With twin smokestacks and room for more than 3,200 passengers, the S.S. Rotterdam IV sailed from the Netherlands on Aug. 4, 1915 — arriving in New York 11 days later.
The ship’s manifest listed a 25-year-old Slovenian émigré, traveling with her toddler son and 1-year-old daughter. It was the mother’s second trip to America — they were headed back to the Iron Range community of Eveleth, where her husband and the children’s father, 26, worked in the mines.
Those records provide the bones of the story. JoMarie Alexander, the Andover granddaughter of that year-old girl who crossed the ocean, and her uncle Bill Meglen, have spent 30 years researching family history to add flesh and soul to the tale.
“None of the Slovenians had ever seen bananas before and they didn’t know how to eat them,” Alexander says. “They tried taking a bite, peel and all, and found them inedible, so all those lovely bananas ended up being thrown away.”
She chuckles at the story 103 years later. “My grandmother was known for her banana bread,” she says. “Evidently she eventually learned to peel them.”
It’s a rare fleck of humor in an immigrant story tinged with pain and perseverance. A 1913 fire destroyed the Eveleth home of Alexander’s great-grandparents — Slovenian immigrants Margaretha and Frank Sevshek. At the time, Margaretha was 23, the mother of toddler Frank Jr. with another one on the way.
“Since she was homesick and pregnant and they had no place to live,” Alexander explains, saying Margaretha’s husband told her to return to Slovenia to have the baby. He’d rebuild their home by the time she and the children returned. “Unfortunately,” Alexander says, “it would not be as simple as they had anticipated.”
World events intervened. Margaretha was six months pregnant on her return voyage to Europe in early 1914. She birthed her daughter, Margaret Ann, on April 13, 1914, in the same Slovenian village of Nova Vas where her family had lived for three centuries.
Less than three months later and about 300 miles away from the village, a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Historians consider that the spark that ignited World War I.
Three weeks after Margaret’s first birthday, German submarines sank the ocean liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915 — killing nearly 1,200 aboard and heightening anti-German sentiment. The U.S. entered the Great War in 1917 and, by its end in late 1918, German U-boats sank roughly 5,000 Allied ships.
In the midst of that chaos, the young Slovenian mother traveled to the U.S. embassy in Austria — pleading for a passport. She had to show documentation of her husband’s naturalization papers back in Eveleth. She eventually secured her passport on July 28, 1915 — less than three months after the Lusitania went down.
Margaretha, her two small kids and teenage sister, Agnes, trekked by foot across war-torn Europe until they boarded the Rotterdam for the voyage across an ocean teeming with enemy submarines.
“I can’t even imagine how frightened she and her husband must have been about her safety and that of their two young children,” Alexander says.
But they made it back to America and, Alexander says, “Margaretha knelt and kissed the ground and vowed she would never again leave the United States, and she never did.”
A brief window of good times back on the Iron Range followed, as did a third baby named Maria. In the autumn of 1918, Frank went to hunt deer to feed his growing family. He grew ill in the chilly woods and died around Thanksgiving from pneumonia following the flu — four months shy of turning 30. He was just one of nearly 12,000 Minnesotans who died during 1918’s influenza outbreak — the world’s deadliest pandemic ever.
His widow remarried within a few years. Margaret, who didn’t speak English when she started school in Eveleth, “was afraid her entire life that someone would find out she was born out of the U.S. and that she would be sent back,” her granddaughter says.
In 1936, Margaret married fellow Slovenian Joseph Meglen, who was born near Margaret’s birthplace. His family had immigrated to Mountain Iron, about 10 miles from her Eveleth home.
“My grandfather was always amused by the fact that they had been born so close to one another, but had to travel half way ’round the world to meet and marry,” Alexander says.
Joseph died in 1974 after a career as a trucker and railroad conductor and brakeman. His wife, a homemaker renowned for her cooking, worked in a butcher shop. Both renovated homes to pay for their three children’s college educations. She died at 75 in 1989.
Their three children became a customs director, a wedding cake decorator and a chemistry professor. They produced seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
As for granddaughter JoMarie Alexander, 57, she’s a family lawyer who first delved into researching her roots when her Slovenian grandmother was hospitalized for the third time with cancer. Doctors thought she’d die 19 years sooner.
“She was a tough old bird,’’ says Alexander, whose “30-year odyssey to uncover the family history” now fills up five books. In the process, Alexander has overcome 13 years of sometimes debilitating multiple sclerosis. For her, family history is all about “the extraordinary lives of very ordinary people.”
“I so wish I had been able to start this project … before the death of my last grandparent,” she says. “But that generation didn’t necessarily want to talk about where they’d come from.
“My interest in family history is … mostly … a way to stay connected to people who were incredibly important to me and the person I am today.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.