A Better Life

The second SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, named for the German Emperor, was a 19,361 gross ton passenger ship built at Stettin, Germany. The ship was completed in the spring of 1903. The ship was seized by the U.S. Government during World War I, and subsequently served as a transport ship under the name USS Agamemnon. 

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. –Colossians 3:23 NIV

On April 26, 1910, my grandmother, Anna Bortnik, boarded the Kaiser Wilhelm II in Bremen, Germany, after traveling across Europe from her native village of Lenarts, Hungary. Nine days later she arrived in New York. She was seventeen years old. The only language she knew was Slovak.

In the early 1900s America was the place to be. Like my grandmother, they came from all over Europe, bringing their work ethic to steel mills, coal mines, factories and farms. No job was too menial—to them it was an opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families.

My grandmother found employment in a sewing factory in New Jersey until she married a steel mill worker. Mike Demchak, a widower, took her home to a ready-made family in the Monongahela Valley near Pittsburgh. There she raised nine children alone after Mike died of pneumonia in 1934, while the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. One by one, her children dropped out of school to support the family, while she took in washing and ironing.

I once asked my mother how they survived the Depression.

“We were so poor we didn’t even know there was a Depression,” she said.

By today’s standards, my grandmother had a hard life. Yet I never heard her complain. From her perspective, what was there to complain about? She had a roof over her head, food in the pantry, and clothes enough for every season.

For the most part, my grandparents’ generation, through their hard work, succeeded in making better lives for themselves and their children. In the process, they created a better world.

Work gives our lives purpose and meaning. Even in perfect Eden, Adam and Eve had a job to do: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

Too often, though, we see work as drudgery, something that must be endured for us to survive. We feel like the ditch digger, caught in a deadening, joy-stealing cycle: “I digga the ditch to make the money to buy the food to give me the strength to digga the ditch.”

But work was meant to be enjoyable and rewarding: “Then I realized it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and find satisfaction in his toilsome labor . . . to accept his lot and be happy in his work,” Solomon wrote (Ecclesiastes 5:18–19).

The fruit of our labor is ours to enjoy: “You will eat the fruit of your labor” (Psalm 128:2).

Let not Labor Day be only a day that marks the end of the summer season and the start of the new school year. Let it be what it was created to be: a tribute to the workers of America and a celebration of their achievements. For hard work is what made this country great, and hard work is what will keep it great.

Father, bless the workers of this nation. May they find in their jobs fulfillment of the purpose You have for each one. Amen.

NOTE: I obtained important information about my grandmother from the ship’s manifest, which I was able to view online on the Ellis Island Website: www.ellisisland.org/

While researching my grandmother’s journey, I discovered that the country of Czechoslovakia wasn’t established until 1918 – eight years after she immigrated to the US. Although my grandmother had lived in Hungary, her ethnic background was Slovak.

Read and meditate on Ecclesiastes 5:18–20 and Ephesians 6:5–9.

From God, Me, and a Cup of Tea for the Seasons, © 2018 Michele Huey. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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