money back to his Uncle in his hometown for 9 years, and Uncle was buying choice pieces of land as he found them for Karl.
My Great Grandmother Margaret bore two children, a girl and a boy, before she died at a young age in Cleveland Ohio, circa 1912.
That event nearly brought the American experiment to an end. Karl regrouped, saved some more money, packed up his kids, and sailed home across the Atlantic. I’m sure he entered town with mixed emotions, excited to be back among his people, but wishing his young wife were here with him. He probably went straight to his parents home, then quickly on to see his Uncle and all of the land that he’d been buying these 9 long years with Karls hard earned money.
I imagine his Uncle was surprised to see him, and a little nervous as he explained that the relatives there had fallen on hard times, and that the money had gone to feeding the old people and children. At least that was his story and he was sticking to it.
Now Karl was in a real pickle. He was broke, his wife buried on the other side of the ocean, no farm and no place to live, and he had two young children to raise. So he went to see another Uncle who had three daughters, and set about making a deal. He would earn his families passage back to America, and take one hungry mouth back with him as his wife, and make a new life for them all.
So his Uncle trotted out all three daughters, two who were beautiful by all reports, and the third who was too skinny, had a pointy nose with a scar, and had already been married and divorced by age 18. You can guess which one became my Great Step-Grandmother (a sweet godly woman).
The story goes that she was married off at a young age to a much older man. He was cruel, a sadist, beating her and worse. One day Great Granny’s father and brother showed up and mixed it up with the guy, coming away with her and taking her back to the family home. She told me that her Father solemnly told her she would never go back there, but would live with him instead.
And she told me how disgraced she was in the town because she had been divorced, the old women gossiping behind her back, and people generally shunning her. And because of this she had no marriage prospects, was an outcast, and had lost all hope. Then one day a tall, dark and handsome cousin arrived from America, married her, took away her disgrace and later carried her back to the New World.
I wrote most of this down long ago as a 13 year old interested in where he came from, and recently began putting the names, dates, and stories into something cohesive which could be passed down.
In my recent studies of the matter, I’ve discovered that nearly 100% of my family that stayed behind in Europe perished in Tito’s concentration camps, nearly 100% in one called Lager Jarek. Accounts say that 6,429 people, of that 955 children, perished there. Most were from nearby towns where my family has its roots. The sobering thing is to see the ledger of those who died there, and seeing the names of family members, many I recall hearing stories of as a boy on my Great Aunt’s sofa.
My Grandfather Peter (Karl’s son) told a story of his Uncle who bore the very same name. Uncle Peter had no sons, but did have three lovely blond daughters. When Karl decided to return to America, Uncle Peter hatched a plan to carry on his name. He carried young Pete around his spacious farm, pointing to the barn that held his white Arabian horses, and to a stone high in the gable of the roof of his fine home that had young Peters name already carved in it. “Peter, stay here with me and be my son, marry whichever of my daughters you like, and the farm and horses, all you see, will be yours. Look, the house already carries your name!” It was a temptation that no 10 year old boy could be expected to turn down. As it just so happened, Karl put his foot down, told Uncle Pete off, took his son and they all sailed back across the Atlantic.
Years later my grandfather told me that he had been very upset with his father for taking the opportunity for such a wonderful life away from him. But once he grew older, he realized that his Uncles’ wife and daughters had all perished in Lager Jarek, and his Uncle had barely made it back to the town only to live as a pauper a few years more before he too died. And that he, my Grandfather, would have perished along with them all had he stayed. “The Lord used my fathers stubborn determination to save me and our family”. Tears welled up in his eyes as he said that, for he had a wonderful family, friends and a good life, and knew he owed it all to his fathers foresight.
So Karl thought he was a failure, and returned to America because at least there was work and food. He was a common laborer, sweating in foundries, walking home at the end of the day with a metal lunch pail and would stop at a tavern and fill it up with beer for he and his wife to enjoy. It may have made life a little more bearable. He never bought a farm, was never an important man, but did help countless others escape the ravages of Europe and start a new life in the States.
Karl heeded a voice somewhere inside, and landed a second time in Ellis Island around 1921. Because of that his family is alive and well today.
I’m sure he didn’t understand the complexities of the day, couldn’t see the forces aligning around the world which would cause the death and destruction of what is now estimated to be 90+ million people worldwide. He had no idea how he had threaded the needle, what a miraculous escape he had engineered. The heart ache and disappointments that had made life bitter and difficult forced him to look within, and outward. He left his past behind and reinvented his family, saving those he loved from certain death in the process.
I remember him well, he was a large imposing man, somewhat gruff, and doted on his great grandchildren. My clearest memory is of him sitting in a chair outside, calling me over and giving me a couple of silver dollars as he stroked my hair and repeated my name. Much later my father told me that he was so proud that the family name would live on, and that the promise of a new life here was alive. He died shortly after.
Godspeed Karl, you were not a spiritual man by most accounts, but you followed the voice of One that led the way from death, unto life.