This is a great story, but it is not my story. My maternal grandmother shared it with me when I was very young, in hopes of explaining what and where The Old Country was that she and Grampa always talked about. With time and more often my own persistent cajoling, she retold her story, each rendition focusing more on a different portion, giving up remembered new details decades later. Gramma was a quiet lady, not a flamboyant or theatrical personality like my mother. Whenever we were alone, always a treasured time for me, I would work her into a story-telling mood. Her heartfelt delivery was even and deliberate, as though she were reciting from memory a history text she had studied for a class long before.
The place where they lived, Slovenia, had been erased from the maps (and the globe in my older brother’s bedroom) after the First World War, reduced to just the northern most part of Yugoslavia. This was a confusing concept for even a precocious six-year-old to fathom. For me it existed in the handful of photographs carefully mailed in letters Gramma would receive a few times each year in those pale blue tissue paper envelopes covered with airplanes and pretty stamps. It was a place we had sent some of my clothes I’d outgrown for cousins of distant cousins I had never met, poorer even than we were. The Old Country was where Gramma and Grampa grew up without cars or refrigerators, sidewalks or radios – an almost make-believe place which utterly fascinated me.
She was born in a town called Krska Vas, second child of tenant farmers who raised pigs and chickens and grew beets, cabbage and potatoes. Her mother was responsible for running and working the farm with her children’s aid, as Gramma’s father was a cobbler who traveled from village to village, making boots and shoes and training apprentices. When Gramma was twelve she was apprenticed to a seamstress in the next village, learning to sew and in return, caring for the woman’s children as payment. She had a real aptitude for the trade and soon was able to tackle complicated dressmaking for the master craftswoman. What she dreamed about while she sewed, away from her home and family, was becoming a nun. Her father’s uncle was a priest and her mother had been raised in a convent. The only thing Gramma loved more than going to church was receiving Holy Communion, so she attended daily Mass regularly.
Within a year’s time, everything in her world would change. Her father left for America with her older sister. They would find jobs and save to send enough money to bring them all to Cleveland. Gramma returned home to help her mother with the farm and to care for her four younger brothers. Franck required special help because he had always been sickly. An already difficult life became more burdensome for Gramma and her mother without her father and big sister. They struggled day-to-day, working outside to keep the farm going and inside raising four boys under the age of twelve.
The year 1915 proves to be momentous. In January, brother Franck dies at age nine and is buried in the church cemetery with only a tiny wooden cross to mark his grave. The fighting that had begun when Emperor Franz Josef declared war on Serbia the year before, is now being waged all across Europe. Life is not only hard, life is now dangerous as well. After more than three years of working in Cleveland, the money has arrived to book passage for America. A passport for a 16-year-old Gramma and another for her mother which includes the names of her three sons aged 14, 6 and 4 are issued in October. They are scheduled to leave from Rotterdam on November 27th. Because they will be traveling steerage, they question what they should bring with them. My Great Grandfather instructs them to wear all the clothes they can and to bring the pots and pans and household goods wrapped within the feather beds.
Gramma always described the journey as over three weeks long, which as a child I interpreted to be spent entirely onboard the ship. As I grew older, it seemed she might be embellishing the time frame. We family members who have since researched the trip nearly one hundred years later realize it was no exaggeration whatsoever. They left their village by ox cart for the capital city, fifty miles away, at some point switching to a faster horse-drawn version. These were people who knew only a near-Medieval existence of muddy, narrow paths and day long journeys on foot to a neighboring village. They boarded a train in Ljubljana for Vienna, a distance of some two hundred fifty miles. Along the way they ate bread and soup once a day – the cheapest and most nourishing they could afford. And everywhere they went, each dragged a round-ball bundle of possessions. Gramma had a satchel as well which contained comb and hair brush, scissors, the family’s rosaries and prayer books and a very few precious photographs.
While changing trains in Vienna for Rotterdam, they were awed by the size of the city and the number of churches and huge buildings her brothers could count from the train’s windows. It was another seven hundred miles to the port where their ship would be waiting and three more days. They were guests of the Red Cross the night before the ship sailed and had to climb many stone steps to enter the building – something that none of them had ever done before. Red Cross provided breakfast the following morning consisting of huge bowls of hot cereal with cream and raisins. They were elated as raisins were a treat reserved only for holidays and special occasions.
Once on board the ship, deep within its bowels, they were relieved of dragging their bundles, but the compartment was dark and confining with no privacy for anyone. In this space Gramma and her mother would pass the next twelve days with three rambunctious little boys. The North Atlantic can be very rough, especially in late November and when there is a war raging in it, the crossing is even more daunting. Each time the ship neared a passing vessel whether it be military or otherwise, they stopped and sent up their flags, denoting they were a neutral ship carrying passengers. It added time to their trip, yet kept them safe.
But one day, about midway in the voyage, a German U-boat surfaced alongside them. Their flags raised, the Germans still signaled they were coming aboard. Once on the ship they grilled the crew and demanded everyone leave their cabins, easily intimidating the already nervous crowd. They took bags of the mail bound for the U.S. and dumped them overboard. At this point in her story, my Gramma would tearfully reflect how frightened they were as they watched thousands of envelopes floating in the waves. She sobbed at how cruel the sailors were - so destructive, hurting innocent families by destroying precious news from home. Once the U-boat disappeared below the sea, her mother instructed them to go back to their compartment where they knelt and prayed the rosary together. She begged God out loud for protection, questioning what had her husband been thinking when he decided she should be responsible for putting her own children in so much danger.
The final morning on the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, Gramma remembers seeing bits of debris, branches and leaves floating in the ship’s wake and then gulls and seabirds flying above. Soon they could make out something other than sea and sky in the horizon. By the afternoon they passed the Statue of Liberty and they retreated below the last time to pray and gather their things. She told me about entering Ellis Island and the enormous staircase they had to descend. Tired of lugging their feather bed loads, the boys got the idea to roll them down the stairs. Of course the weight of the bundles found their own momentum and they bounced and bowled through the crowd, pushing and knocking over people in their way. My Gramma would smile and recall that her mother’s first duty in the USA was to slap the living hell out of those three boys, reprimanding them mid-staircase, even before they had been officially welcomed into the country.
Boarding the train to Cleveland she could finally allow herself to become excited about this new home and the thought of seeing again, after nearly four years, her beloved father and older sister. As they got off the train, Gramma saw a strange man standing with them. Once she’d kissed her father, he nervously introduced her to his co-worker from the foundry, a man he had somewhat promised her to, sight unseen – the man who would, in less than a year’s time, become her husband.
After their three children were grown and married and most of us grandchildren were born, Gramma and Grampa sailed to Europe, visiting their homeland in 1957. Even all those years later they had to travel by oxen to arrive at Grampa’s village. I remember the picture of them in the primitive wooden-wheeled cart, taken in front of his family home, still standing after two world wars. They stayed for three weeks and although her village was less than two days journey, Grampa did not want to visit, since none of her family had remained there. It was not until years after he died, in 1980, that Gramma flew to Slovenia and returned to Krska Vas, an eighty-year-old woman. She was driven into town by car. There were highways now and electricity and telephones and color television. She was amazed at the modernity, but also at how much of her little village was recognizably still the same.
The morning of her arrival there was much activity centered around her precious parish church. It seemed as though there was some sort of celebration beginning. There was a television crew from Ljubljana and visitors from everywhere. They learned it was the 75th anniversary of the blessing of the bells in the church tower. Gramma remembered the day as a small but impressionable five-year-old, recalling with clarity the huge cart rolling into town carrying the massive bronze bells. Even the Bishop had visited their town to bless them before they were installed. In minutes a reporter was holding a microphone to her mouth, recording her recollections for State TV. It was only a small moment in a month-long visit that warmed her often throughout her final years of life.
She visited the church cemetery, hoping to locate the grave of her little brother Franck who she had lost years before. She contacted the pastor and while he searched old parish records inside the church office, she wandered through the church yard, walking and trying to remember the spot where he had been laid to rest. The priest came out with the old record book and confirmed she was standing only a few feet from the actual gravesite. She placed flowers on the spot and knelt and prayed over him. It had taken her sixty-four years, but she was back home.
On June 25, 1991, nearly a year after we buried Gramma, Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. I celebrated for my grandparents, that their homeland once again had its own identity. I was proud for its people but more so for the memory of my Gramma. I began this by saying it was not my story, but rather her story. Actually this is the story of us all, unless your family name happens to be Eagle or Bear or Cloud. And it doesn’t matter if your family came here as steerage, in a wagon from Canada, a truck from Mexico, on the Mayflower or a 747. Each had its own hardships. Most trips were difficult and made at a high cost one way or another. Every voyage held a certain danger, a little trepidation, some perhaps, even intrigue. Tears were surely shed before, during or after the journey. There were those who did not stay, returning to the safety of the world they had known from birth. But the ones who did – the Grammas and Grampas of this country – gave us the gift that came of their great sacrifice.