Pieces of Yesterday

I'm doing some geneaological research by request of a distant cousin, and I've spent the last day or so poking around on ancestry.com. (By the way, if you are an Oblander or Schmidt living in Oklahoma, or a Holladay or O'Connor living in California, contact me, 'kay? Thnx.) Here are two things I found that made me catch my breath.

This is a sheet from 1930 Federal Census, Precinct 2, Parmer County, TX.

It's hard to read, I know (if you click on it, it will enlarge). But do you see it, about halfway down? Rudolph Renner, head of household. His wife, Clara. Their sons Johnnie, Orva Lee (actually, Aubrey), and Rudolph Jr.; his sister-in-law, Mary Baker. Scrolling over you see that Rudolph is 30, Clara 26; they were married when they were 21 and 18. Rudolph was born in Russia, Clara in Kansas (though her parents were born in Russia), the oldest boys in Oklahoma, Jr in Texas. They speak German in the home, and Rudolph is not a citizen. He is a farmer, and did work the day before the census was taken.

Rudolph and Clara were my great-grandparents, and Johnnie (age 7), my grandfather.

But this one is even better:

This is a "Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry" for a ship that arrived in the U.S. on September 9, 1908. Rudolph Renner is listed as a 7 year-old-male who was "placed in hospital on arrival," but then deported a week later.

Rudolph's life had been difficult even before he faced deportation. The year before, back in Russia, his mother had died in childbirth, leaving behind a passel of children. His grandparents were emigrating to America and decided to take Rudolph and his oldest sister, Mollie, with them. Before he left, Rudolph's father told him that he must never change his name (originally, Kruegel), as it would be his only connection to his family; weeks later, Rudolph and Mollie were adopted by their grandparents and became Renners. The family got held up in Germany; Rudolph wasn't cleared to emigrate because of an eye infection. His grandparents and sister went ahead without him. He, a six-year-old boy, stayed behind in a children's home in a strange country; he didn't even speak the language. (I contemplate leaving my six-year-old behind in such circumstance and...well, actually, I can't contemplate it.) Months later, he was finally put on a ship to America. He became the favorite of the sailors; they gave him fresh fruit and candy and let him run wild. But, as the document shows, he was not allowed to stay in America. He went back to Germany -- and let's imagine his grandparents, in Oklahoma by this point, at a time without cell phones or even landlines, wondering what's happened to their boy. With no instructions awaiting at the European port, the sailors smuggled Rudolph back onto the ship and back to America, again -- his third trip across the ocean. (My father delivered the eulogy at Rudolph's funeral, and he ended it with: "Thank you, Granddad, for having the courage to cross that ocean.") This time they landed in Galveston, and Rudolph's uncle showed up to claim him just hours before the ship left for Germany again.

If that's not all heartbreaking enough, there is this. When Rudolph saw his uncle, he said, "Are we going home now?" His uncle said, "Yes, home to Mollie and Mother and Father and all the brothers and sisters." The uncle meant his mother and father, Rudolph's grandparents; Rudolph thought he meant his own parents and siblings. So on the whole long trip from Galveston to Oklahoma, Rudolph -- a boy left behind, a boy who traveled the ocean three times all alone -- comforted himself with the thought that he'd be reunited with his first family. Imagine, if you can, his disappointment when he realized the truth.

I used to love that story, and would tell it to friends with a kind of glee, and wrap it up with, "It's a miracle he made it to America! I almost didn't even exist!" Now that I have children, I just think it's terribly, terribly sad. I feel so sorry for that little boy, yet I'm proud of him too (and glad he made it, of course). It's so odd, to see the official document behind the story, to see that scrap of paper that, really, doesn't tell the story at all.


Chris said...

Oh man...it's to bad you didn't have those documents when you published your Grandmother's diaries...that would have been a cool image to have in there.


Anonymous said...

I think that I first realized the enormity of Granddad's journey when all of you were 6 years old. I would look at each of you and think of you alone on a ship, knowing no one, and almost not be able to stand what he must have been feeling. Not to mention what his grandparents must have felt! And yeah, how neat those documents would have been in the book.


aimee said...

That is amazing that you found those Krista! And Grandad's story is always amazing.

I love this story and I think, too, it is such a miracle that we are all here.

And Dad is right. He had to be most courageous little boy and thank God those sailors looked out for him.

J&H Noble said...

Thank you for sharing that Krista. I've never cared much about my ancestral line, but that was fascinating and makes me want to do the same.
What am amazing little boy! I didn't know any of that story before.