A Jet Plane and the Charming Nancy

Our last day in Europe, Steve and I toured the Port of Rotterdam. At this port, my family boarded the Charming Nancy to begin the journey to America. Having fled persecution in Switzerland and Germany, they rafted with other Amish up the Rhine River through the Netherlands to reach the port. At each of the twenty-six custom houses along the way, they had to dock for inspection. So a passage that could have taken a week, took more than a month.

In Holland, they were delayed another month, spending more of their money to survive. And there was yet one more stop—Cowes port in England. There my family and other passengers received clearance to go to America, still a British colony.

But this is when the real misery began. Packed like herring in a barrel, passengers endured storms, filthy food, thirst, scurvy, lice, the constant stench of human waste, and death after death.

An account of this journey survives. It was written by Hans Jacob, a bishop traveling with the Amish group. He wrote it on an old Swiss calendar, and saved it in the back of a Bible:

The 28th of June while in Rotterdam getting ready to start, my Zernbli died and was buried in Rotterdam. The 29th we got under sail and enjoyed only 1-1/2 days of favorable wind. The 7th day of July, early in the morning, died Hans Zimmerman’s son-in-law. We landed in England the 8th of July, remaining nine days in port during which five children died.

Went under sail the 17th of July. The 21st of July my own Lisbetli died. Seven days before Michael’s Georgli had died. On the 29th of July three children died. On the 1st of August my Hansli died and Tuesday previous five children died. On the 3rd of August contrary winds beset the vessel from the first to the 7th of the month, three more children died. On the 8th of August Shambien’s Lizzie died and on the 9th died Hans Zimmerman’s Jacobi. On the 19th Christian Burgli’s child died. Passed a ship on the 21st. A favorable wind sprang up. On the 28th Hans Gasi’s wife died.

Passed a ship 13th of September. Landed in Philadelphia on the 18th, and my wife and I left the ship on the 19th. A child was born to us on the 20th – died – wife recovered. A voyage of 83 days.

My long-ago family would not have recognized the Port of Rotterdam I saw yesterday. Now the largest port in Europe, our tour captain navigated past massive ships with arms stretching into the sky and reaching down to pluck shipping containers from docks and set them on ships, stacking them, one atop the other, like so many building blocks. With its 22 ship-to-shore cranes and 25 floating cranes and 165 container cranes, the port processed 15.3 million containers last year.

Neither could my family have imagined my journey over the same Atlantic waters they crossed at such cost. As I write, I’m flying high above the waves that battered them. In this jet plane, a steward offers me iced drinks and chicken salad and chocolate mousse. I’m breathing purified air and offered a pillow and blanket. No one around me is retching or dying.  What took my family 83 days is taking me eight hours.

The end of any journey brings fatigue and the chance to be cranky. But you can be sure that as I’ve been tempted to complain about a five-second Covid test and a five-row security line and a half-hour delay, I’ve been clamping my mouth shut.

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