Among countless pleasures of our 16-day European honeymoon we remember gracious hospitality, spectacular sites, pristine Autumn weather and reunions with cherished friends. And these do not include our delight upon hearing that a friend had upgraded us to First Class for our 8-hour return flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. Ours was truly the honeymoon of our dreams… a dream we will long remember.
One extraordinary gift was the opportunity to visit the small rural hamlets from which my German ancestry emigrated. My paternal great-great grandparents came from Ellsdorf-Esch, near Cologne, in 1850. My mother’s German ancestry (she’s half Irish) left Weiberg/Hegensdorf near Kassel in 1856 for America.
Wanting to symbolically mark the occasion, we gathered dirt from fields near both sites. On our next visit to the cemeteries in NE Nebraska where these forebears are buried we will sprinkle earth from their homeland upon their graves. We will do this in their honor, in gratitude and in testimony to the enduring family bond they established.
We will not perform this simple ritual with naive sentimentality. The strength of family bonds we so easily take for granted required that they cut the bonds that linked them to family, culture and homeland. Their sacrifice was immense and should never be romanticized nor underestimated.
They left everything they possessed and all they knew out of necessity — families from the Rhineland were reeling from intractable poverty, lack of opportunity and political repression following the failed social revolution of 1848.
Virtually all German emigrants to America were desperate refugees fleeing intolerable conditions for a better life. Surely they could never have fathomed the good fortune of their children, not to mention the extravagances and indulgences of our honeymoon.
All this came rushing forth as I read a news report on my iPad from the comfort of our Minneapolis home. John Allen, a reporter for the Boston Globe, wrote about taking an old friend out to lunch in one of his favorite restaurants in Rome. The friend is Bishop Borys Gudziak, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Paris and president of the prestigious Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
Toward the end of lunch, Gudziak looked at Allen and said something like: “This has been a great meal, and I thank you for it. Let’s not forget, however, that millions of people in this world live in extreme poverty, and could never dream of affording something like this.” Allen’s unspoken reaction was, “You’re a great guy, Borys, but you can be a real downer sometimes.”
Bishop Gudziak wasn’t finished. “Almost half of the world lives with less than what a cappuccino costs in this neighborhood, less than two euros a day, and 80 percent of the world lives on less than $10 a day,” he said, with rising intensity in his voice. “There’s 150 million homeless people, 100 million orphans, 60 million refugees.”
Yes, I too easily accept — even with sincere gratitude — the unfathomable opportunities and unmerited comforts of my life. I can easily sentimentalize our family heritage, minimizing the sacrifice, romanticizing the true story. I can claim it as a unique family saga when it is in fact a universal human search for freedom, dignity and a better life for our children.
The dirt we scooped from the fields of Ellsdorf-Esch and Weiberg/Hegensborf sits in a plastic container not far from my recliner, current book selections and flat screen television. Until we have the opportunity to sprinkle it upon the graves of our forebears in sacred testimony to their courage and sacrifice, I will remember that my story is not something out of the 19th century but is more accurately “our” story today.
I will remember with this photo of a migrant praying in a field near the border between Serbia and Croatia about 100 km (62 miles) west of Belgrade, Serbia on Oct. 18, 2015. It is a family photo for truly this man is more than a neighbor, he is our brother:
The inspirational article by John Allen about his lunch with Bishop Borys Gudziak is from the October 18 online edition of Crux [link]. The photo is from the Associated Press: (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic).