“I’m sorry. I get emotional talking about it.”
Edith Steinhorst, 85, paused several times while telling her story, gathering her composure. I wondered what images were swirling through her memory in those moments.
We were sitting in the church parlor with her pastor. It was a cold winter’s day in northern Vermont, and she had baked some cookies for the occasion.
Edith, her husband Wolfgang, and their three children (aged 6, 3, and a newborn) were resettled in the US by CWS in 1952. They had been expelled by Poland from the eastern regions of Germany after the war, and were languishing in western Germany when a Lutheran minister told them about Church World Service, obtained an application for them, and assisted them in the emigration process. After a long waiting period, their application was approved and they set sail from Bremerhaven, Germany.
The Atlantic crossing took ten days, and they were processed by CWS, Edith said, while aboard the ship. When they arrived in New York, they were given identification papers and tags, $200 cash and train passage to Broken Bow, Oklahoma – a grueling 51-hour trip, as Edith recalled it. They were met there by a man in a flat-bed truck and taken to his farm to live and work. Edith remarked, “We were expecting someone in a Cadillac! This was America, after all!” Instead, they lived on a farm, in a small shack, with her husband doing farm labor to support them.
After a few months, they were contacted by “a more affluent family”, and went to live in Idabell, Okla., where Edith’s husband began working as a plumber’s apprentice. After gaining the necessary experience and skill, Wolfgang was able to start a plumbing business in Virginia with the help of someone Edith described as an “immigrant sponsor”. He also earned extra money working at a gas station in order to save enough to bring the family to Virginia. The family prospered through Wolfgang’s plumbing business and lived in Virginia for 24 years. After their retirement, and following the death of her husband and their eldest son, Edith moved to St. Albans, Vt., to be near their daughter. She continues to live there, midway between Burlington and the Canadian border, where she is active in the First Congregational Church and in her retirement community.
Edith was visibly moved, and clearly thrilled, that someone from Church World Service would come to visit her now, after all these years. Her daughter, also excited, got out some old photographs of the family’s voyage to the US. To this day, Edith credits CWS with providing the opportunity and the means for her family to find a new life in the US. After we talked, she took me by the arm and gave me a walking tour of her church. The connection – arm to arm – was emotional and profound.
Bert Marshall, Director, New England office