Pa. War Brides From Europe Recall Arrival In USA
LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) – “Storm-tossed and tired, radiant with anticipation, the first group of `British Brides’ reached New York today,’’ enthused the front page of the Lancaster New Era on Feb. 4, 1946.
That day, 65 years ago, marked the first arrival of the largest single group of female immigrants in U. S. history: nearly 1 million brides in a 10-year period. It was unprecedented because these immigrants came not to escape persecution or to seek economic gain. They came because they had fallen in love with an American soldier.
British war brides became part of the largest single group of female immigrants to America. American GIs had been assembling in Great Britain for two years before D-Day. Mostly single and between the ages of 18 and 30, these men spoke the language, were friendly, had good-looking uniforms, short haircuts and were probably lonely.
For women with their menfolk away fighting World War II, the GIs were a welcome sight. For parents and other civilians, as it was often said back then, GIs were “overfed, overpaid, oversexed and over here.’’
Three war brides here in Lancaster County recall their arrival in the United States, although none was on that first ship. Corky Hartman and Liz Rousek came from England and Elisabeth Bolster came from Germany.
All were young, in their early 20s. They had all married overseas. All thought they were coming to a land of plenty, especially after the privations of war. Bolster was overwhelmed with the abundance of food. Her first job was with Breyer’s Ice Cream Company, and she was stunned to be able to have free ice cream for lunch.
On Hartman’s arrival in the States she was terrified by all the cars. She thought the weather was too hot. When she met her husband’s friends she couldn’t understand a word they said. They talked too fast and used words such as “gas’’ instead of “petrol.’’
But she found America “fascinating. Coming from a country with so many social layers and class distinctions, I saw that here, if you worked hard, you could do anything and be anyone. It blew me away,’’ she said.
Rousek, who had grown up in the green fields of Henley on-Thames, found herself in Texas in August. After her marriage to Captain Charles Rousek, a career Army officer, they had been posted to Germany. They were sent to America in 1947, with their two children, and she had a shock when they arrived at Camp Hood, Texas.
The heat was oppressive and the landscape barren. The housing was incomplete. The language was hard. “I hated to answer the phone, because I didn’t know what they said. I still hate the phone,’’ she said.
Rousek also was challenged by a different way of life. She had grown up in India, where her father served in the Maratha Light Infantry and was accustomed to having servants. When they were stationed in Germany, they had a staff and a nanny for the children. Now she was cook, cleaning lady, nanny and everything else.
All three women were always treated warmly with two notable exceptions.
At Central Market in Lancaster, Hartman was in a line at a cheese stand, she recalled. As she chatted with the boy who served her, the woman behind her, hearing the British accent, said in a loud voice, “If we didn’t have foreigners here waiting to get cheese, we’d be able to get served.’’
That was the only time Hartman encountered hostility, but it has made her sensitive to those who might not be accepted as readily as she was.
Bolster’s experience came when she was ready to become an American citizen. She had proudly passed the written exam and it was time to be sworn in. Her neighbors planned a celebration party with a cake and an American flag.
She and her husband went to the courthouse – not locally – for the swearing-in ceremony, she recalled. The French were sworn in first, Italians second, and mixed nationalities third. When the Germans were next, the judge stood up and said, “In my courtroom I will never make any German an American citizen.’’ Bolster was stunned and humiliated. Her husband, who was in full uniform, was furious and headed for the judge but was stopped by a guard. The judge said “Here are your papers _ take them somewhere else.’’
Bolster came back to the party and said, “Get rid of the cake. I am not a citizen.’’ She later found that the judge had lost his son in Germany, she said.
The brides’ parents had different views on their daughters’ marriages. Rousek’s father was “hesitant’’ but “Mother thought he was divine,’’ Rousek said. “He flashed his blue eyes at her, and she was gone.’’ Bolster’s father was “heartbroken,’’ but her mother said, “If you can leave Germany, good for you. There is no hope in this country.’’ On the other hand Bolster’s future mother-in-law said, “Are you out of your mind?’’ when her son told her that he had fallen in love with a German girl.
The brides shared sadness at being separated from the families they had left behind. Grandparents were not able to join in their grandchildrens’ lives. Letters had to take the place of phone calls and visits in the years before instant communication.
There were other regrets. In her desire to fit in, Bolster did not teach her children German and never spoke German at home. She now wishes she had. Her grandson came from a visit to Germany and said, “Why did you leave such a beautiful country?’’ Her answer: “It was not beautiful then.’’
All three women became citizens and contributed to life in America. Hartman gave haute cuisine cooking lessons and opened a popular restaurant called “Sous Chef’’, which later was sold. Rousek, who led a traveling life as an Army wife, volunteered as a Gray Lady in hospitals. Bolster always used her secretarial skills wherever they lived.
In spite of the difficulties and adjustments all had similar words for America. “I feel very fortunate,’’ Rousek said.
Hartman said, “I fell into such a wonderful life.’’ And Bolster said, “It was the nicest thing that ever happened to me. I love America.’’