8 Questions with St. Louis Genealogical Society: The Largest Local Genealogical Society in the USA

When our ancestors set off for America searching for a better life,  they often didn’t know what to expect or even where they would end up. While many stayed near the East Coast, others, the German and Irish in particular, chose to travel inland and make lives for themselves in St. Louis, Missouri. After all, the city and surrounding area offered the Mississippi River for trade, forests for hunting,  land for farming and even hills for wineries.  While I am lucky in knowing who my ancestors were and where they came from (From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story), there are many Americans who remain extremely curious about their family history.

This is where St. Louis Genealogical Society comes in. Founded in 1968, StLGS has been guiding people around the world in their genealogical searches for almost 50 years. Below, they offer you some of their very own genealogical expertise and tricks of the trade to help you with your own family search:

The St. Louis Riverfront, 1840

1. What is something most people don’t know about genealogical research?

Most people don’t know that only 10% (or even less!) of existing genealogical records are available on the internet. There are many more records available at churches, libraries, court houses, archives and other such places. So it’s very important not to limit your search to the online world!

2. What is the best advice you could give family historians?

The best advice we can give is to start at the very beginning. By this, we mean that you should confirm your ancestors in America before trying to find your ancestors in their home country hundreds of years ago. Have proof of each generation, starting with your grandparents, then  your great-grandparents, and so on. Many people make the mistake of being too excited and trying to locate their great-great-great-grandfather in Germany as their very first step. However, as there were many similar names throughout history, this can lead to researching the  completely wrong person!

Other advice is to research more than only your direct line. It is amazing how many clues you can find from documents related to siblings and aunts and uncles. Town names, parents’ names, etc. can appear in documents where your direct ancestor may not even be mentioned.

3. What is the best advice you can give family historians who are more experienced in genealogical research?

Review, review, review.  When you started out years ago, you didn’t have the experience you have now. Therefore, it is very beneficial to go back and check your work that you did when you began your family history search. You may have missed something important – a vital clue that could help you unlock a mystery of the past. Confirmation of all your research is also incredibly important.

Making a chronological timeline of everything is another piece of advice we find helpful. It helps to organize your information in a clear and concise way.

4. Can you tell us anything about German genealogy in particular?

Most of the German church books date back to the Reformation (16th century). Prior to the Reformation, there was no need to record names in church books, as everyone was the same religion and  belonged to the parish no matter what. After the Reformation, people were both Protestant and Catholic, so it was necessary to record which people belonged to which church.

5. What are the oldest records available in St. Louis?

As St. Louis was founded in 1764, most of the records begin in 1765.


Records, Records and More Records Available at StLGS

6. What do you think is one of the most challenging aspects of genealogy? How can genealogical societies help family historians with this?

As we stated above, patience seems to be one of the most challenging aspects of genealogy. People are anxious to find ancestors from hundreds of years ago, but this can lead to errors if the more recent ancestors aren’t confirmed first. Genealogical societies can guide people throughout this process and help them find out where and how to locate important documents.

7. What has been one of the most rewarding moments for you at StlGS?

St. Louis Genealogical Society hosted the National Conference last year. We had over 3,000 attendees and 110 volunteers. It was a great week, complete with many workshops and events.

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8. And finally, do you have anything you would like to add about St. Louis Genealogical Society in particular?

St. Louis Genealogical Society is the largest local county-level volunteer-run genealogy society in the US. We have approximately 100 regular volunteers, many of whom come in on a weekly basis to help index, scan and more. We also have about 2,000 members worldwide. We are currently working on our congregation project, collecting records from 1,000+ churches in the St. Louis area in order to place them online for our members. We also work together with the St. Louis County Library and offer free monthly genealogy lectures there,  as well as free classes for our members at our office.


“The Ballroom”, where St. Louis Genealogy Society volunteers are hard at work.

So whether you are delving into the depths of your own Missouri ancestors or are simply interested in the history of the city, the St. Louis Genealogical Society is definitely worth a trip. And if your ancestors never set foot in Missouri, these tips and tricks of the trade from the St. Louis genealogy experts can be applied to ancestry searches all over the world. From all of us, best of luck in your genealogy search!


* For those researching their German ancestry,  StlGS and the St. Louis County Library are offering a discussion meeting on “Missouri’s German Heritage”, led by Dorris Keevin-Franke, on Saturday, July 9, at 10 a.m. in the auditorium at St. Louis County Library Headquarters.

* St. Louis Genealogical Society is open Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.  See their website for contact information.

Image Credit:

St. Louis Photo: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/look-back/look-back-cholera-epidemic-firestorm-afflict-st-louis-in/article_444e5a39-e350-5800-9697-94cdab955cd5.html

All other images are my own.

Our Time Now: Lives in the History of Time

When I was younger,  I used to love reading books about someone from the past ending up in our modern world (to be honest, I still do – Er ist wieder da, or ‘Look Who’s Back’ in English, is an entertaining German book about this very occurrence). I would laugh at the amazement of these old-fashioned people as they spotted cars, planes, microwaves, etc. for the very first time, all the while secretly thinking of us, the people of the late 20th/early 21st century, as “better” than the outdated, technologically-ignorant people of the past. Nothing malicious by any means, just a subtle sense of superiority at being born in a world where it’s normal to fly to a different country at the drop of a hat, to find information instantly on the internet, and so on. I think we all can relate to thoughts such as “I can’t believe they didn’t know [fill in the blank here] back then.”


However, through translating historical letters and documents from as far back as 1645, you start to think of these people as actual people like you and me, and not just as outdated ancestors who would be amazed at being able to get a car ride at the click of a phone button (although they probably would be). One letter that really stuck out to me was a letter from 1923. In it, an older man is writing to his sister in America. He writes,

I am currently healthy, but occasionally weak. At times it’s better, at times worse. I do get out of bed most days, now and then I lay in bed for a few days. I’m mostly still well, but I’m already 80 years old. On February 4, if I live that long, I will be 81. 

And then again in 1926:

Dear sister…I’ve often thought that things will come to an end, but then I get better again. Our lives last 70 years and if they are long, then 80 years. I am now 83, my last hour will also come and I will be released from my suffering.

Although there is nothing particularly shocking about these letters, I was touched by the  utter normality of them. Here was a man who was 80 in 1923. That means he was born in 1843 – almost 200 years ago. But if you took these excerpts out of context, they could have been written by any 80 year-old today, almost 100 years later, contemplating mortality just as humans have done for centuries.

Going even further back, to letters from Germany to America in the 1860s, I was also impressed by how “normal” the people seem.

We just had many visitors from the city. Everyone says to tell you hello. I didn’t recognize Mrs. S and I wouldn’t have recognized Mrs. N if I didn’t know her face, she’s changed so much, but not to her advantage. She invited us to visit her next year and to stay with her because they live alone in that big house; she also brought us a ring cake.


Again, this letter was written over 150 years ago. But the sentiments could have been written by you or me (although perhaps we would be a little nicer and not talk about people’s looks changing for the worse!)

And then finally, going all the way back to 1645 – although I haven’t translated any letters from the time period, I worked with a certificate discussing a man named Michael:

1645 Death Cert

Michael F., a fisher and farmer…, temporary resident here, was born [about] 50 years ago in Weckrieden as the legitimate child of [Christian] parents, accepted by God through baptism, later employed as a farmer…Approximately 19 years ago, he got married…Through God’s grace, three children followed…

This certificate is almost 400 years old. 400! And though the wording of such documents may have changed slightly, the facts remain the same. A man lived, worked, got married and had children. Just as we do today.

So what am I trying to say? It’s a hard feeling to describe, and I’m not exactly sure myself. I think it’s more the realization that our lives are just a brief blip in the expansive history of time.  In the above documents, one man got to experience the world in the late 19th-early 20th century, another lady in the mid-19th century, and Michael all the way back in the 1600s. But now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it’s our time. Our time, which was once the future, and will soon become the past.  So let’s make the most of it.


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Becoming a Piece of Cake: The Most Common English Mistakes for German Speakers

“That was one of the most senseful lessons we’ve ever had, thank you!”

Despite my student’s Denglisch use of the word “senseful” (coming from “sinnvoll”), this compliment after one of my  English lessons in Austria meant a great deal to me.  What was the lesson? Well, after three years of hearing German-speaking students and teachers alike making the same mistakes in English over and over again, I decided to spend an hour letting them know what these common mistakes were, as well as the correct way to say the phrase in English. Below, I’ve summarized some of these (sometimes rather funny) mistakes for you, in hopes that they will help you in your English teaching or English speaking endeavors, or simply provide you with a little chuckle if you are neither an English teacher nor an English student. And if you would like English or German lessons of your own, don’t hesitate to contact me here.

1. “I drove with the bus.”  (or with the bike, the train, etc.). In German, you would say “Ich bin mit dem Bus gefahren” which literally translates to “I drove with the bus.” However, in English, if you drive with the bus, it sounds like you are driving your car and the bus is sitting in your passenger seat, perhaps ever so kindly helping you to find your destination. The correct English translation for this phrase is “I took the bus.”  If you “drove with the train”, it becomes “I took the train” whereas if you “drove with your bike”, we say “I ride my bike.”


2. “I’ll eat the menu.” If you say this in America or England, you may get some strange looks from your fellow diners, as wanting to eat the cardboard or plastic list of food available (Speisekarte) is rather strange in our countries. Confused? In English, the menu is not the cheaper option of the day, as Menü is in German. While it may not always be cheaper in America, the word for food  that is only there for that day is the special. 


3. “We made a party on Friday.” Even though the German is “Party machen” , in English, the literal translation “to make a party” sounds like you built a party out of paper and glue. The correct English phrase is “to have a party.”


4. “She’s going to get a baby in January.” I think this is my favorite mistake of all. Even though the German literally translates to the above phrase (Sie bekommt im Januar ein Kind), if you say “getting a baby” in English, it sounds like you are going to go to the store, find a nice baby sitting on the shelf, and buy it (after checking out all the available babies, of course). Therefore, if you don’t want to sound like you’re in the baby-buying business, use the English phrase “She is going to have a baby.” (Getting a baby can be used in cases of adoption, however.)                                                                                                                                                            tumblr_inline_nzkknm5ctC1tikv62_1280

5. “I have to do my homework until Monday.” This mistake is made by foreign English teachers and students alike. As you don’t differentiate between the words “until” and “by” in German (both translated with the word “bis”), this is a very common mistake. What’s the difference in English? “By” is used when you are talking about a deadline (I have to do my homework by Monday) and “until” means that you start doing something now and don’t stop until that point (If today is Thursday, I have to do my homework until Monday – meaning five days of doing homework non-stop!). Not the most fun way to spend a weekend.


6. “I started playing tennis with ten years.” Here, it sounds like “ten years” is the name of a nice little friend of yours, although “Ten Years” would be a rather strange name for both an American and a German. Even though you use the phrase “mit zehn Jahren” in German, in English we say “when I was ten.”juniorcartoon7. “I have studied English since seven years.” What’s wrong with this phrase? Present perfect tense is error-free, so you should be good to go, right? Almost, but not quite. Here, the good old word “since” is giving you away as a non-native speaker. Even though you always use “seit” in German, there are two translations for this word in English (as you can see, with two words for “bis” and two words for “seit”, it’s no wonder English has almost 40,000 more words than German)*. “For” is used when you are talking about a period/length of time (for seven years), while “since” is used with a specific point of time in the past (I have studied English since 2007. I have been in Germany since Monday).


8. “I had dinner at my aunt’s house and I became a piece of cake.” In English, you do not want to simply become a piece of cake while eating a nice meal with your family. This would likely disturb the evening your aunt had planned. The English phrase “to become a piece of cake” does not mean that you received (bekommen) a piece of cake, but rather that you turned into one (du bist ein Stück Kuchen geworden!). Not the most ideal situation if you are sitting with your loved ones and all the sudden they want to eat you. Here, English speakers would say “I got/received a piece of cake.”


9. “I learned for my test.” What’s wrong with this phrase? In German, you would say “Ich habe für die Prüfung gelernt.” But in English, you can’t say “learn here” – you need to say “study”. “Learn” is used when you receive new information (I learned that Americans celebrate Christmas on December 25. I learned that London is the capital of England), while “study” is when you prepare for a test or a quiz.


10. “I sink we are going to play the wiolin.” Last but not least, pronunciation is key in English. However, it can be quite tricky for those who didn’t grow up speaking the language themselves. The two hardest sounds for German-speakers seem to be “th” and “v” vs. “w”. As you can see from this video, “th” pronunciation is important – after all, you don’t want your friends to drown! A good trick to saying the “th” is making sure your tongue is sticking out of your mouth, all the way between your teeth. Don’t be shy, stick that tongue out! For more practice, check out this site. As for the “v” vs. “w”, this is another very important sound distinction in the English language. English speakers may find it funny if you say “I live in a small willage” instead of “I l live in a small village.” What’s the difference? The “v” is the sound you have in German, pronounced in “Wasser”, “Wien”, etc. For this sound, your teeth actually touch your top lip, making a vibrating sound come out of your mouth. With the English “w”, on the other hand”, the teeth do not ever touch the lips. Here is a great video explaining the difference between the two sounds.


And there you have it!  Next time you speak English, if you don’t want to eat a menu or become a piece of cake, pay attention to these common mistakes and you will be well on your way to perfecting your English. And if you would like my help with your English or German language goals, write me an e-mail here – I’d love to work with you.


*Based on the number of words in the dictionary.

Image Credit:

Youtube: Learn transport – TAXI SCHOOL BUS LIMUZIN TRAIN TRAM – Vehicles – Cars and Trucks Carskids TV










Ten *More* Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

If you have ever delved into the exciting world of German family history, it is very likely that you have come across the elusive-yet-beautiful old German script. Almost like another language in itself, Kurrentschrift is a form of writing (based on late-medieval cursive) that was used in Germany and Austria until the mid-20th century. In my previous post, Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discussed ten basic steps for working with old German documents. While I still recommend hiring a professional for the best results (contact me here-I’d love to work with you), below are ten even more detailed tips to help you unlock the mystery of the old German script:

1. Get hip with the lingo. Letter writers of the past often used the same phrases over and over in writing, just as we do in English today (“Thank you for your e-mail”, “Attached please find”,  etc.). Being familiar with these common phrases helps in transcribing the old handwriting, as it allows you to better recognize the rest of the sentence. Some phrases that you might find in historical German letters include:

Ich habe deinen Brief erhalten/bekommen. I received your letter.
Seid herzlich gegrüßt. Literally: Be greeted affectionately.

English: We send you our warm regards.

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. A German Saying: “What God does is well done”
Vielen herzlichen Dank. Many warm/heartfelt thanks.
Wir sind alle gesund. We are all healthy.

As discussed in the first post, abbreviations also appear frequently in old German documents. The most common abbreviations include: “d.”, meaning “den” (the) before a date, as in “d. 2te February (the second of February), “u.” for “und” (and), and “geb.” for “geboren”, meaning “nèe.” The meanings of other abbreviations can be found using this site – although if you don’t speak German, have a dictionary handy!

 2. Master the tiny details of the letters.  In Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discussed the minute differences between “e”, “n” and “m”. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only letters in Kurrentschrift that look almost the same. Other examples include:

*  “N” and “St” – These two letters are very similar and are often difficult for even a professional to tell apart. If you look closely, however, you can see that the bottoms of the two letters are (or should be) different. The “N” finishes with a swoop to the right, while the “St” finishes with the crossing of the “t” itself. However, in actual documents, this can still be difficult. The 1920s example of “St” in Stunde (hour)  on the bottom also finishes with a swoop to the right and thus even more strongly resembles an N. Here, however,  you can differentiate it from an “N” in the fact that the “t” is (slightly) crossed, as opposed to the “N” in “Nachmittag” (afternoon) above.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.56.21 PM   Nachmittag
Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 3.11.59 PM   Stunden

*   “B”, “C” and “L” – If you look at the three capital letters below, you might be a little alarmed. They are incredibly similar. However, if you know the clues to look for, you will be able to tell them apart. The “C” (middle) is easy to differentiate  from the other two letters as there is no loop at the top. Just a simple stroke with a little downward hook at the top right. As for the “B” (left) and the “L” (right), the “B” is different in that it has a little straight line coming off the bottom swoop, much like our lowercase cursive b today.  Notice this line in the left word “Brief”  (letter) compared to the rather fluid finishing of the “L” on the right in the word “Liebe” (dear). “C” is not a very common letter in German, and is often only found in names, such as “Christian.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.35.44 PM
*   “v” and “w” –
These lowercase letters look similar, but are actually quite easy to tell apart. While they both have the loop on the right, the “v” only has one stroke before the loop, while the “w” has two.  Below, “v” is on the left, with a real-life example of the word “vielen” (many). “w” is center, followed by an example of the word “wird” (will). Finally, the last column shows both letters in the words “verkauft werden” (will be sold). Notice how the “w” has one more stroke before the loop than the “v” in this sample from an 1868 letter.




verkauft werden


3. Understand the importance of occupations. As we are to some extent today, our ancestors were also defined by their occupations. Therefore, on any certificate, the occupation of a person was listed  before the person’s name. For example, a certificate may read that “the farmer Johann Schmidt appeared before the undersigned registrar”, with farmer (Bauer) preceding the name of the person involved.

The level of one’s occupation was also important. Occupation levels were:

“Lehrling” – apprentice

“Geselle” – journeyman (apprenticeship complete)

“Meister” – master

These levels, if listed, always follow the name of the occupation. For example, “Schuhmachermeister” is a person who is a master shoemaker. In the examples below, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt was a Schuhmachergeselle (first handwritten word, top image) before he was a Schuhmachermeister (last handwritten word, top line of bottom image).



4. Think horse-drawn carriage driver. Speaking of occupations, many occupations that were around in the past are no longer around today. Or, if the occupation is still around today, there may have been a different word for it in the past. This website provides an A-Z list of old occupations with their modern-day German translation. If you don’t speak German, you can find the old-fashioned occupation of your ancestor in the left column, and then use a dictionary to translate one of the modern day names in the right column. In my experience, the most common occupation for women seems to have been “Näherin” (seamstress), while the most common occupation for men seems to have been “Bauer” (farmer). Edna M. Bentz’s book “If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records” has a great list of old-fashioned occupations as well.

5. Expect the unexpected. And by this, I mean that words may not be exactly as they are in the dictionary today. Just as our English speaking ancestors used words such as “thee” and “thou”, our German speaking ancestors used different words as well. If you transcribe a word and have absolutely no idea what it means, it could easily be a word no longer in use. This website offers a great German-German dictionary (started by the Grimm brothers) for old-fashioned German words.

But what if you still can’t find your word? In that case, if you are certain of your transcription, it very likely could be a spelling mistake on the part of the author. As German spelling did not become widely standardized until the end of the 19th century, words in letters and other documents were often spelled “creatively.” While this can make deciphering certain words rather difficult, it is slightly easier if you are aware of some of the more common mistakes. Below, some examples:

*  a “t” might be substituted for a “d”

*   a “g” might be substituted for a “k” or a “ch”

*   an “f” could be substituted for a “v”

bad spelling

In the above example, the author of the letter writes “ich aich noch nigt” instead of the proper German spelling “ich euch noch nicht” (part of a sentence, literally “I haven’t…you yet.”) The “eu” is consistently replaced with “ai” in this letter and the “ch” with a “g”. Once you start to notice the common mistakes an author makes, you can identify these substitutions in other words in your document.

6. Keep on an eye on those Americans. If your German ancestors were in America, they might have included English words and place names in their letters. I’ve come across “Varmer” (farmer), “Kolorata” (Colorado), “daler” (dollar), “vor schur” (for sure), and so on. So, if you cannot recognize a German word, take a step back and ask yourself if your ancestor could have been using some of their newly learned English.

7. Be street smart. The word for street in German is “Straße”, often abbreviated “Str.” If you know that a word in your document is a street, but can’t figure out which street it is, use this website to help you out. You type your ancestor’s city in “Suche im Strassenverzeichnis”, which then pulls up a map of the city and an A-Z list of street names. If you know at least some of the letters in your street name, this can help you recognize the correct transcription of the word.

8. Don’t be fooled by “normal” script. Names of people were often written in normal Latin script, just as the cursive script we use today. It is important to be aware of this fact – for example, you don’t want to see a letter “e” in a name and think that that is how an “e” is written in the rest of the document. Much the opposite – names were often signed one way, while the body of the document was written in Kurrent. This is especially true for church book registers.

In the example below, the author signs her name (Louise H) in “normal” script. You can see that there is no swoop above the “u” as in Kurrent, the “e” at the end of Louise is more like our cursive “e” than the Kurrent “e” that resembles our modern “n” and the “H” is nothing like the complicated Kurrent “H” that goes both above and below the line. However, in the rest of this document, the author would have used the Kurrent letters.

Louise H

9. Understand the system. If you know the information that should be on a document, transcribing is much easier. Luckily, certificates from most regions of Germany/Austria have similar formats, providing the same information for the people involved. Some information you can expect on birth, baptismal, marriage and death certificates include:

*  City, date

*  Person’s name, occupation, city of residency, religion

*  How the person was identified (passport, baptismal certificate, military pass, birth certificate)

*  Parents’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, if they are deceased

*  Witness’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, age

*  Signatures of those involved, witnesses and registrar


The First Page of a Marriage Certificate, Berlin 1888

10. And finally, and most importantly, know when to take a break. You’ve almost finished your transcription, but there is  still one frustrating word that you cannot figure out for the life of you. You want to persevere and finish, but my advice is: don’t. Take a break, and things will often look much clearer if you stop and come back later. I’ve experienced this a number of times: The transcription is just about finished, but that one last word is baffling me. I take a break, come back  later or even the next day, and all of the sudden, the word is perfectly clear and I wonder how I didn’t see it before.  As a linguist and not a scientist, I can’t explain how that happens, but it amazes me every time!

And that’s that! With these ten tips, in addition to the original Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, you should be well on your way to battling the handwriting of the past. And once again, if you would like a professional to translate your documents, I’d be happy to help – contact me at language@sktranslations.com.


Image Credit: All original samples have been published with the permission of the client.

All Kurrentschrift letter samples are from the Kurrentschrift wikipedia page, except for “N” and “St”, which can be found here.


My Ancestor: The First German Woman to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro

When we think of our female ancestors in the early 20th century, we may think of women sitting quietly at home, mending clothes or cooking dinner for their working husbands. This traditional lifestyle was not  for my ancestor, however – she wanted something more. Elisabeth “Tucka” Wiegand Müller, born in 1894 in Germany, was an adventurer. At forty years old, on the way to visit her brother in Japan, she happened to meet a man who offered her the chance to climb Kilimanjaro on a whim. She eagerly took it, and became the first German woman in history to make the climb (1934). Below, her firsthand account of the experience, written as a recollection in the 1970s.


Tucka, seated, surrounded by her two children (four years after the climb, 1938)

As the First German Woman on Kilimanjaro: My Memories of September 2, 1934

When I was on a trip from South Africa to Japan, I never would have dreamt that I would have had the opportunity during my short stay in East Africa for a “side trip” to Kilimanjaro. I took full advantage of the opportunity. On the ship was a young Austrian, who had just come back from a safari through Kruger National Park and told me about the two times he had climbed Kibo, the highest peak of Kilimanjaro.

After he proved to be a trustworthy man, I could not refuse his tempting offer to attempt the climb myself under his guidance. I was then housed by some Germans at a coffee plantation in Moschi, where the preparations  for the climb could be made. We had to get the keys to the mountain huts from Kibo expert Dr. Reusch, who had often climbed and explored the mountain himself. Local porters also had to be arranged and boots, pith helmets, blankets and supplies had to be ordered. Last but not least, we had to muster up our own courage.

The short rainy season had already begun. It rained so heavily the entire night before our departure that I thought the venture would fall through. But the weather was clear in the early morning, so up we went with one local guide and the four porters carrying loads on their heads.

The path first led us through the jungle – over giant fallen trees and climbing plants and creeks – onwards and upwards through the tracks of elephants. We were always prepared to run into the giants. Their droppings showed us that they had recently been in the area, but that we didn’t need to hurry and get out of there as another expedition had had to do. The monkeys in the trees left us alone, but the humid heat made the hours-long ascent exhausting. Shorts proved to be impractical and the next day we changed into long pants to protect our battered, scratched-up legs. Unfortunately, I’ve since heard the old jungle path is now overgrown and a road has been built up to the Bismarck hut.


Bismarck Hut, 1968

The first night, we stayed at the Bismarck hut,  approximately 2,800 meters high; the quality of those huts up there cannot be compared to our German-Austrian Alpine Society huts. After making us a fire and some tea, the boys rolled themselves up in their blankets in the miserable little shed. We had a mattress – or was it a straw pallet? I can no longer remember for sure, but in any case it was quite primitive.

The goal for the second day was Peters Hut (3,800 meters) – also a remnant from the German period in Africa. On our way up, in the midst of cutting winds, we passed through Alpine meadows and bogs and heath thickets that were as tall as us.

The next morning, we departed for the Kibo hut, as high as Mont Blanc. We had to bring our own water and fuel there. The gas oven smoked so much that you got tears in your eyes – we were busy the whole night turning the wick either up or down. We [thought we] would either freeze or suffocate. You couldn’t even think of sleeping and it was impossible to enjoy any food – not the stewed apricot we’d brought with us or a sip of alcohol – even sour candy induced nausea. Then we started to feel like we were getting malaria.


Kibo Hut

And that is how we set off the next morning, not exactly in the best shape, on the last leg of the journey. Would I make it to the top? Dr. Reusch had spoken of a well-trained Oxford team that hadn’t made it to the Kibo peak; there was also an upper-Bavarian guide who had said: “We will make it to the hill” but then came down with mountain sickness and couldn’t do it. Now, in any case, I wanted to attempt it, it was calling to me! The porters remained behind – they were afraid of the mountain spirit – and only the guide went with us. We only brought the bags that were absolutely necessary.

A tremendous struggle began. In the thin air, each step required a hellish effort, especially on the lava rubble. After a few steps, you would always slide back a bit – the next stone was your goal, for catching your breath, or, if possible for falling asleep (but we had constantly been warned that we absolutely could not do that). And so you picked yourself up over and over again and asked yourself what demon had made you take on such an arduous climb. That’s how it was for hours and hours, until finally we reached the edge of the crater, past Leopard’s Point where a frozen leopard was lying on the ground (he had wandered up there and died). The view from Gillman’s Point (5,935 meters) down to the glaciers of Kibo Crater is magnificent. To reach the highest point, Kaiser Wilhelm Peak – named by the first German climber Hans Meyer (1889) and now called Uhuru-Peak – across from Gillman’s Point, you have to go across the edge of the crater or through the crater. But this would have meant another descent and ascent.


Kibo Crater

With the last bit of energy, we carried ourselves up to the peak,  unable to really fully savor our success. My guide laid down and was sick. We recorded our names and dates in a book that was kept in a metal box and then gazed out at the unending horizon, quite overcome…However, we could only enjoy this view for a short time, as we were soon engulfed in clouds – a snowstorm was coming.


View from the Peak

We couldn’t put ourselves in that type of situation; we had to go back. During the descent, I had the misfortune to slip on the ice and lose my watch without noticing it right away. So I had to do without it for the entire, rather adventurous return to Mombassa, on the ship to Japan and during my time in the Far East. We made our way down the mountain, more sliding than walking. The soles of my new shoes had not withheld the strain of the ascent and flapped at every step. This of course made the descent more difficult. But then we had made it back to the Kibo hut, so that we could get all our belongings we had left behind. A terrible surprise: they had all disappeared! The rest of the trip down was like a forced march. As the steam ship I had booked was departing soon, we didn’t take any breaks at the huts as we had on the way up.

When we returned to the German brother and sister’s plantation, they knew from looking at us that we had done it, that we had achieved our goal of climbing to the top of Kibo. Our skin was in shreds, in spite of pith helmets and using protective creams . The sun below the equator and the exertion required had left their marks on us all too well.

I still have one wish: In spite of all the effort involved, to be able to go up there one more time, to once again enjoy the view that was granted to me so briefly, to experience in better circumstances that which has left an unforgettable impression on me and now shines on brightly in my memory: the view of snow-covered Kilimanjaro over the loneliness of the endless steppes.


View from Kilimanjaro

Image Credit:

Bismarck Hut: kilimanjaro.bplaced.net

Kibo Hut: kilimanjaro.bplaced.net

Kibo Crater: www.summitpost.org

View from Uhuru Peak: www.africaguide.com

View from Kilimanjaro: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293750-d459953-i37483652-Mount_Kilimanjaro-Kilimanjaro_National_Park_Kilimanjaro_Region.html

How to Survive in Austria

Moving to another country is never easy. While it is ultimately sure to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, you are bound to encounter some surprising cultural differences and bumps along the way. After writing Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting a few weeks ago, I’ve decided to resurface another ten tips, ten tips for surviving in Austria. These tips are meant to (humorously) help my fellow-Americans to deal with the slight culture shock of living in the wonderful land of Alps, schnitzel, lederhosen and schnaps: 


1. When someone asks “How are you?” say “Thank you.” And nothing else.

I’ve asked many a coworker in Salzburg how they are doing. A normal question, in my American mind. When posing this inquiry into their well-being, I expect to hear a normal “good”, “fine”, “hanging in there”, etc.  In Austria, alas, these expectations go unanswered, with a conversation going something like this:

Me: How are you, Sabine?

Sabine: Thank you.

Me: Oh. (awkward silence)

To this day, I still don’t know how many of my friends and colleagues in Austria are faring. At least they are polite.

2. Get in people’s personal space. And stay there.

Austrians stand about a half a foot closer to each other than we do in America. If you try to back away, they will just come closer again. And again. And again. So you might as well just stay there, ignoring the urge to run for the door.

3. Invite people to come to your birthday dinner with caution.

If it is your birthday in Austria,  your friends will not take you out for dinner and buy you food and drinks. Instead of treating you, the honored birthday girl or boy, showering you with free schnitzel and schnaps, the “kind friends and family” expect you to pay for them and the rest of your birthday guests. And yet Austria is one of the happiest countries in the world…


4. Never, ever go shoeless inside. 

When you go into a stranger’s house, they will expect you to take your shoes off (as they don’t want street dirt in their house – even students are required to wear slippers at school). However, they would never expect you to be entirely shoeless. At the door, most Austrians have a basket of slippers (house shoes) for this very occasion.  I sometimes went around my own apartment wearing just socks, and my Austrian roommate commented “Oh yes, I notice you do that sometimes. Interesting.”

5. Awkward silence? No problem!

Austrians don’t care about the awkward silence. Apparently this is an American thing. Many a conversation in Austria just comes to a halt and no one will say anything for a never-ending, time-standing-still minute. This usually results in me babbling in German about totally unimportant, usually embarrassing things to stop my feelings of discomfort. Which then results in another awkward silence when no one knows how to respond to what I said.

6. Open the windows. All the windows. And the colder it is outside, the better.

Austrians love fresh air. Great, who doesn’t? But they love fresh air when its -20 degrees outside with three feet of snow on the ground. No need for a warm, cozy apartment with a fire in the fireplace – the air is much too stuffy. How Americans can leave windows closed in the depths of an icy winter, they simply cannot understand.


7. Do not casually inquire about a person’s life.

In America, when we see a person we’ve lost touch with over the years, we get excited to see them and say “Hey! How’s life?” We then proceed to tell them about the main aspects of our life from the last few years. Case in point: I was at the baseball game with my Austrian now-husband. I ran into a girl who I had known at my university a few years before, and the following conversation ensued:

Me: “Hey! How’s life?!

Her: “Oh, it’s good, I just graduated. I’m going to Florida next week and will be going to grad school to be an eye doctor in the fall. How’s life for you?”

Me: “Oh, it’s good. I just got my Masters in German, am also going on vacation next week, and am moving back to Austria in August. I’m going to be teaching English there.”

Her: “Cool, good to see you!”

Me: “You too!”

I turned to my Austrian husband to see if he was ready to keep walking, only to see him standing there, shocked, with his mouth wide open. “What?” I asked. “You guys just told each other about your whole lives in two minutes.” Me: “So?” Him: “That’s really strange.”

Two months later in Austria, I saw why this was strange for him. He ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in two years. They saw each other, and said “Hi.” “Hi.” (At this point, I was all ready for the normal “How’s life?” question).

My husband: The weather’s horrible.

His friend: Yes, it is.

My husband: Well, see you later.

Friend: Bye.

Me: Um, what??? Don’t you want to know how his life is?

Husband: No, not really.

Well, ok then.

8. Greet the room.

I always thought Americans were polite, but in some ways, Austrians have got us beat. In any waiting room, be it a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office, etc., when a new person enters into the waiting area, she does not simply sit down and wait her turn, staring at her cell phone or reading a book. Instead, as soon as she enters, she greets the entire room, belting out a hearty “Grüß Gott!” (Austrian form of hello) to her fellow waiters. Everyone replies to this newcomer with their own enthused “Grüß Gott!”, happy to have the monotony of waiting broken up by a new person. And then this same phenomenon occurs again later. Instead of simply checking out and going on their way, the Austrian patient, finished with her appointment, calls out to the entire room “Auf wiederschauen” (goodbye), as if they were her own friends and she must take her leave of them. Although I find this very nice, it left me quite confused the first few times, wondering if I knew the strangers saying hello to me.


9. Know how to waltz.

Most Austrians can waltz, which I think is wonderful. However, since they all grow up learning how to dance, they think that everyone in the world has this “basic” skill. Case in point: I was once at a wedding in the countryside around Salzburg when the song “YMCA” came on. All ready to go with my groovy alphabetic arm movements, I moved on to the dance floor, only to realize that people were waltzing to this 1970’s hit! Sensing my awkwardness, a middle-age Austrian man who I had perhaps spoken to once came over to take me for his dancing partner. Mortified, I tried my best to keep up with his 1-2-3, 1-2-3 foot movements (all while not really believing I was waltzing to the YMCA song). I thought I did semi-decent job, but I was sadly mistaken. The next day, an e-mail showed up in my inbox from my Austrian dancing partner, complete with a  lengthy Youtube video outlining the proper way to waltz. Point taken.


10. Go to the grocery store prepared for battle. 

You never realize how spoiled we are in America that we have someone who bags our groceries for us. In Austria, you, and you alone, are responsible for this daunting task. Can it really be that difficult, you ask? Well, picture this. You have a week’s worth of groceries. One environmentally friendly grocery bag. There are 6 impatient real-life Austrians waiting in line behind you. The cashier then rings up your groceries at a crazy pace, faster than humanly possible. You have just finagled the oddly shaped egg carton into your bag while your other rung-up groceries are flying toward you at lightning speed, one after the other, when Josef, the friendly cashier, says “30 euro 33 cent”. You then have to STOP putting your eggs in the bag, wasting valuable time to pull your wallet out of the depths of your purse. The clock is ticking as you dig for the correct coins, and then keep trying to put the eggs and milk in the bag before Josef can give you your change. But Josef is an experienced cashier, and before you can put your milk away, he is trying to put the change in your hand. While you appreciate getting money back, you are stressed out about having to completely stop putting your fruit in the bag in order to put the coins in your wallet. Only three items out of 15 are in your bag, and the rest are still all over the counter. Without warning,  the next person’s eggs, milk, cereal, bread start flying on top of your groceries, and the Austrian behind you is coming into your personal space as they so like to do. It’s a challenge that simply can’t be overcome.

Person under crumpled pile of papers with hand holding a help sign


Now back in America, I miss Austria greatly – the mountains, the slower pace of life, the people, the food, the countless outdoor opportunities, and yes, even these little cultural differences that actually grew on me over the years (I, too, now open the windows in the winter!). Although we are different, it is our differences that make the world interesting, and visiting another country opens up our eyes to our own culture, allowing us to learn more about ourselves and the world. Vielen Dank, Austria, for all you have given me. Bis bald!


Image Credit:





Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

As anyone who has ventured into the world of German genealogy knows, the handwriting used in Germany before the second half of the 20th century is very different from the handwriting used in Germany today. This old-fashioned script, known as Kurrentschrift, was taught in German schools until 1941, when the government declared that a Latin-based font (the script we use) was to be the new form of writing in the country. While this makes communication with modern Germans much easier, the words of our ancestors nevertheless remain written in the ever-elusive script. Having worked with many such documents as a professional genealogy translator, I have learned that deciphering the old handwriting can be like learning to read another language. While I recommend hiring a professional for the best results (I would love to be of service), here are some tips for deciphering old German handwriting that I have gathered along the way:

1. Identify letters by the clues they offer. While deciphering old handwriting can feel like solving an incredibly difficult puzzle, the letters themselves often provide nice little clues for us. For example:

*   “h” has a loop both above and below the line. It is easily identifiable in the word “Tochter” (daughter) below.

h tochter

*   “u” has a little “swoop” (my non-technical term) above it and “i” has a dot above it. Word of warning: sometimes the swoop or the dot can be slightly to the right of the actual letter itself. Notice also how everyone’s “swoops” can be slightly different, as seen in the real-life example of the word “gut” (good) below.

u i Kurrentschrift, old German handwriting

*   A straight line above a letter can mean that it is an “n” or an “m” and that there should be two of them. For example, “kommen” (to come) would likely be written with one “m” with a straight line above the letter. Word of warning: Sometimes the “u-swoops” are written as straight lines. Umlauts can be written as straight lines as well.

denn es

This example reads “den es” with a straight line above the “n”, which results in “denn es” (because it).

2. Use your insider information to differentiate between the letters that are agonizingly similar. Although I’m sure the inventors of Kurrentschrift weren’t trying to cause problems for 21st-century readers, they made some of those letters very, very similar to one another. However, if you are familiar with their subtle differences, you can beat the system.

*   “e” and “n”: The “n” (left image below) is written as one unit in a single stroke, while the “e” (right image) is written with two strokes. The “n” is more jagged-looking than the “e”, while the “e” is usually written as a more narrow letter. Notice how the “e” is more narrow than the “n” in the real-life image of “denn” above.

n e

*   “n” and “m”: My trick for distinguishing between “n” and “m” in a word is to count the points at the bottom of the letter. The “n” has three total points at the bottom, while the “m” has four. This sounds obvious, but when you have a word with “en” or “em”, all these letters start to look the same. It helps me to identify the “e”, separate it off from the rest of the word with a line, and then count the points at the bottom of the next letter to see how many there are. In the example below, the word is “mein” (my). You can identify the “m” at the beginning of the word by counting the four points at the bottom and the “n” at the end by noticing the two points after the “i.”

n m mein

3 . Love your letter “S”. Although “s” can be quite tricky, as there are at least three different ways to write it, it is usually pretty easy to identify as each version is somewhat unique from the other letters in the alphabet (none of this e-n-m difficulty).


These three letters above are all “s”. The first letter shown is used at the beginning of a lowercase word or a syllable (i.e. in “schreiben” – to write). The second “s” is used at the end of a syllable/word (i.e. in “es”- it). The final is the capital “S”, used for nouns (always capital in German) and names. See the word “es” in the example of “denn es” in Tip 1.

4. Know your abbreviations. If you come across a letter or two all by themselves, it could easily be an abbreviation. This website allows you to type the German abbreviation into its search machine to see what the German word could be. A very common example in genealogical documents is “u.” for “und” (and).

5. Keep your mind in the past. By this I mean – don’t let your brain automatically read the letters as it would a modern-day document. Many of the letters in Kurrentschrift look similar to our cursive today, but are not actually the same letter. It is easy for your mind to simply read them as the letter you learned in school, but don’t give in! The most difficult for me at the beginning was constantly thinking an “e” was an “n”.

6. Play hangman. Once you have identified as many letters in a word as you can, write them out, leaving a blank for the letter(s) you don’t know. With your knowledge of the context or of the German language, see if you can figure out what the missing letters are. I also find this website, WordMine.info, very helpful. It allows you to type in either the beginning or end of the word and then provides you a list of all the possible German words with those exact beginnings or endings.


In this example, I filled in the letters I recognized one by one, until only the tricky letter at the beginning was left. It was then obvious that this word must be “Geburtsschein” or “birth certificate.

7. Forget all you know about writing rules. Punctuation? Who needs it? Writing one word on one line? Not for our ancestors! Many historical writers simply did not use periods or commas. While this usually doesn’t make handwriting transcription too difficult, the lack of line rules does. What do I mean by that? In a letter or document, a word may start on one line, and then, without a dash or any type of punctuation, simply continue onto the next line. So if the letters at the end of the line do not seem to be forming any type of word, remember to look to the next line to see if the word continues there.

8. Google, google, google. I can’t imagine translating without it. With the possibility of old fashioned words in historical documents, you may not recognize every word you come across. If you aren’t exactly sure of your transcription, try typing variations of the word into Google search to see which version most frequently appears in other texts and see if they make sense within your document and for your current transcription. The same can be true for last names. Deciphering names can be difficult because there is no context to tell you if you are right or wrong. Try typing the name you think it could be into Google and see if other examples come up. If not, you probably have a letter wrong. This website is also a great tool, showing you the frequency of a last name in the different regions of Germany.

9. Become geographically-inclined (or just use Google Maps). If you know from the context of the document that a certain word is a city or district, but aren’t sure of the exact letters, use Google or Google maps to see if you can find a city that matches your possible transcription in the area where your document is from. The Google auto-correct “Did you mean….” is often very helpful.

10. Always let the document be your guide (Jiminy Cricket’s second piece of advice).


Everyone’s handwriting is different, and a certain letter from an 1890 birth certificate may look completely different from the same letter in a World War II military record. If you are able to identify a letter in your current document, remember it, and then look for other occurrences of the same letter throughout the text. I recently translated a letter in which the “s” looked like our modern “r” (I know, I know, I said the “s’s” were easy-they usually are). Once I realized this was an “s” based on my hangman type game, I was able to easily identify other “s’s” in the document and therefore many other words.

So there you have it! As you have probably picked up, there are exceptions to every rule. Our ancestors were people too, meaning that their handwriting, level of education, vocabulary and so on varied immensely. Nevertheless, I hope that these ten tips can be a start for helping you with your old German handwriting challenges. And if you would like a professional to translate your documents, I’d be happy to help – contact me at language@sktranslations.com.


Image Credit: All Kurrentschrift letter examples, including the above image, are from the Kurrentschrift wikipedia page. All real letters are either my own or published with permission of the client. Jiminy Cricket Image: disney.wikia.com

“Our Wines Leave You Nothing to Hope For” – The Nuances of Translation

“A major difficulty in translation is that a word in one language seldom has a precise equivalent in another one.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

If you are bilingual, you know the dilemma. You could be talking to a fellow English speaker about your feelings, but that one word in Spanish just keeps popping into your head – the English phrase doesn’t describe exactly what you mean. It also works the other way around – in German, for example, there is no good equivalent for the word “awkward.” Yes, there is the word “peinlich” (embarrassing) or “unangenehm” (unpleasant), but neither of these words precisely conveys all the lovely layers and feelings that “awkward” encompasses.


As a translator, the search for that perfect word is a never-ending battle. It is also a reason why translators should always translate into their native language. Even if a person is completely fluent in the second language, the word a native speaker would use may differ from the word a non-native speaker would choose. This may be a rather extreme example, but I once heard an Austrian colleague of mine telling her English students that she would not “molest them with homework tonight” (it was a little difficult for me to keep a straight face). Yes, when looked up in the dictionary, “molest” can mean “to bother, interfere with, annoy” (dictionary.com), but for native English speakers, the word has a very different connotation.

There are multiple examples from around the world of non-native translators choosing a word that would be correct in theory, but, in the context, is just plain wrong (and therefore quite funny to native English speakers). Check out these examples below:

Bucharest Hotel: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.

Austrian Hotel: In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.

Athens Hotel: Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 A.M. daily.

Italian Cemetery: Persons are prohibited from picking flowers from any but their own graves.

Norwegian Cocktail Lounge: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.

Swiss Restaurant Menu: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.

Nairobi Restaurant: Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager.

 As you can see, all of these words and sentences are grammatically correct. However, words such as “ought”, “have children”, “alarm” and so on can have more than one meaning in English, illustrating the fact that choosing the right word for a sentence is of the utmost importance. While most fully-bilingual speakers would never make such extreme mistakes, the majority of professional translators would tell you that they only translate into their native language. After all, when dealing with someone else’s documents, it is better to be safe than sorry.









A Not-So-Modern Sound of Music Story

Everyone loves the Sound of Music (everyone besides Austrians, who, despite it being set in their own country, know absolutely nothing about the film). And what’s not to love? A handsome, widowed captain. A lovable yet spunky governess. Seven children. And a heartwarming story as that captain falls in love with the governess and they all become one big happy family. However, having watched the movie countless times, I never knew that a similar story had occurred to my very own ancestors. In this particular story, we need to go back to the tiny town of Enkirch, Germany in the mid-19th century:



My great-great-great-grandfather, Pastor Wilhelm Daniel Müller (born 1811), must have been one of the unluckiest men in marriage. In 1843, he married a young woman named Mathilde, who, after bearing him one child, died of a cold a year later. After a year had passed, Wilhelm Daniel married another woman, a widow named Philippine Amalie. However, less than a month after the wedding, Philippine also died, leaving Wilhelm Daniel alone yet again.


Wilhelm Daniel Müller

Two years later, Wilhelm Daniel decided to test his luck and get married a third time, this time to a Swiss woman named Jeanne Marie Antoinette Charlotte Fol (imagine learning to write that name as a child). With Marie, as she was known, Wilhelm Daniel had seven children, six of whom survived infancy. Although this marriage lasted much longer than the previous two, Marie died in 1863, leaving Wilhelm Daniel on his own with seven children (sensing the Sound of Music comparison coming?)


No, he didn’t go to the local convent to hire a nun, but he did need help. At this time, first-born Selma was 17, while the other six children were between the ages of  two and 11. Quite a brood for a man to raise on his own.  His sister came to assist him at first, but it proved too much for her alone. Therefore, a young woman, twenty-year-old Adolphine Baersch, was hired to help out in the large household. Although I can’t guarantee that Edelweiss was sung, Wilhelm Daniel did follow in Captain von Trapp’s footsteps, eventually marrying the young woman who cared for his seven children on February 18, 1864.


Aldolphine Baersch, ca. 1861

Housekeeper Adolphine was my great-great-great-grandmother. She and Wilhelm went on to have six children of their own, one of whom was Fritz, my great-great-grandfather who emigrated to America and started the American branch of the Mueller family (From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story). Wilhelm Daniel was saved needing to marry a fifth time, as he died in 1870, almost 50 years before Adolphine herself passed away.

While Wilhelm Daniel was a pastor, not a captain, and Adolphine was a housekeeper, not a governess/nun, the parallels to the beloved Hollywood film are nevertheless quite similar. However, as happy as I was to find this Sound of Music story in our family history book, my Austrian husband smugly reminded me that his family story is much better. His great-aunt was the housekeeper and cook for the real Von Trapp family in Salzburg. Can’t win them all I suppose.


The Home of the Von Trapp Family in Salzburg

Sound of Music Image: https://www.getyarn.io/yarn-clip/bd672433-49ce-4e31-a116-a16ab2c623fd

Through My Grandpa’s Eyes

As my field of work is German translation, I have learned a great deal about my own German roots (From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story.) However, as I have begun translating more and more genealogical documents, I decided to delve into some stories from my father’s side of the family as well. Luckily, my grandfather, the first child to be born in America after his family immigrated from Russia in the early 20th century, wrote a self-published autobiography before he passed away. My grandfather’s name was Ben, and he was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 15, 1913.

One of my grandfather’s earliest memories was going into the room of his 21-year-old brother Hymie, who was sick in bed with the flu pandemic ravaging the world in 1918. As a four year old, Ben remembers walking into Hymie’s room, who, although he was deathly ill, gave little Ben a loving smile when he entered. Hymie passed away shortly after, one of the millions of people to succumb to the illness worldwide.

Genealogy; Family history 21-year-old Hymie

A few years later, in the early 1920s, ten-year-old Ben received his first job. A widowed woman living next door to his family had quite a fondness for tobacco, but was somewhat ashamed to go into the store and buy it herself as tobacco was a “man’s habit.” She then asked Ben’s mother (my great-grandmother Gertrude) if she would allow Ben to go to the store buy it for her (I suppose a ten year old buying tobacco was more acceptable than a woman?).  After his mother reluctantly agreed, Ben was officially employed. Whenever the woman had a craving, Ben would receive a nickel for the tobacco and a nickel to buy himself a little ice-cream cone. However, after a few days of noticing how much the lady enjoyed the tobacco upon delivery, young Ben decided that tobacco clearly must taste better than his own ice cream. Therefore, the next time at the store, the ten year old decided to use his nickel to get a tobacco plug for himself as well. After giving the lady her plug, Ben snuck away to the darkness of his basement to try it himself, expecting a burst of sweetness or some other amazing flavor that had the grown-ups enthralled. Swallowing the tobacco juice,  however, he was immediately disgusted and became ill, forced to lay outside in the grass “sick as a dog” for the next several hours. Ten-year-old Ben thus swore to avoid tobacco from then on out, a promise he mostly stuck to throughout his remaining seventy-seven  years.

FullSizeRender-1 Genealogy; family history







Ben’s Mother Gertrude                                                                                            Ben, ca. 1923

One last story comes from the 1930s, when America was in the midst of the Great Depression. As anyone who went through elementary school social studies knows, FDR created the New Deal at this time to help boost the US economy. My grandpa, then around 20 years old, was thinking about taking part in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a part of the New Deal intended to employ young men to build parks, roads and other public buildings. Upon hearing that the next batch of men in St. Louis was being sent to Georgia or Florida, he and his friend Harry decided to sign up to escape the cold winter in Missouri and spend a few months working in the warm sunshine. A few weeks later, they said goodbye to their girlfriends and boarded the train for the enlistees. However, after an hour or two, the men realized that the train was not heading south towards the warmth, but north, north and more north. Faced with a carful of angry men, the commander then informed the enlistees that they were being sent to Bimidji, Minnesota, where they would be cutting roads through a forest in the state to make traveling easier between cities. As a Minnesota winter is much worse than a St. Louis winter, let alone a little bit colder than the sunshine-filled weather in Georgia or Florida, my grandpa was not happy. However, his stay was made a little easier when he met an “attractive Indian woman” in Bimidji who did his washing and ironing in exchange for candy and other treats from his forestry camp store. She also taught him how to make beaded bracelets and rings, which he then sold back at the camp to make a little extra money. I never knew my grandpa was a jewelry connoisseur!

Genealogy; family history   Ben in Minnesota in the early 1930s

Although I knew my Grandpa for fifteen years, reading his autobiography took me back to a time I only learned about in history books. By learning his story, I’ve realized that the past can come alive through the memories of our ancestors, transporting us to the days long gone by.