Take, for example, the Kempe family of Sayda, Germany. In 1854, the family’s eldest son, Wilhelm, 26, and eldest daughter, Auguste, 20, decided to seek a new life in Texas. They left behind in Sayda their widowed father, August Kempe, 52, and a 10-year-old sister, Bertha, and eight-year-old brother, Alwin.
Letters written by the place-bound father, the younger sister, and the younger brother in Europe to Wilhelm in Texas over the next decades provide poignant insights into how their lives were changed – and the sacrifices they had to make – as a result of the emigration of Wilhelm and Auguste to America. The letters, translated from German to English, and explanatory narrative are the subject of my book Man of Two Worlds.
The federal blockade of southern ports probably prevented the exchange of letters during the Civil War, but many came in the following decades. Some reveal that Wilhelm’s father August remained heartbroken about losing Wilhelm even after the son had lived in Texas for 15 years, with a growing family of his own.
“I wish I could visit you once. Then my biggest wish would be fulfilled. If I could be younger, I would do it and would not care how much money I have to spend, because my longing for my children gets bigger and bigger. I regret so much that I ever let you go and to think that I would die without having seen you again makes my heart heavy,” August writes to Wilhelm in an undated letter probably written in 1869.
August is also becoming concerned about the future and the Kempe family legacy in Germany. He wonders which of his sons will take over the farm when he is no longer able to manage it. Alwin, who is in his mid 20s in 1871 and recently returned from military service, has no interest in it. Bertha is reaching her late 20s that year, when she writes to Wilhelm again, telling him of their father’s worries on this issue.
“Father wants [Alwin] to be here and take over the farm but he doesn’t want it. So often Father says, if only Wilhelm could come over here and take my property over, him I could trust. I wonder if you couldn’t sell your property and come back home. It would make us so very happy, but if you and your dear wife could not decide to come home, then dear brother could you not come for a visit so we could see each other and talk about so many things that should be straightened out,” Bertha tells her brother in Texas.
In January 1873, Alwin also writes to Wilhelm about the family difficulties back in the Homeland: “I wish I was with you to help you, but Father does not want me to leave. …If I had the money myself I still might come to you and start something. My dear Wilhelm, I sure wish you could come and see us again. It sure would help. I just cannot talk with Father and get along like you, that is the reason I am leaving [the family home in Sayda] this week again.”
In another letter from Bertha, in 1875, she appears to suggest sarcastically to Wilhelm that she chafes a bit at having been left by her siblings to take care of their aging father. “It is a good feeling to be able to take care of your parents in their old age and I know if you were here you would do the same,” she writes.
In the same letter, Bertha notes that she plans to marry Dietel, a man from a nearby town, but only if he can get a transfer to her village. “Dietel’s father is getting a nurse from the city to take care of him, so he can put in for a transfer to Sayda. If they will acknowledge that, we can get married. After all, I cannot leave Father alone, so will have to settle down here in Sayda …” she writes.
Clearly, these family members left behind in Europe faced challenges of their own as a result of emigration from German lands. In fact, their sacrifices – exemplified here by the need for Bertha to take on family responsibilities left for her by older siblings who wanted to pursue a new life in America – played a crucial role in allowing at least hundreds of thousands of Europeans to make their way to Texas and other states. It was a crucial role, and one that is often unheralded and unappreciated.