Johanna’s 1921 Diary: Journey to America

I recently had the opportunity to translate a young woman’s diary. Year, 1921, name, Johanna, age, 27. As many other Germans, Johanna and her family had become very poor in the years after World War I.  Facing financial hardship at home, Johanna decided to try her luck in America, moving continents to marry a neighbor’s son living in the States. The below diary excerpts*, which her grandson kindly said I could share, reflect Johanna’s thoughts, experiences and feelings as she travels by steamship from Germany to New York. Take away Ellis Island, the old German handwriting, and her appreciation of butter instead of margarine, and it easily could have been written by a 20-something woman today…


My First Sea Voyage

On the Hansa! 12-7-21

The passengers were supposed to board at 12:30 in the afternoon on December 7, 1921. However, it was 2:00 before all the people had taken their spots on the small boats that were meant to bring us to the steamship. The band stood on the Hansa and played; – what, I can’t say, because I didn’t know the tune. The sailors were very kind and many women, like myself, were taken by the arm by two sailors and helped over the steps. But I think it was just the women who were traveling alone that they helped. Once on board, each person looked for their cabin and was assisted by the sailors, who stood by ready to help. 

At 4:00, the trumpet blew for coffee. Everyone went to the large, elegantly furnished dining room, where there was very good coffee and cake.  At 5:00, the table cards were distributed and we, both of my cabinmates (who are very nice young northern German girls) and I got a very nice table, where many young people had also been sat. At 7:00, the trumpet blew for dinner. There was pork, potatoes and rice; afterwards butter bread – not margarine, but very good butter – sausage and dip. After dinner, people went to the women’s room or the smoking room, or to the deck. I chose to go to the deck to get some fresh air before bed. After I strolled a while by myself, a man, an editor of a paper in Philadelphia who I had already met on the small boat, joined me. After we talked about various neutral topics, our conversation turned to the present time. I informed him about the misery of the German people, both collectively and individually, and asked him what was the cause of this misery? I received as an answer: “The Frenchman is the most at fault, he wants to completely destroy the Germans; but the time of reckoning will come for him too; because the leaves of time turn like night and day, then woe to him!” With these words, he spoke to my very soul, and the souls of many a German. We left each other at 9:00, wished each other “Good night” and went to our cabins.

December 8, 1921 At 7:30 there was breakfast, soft rolls, butter, marmalade, coffee. We, the residents of cabin 122, came to the table quite late and were therefore good-naturedly teased by the men, who were already finished. At 9:00 in the morning the steamship took to the sea. The ship band played again as the ship departed, which created a very nostalgic atmosphere. Those who remained behind were waving their white cloths, which, fluttering up and down, sent us final farewells from our homeland. Many tears were flowing; even from those who had wanted to stay strong.  At 12:00 there was lunch. It was: broth, roast pork, dip, fat peas, sauerkraut, apple compote, ice cream, fruit, coffee, cake, bread, butter. A lunch that couldn’t have been better at a wedding. For dinner there was once again roast, potatoes, dip, bread, butter, cheese, tea. (Coffee wasn’t served separately; it came right after lunch). After dinner, there was a wonderful concert from 8:30-10. (The ship hasn’t moved since noon today; as it is very difficult to get out of the harbor with the heavy fog and ice.) At the concert, “Deutschland, Deuschland über alles” was played. Everyone sang along, quietly at first, tentatively, then louder and louder until several hundred voices rose up: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!”[3]

 I am constantly being followed by a small man in a gray travel suit. Wherever I go, it doesn’t take long until he is there as well; always somewhere nearby. I didn’t pay attention to it yesterday, today I didn’t attach much importance to it either. But this evening he is being so obvious that I am scared to do anything. I will act like I don’t notice anything and stay out of his way as best as I can. Help me, good Lord!

12-10-21 Yesterday I couldn’t write. I stayed on the deck until noon. We sailed along the Elbe towards the North Sea. You could still see land on both sides, and several cities whose towers offered us the last compliments of home. Then came Cuxhaven; we left it behind and sailed farther and farther until you could only see the sky and the water. On the deck I met up again with a nice young person who I had met in the women’s room on 12-8. He introduced himself as “Weber” and told me that he had already been in San Francisco for 8 years, had come back firmly set on settling down for the rest of his life in Germany, but now was going back to San Francisco because life in Germany was too difficult. He also told me that he had had 5 new suits made in Germany, one of which cost 14 dollars. Very elegant suits, of course. In America he would have to pay up to 80 dollars per suit. Poor Fatherland, how everyone is leaving you. Your children must work 5-6 weeks in order to earn enough money to buy themselves a suit. Then, if they haven’t saved anything, they naturally cannot eat or drink or spend money on anything else. I stayed on the deck until 12:00, until the trumpet was blown for lunch, went to the dining hall and was excited to see that it was swaying. I ate the fish; then I suddenly felt so sick, I put the fish down, took some potatoes and started to eat them. But after the second bite I put the knife and fork down and ate a piece of dry rye bread. Then I got up and staggered up the stairs to my cabin, quickly grabbed a hat and coat and went to the deck, still eating rye bread. I staggered and if Mr. Weber wouldn’t have held on to me so tightly, I would have fallen down. He carried me to the cabin, where I immediately lay down in bed and fell asleep for a short while.

The small man in the gray suit said something to me yesterday in passing; but I don’t know what he said because I passed by him quickly. As soon as I was on the deck, he was there as well and watched as Mr. Weber brought me below. This morning, when I was with Mr. Weber, he found me on the deck and no longer had the smile on his lips that he always looks at me with, the smile that I am so afraid of.

The evening of the 13th. Now is the first time I can write again; as I was sick the last few days and was always in bed. I wanted to write so diligently; but when you are seasick, you just can’t. You feel so miserable and don’t feel like doing anything at all. Today the sea is moving quite a lot; but I’ve gotten used to the rocking and can tolerate it. There is always a concert on the deck in the afternoon. Today was the first time I could attend it. I have the impression that the people on the ship are not as ungodly as usual. On Sunday morning we were awoken with the trumpet playing a Lutheran church song. On one of the first days, when I asked an old man who had travelled frequently if we would have good weather, he answered me, “It completely depends on if we have many people who pray on the ship; because when I came over in August, we had two Catholic priests on board and therefore good, calm weather.” “You think it depends on that?” “Of course.”  

12-14-21 Today I don’t have anything important to write. I met a lot of people, including a rich Hungarian who is traveling to his brothers. He says they are millionaires in New York. He was a postmaster in Hungary and told me his life story. He is very serious, loves nature, believes and trusts in God alone, and loves his mother (who was taken from him 2 years ago) more than anything. With so many men here, one who is not like the majority of the others. We sat together for the entire afternoon and had a great conversation until the trumpet, signaling dinner, separated us.

I don’t think I need to be scared of the small man in the gray suit any longer. He has found other women. But when he does see me somewhere, he conspicuously skulks in our direction like a cat sniffing around its porridge.[5] To smile at me! In the evening I attended the concert again, which was again very nice.

12-15-21  The sea was once again very rocky and I had to hurry at breakfast (during which I only ate rye bread) to get up to the deck. When I am on deck, I read or watch the waves play. When friendly people come up to me to talk, then I talk to them willingly. Boredom is, after all, something that stimulates the mind. So this afternoon I looked for the Hungarian and spent time in his company until the evening. Several high-spirited people danced at the afternoon concert, including the small man in gray: It was amusing how he always danced with his partner exactly where I was sitting. Even though the promenade is long and I wasn’t sitting where the dancing was taking place, he was always exactly in front of me. If that’s fun for him, he can do what he wants.

12-18 Today is once again beautiful weather and we will soon see land. On the ship, everyone pays attention to the littlest thing. If one of the passengers sees some little possibility on the horizon, then everyone takes his binoculars to look at the specific spot and gives his opinion of what it could be. This is how it was, for example, at the concert today during which a violin solo was interrupted with, “Light!” Everyone sprinted on deck and left the concert. But unfortunately it was only a ship.

12-19-21 This morning we were woken up at 5:30 and everyone hurried as quickly as possible to the deck. We were at our destination, New York. Surrounded by ships from all the nations. The lights were still burning on the ships and the sun was rising in the sky, land on both sides. All of this made a big impression on me. I am in America, far away from my homeland and think that it can’t be possible! The weather is unusually magnificent. The sun is shining and it is therefore warm for once, also because of the fact that there is no wind. Unfortunately we won’t reach land today because Ellis Island, where we will disembark, is not yet free of passengers from the ships that arrived before us. But we just have to deal with it, it can’t be avoided.

*Some diary entries and sentences within entries have been removed for the purpose of this blog. 

[3] German national anthem.

[5] This is technically an idiom here: “wie die Katze um den heißen Brei schleichen”, which means “to beat around the bush”. In this context, however, I would guess she means it literally.



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11 Responses

    1. @Michelle I thought the same thing! She does mention the sailors helping the women at the beginning, but that’s about it.

  1. Oh I loved this story. It made me think of my grandmother who came over from Germany in 1912 when she was just 14 and left her 8 brothers and sisters. How very sad it had to be. She too mentioned being quite sick on the ship. Thank you to the family for sharing this story.

    1. Oh wow, only fourteen! That’s so hard to imagine nowadays – and to leave so many siblings behind. Thanks for sharing your story Karla!

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