When I finally connected with Dad the following weekend, I mentioned that I had tried calling him on his birthday, but the line was busy.Â "Uh-m, well, there's this widow-woman who likes to know the basketball scores, and I, uh, have to call her to tell her the scores," he stammered.Â Dad couldn't see me, but I was grinning.Â My widowed father was interested in a woman. What a flimsy excuse, I thought.Â I'd never have gotten away with talking on the phone the whole evening when I was growing up.Â I was pleased, though, that Dad in these last years of his life had found fun and companionship with someone.Â Among other activities, the two of them enjoyed making music together--she playing the organ while he sang.
Dad's early life was greatly influenced by historical events in Europe before, during and after World War I.Â The war heaped havoc on him and his family and scattered the family across three continents.Â Yet, out of this hardship, through courage and hard work, Dad wrested a life rich in personal growth and community involvement.
Dad was born on a thriving farm in 1903 in a German community in Olganufka, Volhynia, Russia.Â Volhynia today forms the northwest part of the Ukraine, but its history includes being part of the Polish kingdom.Â As a youth and young adult, Dad spoke German, Russian, and Polish.Â After he came to the United States, he learned English and spoke it fluently, albeit with an accent.
Dad's ancestors came from West Prussia (now in Poland) and had been part of migrations of German-speaking peoples to Russia during the nineteenth century.Â Some came at the invitation of the rulers of Russia, but those settling in Volhynia primarily came at the urging of landlords seeking tenants and buyers to replace the Russian peasants who had been released from serfdom.Â (1) Dad's father was born in Plock, West Prussia, in 1865, and his mother was born in 1872 in Retowka, Volhynia, Russia (now Ukraine).Â His parents married in 1888 in Roshisce, Volhynia.
Dad was the ninth of thirteen children, ten of whom lived to adulthood.Â He remembered his mother as a wonderful homemaker, spinning wool for knitting and flax for linen.Â She loved to sing and took time to listen to all of her children recite their lessons.Â Her experience bearing 13 children served her well since she was also the community midwife.Â
In notes prepared for a 1972 family reunion, Dad noted that his father "served as county supervisor and justice of the peace for nine years." He also served on the boards of the Farmer's Fire Insurance, the Farmer's Savings and Loan Association, and the parochial [Lutheran] school.Â "He was a prosperous farmer, good organizer and [good] politician."
World War I and its aftermath
World War I brought disaster to the family.Â Labeling the Germans in Russia, "the enemy within," Russia initiated a hate campaign against them.Â According to Dr. Karl Stumpp in his book The German Russians, "In the summer of 1915, under very inhuman conditions, these people [the Volhynia Germans, including my dad's family] were forcibly transferred into the eastern regions of European Russia. . . . (1)Â Dad and his family became refugees in Tsaritsyn, which later was named Stalingrad and now is called Volograd.Â Â My dad's elementary school education ended.Â He was 12 years old and had completed sixth grade.
In May 1918 after cessation of the German-Russian conflict, the family returned home to Volhynia, only to find their land and everything on it confiscated by the Russians.Â With no future left in Volhynia, the children in the family began to go their own ways.
Only 15, Dad left home and walked many miles to Kupyansk, Ukraine, where he learned the meat-cutting trade.Â The political life in Kupyansk was very unstable, and the government changed nine times in the four years Dad was in Kupyansk.Â Â Finding this instability disquieting, he left Kupyansk to briefly return to his home area in Volhynia.Â Â But he needed a job and a few months later in early 1923 he left Volhynia for good and traveled to Garnsee, West Prussia, Germany to work on a drainage project to lower sea levels.Â He never saw his parents again.Â They died within four months of each other in 1925.
Finding a new home
In 1926 at age 23, Dad immigrated to the United States and went to live in Southwestern Michigan, where other relatives and acquaintances had previously settled.Â After the insecurity of his early years, Dad had found the place where he would live for the remaining 61 years of his life.
My dad Otto (left) with his brother Gustav.Â The photo probably was taken in 1926 when Gustav also lived in Michigan.
Shortly after Dad came to this country, he attended three semesters of classes.Â Dad didn't note on the genealogy form he filled out in 1966 what subjects the classes covered, but I surmise they were English and citizenship classes.Â On September 25, 1931, Dad received Certificate of Citizenship Number 3405072 of The United States of America.Â Dad read English very well and seemed comfortable speaking it, even in front of groups, but he always felt uncomfortable writing it because the spelling was difficult for him.Â As far as I can remember, he always spoke English to me.
Emil, Dad's oldest brother who had come to the U.S. before World War I, sponsored Dad's immigration.Â Though Emil had left home when my father was a boy and there was 13 years difference in their ages, in Michigan Emil and Dad became best friends.Â Emil helped Dad in another life-changing way.Â He introduced Dad to his wife's sister Gretchen.Â Dad and my mother Gretchen were married in 1928.
My parents with their wedding attendants. Seated, left to right:Â Meta (maid of honor), my mother Gretchen, Margaret (bridesmaid).Â Standing, left to right:Â Edward (my mom's brother and best man), my dad Otto, Harry (my mom's brother).
Work and family
Dad and Mom complemented each other and were demonstrative in their affection.Â Dad called Mom Schatzie, which means darling in German, and often put his arm around her waist and patted her derriere.Â Between 1929 and 1944, they had six children.Â Mom gave up her job in a department store and became a housewife.Â Dad took on being the breadwinner and head of the house.Â He was a very reliable husband and father and never hung out in bars, gambled, or used profanity.
My father's first steady job after arriving in the U.S. was as a meat cutter and sausage maker, which he did for five years.Â With his family expanding and the depression making life fearful, Dad was fortunate to land a job in 1933 doing carpentry and machine design, construction and repair with Auto Specialties, a family-owned business that made jacks for the Michigan auto industry.Â Occasionally, he was sent to the home of the company president to do a project.Â Dad worked steadily during the depression and put in considerable overtime during and after World War II.Â He also took side jobs, such as constructing a recreation room for the principal of the elementary school that we children attended or helping out a local mom-and-pop store preparing poultry around holidays.Â Dad worked incredibly hard.
To accommodate the growing family, my parents took a risk in the mid 1930s and bought a large frame house with two upstairs apartments, which they rented to help pay the mortgage on the house.Â The property also had three small bedrooms on the first floor, two open porches, an enclosed porch at the rear of the house that they used for storage, a full basement, a yard, and a four-car detached garage that opened to the alley.
Dad could do almost anything related to engineering and enthusiastically applied his skills to making our house more accommodating and nicer.Â While working full time in his regular job, he designed and built a two-room plus bath addition to the house that replaced the enclosed porch.Â The only work done by an outsider was the laying of the concrete foundation for the basement part of the addition.Â Furthermore, Dad ripped up the living and dining rooms and remodeled them into one large room.Â He built kitchen cabinets from scratch and painted and installed them.Â He also installed a gas furnace to replace the coal-burning, ash-making one.Â
Moreover, Dad designed, built, and finished a chest of drawers for himself.Â I remember as a child snooping in the top drawer of the chest and filching some of the Sen-Sen breath freshener he kept there. Dad's basement workshop was underneath my bedroom. I often fell asleep to the buzzing of a circular saw sounding through the heat register next to my bed as Dad worked late on one of his many side projects.
Reflecting his own background, Dad was authoritarian with his children, which made it hard to get close to him.Â He also had a temper and would give his children a thrashing on our buttocks if we did something he considered wrong.Â I was sometimes afraid of him.Â Today, corporeal punishment of children is not acceptable.Â But in that era, people commonly believed that sparing the rod spoiled the child, and such punishment was acceptable.
Dad deeply loved his family, though, and while the children were young, participated in their care.Â When I was very young and called out during the night if I was sick, he usually was the one who answered my call.Â I remember Dad playing with my brother Jerry and me when we were small while he rested on the floor.Â As he lay with his back and feet on the floor and his knees up, Jerry or I would wriggle underneath the inverted V made by his legs.Â Sometimes he suddenly clamped his calves against his thighs, catching one of us with his legs.Â He would say "oops" and laugh while Jerry and I squealed in protest.
One year, Dad made a miniature table with two chairs out of dark wood for me for Christmas. I never played with it because it didn't interest me. Regretfully, I didn't appreciate this lovely gift until years after he was dead, and it was too late to thank him.
Dad helped out at home with food preparation.Â On Sundays and holidays, he skillfully presided over the cooking and carving of the meat while Mom made her no-lump gravy.Â I would be in the kitchen mashing potatoes or arranging a relish plate.Â Â Nowadays it's fashionable to have lumps and flecks of peelings in mashed potatoes, but when I was young, whipping potatoes until they were smooth and creamy and had no lumps was the objective.
In the early years, Dad made his own red grape wine, which was stored in small barrels along with canned fruits, pickles, and jams my mother made in one of the fruit cellars of our home.Â Â The wine was served at special or festive dinners, especially when we had company. Setting up borrowed equipment in the basement, Dad also made sauerkraut and sausage from scratch.
Although Dad was not athletic, he enjoyed following professional sports, especially baseball and football.Â He rooted for the Detroit teams even though we lived closer to Chicago because they were Michigan teams.Â Once he drove 200 miles across the state to Detroit to take us to a Tigers baseball game in Briggs Stadium, as the home of the Tigers was called at that time.Â I remember him closely following the 1945 World Series in which the Detroit Tigers defeated the Chicago Cubs 4 games to 3.Â Dad's interest in the Tigers influenced me for a short time when I was 12.Â I had a photo of each of the Detroit baseball players pinned on a bulletin board in my room, and stoutly maintained that I would never marry unless I could marry a Detroit Tigers baseball player.Â
Dad greatly enjoyed reading the newspaper every day. He kept informed on current events and followed politics.Â In the summer of 1952, I found him working in the basement and listening on the radio to the Democratic Party convention nominate Adlai E. Stevenson as the presidential candidate.Â To talk to Dad, you would never know he only had a sixth grade education.
Few blacks lived in our town, but Dad worked with a number of black men and he became friends with one named Sampson.Â At home he would sometimes note something Sampson had recently said or done.Â My oldest sister Dotty related a story about Dad and Sampson that I like.Â When Dad told his co-workers about the birth of my brother Jerry--my parents' first boy after four girls--Sampson jokingly said he wouldn't believe that Otto had a son until he saw the boy.Â Shortly afterwards, Sampson came to our house to check that my dad's new child was truly a boy.Â Dad wasn't always open to other viewpoints.Â But he was not prejudiced toward other people, and by example, he and my mother passed their acceptance of others to their children.
Dad loved traveling, and we made trips to Chicago, Canada, and Wisconsin to visit relatives.Â In 1949 when I was 12, Dad took the family in our new green 1949 Nash car with the sloping, hatchback-like body to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.Â At the museum, I became so engrossed in a display showing the growth of human fetuses in utero that I lagged behind as the rest of the family moved on. Suddenly, I realized I was by myself, and I ran to different rooms looking for them.
When I couldn't find them, I was afraid they had left without me.Â Panicking, I ran to the entryway and looked to where our car was parked nearby and was relieved to find it still there.Â Today I marvel there ever was a time that parking for a major site like a museum was so close that I could stand at the door and see the car I came in.
Although Dad's life was full with family and work, he somehow managed to find time to participate in the community in many ways.Â He was very active in church and served in multiple functions.Â My parents regularly tithed to the church, thereby setting an example of charitable giving for their children.Â For many years, Dad rang the church bells at midnight on New Year's Eve.Â He was the right person for the job since we lived only two blocks from church, making it possible for him to reach the church in any kind of wintry Michigan weather.
Every time there was a blood drive, Dad gave blood.Â He felt an obligation to do so because of the need for blood during World War II and because he had a somewhat rare blood type B Rh-positive, which only nine percent of the U.S. population have.Â
My father was gregarious and hospitable.Â Relatives and friends of my parents frequently stayed in our home.Â If someone arrived unexpectedly on a Sunday when major grocery stores were closed, he would send one of us children to Froehlich's--our town's version of a mini mart--to buy extra cold cuts.Â Â My aunt Bertha and her two daughters stayed for six months while her husband was trying to get situated in Ontario, Canada.Â Poor Mom had to cope with all the extra housework having guests entailed, and we children had to give up or share our beds.Â I spent one night sleeping on two chairs shoved together.Â
Dad frequently lent a helping hand to people, especially immigrants and relatives, who needed assistance.Â I remember him fixing items for some and going to court with another probably to interpret proceedings and give moral support.Â He was well liked by his peers.
I think I was in third grade when, encouraged by friends, Dad ran for the school board.Â I'm not sure which school board this was, but it may have been the high school board--my older sisters were in high school at the time--because his picture was in the local paper.Â Of course, he didn't win.Â I marvel at his audacity to run for a school board with only a sixth-grade education.
Dad's retirement in 1968 opened up new experiences for him.Â Shortly after he retired, he and my mom traveled to Germany to visit two of his brothers who had relocated there when the family split up after World War I.Â At the time, Germany was divided into two states, West Germany, which was allied with the West, and East Germany, which was socialist and an ally of the Soviet Union.Â One brother Paul lived in West Germany, and the other brother Alfred lived in East Germany.Â Paul had earlier visited his sons in the U.S., and Dad had seen him prior to this visit, but this was the first time he had seen Alfred in about 50 years.
For several years, Dad and Mom did what many retirees in the North do today--they went to Florida for a month each winter and enjoyed the climate and new friends they made.Â Then my mother became ill with what today would likely be diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease.Â For the next few years, my dad gave up his dreams of travel to take on the role of nurse and lovingly care for Mom.
This was a hard time for me.Â My husband had left our family a few years earlier, and I was learning to be a single parent and struggling to find my way in a drastically altered life.Â Although I regularly called my parents, I felt bad I couldn't lend a hand with much else.
My mom had always been the one to write letters and send cards to us, but with her illness, she could no longer do that.Â I was surprised on my 40th birthday a few months before Mom died to receive a birthday card from Dad that read:
May you be
as happy today
as you are loved always.
With Love Your Father [signed in script]
Dad had bypassed his dislike and, I believe fear, of writing to send me a birthday card.
Birthday card Dad sent to me on my 40th birthday, a few months before my mother died.
Mom died in September 1977.Â I remember my father at the gravesite with his hands clutching her casket, his head bowed on his hands, and his body trembling in sorrow.Â The love of his life was gone.
Dad with his grandchildren after my mom's funeral.Â First row, left to right:Â Peter, Dad holding Daniel, Gretchen.Â Second row, left to right:Â Wendy, David, Shelley, Bill, Heidi, Pam.Â Another grandson, Kyle, was not born yet.
The year after Mom died, Dad accompanied several Florida relatives to Brazil to visit his youngest sister, Martha.Â Dad had been 21 and Martha 10 when they last had seen each other 54 years earlier.Â It was too late for Dad to reunite with an older brother and sister who had also immigrated to South America.Â The brother had died in 1971, and no one knew what had happened to the sister and her children.Â Dad was able, however, to visit with his dead brother's children.Â While in Brazil, Dad saw the spectacular Iguassu Falls, which I visited in September 2007.Â As I stood and experienced the splendor of Iguassu Falls, I remembered Dad all those years ago enthusiastically telling me about the magnificence of the falls.
My dad in Brazil in 1978, flanked by his sister Martha and her granddaughter Rosalie.
Later that year, Dad presented a slide show on his trip to Brazil at the local library.Â My sister Ruth sent me a clipping from the local newspaper noting the event.Â Â The article included a photo of Dad.Â Â At 75, Dad, a man with only a sixth-grade education, was still doing new things.
A few months later, Ruth sent me another newspaper clipping.Â This article told about a Russian doctor, who was visiting relatives in the area, being given a tour of the local hospital.Â Beaming out at me from the article was a photo of my dad smiling broadly.Â Remembering the Russian he learned to speak as a youth growing up in Russia, my dad had served as interpreter during the tour.
This photo of my dad accompanied an article in the town newspaper about a Russian doctor touring a local hospital and was captioned "Serves as Interpreter."
In the ensuing years, Dad moved to a two-room apartment in a retirement community located in what was once an upscale hotel.Â He thought himself so fortunate to be living in what had seemed like a place he would never visit.Â While there, he organized bus tours to sites of interest and easily made friends.Â One day, while I was visiting him, a man from down the hall dropped in to visit him.Â I recognized his neighbor--he had been the superintendent of schools when I was in high school.Â
Women greatly outnumbered men in the community and Dad received lots of attention and interest from the women, but he only was interested in Hulda, his woman friend.Â As Dad increasingly drove less, my sister Ruth who lived near the hotel would sometimes drive Hulda and Dad on a date.Â They would sit in the back seat and hold hands while Ruth chauffeured them to where they wanted to go.
Dad (seated) with his six children at a party celebrating his 80th birthday in 1983.Â Standing left to right: Dotty, Jerry, Verie, Flo, Ruth, Don.
The last time I saw Dad alive was Easter 1987.Â I was feeling good that weekend. Ten days earlier after four years of working on my master's degree while holding a full-time job, I had successfully completed presentation of my master's thesis at a colloquium.Â I celebrated by driving to Michigan for the weekend to spend time with Dad.Â I met Dad in his unit in the retirement hotel and we took the elevator downstairs to the lobby.Â As we walked slowly toward the dining room, community residents greeted Dad, and he responded with his usual broad smile that spread over the whole terrain of his face, dimpling his cheeks and lighting up his eyes.Â At the table, though, he seemed tired and had little appetite.Â Later, describing that day in a poem, I wrote that we talked about "nonessential essentials."Â Nonessential because they were ordinary.Â Essential because the commonplace connects us at a deep level.Â Â When I left, I embraced Dad and kissed his smiling cheek goodbye.
Seven weeks later, the day before I was to receive my master's degree in liberal studies, Dad died of cardiac arrest.Â Instead of attending a graduation ceremony, I drove to Michigan and had dinner with my five siblings at a restaurant near the retirement hotel.Â Afterwards, we went to dad's apartment and shared memories as we looked through his things.Â Opening the top drawer of the chest Dad had made for himself so many years earlier and from which I had pinched Sen-Sen, I found the Tonette I had played in my fourth grade Tonette band.Â At first, I was touched that with his limited space, he would keep a memento of me.Â Later, remembering his penchant for undertaking new projects, I thought he probably kept it to learn to play it.Â Or perhaps he only wanted to fool around with it.Â Whatever the reason, it doesn't matter.Â Finding the Tonette gave me a memento not only of my early years, but also of Dad's incredible life.
All six of Dad's children went to college, and four received master's degrees.Â All ten of his grandchildren graduated from college.Â To date, two have received PhDs, one a JD, and one a master's degree.Â Another grandson will be starting work on a master's degree in the fall.Â
The terrible events of Dad's youth and early adulthood could easily have embittered him, stymieing his future and shrinking his presence in the world.Â But he would have none of that.Â Dad enjoyed participating in life, exploring its possibilities, too much to waste time on what ifs and grudges.Â His was a life well lived.
Dedicated to refugees throughout the world who have been displaced from their homes.Â
May you soon be home and find a place in your community.Â May you know the warmth of family and the security of a government committed to the well being of its people and the land it holds in planetary trust.Â May you become the best you can be.
1.Â Â Â The German-Russians:Â Two Centuries of Pioneering by Karl Stumpp. Edition Atlantic-Forum, Bonn-Brussels-New York, 1971.
2.Â Â Â An undated genealogical survey form completed by my father probably in 1966.Â I developed the form and sent it to close, living relatives in 1965.
3.Â Â Â Russia, Volgograd
4.Â Â Â Notes prepared by my dad for a 1972 family reunion.
5.Â Â Â Quick history and geography of VolhyniaÂ
6.Â Â Â Appendix E.Â Events in the Lives of Some Affinity Ancestors, by George William Gross, Jr.
7.Â Â Â Family artifacts
8.Â Â Â Newspaper clippings
9.Â Â Â Conversations with my siblings and my cousin, Gather member Alice Burroughs, daughter of my dad's brother and best friend Emil, regarding their memories of my dad.
10.Â Â Â My memory of events and of what my parents told me.
My dad proposes to my mother, published September 4, 2007