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Amerikaner

May 8, 1915

The Germans sunk the Lusitania. They torpedoed it twice just off the coast of Ireland. It sank in 15 minutes. There are probably 1,260 dead.

At least that’s what the newspaper says.
Mama says that we are not Germans anymore, she says that we are Amerikaner— Americans. But Papa always yells at her when she tells me that.
He says that we are Germans. Oma and Opa are still in Germany, we can’t forget them. Every night before we go to bed we must pray for them. Germany is in a war with Britain and France and Papa says things are not well overseas. Sometimes he scares me. I wish we could have taken Oma and Opa with us when we came to America, then they could be safe.
When he learned that the Lusitania was torpedoed he cussed and took Mama into a different room to talk. They left me to play blocks in the kitchen, even though I am too old for them. But I do no complain. I know that we do not have very much money since we came to America.
So I played with the blocks. I made a big tall ship that I was able to scoot around the floor. But after a while I got bored with that, so I ran my hand into it, pretending I was a torpedo, and watched as it tipped over and ‘sank.’

May 13, 1915

Today Sandy came back to school. She had been gone all week, but nobody asked here where she’d been, we all knew. Her father had been killed on the Lusitania. Our teacher told us the news two days earlier and we had all signed a card for sandy and her mother.

Then we had all loudly talked about how horrible it must have been for her and her mother to get such news and how terrifying it would have been to be aboard the sinking ship. But today we were silent.

Nobody dared to speak a word to Sandy when she walked in the classroom five minutes late. We just got out our arithmetic books and practiced our multiplication. Even Mrs. Blakely seemed on edge and didn’t start a lesson until after we had been sitting quietly in our desks for half the morning.

Then at lunch Sandy sat next to me. I didn’t know what to do so I offered her a piece of my sweet role. She smiled at me and said thank you but didn’t take it. Instead her eyes got all red and she started crying.

“Elsie, I hate those stupid Germans.”

My mouth opened and closed again. Then I took one of Sandy’s hands and squeezed it.

“I do too.”

January 28, 1916
We got a Christmas letter from Oma and Opa today. It was inside a pretty card with glitter on its front. It must have cost them a lot to send. Mama and Papa gave me the card but took the letter before I could read it.
Inside there was a short message addressed to the Keller family. I read it over and over until I’d memorized the words like they were a Bible verse.
Things are beautiful here right now. It snowed yesterday and all the streets are covered with the stuff. All the children are off school and their parents have strung lights up around everything. This morning we made lebkuchen and now the whole house smells of ginger. We wish that we could come visit you in America. Maybe next Cristmas.
Love, Oma and Opa
The card does not mention the war, but I know from the newspapers outside the grocery store that things are not going well. Oma and Opa might say that things are beautiful and festive in their card, but I’m sure they wrote how things really are in their letter. The letter I’m not allowed to see.
Mama and Papa They think I’m too young to understand the war. But I’m not.

September 15, 1916

When I first started school this year things were different with my classmates. At first I thought it was because we were in 6th grade now and it made them want to be different, but yesterday I realized that it was much worse.

I was just putting my sweater on my hook when I heard some boys picking on Sandy in the yard. I looked for the teacher to stop them, but I couldn’t find her so I walked outside to try and stop them myself. I yelled at them and told them that they were hurting her feelings, but they just laughed at me.

“Why would Sandy want your help? You’re a German!”

“I am not a German, I am and American. Just like you!”
I squared my shoulders and looked to Sandy for help, but she just looked down at her feet avoiding my eyes.

“You’re a German, my daddy said so. You’re probably just here to poison our water and distract us so we don’t have time to join the war against you!”

“Yeah, my dad said that your dad was just a stupid old Fritz.”

My hands shook and I shook my head until it hurt.

“No I’m an American. I’m an Amerikaner.”

They laughed at me. And I felt my face grow red.

“See, Elsie is a German, she even speaks it!”

“She’s a dirty German.”

I couldn’t stand it anymore. I swung my arm back and hit one of the boys in the face. His nose caved in and blood started pouring out.

My mother came and picked me up. Then this morning a man from the school came and talked to her. He said I can’t come back.
I’m expelled for punching Tommy Jones in the face and breaking his nose.

April 7, 1917

The United States is at War with Germany.

I heard it on the radio this morning while I was sweeping the floor in Mr. Carter’s store and I rushed home without even asking if I could leave.

It only too me five minutes to ride my bike home and when I got there the Model-T was already parked in the driveway, its door hanging open. I left my bike next to the car and ran to the house. But when I opened the door to the kitchen, nobody was there.

“Mama!”

I Paused but heard nothing.
“Papa!”

Still nobody responded.

I ran through the house, checking each room as I passed, until I reached the back door. I pressed my ear to the door and heard the muffled sound of sobbing over the crash of the waves. I gently pushed the door open and peered out.

“Mama, Papa?”

They were sitting in the sand reed by the corner of the house. Mama was bunched together, huddling against Papa’s chest. He was stroking her hair and looking out across the ocean. I knew he was looking towards home.

They didn’t notice me until I walked up and stood uncomfortably beside them.

“I heard on the radio that we are at war now.”

“We know.”

Papa didn’t look at me, but when I sat down next to him in the cold sand he wrapped his arm around me.

I sat with them quietly for a minute watching the icy waves crash slowly on the beach. A sea-gull floated lazily past. Somewhere down the beach a man tethered his boat to a dock. I loved my new home. Why did we have to be at war with my old one?

“Mama?”

She looked up at me, her eyes red teary.

“Yes Elsie?”

“What side of the war are we on?”

She glanced down for a moment then looked me strait in the eye.

“We are on this side. We are Amerikaner.”

For the first time Papa didn’t try to argue with her.

June 1, 1917

I got turned down by the last school in the area today. It looks like I’m going to have to ask Mr. Carter if he will keep me on as a stock-girl fulltime now. All of the public schools tell us they are too full, that they cannot take any more students, and all of the private schools turned me down because of my record or were too much.

Mama had to wipe her eyes when we left the school after our meeting with the superintendent. She says she doesn’t understand how they can turn me away. She always though that schools couldn’t turn students away.

When we got home and told Papa he got really mad. He slammed his cup on the table and yelled that they weren’t keeping me out of school because they were too full. It was because I was German. Mama’s eyes got all read when he said that and she looked at him and shook her head.

“No. No one would do that, not in America. Here everyone is equal. They cannot do that.”

I agree with Papa.


December 4, 1917

Today Mama came home an hour early from work and grabbed my coat off the hook.

“We’re going to the pictures,” she said, a large smile lighting up her face.

I looked up at her confused. We hadn’t gone to see a picture show since I was kicked out of school a year ago.

“Why, Mama?”

“Because today I got a raise from the office.”

She winked and waved a small wad of bills in front of my face. She was so excited, and I wanted to watch a picture so bad. So I grabbed my coat from her arms and followed her out the door.

We were half-way to the theater when we saw then. Three men stumbled drunkenly out of a place called the Three Lobsters just ahead of us on the street and started walking towards us.

“Why if I ever get the chance, I- I’d take one of them German’s out with a single blow. I’d take their ‘ed clean off,” one of them slurred loudly.

Mama took my hand and pulled me towards the other side of the street.

“Come on, we don’t want to walk past them.”

But before we could cross the street they were on us.

“I ‘eard her talk, she’s a German. I heard her, she sounds just like ‘un. There’s your lousy Fritz now, Leroy!”

One of them put his finger in Mama’s chest, forcing her to back up.

“She’s not a German!” I cried pulling her hand back.

“Oh year, well why don’t ya’ let her tell us that.”

One of them grabbed Mama’s wrist and pulled her towards them.

“So tell us woman, are you a German or not!”

Mama stuttered and looked at them, her eyes wide.

“I am Amerikaner, just like you.”

My eyes widened at her words and the men all laughed.

“See she is German, and did you hear that accent. It’s like she just sailed over here.”

One of the men grabbed her hair and yanked her towards him, “Do you know what your people did to my brother,” he snarled into her ear.

I looked around frantically and screamed for help, but nobody came. The men surrounded my mother and started pushing her around, mocking her pulling at her clothes.

I began to run down the street, desperate to find help, when a car turned onto the road, its headlights blinding me. I heard shouting from the men behind me and when I turned they were running away, leaving Mama a sobbing heap on the sidewalk.

It was that moment that I realized it. In the world’s eyes we aren’t Amerikaner at all. We are Deutschen.



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