A rare personal account of the classic immigrant experience
For those who did not have the means to spend their days in deck chairs and their nights under gently swaying chandeliers, the Atlantic passage had a very different meaning. One such was Karl S. Puffe, who was born in 1858 in a small town in a corner of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire that now belongs to the Czech Republic. He married a childhood sweetheart, Pauline Weidlich, in 1881. A hard time followed. “For the next ten years,” writes his grandson Forster D. Puffe, “my grandmother gave birth to three daughters and five sons, of whom six died in infancy, two in one week. During that same period my grandfather also buried both his parents and his wife’s widowed father. Those heartbreaking experiences coupled with his family’s difficult living conditions made him decide to begin a new life for his family in America.
“On November 12, 1892, with considerable anxiety, Karl Puffe bade his pregnant wife and two daughters farewell and set out by rail to Bremerhaven, Germany. He had with him all his personal belongings and the tremendous sum of sixteen dollars in his pocket. On November 17, along with 2,257 other emigrants, he set sail for America in steerage.”
Karl Puffe kept a journal of the next two weeks in order to help prepare his wife and children for their voyage across when he could afford to send for them. The experiences it records were shared by millions of other emigrants. This is the trip that peopled the United States of America.
7 o’clock in the morning on special train from Bonn to Bremerhaven.
Those days were very hard months. The people sang and the music played God Bless You. We all cried and then the boat started.
As long as I live I will never forget that moment. It left a deep impression on me. Nobody would ever know unless he had that experience.
I got one blanket, one sack of straw, one bucket, one pail, knife, fork and spoon after the boat left. The ocean is quiet and only a little fog.
11 o’clock in the morning. Black bread and butter, black coffee and everybody wanting breakfast, so there is a big line. We are 2,258 people on board, some of them a little seasick, but not too much. Most of the time I am on deck. The people are going promenading, singing, and some are dancing. At night we are seeing the lights from other boats. The white bread is like at home, but the black bread is not! Well, at least we are getting enough. That is important, and with butter. I am sleeping in the first department. It is warm here and I didn’t use my warm shoes yet. Today we had meat, sauerkraut and potatoes. Everybody must wash their own dishes, and we have in the morning only salt water. The weather is still very good and also I haven’t been dizzy yet. I was very lucky with my luggage. My big suitcase is next to my bed. The others, when they need clothes, they have to look for their luggage. It is really the life of gypsies. Married and single are separated. Today I have a toothache. If it wasn’t for the happiness and future of you, dear wife and children, please believe me it is very hard to leave home and to see nothing but heaven and water. It is a wonder I haven’t lost my strength and courage, but that I shall not. It is evening and we got plums to eat. I am looking fof a slice of black bread. The meals are terrible. There are too many people on board. The weather is still nice. If only the whole trip will be like this.
In the night from 18–19 Nov. a storm started. Many people starting to vomit. I also got very dizzy! It feels as though you are sitting on a big swing. We saw a shark and a light house. My dearest at home, it is magnificent to see the waves of the ocean with all its might. So far as your eyes can see is nothing but high waves and a whole ocean in an uproar. In the night a little baby was born. Through all the motion of the ship it came too soon. It is noon now. I had to leave my dinner on the table. I can’t eat. Everything is turning in my stomach. The storm got worse in the afternoon. We are leaving the Canal and entering the ocean.
It is 3:00 PM . The heaven got lighter, but the dizziness gets worse. Everywhere you look people are throwing up. I didn’t eat at all today. I would love to have a cup of coffee, but there is none. The plums, the pretzels and wine were good. Today we got a vaccination (one shot). The boat is in too much motion, because we are too many passengers on board. At 3 PM we saw the last corner of England.
In the night from Saturday till Sunday we again had a big storm. Luggage, benches, and everything that was not nailed tight, moved from one corner to the other. Nobody was able to walk. The waves were so high they went over the boat. The people began to scream and pray. My dear wife, I laid in my bed and concentrated with all my thoughts and all my strength on all of you and laid my life in God’s hands. I am so sick. I can’t eat and what I would like they don’t have—just a little coffee. I can’t sit up. I am so dizzy. The boat makes such turns to the side. I can’t describe how big the waves are. It is just horrible.
The storm hasn’t quit yet, but we hope the waves will quiet down a little. I still can’t eat, but I shouldn’t throw up. You should see this, what it looks like, with all the people laying around and being seasick. I’ve got that darn toothache again, and the worst happened, the bottle of medicine broke during the night. It would have helped me a lot. Thank God I can at least sleep!
The storm and the ocean are quiet now. I feel so much better today. I never did vomit, only the right side of my face is swollen. I have no appetite. I ate an apple and a few pretzels, because what you get here for meals, I can’t eat. I made a soup and it tasted very good. Today almost everybody is feeling fine again. One woman and a child died last night. We saw a lot of whalefish. They jumped so high and looked like oversized pigs. For two days we haven’t seen another boat. The seasickness lasted about three days. Children do not get it as bad as grown-ups. They gave the children extra milk twice, and at 3:30 we got boiled water. You get cold water only on special occasions. You have to get the meals yourself, too. That is real hard on this ship because there are wall to wall people.
Dear wife and children. It is very hard for your father. I am sometimes very troubled and lose faith. If I only could hear from you. I just hope and pray it will not be too long before I hear from you and take you all in my arms.
We had a quiet night and I dreamed all night of all of you at home. Naturally, when I woke I thought of you as always. I wanted to look for something in my bag and I found an envelope with two prayers and a few lines from you, my dear wife. I thank you so much. I can’t tell you how happy those words made me in these hours. I will never forget it. The ocean is quiet today, and it is really not too cold for this time of year. We are now so far away, the difference in time would be three hours. When I am in America, it will be six hours so when you have 6 o’clock at night, we will have 12:00 noon and dinner time. Everybody seems to be well again and there is much happiness. I am also well again.
It is very cold today. I am counting the days when we will land. This life is very tiring. You find all kinds of people on the boat—French, Polish, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Jew, Swedish, and Danish. We are German. Next to us is a whole family from Bohemia. They are nice looking people with three children in the ages of Hedwig and Adele. Too bad we do not understand each other. Today it started to snow. It is funny that yesterday was so nice and today we have snow. Also, with the time, for instance, at home it would be 7:30 at night, and we are having daylight still, and it is 4:30 in the afternoon.
In the night the fog started. The fog whistle blew all night and gave signals until this morning. Then we got another storm. Everybody got sick again. Even I couldn’t eat or get out of bed.
The weather is nice again. I am well again, too. We saw a big boat far away. If I had not brought some food from home, I would starve. I just can’t eat the food they give you on board.
The sea is still high. 11:30 it got daylight and in the evenings it is still light till 10. That’s your time. I soon forget the time. Even with the storm still behind us, we are all in good spirits. We have learned from the past that even when the waves get the boat going up and down, the ship can take a lot and we are all safe. Nobody is getting dizzy anymore. We are all getting used to it.
The boat is twice as long as our school and has six floors—three are in the water and two out of water and one floor is up high. Sometimes, the boat is laying to the side. But, please, Dear Paula, don’t be afraid when you come if there would be a storm. The danger is in the fog. You just can’t imagine what life is in this boat. Some of the people still eat, even when everybody around them are sick. Some of them dance and sing every day, especially now, when we know we will be landing soon. Almost everybody is happy. Money is still a big factor, but you will not come over on a boat like this. The food is very important. You should bring coffee and plums, and instead of cold cuts and ham, bring zwieback and hard candy, so you all have something in your mouth. I miss the coffee and most of all my lovely daughters.
We are expecting land. Everyone is cleaning, washing, combing and brushing. I am brisk and well and wish you are all well. Dear Paula, wish you could see the life on board today. Everybody is singing and dancing. There is music from every corner of the boat—just the opposite of when we left. There are notes all over the ship telling us we all should have clean clothes on so we would give a good impression to the American Inspectors.
It is very cold and raining. Landing planned at 10 but we have to wait till the Doctors inspect everything first, and if we can, we will be granted the landing.
3:00 PM . Just heard we are about to land. It started to snow. We can’t go on deck as it is too cold. The first time I saw America it was dressed in winter white.
In the night I froze a lot, so I got up at 3 AM , got washed, and then packed my luggage. At 9 we appreached the landing place. What will be? What will the future bring? Dear Paula, it was a very strenuous and hard 14 days I leave behind, but I am feeling well.
3:30 I arrived in Kastelgarden. I haven’t had any food yet. Saw so many things I can’t describe. My head is dizzy. I can’t find the words. The owner from a restaurant picked us up and brought us to New York. One dollar a day. I stayed two days. Then, Walter picked me up and I stayed one night with him. Friday, I wrote Helmschmidt if I could come, and that I could leave New York Saturday. There was no answer so I sent a telegram. They were long and painful hours.
Walter and Palfranz, whom I visited, didn’t have much nice to say and wouldn’t lend me the money for the trip. What shall I do? I can’t help it! At 1:00 the telegram came “Yes.” Saturday at 4:00 PM I took the train to Meriden.
Where will I sleep tonight? Walter was a good friend to me, and he helped me a lot. For one night in New York, one night, also, in Brooklyn at 1397 Broadway 38th St. with Guenther. Also Palfranz was very hospitable.
New York is big, but I got so nervous, I was so glad when I left. Everywhere in my body started to shake. I think it was the enormous traffic.
486 Pratt St.