A Journey to Freedom
By Kristen Debler
In the year 1866, Prussia and Austria declared war on each other. Many people fled Prussia and Austria because they did not want to fight or have their sons fight in the war. This war in history, is known as the Seven Weeks War. This story is inspired by the journey of my great-grandmother, Christine Debler, on her way to America. She journeyed here from Bessarabia, Russia, which was part of Prussia. I want to dedicate this story to her. She was a magnificent woman who overcame humongous obstacles. Even though the characters in this story are fictional the part about Leisel getting sick on the ship is what actually happened to my grandmother on her trip to America. The story takes place in Prussia during the beginning of the war.
“Leisel, come back here,” Mutter scowled. But, I didn't listen. I just couldn't stand to be inside anymore. It was like the summer breezes were calling me to go out and frolic with them. I could hear the birds singing in the trees, smell the scents of the flowers. I could even hear the bees buzzing and making beautiful music together, and feel the sunshine bathing the red earth. It was a beautiful summer afternoon and I was not going to spend it inside. As I walked out the door, I felt the sun bathe me in its warmth. The tingling feeling of the heat was playing intimate sensations on my skin and I just stood there letting its platonic fingers touch my face. The sensations caused a sudden burst of energy to penetrate the muscles in my legs and feet. Before I knew it, I was running down the walk, through our familiar trodden path, to the field with a brook running nearby.
I played in the field by the brook for hours, unconsciously losing all track of time. Before I knew it, the moon was dancing on the hazy lit sky of the new evening, cradling the sun and reflecting God’s miraculous works through a bright array of colors, being painted by an invisible hand. With no flaws, as if the entire canvas had a planned journey and the painter was just the hand doing the part. On my way home, I looked into the millions of eyes of the moonlit sky and felt a surge of happiness run through me. Life was good.
As the feeling was still clinging to my soul, I noticed a being in the house with my mother. As I looked into the window closely, I realized the shadowed silhouette dancing in the fragmented pieces of the window was not my father. I scurried into the house, pre-tempered and shocked. Who was this man? But, as I entered the room, my mother and a very tall soldier turned towards me. The mas was dressed in a soldier’s attire and my precarious attempts of anger left me for fear. I stood looking at the man, baffled, but with a respectful stance.
“Leisel, this is Sergeant Franz Heiter, he is here to talk about your brothers," Mutter said with a worried expression on her face. Sergeant Heiter held his hand out to me and I shook it. “It is very nice to meet you.” He turned towards my mother, “We will be in touch Ma’am.” Mutter sat down as the soldier left, clutching her hand over her mouth. I knew why she was upset. Fater and she had recently been talking about the war. It seemed that both sons were of legal age to fight. Franz was fifteen and Dieter was seventeen.
Fater came home and saw Mutter in the chair. “Leisel, can you go to your room please? I need to talk to your Fater.” I ran into the back room and ran head first into Franz. I pushed him out of way. “Mutter and Fater are talking about you.”
Dieter answered, “I know. We saw the Sergeant. What are they saying?” Franz wasn't going to stand around and wait to be summoned and started to eavesdrop from the hallway. We both followed. It seemed like Mutter and Fater talked for forever. They called us all into the room and we could tell that this was going to be a very uncomfortable conversation. The tension was extremely contagious.
“Leisel, Franz, and Dieter, come here please. We need to talk to you,” Fater said. I could tell that Mutter was upset. She was clutching onto the arms of her chair and her arms were turning white. “Kinder,” Fater said. “You know that we love you all very much. That is why what we are about to do concerns the well being of this entire family and you are all going to have to be very brave, okay?”
“What are you talking about? Does this have to do with why the Sergeant was here today?” I asked curiously. My two brothers gave each other worried expressions, and Fater looked at us wisely. We all became very quiet.
“How do I begin to put this in a way that you children understand?” Fater asked himself.
“Fater just tell us. We are not children anymore. We have the right to know.” Dieter said sternly.
“You are right son. You are not little children anymore. As you know, Austria and Prussia declared war against each other. The army is recruiting soldiers starting around the age of fifteen, to train. That is why the sergeant was here today. Your Mutter and I have been discussing this for a long time, and we have come up with a solution to your brothers' fighting and possibly dying in this war. We are going to move, because if we do not then the world that we know is going to change anyway."
Leisel interrupted. “Where are we moving to?” she asked excitedly.
“Leisel, always in the mood for an adventure. Well, we have contemplated this and there is really not much that we can do in the rest of Europe, and home would be so close for comfort. We are going to move to America. Where we can start our lives over again.” All of the happy expressions left the children’s faces.
“America,” Franz had finally broken the silence. “America is a country very far away. What are we supposed to do there? We can’t even speak the language. How are we going to understand them, let alone cope with the culture and the people? I don’t want to start over. I do not want to leave my home, where I have grown up. This town has loved plowed into it, my heart tattooed into it, and my ancestors blood shed into it. How can we leave our country and our countrymen behind? They will think that we are cowards.”
“Son, protecting your family from the nightmares of war and the shadows of death is not cowardice. You and your brother have not lived your lives yet, and your Mutter and I could not ask you to die for a country that you barely know. We want you to be able to have a family and enjoy the life that has been given you.” Mutter got up and put her hand on Fater’s shoulder. “Children, your Fater and I did not come to this decision lightly. We understand all of the feelings you have about leaving. I am apprehensive myself. Your Fater grew up on this very land. It has been in his family for generations. All of the blood, sweat and ashes have been planted here on this farm. But we have a responsibility to you children, to keep you safe and provide for you. Sometimes, these decisions call for things that we do not like and we have to do them anyway. That is what is going to happen in this case.”
“Well, there is really nothing that we can do about it now. You are the parents and have made the decision to move. We can either stay here or fight, while losing the people that we are fighting for or we can move to America and try to start a new life together.” Dieter said. Fater made one last attempt to help us see the light. He explained to us that we did not have to leave our heritage behind but that we can take it with us. As a family we can overcome these hardships, together. We all understood that it was for the best but we all still felt like cowards running away in the shadows of the night.
Part Two: On Our Way
We have less than one week before we set sail for America. I know that it is supposed to be the best thing for us to do, but I can’t stand the thought of leaving my home. The days flew by like seconds and I dreaded the day that we left. Doesn't it always work like that? When you want the days to pass by slowly, they fly by like hawks on the search for food. The day finally came where we had to go. There was no “Bon Voyage” party, saying goodbye to friends or anything. Just a fleeing by night. Saying goodbye to Prussia and never turning back.
The ship was covered with people. People who were leaving for the same reasons we were and hating themselves for it. Mothers with children hanging off their bosoms, and men with some object they could hold on to for a memory. It was all so pathetic. Look at us, fleeing our home because of fear of war. We made our way down to the decks below, which held the sleeping deck. The bunks were small, and the floor looked just as hard. Some people were already sleeping on the floor because the bunks were going fast. The food that was provided was already hard, stale and dry. Some containing parts of mildew and bugs. It was disgusting but it was nourishment. The only thing that we could do at the moment was sleep. So we did.
The next morning, I woke up sick to my stomach. I felt like vomiting and found myself running to the deck and being sick over the edge. When I got back to the sleeping deck, I felt worse. Mutter was up and she looked at me with concern. She tried to give me some water but I could not hold it down and ended up running back up to the deck and vomiting again. When I came back down, Mutter said that I looked as pale as a ghost. Fater told her that I looked a little seasick but that I would be fine. But, by then, my stomach was so tangled up and cramping all I wanted to do was sleep. There was sweat falling off my brow. I laid back down and tried to go back to sleep.
A little bit later, Mutter tried to get me to eat but I threw that up too. Mutter started getting afraid because I couldn't hold anything down, especially water. The sickness lasted for a week and my parents were afraid that I was going to die on the ship. They tried all they knew but no matter what, nothing stayed in my stomach. Finally, a woman on the ship noticed that I was having problems and told my Mutter to give me some beer. This was a success in itself. It calmed down my stomach and it was the only thing that kept me alive the rest of the trip.
A couple of days later, I woke up feeling more alive than I had in weeks. The day was so gorgeous. I went onto deck and the ocean was so calm and collected. It kind of reminded me of the day at the brook. For the first time, I could enjoy the beauty of the ocean. I noticed the foam coming off each wave and how each wave was a part of each other. I was able to see some dolphins and other sea creatures, and just when I was about to yell for Dieter to come and look, there was a shout. Land had been spotted.
Part Three: New York City - Ellis Island
Lady of Light
Lady, oh beautiful lady
Symbol of comfort and joy
People seek you
They kiss away your tears,
They cry at your very sight,
Your miraculous beauty.
They believe in your message
“Life, Liberty, Love”
They gawk at it like an uplifting message
From a preacher to a church congregation.
They come from all over to be knighted
By your majesty’s honor,
To be shielded by the radiance of your torch
You will protect them from the dangers of their previous life.
You are the lady of light
You make us become “The Land of the free”
You shine by the dawn’s early light
“Home of the brave”” rings for your being
You are a symbol of freedom,
Our great symbol of liberty.