An Immigrant's American Life

SS New Amsterdam brings immigrants to America
Image of the New Amsterdam was obtained from Reuben Goossen's website

Recently I found several stories I wrote in a college class in 2002. I felt it appropriate to share a few of them, this is one.

The fog was light on a cold, gray December morning in 1955 aboard the "New Amsterdam," the vessel that was bringing many immigrants to the new world. All aboard have spent the last seven days wondering whether this was the right decision. Leaving behind loved ones, native homelands, and all things familiar to them.

What will this new land of opportunity bring to them? Will they succeed in finding the hopes and dreams they are looking for? One 11-year-old Austrian girl stood on the deck peering through the fog waiting to see, in anticipation, the landmark that promises so many freedoms. One her family seeks is that of religious freedom.

With passion in her voice, she says, "I beheld it in awe as questions raced through my inquisitive mind. Will I like it here? What will become of me in my homeland?"

This young girl was leaving behind the life she knew: relatives, the Viennese Children's Choir, and a picturesque countryside. However, she was with her parents and 8-year-old sister.

After 50 years of her family's membership in the Mormon Church in Austria, her family submitted their paperwork to immigrate to America three years after the war in Europe ended. Due in part to the fact that the Mormons were viewed as a cult in their homeland, and that their passion for the Church made them want to be with the saints in Zion. She says, "My father was very passionate about his dedication to the LDS Church and was always heavily involved."

Shortly after their arrival to Utah and ultimately Ogden, the Hirschmann family, comprised of Kurt, Johanna, Gerlinde and Edeltraud, was awakened to the reality of life when, as 11-year-old Gerlinde puts it, "I saw a bum laying on a bench at the Union Station and refused to accept that we had arrived in Ogden."

Expecting everyone to be wearing their missionary nametags and have the same, enthusiastic feeling and emotions as the missionaries from Utah that visited her home had, young Gerlinde was disappointed.

Weighing the realism of life ahead and the hardships they left behind, Gerlinde was happy to have left behind the memories of hunger after the war, authoritarian schools where, "I sat at a square desk, with square paper, doing square and expected work… just like an android."

Cultural differences quickly became evident. The language barrier was difficult, especially when you speak German while living in post World War II America. Many were not very accepting of us. "Being shunned and laughed at became a daily routine."

One person who had a lasting impression on Gerlinde was her music teacher at Ogden High School. "He loved me, scolded me, chastised me, and recognized my potentials." Gerlinde relates that he saw in her the person she could become, and with the assurance that someone cared, "I knew that the route I would take in the future, to become like him… a teacher who cared!"

With a new outlook on life and a determination, Gerlinde returned to study Vienna for a year, attended Weber State College and met her husband. Her young family detoured her goal, but "I never abandoned my future dream of becoming an educator." In 1976, Gerlinde graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota.

Twenty-four years later, Gerlinde has a long list of accomplishments. Jokingly under her breath, she said, "I can't remember half of the awards I've received." But most important of all, she feels that her honors and degrees are insignificant compared to what she does for each child's self-esteem and educational welfare.

In 1990 Gerlinde left the elementary level to teach high school German and build a foreign language department. After three years, the program included over 60 percent of the school's student body. The German classes went from two to six periods a day in just one year.

Out before the crack of dawn, and working hard into every night, Gerlinde often has students frequenting her home for assistance on things such as Sterling Scholar applications or dance moves for upcoming competitions.

Her accomplishments include: Washington County Teacher of the Year 1994, Utah Teacher of the Year Runner Up 1989, PTA Outstanding Educator Golden Apple Award 2001, originator and director of PVHS and SCHS International Folkfest since 1990, Utah Foreign Language Association Teacher of the Year 1993, the list goes on.

Gerlinde has the challenge of thinning out her resume by eliminating more awards and accomplishments than most educators receive in their entire careers.

"However, my greatest feeling of accomplishment comes when I see a child succeed in an area that was once difficult for him; a thrill fills my heart, as I watch him lift his head and exclaim with a fervor of self-worth, 'Teacher, I did it! I'm terrific, huh?!"

One of Gerlinde's neighbors says, "If you want to catch Gerlinde, you better be someone who likes to get up early. She leaves home about 5:30am and gets home usually after 11:00pm. She is not just a teacher, she is a friend to all."

One of Gerlinde's students, Erika Bailey said in a letter, that Gerlinde's "mastery of the language is amazing, but it doesn't compare to her mastery of teaching. She is a great teacher who has touched and enriched the lives of many, many people."

Another student, Amy Gentry said, "Frau Braunberger has the ability to help each student enjoy life and the love for language to the fullest. She shares not only her love for teaching her native language, but also her love for each one of us."

Whether it's the yearly trips to Europe with her students or the many competitions that her students excel at, Gerlinde is always trying to show her students the potential and contribution that they too can see in their own lives.

It is obvious that Gerlinde is an exceptional educator and friend when you see the wall of bookshelves filled with the many years of memorabilia, awards, accolades, accomplishments and thank you letters from the many lives she has touched. Her refrigerator always has no less than a half dozen wedding announcements from past students. The relationship with her students will remain forever in their minds and hearts.

There have been plenty of hardships to overcome in Gerlinde's life, at times she has been discouraged, but through the fog, she always sees what is most important.

"What will become of me in my homeland?" Gerlinde is an individual who has, through selfless acts of kindness and generosity, influenced thousands of students that will never forget her enthusiasm and love for them. A secret admirer once wrote, "I have never had a person make me feel so good about myself. You have never failed to put a smile on my face."

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