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The Newcomer

A German descendant's viewpoint on immigration

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...but, if it were now to be called an onion, we have become conditioned to expect something that makes us cry until its fried and served up over a juicy steak.

So, how important is the label we put on things?

When émigrés flocked through Ellis Island in New York, the officials who greeted them were interested in two things: were the newcomers carrying a disease and did they have the appropriate documentation (papers). Those with skin rashes were herded off for further examination and the unblemished with papers were escorted through the gates to make their way to the streets paved with gold.

But what happened to the Italian immigrants who came to America's shores without documentation, without papers?

Ah....

Well, they were set aside in a group until their entry could be worked out.

Can't you just hear that first official innocently abbreviating "with-out-papers" and then using his foghorn voice to direct "WOPS over here!"

And so was born a term that became derogatory over the years.

My own German ancestors didn't enter this country at Ellis Island. They were routed through New Orleans, which was another point of debarkation for immigrants in the 1860s.

They took a steamboat up the Mississippi, headed for Illinois until the boat sank. That might have been enough to discourage some people, but not a bunch of Germans, who have passed on their tenacity to me (an inheritance I sometimes don't appreciate, when hanging on by my fingernails has led me into heartbreak).

However, they survived and my great-great-granddad went on to build a house of stone and a Catholic church, both still standing in Illinois, before their children climbed aboard a pioneer train to take up a homestead in Union, Oregon. Their small, wood frame, farm home and huge barn, built in the eight-sided manner of German barns, were still there, but abandoned, when I visited years ago. I was told my great-grandmother bought a plush, red carpet for the Catholic Church there with egg money from the chickens she raised in the 1900s. The carpet had been replaced just the week before my visit-which meant it had seen a mighty lot of praying before it gave out.

When I look at an old family photo that shows stout men and women dressed in three-piece suits and full-skirted gowns that swept the ground, I don't have to wonder why I prefer eating outdoors. They are all grouped around a long, formal, dining room table, picnicking under the trees, German-style.

My two grandmas lived together in Walla Walla while I was growing up. Many of their neighbors were German...until World War II came along. Then most on our block became "Russians". Not my grandma. She didn't hide behind any other nationality, even though Germans were not high on anybody's list in 1942. I think she was able to take that stance because she knew she was an American. After all, by then the family had sunk not only their belongings in an American river, but also their roots in Illinois, Oregon and Washington.

My German ancestors left a lot behind when they left Germany-their home, relatives, friends and customs (unless you count the Christmas tree they put up every year). In leaving behind oppression, they also left behind their language.

The only German words I ever heard spoken in grandma's house were when we kids begged great-grandma to tell us how to say "go home" in German to neighbor kids we were tiffing with or when she used German to call me her "little climber" because her rocking chair and lap were my favorite resting places.

I'm glad my ancestors found a more peaceful existence here in this country I call home, but I'm sorry they didn't bring their language with them. I would have liked to be able to wrap my tongue around two languages.

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