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An immigrant's tale 

My ancestors weren't here for the American Revolution, or the country's founding, but they got what it was about, and many of them fought their own battles to be a part of it — and to be free.

Monday's Independence Day celebrations around Charlotte had me thinking about my grandma Carola. I've used the Internet to scour the photo albums of relations on multiple continents to put my family history together, and this photo (the one attached to this story) is one of the coolest things to shake out of the family tree.

It's of my grandmother, dated Jan. 1, 1937. The picture was taken at the German port of Cuxhoven, just before she boarded a ship to America, leaving her family, friends and everything she'd ever known and loved behind. Walking behind is her father, Ferdinand, carrying her suitcase.

She was just 22. She left Nazi Germany alone with only the contents of that suitcase and without knowing the language of the country she was leaving for.

I can't imagine what that was like, to make a decision like that with no safety net beneath you.

On the back of the photo she wrote in German "Last steps on German soil." Carola clearly didn't intend to spend a few years in America. She was leaving for good.

I'm told she left because she hated Hitler. Ask her about Hitler and even decades later she'd still get worked up, family members say, but further details were never forthcoming. He'd been in power for more than three years by 1937, and the rule of law in Germany had deteriorated to the point that the courts couldn't stop the activities of the Gestapo, which was occasionally jailing those who mocked Hitler.

In 1937, Hitler was at the height of his power and popularity and could turn out millions for his militarized parades. Most of what she heard about him would have been sanitized by the German media. Only an extremely astute political observer could have begun to surmise the true level of his depravity. She couldn't have known what was in store for the world or her country. The German invasion of Poland, which most historians consider to be the beginning of World War II, was still two years away when she boarded that ship.

Yet she still despised Hitler enough to leave the country. I'm told she had no choice but to participate in the government's various youth organizations, and that she hated them. Others worried for her when she refused to raise her hand with the group on command or to smile for group pictures. Perhaps, like me, she just couldn't stand being told what to do — no matter what it was.

Germany's economy had been deeply troubled but was beginning to recover, so she wasn't fleeing poverty. Her father had a successful ship building business that made the family solidly middle class.

Yet even as America and the Allies battled her homeland, firebombed its cities and killed her countrymen in battle, and while her brothers fought them in the German airforce and military, she applied for and eventually earned U.S. citizenship.

She'd work during the day, studying German at night, I'm told. She eventually learned the language so well she erased all traces of her German accent, so you couldn't tell she wasn't born here.

I'll never know the full details of what motivated her because shedied when I was seven. Digging through the hundreds of pages of papers and photos I've amassed from her life, I've felt a profound sense of loss at not knowing this woman as an adult. I'd give a lot to just sit with her for a few hours and ask her questions.

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