By Marilys Johnson
Remember when you were a kid? Your parents were always talking about things that had happened to them.
When they got to the part where they said, “And when I was your age…” you pretty much tuned them out.
Then all of a sudden one day after you had grown up, you realized that it WAS important, and that you should have listened closer to what they were saying, and maybe you should have even taken some notes.
That’s what happened to me. One Sunday afternoon I sat my father down to talk and I started taking notes. This is one of the stories he relayed to me:
My father Reinhart Bruns, was born into an extremely poor family near Emden, Germany, on March 1, 1903. His father was employed as a tugboat skipper, and his mother’s job was raising her family.
Anna, the oldest girl, had died of red measles in 1901. Seven boys and their baby sister were still living at home in 1910, when Reiner, Dad’s oldest brother, moved to America. He wrote letters with glowing reports about the new country. This encouraged Grandma to start thinking about gathering up the rest of her family to join him in the United States.
So it was Grandma’s idea to escape from Germany before her three oldest sons, Hank, 23; Andrew, 22; and Dick, 20; were called to serve in Kaiser Bill’s army.
By the spring of 1912, Grandma had convinced Grandpa to move to the new country. They sold their house and four sheep for a bit more than 1,200 marks, and the family left Emden on April 10 on a train headed for Bremen, Germany.
While on the train, Dad’s little brother, Harry, 7, lost his balance and fell out of the train. The emergency whistle blew and the train stopped, but Harry remained unconscious until noon on the day after they set sail, on an old worn out ship, also named “Bremen.”
As if she didn’t already have enough trouble, Grandma became seasick and remained sick during the entire trip. But Dad and his brothers played on board the ship and made friends with a deck hand named Philip, who had kept informed by listening to telegraph messages and conversations between officers and crewmen. Philip told them that they would soon be seeing icebergs. He also told them that the Titanic had left Southampton, England the same day that they had left Bremen.
It was early evening, April 11, when the magnificent unsinkable Titanic swiftly passed their old Bremen. Dad said, “It was lit up like a Christmas tree. We were close enough to see some of the people on the Titanic. They were rich people, like the Astors, Kaisers and Vanderbilts.”
They were horrified at what they saw the next day. About a quarter of a mile ahead of them were three icebergs. Dad said, “All around us floated dead men wearing life jackets. They had died almost instantly in the icy salt water.” Dad recalled seeing one lifeboat. “But it was upside down. There was nothing, absolutely nothing we could do,” he said. They watched motionless while the cold silence, and the ocean waves, sang mournful hymns to the unknown.
With that terrible reminder of how damaging icebergs could be, they held their breath as they slowly maneuvered between the same three icebergs that the Titanic had not so successfully avoided. “It was the berg on the right that sank the Titanic,” Dad said. They could see the icebergs looming about 100 feet above the water.
Philip later told us that the Carpathia had rescued 705 survivors, mostly women, children and a few crewmen.
On April 19, 1912, my Dad and his family passed through Ellis Island. Grandfather checked his wallet and was slightly short of the $25 required to enter the United States, but the family was allowed to proceed through inspections anyhow.
“Walt and I were curious and slipped away from the family in New York. It was a lesson we never forgot. By the time we realized we were lost, we also realized we couldn’t ask for directions, because no one we saw spoke our language,” Dad said. “We accidentally found our way back.”
From New York, they boarded a train for Sibley, Iowa. Reiner was there to meet them. Two years later, they moved to a 160-acre farm west of Fulda, Minn., where Dad lived most of his life. Hank, Andrew and Dick received many threatening letters from the German Army, ordering them to return for duty, but they ignored them, and eventually the letters stopped coming.
Grandma’s only sister, Anka, wrote in 1916 and said that one of her sons had been killed in France. Later, her other son was reported missing somewhere in Russia.
Twice Grandma gave her sons the gift of life, then enhanced it with the gift of freedom.
My parents retired from farming in 1983. Dad passed away in December 1991.
The “unsinkable” British liner Titanic sails out of Southampton, England, at the start of its doomed voyage in 1912. The ship struck an iceberg and sank on April 14-15, killing more than 1,500 of the 2,200 people aboard. Many of them died because there weren’t enough lifeboats.