At the moment, I am sitting in history—my history, or at least part of it. I am in Alzey, Germany, which is located in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. For many Americans who have German ancestors that arrived before the Revolution, it is likely that they came from this region or the surrounding states. And as I research my own family history I have found that many of my ancestral families were from all over this region.
However, there are only two of my ancestral families that brought me here and, in addition, one other family that led me to Strasbourg, France. By no choice of their own, of course these three families were caught up in the politics and destruction of the Thirty Years War and the poor harvests, natural disasters, and famine in the decades followed.
In 1709, these families of mine and thousands more made a very difficult decision. They made the decision to leave their homeland—everybody and everything that they had ever known—and seek to find a place where they could survive and thrive, a place where their children would grow up with a future that was more promising than the starvation they faced at that time.
They made the decision to become refugees.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a refugee as someone “who seeks shelter especially in another country, from war, disaster, or persecution.” In all the years that I have researched my family origins and pondered my family history, I had never once thought of them as refugees. At least I didn’t until three or four years ago, when refugees began pouring into Europe, seeking a place where they and their families could live in safety and thrive.
At that time, I made an important discovery for myself. These three families were part of a very well documented group of Germans who left Germany in 1709, followed the Rhine river to Rotterdam, boarded a ship to England and arrived in London penniless, with no resources. They lived in refugee camps for several months until Queen Anne sent them to the colony of New York. There, in order to pay for passage and provisions they were to make tar out of the sap of indigenous pine trees for the British Navy.
These people were farmers and vintners and had no knowledge of how to make tar, especially from the indigenous pine trees of New York. The sap was not quite right for the process and the tar produced was inferior and could not be used.
So, in order to pay off their passage and provisions, Queen Anne conscripted the men of fighting age to go to fight the English war with the French which was raging in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was there, fighting a battle for a monarch who was not really his and whose language he could not speak, my ancestor Conrad Goldtman died.
For days, after I made that discovery, my mind was occupied by thoughts of these families—the Goldtmans and the Starnes. It was a few weeks after that first discovery that I found out that the third family, the Kleins from Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine were also a part of that group, however, when they reached London, they were turned away because they were Catholic. The other two families were Lutheran and Reformed.
In London, the Klein family was deported back to the Strasbourg area and it would be forty years before this family would reach the colonies, when another disaster left the region without food and for the second time, my family became refugees.
And so, for the last, almost four, years now, I have thought about my families as refugees—something that I had never thought about before. I have wondered what questions they might have asked themselves in order to make the decision to leave a place, not really knowing if life would be better.
How long did they give themselves before enough was enough and they had to leave?
How long did they wait to see if their situation would improve so that they would not have to leave?
How would they manage along the way?
How would it feel to never see loved ones again?
How would it feel not to know when someone died or when someone was born?
Would their children be healthy enough for the trip?
What would be the chances of survival?
What would the ship crossing be like?
Would they survive it?
And when they reached the unknown land, would they know how to survive there?
The most important question that they asked themselves must have been: will it be worth it?
These are just a few of the questions that I imagine that my families asked in order to make the decision to become refugees and leave Germany. These are also questions that people ask today when they are considering leaving their home countries and becoming refugees.
As I thought about it, it seemed interesting to me that my families left Germany as refugees over 300 years ago and currently, there are many, many refugees seeking a better way of life in Germany. Their circumstances may be a little different, but the questions that my ancestors asked and answered in 1709 are the same questions that refugees today must answer. I will explore this understanding in another article.
So, for three years, I have dreamed about visiting this area where my ancestors left. I have felt drawn to this place, as if I was being pulled by some unseen rope or called by unheard voices. I also knew that talking with current refugees, living in Germany, might help me understand my ancestors a little better.
And maybe, by visiting this place, I might be able to answer my most important question: was it worth it?
I arrived in Alzey in the first week of April, just after Easter and at the beginning of spring. Part of me felt like I did the first time I was in Germany, when I was 19 years old. At that time I was a little anxious, being in a place where I did not speak the language, but I was with 30 of my closest friends—the 1980 Pfeiffer College Concert Choir—and I knew that there were adults who were taking care of us.
Still, the last morning that we were here, our flight time was changed and we would have to reach the airport two hours earlier than first planned. My hostess was a wonderful woman, but she must have felt anxious as well, because she spoke no English and of course, I spoke no German. I remember worrying all the night before, tossing and turning, anxious that our hostess might not understand that our time was changed. The next morning, I remember, she welcomed me awake with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and a smile. Then she pointed to the clock and I knew that she understood and that things would be ok.
I have thought about that experience several times over the last seven weeks that I have been here. What my 19-year-old self discovered that morning, but would soon forget and rediscover over and over, is that there is a deep and abiding Presence that surrounds me and indeed, surrounds all of us. Sometimes we recognize it and sometimes we don’t, but the deep and abiding presence of the Holy One is always with us, always available, breathing on us the breath of life, offering us hope and peace.
In the first days that I was here I was again anxious. I am really no better at speaking German. What if I couldn’t understand? What if I couldn’t make myself understood? What if I get lost? After all, I was all alone.
The second evening I was in Alzey, I ordered something at a restaurant that I thought was a glass of apple juice and a glass of sparkling water. What I got was a glass of the two mixed together. I had been walking so much that day and I was very hot and thirsty. That combination tasted like life and energy itself. It sparkled on my tongue and made me smile. It was so good and I got it by mistake, because I didn’t understand the language and couldn’t make myself understood! And for a moment, I breathed and the anxiety diminished.
Riding trains intrigue me, but at first it was outside of my comfort zone. I love the thought of being able to hop on a train and get where I need to go, but again, the language that I can’t understand combined with some trains that did not have tickers announcing the next stop made me anxious. I kept wondering when I would feel more comfortable, since that would be my main method of transportation for two months.
It took an experience in Stuttgart, early in my travels, when I missed a connection because the platform for the train I had been waiting for had been changed. I, of course, did not understand the German and therefore wasn’t paying attention, until the time of departure came and went. I saw a young man coming toward me, who spoke to me in German and then switched to English when he realized I didn’t understand him. He noticed my confused look and wanted to help.
And he did. He took me to information and asked about the train, found out that the platform had changed and I had just missed it. He found out the time and platform for the next train I could take. Then he bought me coffee, took me to my platform and said don’t move for 20 minutes. I laugh now at that memory and wonder what he must have thought. He was a refugee from Algeria and probably had had something similar happen. Again, I was able to breathe and the anxiety diminished.
I have gotten better at the anxiety by realizing that my worst fears had already come to pass and I survived. I know what to do if I don’t understand a menu or a sign or a receipt or anything else that I might need to read. I know the intricacies of train travel and know that if connections are missed, another train always comes along. Except in France where there is a strike and they can cancel one train and the next one, combine trains together, change the time completely and refuse to speak English to an American whose French is almost as bad as her German. Somehow, something always works out, such as a handsome man coming along, looking at me and stating the obvious: “You don’t speak French well, do you?”
What I have learned from these experiences is that refugees struggle with language problems and with anxious moments. What I learned about my ancestors is that what they did would have been difficult to do without the understanding that they were not alone, but surrounded by the deep and abiding presence of the Holy One. I wonder how much they worried as I have. I wonder how much fear was shared among them and how much joy they experienced as things worked out.
And I have learned from the many refugees, that I have talked to, that their journeys were equally difficult, causing anxiety on many levels. However, their journey brought them to a deeper understanding that they were not alone and that God’s presence was powerful for them in many, many circumstances.
So, this day, this moment, I sit writing in a place of my history, knowing that this experience has changed me in profound ways. I do not want to leave this place where I have been pulled by an unseen rope and called by the unheard voices of my ancestors, but I must. I have been grieving for several days because in so many ways I know that this place is a part of me. I have discovered a little more about who I am and a whole lot more about the love and care God has for me and indeed all of us. And I know that I will return, perhaps many, many times.
I have discovered, or maybe rediscovered, that there are challenges in all our lives and we cannot judge the decisions that others feel they have to make, such as leaving everything they know behind and embarking on a journey whose destination only God knows for certain.
I have discovered that I am proud of my ancestors—my refugee ancestors– and the challenges that their story has revealed to me. I am proud that they overcame the adversity that they met along the way—the loss, the death, the pain, the struggles, the loneliness, and the fear. The first generation may not have been able to say that it was all worth it, but other generations that followed have.
I have discovered powerful stories of courage from refugees that I have met here. I have met the older generation who wonders if the struggle to learn a new language and new customs will ever be accomplished and I have met the next generation of their children who think nothing of speaking a mixture of German, Farsi, and English and who feel safe to run and jump and play, something they would never be able to do in the places from where they came.
And I have learned so much more that I will share in several more articles.
As I close this first article, I am reminded of Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger—to welcome the stranger by feeding and clothing, taking care of those who are sick, visiting when in prison, offering a cup of water. I am reminded of this for two reasons and I have thought about it over and over. First, it is a clear command of Jesus to care for others no matter what—no matter if we agree or disagree with how they got into that position, no matter if we are afraid of what might happen, no matter if they repay us or not. And Second, I have been reminded of this because on this journey I have experienced it all.
I have been fed countless times. I have had people do my laundry countless times and that is sort of clothing me. I have had people caring for me by letting me rest when I needed to so I wouldn’t get sick. I have had people help me out when I have been imprisoned by my fear. I have been offered water over and over again, welcoming me to places I have never been except in the deepest desire of my heart.
And through it all, I know I am not the same. Thanks be to God.
To God alone be glory.