Snapshot: The Emmel Family, 1927
“Received your letter of July 29th… many thanks for your congratulations. I have turned 50 and you will be 26… if your birthday were a month later we would be able to congratulate you in person.”
Caroline Emmel wrote these words from her home in Wiesbaden to her son, Karl, as she anticipated leaving Germany behind to make a new life in the United States. Weeks later, Caroline, her husband Wilhelm, and their daughter Johanna left Germany to join Karl and their other son Wilhelm in Wisconsin, where both had immigrated earlier in the decade. This letter describes the family’s plans to give away their remaining furniture and any other unnecessary possessions that would burden their trip. Though focused on these everyday details, the letter also provides a window into the Emmels’ reckoning with their decision that they could no longer maintain their middle-class lifestyle in Germany.
The letter was one in a series written by Caroline and Wilhelm Emmel to Karl, their older son, who had emigrated in September 1925 after obtaining his degree in engineering.1 Between Karl’s departure and their own, in summer 1927, they wrote to their son from their home in Wiesbaden almost monthly. Their letters reveal how Germany’s political and economic instability in the 1920s led many to turn their eyes toward the United States.
German reparations for World War I led to hyperinflation that reached a high point in 1924. The introduction of the Rentenmark secured a period of economic stability later called the “four golden years,” lasting from 1924 until 1928. Wilhelm had a cabinet making business, and he also trained young men in this specialized craft. In addition, the Emmels had received a substantial inheritance that brought them a steady income. The couple apparently made it through the years of hyperinflation without significant losses, but their letters dispel the notion that they experienced the subsequent years as a “golden” period. Rather, they placed a great deal of confidence in the opportunity that America held for their children and others.
In one of her early letters to Karl after his arrival in Wisconsin, Caroline relayed a minister’s words: “Reverend Ösch thought that your chances of making it in America were very good.” 2 Karl secured work within weeks, and his parents spoke about his success often with friends. “Whenever we tell people here that you found work so quickly, they find it hard to believe,” Caroline remarked. 3 Not only had Karl found opportunity in America, but others in their community had reportedly benefited from immigrating: “Several girls from our neighborhood here in Wiesbaden have gone to America, married very well, and no longer want to return to Germany,” Caroline wrote in one letter. 4 In fact, it seemed that things were working out so well that Wilhelm Emmel strongly encouraged others to make the journey. Caroline reported that “Father keeps asking Ernst [a family friend] why he isn’t going to America. Petter finally told him to stop inciting Ernst to leave.” 5
The Emmels eventually decided to immigrate to the United States themselves. They made plans to sell their house in Wiesbaden and live off the combination of the proceeds from the sale and their inheritance. The value of their house became a dominant topic in the family letters and an indicator of the economic uncertainty of the times. As early as November 1925, Caroline informed Karl that “ten days ago, the real estate agent came and suggested that we sell our house. Father said he would do so if he could get 80,000 marks for it.” 6 In summer 1926, Caroline stated that “our house would currently sell for about 30,000 marks.” 7 A few months later she told her son that they expected 50,000 marks. 8 These shifts in price indicate the unstable housing market at the time, even if conditions were not so stark as during the hyperinflation years. Nonetheless, the Emmels had little interest remaining in Germany, and were increasingly uncertain that the future would be pleasant. “You cannot imagine the rampant unemployment here,” Caroline wrote in February 1926. “At least 80% of skilled workmen are without work… Father has not had any work for weeks, either.” 9 One friend, Caroline reported, “said that there is no guarantee that everything won’t collapse one of these days.” 10
Selling their home and moving to America seemed to promise an escape from this uncertainty. On January 19, 1927, Caroline wrote that “we decided to sell the house… The selling price is 48,000 marks.” Over the following months, Caroline shared with Karl the process of saying their goodbyes to family and friends and final bits of gossip. The Emmels moved to the United States in hopes of settling down comfortably as a retired couple. As it would turn out, their plan to live off their investments in Germany was disrupted when the National Socialist regime began restricting the movement of funds out of Germany, and the Emmels returned there in 1937. This 1927 letter offers a glimpse at a moment when the couple were optimistically looking forward to starting a new life in the United States, unable to anticipate the dramatic changes that still loomed ahead.