You wouldn’t think that a Germanic history of our family would cause me to write about Russia. It goes toward my point that Europeans coming to the United States were at times running for their lives to get away from Europe. Russia has been in war, conflict, or revolution almost continuously for hundreds of years. Russia keeps to itself and wants the world to mind its own business. If you stick your nose in their business you’ll find that the eighteen hundreds were filled with tangles with Turkey, Egypt, France, and themselves. The United States was involved in the war of 1812. Then the Civil War in the 1850’s and 60’s. Then we had the fallout from that war as people worked to reestablish their lives as newly emancipated citizens, or beginning again after losing most of their families. The Civil War had death tolls as high as fifty thousand people in one battle alone. The recovery lasted thirty years and then there were the deaths from the flu epidemic in the second decade of the twentieth century. Then France was in an all out battle for its life with Germany and we aided them by taking part in the first world war.
So imagine with me again how much conflict was ongoing around the world. Eastern Europe was often unstable and conflicts surrounded people who had to decide if they would be safe where they were or if they needed to leave. So much like conditions in the world today. Our ancestors were often affected directly by or surrounded by dangerous wartime actions. This was during a time when information was not detailed as it is today. What did a citizen know about war or violence until they were conscripted to fight. War was a large and scary cloud. Decisions were made by monarchs, Queens, or dignitaries who were not talking to the press like today. Lives were simple and most travelled very little. Think of the courage it took to decide that leaving a continent was the best choice to go to another continent with its own conflicts. Imagine how strong the rumor of personal freedom must have been that it so struck the heart of people who were controlled for centuries by one leader or another.
Russia was and is an aggressive country. While we discuss ad nausea the horrors of Hitler in Germany we forget to discuss at length a country to the north and east that killed to win, to gain land, to replace its leaders. Germans were held as prisoners during conflicts with Russia. Russia had prison camps, starved and killed thousands and thousands of people much like Germany. Hundreds of thousands of men died in conflicts. Leaders even used the dangers of Russian winters to freeze to death German soldiers who lay frozen in the snow unrecovered. German families knew of this huge country that could attack them. After our families were probably gone Stalin led Russia on what seems like an endless killing spree. He killed anyone he wanted by the thousands. His own people and others. I would imagine that threat weighed on Germany but Germany tended to aggress towards Russia as one of its unstable neighbors.
Today if you decided to go to the United States you would get out your credit card and book a flight. Then, you travelled by horse, by foot, by wagon to the Atlantic ocean and sought out a ship that would transport you. Many men and women made agreements to get their passage paid on a ship but they had to work as indentured servants to the owner of the agreement for five to seven years to earn their freedom. There was no guarantee they would live through the time of being indentured either from their treatment or from disease. If you sold your belongings to pay your travel then you arrived in a new country with only your wits to help you get work. Cities like New York were lawless, dirty, rat filled, without sanitary services like we have today. I can imagine Germans wanted to move west toward Wisconsin and Minnesota as it was less populated and had opportunities to start farms. The effort to get there must have been difficult. Once you were there you had to clear your land of trees for pasture, handle weather, wolves, bear, and Indians.
I remember our Wenzel family referring to ourselves as German and we identified ourselves as such although I am sure we are a mixture of European groups. So I will stay with the German identity and talk about the difficulties they experienced once they arrived in America. Prior to world war one Germans settled with some success creating their own cultural areas in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Wisconsin, New York, and Minnesota. They were known for their strong farming skills, disciplined work ethic, and schools. Initially when the Germans settled they established schools with German and English language. They were the culture that started Kindergarden, or childrens’ garden. Germans participated in the civil war. They suffered through the great flu epidemic.
Things began to change for them when world war one started. Germany was being aggressive in Europe and France was in need of help. Germans began to have an association with the aggressors of Germany whether they lived there or not. Grandpa Ruschmeyer would repeat a saying every once in a while that started to make sense with my studies. He would say with his German brogue, ” All us goot Germans must togetter Schtick” In other words all of us who are good Germans must stick together. They looked out for each other as the word about the war in France was changing how Americans saw them. They made it through world war one only to face world war two. Germany again became an aggressor and most of Europe was involved in protecting themselves. Russian, France, England, the Netherlands, Austria, and on it went expanding finally to Japan and Africa. During those years the United States formed German prisoner of war camps in every state of the union. Believe it or not they existed. Once again our German families faced the possibility of confinement. When the United States received German prisoners from the European conflict they would ship them to Wisconsin to stay until the war was over. Think of the pressure of our farming families trying to stay out of site. Worrying about whether they would lose their land or freedom. Yet how many of our family actually fought with the Allies? Your grandpa Wenzel did. He was three or four generations born in America but he flew over Germany and Bombed the shit out of cities and who knows how many died out of his actions. I am amazed when I think of how loyal people became to the United States when it was only a couple hundred years since the first colonists arrived. Native americans served too. So much change in such a small amount of time. So all of us GOOD Germans must stick together as we never know what a new day will bring.