By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – Immigration is a hot button issue these days, but it has always been so. We are a land of immigrants, and in every generation the path to America has often been hazardous.
Barbara Fischer, 78, who is of German ethnicity and a member of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in the Port Richmond section of the city, was born in the little village of Rudolf-Gnad in what is now Serbia.
She was 12 when she and her family had to flee across a bridge to Hungary because the town crier warned “terrorists” (anti-German partisans) were approaching the village.
Once in Hungary they were put on a train to Vienna. It was a perilous journey but they got through. She recalls they were housed in a hall and the Red Cross and Caritas, the Catholic relief agency, supplied some food.
“I was 12 and I worked on a farm when I was there,” she recalled. With constant bombing, Austria wasn’t safe, and her group was taken to Bavaria.
“It was going from one hell to another; our train was bombed day and night on the trip. I witnessed war, I saw many dead people,” Fischer said.
It was in Bavaria she met her late husband, Mathias. He’d been a German POW in Scotland who worked on a farm and stayed after the war. He visited Bavaria to try to locate his own family. After he returned to Scotland they corresponded and he invited her to visit.
“My mother said I couldn’t go unless I married him,” she said. “I was 17 when we were married; it was an arranged marriage.”
Although she was married to Mathias it still took her about a year and a half to obtain a visa to join him in Scotland. Over the next eight years they worked on a farm, during which time they had three children. Meanwhile her parents had immigrated to Philadelphia, and Barbara and Mathias tried to get visas to join them, but because of quotas they couldn’t.
After painstakingly teaching herself English, she wrote to President Eisenhower, but received no answer. When John Kennedy became president she wrote to him too. She didn’t know the address so she just wrote “President of the United States, Washington, D.C.”
In November 1961, she and her husband received word their visas would be granted, and they sailed for America three months later.
When they arrived, they settled in Port Richmond and Our Lady Help of Christians Parish because that’s where her parents and two sisters lived.
Later, on a visit to Washington, she stopped by the White House to personally thank President Kennedy for her visa. The guard at the gate didn’t tell her it wasn’t that easy to get to see the president, he just gently told her the president was away at Camp David.
She and Mathias had one more child, and she also worked. Like so many immigrants, she took what was available, in this case cleaning houses. She also became a pillar of her parish, assisting the pastor in many ways.
Her children grew and prospered.
“That’s the reason why we came here,” Fischer said. “I did not want my children working on someone’s farm.”
And, when all is said and done, that’s what defines “the American dream.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.