An Oneida County citizen shows the strength of immigrants
In the basement of Uwe and Cathy Wiechering’s home, there is a large cloth-covered object, tucked away behind some storage shelves. Its form is indeterminable, with strange angles and bits poking the cloth out in every direction.
Underneath the off-white cloth is a high-tech contraption; all metal plates, tubes and wiring.
It’s an industrial soldering machine—not the usual fare for basements in Northern Wisconsin.
“This is the most important part,” said Uwe, pointing out a small metal component, which he went on to describe as a Swiss fuel cell.
Uwe sells the fuel cells as part of his “electronic representation business,” a self-run venture where he promotes and sells tech parts for industrial machinery.
A career in technology came out of a background in electrical engineering, spurred on by early experiences working on Geiger-Müller tubes and assembling skulls from India at a business in Chicago during high school.
But Uwe’s background goes deeper than developing an interest in science.
At first glance, Uwe doesn’t seem that much different than most men in the Northwoods.
A white, middle-class guy living out in the woods who enjoys spending time at his cabin on the lake.
It’s the accent that gives him away. Not difficult to understand, you almost don’t notice it at first. There’s just a hint of something exotic underneath layers of recognizable Midwestern affectations.
A bit of Chicago, a bit of Wisconsin, and then something else.
Uwe (pronounced ooh-va) was born in Berlin, Germany in 1939, the year many sources consider the start of World War II. And after 61 years in the U.S., an undercurrent of German still sways his speech.
He and his family lived in Germany for 14 years, through British and Russian bombings, through the fall of the Iron Curtain, and for a time lived under the yoke of Russian occupation.
Seventy-five years, a long and colorful life later, and Uwe has more stories than he has time to tell them.
There was the year he spent living at a family friend’s house north of Berlin, and a smoking bomber plane barely cleared the farmhouse he watched from, crash landing a hundred yards away.
There was his walk to school after the Russian occupation, when he had to weave his way between bombs that had misfired and lay, dormant, along his path. And there was the time, as a child, that an airstrike bombed his backyard, knocking out all the windows of his house and blowing off the tile roof.
“We moved a lot, when they started bombing the civilian areas,” Uwe said. “Our house, in one of the first British air raids, we took a direct hit in the backyard, of a large enough bomb that it took out a pear tree I remember, and it left a 20, 30 foot crater.”
After the war’s genesis Uwe and his family spent most of their time outside of Berlin, in nearby towns or up by the North Sea. The family was lucky to have the resources to get out, but they, like many others, still relied on donations of things like children’s clothes, things they had to leave behind.
Uwe went to nine schools in nine years during that time, just one result of the disruptive impact war had on civilian life.
He said when he and his father fled Berlin, taking nothing but a bicycle strapped with gear and whatever they could carry, Russian fighters would cruise overhead, strafing the roadway with machine-gun fire.
“When you heard these Russian fighters come down the road, you drop whatever you had, wait in the ditches–—and I did with my father-—and they strafed the road, when they were gone you got back out, picked up what you had. He picked up the bicycle, I remember he checked the bicycle, no bullet holes, we kept on going,” Uwe said.
His father was a dental surgeon and former army pilot. Uwe said his family was lucky, as his father’s position gave them many advantages, helping them to survive.
“My father, at that time, he was a dental surgeon, he was assigned to an air force hospital outside of Berlin. He kept an eye on us, and obviously took care of us, and we made it through the Second World War,” Uwe said. “But by the same token, if they ever would have found out that he left his post at the hospital, he would have been shot.”
Throughout the war his father worked on soldiers, including American, a service that eventually paid off, as connections made through that work allowed the family to come to the U.S..
Doctors and surgeons were highly sought after in wartime, but that didn’t stop his father from accidentally ending up in a concentration camp for three days because of a translation error when he was treating Russian soldiers.
It’s stories like this that Uwe and his family have lived.
Such a childhood as Uwe had leaves little surprise in his family’s decision to come to America, though in truth it wasn’t even their first choice.
And now, years later, the 14-year-old German boy who spoke only a little English when he started high school in Chicago is a highly productive member of the Northwoods community.
With the current interest in immigration reform, it’s people like Uwe who add another layer to the discussion.
“There’s so much,” Uwe said. “So many stories… We were lucky.”