Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Where We're From, I: Germany/Montana

[click photo to enlarge]
Bink's grandfather Carl (the officials at Ellis Island changed his name from "Karl") Wilken, pictured here, came to the USA in 1923, aged 19.
He'd worked through high school to earn money to emigrate, but all the money he'd saved became worthless in the German depression. So he came as an indentured servant to a farmer in the Dakotas.

After he got free, he moved to Montana and bought his own farm. There he married Caroline, a German woman who was either born in Russia or on the boat coming over, according to family legend...so she qualifies as an immigrant too.

Because the couple spoke different kinds of German, they only spoke English to each other and their children, including Bink's mother.

Here is Carl with the daughters of a friend and neighbor, Lorraine, Alice, and unknown sister, circa 1930 (?).
[more of Carl's story from Bink in comments]


bink said...

Hi Grandpa!

He was also an inventor and a tinkerer, having come up with lots of little gadgets to make life on the farm run smoother and easier. He loved cars and motorcycles and did a crosscountry motorcycle trip after he paid off his indenture, before he settled down.

He had a big scar up and down his body from when his pants leg got caught in a just-fired-up auger. Due to cold weather it was slow to warm up and wasn't running full bore immediately so he managed to catch hold of it with his hands and and keep it from turning until my grandmother heard his yelling and could turn it off. Everyone was amazed it didn't kill him, or tear his leg (and arms) off...but he was a tough guy. In his 70's he had a lung removed due to cancer and was climbing in the mountains with us a few years later. He died of old age at 90 in 1994.

He was the only one in his family to come to America. And while he kept in touch with letters and phone calls, he never went back, even for a visit. He thought it would be too hard, that he might be tempted to stay...but then he would miss his family in America. I was the first in our family to visit Germany, and the only one to do it while he was alive.

fresca said...

I so see you in your good-looking adventurous grandfather, Bink!
And I remember that he was so angry when he was a boy at the unfair way Russian POWs (held near his family's home) were treated during WWI that he smuggled food to them.
You told me that he could still count in Russian as an old man, because one of the prisoners had taught him how.
That's like you too.

bink said...

Close, but you are combining two stories. My grandfather originally brought food and tobacco from his father's farm at his father's request (his father was himself a German POW at this time) to the Russian POWs as sort of a good karma thing (or perhaps to return good karma).

My grandfather did become friends with various Russians, in particular a Russian soldier who was once a school teacher and who taught him to count. He witnessed violence against the prisoners that caused him to still be outraged 75 years later--declaring "if only I'd been a man, I could have stopped them" (the German soldiers beating the Russians). He was about 12 then.

Around the same time, he did smuggle hams from the farm, on the train, to the big port town of Breman. Blackmarketers (his guardian/father?) reckoned a boy wouldn't be suspected of smuggling...so he got away with it.

I could go on and on....