Courtesy Catholic Charities
In 1955, Rosalia Redelsperger, then Rosalia Plechl (front left), resettled in Oregon as part of one of the first refugee families welcomed by Catholic Relief Services Refugee Resettlement program.

Courtesy Catholic Charities

In 1955, Rosalia Redelsperger, then Rosalia Plechl (front left), resettled in Oregon as part of one of the first refugee families welcomed by Catholic Relief Services Refugee Resettlement program.

Rosalia Redelsperger doesn’t remember a lot about living in Yugoslavia. Mostly she remembers leaving it in 1944.

The then-8-year-old Rosi Plechl and her family were awoken in the middle of the night and told to prepare their things. The German army would be escorting them out of the country at 9 a.m. It was October and the Yugoslav Partisans were taking back German-occupied territory. Germans who had settled in the country for hundreds of years were told to get out. More than 7,000 ethnic Germans were shot by Partisans, more than 48,000 died in Yugoslav concentration camps, and nearly 2,000 were abducted and sent to Soviet labor camps.

Fleeing the camps

Tensions were rising even in the farming town where the Plechl family lived. One of Redelsperger’s sisters, Anna, ended up with a scar on her leg from a ricocheting bullet. It was the same bullet fired by local Partisans to kill her friend, a German soldier.

As they prepared their things, every bank was closed, and the family had no money for their journey. They had to flee their home, leaving all their possessions behind.

“We didn’t know we were going to stay away forever,” says Redelsperger. But she’s never returned. By November of 1944, all property belonging to ethnic Germans was confiscated and their citizenship revoked. They were deemed enemies of the state.

For more than two weeks, Redelsperger’s family rode through the rain in a horse-drawn wagon destined to take them to Austria. They slept on sidewalks and in barns. 

After 10 years in Austria, they were invited to make a home in the United States as refugees. In 1955, Redelsperger, her parents, Johann and Josephine, her brother, Johann Jr., her sister Anna and Anna’s young children, Peter and Franziska, were one of the initial refugee families welcomed to Oregon as part of Catholic Relief Service’s refugee resettlement program.

The Oregon program, now run by Catholic Charities of Oregon, has welcomed thousands of refugees since 1945.

Redelsperger’s story is not unlike other refugee stories. They share commonalities: war, persecution, torture, fear.

A hope for safety, welcome

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie, director of the Catholic Charities of Oregon refugee resettlement program, and her team greet every refugee entering through their program at the airport with a bottle of water and a culturally specific hot meal. The team finds the arriving person or family a place to live and ensures they have enough groceries to last a week. Twice a week for a month, the refugees attend classes that cover how to live in America, including everything from household safety to U.S. laws.

“Everybody just wants a home and wants to be safe,” says Soneoulay-Gillespie.

Despite being a teenager reluctant to make a new home in the United States, Redelsperger learned English and became a citizen. The 81-year-old Salem resident is a member of Queen of Peace Parish.

“I wouldn’t trade this country for anything now,” she says.