Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Deep Thanks for My Courageous German Great Grandmother

"Mareichtag and I are speaking nothing but English now. So we should feel at home when we get to America."

"To America!" [Watch the wonderful scene.]

I am a life-long fan of Casablanca, and as the years have gone by, I have discovered more and more cosmic connections to it.

Ten years after I moved to West 103 Street in Manhattan, another fan succeeded in documenting that Humphrey Bogart was born right across the street from our apartment. The city put up an official street sign and plaque, and Lauren Bacall and Stephen Bogart came to the unveiling. It was my beloved film coming to life right on my doorstep.

 I now have a new connection the classic: the short scene of Herr and Frau Leuchtag on their way to America.

Because, it turns out, I am truly part German. My great grandmother on my mother's side--Susanna Sander Waldis--was German and came to America in 1875 as a 10-year-old girl.

On Saturday I am on my way to Trier, Germany—Prussia in her day—which we now have documentation to prove is the town of her birth.

Wherein My Brother Discovers a Talent for Ancestry Research
It’s been quite the road of discovery. As an O’Neill, the Irish/Brooklyn Irish Catholic American-ness was the dominant culture growing up. My identity as a daughter of Erin is very strong, forged from the Clancy Brothers/Bing Crosby-fueled spirit in the household led by my dad and his best friends, my faux uncles.

My mother’s side of the family was quieter. And Lutheran. Growing up we knew that her maiden name—Brown—had been changed at Ellis Island, when her paternal grandfather came over from Norway. His name was Jacob Jacobsen. He returned to Norway late in life, and relatives sent a photo of his gravestone to show the money they were sent to bury him had been correctly spent. So that was clear.

There was also a family story about four china plates that my maternal grandmother had, that her mother had “brought over on the boat from Germany.”

That might seem clear, but it was fuzzy. There was just that one story, and nothing else. So growing up, being one-part German had no resonance. It didn't seem quite true.

My brother became interested in our ancestry some years ago when the confluence of the DNA companies and records of all types being scanned made amateur  research possible.

Working Backwards: Finding the Immigrant Ship from Liverpool
We knew our great grandmother’s name: Susanna Sander (or Saunders). Pat found the record of her marriage certificate in Manhattan in 1885 to Anthony Waldis, a man from Switzerland!  And the marriage certificate had the names of both sets of parents and where they were born. That is how we learned of Lorenz Sander and Helene Berrens, from Trier, Germany.

Patrick next found a 10-year-old Susanna Sander on a ship manifest, leaving Liverpool, England in 1875.  It was the SS Kenilworth, and it docked in the port of Philadelphia on January 7, 1875.

The beauty of this: there are guilds of volunteers who type hand-written ship manifests into databases that can be searched.  Isn’t that wonderful.  If no one did that, then the handwritten documents would be completely silent.

As it happens, I had the opportunity to be in Liverpool in June. And so I found myself at Albert Dock, and the Maritime Museum, which is more and more exploring the enormous historical significance of Liverpool in the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The museum has a permanent exhibit where they try to re-create the experience of those ships in the late 1800s. I walked between the wooden bunks, around the large galley tables, all on an angle with the sound of water lapping against the walls, but I knew nothing can re-create immigrant steerage travel conditions in 1875.

Maritime Museum Immigrant Ship Experience; Liverpool, England

I tried to imagine little Susanna and her 44-year-old mom and 5 siblings, speaking no English, making their way to Liverpool--how?--and then waiting for their ship.

There is a statue on Albert Dock commissioned by the Mormons--the MVPs of genealogy--called The Crossing. It shows a 19th century immigrant family-- a mother and father with the kids--but I imagine the reality was many women traveled alone, crossing with their children, joining the husbands who went over earlier.

Liverpool, England; Albert Dock
The Maritime Museum has a great restaurant on the top floor. I raised a glass of wine to Susanna and her brave mother and siblings, getting on that ship, not knowing the language, not knowing what that 2-week voyage would be like, and what was ahead.

Liverpool, England; Maritime Museum at Albert Dock
Susanna grew up and made her way in the New World, married a man from Switzerland in Manhattan, and they moved to a farm near Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Farm life is harsh, I don't think she had a particularly happy life. She had 10 children, only 2 of whom survived childhood: my grandmother Rena, and her sister, my great aunt Helen. My grandmother is the one who escaped the farm by becoming a maid for a Lutheran minister who lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.  She is one of the links that gave me the enormous gift of being born in Brooklyn. My great aunt Helen never escaped rural Pennsylvania.

I guess it's not so unusual that there weren't more family details of Susanna's immigrant experience. She had made it to America and did not want to be seen as an outsider.  She came to live with her daughter and my mom in Brooklyn around 1938 when she was in her 70s. My mom says that she spoke without any accent. How/when she learned English is not known. She was a voracious reader--mom says my grandmother was always going to the library to bring her new books. That makes me feel close to her, and I hope she found great enjoyment there.

Susanna died in Brooklyn in 1950 at 85, and is buried with her people back in Pennsylvania.

So, Which Religion Are We?
And now I have the very great privilege to return to Trier. I have never been to Germany, I’ve had no particular desire to visit, but I want to see where the Sanders came from, and great grandmother Susanna lived until she was 10.  Lost to history is any reason why they left.

There is one more little twist to this lineage tale. My mother was baptized Lutheran, as was her mother, and we assumed,  Susanna and her husband from Switzerland. My grandmother married a Norwegian American in the Swedish Seamen’s Church in Brooklyn, a Lutheran church.

I have an appointment at the Trier Diocese Archives office. They verified that they have parish records from 1800s showing the Sander family baptisms and deaths at Saint Gervasius Church.

Trier is a Catholic city. Saint Gervasius is a Catholic Church. So Susanna came to the US a Catholic.


We knew about the sadness of Susanna's 8 children dying.

We only recently learned a crucial detail from a cousin of my mom's: when the local rural priest came to bury one of the children, Susanna gave him some money (which is customary). He threw it on the ground and said it was not enough.

It’s an ugly, heartbreaking story. When Susanna’s later children were born, she had them baptized Lutheran.

In a twist of fate, my mother married a Roman Catholic, she later converted to Catholicism, and I was baptized Catholic. So I will return to Susanna’s homeland as a daughter of her original faith. It sadly made me pause to think of the thousands who have died over the centuries in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, when it's really all in the family.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'll continue the story on the other side.

Susanna Sander Waldis, circa 1930, rural Pennsylvania


Deepster Langan said...

This is a gorgeous place, and I won't soon forget it. Attended an event here sponsored by the company. The reception hour was held in one of the rooms next to the venue NYC hall. I loved their buttery mashed sweet potato.