Sunday, July 2, 2017

Tell her the truth -- a family story of immigration -- legal or otherwise?

“Tell her the truth, Carl,” Great Uncle Leo urged his older brother, my grandfather.
 “Tell her the truth.”
I leaned in, listening heartily. Something juicy, details of a family story I had not heard before were hovering to be revealed. A romantic tale of strife and adventure?
 I would not be disappointed. 
Sometime in my mid to late 20s, perhaps around the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots in the mid 1970s, I started to question mine. Which waves of migration were my ancestors part of? Grandpa and Uncle Leo were visiting my parents, and I was there to quiz them. When did the first member of the Bartels’ clan arrive. Where did he come from, how did he come,  and more curiously why?  Grandpa did not have to go back far. Carl Bartels, his father, was a farmer who emigrated from Prussia, from what was referred to as the Polish Corridor.
  “The truth,” Leo insisted. 
And so it came out. Part reluctant spurts. Part quick gush. Not too much. Just enough.
The  first Carl Bartels was not Carl Bartels. Cornelius Janzen was  a Mennonite who refused to fight in the Prussian Army. He was conscripted anyway and given kitchen duty. He didn’t like the Army, nor the kitchen duty and fled to Holland where he hopped a boat. A stowaway, he was discovered at sea and so worked his way over — again with kitchen work — to New York Harbor.  A family, named Bartels, befriended him and by the time he reached Ellis Island in 1888, Cornelius had a new name.  He entered as a fake member of the family of his new acquaintances.
“He worked hard to make the Bartels name proud,” my grandfather insisted. He continued the story. 
(Cornelius) Carl sold apples on the streets of New York, made his was to West Virginia, worked in a mine until the mine blew up. He moved again and settled in southern Ohio, where he worked — the rest I knew and can complete— as did three of his four sons for the same manufacturing company. My grandfather Carl, his oldest son, began working at age 15 and rose to serve as vice president.
 That was it —  the short version — though another relative, working off my discovery,  would  later interview family members and fill in details: my favorite from his army days— Cornelius did not like peeling potatoes. He did not like the army custom of carrying fully charged hand grenades, one in either hand, to demonstrate discipline.
I  asked my dad, also Carl, why I had never heard this history of our name. 
His reply: he didn’t know it. 
Even though (Cornelius) Carl had lived with him for a time while he was growing up. Even though (Cornelius) Carl’s brother Franz had also come from Prussia and had lived with them for a time and worked at the same factory before returning to his homeland. My father said he didn’t know Franz was a “real” uncle. News to him. 
Buoyed by new truths and enhanced by studies in American literature — courses like “The Myth of America,”   I wound this story into my own heroic one. I was the descendant of a young man who had arrived in this great country with almost nothing to his (phony) name and created wealth and a family of respectable citizens — doctors, lawyers, businessmen among them. My grandfather was rich enough to own a Baby Blue Cadillac.  Rags to riches. That story. 
 I was the descendant of a man who stood true to his principles at personal risk, who made his way despite obstacles to this land of religious freedom and opportunity.  Like young conscientious objectors I knew (and admired) who sought alternative service in the Vietnam War, my great-grandfather was a pacifist.  He was also a deserter, but to me, for good cause.  Principles over submission. Religous freedom. That story. 
Now at an age closer to what my grandfather was when he gave me this story, I know one’s life is more complex (and less romantic) than its stories. What I saw as  principled behavior may have been nuanced and included fear, even shame for my great-grandfather and his children.  
There had to be a  reason to keep this secret so secret. Lately when I read haughty comments on Facebook such as  — Immigrants, are fine, but they should  come here legally, and follow the rules just like everybody else, I wonder how many other “everybody elses" have stories like mine.  It's then I defiantly fancy myself as the great-granddaughter of an “Illegal immigrant.”  That’s not really true— what would “illegal” even look like in 1888? The cousin who filled in details speculated that being a  deserter from the German army may have been the secret Carl didn’t want discovered, but I think it is possible that sneaking into the country under somebody else’s name was at least the secretive equivalent to illegal immigration. 
Carl Bartels became a naturalized citizen.
According to that cousin’s research he arrived in 1888 and was naturalized  in 1894. From what I can tell at that time one didn’t have to do too much.  Registered residence, work  and staying here and out of trouble led to naturalization? Likely many had no proof of identification or birth.  
A decade ago I clipped a story from the New York Times bylined by Benedict Carey and titled “This is Your Life (and How you tell it). The article chronicled research done on personal narrative and the psychological effects. One of the studies — and a subsequent book called The Redemptive Self, a title at once endearing to my heart — by   Dan P. McAdams suggested that  so-called generative adults tend to see the events of their lives in the reverse order — as linked by themes of redemption. An example: They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh.  Negative experiences were superseded by positive ones. I had done that to Great-grandpa Carl’s story — and my own. Another personal narrative researcher cited in the article, Jonathan Adler, suggested that those in therapy who successfully healed from problems such as depression or eating disorders  “characterized their difficulties as if it were an outside enemy (the black dog, the wall of shame). And eventually they conquered it. The way the story is told influences the shape of one's life. 
 Sadly, subsequent events of that first Carl’s life reveal a mixed narrative rather than a heroic one. How would he have told his story? Who controls the narrative?
I do here.  As I seek my personal story, I choose the mythic one  even as I seek to tell  the "Truth."