Immigration Archives - An Immigrants Story - An Immigrant Boy From Denmark Tells His Story
An Immigrant's Story
Miss Jane Addams, Hull House, Chicago.
Dear Miss Addams :
In the CHAUTAUQUAN for November I saw an article by you in which you plead for more personal contact with the foreign population of this country.* If the American people only realized what an ennobling influence it would have on them and what an uplifting and helpful .influence it would have on us foreigners, especially during the period in which we "take root" in this new soil a great many more would join in your noble work.
And the result would be a benefit to the foreigner, a benefit to the country, and last, but not least, a benefit to the Americans themselves. For it is more strengthening to lift than to be lifted, and more blessed to give than to receive.
With your kind permission, Miss Addams, I should like to tell you how, during the most critical period of my life, I was saved by coming in contact with a noble American family of the good old-fashioned New England type. But in order that you may understand me better it will be necessary for me to tell you a little about my childhood.
I was born in that province which was so ruthlessly wrested from Denmark in 1864. by Germany. A boy more handicapped than I could hardly be found, for I had neither father, mother, nor country—three things usually considered essential to a start in life. My father fell while defending the forts at Döppel a few months before I was born and my mother, being in poor health, was unable to support me and had to leave me in the care of her oldest sister, my Aunt Cecilia.
As far back as I can remember I was a frail child, exceedingly nervous, and had at times terrible fits of temper. When the German artillery was practicing at the forts and I heard the cannon boom it seemed to me that every shot went through me ; at such times my temper would be uncontrollable.
"What will become of that unfortunate boy ?" I heard the neighbors say. "He is bright enough, but he is so peculiar, and he will never be able to do hard work?"
Thus I grew up with the idea that I was unfortunate, that I was peculiar and that I never should amount to much. Everybody said so except my aunt and wide. Perhaps they did not for the reason that they loved me—a fact which I never had occasion to doubt.
So much for my inheritance. In spite of it my childhood was quite happy. Uncle and Aunt were poor folks but we never lacked the necessities of life. Our little house was always neat and clean, and in the summer time when our garden was at its best, and when the white trailing rose that rambled in profusion over the thatched roof was in full bloom, our home was the envy of many of the villagers.
One day in June—I shall never forget it—Aunt Cecilia had gathered a basket of red and white roses and she and I set out to decorate the soldiers' graves, for we lived close to where one of the principal battles of the war had been fought. On the way I asked her if my father's grave was there. She said it was, but that he was buried in the same grave with Goo Danish soldiers.
"Now couldn't those Germans have given my father a grave to himself so that I could have found him. They are the ones who killed him," said I. "Now I will never pray for Emperor William in school again. No, not if I were to be shot for it." (And I held to my word for whenever we came to the Emperor's name in our prayers I always mumbled the name of the King of Denmark.)
While aunt was decorating the grave where 60o Danish soldiers were sleeping the gendarme came through the gate and told her that she must not decorate with red and white. Those were the colors of Denmark and forbidden. Before I knew what I was doing I had picked up a rock, and hit the man of the law on the shin.
And that gilt edged representative of the German law grasped me by the shoulders, shook me violently, and told me that boys of my make-up generally ended in the penitentiary.
Aunt Cecilia said nothing, but she gave him a look such as I had never seen her give before. When he had gone I saw that she had tears in her eyes and she grasped my band firmly as she led me on to another grave. So we decorated all the graves. The German with the red roses, the Danish with the white.
"For it is not right to hate the dead, They were all God's children," said my aunt. But that night while they thought I was steeping sotmdly, I heard Uncle and Aunt talking about me. "The best thing for the boy will be to go to America as soon as he is old enough," I heard Uncle say. "For he seems to be born with the hatred against the Germans in him, and with that impulsive nature of his I fear he will get in trouble sooner or later."
So from that day I made up my mind to go to America. I would go over there and get rich. For all the people I knew of who had gone to America had gotten rich. Probably some day I might become great over there and then I would gather up an army of the very fiercest Indians, march them against Berlin, and tell them to throw stones at the shins of the German Emperor as much as they liked.
With such a personality, a fair education, a small wooden chest, about twenty dollars in cash, and a rusty revolver, I landed in America at the age of seventeen.
Bad I landed in Chicago at that time I should have been hopeful young material for an anarchist, for it was during the Haymarket period. But I happened to "light" in the midst of an Illinois cornfield. I had expected Uncle Sam to hand me a sabre or a gun and here he handed me a hoe. What a disillusion !
The man I worked for hired "green foreigners," as he called them, to hoc his cornfield. He could get them for less money than Americans and they did good work with a hoc before they got too smart. I didn't understand the man I worked for nor he me ; but that was immaterial for I had sufficient intelligence to recognize a cockleburr and a wild morning-glory after they had been pointed out to me.
So, that long hot summer the sun shone, the rain fell, the weeds grew, and I hoed. I tried to do my best ; I tried to hoe up a reputation for being of some account in this new country. But what a trying task it was ! I was sick with the malaria part of the time and homesick all the time. Oh, how I wished I would die! And oh how often I wished that I wouldn't! For if I died - here they would bury me so far away from the sea and so far away from where my uncle and aunt were buried.
Yet through all of this misery I learned a little by asking questions of the small boys in the family. The larger boys made fun of me ; but the little fellows were proud of knowing more than I did, and took pleasure in teaching me how to say things.
Indeed I learned faster than the people I worked for realized, for one day I heard the lady of the house say to her husband, "John doesn't seem so bright to learn as the rest of the green Danes we have had." It began to look to me as if things in this country were going to begin where they left off in the old country ; that I had added stupidity to my other virtues, and that the full list would now read : unfortunate,. peculiar, criminal inclinations, stupid, and not much good.
But a better day came. An angel walked across the road to me one day while I was hoeing in the cornfield, an angel with a freckled face. wearing a dilapidated straw hat, and bare footed, with one pant leg rolled up higher than the other. That was the neighbor's boy. He began to talk to me about my country and about our old king and his family and we managed to understand each other quite well.
He was different from the big boys down at our house. When I tried to say anything and couldn't find the proper words to express it he could nearly always guess what I was trying to say ; then he would help me out, and without laughing at me. So after that day I often looked across the road for the neighbor's boy ; and, when one day be asked me if I would like to work for his father the next summer, I almost felt like embracing him, for that was the first ray of light to me in the new world.
At that time, you see, we Scandinavians were looked upon as foreigners. That word "foreign" used to sound terrible to me. .1 had come here in the hope of becoming an American and here I was a foreigner ; I had never thought of that before leaving home. So one day I asked the oldest of the boys where I worked how long people were called foreigners after they came to this country.
And he gave me the cheerful information that I would always be a foreigner. It was very disagreeable information to me, for it was the time of the Haymarket trouble and the papers were full of sensational outbursts against the foreigners ; and since the family never read the papers, but got their information from "hear-say" they judged all foreigners alike, and always arrived at the conclusion that all of these ignorant foreigners ought to be sent back where they belonged.
That seemed very discouraging to me—to be a foreigner always ; but I made up my mind that these people should not always call me ignorant. I would save my money and get an education. For my friend, the neighbor's boy, had told me that many poor boys worked their way through school in this country.
When cornhusking was done I was paid off, and the good lady of the house told me to take care of my money and not drink it up like most foreign people. It was certainly good advice, for I was going to Springfield, Illinois, to get an education. Springfield, being the capital of the State, must have the best schools, I thought, for in the old country the capitals always had the best of everything. And now having over sixty dollars in my pocket to get an education with, I felt quite well provided, and thought I might just as well have the best.
In Springfield I started out to see if I could find some of my countrymen, thinking that they might be able to help me find work; but I failed to find any of them. So I started to go from house to house and ask the people for a place to work for my board with opportunity of going to school. Most of them listened kindly enough to my pigeon English, but I doubt if they really understood what I wanted.
The last place I rang the door-bell the lady came rushing to the door with a pug dog under one arm, and told me, before I had time to explain myself, that a young fellow like me ought to be ashamed to go begging; that she didn't believe in giving anything at the door ; if I was hungry I could go to one of the missions down town ; that was what they were for. She then closed the door with a bang, fearing perhaps the pug dog would catch cold, for the wind blew and it was beginning to snow.
Now began the most dreary winter in my existence: walking the streets day after day ; standing on the corners watching people pass, until I was shivering with cold and heart sick. All of these people seemed to have something to do and most of them, probably, had a home.
But one day, while standing thus, I saw a young fellow about my own age on the opposite corner. He looked as woe-begone as I felt and I went over and spoke to him. He was a Swedish boy, and being from the southern part of the country, wi. understood each other quite well.
He had been in town about four months and had managed to make a living by doing odd jobs, but now his money was gone and he had been ejected from his room. So here was some one in worse circumstances than I, for I had most of my summer's wages sewed securely up in the lining of my vest, and some silver money in my pocket.
I having the most money and he having the most experience we thought it best to consolidate; so he found a cheap room and I paid the rent ; he took me to the different places of amusement and I paid for both. T le knew the saloons that gave the most substantial lunch and I furnished the nickels for the beer.
At first I was afraid of the saloons but I soon found that money went farther there than anywhere else, for besides our beer and lunch, there was often free music and always light and heat and our own room was wretchedly cold. My friend felt quite contented, for in addition to paying the running expenses I lent him a dollar, now and then, which, of course, he was to pay back when he found work. It was different with me; I never could be happy in those squalid surroundings.
At night when T repeated the Lord's Prayer before I went to sleep I often fancied I could see our little thatched cottage at home with the white roses on the roof. And then I would wonder if Uncle John and Aunt Cecilia up in heaven could see me, for I was still a child in mind, although nearly eighteen years old.
Thus we two foreign boys lived that miserable long winter, lived largely on free lunches in order to make the firm's money go as far as possible ; spending our days on the streets, in the saloons, and at cheap places of amusement ; and at night we would go to sleep thinking of our homes across the sea.
But one night I had a horrid dream. I dreamed I saw the cottage at home ; but the windows were dark, and the roses on the roof withered. It made me feel sad. And when I had counted my money the next morning and figured out that in about two weeks the firm would be insolvent, I made up my mind to go back to the country. So I tried to persuade my partner to go with me. He wasn't quite ready then, but promised me to come out as 'soon as I had found work. However, he never came and I fear he had learned to be satisfied where he was. Poor boy, he had probably not been brought up in a cottage with white roses on the roof.
Everything was yet covered with snow when the train carried me back to the country ; but the farther we got away from the city, the cleaner the snow, and I felt lighter at heart, although I was minus my sixty dollars. It was too early to begin farm work and I feared they might not want a hand just then ; but the thought of the boy gave me courage. I would go in and talk it over with him, and then he might be able to help me make arrangements with his father.
My friend had seen me coming up the road, and was at the door to meet me; and I was now introduced to a good, old-fashioned New England family. There was the father, a large, jolly, good natured man ; there was the mother, a small, pleasant faced woman ; there was the oldest daughter, a noble, refined. educated girl ; there was the baby of the family, a golden haired girl, about four years old ; and then my friend the boy. Things were easily arranged. I could help them do chores for my board until work began, and then work for wages.
How different this home was from the one I had had the summer before. There was nothing but bare walls and ugly wooden furniture, although the family was well-to-do; but here were carpets on the floors, pictures on the walls, and even a piano. The only reading-matter they had had at the other place was a monthly farm paper with a group of prosperous looking hogs on the cover ; but that paper never interested me, for hogs of all sizes wallowed right under the windows in the front yard. But here in my new home we had weekly papers, magazines, and good books.
A pile of old magazines afforded me my first English reading. For here were pictures of people and places I had read about before. and these pictures helped me little by little to understand parts of the reading, so that soon I learned to read English fairly well.
The master of the house, an old soldier, was interested in politics and often explained to me things pertaining to the American government. The good mother of the family had many flowers just as Aunt Cecilia had had and she would tell me their names in English. The daughter was interested in music and at night when the work was done she would play and sing to us the beautiful ballads and songs of the English speaking peoples.
In these fortunate surroundings I stayed three years and (luring the winters while choring for my board, I attended the district school, learning new things every day, and developing both physically and mentally in wholesome surroundings ; I was happy because I had found a home and a country, and was no longer called an ignorant foreigner.
Of course I often thought (and do yet) of Uncle John, Aunt Cecilia, and our little cottage with the white trailing roses on the thatched roof ; but all the bitter memories of childhood faded more and more and I got so that I could even pray for the German Emperor if it was necessary.
So in this way my life was given direction and made broad and bright just because that barefooted American boy stepped across the road and talked to me of my king and my own country.
When I began I intended to write you a letter and thank you for the noble work you are doing for the foreign people in America. But I see now that I have pretty nearly written a book and am almost ashamed to send you such a pile of reading matter. But I feel so for these foreign boys and girls who stand bewildered in a foreign land, not knowing where to turn for help. You may have a chance to tell them part of my story and urge them to go to the country where the air is purer and where there is room for all.
That God may bless you in your noble work, Miss Addams, is the prayer of
Ax IMMIGRANT BOY.
* This article was Miss Addams' Recognition Day Address, delivered at Chautauqua, New York. last summer, which was published in THE CHAUTAUQUAN for November, 1905, under the title, "Work and Play as Factors in Education." The writer of the letter is a traveling man, who read the article in the magazine at the Public Library in Omaha. In response to our request for the privilege of publishing this personal letter so full of interest to Chautauquans, the writer said:
"If, as you think, the publication of my letter may do some little good in bringing about a better understanding between native and foreign born Americans it will give the writer the greatest of pleasure. I have always admired the work Miss Addams is doing and I wrote intending to thank her, and if possible encourage her in her noble efforts.
One can readily understand that she gets little encouragement from the people she tries to help, for the simple reason that most foreign-born Americans find it difficult to express their finer feelings in the English language. It seems to me that Miss Addams understands the needs and difficulties of the foreign people of this country better than any other American writer or philanthropist.
And that article revealed to me the secret: closer personal contact; more interest; and a better understanding of each other. That would solve so many perplexing questions, and would result in great benefit to our country and to all parties concerned. I intended to tell that to Miss Addams in a general way; but words are such clumsy things and I felt that she would understand much better what I meant if I related my own experience."---Editor.
A Monthly Magazine of Things Worth While
Official Publication of Chautauqua Institution
Contents for July, 1906