Sunday, 1. Aug.
Rain weather as if heaven opened its floodgates. This is the day I started my journey to Brazil. My brother and I joined a family from Leipzig, who wanted to go there as emigrants.Rudolf Seifert, Meine Reise nach Brasilien als Emigrant, 1909
With this opening line, Rudolf Seifert, a far relative of mine, started his travel journal in 1909. Just randomly, I discovered this small black book among the belongings of my grandfather, who passed away in 2012. Last year, I decided to have a closer look at it and started to transcribe his handwriting. The more I read about the journey of Rudolf, the more excited I got as a historian about all the small hints and descriptions of the political and social circumstances of his time. Therefore, in the following months, I want to follow his journey stage by stage while discussing and contextualizing his views and statements.
One reason for this project is to find out more about his motivations to leave Germany for Brazil, which he never mentioned in his book, and to find out more about his life and descendants in South America. Secondly, it is also an attempt to connect with other stories of emigration and immigration during history – not least due to contemporary political debates.
The first post of Rudolf’s journey gives you a glimpse into his background as well as the political and social situation in 1909. It is now over 110 years ago when this story sets in. It was a time of Imperialism and Colonialism that determined the political landscape in Europe. Wilhelm II. was Emperor of the German Empire, which had a constitutional monarchy since its foundation in 1871. The industrialization during the 19th century led to a massive expansion of urban areas, meaning large parts of the rural population moved to the cities to work in the new factories. With these developments, not only an optimism towards technology and the future grew but also unsanitary conditions and the spread of infectious diseases among the dense impoverished living city inhabitants. Despite public health measures, the latter conditions were one of the reasons why some (unemployed) Europeans were attracted to the calling of the former colonial states, such as the USA and Brazil, for skilled workers, promising a fresh start and their own piece of land. These general circumstances explain the waves of emigrations of the 19th and early 20th century from Europe to the New World. It was the spirit of being a pioneer, the adventure, and the hope of a better life that was decisive for many people to scrape their last savings together and buy a ticket of the recently invented steamships on their routes to the Americas.
If these reasons applied to Rudolf’s decision to leave Europe, the journal does not give any information. As far as my research into my family history shows, Rudolf was probably born in 1891 as a son of Ernst Max Seifert and Auguste Anna Seifert, born Täubner, in Chemnitz (Saxony). His father worked as a carpenter, and around 1900, according to the historic address books, they moved to the flourishing city of Leipzig. My greataunt, whose mother was the sister of Rudolf, remembers that she told her that either he or his brother Hans was a photographer, and one of them died young in Brazil due to an infectious disease. So, little is known about their motivation to leave Leipzig in 1909 and about their life in Brazil. This blog series will, however, reconstruct their trip with the help of digitalized sources from Brazil and Germany that offered surprising insights beyond Rudolf’s diary.
As a source, the travel journal has many limitations regarding its ability to grant insight into the everyday life of Rudolf. First of all, it becomes clear after a few pages that he wrote his account after the actual journey. During the text, he always switches into the past tense, refers to future events, and his handwriting is constant in quality and color. Therefore, we can only assume whether he wrote this diary from his memory or if he made some notes already during his trip. The latter seems more likely, as he gave attention to many details, which – especially for me as a historian – makes it even more exciting and offers many opportunities to dig into the contemporary world of Rudolf Seifert.
Another limitation comes with his statement on the last page of this journal:
I have to make a final remark.
Every reader of this, I want to ask to grant me the biggest excuse in regards to bad handwriting, orthographic mistakes, and if here and there I went a bit over the top, meaning in case I violated good manners; but even if some appears implausible, it is the naked truth, not too much and not too little.Rudolf Seifert, Meine Reise nach Brasilien als Emigrant, 1909
Here it seems that Rudolf at least assumed that his diary will not be kept secret and will be shared with other people. Despite his statement that he might have violated “good manners”, writing a journal with having an audience in mind will make you carefully select the ways of how you present yourself and which events you will share with others. Subsequently, his account is only one side of the story – and probably more like an Instagram profile than revealing his real feelings and experiences every step of the way.
Nevertheless, Rudolf’s travel journal still has much to offer, and I am looking forward to writing about his journey in the next weeks.