Fly Soup, German Spies and Stolen Blue Jeans: A Glimpse into the 1930s with Grandma

1931. Herbert Hoover is president. America is in the middle of the Great Depression and in the final years of Prohibition. The Star-Spangled banner is adopted as the national anthem. The Empire State building is completed in NYC. And in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 17, my grandmother Nancy is born. 

Looking back at all these events, 1931 seems like a different world from our fast-paced, technology-laden world of today. With this in mind, I sat down with my grandmother to find out more about her daily life in this seemingly-different era of time.  Below, my questions and her answers. What was it like to grow up in the ’30s and ’40s?
 

Born 55 years apart, my grandmother (left) and I (right) looked a lot alike as children.

  1. What kinds of things did your family do together when you were young?

On Sundays, we would go and visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. It was usually a Sunday because people worked on Saturdays back then. Some people were off every other Saturday. My dad worked at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company for half a day on Saturdays until they changed their contract to a five-day workweek in 1935.

Nancy (left) and her sisters, 1930s

2. What are your memories of your grandparents (born in 1880s)?

We lived with my step-grandpa for a while when I was little. He would leave tiny milk bottles at my bedroom door in the morning, pretending to be the milkman, and we always really liked that. He babysat for me one time when I was a baby, and back then they thought that you shouldn’t give children fruit until they were older. But one day he had a watermelon and gave me some. That evening, he got in trouble for giving me watermelon, and in the coming years, whenever I started to cry, he said “Hey, didn’t I give you watermelon?” and then I thought, “Oh yes, he did give me watermelon. I shouldn’t cry” and stop.

3. What did you do with your friends when you were a kid (1930s)?

We played games like Red Light Green Light, Swing the Statue, (a kid swung you around and you were supposed to look like the statue they suggested), Rock School, Mother May I and Fly Sheep Fly (the leader (shepherd) would hide all the kids and the person who was “it” would have to go find them, using a map that the shepherd had drawn on the path he had taken to the hiding place). There was also a haunted house up the street during the depression and some hobos lived there. We always heard people there when we were playing. We also liked to catch flies in the abandoned house and then make fly soup, putting the flies in the water and stirring and stirring it.

Nancy is on the bottom right, seen with her sister Pat, half-sister Sondra and cousin Martha

4. Do you remember much about the Depression?

Yes, people didn’t have a lot of things. One kid that we played with had a radio and most people, us included, didn’t have one yet, so all the kids on the block would sit on their front porch to listen to our Saturday shows, like cartoons. The radio was inside and we would listen to it through the windows. No one played inside each other’s houses because the mothers wanted to keep the houses clean. Our favorite radio show was Uncle Ted, which was a show for kids. But he ended up losing his job because one time after he finished his show for the day, he said “That will hold the little monsters for awhile”, not knowing he was still on the air!

1930s Family Listening to Radio

5. What was your house like growing up?

We got a radio before I turned six. We had an icebox and the iceman used to come bring a big block of ice for it every other day. You could ask him for ice on hot days – he would then throw a big piece onto the street to break it and we would eat it. Horses brought the ice wagon and the milk wagon. Before we had a vacuum, we would pour salt on the carpet to get dust out and then sweep the carpet.

6. Why did you go to boarding school and what was it like (1942)?

My mom died when I was a baby, and after a few years with a new step-mother and half-sister, my dad’s second wife ended up leaving for Hollywood to try and become an actress. My dad eventually remarried and his new wife thought it would be good for my sister Pat and I (then aged 13 and 11) to go to boarding school. We hated it. We were allowed to come home on the weekends and every week we would count down the hours until Friday. We had a washbasin next to our beds and we would have to fill it up the night before. Sometimes it was freezing cold and there would be frozen pieces of ice around the washbasin when you went to wash your face in the morning. The bed had a straw mattress and when you got up, you had to turn your mattress over and take your bedding off. Nobody liked it there and everyone was trying to escape. We would help kids smuggle out clothes on Fridays because they weren’t planning on coming back Sunday night and didn’t want to tell the nuns. One Sunday, I went to the show (movies) and ran into a classmate from my old grade school. He said if I stayed until he was ready to leave he would buy me an ice cream cone on the way home (even though it was December!). So I stayed. By the time he was ready to leave, it was dark and everyone was looking for me. They thought I had run away because I didn’t want to go back the boarding school, so, even though that wasn’t my intention at that point, my dad realized how much we hated it and told his new wife that we would be coming back home.

Nancy’s Father, Jim

7. What was the biggest trouble you ever got in?

We did anything to be annoying when we were at boarding school. I purposely tried to get kicked out. I would slide down bannisters and lean on the chairs to tip them forward, which was against the rules. One time, since I knew the nuns read our mail before sending it, I wrote a letter to my dad and said that all the kids hate this school and they’re all going to quit. The nuns came into study hall later that day to get me and send me to the principal. But the principal didn’t punish me – she just said that she didn’t like the school either!

 A 1940s-Style Classroom

8. Did you have any good memories from boarding school?

When the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 1942, we got to walk down to Grand Avenue to buy a soda, which cost a nickel.

9. How did World War II affect your life (age 10-14)?

All males in family that were draft age were gone – all my cousins and uncles. My dad didn’t have to go because he fell under the category of “one surviving parent”. We worked hard. We did newspaper drives, scrap drives and knitted for the Red Cross. Girls in the neighborhood got together on Friday nights and we’d have our meetings and report on what we’d done that week. When we were ten or so, we would also play “spy”.  We spied on anybody that had a German-sounding last name, looking in their windows to see if they were doing anything suspicious. We especially wondered about the shoemaker and the baker…

10. How did you meet Grandpa (1940s)? I met him on a hayride in eighth grade, but just briefly. A few months later, I was walking down the street where he lived and he was out in his front yard, raking leaves. I was really embarrassed because my sister Pat had actually borrowed a pair of his jeans from his older sister Pat, and I had taken those same jeans from my sister to wear that day. So when I walked by him, I was actually wearing his jeans! And he barely knew me! I tried to walk really fast so he wouldn’t see me, but he saw me and said hi. I said hi back  and kept walking as fast as I could. But he wondered who I was and eventually got my number from his sister.  He called me later on and asked me to his high school dance. Then we dated off and on in the following years, becoming exclusive his sophomore year of college.


My Grandfather Don

11. What were the first few years of married life like for you (1950s, living in California due to a navy posting)?

It was fun. No one had a lot of money, though. One time, Grandpa had asked his uncle and and a high-ranking navy friend for dinner, but we didn’t have enough money to buy food for a nice meal. We said a prayer before we went to bed, and planned to pawn our camera for money the next day. However, when we woke up, it was like our prayers had been answered – we went to open our mail box, and found a check from a priest back home – he had sent it to us for a wedding present! We were thrilled and were then able to buy a roast with the money.

Don and Nancy at Their Wedding, 1954

12. What was it like being a navy wife?

Most the officers and navy wives had calling cards. They would come visit you, put their calling card on a silver tray you were supposed to have sitting out for that purpose, and then you were supposed to return the visit and put your calling card in their tray. We didn’t have the money for cards and silver tray, so when the commanding officer came to visit, he put his card in an ash tray. I played bridge with the other navy wives. My best friend was Betty from Chicago. We had a television and they didn’t, so they’d come over and watch shows with us.

Don in his Navy Uniform, 1950s 

Today, Nancy is the matriarch of our extended family, which consists of her ten children, their spouses, twenty-seven grandchildren and even one great-grandchild. Although her days of fly soup-making and shoemaker-spying are long past, her stories live on in the hearts of all her family, inspiring us all to appreciate things like watermelon, vacuums and ice cubes a little bit more. 

Nancy, bottom left, with her entire family in 2015

Johanna’s 1921 Diary: Journey to America

I recently had the opportunity to translate a young woman’s diary. Year, 1921, name, Johanna, age, 27. As many other Germans, Johanna and her family had become very poor in the years after World War I.  Facing financial hardship at home, Johanna decided to try her luck in America, moving continents to marry a neighbor’s son living in the States. The below diary excerpts*, which her grandson kindly said I could share, reflect Johanna’s thoughts, experiences and feelings as she travels by steamship from Germany to New York. Take away Ellis Island, the old German handwriting, and her appreciation of butter instead of margarine, and it easily could have been written by a 20-something woman today…

     

My First Sea Voyage

On the Hansa! 12-7-21

The passengers were supposed to board at 12:30 in the afternoon on December 7, 1921. However, it was 2:00 before all the people had taken their spots on the small boats that were meant to bring us to the steamship. The band stood on the Hansa and played; – what, I can’t say, because I didn’t know the tune. The sailors were very kind and many women, like myself, were taken by the arm by two sailors and helped over the steps. But I think it was just the women who were traveling alone that they helped. Once on board, each person looked for their cabin and was assisted by the sailors, who stood by ready to help. 

At 4:00, the trumpet blew for coffee. Everyone went to the large, elegantly furnished dining room, where there was very good coffee and cake.  At 5:00, the table cards were distributed and we, both of my cabinmates (who are very nice young northern German girls) and I got a very nice table, where many young people had also been sat. At 7:00, the trumpet blew for dinner. There was pork, potatoes and rice; afterwards butter bread – not margarine, but very good butter – sausage and dip. After dinner, people went to the women’s room or the smoking room, or to the deck. I chose to go to the deck to get some fresh air before bed. After I strolled a while by myself, a man, an editor of a paper in Philadelphia who I had already met on the small boat, joined me. After we talked about various neutral topics, our conversation turned to the present time. I informed him about the misery of the German people, both collectively and individually, and asked him what was the cause of this misery? I received as an answer: “The Frenchman is the most at fault, he wants to completely destroy the Germans; but the time of reckoning will come for him too; because the leaves of time turn like night and day, then woe to him!” With these words, he spoke to my very soul, and the souls of many a German. We left each other at 9:00, wished each other “Good night” and went to our cabins.

December 8, 1921 At 7:30 there was breakfast, soft rolls, butter, marmalade, coffee. We, the residents of cabin 122, came to the table quite late and were therefore good-naturedly teased by the men, who were already finished. At 9:00 in the morning the steamship took to the sea. The ship band played again as the ship departed, which created a very nostalgic atmosphere. Those who remained behind were waving their white cloths, which, fluttering up and down, sent us final farewells from our homeland. Many tears were flowing; even from those who had wanted to stay strong.  At 12:00 there was lunch. It was: broth, roast pork, dip, fat peas, sauerkraut, apple compote, ice cream, fruit, coffee, cake, bread, butter. A lunch that couldn’t have been better at a wedding. For dinner there was once again roast, potatoes, dip, bread, butter, cheese, tea. (Coffee wasn’t served separately; it came right after lunch). After dinner, there was a wonderful concert from 8:30-10. (The ship hasn’t moved since noon today; as it is very difficult to get out of the harbor with the heavy fog and ice.) At the concert, “Deutschland, Deuschland über alles” was played. Everyone sang along, quietly at first, tentatively, then louder and louder until several hundred voices rose up: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!”[3]

 I am constantly being followed by a small man in a gray travel suit. Wherever I go, it doesn’t take long until he is there as well; always somewhere nearby. I didn’t pay attention to it yesterday, today I didn’t attach much importance to it either. But this evening he is being so obvious that I am scared to do anything. I will act like I don’t notice anything and stay out of his way as best as I can. Help me, good Lord!

12-10-21 Yesterday I couldn’t write. I stayed on the deck until noon. We sailed along the Elbe towards the North Sea. You could still see land on both sides, and several cities whose towers offered us the last compliments of home. Then came Cuxhaven; we left it behind and sailed farther and farther until you could only see the sky and the water. On the deck I met up again with a nice young person who I had met in the women’s room on 12-8. He introduced himself as “Weber” and told me that he had already been in San Francisco for 8 years, had come back firmly set on settling down for the rest of his life in Germany, but now was going back to San Francisco because life in Germany was too difficult. He also told me that he had had 5 new suits made in Germany, one of which cost 14 dollars. Very elegant suits, of course. In America he would have to pay up to 80 dollars per suit. Poor Fatherland, how everyone is leaving you. Your children must work 5-6 weeks in order to earn enough money to buy themselves a suit. Then, if they haven’t saved anything, they naturally cannot eat or drink or spend money on anything else. I stayed on the deck until 12:00, until the trumpet was blown for lunch, went to the dining hall and was excited to see that it was swaying. I ate the fish; then I suddenly felt so sick, I put the fish down, took some potatoes and started to eat them. But after the second bite I put the knife and fork down and ate a piece of dry rye bread. Then I got up and staggered up the stairs to my cabin, quickly grabbed a hat and coat and went to the deck, still eating rye bread. I staggered and if Mr. Weber wouldn’t have held on to me so tightly, I would have fallen down. He carried me to the cabin, where I immediately lay down in bed and fell asleep for a short while.

The small man in the gray suit said something to me yesterday in passing; but I don’t know what he said because I passed by him quickly. As soon as I was on the deck, he was there as well and watched as Mr. Weber brought me below. This morning, when I was with Mr. Weber, he found me on the deck and no longer had the smile on his lips that he always looks at me with, the smile that I am so afraid of.

The evening of the 13th. Now is the first time I can write again; as I was sick the last few days and was always in bed. I wanted to write so diligently; but when you are seasick, you just can’t. You feel so miserable and don’t feel like doing anything at all. Today the sea is moving quite a lot; but I’ve gotten used to the rocking and can tolerate it. There is always a concert on the deck in the afternoon. Today was the first time I could attend it. I have the impression that the people on the ship are not as ungodly as usual. On Sunday morning we were awoken with the trumpet playing a Lutheran church song. On one of the first days, when I asked an old man who had travelled frequently if we would have good weather, he answered me, “It completely depends on if we have many people who pray on the ship; because when I came over in August, we had two Catholic priests on board and therefore good, calm weather.” “You think it depends on that?” “Of course.”  

12-14-21 Today I don’t have anything important to write. I met a lot of people, including a rich Hungarian who is traveling to his brothers. He says they are millionaires in New York. He was a postmaster in Hungary and told me his life story. He is very serious, loves nature, believes and trusts in God alone, and loves his mother (who was taken from him 2 years ago) more than anything. With so many men here, one who is not like the majority of the others. We sat together for the entire afternoon and had a great conversation until the trumpet, signaling dinner, separated us.

I don’t think I need to be scared of the small man in the gray suit any longer. He has found other women. But when he does see me somewhere, he conspicuously skulks in our direction like a cat sniffing around its porridge.[5] To smile at me! In the evening I attended the concert again, which was again very nice.

12-15-21  The sea was once again very rocky and I had to hurry at breakfast (during which I only ate rye bread) to get up to the deck. When I am on deck, I read or watch the waves play. When friendly people come up to me to talk, then I talk to them willingly. Boredom is, after all, something that stimulates the mind. So this afternoon I looked for the Hungarian and spent time in his company until the evening. Several high-spirited people danced at the afternoon concert, including the small man in gray: It was amusing how he always danced with his partner exactly where I was sitting. Even though the promenade is long and I wasn’t sitting where the dancing was taking place, he was always exactly in front of me. If that’s fun for him, he can do what he wants.

12-18 Today is once again beautiful weather and we will soon see land. On the ship, everyone pays attention to the littlest thing. If one of the passengers sees some little possibility on the horizon, then everyone takes his binoculars to look at the specific spot and gives his opinion of what it could be. This is how it was, for example, at the concert today during which a violin solo was interrupted with, “Light!” Everyone sprinted on deck and left the concert. But unfortunately it was only a ship.

12-19-21 This morning we were woken up at 5:30 and everyone hurried as quickly as possible to the deck. We were at our destination, New York. Surrounded by ships from all the nations. The lights were still burning on the ships and the sun was rising in the sky, land on both sides. All of this made a big impression on me. I am in America, far away from my homeland and think that it can’t be possible! The weather is unusually magnificent. The sun is shining and it is therefore warm for once, also because of the fact that there is no wind. Unfortunately we won’t reach land today because Ellis Island, where we will disembark, is not yet free of passengers from the ships that arrived before us. But we just have to deal with it, it can’t be avoided.

*Some diary entries and sentences within entries have been removed for the purpose of this blog. 

[3] German national anthem.

[5] This is technically an idiom here: “wie die Katze um den heißen Brei schleichen”, which means “to beat around the bush”. In this context, however, I would guess she means it literally.

 

 

Image Credit:

http://www.ddghansa-shipsphotos.de/ockenfels300.htm

A Poem to Old Letters

While translating the book of my German family history, I came across a poem written by my German ancestor Wilhelm Müller (1881-1945), a pastor in Germany during World War I and World War II. The poem, entitled “Die alten Briefe”, or “The Old Letters”, spoke to me significantly, as it is old letters that I translate every day for clients searching for their own ancestors. Whether it be a letter from a German immigrant in 1863 discussing the troubles of the American Civil War, a letter from an 85-year-old man in 1920s Germany wondering how long he has left to live, or a 1940 letter from a mother admonishing her son overseas for not replying to her neighbor, each and every letter has its own story to tell. These people, usually no longer with us, come to life through their words written down so long ago, giving the letters a soul and life of their very own. In his poem below, my ancestor puts this idea to paper: (my  English translation):

fullsizerender-1-3

Wilhelm Müller, as a WWI chaplain on the French front, 1915

The Old Letters

I rummage through old letters

that have slept for decades long

about to toss them to the flames

I realized that was wrong

as I began to read

of all that once had been

I knew, I couldn’t do it

couldn’t burn these words of men.

How those yellowed papers

so warmly spoke to me

A soul shining through the page

I couldn’t let it be.

Letters from a mother,

seeped with her selfless heart

her endless care for children

apparent from the start.

I read her loving words

so loyal, kind and true

Such good they did to me,

my sense of safety grew.

And touching notes from children –

forming letters wide-eyed

Seeing their little faces

shining with joy and pride

and, the writing over

on paper oh so fine

I see their bitter tears as well

when missing a stroke or line.

Adoring letters of friendship

from old romantic days

swearing to a lover

to keep one’s heart ablaze.

How soon this passion fades away

as time does take its course

This token of remembrance

recalls the relationship’s source.

I cannot part with these letters,

which speak to my very soul.

These letters are the hearts of men

To the flames, they shall not go.

9ea89324fa9b8401e1b7798e14f75701

Die Alten Briefe

Ich kramte in alten Briefen,

die seit Jahrzehnten schliefen,

den Flammen woll’ ich sie weih’n.

Doch dann begann ich zu lesen

von allem, was einst gewesen,

Da wußt’ ich: es kann nicht sein!

 –

Wie’s doch aus den alten Papieren

so warm und so traut zu mir spricht!

Sie haben ja eine Seele;

nein – ich zerstöre sie nicht.

– 

Da sind die Briefe der Mutter,

von selbstloser Liebe durchtränkt,

von nie ermüdender Sorge,

die nur ihrer Kinder gedenkt.

Und las ich die lieben Worte,

voll Andacht, wie tut mir’s so gut!

Ich fühl mich noch einmal nach Jahren

geborgen in treuer Hut.

– 

Und rührende Kinderbriefchen –

die Buchstaben sorgsam gemalt!

Ich seh, wenn die kleinen Gesichter

in freudigem Stolze gestrahlt,

wenn Ihnen das Schriftstück gelungen

auf Briefpapier herrlich geziert,

ich seh’ noch die bitteren Tränen,

wenn Ihnen ein Unglück passiert.

– 

Und schwärmende Freundschaftsbriefe

aus alter romantischer Zeit,

in der man begeistert geschworen

auf Treue und Unfehlbarkeit.

Wie schwanden die Ideale

dann vor dem erwachenden Blick!

Ein kleines Erinnerungszeichen

ruft alles Entzücken zurück.

– 

Ich trenne mich nicht von dem Briefen,

aus denen so viel zu mir spricht.

Sie haben ja eine Seele! –

Nein, ich verbrenne sie nicht.

Behind the Scenes of Genealogical Translation

Happy International Translation Day! Today, September 30, is the feast day of St. Jerome, the first to translate the Bible into Latin and the patron saint of translation. On this special day, I would like to offer you a special glimpse into the exciting world of genealogical translation.

250px-jan_van_eyck_san_girolamo_nello_studio_detroit

St. Jerome (347-419/20)

 As genealogical documents are often hundreds of years old, translating historical documents is slightly different than translating “normal” documents. While modern-day texts can often present the translator with incredibly complicated sentences, genealogy translations are usually much more straight-forward and relatively simple – once you get the documents to the translation point. Getting there, however, is the challenge.

scriptorium-monk-at-work-990x500

 Just as my handwriting differs from yours, handwriting among our ancestors varied significantly, and some was much more legible than others! When I receive a text, therefore, the first thing I do is look at the legibility of that particular author’s handwriting.

The age of the document also plays a role in the appearance of the script. Seventeenth-century handwriting (top image below) looks very different than nineteenth-century handwriting (bottom image below). Although the older script is rather beautiful, it is more challenging for most genealogical translators.

1645 Death Cert     

19th-century

The quality of your document is also very important in genealogical translation. Most of the texts are sent as .jpeg images, and the ability to zoom in without the image becoming blurry is crucial. Why is that? As stated in Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, many old German letters are incredibly similar, making the ability to see each and every stroke even more significant. Notice the similarities of the letter e (left) and the letter n (right) below. Without the proper zooming tools, you may not be able to see the differences between these two letters when written in a word.

enmein

The word above is “mein” (my), full of similarly-formed letters m, e and n.

Once I’ve assessed the legibility of the script and the quality the document, I begin transcribing your text. Carefully analyzing each stroke, I start to decipher the script and type it in modern German. If I’ve worked with a particular author’s handwriting before, this process goes much more smoothly, as our brains are quick to recognize what they’ve previously encountered. However, if it is the first time I am seeing a certain person’s handwriting, the transcription process can take a little longer, as each person forms their letters slightly differently.

The transcription process can also be accelerated if I know certain words to look for. Before beginning each translation, I ask you if there are any names of people or towns that are relevant to your document. Names are the most difficult to transcribe, as there are many spelling variations and no context clues to fill in the blanks. Many times, however, a client has already done extensive genealogical research and knows that this letter is from his great-great grandfather Diocletian from the town of Oberbetschdorf. Rather than spending 15 minutes trying to figure out if a letter is an n or an e, knowing this information ahead of time helps me to spot-read a word (that being said, I always double check – sometimes there are surprises!).

IMG_4405

Once the transcription is complete, the fun part begins – bringing the words your ancestor wrote to life! In translation, we need to know much more than simply the definitions of words in a dictionary. Translators must take into account the various shades of meaning of a word (for example, does the author simply mean “happy” or does he mean content, cheerful, delighted, pleased, etc.?), idiomatic expressions (translating “it’s raining cats and dogs” literally into German would lead to a great deal of confusion in Deutschland) and intended audience and style of the text (is this a casual letter written to a son or daughter or is this a formal certificate recording a life event?). Finally, we need to make sure the text reads well in the translated language. Staying true to the original while making the text flow in a different language can be a challenge in the translation field, although it is a challenge most translators enjoy!

quote-translation-is-like-a-woman-if-it-is-beautiful-it-is-not-faithful-if-it-is-faithful-yevgeny-yevtushenko-32-29-15While I do not agree with his view of women, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s take on translation is certainly true!

With the translation complete, I send it to you, the client. This often results in my favorite part of the job – hearing how this translation has broken down brick walls in your genealogical search or how happy you are to hear the words of your ancestor. I love a good puzzle as much as the next person, and helping you to learn about your ancestor is a rewarding experience that I truly enjoy.

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.”

IMG_4405

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.

SONY DSC

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.

DSCF1164

Image Credit:

filmgarb.com

tothotornot.com

 

 

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.

IMG_4540

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.

1968_01_11_Bismarck_Hut_800x508px

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.

05

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.

58668

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.

Unbenannt1

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.

filename-screen-shot

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

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:

FullSizeRender-2

Enkirch

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.

IMG_4192

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?)

addtext_com_MTczNjQ0MjI4ODcz

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.

FullSizeRender-1

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.

378970_745577285342_1294924790_n

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.

 

From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story

In terms of genealogy research, my family is very lucky in the fact that our relatives in Germany  compiled a rather thick book of our family history, dating all the way back to 1664. Many Americans want to know when their relatives came over from the old country, and our “big green book” always provided the answers (albeit in German, so it took a few years of studying before I could read it!). It all started with a man named Fritz.

My great-great-grandfather Fritz Mueller was born near Düsseldorf, Germany in 1866 as the tenth child of Wilhelm Daniel and Adolphine Mueller. After studying theology in Austria and subsequently working as a pastor, Fritz decided that the religious life was not for him. In 1887, Fritz and his brother Max emigrated to America in search of more opportunity, eventually finding it in St. Louis, Missouri.  While Fritz found work as a tailor of suits and shirts, Max supported himself by buying, selling and delivering coal in the winter and blocks of ice in the summer. After working with a horse and carriage for a number of years, Max eventually bought two automobiles to use for his business. He would deliver his goods to homes around the different neighborhoods; housewives would leave signs in the windows with the amounts of coal or ice they required.  Max and Fritz remained in close contact in St. Louis, often meeting to play cards on Sunday evenings. A relative describes his grandfather Fritz below:

“Fritz was a cheerful man who was always part of the fun. With a mustache, goatee and bowler hat, he loved to stand on a beer crate in a bar, reciting poetry in German, Latin or Greek, occasionally in French as well, sometimes for hours at a time. Grandfather came to our house on Saturday evenings. He was a passionate reader and also interested in Spanish. He was especially happy when he won chess games. I am certain that he was very strict with his children. Fritz loved life!”

German; genealogy; old German handwriting

Fritz (center) with his wife and three of his children. Fred, on the very right, is my great-grandfather.

Although immigration was quite common in the 19th century, it can’t have been easy for the mothers back home in Germany. Fritz’s mother Adolphine was no exception. Here, she sends a photograph of herself with Fritz’s brother and writes her son a birthday message on the back (1923):

German; genealogy; old German handwritingGerman; genealogy; old German handwriting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                My dear Fritz,

Here comes your little old mother with Erick and his family to wish you a happy birthday! May you, my dear Fritz, always spend this day in health with your loved ones and may God’s blessings be with you, dear boy, in this new year of life! I thought it would make you all happy if my 80-year-old self came to you “in person”!  Warmest greetings to you and all my love, your mother and grand- and great-grandmother!

A Journey Through Time

Recently I have been working with many documents from the late 1800s. Letters from a lady in Germany to her sister who emigrated to the Midwest, marriage certificates from a 19th-century church register,  correspondence between a man from Baden-Württemberg and his aunt  in America, etc. As the German script used in these letters is almost illegible to most German-speakers today, these documents always present an exciting puzzle. Until 1941, German children were taught a type of handwriting called Kurrentschrift, a script quite different from the Latin characters that we are familiar with. For example, an “e” in Kurrent looks like an “n”, an “m” has a few too many humps, and a capital “S” looks like an upside-down fish. The script is made even more complicated by the fact than an “s” can be written three different ways, depending on what part of the word it is used in! That being said, once you learn the script and you slowly become more adept at deciphering the individual letters and words, these documents can transport you back into another day and age. Worries about Indians attacking settlers in Kansas, concerns about 1860 German politics as the country grows larger, pleas for relatives in America to send food and clothing in devastating times of poverty and even juicy 19th-century gossip about haughty well-to-do neighbors come to life through the words of people no longer here. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these letters is the humanity of them. Despite the differences in time and circumstance, the authors express worry about a friend ignoring them, beg forgiveness for not writing more often, reassure of the well-being of relatives, speak of joyful times spent with family members and, all in all, communicate their hopes, fears, wishes and dreams. From my journey with these 19th-century writers through time, I have learned that although the circumstances of life may change, humanity still remains much the same.

FullSizeRender