Amanda Johnson of Marion knows the power of the pen to bring cultures and hearts together. And create a family.
Her grandmother, Lydia Marie Hammer in Germany, and her great-grandmother, Anna Kann in Guttenberg, became pen pals after World War II, all because Lydia Marie “chose fashion over function” , Johnson said.
Amanda Johnson’s grandmother, Guttenberg’s Lydia Hammer Kann, is thrilled to see her story of immigration and love told through new children’s book, ‘It’s a Wonderful Story’ (Eine Wunderbare Geschichte) . German words are sprinkled throughout the book, to help keep Johnson’s cultural heritage alive. (Courtesy of Amanda Johnson)
German heritage runs deep in Johnson’s family. Anna Kann’s family emigrated from Germany, as did her in-laws, who were fed up with French soldiers raiding their farm for horses during World War I.
Anna and Gregor married and farmed near Guttenberg, where they raised six children. This is where Johnson’s journey through his family tree began to turn in his new children’s book, “It’s a Wonderful Story (Eine Wunderbare Geschichte)”.
What: “It’s a wonderful story” (Eine Wunderbare Geschichte)
Author: Amanda Johnson of Marion, writing as Amanda Rose
Website: amandarosewrites.com/#!/books with link to buy through Amazon.com, $14.95 paperback
A teacher and philanthropist, Anna Kann “loved doing things for others, helping others in need,” Johnson said. “She often sewed blankets, donated clothes.
“When she donated clothes, that was the best thing: in the pocket, she pinned her address on some clothes or coats, and a lot of it went overseas.”
Eventually, a blue suit jacket and skirt ended up with donations at a church in Berlin. Lydia’s mother sent her there to find warm winter coats for herself and her younger sister Dagmar, 13. But the suit caught Lydia’s attention instead.
“I had never seen anything like it,” she said.
At that time, 22-year-old Lydia was working as a gardener to support her family and would never buy such a beautiful costume. But so many of the other donated clothes were too big or too small, and this costume “fits it”, and it was free.
“It was like a fairy tale and I was Cinderella,” she said. “The only thing missing was my prince.”
Lydia would meet her prince, through the address pinned inside the costume. She sent Anna a Christmas card, dated December 16, 1951, thanking her for the costume, and the two quickly became pen pals.
At Guttenberg, Virgil “Bud” Kann became interested in this young German girl corresponding with her mother, Anna. So he started writing to her too in March 1952 – 70 years ago this month.
Language was no obstacle, as Lydia started learning English in elementary school and loved it. “She was very smart,” Johnson said.
They fell in love, and the following year he traveled to Berlin for a month, to meet Lydia and her parents, and convince her banker father that a farmer in Iowa could take care of his daughter.
The day he arrived, and the first time they met and heard each other’s voices, was on his birthday, August 14, 1953. They got engaged on his mother’s birthday, on August 21, and were married on Dagmar’s birthday, September 9, 1953, at the family church in Berlin. In attendance was the woman who had told Lydia’s mother about the donated clothes and urged her to send the girls immediately, before everything was ripped off.
“When my mum asked her what her dad thought, Lydia replied, ‘He knew I would have a better life, so he let me go.’ Her dad loved her right away, he didn’t let his daughter go until she met her for the first time, that’s why grandpa took all this time to go abroad to date her,” Johnson said.
The couple moved to Solana Beach in the San Diego, Calif., area the year Johnson, now 38, was born. When she was 6, her family went there to celebrate her grandmother’s 60th birthday.
Johnson knew that her oma (German for “grandmother”) spoke with an accent and used German words to count and sing “Happy Birthday,” but even though her mother had told her that Oma Lydia had grown up in Germany, it “really didn’t click” with Johnson at such a young age.
“We were all sitting around the table and my grandmother was talking about how they met and I was surprised,” Johnson said. “Like, I can’t believe that’s like the reason we’re here today. …
“I just remember how magical that story sounded to me – like a fairy tale. Over the years you’d hear it over and over again, and it never lost its shine. It just sparked the amazement every time.
When Johnson decided to write about the “wonderful story” of her oma, she went to the care center where Lydia now lives and recorded her telling the story once again.
Time was running out because her oma, now 92, has dementia, and Johnson wanted her to see the book while she could still remember and enjoy it.
The internet and social media helped Johnson connect with his cousin, Swen, in Germany, who provided him with photos of his mother, Dagmar, Johnson’s great-aunt.
“It was fun working with him,” Johnson said. “It’s so great to have this access to email, WhatsApp and Facebook and to be able to share photos and history like that, we’re so lucky. I don’t think we realize how lucky we are to have such access.
Johnson hopes his daughters, Joslin, 7, and Maisy, 4, will become pen pals with Swen’s two youngest daughters, who are around the same age.
That’s not all. Through her book, Johnson seeks to encourage children to write to parents of all ages. She hid letter-writing instructions in the back of her book, along with one of Joslin’s drawings, to show how easy it is to make connections.
Seeing everything her own mother has learned about their family history has opened that window for Johnson, who also hopes to make class presentations.
“I want parents and families to connect through storytelling and share their story, write their story,” she said. “By diving into this book, I learned so much about my family that I never would have. And so that’s what I want families to do. I want to help families reconnect with the past, that good or bad, and keeping that connection alive through storytelling.
“It’s my mission.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; [email protected]
Thanks to Instagram, author Amanda Johnson found German artist Anne Rikta to illustrate the children’s book “It’s a Wonderful Story” (Eine Wunderbare Geschichte). (Courtesy of Amanda Johnson)
Author Amanda Johnson of Marion wants to pass on her family’s immigration story to future generations, starting with her daughters Joslin, 7 (behind her) and Maisy, 4. (Courtesy of Amanda Johnson)