Historic Note

Between 1860 and 1899 more than five million Prussians sailed to America, the largest group of immigrants to this country before 1900. They left because of economic hardship and political unrest, hoping for better lives in America.

When August was young, Germany was not a unified country as it is today. It was made up of many small kingdoms, of which Prussia was one. Today the kingdom of Prussia no longer exists. People of the German Empire included Austrians, Belgians, Czechs, Danes, Dutch, French, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Luxembourgers, Poles, Russians, Slavs, Swiss and, of course, Germans.

Kaiser Wilhelm ruled the Empire but Otto von Bismarck was chancellor. He tried to unify these diverse groups into a single German nation. He declared Protestantism the state religion and closed Catholic churches. He persecuted anyone who spoke a language other than German.

Like most rural Prussians, August’s father was a day-laborer. He received meager wages for odd jobs performed for wealthy landlords. He managed to save enough to send Berta to America as a mail-order bride, a practice common among Prussians wishing to relocate their large families to the States. However, it would be four long years before the family was reunited in Michigan. During that time, Berta and August wrote to one another. And mail took ten to twelve weeks to cross the Atlantic.

 When August’s family left, the government forced Johann to remain in Prussia to complete his army duty. However, once August reached Parisville he mailed his emigration papers back to Johann who fled using August’s identity. Once reunited in Michigan, August’s mother, Franziska, changed her name to Frances, Johann changed his to John, and Karl changed his to Charles. Berta became known as Bertha and August simply went by Gus. He and his siblings learned English quickly; however, his mother never mastered the new language. Strangely, August and Berta continued speaking German while Johann, Karl and Anna spoke Polish. The German-Polish split in their family mirrored the German-Polish split in Parisville. Interestingly, a similar division occurred later in their village of Kniewon-Samosten: when a new border between Germany and Poland was established after World War I, the village was cut in two — Kniewon became part of Germany while Samosten became part of Poland.

Parisville is believed to be the oldest Polish settlement in the United States, established around 1852. And Parisville is where my grandmother, Martha Abraham, was born. Grandma was August’s daughter. August my great-grandfather. Following her father’s example, Grandma spoke to me in German as well as English. “Was ist mit Dir los?” she asked if I were upset — “What’s the matter?” “Ach, Du Lieber!” she exclaimed — “Oh, dear!” At Christmas she baked Lebkuchen — spicy gingerbread men. She taught me prayers in German — Gelobet seist Du, Jesu Christ. And whenever she saw me, she gave me große Umarmungen und Küßchen — big hugs and kisses — which are exactly the same in German or in English!