Monday, May 27, 2013

One immigrant's story

My Grandfather, Edvard Wallner, 1930.
Probably like every immigrants' story my grandparents' story includes a twist of fate.

My grandfather was in his 40s during the World War II and was likely pressed into some sort of service as all able-bodied German men and male children were toward the end of the war. It was never clear what my grandfather did during the war. My father was born in a refugee camp in Grotniki, Poland in 1941. This always seemed dubious to me. How was a conception and pregnancy possible during this part of the war?  They were German nationals who called Lithuania home: What were they doing in Poland? There were vague stories about my grandfather being an officer's driver, and the family fleeing a fire-bombed Dresden which my father claimed to remember. There are many holes in the story and I can only assume the holes are filled with a combination of heroics, shame and survival.

Questioning the story was not possible. I didn't have a good enough command of German (and no comprehension of Lithuanian) to ask the questions myself. All answers were filtered through my father's translations. Things were left out and my imagination is not kind.

But the story of their immigration to the United States has been told and retold many times, and the details aren't as sketchy. It is filled with heroics, shame and survival too.

Though the exact timeline isn't clear, it began sometime in the late '40s. Starving in post-war Germany, my grandparents made plans to emigrate. Their families had scattered around the globe after the war. My grandmother's family immigrated to Australia. My grandfather's family were in Canada, Chicago, and West Germany.

Having siblings already living in Australia and Canada, my grandparents tried to emigrate there first.

Tuberculosis was a threat. Because of this, all emigres had to have clean chest X-rays. My grandmother's showed spots. She had survived TB, but her X-rays called her out and Australia and Canada denied their visas.

Tapping into the resourcefulness that got him and his family through two wars, my grandfather came up with a plan. The U.S. required immigrants to have a sponsor. My grandfather contacted his cousin who was living on Chicago's south side in the Marquette Park neighborhood.  She and her husband agreed to sponsor my grandparents. But there was still the hurdle of the chest X-ray.

Wising up this time, my grandfather stepped on my grandmother's X-ray, obscuring the TB spots. Her X-ray now looked like many others — a poor-quality medical record. They were granted visas to the U.S. and told they were only allowed to bring $20 in cash per person with them on the boat voyage west. Ignoring this, my grandfather sewed $20 bills into his socks and the family embarked a ship leaving Hamburg for New York. They arrived in October, 1950.

The rest of their story is all-American. They got jobs, learned English (somewhat) and became U.S. citizens — my father being the last to become naturalized in 1976. ("I wanted to vote against Jimmy Carter," he told me once.) They led prosperous lives. Whenever the subject of the old country would come up, as it often did when we were all together, there was never longing. They were thankful to be here. Their gratitude was handed down to me.
They never returned to Germany. But I did. I went to Berlin in 1978, driving through East Germany to get there. I silently thanked my grandfather every mile of that drive. And I thank him  every Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Election Day, Veteran's Day, every time I hear the "Star Spangled Banner", every time I say the Pledge of Allegiance, every time I see the U.S. Flag, every time I call my myself an American.  


  1. Very moving, Lori. Thank you for reminding me of the significance of today. Your gratitude is especially touching.


  2. I saw your very interesting post about your father born in Grotniki, Poland as I was searching for articles about the Grotniki refugee camp. I didn't find much more about Grotniki than your article.
    My parents were also from Lithuania, met in the Grotniki refugee camp in the 1940s and emigrated to the US in 1952. I can share with you
    some of the history I know from having researched my Lithuanian ancestry. The Soviet Army invaded Lithuania in the summer of 1941, causing approximately 50,000 ethnic "Germans" (actually historically
    many former Austrians from Salzburg who spoke German and were Lutherans in Lithuania)to flee to Germany. They were settled in refugee camps in Grotniki and Rostow. The Mormons have microfilms of all the detailed German immigration records called "EWZ" where I found most of my relatives, their photos, and an unbelievable amount of personal data. You can rent the film of your Wallner family at and view them at a local Mormon church.

    A. Hirsch