[This is a re-post of our January 2017 post which was a re-post of our May 2, 2014 post that we felt has become even more relative today and needed to be said again. America’s strength is in its’ diversity. How many ways can we say it – America is a country of immigrants and it is what makes us great!]
This grapevine is growing on a trellis on the island of Harriersand in the Weser River near Bremen, Germany. Not where you expect grapevines, but these are very hardy, and from Missouri, just like the German emigrants that gathered there as members of the Giessen Emigration Society, in 1834. Looking forward to a new life in Missouri, “where the sun of freedom shines” their ship, the Olbers had left with one woman ill on board, and her disease spread like wildfire, nearly killing the entire ship. The second group was just beginning to gather in Bremen 180 years ago, only to soon learn that the ship that they’d booked, would never arrive. They would spend weeks on the island, some families even taking shelter in the huge old hausbarn on the island. Others pitched tents and some who could afford to found lodging in the nearby village of Brake. An emigrant needs all the funds they have saved for that new life.
Unless you have emigrated from one country to another, it is difficult to understand all one faces. On one level, there is the heated discussions with family and friends, if one’s chosen to share that plan. Some don’t because of this. When the Giessen Emigration Society left Germany, there were close friends very angry with the leaders, Muench and Follenius’ and their decision, labeling them traitors to “the cause”. Some of these same friends would be imprisoned and executed within two years. Others considered them leaving for an impossible dream, a Utopia.
On another more personal level when one is leaving behind all that one knows, whether good or bad, and giving up all one possesses in the world, it takes a great leap of faith. One hopes one will find one’s destination everything needed, and hoped for. When one arrives, one often faces discrimination; labeled an illegal emigrant when one isn’t, simply because of a name, one’s appearance or birthplace.
Others don’t understand how often emigrants make the best U.S. citizens. Why? Because an immigrant has chosen, worked hard, saved, and has given up everything to be a citizen. Immigrants often know the Declaration of Independence better than a natural born citizen. Why? Because they studied it, believed in it and chose the U.S. because of those words. Immigrants are very hardy stockholders in a better future for the U.S., because they have already paid a high price to make it their own.
One cannot go back. America is a melting pot for so many, as nearly all of our families were immigrants once. Once our own ancestors came here with their own dreams pinned with hope for a better future.
Friedrich Muench 1799-1881
Giessen Emigration Society boarding the Medora at Bremen in July 1834
Pink is German. Walter A. Schroeder, Rural Settlement Patters of the German-Missourian Cultural Landscape; The German-American Experience in Missouri, Marshall and Goodrich Editors, 1986
During the summer of 2009, I received an unusual email from Peter Roloff asking “if there was anything left of the Germans in Missouri?” Not knowing Herr Roloff, I thought the question strange, wondering where on earth was this person that they would ask such a question. Roloff was in Berlin, Germany and was head of the Traveling Sommer-Republik, a group of Germans interested specifically in the Giessen Emigration Society. I answered his email immediately with “of course! Missouri is very German!”.
The TSR had come together, after a question from Roloff’s close friend and script writer, Henry Schneider, asking him if he was aware of a group of over five-hundred Germans called the Giessen Emigration Society who had fled Germany in 1834. There had been summer
meetings in Bremen of Germans focused on the GES since 2004. Back in 1833, an emigration society had been formed by two young Germans, Paul Follenius (brother of Karl Follen) and Friedrich Muench, best friends, brother-in-laws, and former students at the University of Giessen. After reading Gottfried Duden’s Report on Missouri in 1829, and several years of youthful energy and involvement in the failed Revolution of 1832 Follenius had agreed to join his friend Muench if their project could be “done on a grand scale” so that many could benefit.
When founders Muench and Follenius published A Call for an Emigration at Large hoping to convince a few of their youthful friends to join them in September of 1833, they were amazed when thousands from all walks of life, and religions, wanted to join them. Plans began in earnest, the rules and Statutes were established and the lives, and the lives of their descendants, would be changed forever. Murphy’s Law establishes that everything does not always go as planned, and this group was certainly no exception. Their story as emigrants is dramatic and inspirational, as an example of what emigrants from Germany to the U.S. experienced in the 19th Century. It is the power of over 500 Germans who came together with one dream. The Germans that would remain behind, as their descendants today will explain, described the group as going to “their Utopia.” A fact that many Americans today have forgotten, is that America would ever even be considered such a place.
The TSR’s own adventure began that summer with their own visit to Missouri that they called “A Trip to a Forgotten Utopia” that was filmed for their fellow researchers (writers, artists, screen writers, photographers) back home. When the film was released at the next gathering of the TSR in 2010 I was invited to join them in Bremen. I was amazed to find myself in a film of my own back yard, explaining history of Missouri, to hundreds of Germans who were extremely interested, knowledgeable and aware of the story! In the days that followed our conversations led to a discussion to doing more collaborations. In 2011, the TSR would return to Missouri and with the Missouri Germans Consortium, would share the story and generate even more interest in the collaborative project..
The discussions, and back and forth and subsequent visits, led to a decision to produce a collaborative book, in both English and German, that was about the GES, by writers and scholars who had studied the group and the subject. Then, Roloff secured funding for the
This story reminds us that we were all most likely, once an emigrant. To flee one’s country, the only home one has known, and to leave one’s family, friends and treasures behind, is not a decision made lightly. To place faith and hope in a dream that they will find refuge in a safe haven for one’s family is all one dares to wish for. My favorite quote, by Winston Churchill is “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” speaks to this issue. As I look back today on the close of Utopia, just one year ago in America, I see a Germany experiencing a similar situation to what Missouri and the U.S. did in the 19th Century, as millions of refugees seek a safe haven.
The pride that we Americans feel in being considered a Utopia when we hear the story of the Giessen Emigraton Society, is the same pride that the thousands of Germans welcoming refugees today feel, and one day thousands of their children will feel. They will be descendants of those today in Germany that are “stepping up to the plate” as we Americans call it, to “do the right thing”. The entire world watches, and hopes and dreams for peace. A lasting peace that will allow those who have fled to return to their homeland safely.
America no longer has the open door that allowed the Giessen Emigration Society and millions of more emigrants to come in the 19th Century. But I believe that the American spirit that makes us want to help our fellow man is still alive. Hopefully, while some choose to help those here at home, some will recall their ancestors and their struggle. German is still the largest ethnic group in America, and if they can look back, then the vision going forward could really be a brighter one for millions of refugees. While an emigrant chooses a destination and is hoping to make a new home, a refugee flees for many of the same reasons, only with hopes to return home someday. I believe that the human spirit and desire to help, no matter what one’s race or religion, remains alive in people of all countries. The Utopia exhibition is an example of what can happen when a few people work together in a collaboration, just imagine what the world would be like today if entire countries could work together in a partnership like this.