How Julius Fischer came to Michigan City (and so much more)
By David Weiss, based on my own childhood memories, along with the recollections of my father, Frederick Weiss, and some written notes from two of my great uncles, Ernie Fischer and Fritz (Frederick) Fischer.
My great-great-grandfather, Julius Fischer, was already 50 years old when he came to America from Germany to start a new life. He arrived in Baltimore in 1891, alone, bringing with him a trade—rug weaver—a trunk filled with his few possessions, and a heart full of memories and hopes.
From Baltimore he headed to Chicago where it seems he might have had some relatives willing to help him get established in America (although I don’t know that for sure). As I said, he came alone, but not entirely alone. Among the memories in his heart were his wife, Emma (39), and four children: Frederich Rudolph (14), Ernst Gustav (12), Gustav Adolph (9), and Ernst John (4). Ernst John was my great-grandfather.
Obviously Julius had a great spirit for adventure heading to America. Yet I am sure that the rush of excitement he felt as the day of his departure approached must have been equaled or more by the uncertainty and sadness bidding his family farewell. There would be no phones lines or internet to connect them. No Skype to allow face see face across continents or to keep fast-changing children familiar. Only letters, which, like people, crossed the ocean on ships that were slow … on ships that sometimes sank. It was surely a farewell thick with emotion for all of them.
I imagine that over the weeklong passage Julius must have replayed that farewell in his heart again and again, memories heaving inside him while waves heaved this way and that outside the ship.
Once in America, however, alongside those memories there were also hopes. Most especially the hope that with each rug he wove, he came a bit closer to weaving Emma and his sons back into his life. He knew the cost of passage for the rest of the family; and he had already calculated how many rugs he had to weave—and sell—before he could send for them to come join him.
When Eastern Orthodox artists create icons, each brushstroke is a prayer, imbuing holiness within the final image. When Navajo medicine men create sand paintings, they carry healing power, seeking to restore balance or wholeness to life’s broken web. I’ve never seen one of my great-great-grandfather’s rugs, and, for all I know, they looked quite ordinary—and soon enough looked simply well worn by foot traffic. But I’m certain that those woven rugs carried within them all the intention and love of a man whose loom moved steady and sure like the waves that could one day bring his family home to him. No less than the finest sacred art, his rugs were icons of hope and wholeness.
At last! Finally, as the summer of 1892 ended, Julius had saved enough money so that he could send it to Emma, instructing her to book passage for herself and the children as soon as she could. Imagine the joyful anticipation on both sides of the Atlantic. All their long absence and deep longing was about to be rewarded. Emma booked their passage on a steamship for the fall and began packing their things and counting the days. I’m not sure that anyone but Julius ever saw the letter she sent confirming their travel plans, but I am sure that her words were filled with warm delight and hope.
Julius took a train from Chicago to New York to meet them upon their arrival. He made sure to reach the city a day or two before the steamship was due. America may have seemed like a promised land, but New York was already a big city—and no place for a woman with four children in tow. He would be waiting for them.
And so he was. Waiting. Three long days, anticipation slowly turning to anxiety—and then to anguish. Every ocean passage was a gamble. Even the strongest and fastest ships were dwarfed by the sheer power and occasional fury of the ocean. One day news reached the port: the ship on which his family was traveling had been lost at sea. Swallowed up in a violent storm that meant no harm (storms never do), but nonetheless swept all the passengers and crew to their death.
Julius was heartbroken. That’s a word too easily cheapened. We’re “heartbroken” when it rains on the day we had planned to go the beach, or when our favorite team loses a big game. But Julius was H E A R T—Emma—Frederich Rudolph—Ernst Gustav—Gustav Adolph—Ernst John—B R O K E N. Shoulder-shaking, fist-pounding, lungs-heaving, stomach-lurching grief swallowed him. And like Jonah’s whale, it spit him out on the shores of New York … where he had come to meet his family only to lose them instead.
In a dark daze he rode the train back to Chicago. While the car clacked against the rails, in his mind he unraveled every rug he’d woven in America. Why?! Did he bargain with God—making desperate pleas and promises? Did he rage against God—uttering curses that would haunt him later? Did he imagine smashing his loom into a thousand pieces when he got back to Chicago—back to the home that would never feel like a home again. Who knows.
But he did get home. And as quickly as he arrived he left. I don’t know why. A man in such deep grief often gives few answers—and certainly needs to give none at all. Perhaps to mourn and sulk, perhaps to make a clean break with a broken past, perhaps in the faintest hope for healing, he moved on. But back then, 51 and widowed was an old age to make a new start.
In any case, Julius packed up and left Chicago, traveling a short ways south along the edge of Lake Michigan until he came to Michigan City. Compared to Chicago it was a small town, barely 10,000 people, a place where one could be alone and new—but not for long. He didn’t settle here; not at first. He simply rented a room from a family that took in single men as boarders. The Jantzen house stood at the corner of Michigan Boulevard and Roeske Avenue—where Horizon Bank stands today (2012).
I suppose he was quiet about his loss—that’s the way “we Germans” tend to be. And anyway, there was always plenty of loss to go around. Julius knew that he wasn’t the only man to have risked—and lost everything in coming to America. Still, in later years friends would tell how he would walk to the lake front daily, spending hours watching the water. Lake Michigan was hardly an ocean, but stand on its shore and it passes well enough. He uttered curses, whispered prayers, and hurled questions. From the beachfront, if the wind was just right, it whisked the sand along, whistling a low sigh that echoed his grief.
Barely a month later, not even long enough to establish a familiar routine in a new town, his life would again be forever changed, but we’re not quite there yet …
A little over a month before, in Germany, a mother and her four children waited eagerly, then anxiously, to board a ship for America. Anxiously, because one of the boys was showing signs of measles. What if they were not allowed to board the ship—what then?
Anxiety became anguish when she was told unsympathetically, “Ma’am, the whole family must be quarantined until the illness runs its course. An ocean vessel has perils aplenty without adding measles to the mix.” So they were quarantined in the city for a couple of weeks until all the boys were well again. Of course, she could have written a letter explaining this to Julius; perhaps she did. Perhaps the letter itself was lost as sea, sunk with the ship that never reached New York, the ship that Julius never realized did not hold the family he held in his heart.
Emma fretted throughout their days in delay, but she had no way to know the tragic news that had met Julius in New York. Once released from quarantine she immediately booked a new passage on the next steamship. Thus, while Julius moved his belongings and his grief to Michigan City, Emma, as fiercely devoted as he was devastated, willed the wind and the water to carry her and the children from one shore to the other as fast as possible.
She knew he would not be waiting for them in New York, but she could not have known that he would be grieving her death. She arrived at port in the late fall of 1892—without a husband to welcome her—exactly as Julius had not wanted. But God help any stranger who had wrongly crossed paths with this woman on her way to find her husband.
Once in New York she and the boys boarded a train for Chicago. Exhausted by the long passage on the ship, they probably slept, or dozed at least, for much of the 35-hour ride to Chicago. But as they neared the city a rush of excitement began rising inside her. She had the address, and soon—SOON—she would be home and they would be a family. Again.
But imagine, while Emma and boys bumped along into the city, memories of their father quickening their pulses—at the same time Julius walked across town in Michigan City, his steps slowed by the memories that ached unrelentingly as he walked back to the house he boarded at, the house that was friendly enough, but was so far from family.
Julius slept that night as he had each night of the past month: restless. In the dark of his dreams the ship still creaked and groaned before breaking up. Voices still cried out to him. As always, he was helpless to do anything. And he woke in the morning as wet as if he’d been swept overboard himself.
The next morning in Chicago, fresh off the train, Emma collected the children for the last leg of their journey. Well, “fresh” off the train is wishful thinking. After a week on a ship and another day-and-a-half on a train they were hardly fresh. But the readiness to be home pushed them all forward.
Until: “What? What do you mean he doesn’t live here anymore?! He knew we were coming. He sent for us.” And then the long breathless silence as the neighbors told her what Julius had told them. Four weeks of unfathomable grief hit her hard and fast, and she collapsed into sobs. Yes, they were alive—it was true—but in that first moment she knew all at once, in an instant, the grief that had battered Julius over the past weeks.
She was wordless, until the same love that allowed her to feel his grief allowed her as well to end it. “Where? Where is he now?” There was not a moment to lose. They raced back to the train station and boarded a Michigan Central train for Michigan City.
I cannot imagine that train ride. But I would bet that the four boys added the word “awe” to their vocabulary that day. Their mother had not simply gotten them to America, to Chicago, and soon to Michigan City and their father. She had—if it were possible—pulled them all from the depths of the sea and brought them back to life again!
At the train station in Michigan City—the old depot building down where the railroad tracks pass by the entrance to Washington Park today—she asked around frantically. She demanded: “Who knows Julius Fischer? A rug weaver. A grieving man. Who knows him?! Where can I find him?”
Finally an uncertain response, “I’m not sure, Ma’am, but there’s a ‘single’ (an unattached man) who just took up boarding at the Janzten place a few weeks back. I’m thinkin’ he’s your weaver.” “Take me there! Now!”
It is an exaggerated and rather irreverent notion that Germans expect beer in heaven, but it is a fact, well-attested, that it was a beer truck willing to carry Emma and her four sons from their death back to their dad at the Janzten house.
Here I pause. There are some places too holy to venture, even imaginatively, so I will not attempt to describe the reunion that followed. Take equal and abundant measures of disbelief and joy, laughter and tears, shouting and silence, dancing and simply holding tight. That’s as close as I can come.
And I don’t know where they slept that first night. The Janzten place only had a few odd beds for single boarders, but just maybe that night they made room for a whole family. A whole family.
I will guess at this, though. That night, wherever they slept, Julius was struck by the irony that he had gone to New York to find his family—only to lose them. And he had come to Michigan City because he had lost his family—only to be found by them again. It’s small wonder that he stayed in Michigan City, founding the Star Rug Company, where he weaved rugs until he retired. Where else could he possibly have wanted to be?
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This is the fourth in a series of family history vignettes.