Immigrant Boy From Denmark Tells His Story


An Immigrant's Story
Dannebrog, Nebraska.

Miss Jane Addams, Hull House, Chicago.

Dear Miss Addams :


I read your article in the November CHAUTAUQUAN, in which you advocated for more personal contact with the country's foreign population. If Americans realized the positive impact it would have on both them and foreigners, especially during the adjustment period, more would join your efforts. It would benefit the foreigner, the country, and the Americans themselves. Giving is more rewarding than receiving, and lifting others is more strengthening than being lifted.

With your permission, I would like to share how I was saved during the most critical time of my life through contact with a noble American family of the traditional New England type. I will briefly describe my childhood to help you understand better.


I was born in a province ruthlessly taken by Germany from Denmark in 1864. A boy more handicapped than I could hardly be found, for I had neither father, mother, nor country - three things usually considered essential to a start in life.

My father fell while defending the forts at Döppel a few months before I was born, and my mother, being in poor health, was unable to support me. She had to leave me in the care of her oldest sister, my Aunt Cecilia.

As far back as I can remember, I was a frail child, exceedingly nervous, and had terrible fits of temper. When the German artillery practiced at the forts, and I heard the cannon boom, every shot seemed to go through me. At such times, my temper would be uncontrollable.


"I heard the neighbors say, 'What will become of that unfortunate boy? He is bright enough but so peculiar, and he will never be able to do hard work?'"

Thus, I grew up believing I was unfortunate and peculiar and would never achieve much, as everyone except my aunt and uncle said. However, I never doubted their love for me.

My aunt and uncle were poor, but we always had what we needed, and our little house was always tidy and clean. Our garden was beautiful in the summer, and the villagers often envied our home. Despite this, I had a happy childhood.

One day in June, my Aunt Cecilia and I set out to decorate the soldiers' graves with red and white roses, as we lived near where one of the main battles of the war had taken place. On the way, I asked her if my father's grave was there. She confirmed it was, but he was buried in the same grave as the good Danish soldiers.


"I wish the Germans had given my father a grave of his own so I could have found him," I said. "After all, they killed him. I've decided not to pray for Emperor William in school anymore, even if it means getting shot. Instead, I'll whisper the name of the King of Denmark."

As my aunt decorated the grave of 600 Danish soldiers, a gendarme arrived and told her not to use red and white, Denmark's national colors. Without thinking, I picked up a rock and struck the man on the shin.

The officer grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me, and warned me that boys like me usually ended up in prison.

Aunt Cecilia didn't say anything, but I saw a look in her eyes that I'd never seen before. After the man left, she wiped away tears and took my hand to lead me to another grave. We decorated every grave, using red roses for the German soldiers and white for the Danish.


"My aunt said, 'For it is not right to hate the dead. They were all God's children.' But that night, when they thought I was sleeping soundly, I overheard Uncle and Aunt talking about me. 'The best thing for the boy will be to go to America as soon as he is old enough,' I heard Uncle say. 'He seems to be born with a hatred against the Germans, and with that impulsive nature of his, I fear he will get into trouble sooner or later.'

After that, I made up my mind to go to America. I would go there and become rich. Everyone I knew who had gone to America had become wealthy. I hoped that one day I might become great there, and then I would gather an army of fierce Indians, march them against Berlin, and tell them to throw stones at the shins of the German Emperor as much as they liked."


At seventeen, I arrived in America with my personality, education, a small wooden chest, around twenty dollars in cash, and a rusty revolver.

If I had landed in Chicago, I would have been a hopeful young recruit for an anarchist group, as it was during the Haymarket period. However, I ended up in an Illinois cornfield instead. I had expected the government to give me a weapon, but instead, I was given a hoe. It was a big letdown.

I worked for a man who employed "green foreigners," as he called them, to work in his cornfield. He paid them less than Americans, and they worked hard using a hoe before they became too clever. I didn't understand my employer, and he didn't know me, but it didn't matter because I was smart enough to identify a cockleburr and a wild morning glory when he showed them to me.


During that long, sweltering summer, the sun beamed, the rain poured, the weeds grew, and I hoped. I tried my best to establish a reputation as someone of value in this new land. However, it was an arduous task. I was frequently sick with malaria and perpetually homesick. Oh, how I wished for death! Yet, I also hoped that death wouldn't come, for if I died, I would be buried far away from the sea and my late uncle and aunt.

Despite all the misery, I learned a few things by asking questions of the younger boys in the household. Although the older boys mocked me, the younger ones were pleased to teach me new things and bragged about their knowledge.

In fact, I learned more quickly than my employers realized. One day, I overheard the housewoman tell her husband, "John doesn't seem as intelligent as the other inexperienced Danes we have had."


It seemed that things in this country would be as they were in my old country. I felt that I had added stupidity to my other unpleasant qualities and that the complete list would now include unfortunate, peculiar, criminal inclinations, stupid, and not much good.

But a better day eventually arrived. One day, while hoeing in the cornfield, an angel crossed the road and came to me. This angel had a freckled face, a shabby straw hat, and was barefooted, with one pant leg rolled up higher than the other.

It turned out that this angel was the neighbor's boy. He began to talk to me about my country, our old king, and his family, and we managed to understand each other quite well.

He was different from the big boys down at our house. When I tried to express myself and couldn't find the right words, he could almost always guess what I was trying to say. He never laughed at me but instead helped me out.


After that day, I frequently looked for the neighbor's boy across the street. I was overjoyed when he asked me if I wanted to work for his father the following summer. It was the first glimmer of hope I had experienced in this new world.

At that time, Scandinavian immigrants were considered foreigners. The term "foreigner" sounded terrible to me. I had come to America hoping to become an American, but now I was labeled a foreigner. I hadn't considered this possibility before leaving home. One day, I asked the eldest boy at work how long people had been considered foreigners since coming to this country.

He gave me unpleasant news: I would always be a foreigner. This was disheartening, especially during the Haymarket affair, when newspapers were full of sensational outbursts against foreigners. Since my host family never read the news but relied on rumors, they judged all foreigners similarly. They believed that ignorant foreigners should be returned to their origin countries.


My friend, the neighbor's boy, had told me that many poor boys worked their way through school in this country. That seemed very discouraging to me - to be a foreigner always - but I decided that these people should not always call me ignorant. I would save my money and get an education.

When cornhusking was done, I was paid off, and the good lady of the house told me to take care of my money and not drink it up like most foreigners. It was certainly good advice, for I was going to Springfield, Illinois, to get an education.

I thought Springfield, the state's capital, must have the best schools, for, in the old country, the capitals always had the best of everything. And now, having over sixty dollars in my pocket to get an education, I felt pretty well provided and thought I might just as well have the best.

In Springfield, I started to see if I could find some of my compatriots, thinking that they might be able to help me find work, but I failed to find any of them. So I started to go from house to house and ask the people for a place to work for my board with the opportunity of going to school. Most listened kindly enough to my pigeon English, but I doubt they understood what I wanted.

When I rang the doorbell at the last house, a lady hurriedly came to the door, holding a pug dog under one arm. She scolded me before I could explain myself, saying that a young man like me should be ashamed to beg. She also mentioned that she didn't believe in giving anything at the door and suggested I go to one of the missions downtown if I were hungry. Then she slammed the door, worried that the pug dog might catch a cold, as it was beginning to snow and the wind was blowing.


Now began the most dreary winter. I walked the streets daily, standing on the corners and watching people pass until I was shivering with cold and heartbreak. These people seemed to have something to do and probably had a home.

One day, while standing there, I saw a young fellow about my age on the opposite corner. He looked as woe-begone as I felt, so I went over and spoke to him. He was a Swedish boy from the southern part of the country, and we understood each other quite well.

He had been in town for about four months and made a living by doing odd jobs. But now his money was gone, and he had been kicked out of his room. So here was someone in worse circumstances than me. I had most of my summer's wages sewn securely up in the lining of my vest and some silver money in my pocket.

Since I had more money and he had more experience, we thought it best to consolidate. So he found a cheap room, and I paid the rent. He took me to different amusement places, and I paid for both of us. He knew the saloons that served the most substantial lunch, and I furnished the nickels for the beer.

At first, I was afraid of the saloons, but I soon found that money went further there than anywhere else. Besides our beer and lunch, there was often free music and always light and heat. Our room was wretchedly cold, so the saloons were a warm refuge for us.


My friend felt quite contented because, besides paying the running expenses, I lent him a dollar now and then, which he was to pay back when he found work. However, it was different for me. I could never be happy in those squalid surroundings.

At night, when I repeated the Lord's Prayer before going to sleep, I often imagined seeing our little thatched cottage at home with the white roses on the roof. I would wonder if Uncle John and Aunt Cecilia, who were no longer with us, could see me. Although I was almost eighteen, I still had a childlike mind.

Thus, as two foreign boys, my friend and I lived through that long, miserable winter, living mostly on free lunches to make the firm's money go as far as possible. We spent our days on the streets, in saloons, and at cheap amusement places. At night, we would go to sleep thinking of our homes across the sea.

However, one night, I had a horrid dream. I saw the cottage at home, but the windows were dark, and the roses on the roof had withered, making me sad. The following day, when I counted my money and realized that the firm would be insolvent in about two weeks, I returned to the country.

I tried to convince my partner to go with me, but he wasn't quite ready yet. He promised me to come out as soon as he found work. However, he never came, and I fear he had learned to be satisfied where he was. The poor boy probably had not grown up in a cottage with white roses on the roof.


As the train took me back to the countryside, everything was covered with snow. However, the further we got away from the city, the cleaner the snow became, and I felt lighter at heart even though I had lost sixty dollars. Since it was too early for farm work, I feared they might not need help. But the boy's suggestion gave me the courage to talk to him, and maybe he could help me arrange something with his father.

When I arrived, my friend was waiting for me at the door, and he introduced me to his family - a good, old-fashioned New England family. The father was a large, jolly, good-natured man, the mother a slight, pleasant-faced woman, the oldest daughter a noble, refined, educated girl, the baby of the family a golden-haired girl of about four years old, and then there was my friend. We quickly arranged things - I could help them with chores in exchange for my board until work began, and then I could work for wages.


This new home was quite different from the one I had lived in the previous summer. Unlike the last house's bare walls and ugly wooden furniture, this one was well-furnished with carpets, pictures, and even a piano. Despite the family being well-to-do, the previous home had no reading materials apart from a monthly farm paper, which never caught my interest due to the presence of hogs wallowing outside the windows. However, my new home had weekly papers, magazines, and good books.

I first experienced reading English by looking through a pile of old magazines. The magazines were full of pictures of people and places that I had read about before. These pictures helped me understand parts of the lesson slowly, and soon, I became proficient in reading English.


The housemaster was an old soldier who was interested in politics. He often explained the workings of the American government to me. The family's mother had a beautiful garden full of flowers, which she identified in English.

The family's daughter had a passion for music. In the evenings, after the day's work was done, she would sing and play ballads and English songs.

I spent three years in this fortunate environment, attending the district school during the winters while working for my board. I learned new things daily and grew physically and mentally in a wholesome environment. I was happy to have found a home and a country and was no longer considered an ignorant foreigner.

Though I still thought of Uncle John, Aunt Cecilia, and our little cottage with the white trailing roses on the thatched roof, all the bitter memories of my childhood began to fade away. I even reached a point where I could pray for the German Emperor if necessary.


My life took a profound turn, becoming expansive and vibrant, all because of a chance encounter with an American boy who, despite his humble beginnings, reached out to me about my homeland and its monarch.

When I began, I intended to write you a letter thanking you for noble work for foreign people in America. But I see now that I have nearly written a book and am almost ashamed to send you such a pile of reading material.

My heart aches for these foreign boys and girls, who find themselves disoriented in a foreign land, unsure of where to seek assistance. I implore you to share my story with them, to inspire them to seek refuge in a land where the air is purer and there is space for all.

That God may bless you in your noble work, Miss Addams, is the prayer of An Immigrant Boy.


Miss Addams delivered the article below as a Recognition Day Address at Chautauqua, New York. It was published in THE CHAUTAUQUAN in November 1905 under "Work and Play as Factors in Education."

A traveling man who read the article in the magazine at the Public Library in Omaha wrote a personal letter to Miss Addams, which we requested to publish. He admired her work and thanked her for her noble efforts to help foreign-born Americans.

Through her article, Miss Addams illuminated a path to resolving many complex issues and enriching our nation and all involved: the power of personal contact, the strength of genuine interest, and the transformative potential of understanding each other.

The writer, empathetic to the struggles of expressing delicate feelings in English for most foreign-born Americans, believed that his letter could inspire a better understanding between native and foreign-born Americans, a prospect that would bring him the greatest joy.

Despite the challenges, Miss Addams understood the needs and difficulties of the foreign people of this country better than any other American writer or philanthropist.

It is inspiring to see that a small act of kindness, such as writing a letter to express gratitude and encouragement, can create a ripple effect that leads to a better understanding between people of different backgrounds.



Based on the Article "An Immigrant's Story," in THE CHAUTAUQUAN, Vol. XLIII, No. 5, July 1906 P. 413-420.


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