Hamburg

Berlin -- A recent weekend trip to Hamburg casts light on an important time in our family's history. In October of 1880, my great-grandparents, John and Johanna Oberg, with their two young sons, Otto and Ben (my grandfather), left Europe for America. They traveled from Sweden to Hamburg where they embarked on the S.S. Wieland for Le Havre and New York.

Hamburg has established a new emigration museum on Veddel Island, the site from which my family likely departed. The museum deals mostly with emigration after that time, so the buildings and replicas are probably not those my family would have known. According to other family histories recounting emigration around 1880, it's likely the emigrants got into small boats at Veddel Island to be transported down the Elbe River to meet the larger ocean-going ships at the mouth of the river.

The museum nevertheless has mock-ups of between-deck accommodations on ships like the S.S. Wieland, a ship of the Hamburg America Packet Line (HAPAG). The small wooden bunks with low ceilings would have made for a difficult voyage. Families had to supply their own mattresses and bedding. Oberg family lore tells of an unpleasant voyage to New York. In New York, the family likely entered through Castle Garden, on the Battery, as Ellis Island was not yet in operation. The Statue of Liberty was still a few years away as well. In America, my family went first to Chicago to relatives who were already there and then, a few years later, to Nebraska.

As far as I know, I am the first of my family's descendants to re-visit the departure point in Hamburg. Hamburg today would be recognizable to 1880 travelers, because it prohibits high rise construction that would obscure church spires and lighthouses that go back centuries. I can imagine my ancestors' feelings and impressions as they embarked on their voyage.

The ship's manifest seems to have the age of the boys wrong, as it lists Otto as being eleven months old and Ben being one month old. In fact, Otto was born in 1877 and Ben in 1878, so they were three and two, respectively. John was thirty when they left for America; Johanna was twenty-eight.



Refugees in Berlin

Berlin -- In my Kreuzberg neighborhood, the welcome signs are still out for refugees. Across the park, a volunteer center enlists those who want to help handle the newcomers. There are many such volunteers.

That's the upbeat side of the story. The reality of the situation is not so good. Local, state, and federal governments are overwhelmed by the refugees. Unscrupulous hostel and hotel owners have been packing refugees into uninhabitable conditions to make quick profits off government payments. Government payments are so slow, many otherwise good service providers have given up on attending to refugee needs. This includes those offering German language instruction.

Last weekend I went over to the Templehof neighborhood to see conditions there. The huge building at the former airport -- still the third largest building in the world -- shows few outward signs of housing thousands of refugees, as it did over the winter. Many have been moved out once their asylum applications were approved. Some refugees have returned to their native countries, not liking the prospects here. Surely being sequestered in an old airplane hangar during long, cold Berlin winter nights was not what refugees hoped for.

Those refugees still in the hangars apparently are not allowed out into the adjoining park, Templehofer Feld, which is fenced off. Looking through the fence, one can see a few children riding bikes on the apron next to the hangars and a few pieces of laundry hung out to dry. It looks desolate.

Kreuzberg is multi-ethnic, so refugees among us do not stand out. Surely there are many. On the U-Bahn, a family of four looks as if they could be refugees. They apparently have been clothed by donations, as their clothes are fresh but ill-fitting. One of the little boys is delighted with an oversized pair of goggle-glasses. The mother looks pleased that her family is safe and together. The father looks worried about the family's future.

Postscript: Two news stories illustrate the latest developments. Der Tagesspiegel reports troubles among refugees who don't want to go back to Templehof hangars. The New York Times gives a more optimistic view of how newcomers are being welcomed in Berlin.




Pox All Around

Washington -- The New York Times recently offered readers what appeared simply to be good financial advice in an article "The Best Way to Help A Grandchild with College." But in a quick rejoinder a college president said he was stunned that the article appeared, claiming it was shameful to try to hide potential tuition-paying resources from colleges. He said his college was doing its best to help students pay for college with institutional aid based on merit and need, and that grandparents and parents should not try to game the system.

A college admissions officer was even more blunt: "I will not help you hide your money when you apply for financial aid."

College officials would have more credibility if only they were transparent about their own financial aid gaming. Colleges routinely siphon off federal aid aimed at needy students. The trend of financial aid is unmistakably toward those who don't need it, at the expense of those who do. So much for the argument that grandparents who read financial advice columns are responsible for the lack of aid to needy students. Colleges even mislead charities willfully, falsely telling them that the funds they raise will help needy students pay for college. These are not isolated examples. Colleges are engaged in widespread, systematic gaming of students, families, charities, and taxpayers.

A pox on all of the gamers, including those in Congress who perpetuate such a diabolically difficult student financial aid system. Let's add a pox on the U.S. Department of Education, too, for not cracking down on those who undermine the purpose and mission of federal programs.

There is an opportunity coming up to change things: the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is being drafted in Congress. But don't get your hopes up. There is little evidence that we are in for anything but six more years of financial aid gaming by whichever parties are clever enough to do it or, to put it another way, naive enough not to.

Worried About Nebraska

Lincoln -- Nebraska is no longer the same place I grew up in. Although I was born here and Nebraska is still my domicile, much has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

When I was growing up in the 40s and 50s, Nebraskans had remarkable longevity compared to the rest of the country. Hardy pioneer stock, we explained. Good food from our fields and gardens, we thought. Now we Nebraskans lag behind places like New York City and San Francisco in longevity. It may be the result of our less healthy, car-centric, HFCS-swilling lifestyle, combined with a more toxic environment. One disturbing new indicator: Nebraska has the highest incidence of Parkinson's disease in the nation, according to research that correlates the disease geographically with pesticide usage.

The change is about more than health indicators.

Our literature of the past several decades comes nowhere close to the works of earlier Nebraskans like Cather and Sandoz. Our politics, which once produced the founder of the modern Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, and produced a remarkable Republican, Nobel laureate Charles Dawes as well as the maverick Republican George Norris, hasn't seen their likes since. Nebraska is not a competitive two-party state, nor is there much room for other than an imported, grump-talk conservatism for the prevalent ideology. Bryan, Dawes, and Norris likely would not stand a chance if running for office in today's Nebraska. Indeed, my congressman is actually from Louisiana and the man who won the primary in my state legislative race is from Texas. These are not people of the Nebraska pioneer strain.

State government, which once summoned the resources and will to build the architectural wonder that is the Nebraska State Capitol, has sunk to new lows in prison scandals. No one from the governor on down seems able to keep track of prisoners' sentences, despite tough talk on fighting crime. This year, in a vote I thought I'd never see, the Nebraska legislature sacrificed the state's independent pork producers to a company owned by China, which will now dictate terms as to how hogs will be raised in Nebraska. (Yes, Red China, the authoritarian country of unfathomable food safety problems and choking environmental pollution.)

Nebraska's cities are no longer the tree-covered oases of my childhood. No more shade-dappled streets and homes with front porches; the houses now favored have great expanses of concrete slab fronting forbidding garage doors, behind which are hidden afterthought houses. Flip through Lincoln's "Parade of Homes." The vast majority of these houses are for people whose lives are not centered around neighborliness. The buyers want nature subdued, not celebrated. The more that can be paved-over, the better.

The State University, where the first graduate college was established west of the Mississippi, and which once was known as the Harvard of the Plains with only mild exaggeration, has fallen in national esteem. It has been voted out of the prestigious Association of American Universities, of which it had been a proud member (led by its natural sciences faculty) since 1909. No other university in the country has suffered the same indignity. And few in Nebraska seem to have much cared.

Grain prices are low. At the nearest local co-op, corn is $3.56 per bushel, wheat is $3.59, sorghum is $3.24. Farmers are continuing to leave the land, as they have been for decades. Farmers with diversified operations to hedge farming risks across wheat, feed grains, hay, and livestock, using crop rotation to preserve the soil, are mostly gone. Chemical agriculture has replaced them, luring farmers into dreams of high commodity prices driven by markets that too often proved illusory. Chemical agriculture is also responsible for the dangerous decline of pollinators essential, ironically, to many kinds of food production. It has also led indirectly to the deadly chemical of choice for many disaffected rural youth: meth. The decline in longevity in Nebraska is due in part to a vicious cycle of hopelessness linked to changes in agriculture.

There is a glimmer of hope, so small it seems almost foolish to raise it. The new UNL chancellor has been working to bring the faculty of the agriculture campus and the faculty of the city campus closer together. The gulf between them is wide. The ag faculty has, inadvertently or not, championed the changes that have depopulated much of the state, while the sociology, botany, history, political science, and economics faculties have recorded the declines in many social and natural science indicators. I wish the project well. It's about time they got together. I'm worried about Nebraska. We can do better.