The Siegmund Refugees: A Transylvanian Immigration Story

Submitted by Lisa Catmull, edited by Mel Henderson

Marianne Siegmund’s father was called up to serve in the Hungarian military just days after she was born in March 1944. Soon the Russian army was approaching, and in August, when Marianne, an only child, was just 5 months old, her mother took her and the rest of her family and fled their native Transylvania for Austria. They thought the relocation would be temporary, that they would later return to their comfortable home, but this was never to be.

Marianne wrote, “On this journey my mother was a true heroine in keeping me alive. She could not nurse me, but she had taken along a little glass grater, with which she grated apples found along the way. She would go into the villages where the train stopped and beg for milk. She would bathe me with the water from the locomotive.  It took around three months to get from Transylvania to Upper Austria, since the train had to defer to the various military transports along the way.  At times there were air raids and everyone would leave the train, except my Siegmund grandfather, who fatalistically decided to risk staying on the train.”

In November they arrived in the farming community of Pfaffenberg, near Schwanenstadt in Upper Austria. While Marianne’s mother was trying to make a life in Austria, her father became a prisoner of war in Estonia. It would be four long years before the family was reunited.

Marianne shared, “My father never talked much about his prison years, except to say he and his fellow prisoners were cold and hungry a lot of the time, and that he got really sick of eating kasha (buckwheat porridge). So I finally got a dad when I was four years old. He was still traumatized from his prison experience, but he also loved to spend time with children, so that was an added bonus for me.”

Before long, plans were made to immigrate to the United States. It took almost two years to get the necessary approval, but at last Marianne and her parents boarded a U.S. Navy transport ship in northern Germany. It broke her mother’s heart to leave her own family behind.

The long, uncomfortable journey on the Navy transport eventually took them up the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Here the family was met by Marianne’s aunt Gertrude, her father’s sister, who was already living in Norman, Oklahoma. She would help them settle into a new life there. Marianne was 8 years old when she began life as an American girl.

“And so the acculturation process began,” said Marianne. Her parents dearly wanted to preserve their culture and hoped she would be proud of it—while she, being a child, was mainly concerned with being a “normal kid” at school. “It was easier for me to grow into a new language and culture because of my age. For my parents it was much harder.  They never lost their homesickness for all they had left behind—a comfortable standard of living in a like-minded community where they felt accepted and at ease . . . They missed the mountains, the climate, the ease with the language, the ‘Gemütlichkeit’ (comfort) of their associations with friends and family. Aside from my aunt, there were no other Transylvanians in Norman.” When Marianne was in high school her father bought a car, and every summer they would drive for hours toward Colorado, just to be able to see a few mountains.

Some of the hardest parts of any immigration story are what comes after the happy arrival, when a family must accept that they have left behind so much that won’t be recovered in their lifetime— careers, comfortable homes, an easy sense of natural belonging. They must begin again. They must overcome language barriers, find a home, employment, a community, and figure out how to raise their children in a strange new place and culture.

Marianne shared these words about her family’s experience: “I believe that it has taken me a lifetime to appreciate the toll that this immigration experience took on our family and to become reconciled to the fact that often the first-generation immigrant story is not always positive in every way. In the end, I realize that my parents did the best they could during a very difficult transition and that I have benefited from their sacrifices in many ways . . . Over the years, it has become easier to ‘own’ my past and to talk about my family’s origins. I also realize that so many other immigrants have gone through similar (and much worse) experiences. I am convinced that there are many among the current wave of refugees who are willing and able to work as hard as my parents did to make a new life and to contribute to this country. It is important to remember that this is, after all, a country built by such immigrants.”