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the village of Kuelte in Hessen, Germany; the Kuelter Burg ("Castle") can be seen on the hill, in the background     

“Do you think I want to live with holes in my pants for the rest of my life?”
The Viering Family’s German-Immigrant Story

as told by Meta Viering Lage; edited by Michael Luick-Thrams

      My father, Fritz Viering, was born and reared in an agricultural community in Hessen, in Central Germany. He was 17 years old when World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. His father was the village blacksmith and the family owned a very small farm on the Kuelte Berg [a big hill]. As a youngster, he sometimes stayed out all night to watch soldiers practicing military maneuvers. Dad’s mother had died of tuberculosis in 1909, when he was eleven years old. His father died on the 16th of February, 1921—two years before Fritz came to America.
      In 1997 and 1998, as we Viering children were going through our parents’ things, we found a narrative that Dad had written of how he came to “Amerika”. He recorded his recollections because he realized Alzheimer’s was making it increasingly difficult for him to remember. Dad’s narrative was probably written in the late 1970s. He began to write in English and later switched to German, evidently because it must have been easier for him.
      Dad came to America in April 1923. (He had served in WWI and there are newspapers accounts that tell of those experiences.) A German named Georg Keiser, who farmed east of Gladbrook, Iowa, sent a letter to his nephew, Christian Bruene, and said to him “Come to America”. Chris had planned to come with another friend, a certain Herr Obermann. Obermann decided to stay in Germany, however, because his girlfriend was pregnant. Tickets were changed from “Obermann” to “Viering”.
      In the narrative my father related, “It was then that Christian Bruene found me at the Wachenfeld Haus on Kuelter Hackenberg, where I was with my friend, Ludwig Naeser. Christian Bruene entered with his brother and said ‘Fritz, do you want to go along to America’. I said ‘Ja’ [‘Yes’]”. This story was told to us children many times. We always thrilled in its telling.
      In later years, we learned that Dad’s family had tried to talk him out of going to America. On one occasion, as related by a cousin, he looked down at his pants, full of holes, and said “Do you think I want to live with holes in my pants for the rest of my life?” They sailed on the S.S. Bayern for America, ready for adventure.
      Fritz and Chris entered Ellis Island on the 8th of April 1923. My father called it the “Island of Tears”. While most immigrants passed through in a few hours, the possibility of rejection struck terror in the hearts of the immigrants. He saw a bribe take place as someone with a withered hand slipped an inspector some cash. “As immigrants carried their luggage up the great stairway to the Registry Room, they underwent—without their knowing it—a six-second medical exam. Doctors at the top of the stairs watched for lameness and shortness of breath. Doctors also checked for signs of a highly contagious eye disease called trachoma”. Dad had his first ice cream cone on Ellis Island, and he said that as he was eating his cone, he turned and observed a cameraman filming him for a newsreel.
     (Years ago I once gave a lesson about Ellis Island and interviewed my mother about what she knew. My mother told of a friend who never spoke much of her Ellis Island experiences because she came as a 15-year-old girl, alone with her younger brother. They were detained at Ellis Island for a week because there was a question about their sponsorship. They had to stay while they wrote for a letter to be sent to relatives and to receive the reply, guaranteeing that they had financial backing and would not become wards of the state. The girl remembered an overweight matron with a tattered apron, with a huge ring of keys, who showed them to sleeping facilities. Mom also mentioned Gus Wrage, a Gladbrook friend, who was one of twins born on Ellis Island.)
      I read two newspaper articles about speeches my father made to American Legion meetings in the 1930s. I was amazed at the warm reception given to a former enemy by veterans of the same conflict. When Dad spoke to the group, another guest, Clarence Irwin—a Canadian architect—was in the audience and soon realized that on a number of occasions, he and Fritz were directly opposing each other, with some fierce fighting taking place. A few days later a reporter from the Waterloo Courier arrived with Mr. Irwin and for the next eight hours the journalist listened to the two former “enemies” engage in an exchange of experiences that impressed him. As the reporter later wrote to Dad, “One can read volumes and volumes on the war and still not be informed as clearly nor as vividly as hearing it firsthand from two [who] were in some of the stormiest battles”.
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      Those two opposing soldiers became very good friends and shared letters and visits over a long period of time. They continued their correspondence through the Great Depression of the ‘30s and experienced times of great difficulty during those years as well. The times were so distressing that Irwin wrote in a Christmas card to Fritz in December of 1931, “Have been hoping to see you for months, but no doubt you know some of the general hell going on as well as we do. Honestly, Fritz, I have several times dreamed of the happy, carefree days when you and I were hired to kill each other and wished that I were as free from worry as I was then”. (Dad’s home village of Kuelte, with 700 inhabitants, furnished about 200 soldiers to serve in WWII; 45 or 50 never came back. Others were crippled or maimed for life.)
      Those first few years in America were lonely and difficult for Dad. A hired man earned $60.00 a month and he was not paid in the winter. He originally planned to return to Germany in two years, as soon as he had saved enough money and paid off his sponsorship. Mom’s theory was that one of the women on one of the farms where he worked never gave him enough to eat. Not giving anyone enough to eat was a cardinal sin according to my mother. Whenever we would go visiting, the whole family of eight almost always went along. Mom would always take along food to the home we were visiting. Mom was always known for her bounteous lunches. She was famous as a bread baker, once having me draw a picture of how to mix up the whole wheat-rye Graham bread, which she made twice weekly; she didn’t really use a recipe. Since she was going into the hospital for surgery, she wanted to be sure that if she didn’t survive, my father would always have his rye bread, or Schwarzbrot. On the back of the handwritten recipe card were these few lines:
               Your loving ways bring out the sun
               And warm the hearts of everyone.
I know why she scribbled those words—because that’s what she believed.
      In March of 1934 Dad moved to the farm that he and his descendents would rent for more than 70 years. The house was in terrible condition. I remember Dad telling how cold it was in winter: the lace curtains at the leaking windows would fly horizontally when the wind blew. He would sit in front of the old wood cook stove with the oven door open, bundled in a coat. “Wie Du”—his faithful Rat Terrier—would lie inside the oven. Wie Du lived until he was 18 years old. His name was a German phrase meaning “Like you”. The old house was in such a poor condition that a new house was to be built to replace it. During the construction period, winter of 1936-37, Fritz went to Germany to visit family and friends. He also may have wanted to find a bride. Several German women had corresponded with him during his bachelor days in America, with matrimony the goal.
      So begins the story of Fritz and Augusta’s marriage. The morning that Fritz arrived in his home village of Kuelte, he walked down that familiar street when he met my mother, Augusta (also born Viering), from the house of Mangels, coming down the street. She was carrying a Stollen, a Christmas fruit bread—mixed and shaped—to the bakery to be baked. My mother said “Good morning”. They later met at a dance. Mom told me that her father was home with the flu. If “Opa” had been at the dance, Dad would not have been allowed to escort her home. Fritz did ask Augusta, however, if he could walk her home. Mom said they took the long way home. Dad said that at the dance he had noticed Mom’s dark brown eyes. In February, Mom wrote a formal letter of acceptance of Fritz’ proposal. Her parents wrote a letter to Fritz, too, expressing their concerns, but they did grant their reluctant permission.

click here for documents from Fritz
and Augusta's courtship and marriage

      Following a whirlwind courtship of less than three months, Augusta borrowed her sister Mariechen’s white wedding dress for the church wedding. Ironically, Fritz had dated this sister before he first went to America. The 12-year absence had been just too long: Mariechen married someone else about six months before Fritz returned to Germany! Augusta and Fritz’ wedding rings could not be real gold because, Mom said, Hitler was not letting gold out of Germany. (In checking Mom’s passport, it was called to my attention that her status was as a “stateless person”: because she was emigrating, her German citizenship was taken away.) The suit Dad purchased in Germany for the wedding was partly made from wood fibers and it fell apart soon after the wedding.
      There was always one thing that Mom and Dad could never agree on. And, that was the date of their marriage. They were married by civil authorities on the 5th of March 1937. The church wedding was to take place the next day, but Dad got sick and the church wedding was postponed until the 13th of March 1937. Dad always said the official wedding date was the day of the civil wedding; Mom, however, said that the date of the church wedding was the day recognized by God. When Mom went back to visit for the first time in 1953, she evidently went both to the church and also the government office to get official documentation of both events.
     When Mom was recuperating from knee replacement surgery, a niece, Micky, and I stayed with her for a few days. I had gotten a Grandmother Remembers book to record special memories of her life. We recorded some of her memories of their courtship and her growing-up years. Augusta always said it was the saddest wedding she had ever been to because they were sailing to a new country and her mother thought that she was sending her daughter to the Wild West, with marauding Indians running about. “Oma” was certain that she would see Augusta never again, although Fritz and Augusta had promised that they would come back for a visit in five years. That was not to be because when the five years had passed World War II was raging.
     The last words that my father told their families as the train was leaving the station were “Come well through the next war”. He believed that Germany was heading to war again. Their German families did not believe that war would come [as most Germans held that “Hitler wants peace; other countries are working to weaken Germany]. When the war did come, by the time it was over, my grandparents learned that two more grandchildren had been born during the years they were not able to communicate with Fritz and Augusta on the faraway Iowa prairies.

The Farewell Dinner menu aboard the
S. S. Bremen on the 30th of March 1937 featured delicacies listed in both German and English. This was the fare for third-class passengers. The menu cover is shown to the left, the two listings inside the menu are below.


Aboard the ship were many European refugees fleeing the Nazi madness—Jews, political dissidents, artists, intellectuals and other so-called "enemies of the German people". The various groups did not necessarily like each other nor mix freely with one another. All were trying to escape the gathering storm, any way they could.

     We never had much money, but we always considered our lives very rich in a love of learning and caring. Four of the six children became teachers, and one a nurse. Fred, the oldest, loved the land, like his father. We saw our parents send package after package after WWII was over—to family, friends and sometimes to people they scarcely knew. Coffee, tea, cocoa, shortening, candy and many other items were wrapped in cloth and sewn shut to discourage pilfering. The cloth sometimes was feed sacks—also used by the recipients to make clothing for the German families’ children. Even the thread used in sewing the packages was saved. Some people later told them their care packages saved them from starvation. My cousin, Fritz Viering Goebels, told us when we visited them in 1998, that when one of the packages came it would be like Christmas. The family would wait until evening and all sat around the dining room table to see what was in it. Once, the coffee beans and rice packages broke apart in transit and they carefully picked out the coffee from the rice, as nothing must be wasted.
     Kuelte remembered those packages sent after the war. When Mom and Dad went back to Germany in 1971, they were greeted by the mayor, who made a speech and presented my parents with a book. Dad said “At least several hundred townsfolk must have been at the place”. The Gesangsverein, a community chorus, sang for them and people thanked them for the packages that had been sent 25 years earlier.
      Dad kept a daily travel diary on the 1971 trip—his only return to his homeland after he brought his bride to America; Mom was able to return a number of times. Dad noted everyone they visited each day and sometimes made a comment on their discussions. One entry read “discussed WWI”. Another recorded “After a very spirited visit all afternoon and evening…” My father had many “spirited” visits, discussions or arguments all his life. I remember growing up listening to these debates and found them wonderful Sunday afternoon entertainment.
      (Fritz’ relived his WWI experiences in his mind during the last days, when his Alzheimer’s caused him periodically to walk the corridors of the Westbrook Acres Care Center. He touched the handrails all the while. He once told me that he was chasing the rats. Were the rants from those long-ago WWI trenches? A sister also said that Dad told her that as a boy the village of Kuelte installed a sewer system—and that rats were everywhere. In some of the caretaking training that our family attended, we learned that if a person has had a traumatic experience in their early years, an Alzheimer’s patient may relive them in their dementia.)
      We loved and respected our father, but he also was autocratic and opinionated, and when we were younger, we were a bit afraid of him. We certainly didn’t ever want to disappoint him. I remember there was one whistle for the dog, Wie Du and his successors, and another for the children. We knew we were to come running when we heard our whistle.

      The Viering family has rented the same 120-acre farm since 1934, almost 70 years. The Great Depression devastated so many. It was no different for the Vierings. We always had plenty to eat, but had difficulty paying the cash rent during the Depression. It took my parents ten years to catch up on the rent debt accrued during those years. If Georg Keiser had not been so patient about the rent, Brian Lage, a grandson, would not still be farming those Beaman acres. In later years Mom and Dad were able to purchase a 240-acre farm near Gladbrook. It happened to be one of the farms where Dad had worked as a hired man during those first years in the United States. What an accomplishment, to be able to purchase his own land! To be able to attain such a large piece of the rich, black spoil of Iowa gave him such a sense of the fulfillment of a long-held dream.
      Dad also had the same feeling of accomplishment in being able to provide a college education for five of his six children. My father had valued education very highly. He could not afford to go to school more than to the eighth grade in Germany. He was bitterly disappointed that his family could not afford to continue his education in Germany. He was self-taught, however, and could speak with authority with my professors at Iowa State Teachers College [in Cedar Falls]. He also had written a letter to the editor of the Saturday Evening Post and wrote for some German publications. We didn’t realize how much he had written until we were going through my parents’ home and found copies of many of the articles he had written over a period of years. He was well-read, reading late into the night after working long hours in the fields. It was never too hot for him, although in the winter weather he often suffered from the cold—a remnant of those war years. He loved Zane Grey, stories of the west and the artist Norman Rockwell. A number of winters he worked on a ranch in the Badlands area for a farmer who also had land in Iowa.
      When Mom and my brothers and sisters gathered around in the Stuba (German for “living room”) after Dad’s death, everyone shared their own personal memories of our father. I suddenly realized that one of his great gifts to us (after making it possible for us to grow up as Americans) was that he made each one of his children secretly believe that we were his favorite.
      My father took pride in being an American and he taught us to be proud and responsible citizens. He also taught us to be proud of our German heritage. He told it best in his own words. In a 1931 Traer Star Clipper article, Dad said “When I came to America I planned to return to Germany in two years. It is now nearly eight years since I came and I haven’t been back yet. I know now that I will never go back except for a visit. I want to go back some day to see my home, folks and former buddies of the war, and I’d like to see the old battlefields again. But for nearly three years now I’ve been an American citizen. America has been good to me. Once I swore allegiance to the Kaiser [the German emperor, defeated in 1918, at the end of World War I], and I did my duty to my fatherland as I saw it them. Since then I have sworn allegiance to America and I hope to be a good citizen of my adopted country”.

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