Reader submission: A transatlantic voyage

Horst Cerni

This is a guest post by Horst Cerni telling the story of his long journey from Germany to the United States.

Others call it “Germany”, or “Alemania” or “L’Allemagne”, but for me it has always been Deutschland.

My first home was in Allenstein, East Prussia, which no longer is German. We had to escape from the Russians in January of 1945, – we, my mother, two younger sisters, my cousin, and a friend of our family with five small children. It was a horrifying experience, walking in snow for many miles at icy temperatures. After three weeks, we reached Gotenhafen (now Gdingen in Poland) – in time for my tenth birthday. There we were fortunate to get on a freighter that took us to the West.

Yes, we “migrated” – not by choice, but we were still in Germany. We got to Lower Saxony, and ‘settled’ on a farm in the hamlet of Wassermühle. Our host family was very good to us and provided us with food, which was the most important thing in those last months of the war. My mother found our father in a British POW camp, and he was released before Christmas. Living in a rural community required some adjustments for us ‘city folks’, and I disliked especially the school, where one teacher had to teach children from 1st to 8th grade in one class room simultaneously. But I loved to explore the forest around us, imagining I was Robinson Crusoe. I started going to High School in Cuxhaven – in a dark crowded train with wooden benches. I like Cuxhaven. the North Sea and the many ships passing by. And I soon appreciated the “Watt” (Wadden Sea ?), walking on the sea floor and even to the island of Neuwerk, when the tide was low.

I lived seven years in this “second home” area, and it became my top German destination. I had my apprenticeship in an Import-Export company in Hamburg, which was a wonderful experience in a very exciting city. But I wanted to see the world. I was confused about German history and very disturbed by all the suffering and destruction Germany had caused in WW II. So I looked towards ‘Amerika’ – not just the North, but also the South. Brazil didn’t work out, but then I heard about the US Refugee Law of 1953 which assisted refugees to immigrate to the USA. I applied, and with the help of the World Council of Churches and ICEM (the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration) I set sail on the US Navy ship “General Langfitt” for New York in April of 1956.

My first American home was in Cleveland, Ohio. I had a very nice host family, who helped me with English and getting around, as well as a German neighbor who taught me to drive a car. I got mostly part-time jobs – as a stock clerk, selling vacuum cleaners and working at the TV station WEWS. In one cultural TV program, I danced a German polka in ‘Lederhosen’ (leather pants) and Trachtenjacke. My partner was wearing a ‘Dirndl’ dress.

I had promised my parents that I would try to come back home to visit every two years, and it basically worked out (until 2016). On my first return visit in 1958, I bought a used VW Beetle, and when back in the States, I traveled to Florida and also California. I had started studying in Cleveland and went on many excursions with the international students group. I complimented my studies by transferring to UCLA in Los Angeles. After graduation, I went back home to Germany, but I wasn’t sure what to do next. Settling in the USA or Germany wasn’t for me as yet. Fortunately, a fellow student from Argentina invited me to join him on a filming mission, first in Colombia and then all over Argentina. It was a wonderful experience, and it helped me to learn Spanish. Back in New York to edit the films in 1963, I met my future wife, and we got married later that year. She came from an exotic destination which I had never heard about: St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.

We established our family in New York and had two boys and a girl. By sheer providence, I got a job at the United Nations, – first on two month contracts, since the Federal Republic of Germany was not yet a member. But in 1966 I got hired by UNICEF, where both Germanys were members. It was a dream job in many ways, since I had always hoped to work at the UN. I travelled all over the world, lived in Chile for five years and then Geneva, and then in 1983 back in New York, where I became responsible for UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassadors. I arranged field missions and media interviews, including in Germany with Danny Kaye, Peter Ustinov and Roger Moore for their participation in TV programs, like “Wetten das”, the “Golden Camera” etc.

It’s somewhat difficult to say which where my ‘favorite’ homes in those years, but New York was definitely one of them. When I retired in 1995, I was repatriated to Germany, but had the option to settle somewhere else. We decided on my wife’s home island in the Caribbean, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, a territory of the USA. She had family there, and the weather was certainly more agreeable than in Northern Germany. We have stayed in regular contact with family and friends in Germany via internet – email and WhatsApp, – and even some ordinary letters or packages, especially at Christmas time, when we receive all kinds of German goodies – chocolates, Stollen etc.. We receive the Deutsche Welle (TV and on the iPhone), and enjoy very much the reports of the Deutschland Nachrichten. We love to watch movies, especially those with a German theme and location, like “One-Two-Three”, “Vlakyrie”, “Bridge of Spies”,etc.

We did some wonderful traveling within Germany – Schleswig Holstein and Rhineland, where my sisters live, Swabia visiting a cousin, and, of course, Berlin, Hamburg and Cuxhaven.  We even did a camping trip from Berlin to my former home in Olsztyn (Allenstein). We keep the memories alive with photos and wall calendars, and my wife also prepares German meals. On the Day of German Unity, e.g., she cooked Kӧnigsberger Klops. And we are able to get some German beer here, and follow the Bundesliga (German soccer league). We have a German friend in the neighborhood and a German doctor.  There are so many beautiful places, but in the final analysis “Home is where the Heart is”. Physically it is on this Caribbean Island, but emotionally it will always be Deutschland..

Although I originally immigrated to the USA in 1956, I am still ‘Deutsch’.

-Horst Cerni

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