The Albert Kortmann Family from Großringe

The Kortmann family emigrates from Grafschaft Bentheim to Holland, Michigan in January, 1954

By Christa Brinkers

This article originally appeared in the 1965 Bentheimer Jahrbuch and was re–published in the April and July 2020 issues of the Society’s Newsletter. Translated by Pastor Dr. Gerrit Jan Beuker.

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Color photo of the MV Italia passenger ship in the 1950s. The Kortmann family traveled aboard this ship.

The M.V. Italia was built in 1928 for the Swedish American Line and named Kungsholm. During World War II, she was used by the U.S. Government as a troop carrier, when she was re–named the John Ericsson. She served the Home Lines from 1948 until 1964, when she was named the Italia.

In our county of Bentheim, family spirit and loyalty to the neighbourhood are always very important. They shine on us—not only in the native villages and towns and the nearby border with the Netherlands, but also from far–off foreign lands, from emigrants who uphold and cherish traditions.

Introduction

In the Bentheimer Heimatkalender 1951, 5.27 f., we read the interesting messages of the chairman of the Drents Genootschap (Society), Dr. H. J. Prakke of Assen, about the first emigrants who moved to America from Grafschaft Bentheim and Drenthe in 1847 and founded the towns of “Grafschaft” [Graafschap] and “Holland.” They were altreformierte OldReformed men who, not well–liked by the authorities on both sides of the border because of their faith, dared the dangerous voyage across the ocean on a sailing ship under the leadership of Dr. Albertus van Raalte. As pioneers in the state of Michigan (U.S.A.), they laid the foundation for the existence of following family members and neighbours.

In “Bei den Grafschaftern in USA” in the 1954 Yearbook, Eberhard Liese wrote about his visit “With the Grafschafters in The U.S.A.” in an exciting, humorous, and memorable way (pages 116 and following). It is essential to read this report in order to assess what has become of the old families in the New World and how they have achieved high goals in an exemplary community.

Willy Friedrich’s contribution in the 1959 Yearbook, “Sie gingen nach Amerika” (“They Went To America”) beginning on page 231, depicts the fate of emigrants according to old records. Above all, we are shown the various reasons for emigration, which reflect the needs of the individuals at the time. This awakens our understanding of this venture, and we admire the courage, determination, and strong hope—without which no venture can be started and carried out.

In my “Raseneisenerz=Betrieb, ein Familien–Unternehmen” in the 1960 Yearbook, which begins on page 158 (“Bog Iron Company, A Family Undertaking”), I highlight the family and good–neighborly relationships that I experienced over many years.

From October 1948 to December 1953, Albert Kortmann in Großringe was closely associated with the company. He bought ore, provided carters and horses for transporting the ore from the low meadows, and helped load them for further transport by diesel locomotive and “Bulldog” tractor. Albert Kortmann worked tirelessly, diligently, and reliably for his large family.

Photo of standing water in a bog with trees growing around. Some of the water is rusty red, showing the presence of iron particles.

What is “bog iron”? Bog iron is formed when groundwater has iron particles floating in it. The iron particles sink down onto the plants growing on the bottom of the bog. The plants eventually die. Bacteria growing on the dead or dying plant material concentrate the iron particles. Over a long time, this creates lumps of iron deposits. These lumps, called “bog iron,” are easily smeltable by blacksmiths.

Albert Kortmann was born on June 28, 1902, on the farm in Großringe, which he inherited from his ancestors. He married Johanne Klompmaker from Heesterkante, born on April 7, 1910. Over the years, the house was filled with an eleven–strong group of healthy children. It was heartwarming to see the parents, who stayed young with the children! When little Aleide was born in 1951, the company’s entire staff went to the Kortmann family’s baptism. They brought with them a 2½–meter long “Weggen” on a ladder.  It was a very happy celebration!

A “Weggen” or Kilmerstuten is a yeast pastry given to the parents after a child’s birth. Ingredients include wheat flour, butter, eggs, yeast, milk, water, sugar, salt, and raisins. It is covered with a layer of icing and often decorated with marzipan letters spelling out the child’s name. A Weggen is usually 1½ meters long, but sometimes it’s 1 meter in length for the first child, 2 meters for the second, and so on. The Weggen is transported and presented on a wooden ladder that also carries other gifts for the family. This custom is practiced in Emsland, the Osnabrücker Land, the Oldenburger Münsterland, and Grafschaft Bentheim.

As their sons and daughters grew up, the parents naturally became concerned about their children’s future. According to their predispositions and talents, they should take up professions that offered them security and a good living. Corresponding with the many relatives in Holland, Michigan opened up new perspectives. Brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and cousins had achieved property and prestige there. They promised every kind of help for the big family’s new beginning.

By the end of December, 1953, preparations for emigration were pretty much complete. The farm was handed over to the tenant Hermann (Harm) Schepers, who later purchased it. The necessary papers were procured, all formalities were completed, and the household in Großringe was dissolved.

And now, we let Albert Kortmann himself speak about the crossing in his report and in his first letter from Holland, Michigan:

Albert Kortmann’s Letter To Friends Back Home

Holland, Michigan (U.S.A.)

February 7, 1954

To the Staff of Binder–Ehling, via Mr. Heinz Brinkers and Mr. Georg Koops!

Dear Heinz and Dear Georg! Dear friends!

Today, I want to try to give you a little report of our crossing to America. — On the evening of January 9, 1954, we left the old Heimat of Großringe with our eleven children. With great sympathy from neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, we said goodbye and took a Kronemeyer bus to Hamburg that night.

Photo of a Johanne Kortmann with corsage and Albert in a suit and tie.

Johanne (Klompmaker) and Albert Kortmann.

From Hamburg To Le Havre, France; The Atlantic Ocean

January 10, 1954: We were already in Hamburg by eight o’clock in the morning. Everyone was fine. The weather was great! We boarded the ship in the evening. Everything was fine. At 11 p.m. the landing bridges were taken off the ship, and the Italia raised anchor amidst the sounds: “Muss ich denn, muss ich denn zum Städtelein hinaus” (“Must I then, must I then go out to the little town”) and other farewell songs. Before our eyes, Hamburg and its lights disappeared very quickly. Everyone went to his cabin and tried to sleep.

January 11: We all got up lively and had breakfast at seven o’clock. The North Sea had become very restless, and half of the passengers did not come for lunch. Johanne, Gesine, and the little ones lie in bed and feel very ill and miserable. Hermann, Heinrich, and I are fresh and lively. We walk through the whole Italia. It is a beautiful crate of 22,000 tons. When you see a boat like that, fear is gone. The food’s great. Today we were all together again at dinner. Here on board, 20 cigarettes cost 17 cents, a glass of beer 10 cents, 50 grams of tobacco 20 cents, and a large schnapps 25 cents. We’re going to bed early today because my family is tired from “feeding fish”! You know what that means? Or not?

January 12: The sea is nice and calm today. The people are all back. We pass through the English Channel. All you see is water. At 12:30 p.m. today, we arrived at the port of Le Havre, France. A wonderful view! Two hundred passengers were taken in, plus provisions and the like. I have yet to discover “ores”! [Albert can’t get his mind off the iron ore business yet!] Coffee and cake will be ready at three o’clock. Our ship left Le Havre at 4 p.m. We are now roaring towards the ocean with full force. The beautiful former German ship Europa, which was renamed Liberté by France, was in the port of Le Havre. In the evening we ate well again. There’s plenty of entertainment on board. The people are all very friendly with each other. The ship’s crew is German. Music—German music—we have all day. The little ones are now in bed, we grown–ups have just gone for a walk. We just found a fun spot! Four sea monkeys singing sea shanties. It was told with a lot of humor!

13 January: The sea was very restless again this morning. We’re on the ocean now! Most on board are seasick. Johanne, Gesine, Jan, and the little ones are sick again. Hermann, Heinrich, and I have been spared until now. Being seasick is a very unpleasant affair. At noon today, there weren’t many at lunch. I’ve just heard that we have a wind force of ten. I am at the back deck and see only towers of water and holes, even deeper than in the Wüpker ore field! So this is “bad levelling”!

High Seas On The Atlantic

January 14: I hum the song “Stürmisch die Nacht, und die See geht hoch” (“Stormy the night, and the sea is high”). The sick are still lying down. But we are mobile! “That can’t shake a sailor!” We have just attended a service. There’s a pastor on board. He holds a devotional hour in the hall every morning from 9 to 10. — The ship’s furnishings are very comfortable. — We just had rescue exercises with life belts on! We don’t need to swim! Ta–ti–ta–tu! Just lessons! The storm gets stronger and stronger, so that the waves fly over deck. It’s very fun!

January 15: During the storm at night the ship creaked at the joints, but still we all slept. It’s not pretty, but it works! We deal with our papers almost every day, so the pile is still growing. We sleep “militarily”: in two beds on top of each other! I wish you a good night’s sleep!

January 16: Calm has returned after the storm. We have clear skies, and the barometer is rising. There’s only a wind force of four! We are now on the Gulf Stream, and the warm water flow brings us “thaw weather.” — But we will probably experience different temperatures up near Newfoundland! Except everyone has an appetite again. This afternoon the children saw a school of large fish, probably dolphins, of two meters in length. Now in the evening it’s raining hard.

Activities program from a 1949 voyage of the M.V. Italia.

The M.V. Italia’s Program of Events from Wednesday, November 9, 1949. The bottom section gives instructions for the “Abandon Ship Drill” to take place this day.

The Kortmann Family Approaches The Canadian Coastline

January 17: Today is Sunday. We’re all awake and are about to attend a service. There was something going on again last night! We rocked right, left, forwards, backwards, so that the ashtray flew from our cupboard at twelve o’clock. But you should not be afraid and visit us in our new home, just the same. You can only get a concept of the ocean if you experience it; you can’t learn that at school. There is a lot of variety on board. They make sure that people don’t get tired. The children were given cake and cocoa today. They also got colourful paper hats. We will enclose a picture of it next time. We heard on the radio and in the press this morning that heavy storms were raging again on the North Sea coast and in Holland. It’s been quiet here all day today.

January 18: We drive slowly but surely to Halifax. After a quiet morning we have a wind force of eight again! When we get to New York, we’ll be shaken up. It’s such a terrible storm now that we can hardly move forward. We could probably make the same mileage by bike!

January 19: We all long for the end of the journey. Preliminary report is that we’ll be in Halifax in the morning, but I can’t believe it. We weren’t just dealing with the storm this morning. Suddenly the sirens went off—a fire had broken out in the kitchen. That was a strange feeling, and we remembered the beautiful song: “In all storms, in all trouble, he will protect you, the faithful God!” There was no restlessness or panic. — The sea has been calm again since noon. Today we saw a steamer, the Atlantic, with which Langemaat sailed.

January 20: We slept well. When we woke up, we could see land. It was Canada, a foreign continent. The sea is nice and quiet. All passengers are in the best mood, everyone is happy. We hope to reach our destination, New York, on the night of January 21–22. We’re starting to pack our bags again. We have just checked in our luggage from the ship to our final destination: Holland, Michigan. We’re also getting tired of travelling, you see the same faces every day.

January 21: We all got up cheerfully, but Jan has caught a cold and doesn’t really want to get up today. I’ve already been to the ship’s hospital and got him some cough drops. Hopefully, he’ll be well tomorrow. Today there is slogan after slogan, then these papers, then those! We have to get up at 5.30 tomorrow morning to eat.

From New York City To Kalamazoo

January 22: We reached New York this morning. It is a sea of flames from lamps, huge skyscrapers, and endless lines of cars. We start at 5.30 a.m.: We have already learned to walk up and down stairs. First it is the turn of the American citizens who have visited the Old Country. Then the first class passengers follow. Now it’s our turn! With all the papers in hand, we have to line up in the first–class smoking room. Visa, landing cards and vaccination certificates are to be kept ready. That’s how we get through all of the barriers. The U.S. doctors examine us superficially and check the papers. Okay. We keep moving along.

A woman wants to “collect” us and asks for the Kortmann family. She speaks German. The forwarding agents for our luggage handle us. Also, photographers from the press are already there and are waiting for us. It went: “Kortmann family, here!” and, “Kortmann family, there!” As if they had known us for years! Everyone was friendly and very helpful. We walked off the ship and came into the big customs hall. It went faster than I expected. We didn’t need to open a suitcase, but the boxes had already been opened and inspected. From the hall, we were taken by car to the train station.

We had to wait until our train left at six in the evening. Twenty to 30 photographers received us again. Maddening! But we escaped the crowd and had lunch. Then wait, wait, wait until six o’clock! Everything took a great effort after the long and arduous journey. Then little Leida got sick, too. We were worried about her, since we had not yet reached our destination. — At six o’clock we were taken to the platform where the train was ready to take us to Kalamazoo.

The trains are very nicely furnished, also for sleeping. There are deck chairs there that can be unfolded. The operating staff, mostly black, was very helpful and modest. Since it was night, we could see little of the landscape. The kids slept pretty well. We had rented a few more pillows. And so the night passed quickly.

January 23: We arrived in Kalamazoo at 10:30 a.m. All of the brothers–in–law and relatives had gathered. They came to pick us up with seven cars. It was a very lively reception, a joyful reunion and shaking hands! Then we went on towards our new home: Holland, Michigan. At twelve o’clock sharp, we were in our beautiful new home. Lunch was served, and we all had a happy meal together. The whole house was heated, the beds were ready, there was enough food, and it lasted at least for six weeks.

The Kortmann Family Settles in Holland, Michigan

The Kortman house in Holland during the wintertime.

Yes, everyone! I would now like to give you a little insight into our new home. Life is very different here than it is in Grafschaft Bentheim or in Meppen. The house is very practically furnished. We don’t live right in town, we live just outside. We have cold and warm running water upstairs and downstairs, throughout the whole house. There is a large stove in the cellar, which is refilled twice a day. I will stop talking about it now, or you will say: “Albert, hör’ up te puchen!” (“Albert, stop telling such good things!”)

Now some more about our work. Hermann could start immediately on Monday in the sausage department of a large slaughterhouse. Even if the production is completely different from in Germany, the sausage tastes just as good here as it did in the old homeland. Hermann earns one dollar per hour, but he will soon get more because the company has already hired him.

I first took eight days off and then started work the following Monday in an agricultural machine factory. We’re only 19 men making celery planters. I operate two electric band saws in a 40–hour week work. Saturdays are free, so we have two Sundays. Nice, isn’t it? I’ll look for work on Saturdays in the summer. Now I make $1.25 an hour.

Gesine works in a shoe factory and receives 90 cents per hour. It’s all just starting pay. We’ve settled in pretty well. Jan is not working yet. If anyone is to work here, they must be 18 years old. He’s turning 18 in May. He’s helping his mother in the kitchen. For the time being we drive to work with the other work colleagues in the car. We may have to wait until next autumn to buy a car.

Are you back at work in the ore field? Greet all friends in the Twist: Your brother–in–law Walter, W. Stroot, B. Ambergen, Mrs. Tiek, and Levelink, also the farmers in Neuringe, where we dug ore. Hello, Fritz Gruber in Neugnadenfeld, how are you? Say hello to Eppinger and Wegert for me! Send me the exact address of Bruno Lutter. (Also emigrated to America!) Best regards to the Ehling family in Nordhorn. Give this letter to my sister Dina to read, too! I expect you to save enough money to take your summer vacation here. I will entertain you as well as I can.

Best regards also to G. Buß and Frau in Alexisdorf. Everybody stay healthy, Aunt Lene included. And now best regards to your sister Christa. She gave us great joy with the picture of our home farm in Großringe. I’ve got this picture right here hanging over my desk. A wonderful memory!

I will now conclude with the request that everyone write personally to your family, who will never forget you.

Albert Kortmann

343 West 22nd St., Holland, Michigan (U.S.A.)

Photo of Albert Kortmann with a Frisbee and smoking a pipe in his backyard.

Albert Kortmann with a Frisbee, perhaps in his back yard in Holland.

Albert and Johanne Kortmann’s Twelfth Child

No sooner than the Kortmann family had taken possession of their beautiful house, which an uncle had acquired, then the press had appeared to capture the large crowd in pictures. You wouldn’t think that this family was something of a publicity sensation, even in America! A newspaper picture with the names and ages of all relatives was soon sent to the old homeland.

Now the school time for the children began. In order to learn the English language, they were first assigned to the lower classes. But they soon managed to advance into the upper classes according to their age. After all, everyone up to the age of 16 or 18 had to attend school. The little ones soon went to kindergarten.

In 1956 another little brother joined the brother and sisterhood, little Harald. His parents were in Großringe with him in 1961. The seven weeks flew by far too fast. Gesine, the eldest daughter, finally returned home in 1959 and married Hermann Niers in 1960. They live in Alexisdorf. I visited them there to get pictures and reports of the Kortmann family from the last ten years.

Conclusion

We were all deeply shocked by the news of Albert Kortmann’s death, who died of a heart attack on March 24, 1963, after a busy and productive life.

The times and possibilities have changed from the time of Jürnjakob Swehn, the traveler to America. At that time, they moved out to a difficult new beginning and rarely returned to their old homeland. Homesickness remained their constant companion. Today, the emigrant travels and flies back across the ocean after a short time, driven by strong homesickness for his old home, longing for his relatives and friends. After returning to their new home, the letters are once again the messengers of longing, as with Jürnjakob Swehn:

“If this is homesickness, then homesickness is not a disease!

Then homesickness is the best thing a person can take with him from home.

Then home is the best thing man has on earth!

And when he takes wings of the dawn,

or when he goes halfway around the world

and works as a farmer in Iowa for about fifty years, he’s not getting away from her.

She holds him tight like a strong rope,

and no power on earth binds more than homeland binds!”

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