My family arrived from Austria in New York’s Idlewild Airport (now Kennedy) on a very cold January 17th, 1957. The family included my parents (Johann and Herta Barthmus,), aged 46 and 48, sisters Brigitte, and Sieglinde (aged 14 and 16 years respectively), and my 12 year old brother Hans-Jürgen. I was just over 20 years old. We landed after a harrowing 28-hour flight in a Flying Tiger Airlines prop plane. Because of two major storms over the North Atlantic we had to land on the Azores, and at Gander Airport (Newfoundland, Canada). As we were landing in New York we saw the impressive skyscrapers of Manhattan in the distance. After going through customs (each with one suitcase) we were welcomed by a representative of the Lutheran World Federation, and taken by bus to the Pennsylvania Station. It had snowed that day in New York City, but the snow had started to melt, and was mostly gray and dirty. A shocking first impression was the miles of cemeteries along the way–one uglier than the next with faded plastic flowers sticking out of the snow, and rows upon rows of half-tilted gravestones.
Pennsylvania station (see photo on the left) was quite monumental in its grandeur, but the ride on the railroad to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was quite depressing, as the train drove through dilapidated neighborhoods of New York City, New Jersey cities, and Philadelphia, before arriving at our destination. I now know that the worst neighborhoods in America are along the railroad right-of-ways, but at that time it left a devastating impression on all of us. In Harrisburg we were greeted by our US sponsor Lloyd Keefer and his son Jack, who could not speak a word of German, so I had to do all the translating. We and our luggage were loaded into an old 1948 Mercury sedan, and a 1950 Ford pickup truck, and after a one hour drive through snowy fields we arrived in York Springs. We continued right on for several more miles on a narrow dirt road to the farm house that was designated as our residence. The shock continued–the house was unpainted with crating lumber enclosing a small entrance porch, the floor of the living room was sloping towards the back of the house, and the whole house was heated with one coal stove in the middle of the living room.
The Keefers said good bye, “…we will pick the men up for work on Saturday (day after tomorrow), we will take the kids to school on Monday, and then the school buses will pick them up every morning.” Then they left us alone in this strange dark house. Mrs. Keefer had prepared a meal of beef and potatoes, but she had not seasoned anything, and we were not used to adding seasoning at the table, so everything tasted “blah.” There was also a small radio on, but we could not understand a word, because the announcer talked very fast (and I thought I could speak English.)
The next crisis was when we needed to use a toilet. Since the Keefers had written to us in Austria that they were fixing up the house, and putting in a new bathroom, we assumed that the bathroom must be somewhere in the house. But we could not find it inside, so we started to look outside. What we did find was an old-fashioned two-seater outhouse with a half-moon cut into the door. It was about 50 feet from the house across a vegetable garden–now covered with ten inches of snow, so my father and I found some snow shovels, and cleared a path to the out-house. There was also no running water in the house, but we found a spigot near the entrance door, and brought water in with a pail. As the six of us sat around the kitchen table, our predicament started to sink in, we were in a strange country, not anything like the dream version that had brought us to America! First my youngest sister started to cry, then my mother, and finally we all cried–why did we come to America? This was worse than our living conditions in Austria or Romania had ever been!
On Saturday we were picked up for work on the farm. Dad and I each earned $35 for a 60-hour-week. We had to work from seven in the morning to six or seven in the evening–at least ten hours a day, Monday through Saturday. Mr. Keefer owned over 400 acres, raised cattle and hogs and over 5000 chickens. He also farmed apple, cherry, and peach orchards. On Sunday (every Sunday) Mr. Keefer had told us he would pick us up for Sunday school and church service. Fortunately, I quickly made friends in church, and my siblings in their schools. Once a week someone from the church youth group would pick me up for square dancing–an activity that I greatly enjoyed.
Once a week a church elder, Mr. Hershey, would pick us up in his huge station wagon, and take us to his house for TV watching and conversation. Mr. Hershey had been a soldier in WW II, had been stationed in Germany, and learned enough German to be able to talk with my parents. Since he owned the only grocery store in town, we also became his steady customers. Without a car we could not go anywhere else for shopping anyway. On our third visit to Mr. Hershey’s house, he tried to explain to us that Adams County was a “dry” county, i.e., that you could not buy any alcohol anywhere. He then swore us to secrecy not to tell anyone in church that we had enjoyed a beer in his house, because our church belonged to the Missouri Synod, which frowned on drinking any alcohol. We had noticed on Sunday in church that even for the Holy Supper they used grape juice, instead of wine.
Our next lucky break came when a Mr. Tyson from Biglerville wrote to us (we did not have a telephone) that he had read an article about us and seen our picture in the local paper (See family photo below), and that he wanted to invite the whole family to his house on a Sunday afternoon. He told us that his son was serving in the US Army in Germany, and that he kept sending books and brochures in German, which Mr. Tyson could not read–would we translate some things for him? We agreed, and a life-long friendship developed which lasted until Mr. Tyson died. He was a Quaker, active in his church, and he was a very cultured man. I learned to love classical music from him (I had hated classical music in Austria), because he had a fine Hi-Fi system, and many classical records. We also learned from the Tysons about American foods, like blueberry pie, fried chicken, cooking steaks on the grill, and making our own ice cream from scratch.
We were able to swim in their pond in the summer, and learned about gardening in America (see photo with the Tysons on the left.) Mrs. Tyson was also a very sweet person, an excellent cook, and fun to be around–we laughed a lot in the Tyson house, learned many new words, and started to feel more comfortable in America. Mrs. Tyson especially liked my sister Brigitte, and she would pick her up on Saturdays to help her clean the house, and let her make some pocket money.
The worst part of living out on a farm was the isolation–we always depended on someone to come pick us up. Whenever we mentioned to Mr. Keefer that we wanted to buy a car, he pretended he could not understand us–he did not want us to have a car! So when a distant relative came to visit us at Easter, we went car shopping. We only had $200 (all the money we brought from Austria) to buy a car. We found a 1948 Kaiser (see photo on the right with the proud driver, Fred) that had only 30,000 miles on it, and looked like new inside and outside. I was the first to get a drivers license, and so we finally gained mobility and could drive everywhere. We were still poor, living in a migrant-labor shack, and only earning $35 a week, but we started to like and enjoy America and Americans. Most Americans we met were friendly , helpful, and forgiving with our language difficulties–they made us feel welcome and at home.
When Dad became seriously ill and was advised by doctors that he should not work on the farm anymore, and when he could not get another job in the vicinity, we decided to move the family to Columbus, Ohio, where we had relatives and friends. Dad quickly got a good job with Westinghouse; my siblings did well in the local High-school; and I found a decent job and subsequently passed the entrance examinations to the Ohio State University. We knew that immigrating to America had been the right idea. Though our start in America had been difficult, our lives continued to improve–we were given a chance to participate in the American dream. Within the first year we were able to buy a house, and celebrate our first Christmas in the US in our own four walls.
In the fall of 1957 I started attending evening courses at The Ohio State University while working full-time to help support the family. By the fall of 1959 I started to attend Ohio State fulltime (but continuing to work part-time throughout the college years), and graduated with a B.S. in Education in 1963. Concurrently I participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and pinned on 2nd Lieutenant’s bars at graduation, with active military service following in October.
The two years of required service turned into 29 years of duty all over the world. I became a Regular Army officer, and my career culminated in promotion to Colonel and assignment to many General Staff positions. I continued my civilian education with a Masters degree in 1971, and a Ph.D. in Education in 2004. With that I had achieved all of my educational goals that I could only dream off when we arrived in America in 1957 as farm laborers.
My siblings achieved their educational goals, were successful in business or industry, and contributed to the US economy over many years. My siblings were active in civic, church, environmental, and educational groups and organizations contributing to American society in many ways. None of us were ever unemployed or became burdens to the state. All of us own houses. Even now, in retirement, all of us volunteer to help others. We have repaid the opportunities we received in America, and the hardships we experienced when we first arrived in this country are now a distant memory. We are all glad we came to America.
This story first appeared in Reflections: the OLLI-USF 20th Anniversary Collection. Published in 2013 in hard copy, it was a predecessor to OLLI Connects. We’ve found several stories that deserve the wider audience that a Web based publication can give them, and we’ll share them here as time and space allow.
Most of our author Bios are brief summaries that focus on their OLLI-USF experiences. We could do that with Fred, but as we learned more about his life and career, that seemed inadequate. So, we’ll briefly mention that during his time with OLLI-USF Fred contributed several stories to Reflections. But for a more detailed look at his life and career, visit this Salute to Veterans.
4 Replies to “Our Start in America”
This was a well written informative story. I thank you for telling it so well. Congratulations.
The image of your family, one by one, breaking into tears your first night in America is memorably sad/funny/sweet. Glad you all hung in there and made such a success of your lives.
Lucky for America … thanks for sharing
What a brave family, Fred! Very nice writing and what a tribute to your folks and to America!. I identify with the harsh beginnings of an immigrant–my family and I suffered the same in Buenos Aires.