… there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down,
it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots
may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil,
Yet at the scent of water, it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant.
Job 14: 7-9 (NIV)
I started researching our genealogy in 1983, one year after my father’s death. After he passed away, I had a strong desire to know about our heritage, our family history, and the countries of Germany and Russia, where they came from. My father often talked about Russia and how his father and family “came over” from Odessa, Russia. I was always mystified by that country, its history, past, culture, and people. He told about there being no freedom to worship in a church, read a Bible, or pray aloud. To do so meant arrest, imprisonment, being exiled to Siberia and labor camps. Little did I know until later with my research that all of that, and worse things, actually did happen in Russia. I learned that thousands of Germans in Russia went to their death, or to labor camps. What was their crime? They wanted to congregate with other believers, attend a worship service, construct a church, or keep alive their German roots, their culture.
In the mid and late 1700 ‘s the Germans were invited to immigrate to Russia and settle on the steppes of South Russia in territories now belonging to Ukraine and Moldova. Catherine the Great, a German princess, and Czarina of Russia promised them their freedom to live as they had in Germany. They trusted her manifesto, declaring such promises, and protection. But, she did not keep her word. The Germans did not want to follow a Marxist, or Bolshevik regime, or serve in the Red Army, under the ruthless, murderous dictator, Joseph Stalin. They did not believe in the Socialists’ ideology, or want to conform to Communism. German Jews who were part of this group were coerced into converting to the Russian Orthodox religion. Hundreds more chose to convert to the Lutheran faith before or after their immigration into Russia, like the Mannhalter family. Pogroms and persecution followed, directed at the Germans and Jews. They were rounded up and placed in cattle cars, taken away to labor camps, or put in prison cells, many of them tortured, many dying while incarcerated. Hundreds more died from the famines in the 1930 ‘s. When the Berlin Wall was built it was not only to confine the East Germans, but all the ethnic Russians, Jews, and everyone within the communist countries of Eastern Europe. When the revolution rose up against the Communist regime in 1991, and a democratic government was formed it freed everyone of restrictions. It allowed them to travel where they wanted to go, live the way they wanted, worship God, or practice their religion. The Germans in Russia left en masse, pouring into the unified Germany, the United States, and other countries. Many of the Jews immigrated to Israel.
My father’s interest in his family’s background inspired me, and a strong desire to begin the quest for our ‘story’ began. It inspired me on to learn all I could about their past. It has been thirty years of research, an emotional journey.
When I took a trip to the former Soviet Union in 1989, it marked the 100th year of my great grandfather, Adam’s (and his family) immigration in 1889.
I took along my father’s Living Bible given to me when he died. I declared it on my declaration document as I entered the Soviet Union. I read it in my hotel room the first day of the tour, as I prayed for protection, that God would make His presence known to me while traveling in this Communist country. He did. In a way my father too, took the journey with me, in spirit at least. When I returned home, a small American flag hung above our front door to welcome me back home after the ten-day trip. My husband, Wayne had put it there.
In 1998, Wayne and I went to New York, the New England states, and Washington, D.C. for a vacation. We were able to spend a day in New York City touring the historic Ellis Island (now a museum), the Statue of Liberty and Battery Park (the former Castle Gardens).
It was at Castle Gardens where our family disembarked and proceeded through the lines of immigration. On the day that we went there, I sat on the ferryboat staring up in awe at the beautiful Statue of Liberty. I was overcome with emotion, wiping the tears from my face. The statue had been set in place just a few years before great grandfather, Adam and his family disembarked from their passage ship. They must have seen it too. Did they maybe also wipe tears from wide-eyed faces? It was crowded the day we were there. There were long lines of tourists waiting to get inside. We were unable to get in to see the rest of the monument. We could only walk the grounds outside it due to the late hour. We had spent considerable time at Ellis Island and Battery Park the same day. We had to use the ferryboats to cross to each site.
When we walked around Battery Park, the very place of their immigration processing, a park ranger gave us a personal tour. I told him about my family genealogy research. He took us to the place where the early immigrants came ashore to go through immigration processing, just as thousands of others did a few years later at Ellis Island when it opened in 1892. Then they closed Castle Gardens.
Ironically, there remains buried underneath Battery Park an old landfill that was covered, filled in and beautifully landscaped with a memorial to honor the immigrants. Trees, grass, flowers, and plants are everywhere, thriving and maintained. What a beautiful way to honor that spot by planting the trees, flowers, and plants. I thought about that as a wonderful illustration of our family’s historic past. Our ancestors who went before us were like a tree, transplanted upon American soil, watered, nurtured, and cared for by those honoring them, wanting to keep alive their legacy. They came ashore, walking from the portals of their past through the gates into their future, into freedom. They came with hope and purpose, and believed it would be easier for those coming after them. It is my hope that my children and grandchildren will walk through the portals of their ancestors’ past with this book to get a glimpse of the life our ancestors left, to come to a blessed land, America.
Joyce E. Johnson