A wonderful life
Berthoud woman recalls voyage to America after WWII
By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer
Everdina “Diny” Pickert has had a wonderful life in America. But it was a life that she came to reluctantly.
In 1954, a then 16-year-old Diny Gerkin didn’t want to come to America. Diny heard stories of streets paved of gold in America, but she didn’t want to leave Amsterdam, Holland. She didn’t want to leave her friends, her school, or swim club. However, post-war Europe was in shambles and her family was going to the Promised Land. Diny’s parents were lucky enough to have a sponsor in America and they were going whether Diny liked it or not.
On Aug. 18, 2014, Everdina “Diny” Pickert, of Berthoud, celebrated her 60th anniversary of immigrating to America. She’s been reluctant to tell her story, not wanting to draw attention to herself, but her husband, Brad Pickert, encouraged her to tell it–finally.
“I do feel good about telling the story now, because the United States has been so good to me,” she said.
World War II was tough on the Gerkin family as it was on hundreds of thousands of families across Europe. The Gerkins lived in Amsterdam and Diny’s father was part of a seldom-told war story. The Nazis put him, along with thousands of other able-bodied Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Belgians and Luxembourgians, in concentration camps where they worked as slave labor.
Diny’s father was in an ammunition concentration plant in Germany for more than two years. His family never heard from him and had no idea where he was until he appeared on their doorstep in the winter of 1944. He and a fellow prisoner made a daring escape; they spent three months making the short trip from Germany to Holland, taking cover under bridges during the day and only traveling at night. The family had to hide Diny’s father until the end of the war when Holland gained back its independence in May 1944.
With his brother willing to sponsor the family, Diny’s father chose to take the family to the United States. Back then, immigrants couldn’t enter the United States without a sponsor. The process took several years, but finally in the summer of 1954 the Girkin family boarded a boat with 1,700 other souls headed for the United State of America.
“It was not a cruise,” Diny recalled. “You got fed three meals a day, but there was no entertainment. The facilities were kind of primitive.”
As they neared their destination–Ellis Island–the captain announced one evening that if folks wished to see the Statue of Liberty they should be on deck at 5 a.m. the next morning.
“Well, almost all of us were there,” said Diny. “And you’ve never seen a more solemn and respectful crowd. I still get emotional about it. Seeing that statue was kind of a turning point for me. I hadn’t wanted to come, but this was my first inkling that maybe this was going to be good. Maybe this was a much brighter future for us.”
Once they arrived at Ellis Island, the family was guided into what Diny recalled as a huge warehouse with lots of tired workers. It was Aug. 18, 1954. The Gerkins were one of the last immigrant families to be processed at Ellis Island, as it was slated for closure later that year.
The agents at Ellis Island change every single one of the Gerkin family’s first
names. Diny’s mother was Frauke, but the agent changed it to Francis. Her father, Johann, became John, and her older brother, Christiaan, became Christian. During his military service a number of years later, he was able to change the spelling back to Christiaan.
These unexpected name changes caused headaches for Diny’s parents when they tried to access money in their Dutch bank accounts, a problem many immigrants likely dealt with for months or even years after their arrival in the United States.
At Ellis Island, Everdina “Diny” Anna Marie Gerkin became Diane, but only for a moment.
“I thought to myself, ‘Diane? I already have a cousin in America named Diane. I don’t want to be Diane,’” Diny said. “So I crossed it off and wrote in Everdina.”
This would not be the last time her stubbornness helped Everdina in life.
And what a life it’s been.
While Pickert admits that her first few weeks in the United States were tough, and if she’d been closer to the ocean she may have tried to swim back, things got better. The family had settled in a small community in the southern part of New York state and on the good advice of her uncle, the family’s sponsor, she enrolled in high school.
“That was the best thing that ever could have happened to me because I met the love of my life in high school and we’ve been together for 59 years,” Diny said with a big smile.
The boy who stole her heart was Brad Pickert. He was a few years ahead of her in school and they became friends. She fell in love quickly, mainly because not only was he a handsome dairy farmer and football player who was involved in almost everything at the school, but he never laughed at her accent or her “funny” ways.
Many English words sound the same and sometimes Diny confused them. Once, a fellow student asked her if she was a freshman.
“I thought she’d asked whether I was a Frenchman,” Diny recalled. “So even as short as I am, I puffed myself up and said, ‘No! I’m a Dutchman!’ The other girls roared with laughter.”
Diny usually laughed along with them, but it still hurt on the inside.
“Brad never, ever laughed at me. People would laugh because I mispronounced a word or I made a really strange sentence formation or something like that, but Brad never laughed,” Diny said. “He would just correct me. That’s why I loved him to pieces.”
Once Brad graduated high school, he entered Cornell University. When he was finished he asked Diny, who was now graduated herself, to marry him and she accepted.
Five years after being processed through Ellis Island, Diny was married and pregnant with the couple’s first child and ready to take the oath of citizenship. Back then, immigrants had to wait five years before taking the oath.
Since then, Diny’s life has had its ups and downs, and there’s been a lot of hard work throughout the years. She’s also battled cancer, twice. First, she was diagnosed and beat pancreatic cancer, and then went through chemo again for a spot found on her lungs. But through it all, she’s kept a smile on her face and gratefulness in her heart.
“There are lots of place in this world that don’t have all these freedoms, privileges and opportunities that we have,” Diny said. “People don’t realize what’s available to them here if they will just work for it.”
Her wonderful life now includes four children, many grandchildren and even great grandchildren. The Pickert family owned a dairy in New York State before buying a dairy in Berthoud, the same dairy that they own and operate today–33 years later. In fact, it remains a family-run operation of which–just recently–welcomed the third generation of Pickerts.
Life has been wonderful for Everdina “Diny” Anna Marie Pickert since that late August day in 1959 when she became a citizen of the United States. Being a citizen is something that she still takes extremely seriously. And, she has never missed a state or national election since taking the oath of citizenship.
“I celebrate that date too, because it’s the nicest thing that has ever happened to me,” she said. “We stood before the judge and that day I cried. I still get emotional because that was such a beginning for me. The beginning of this wonderful life I’ve had in America.”
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