|Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 1989|
Hold Dear, As Always: Jette, A German Immigrant Life in Letters. Edited by Adolf E. Schroeder and Carla Schulz-Geisberg. Translated from German by Adolf E. Schroeder (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988). 309 pp. Illustrations. Notes. Index. $34.00.
In 1974, Adolf E. Schroeder, then professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, discovered that Henriette Geisburg Bruns (known to her family as Jette), wife of an early German immigrant to the central Missouri hamlet of Westphalia, had written letters back to Germany for more than sixty years, until her death in 1899, ending them typically with the words, "Hold dear, as always." Moreover, Professor Schroeder discovered those letters had been preserved by three generations of Geisbergs, along with an autobiography written by Jette Bruns and a myriad of other documents and photographs.
Now, fifteen years later, Schroeder and Carla Schulz-Geisberg, the owner of the Geisberg collection and the granddaughter of the recipient of most of the letters, have joined to give us an edited collection of Bruns's writings. The result is a detailed account of everyday pioneer life in the German Ozarks, as seen through the eyes of a remarkable and resilient woman.
Jette Bruns's husband became smitten with emigration fever early in the 1830s. "For me," Jette wrote in her Autobiography, "it was a hard struggle between inclination and duty.., but I had given my husband my promise to follow him to the New World." (p. 46)
Bernhard, a physician, practiced primarily among people whose income mitigated against his collecting large medical fees. His own poor business practices left even many of the small fees uncollected. Bernhard sought greater opportunity in the New World. His wife found instead loneliness, pain, and incredible inconvenience. Her husband insisted on building a large new house right away, which meant the family moved into the house, "after the timbers had been erected and the roof put on," but while "there was still no gable, no chimney, no floor, neither windows nor doors .... If only we had let the big house go and had been satisfied with a few comfortable log cabins as other people were." (p. 73)
Sickness and suffering were ubiquitous. In 1841, within a three-week period, Jette Bruns watched three of her children die of dysentery: "It really hit me too hard that I also had to lose little Rudolph [the youngest] .... I myself sewed him his shroud." (p. 112) What was worse, there was no one with whom Jette could share her burden, at least not another woman. As she wrote to her brother Heinrich, "Here, how lonely I am; there is not another congenial female being with whom I could exchange now and then my feelings when I need some relief and would forget the daily worries and cares and set these aside for a short time." (p. 105)
Jette hated the loneliness and suffering of Westphalia. "1 do not like farm life at all anymore. I long for peace. It does not bring me anything but a great deal of trouble." (p. 135) In 1847 she wrote to her brother, "... I cannot make anything good out of anything. I often tell Bruns that we ought to move away." (p. 141)
At age thirty-nine, the long suffering Jette painted this self-portrait: "There is none of the youthful freshness left, but instead a stiff, sad, indifferent figure, without manners, without interest, with aged features, a mouth without teeth." (p. 157) Eventually life in Westphalia became too difficult for Jette, and she persuaded her husband to move to Jefferson City, only to regret the decision when it seemed to send him into a deep depression: "... Bruns was so depressed that he hardly talked anymore, and he would not go out. It was difficult for me to remain unaffected. It was the worst time of my life." (p. 162) Politics, both state and local, soon captured Bernhard's interest, however, and eventually he was elected mayor of the city.
Dr. and Mrs. Bruns lived directly across the street from the state Capitol as the dark cloud of civil war and secession hovered over the entire state in the early 1860s. Early in 1861 Jette wrote, "Here the public peace has not been disturbed; only it has been necessary recently to tolerate a tremendously large secessionist flag that has been flying. I wonder whether Missouri can stay neutral." (p. 177)
Jette watched troops arrive in and depart from the capital. She lived with the daily fear that the city would fall to the secessionists and that she and her family would be forced to flee. And then, in July 1863, she received word that her son Heinrich, of the Tenth Missouri Cavalry, had been killed in battle at Luka, Mississippi. Heinrich's body was returned to Jefferson City for burial. Jette described her feelings to her brother: "It is too hard! . . . the whole war, and the whole miserable world -- one gets so tired of it!" (pp. 188-189). Her son's body lay in state in Jette's home for one afternoon: "It seemed to me that I would expire, and I sat in the room next door until I could see him alone." (p. 189)
Less than a year later, Bernhard Bruns died after a two-month illness, and Jette found herself alone. "... Sometimes such a deadly lonesomeness takes hold of me. I was not at all accustomed to act independently, and I wonder what is ahead for me?" (p. 194) Widow Bruns, unfamiliar with the family's finances, quickly discovered that her husband had run up debts on both sides of the Atlantic. She opened a boarding house in the couple's home to have some income, although her political leaning allowed her to rent to Republicans only. Jette lived out the remainder of her life, detailed by the editors in a section labelled "The Restless Years, 1868-1899," in Jefferson City. She died on November 8, 1899.
Hold Dear, As Always is a remarkable book, precisely because Jette was such a remarkable woman. Her letters are powerful and passionate. One suspects that had she not written them, had she not been able to release all those pent up emotions of fear and frustration and sorrow, she might have been unable to survive. But survive she did, against odds and obstacles that make us German Ozarkers of the twentieth century feel like a privileged class indeed.
This book should be of great interest to students of Missouri history, German-American history, ethnic history, and women's studies. Schroederand Schulz-Geisberg provide excellent commentary and context. Indeed, one finds it hard to quibble with anything in such a well-crafted volume. The only thing missing is the voice of Bernhard Bruns, the man responsible for Jette's presence in America. His letters are tantalizingly mentioned on a couple of occasions
(e.g., pp. 54, 96), but not reproduced. This shortcoming (if is one) aside, I know of no other book which takes a reader so intimately inside the immigrant hearth and home.
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