“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2
In May of 1909, a woman by the name of Elizabetha Mayer sailed from Havre, France to New York. Her trip actually started in Bačka Palanka, a town that was once part of Austria-Hungary then Yugoslavia and now is part of Serbia. But just like most people from this area around the Danube River, Elizabetha was actually of German ancestry and spoke German. How she got from Bačka Palanka to France is anyone’s guess; perhaps there was some sort of train travel or a donkey drawn carriage or a very awkward piggyback ride. After first stopping at Ellis Island, Elizabetha made her way to Denver, Colorado, where relatives welcomed Elizabeth into their home. After living in Denver for two years, Elizabeth sent enough money back to Bačka Palanka for her soon-to-be husband, Joseph, to join her in the United States. They married in Denver where Joseph worked as a tailor and Elizabeth was a stay at home mom to their two girls; later she would became a maid. Thirty years after her arrival- on June 8, 1939- Elizabeth was sworn in as a US citizen. That’s right: Elizabeth was an illegal immigrant in the US for 30 years.
Elizabeth was my great-grandmother. I have been researching my ancestry off and on for years now but Elizabeth’s story has been especially interesting to me, partly because of who she was (one of the sweetest and spunkiest relatives) and partly because of my fascination with the immigrant experience in the United States in the early 1900’s. Her life seems so thrilling to me. How, at 17, did she get to France all by herself? How did she feel sailing from France to America, with a boat full of strangers? According to the excerpt of the ship’s manifest I have seen, the ship was full of young, Italian men on the same journey with her. And yes, my husband did point out that perhaps Elizabeth lived out my dream of being on an ocean liner full of Italian men. I am unfortunately having the hardest time researching her life in Austria-Hungry/Yugoslavia/Serbia. It seems that when a country has changed names that often and you are one of the poor masses, records of your existence are hard to find. But thank goodness for all the census records the US provides for us! (Bet you never thought you’d hear someone thanking a bureaucratic agency.)
Elizabeth was not my only “recently” arrived relative- three out of my four grandparents were children of immigrants. I am not one to get political on this blog, as I believe God is above politics. But Elizabeth’s story makes me think of the 50,000+ immigrant children who have crossed the border since October. These children are fleeing a world of poverty, war, crime, lack of education, all that stuff I am sure all my relatives where fleeing. And I can’t help but think of all those parents who have made the impossible decision that their children would survive better in a new country, even without their families. I have no solution to immigration or foreign policy issues. Hell, I can barely get a blog post out most months. But, in this time in which so many people have so much to say, may I add to the dialogue by presenting some prayers?
I pray for all the parents in the world who want better lives for their children.
I pray for all those living far away from family; may they find courage to forge a new and better life.
I pray for peace in every country, so that people don’t have to feel fear where they live.
I pray for a large amount of compassion, as we come to see all people as children of God and not as “problems” that need to be solved.
And I pray for the strength of Elizabeth: if we ever need to cross the land and the sea (sometimes surrounded by Italian men), may we remember those we love at home and may we create a better life for our future generations.
P.S. – In a much lesser way, I also ask for help for myself. If you have expertise in researching this part of Europe, please contact me so that I may found out more about the records of Bačka Palanka and figure out who gave Elizabeth a piggyback ride to France.