Thursday, August 2, 2012

My Father's Father

It was on this day in 1923 that my father was born. This evening much of the family will gather at my brother's house in Michigan to celebrate Dad's 89th birthday. Four generations of family will be represented.

The blessed event whose anniversary is being feted took place in a small village in rural Lower Bavaria. It was the year of Germany's hyper-inflation. My paternal grandfather--and family patriarch until his death in 1987--used to tell us how workers would be paid twice daily, at lunch and at quitting time. Woe to the worker who failed to purchase necessities with that noonday pay before returning to the job because by day's end it would have already lost much of its value.

It was in that same year of 1923 that my grandfather left Bavaria and came to America. Like so many immigrants, Grandpa passed through Ellis Island, although my father has told me that my grandfather was no fan of that place because of the abuse he witnessed there. Grandpa's brother, so the story goes, was rejected due to poor eyesight and ended up in Argentina.

Grandpa once told me he arrived in America and made his way to Pittsburgh to work in the steel mills. At the time there were no jobs so he jumped on a freight train and rode the rails westward. He said the bulls threw him off the train in Toledo, Ohio, and that's how he came to settle there. Apparently, that story is apocryphal, the kind of tall tale you wow young children with. But I have always liked it and prefer not to challenge its veracity.

Dad with two great-granddaughters at his 89th birthday party.

As a high school student I studied for one year at a school in Austria and learned the German language. Visiting relatives in Bavaria when the school year was over I was told my grandparents were arriving in Munich the next day. When we met at the airport they spoke German. I was astonished. Chalk it up to a childlike naivete, or just a general lack of common sense on my part, a deficiency I have to this day been unable to remedy, at least according to my dad. In my defense at the time, I had in all my 17 years never heard my grandparents speak German. They always spoke English as far as I knew. They had a slight accent, but so did my maternal grandparents. They were from Poland and Switzerland but in my adolescent analysis I just figured you gradually developed an accent as you went through life accumulating experience. It never occurred to me people spoke with an accent because they were speaking a second language.

After I recovered from the initial shock I found it rewarding to converse with my grandparents in their mother tongue. I believe my grandparents were also pleased I had learned German, although I can't recall them ever expressing such a sentiment outright. I do believe my grandfather was deeply dismayed when I returned to Europe after graduating college. At the time I considered moving there indefinitely. I think he took that as a personal affront after all the incredible sacrifices he had made to bring his family to America. He had made the desperate trip in 1923 and had found work in a strange land, learned the language and saved money for several years before being able to pay for the passages of his wife and two young children, including my father.

Of course one consequence of Grandpa's coming to America which is impossible to overlook is that my father eventually grew up to become a member of what has been called the greatest generation. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during WWII and served in the Pacific. Had my father grown up in Germany, well, that alternate history is unthinkable.

Speaking with Grandpa and Grandma in German seemed to open them up to stories of their youth in Bavaria. I was enthralled by those glimpses of their childhood and I continue to cherish them. They alone provide reward enough for having learned the German language.

Before I go to my brother's house this evening for my father's 89th birthday party, let me share one of Grandpa's stories.

During WWI my grandfather was too young to be conscripted. Two older brothers fought and fell on the eastern front. But he remained on the farm in Lower Bavaria, where Russian POWs were put to use working the land. My grandfather oversaw a group of those men and a natural bond developed. The Russians taught Grandpa some of their language, including "piosh," the word for dog. For his part, my grandfather would sometimes supply the Russians with vodka, which was forbidden them by the local authorities.

One day, returning from the fields with the Russian POWs, their group was stopped by local police. My grandfather, about 14 years old at the time, watched as the officers checked the men's papers and the captain demanded to know how to say his official rank in Russian. One of the POWs replied with a word familiar to my grandfather. When the police captain beat his chest and proudly proclaimed, "I am piosh," my grandfather nearly busted a gut trying not to laugh at this spectacle of a fool.

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