By Gordon D. Fiedler Jr.

The Salina Journal

With Christmas approaching and fighting heating up overseas, Joseph Hrabe Sr. felt compelled to write a letter to the editor of his local newspaper reminding readers to be grateful for their bounty.

In the letter, dated Dec. 9, Hrabe wrote: "We have a great deal to be thankful for this year, my dear friends. Let there be no feeling of envy, or of greed, or of wishing that we had received more presents than we perhaps did. Let us in this dreadful time be thankful that we are not robbed of our brothers, our fathers, or of our homes. Be thankful that we are living here far from all that horrible bloodshed."

One could easily assume Hrabe was referring to fighting in the Middle East, or in Afghanistan, or to the other hotspots where the U.S. military is daily in harm's way.

But no, Hrabe penned his holiday missive in early December 1914.

The "Great War" had commenced five months earlier. By December, nearly all of Europe was engulfed in the conflict. America was less than 30 months away from entering the war but already was beginning to strengthen its military. Still, it might have appeared to U.S. residents, including Hrabe, that the country could stay out of the fight yet feel compassion for those caught up in the struggle.

"If we just have our home and something to eat on Christmas Day, will this not be enough for us to raise our eyes with a smile on our lips, to our Master in Thanksgiving, that we are more fortunate than our poor brothers and sisters across the sea who will not know the word 'Merry' this year."

A Czech immigrant

Hrabe, who lived in Rooks County, had every reason to be concerned about "our poor brothers and sisters across the sea."

In 1861, at age 13, Hrabe left his native Prague, Czechoslovakia, and stowed away on an American-bound steamer.

According to great-granddaughter DeVona Harding, of Salina, the youngster was quickly discovered by the crew and, instead of being chucked overboard, was put to work to earn his passage.

He was befriended by a Chicagoan, either a passenger on the ship or a caring savior waiting dockside -- Harding doesn't know which -- who took the lad home and taught him the tailoring business.

Harding said Hrabe's parents and siblings immigrated in 1865 and settled in Washington County, Iowa, where the budding tailor replaced his needle and thread with farm implements.

He married in 1871 and moved to Omaha, Neb., where he went back into the clothing trade in the employ of Julius H. Stein Co. Five years later, they moved to Cuba, Kan., already home to many central Europeans.

Settled in Rooks County

Finally, he took his growing family to Rooks County in 1888, where he farmed a half section in Greenfield Township.

Harding learned much about her ancestor from information compiled by Delmar Hrabe in 1988 and distributed at one of the biennial family reunions.

"He gave out a little booklet about the Hrabe family," she said. "He had this letter in the booklet."

She decided to bring it to light on its centennial.

"My gosh, I couldn't believe what a wonderful writer he was, the words he used, the expressions," she said.

Words still pertinent

A hundred years on, Hrabe's words still resonate: "We cannot turn a deaf ear to the sufferings of others. If we were all to do so, they would fare pretty slim."

Here is the letter in its entirety:

"Merry Christmas to all My Friends:

"In saying this to you dear friends, it makes me think of how few on the other side of the Atlantic will be merry. They will recall the Christmases gone by when they had all their dear ones by their side. We can just wish our poor unfortunate brothers and sisters, across the mighty ocean, a good Christmas, with plenty of good things to eat and prayers of that glad tidings of the angels at the birth of our Savior, 'Peace on earth, good will towards men.'

"We have a great deal to be thankful for this year, my dear friends. Let there be no feeling of envy, or of greed, or of wishing that we had received more presents than we perhaps did. Let us in this dreadful time be thankful that we are not robbed of our brothers, our fathers, or of our homes. Be thankful that we are living here far from all that horrible bloodshed.

"If we just have our home and something to eat on Christmas Day, will this not be enough for us to raise our eyes with a smile on our lips, to our Master in Thanksgiving, that we are more fortunate than our poor brothers and sisters across the sea, who will not know the word 'Merry' this year.

"It will be the greatest wrong you can commit to complain of being forgotten this year. You will stop to think how much suffering there is in the world just at present. We shall be thankful dear friends for the smallest blessing that we may receive this Christmas Day. For whatever it might be, it will be more than will come to the unfortunates.

"I am sure that not one of us this year will forget to be thankful that we are in our own peaceful country and to let us remember to help lessen the troubles of those on the other side by giving or making a few things that can be used by the women or children. We cannot turn a deaf ear to the sufferings of others. If we were all to do so, they would fare pretty slim. So I trust all my dear friends and all people will spend a pleasant and prosperous Christmas and a happy new year, 1915. Yours respectively, Joseph Hrabe Sr."

(c)2014 The Salina Journal