My dad’s mom was the first person in her family to marry someone who wasn’t English. My dad’s dad was the first person in his family to marry someone who wasn’t German. In fact, even though my grandpa’s family had been in the U.S. for generations, he was the first generation in his family who spoke only English and it was very scandalous that my grandparents were marrying outside of their ethnic groups.
This is the family story about that German-speaking enclave around Battle Creek, Michigan. The family story goes like this*. During the first world war, German POWs were brought to Fort Custer, just outside of Battle Creek. During the day, they were allowed to go out and work in the community–on family farms or in businesses or wherever–free prison labor for whoever needed it.
And then a disease of some sort hit the Fort–the flu, I think, but diagnoses have varied throughout the years–and the administration at Fort Custer, in an effort to contain the outbreak, asked community families to give room and board to the prisoners who weren’t sick, and those who were ill were then confined to the Fort.
Once the epidemic was over, the folks from Fort Custer went out into the community to ask for their German prisoners back. But, lo and behold, a lot of people couldn’t recall ever giving housing to a prisoner.
“You didn’t notice a guy who only spoke German in the neighborhood?”
“No, a lot of us only speak German. What would be so unusual about that?”
And so, some number of the prisoners were never found.
I sometimes wonder if that story’s true and, if so, what happened to those men. Did some of them make their way back to Germany? Or did they just fade into the community and live ever after as Americans?
*You know the rules; I make no claims of truth to any family story I haven’t actually witnessed.