During the course of the nineteenth century, millions of our ancestors left Germany and embarked on a new life in America. Whether the reason was the failed 1848 uprisings, the effects of the Industrial Revolution, or simply seeking an opportunity for a better life, the end result was the same – our ancestors bravely left behind everything they knew and moved to a foreign land halfway around the world.
Fast forward two hundred years. If we genealogists want to discover the stories of these emigrant ancestors who so bravely left their homeland, passenger lists, emigration documents, and other records may provide the only clues available. But for some lucky genealogists, there is more: personal letters, letters written in the very hands of their ancestors, letters that detail their journey across the ocean and the beginnings of their new life in America.
Susan Hennefield is one such person who was lucky enough to find such a letter among her father’s belongings. I recently had the pleasure of translating this 1853 letter, and she has kindly agreed to let me share it with you here to showcase what an emigration experience was like in the mid-nineteenth century. My own ancestor, Gerhard Wolken, sailed from Bremen in 1854, so I like to think that he might have had a similar journey to Susan’s ancestor Wilhelm below! Perhaps your ancestors did too?
Wilhelm Friedrich Riecker was twenty-two years old when he left Germany for a new life in America. He was the second son of at least twelve children, and his father was a soapmaker in Kürnbach, Karlsruhe. Read on below to see his first letter to his parents after arriving in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York after a 57-day sea journey…
Williamsburg, Sept. 10, 1853
Dear parents and siblings,
After arriving in my new homeland on August 13 after a 57-day sea journey, I am now picking up the pen to write. I hope that this letter finds you all still happy and healthy, as you were at the time of my departure. We left Mannheim on June 12 at 5:00 in the morning, arrived in Cologne at 7:30 in the evening, and, since there were no more tickets being issued then, had to spend the night in Cologne. We then left for Bremen the following day. They checked all our passports in Preußisch-Minden, on the Hanoverian border. Those who didn’t have the proper documents (which the authorities were not happy about) had to go back.
We stayed in Bremen the 14th and 15th. On the afternoon of the 16th, we left Bremen on a small barge and headed towards Bremerhaven. We didn’t arrive there until the 18th. In Bremen I had to pay half of a Prussian thaler for board, and then had to buy tinware for 1 thaler and a mattress for ½ a thaler. I didn’t buy a pillow or woolen carpet so that I could save my money.
In the passenger building in Bremerhaven, there were people who had already been there fourteen days or even four weeks because they were dealing with cases against the Bremen shipping clerks. It could have easily been the case that I would also have had to wait 14 days at the port because when I was in Bremen, I received a ticket without the name of the captain or the ship that I was supposed to go on. But I went straight to the office and said, “Please be so good and fill in these two spots for me.” They replied, “You won’t receive that information until you are in Bremerhaven.” But I went back in the afternoon and asked him again, and then he did as I asked. As we were arriving in Bremerhaven, they took us straight to the ocean-bound ship and said, “Whoever has a ticket for the ship Orion led by Captain Schwartz, bring your things on board.” It was only me and a locksmith from Saxony who did so. The barge then made its way to land and everyone went into the passenger building. There they received food like on the ship, just a little bit better. Everyone had to sleep on their own mattress.
So on June 18, we departed from the port. It was a Saturday afternoon with nice, warm weather, and the ship steadily made its way out of the port. The next day we had a good strong wind, we flew like an arrow. If that wind had stayed, we would have made it to New York in 24 days. We sailed on the North Sea for 10 days. It was shortly after 3:00 in the afternoon when we would have gone through the Channel, but we had bad wind and could have been stuck there for 14 days. So we therefore sailed between England and Scotland, which was dangerous – when we woke up in the morning we were heading towards both of the islands, but then the ship was turned about again so that we were being pushed away from the islands instead of going towards them. That same day looked stormy. At the beginning of our trip it was so cold that you almost couldn’t stand being out on the deck. Later it was warm. We didn’t have very favorable winds, so we always had to veer quickly off course, to the right or to the left, which caused it to be a long journey. There were often storms. One time there was a thunderstorm at 3:00 in the morning. The storm appeared within ten minutes, and all the sailors, except for those who were on watch, were still sleeping. Then there was a scream, and all the boxes slid down. The sailors couldn’t reach the ropes to shorten sail, and then they were completely blinded by fire and lightning and then the darkness. But after the sailors had shortened sail, the storm was over.
Births that took place: 2 Deaths: 2
Things went well on my trip to Bremen, but I can’t say anything good about the sea: in the morning, we received black coffee, or if someone wanted to have hot water and had their own coffee or wanted to make soup, then they could. Throughout the week, lunch consisted of: peas, beans, rice, barley, sauerkraut, and salted bacon, beef, potatoes. In the evenings, tea or water, ¼ butter for the entire week, zwieback, almost so small that you all would have thrown it to the chickens, 4 small little cakes of white zwieback per week, and 3 half liters of sweet water a day for four people.
Aug. 12. On Friday afternoon at 2:00, we saw land, but we couldn’t tell at first if it actually was land or just a cloud. We anchored at 8:00 and stayed there for two hours. At 10:00 we continued on again, and in the morning we were in front of the fort. Then a doctor came and asked if there were any sick people on board. Then we were taken, with the boxes, into the harbor on a tugboat. That was 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, and I was then in New York until Sunday morning. Then I went over to Brooklyn. I found Joseph after about forty minutes, without wandering aimlessly around Brooklyn too much before. The first week, I boarded at a German innkeeper’s, then I stayed with Joseph at H. Vollmer’s at the bakery until we found work for me. I am now working in Williamsburg at a comb and whalebone factory for an American. I earn six thalers a week for every dozen, and from that I need 2 ½ thalers for room and board. I am actually boarding at Christiana Billett’s place. She says to tell you all hello, and hello to her relatives as well. They are all healthy, as are Gottlieb Veit and his wife and Sophie Schaaf. They live an entire hour away from Joseph. G. Veit came to the bakery a few days after my arrival without even knowing that I was here. We then drove out to his home. When we got there, Sophie Schaaf was sitting in front of the house with G. Veit’s girl. I didn’t recognize her then. Elisabetha was not feeling well that evening of my first visit. They were all excited about my arrival and our reunion. Gottlieb Pfeifer, Wilh. Müller, we all get together every Sunday. Weißert will have told you that Joh. Pfeiffer has gone to California.
Furthermore: Joseph didn’t receive the letter that I myself took to the post office in Kalrsruhe right before my departure. Write again soon about what Gottfried is up to in Karlsruhe. Joseph didn’t even know that Gottfried had left Kürnbach.
I would very much like to know how things turned out this year with the recruits. I would also advise everyone that they should not travel via Bremen, but via Haven instead. I think that is the shortest way. Going through Bremen always takes longer and the highly-praised food on the ship that people talk about is not how it actually is.
Joseph and I send you all our affectionate regards, as well as regards to all of our cousins Karl Pfeifer, Ch. Scharpf, J. Riecker, our cousins Susanna and both Johanna’s, and especially to our esteemed uncle in Ellwangen, our Gother Kärcher, J. Hamman, W. Brand, and their children, cousin Baumwirth, Mayor Drechsel, and our neighbor Joh. Pfeifer, and my friends whom I visited the last few days I was there, as well as to Georg Schaaf and Engelhard Müller.
Don’t worry about either of us.
Also say hello to the recruiting leader and his wife. If both of her brothers want to come to America, cobblers can make good money here.
Did your ancestor come over from Germany in the 19th century? How have you found information about their journey? Let us know in the comments!
“Before you say something, ask yourself: is it true and is it kind?”
“If someone is mean to you, kill them with kindness. It’s amazing to see how their attitude turns around.”
“Do a random act of kindness every day.”
These three ideas, wisdom imparted over the years by my mom, dad, and grandma, very much shaped my childhood. Kindness was the number one quality valued in our family, and there’s therefore nothing my brothers and I love more than a heartwarming story of people going out of their way to do something nice. Someone buying a coffee for the person in line behind them at Starbucks? Right up our alley. The lady at Trader Joes giving me free flowers for my mom on Valentine’s Day? Made our day.
This love for kindness (and honestly, who doesn’t like it when people are nice?) has found a wonderful home in the genealogy community. This past week at the RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, I was overwhelmingly reminded of the kindness of the genealogy world. Whenever my mom or my husband texted me to ask how the conference was going, I would repeatedly reply with some variation of, “Everyone is so nice!” or “I feel so loved!”. And because I think we could all use a little more happiness in our lives – and because perhaps you like kindness stories as much as my family and I do – I wanted to share with you my experiences last week at RootsTech in honor of the wonderful community we are all a part of. Thank you to all the people mentioned in this article for making my week so special.
1. The Kindness of Fellow Speakers
The Monday before I left for Salt Lake was a bit stressful. I had taken the day off to get ready for the conference – get my hair cut, get my fliers made for my booth, mail a book at the post office, etc. – but somehow it still ended up being 9:00 before I started packing. And I had to leave for the airport at 5:15 the next morning.
Needless to say, when I get to Salt Lake, I realized I had forgotten a few things in the stress of last-minute packing – one of them being a bowl for all the candy I had bought for my booth. Now, I had forgotten a bowl my very first year of exhibiting, so I knew how hard it was to find one – even with a mall next door. I was not looking forward to having to do it again.
And this is where the first act of kindness comes in.
I suddenly remembered that in our RootsTech Speaker Facebook group, a nice local speaker had posted – to hundreds of us, mind you – that if we needed anything during the conference, we could text her and perhaps she could help us out as she was local. I decided to contact her with my forgotten bowl story, hoping I wasn’t taking advantage – like I said, she had posted this to hundreds of people – but sure enough, she responded right away and was able to bring me two perfect bowls from her own home. This kind offer to help people she didn’t even know really set the tone for my entire week…
Of course, that was not the only thing I forgot. As I use payments with Square on my phone, I usually bring a stylus for people to sign with. And in my packing stress, I didn’t even think to bring this small item. Normally I wouldn’t mind people signing my phone with their finger, but with all the sickness going around, I thought it best to avoid any additional germs – but where could I find a stylus this late in the game?
I put out an SOS to fellow speakers and exhibitors, knowing everyone was busy and might not reply. But Amy Johnson Crow went out of her way to not only give me an extra stylus she had, but also to bring it personally to my booth so I wouldn’t have to abandon my post during the busy conference day. The generosity – of both time and goods – of my fellow speakers really made me feel like I was part of a wonderful, caring community.
2. The Kindness of Strangers
But it wasn’t just fellow speakers who were so nice that week. Perfect strangers made my week so special as well.
For those of you who have been to RootsTech, you know how absolutely huge the Expo Hall is – getting from one side to the other is like the Oregon Trail of warehouses. So I was extra touched when one woman made her way all the way over to my booth – at the very far side of the Expo Hall – not to get anything for herself, but just to come tell me how much my presentation at RootsTech last year had helped her to advance her genealogy research in 2019. Her taking the time to tell me how my lecture on German church records broke down brick walls for her and her family truly made my morning. A kind word can really change someone’s day.
In addition to kind words, little acts of kindness can also be so meaningful. For those of you who see me at conferences, you’ll know that I am usually working my booth by myself – which makes it really hard to get away to get lunch, as that is the time when classes are out and people expect you to be there. Needless to say, I sometimes get a bit hungry waiting for the break to roll around. One nice man – who I had never even met before – was visiting my booth when he realized it was almost 2:00 and I must not have had lunch yet. He then dug around in his backpack and gave me his only box of raisins from his own bag to hold me over until I could get a break. And I didn’t even know his name!
3. The Clients Who Have Become Friends
As a genealogy translator who works from home, ninety-nine percent of my contact with clients is over e-mail. As a people-person and extravert, this part of the job does not exactly match my personality. However, through conferences such as RootsTech, I have been lucky enough to get to know several of my clients and German handwriting course students in person throughout the years – and they are the nicest people ever. This year at RootsTech, these clients were kind enough to 1) stop by and say hello (remember how big that Expo Hall is?!), 2) tell me congratulations on how my business has grown since they have known me (the fact that they noticed really meant a lot to me) , and 3) make a point to tell potential new clients browsing at my booth that that they would recommend me (gotta love clients who do your marketing work for you!). While these may have been small actions for them, it meant the world to me and allowed me to feel a sense of connection with them as well. Plus, amidst 24,000 attendees, it’s always nice to see a familiar face!
4. The Kind Surprises
One of my favorite things about conferences is getting to know the “genealogy regulars” – the people who attend genealogy conferences on a more consistent basis. This year, one of these regulars – a woman whom I had gotten to know and develop a friendship with last year – came to my booth and told me that she had brought me a present from her hometown of New Orleans. She then gave me a strand of rare black Mardi gras beads with the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of St. Louis (my hometown) on it, and a cute little purple dog made out of beads as well. The fact that this woman thought of me before the conference and went out of her way to bring me such a personalized present really made my day.
5. The Words of Motivation
As any speaker/vendor will tell you (and as I alluded to in the first section), as much as we love RootsTech, the weeks leading up to the conference can be a bit stressful. For most of February, I was working 24/7 to finish my new book, The Magic of German Church Records, and, of course, was working on preparing my presentation for RootsTech as well. The night before the presentation, I didn’t sleep as well as I had wanted, and woke up frustrated that I didn’t get a good night’s rest before a very important day.
I then logged in to check my e-mail, and saw a message from a client – who I had never met in person – telling me that he was going to attend my presentation that day and that he was very excited about it. He then wrote the exact phrase I needed to hear in my worried-about-my-lack-of-sleep state:
These two sentences were the exact bit of motivation I needed at that very moment of tiredness, and the fact that this person I hadn’t yet met took time out of his day to write me a motivating e-mail meant the world to me – and gave me the extra energy I needed.
After the presentation, countless people also took time out of their days to come to my booth and tell me how much they enjoyed it, which meant a great deal to me as well. After putting hours and hours of work into a lecture, it really means a lot to us speakers to know that it made a difference to you and will help you in your research. So thank you to all of you who made a point to stop by!
In conclusion, it was a wonderful week, and I left Salt Lake City with a smile on my face. Thank you to everyone who went out of their way to spread their kindness in my direction – as you see, it meant so much to me and I love the genealogy community even more now than I did before.
What about you? Did you experience any acts of kindness at RootsTech? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear your stories.
Disclaimer: This post is meant to share a piece of my client’s family history that he was kind enough to share – as well as to show how his different research methods can pay off. I absolutely do not condone or wish to glorify the actions taken by Sebastian Bauer in any way, shape, or form. – Katherine Schober
My Ancestor, the Serial Killer: A Story from Gary Haas
Sometimes there are extra notes scribbled in at the top or the bottom of your ancestor’s document. Usually rather small and written seemingly haphazardly, these comments can be rather daunting to translate, and it may be tempting to ignore them. But if you do decide to find out what they mean, you may just discover extremely juicy details of your ancestor’s past…
Gary, a retired accountant and family history researcher, did not ignore those scribbled two lines at the bottom of his ancestor’s marriage record. And he was very surprised by what he found.
Let’s Start at the Beginning…
Gary’s ancestors comes from Waldmünchen, Bavaria, Germany – and there are unfortunately few Catholic church records from there that have been digitized. Plus, the best documents about his ancestors were in German…for which he had limited skills. Gary knew that if he wanted to advance his family history, he would need to find a professional researcher who could locate the documents in Germany and who could translate them for him once she did.
Finding a Researcher…
On his quest for a researcher, Gary went on a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he was able to find and hire an internationally-known researcher who volunteered at the library. She was born in Germany, German was her first language, she could read the German script, and she made periodic research trips to Germany. Just what he was looking for!
Over in Germany…
Once over in Germany, the researcher started searching the Catholic diocese’s archives in Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany. There, she happened to find an 1803 document on the wedding of his 4x-great-grandparents, Sebastian Bauer and Barbara Schmidhuber, from Ast, Bavaria, near the Bohemian border. But the document did a bit more than just report on their marriage…
The Big Reveal…
While most of the handwriting on this document looked clear to Gary, the two lines at the bottom of the document were a scrawl – but they piqued his interest.
Luckily, the researcher was able to translate the priest’s extra comment at the bottom of the page – and you’ll never guess what it said:
Dieser erdrosselte sein Weib 1813 – 20. Apr. u. wurde geköpft in Waldmünchen.
In case you don’t speak German, this translates to:
This man strangled his wife on April 20, 1813 and was beheaded in
Well, that’s not something you find every day. Gary knew he had to find out more.
The Research Continues…
Through Google searches, Gary was able to find many articles on Sebastian’s beheading. One search of Google Books (a great resource for everyone – https://books.google.com/) even found a two-page newspaper article describing Sebastian’s confession – a wealth of information!
“Historical account of the crimes of Sebastian Bauer from Untergrafenreid, who was sentenced to death because of the murder of his wife and his old father-in-law:”
Even though Gary does not speak German, he was able to get a rough translation of this Fraktur article using Google Translate by taking the following steps:
- Create a jpg image of the document
- Copy the jpg to Google Drive
- Right click on the jpg in Google Drive
- Open with Google Docs
- Copy and paste text to https://translate.google.com
While Google Translate couldn’t provide all the details, it did give him a simple understanding of the newspaper article’s content. He then had a professional translator fill him in with the intricate details….
What Led Sebastian to Murder? It’s All in the Article…
So what led Sebastian, a 38-year-old weaver and son of a tenant farmer raised in the Christian faith, to be executed for murder?
According to the article, it all started with his marriage to Barbara in 1803 – the record of which can be seen above. Two years later, in 1805, he apparently went into the woods with his 77-year-old father in law. In debt from drinking and gambling, Sebastian wanted his father-in-law’s money – sooner rather than later. He therefore hit his father on the back of the head with his stick, eventually killing him. He then drug the body behind the bushes and arranged him in a way that it would look like he had died of natural causes. He got away with his crime – at first.
Now, Sebastian and Barbara had six children – two of whom were living at the time of the execution – during their marriage. But at some point during this marriage, Sebastian became “friendly” with the oldest daughter of a tenant (for the purpose of this story, we’ll call her Johanna), and she got pregnant. Fearing the judgement of other people, and especially of Sebastian’s wife, the two tried to abort the baby, but to no avail. It was then that they made the plan to kill his wife.
They first tried by gradually poisoning her – but that was taking too long. Sebastian, and, as he claimed, Johanna as well, decided things needed to move more quickly. Weighing the decision in his mind all of Holy Week before Easter, he finally decided to strangle her in the night as she slept.
His first attempt – on April 19, 1813 – didn’t work. Barbara woke up, and was, of course, terrified. However, that didn’t stop Sebastian from trying the next night. On April 20, 1813, he strangled Barbara in her sleep. She was 29 years old.
In order to again make it look like she died of natural causes, Sebastian pulled her out of the bed and laid her on the floor. He then cried for help, acting so distraught that the neighbors said they truly felt sorry for him and for his loss.
Her 1813 death record states that she died of consumption – which goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read.
Two days later, Johanna moved in to his house. And less than two weeks later, the pair was married. But all of this began to make neighbors suspicious. His wife had just died, and two weeks later, he marries someone else? Furthermore, it looked like Johanna could be pregnant…
To quash these rumors that he may have killed his wife due to Johanna’s pregnancy, Sebastian and Johanna (again, according to his account) decided to try to abort the baby a second time. He went to several towns searching for rat poison, and eventually was able to purchase some for a few kreuzers. The next morning, while Sebastian was sleeping, Johanna took the poison. However, she began to throw up violently, and Sebastian tried to help her by giving her olive oil, milk, honey, etc. – but nothing worked. After 37 hours, both she and the unborn baby died.
Now Sebastian’s father-in-law, wife, and his new wife were all dead. Things were starting to add up, and people began to look at Sebastian with increased suspicion. The bodies of Barbara and Johanna were taken and examined by the authorities, and it became clear that the causes of death were strangling and poison.
After being discovered, Sebastian confessed to everything. He was sentenced to beheading by sword.
Apparently, the executioner’s first attempt was unsuccessful, causing Sebastian to jump up.
That’s not your average family history.
Yet Gary’s research continues…
Ten years after Gary’s shocking discovery about his ancestor, he had the chance to find out more. At Gary’s request, his cousin, who was in their ancestral area working on a book, teamed up with a woman from Wisconsin and her German husband, to continue researching this gruesome part of their family history over in Europe.
And guess who they found? The actual descendants of Sebastian’s executioner.
These descendants told them that executioners were at the lowest rungs of German society, and the fact the executioner botched the execution did not earn him any extra glory.
The team was also able to visit the community museum of the German town yielded what is purported to be the axe used to behead Sebastian (perhaps the sword was changed to an axe?)….truly a gruesome sight.
So what were Gary’s takeaways from his research project? He said:
- It’s important to look at the entire document. Can you imagine if I had just ignored those two extra sentences at the bottom of the page?
- I learned how important it is to know when to hire a professional to research and translate. While I can get the gist of the document with my limited skills, nothing beats a trained translator to get the full story. You never know what you’ll find in German records.
Thank you, Gary, for sharing your family story and your research strategies with us!
Contributor: Gary Haas
Gary Haas is a retired accountant who uses computer skills to research family and local history.
If you would like to know more about the Bauer family history, check out the book Johann Sebastian Bauer: History and genealogy of the Bauers of Sinzendorf, Englmannsbrunn and Untergrafenried, Bavaria, Germany and Plain, Sauk County, Wisconsin by Kenneth L. Kraemer.
This post contains an affiliate link, which does not affect you at all, but does help support my business as I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate. This in turn helps me to continue supporting you with educational (I hope!) genealogy content.
As a genealogy translator, I’ve translated my share of old letters. While many of these letters simply speak of family matters, farming information, financial issues, etc., every once in a while, sage words of wisdom seem to jump out at me from across the page. Of course, these words of wisdom are meant for the letter’s recipient – but I choose to think of them as voices from the past, sharing their advice with all of us who may very well need it today.
Below, I’ve collected some of these words of wisdom from the letters I’ve translated the past few years. Dating from 1874 to 1945, on topics such as love, health, clothing, and life in general, it’s fascinating to see how, while the world around us has changed, humanity in general remains much the same. Read on and see what you think. What quote do you think most applies to us today?
1. Love is our most important weapon and nothing can resist it forever.
– Family friend to teenage girl, June 1920
2. Since you’ve been friends for a year already, you should know where you stand. There is no reason for you to be treated like a toy; he’ll simply get rid of you one day if he so desires. If you aren’t courageous enough to have a serious conversation with him, and you think it will lead to you two splitting up, then the relationship was never a good one anyway.
-Mother to daughter, April 1940
Nachdem die Freundschaft schon bereits ein Jahr besteht, solltest du eigentlich wissen woran du bist, es hat doch keinen Zweck daß du dich Jahr u. Tag hinhalten lassest zum Spielzeug, u. wenn es ihm einfällt hängt er eines Tages ab. Wenn du den Mut nicht hast zu einer ernsten Aussprache u. denkst daß es daran zum scheitern kommt, denn ist das Verhältnis ohnehin doch eine Aussichtslose Sache.
3. We are all still healthy, which I wish for you all from the bottom of my heart – as health is the best thing in this world, better than money and property.
– Father to son, August 1924
Wir sind soweit noch gesund, was ich Euch von Härtzen Winsche thun, den die Gesundheit ist ja doch das Beste auf dieser Weld, beser den Geld u. Gut.
4. I was more with the children than ever and never enjoyed them so much, and never so clearly realized that now is the time to enjoy them, if I am ever going to – for they will soon, if they live, have other things that will take them from me.
– Father reflecting on trip with children, June 1880
Original in English.
5. Always be well-dressed – people judge a great deal based on appearances.
– Mother to daughter, July 1939
Gehe nur immer gut gekleidet, man urteilt viel nach dem Aüßern.
6. It is only when times … are so hard and a person grants help to other people during such times that one can hope to be saved from the current bleak situation. We emerged from the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War; we will also need to raise ourselves out of today’s hardships if we don’t want to be completely destroyed.
– A suitor to his sweetheart, December 1919
[German no longer available.] Wir sind aus dem Wirrwar des 30 jähr. Krieges herausgekommen und werden auch aus dem heutigen Elend herausmüssen, wenn wir nicht ganz untergehen wollen.
7. Don’t despair. We’ve pulled through other bad times and we’ll pull through these times as well.
– Husband to wife, during World War II
…nicht verzweifeln. Wir haben schon … andere schlimme Zeiten überstanden und werden auch dies überstehen.
8. Keep your head up high and don’t lose your courage; just think, if something doesn’t work out, then you are gaining more and more experience.
– Mother to daughter, October 1938
Nur Kopf hoch u. den Mut nicht verlieren u. denke wenn etwas nicht klappt, du bekommst immer mehr Erfahrung.
9. Don’t think that our life here on earth should always be filled with joy and pleasure; no, it wouldn’t be good that way. That would make us arrogant, because pain, displeasure and want – if they are not too great – simply test us, influencing both this world and the eternal afterlife; that is why we shouldn’t despair in times of adversity and why we shouldn’t be arrogant in times of happiness.
– Father to son, October 1874
Denkt nicht daß das irdische Leben allezeit nur Freude und Genuß gibt, nein das sollte nicht gut sein das sollte uns übermüthig machen, denn auch Schmerz Verdruss und Entbehrung wenn dieselbe nicht ja hart eintreffen stellen uns auf die Probe und entscheiden über ein dieseits und ein einigest Jenseits; deswegen in Widerwärtigkeiten nicht verzagt und in Glück und Wohlleben nicht übermüthig.
10. In any case, my beloved, we are right to hope, as we are both still young enough and are only standing at the beginning of this uneven road called life.
– Marie Lustgarten to Isadore Colle, sweethearts, January 1898
In allen Fällen mein Geliebter, haben wir vor zu hoffen Recht, denn, wir sind beide noch jung genug und stehen daher erst beim beginne dieser unebenen Strasse, Leben genannt. – Irene Kaplan, January 1898, Marie to Isidor
And one final quote – while this isn’t exactly sage advice, it did make me laugh to think our stereotype of Germany hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years!
Germany in general is terrible regarding the drinking habits of the young and old, tall and short, rich and poor, everyone is yearning for beer, can’t live without beer, and is completely undone by beer.
– Man visiting Germany from America, July 1900
Es ist überhaupt mit Deutschland etwas Furchtbares betreffs des Trinkens Jung & Alt, Groß & Klein, Reich u. Arm, alles strebt nach Bier, kann ohne Bier nicht leben und geht noch völlig in Bier auf.
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.
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.
So you’ve discovered your family is from Germany…now what? If you’re anything like my family, you will want to go see the country for yourself.
My family is from Germany and Austria. Like many families, we can trace our ancestry to varying degrees. My mom’s side is relatively well-documented: her great grandfather came to the US from Esslingen, Germany in the 1800s, where he had owned a mill. There is both family lore and documentation to support the history. My dad’s side is more of a mystery: we know his grandparents both arrived in New York City, also in the 1800s, where they got married, had kids, and moved to the suburbs (the American dream, right?), but we can’t find much about their lives before their arrival. Like many immigrants, they may have wanted it that way. A fresh start, perhaps, that involved truly embracing their new country and its culture.
Whether your family history is well-documented or hard to find, there is plenty to be gained through travel. How? Read on for three different ways to do so.
- Take an Ancestry Cruise
For someone like my dad – who knows relatively little about his ancestry, but is eager to learn – something like the new Journey of Genealogy Cruise might be ideal. This cruise is the first of its kind; Ancestry.com and Cunard have partnered to offer a unique, in-depth genealogy experience. Passengers depart from London on November 4th and arrive in New York City after a seven-night journey across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. This voyage follows the path of many American immigrants who sailed across the ocean to New York. It makes perfect sense that Cunard has partnered with Ancestry, because one in five immigrants who arrived in New York City did so on a Cunard ship. Passengers get an in-depth look at their own ancestry, using the resources provided and the expertise of the cruise’s special guests, which include genealogy, history, and ancestry experts. Upon arrival in New York, passengers can add a two-night extension to explore Ellis Island and historic Manhattan.
I can also personally recommend adding a trip to the Tenement Museum, which does an incredible job of showing what life was like for immigrants in New York. In particular, there is a tour called Shop Life that features a German family’s saloon from 1870s New York. Other tours feature immigrants from various backgrounds; all tours are well-researched and well-presented.
- Take a Guided Ancestry Tour through Germany
For someone who knows a little more about his or her family history, I might recommend something like a Go Ahead Tours trip through Germany. Go Ahead Tours has also partnered with Ancestry.com to create an itinerary that gives travelers a general overview of Germany with a specific focus on ancestry. The trip is twelve days long and travels north-to-south through Germany, from Hamburg to Munich. Stops between the two cities include Bremen, Cologne, Heidelberg, Nuremberg, Ansbach and Rothenburg. Special ancestry-related tours include the BallinStadt Emigration Museum, the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, and the Hessenpark Open Air Museum. Genealogists will help you discover more about your family history before your departure, and expert guides will help you experience Germany and its history and culture during your visit.
- Design Your Own Trip with a Travel Advisor
The benefits of a group tour are clear: a pre-set itinerary with interesting people and a guide helping you along the way. But group tours are not for everyone. Perhaps you would like to focus more specifically on your family’s place of origin, the dates you can travel don’t align with the tour dates offered, or maybe you just don’t like groups. If you fall into this category but you don’t know where to start when planning your trip, I highly recommend using a travel advisor. A good travel advisor can help you determine your travel priorities. He or she can work with you to create a custom itinerary, which gets shaped and polished through a dialogue until it is tailored to your interests and is just right for you.
My mom falls into this category: she is an enthusiastic traveler, but appreciates having someone help her work out the details. She loves having an itinerary that includes everything from hotel check-in information to details about where to park in a given city, along with pre-booked train tickets with instructions for finding her particular train. If I were to send her on a trip to explore her ancestry in Germany, we would focus her travels in Baden-Württemberg, where her family is from. If she wanted, I might set her up with a local church or office official who might be able to provide her with more historical records about her family in Esslingen. Her travel priorities tend to include experiencing the local culture, so I might encourage her to travel during an event like the Freiburg wine festival, or have her go to a Christmas Market in the winter.
Wherever your family is from – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or Luxembourg – or wherever your interests lie – adventure travel like hiking or biking, or in cultural experiences like food, castles, churches, and town life – there is something to be gained from working with a skilled travel advisor. We can help you experience your family’s country of origin in rich detail, tailored to your specific interests.
Keri Forbringer is a Virtuoso Travel Coordinator with Luxury Travel Works based in Shrewsbury, MA. She can be reached at email@example.com.
World War II. Most of us know it from the American point of view – sons, brothers and sweethearts being sent overseas. Scrap drives, Red Cross fundraisers and Rosie the Riveter posters for those left stateside. My own grandmother Nancy (born in 1931) was a child in St. Louis, Missouri during this time. But what was it like to be a child on the other side of the ocean, right in the middle of the action? To find out that and more, I sat down with my Austrian husband’s grandparents, Joseph (Sepp) and Anna Schweighofer, born in 1940 and 1939, respectively. Here’s what Oma and Opa had to say:
Sepp and Anna as children in Austria, early 1940s
1. What was a normal day for you as a child?
Opa: I lived on a farm in a small village: Zell am Moos, Austria. My family had a cow, two horses, a bull, a calf, a pig, hens and sheep. We didn’t have a tractor, so we had to rake the hay ourselves. We would get up at 5:00 a.m. and do chores before school.
Sepp’s parent’s on their wedding day
Pic 1: Sepp’s family farm in Zell am Moos, Austria
Pic 2: Sepp (second from front) and his family raking the hay
Since we only had one teacher at our school, the older kids went to school in the morning, and then the younger kids went in the afternoon. After school we had to do more work on the farm. We usually didn’t have time for homework, but the teachers didn’t mind – They knew we all had a lot of work to do at home. If we had some time left over at night, we would do the homework then.
Oma: I grew up in Laiter, one town over from Zell am Moos and next door to where we live now. My family also had a farm, but much smaller than Opa’s. And it was a full house – my grandmother, aunt and two cousins lived there with my father, mother, sister and me. My grandmother was bedridden from the year I was born, 1939, until the year she died (1954). My aunt took care of her that whole time! We also had 2 or 3 cows, and my mother took care of all the farm work. My father was a rake maker for the farmers, so that kept him busy. Everyone would always come to our house to buy the rakes.
Anna’s parents on their wedding day
Anna’s family, with the rakes in the back right
My father was also the “Kapellmeister”, or music director, of the town’s band for 50 years – from 1920 until 1970. And the band practiced in our house! So between the rakes and the band, he had no time to help Mother with the farm work. I actually didn’t have to help as much as my older sister Frieda did. She was five years older than me and had to do everything.
Anna (bottom right) with her family
Our school was over a mile away (2 kilometers), and it took us about an hour to walk there with our little legs. We had no books, so had to copy everything down ourselves. When we got home we would do our homework and help around the house and farm. Sometimes we would visit with my cousin, who was ten years older than me. She could sew and make her own clothes. At that time, if you needed something, you made it yourself.
2. When I first met you, Oma, I was very excited to find out that your aunt was the cook for the real von Trapp family, since one of my favorite movies is Sound of Music! What do you remember about her?
Aunt Aloisia had a hard life. Her father had died young, and her brother was in an Italian prisoner of war camp for all of World War I. When she got married, she moved to Mondsee (author’s note: the location of the church where Maria got married in the Sound of Music). She and her husband had two children together. Sadly, her husband got into a bike accident one day and ended up passing away, leaving her all alone with the two kids. I wasn’t born yet, but she told us that she was at the doctor in Mondsee some time after that and was looking for a job in the newspaper ads. She found the advertisement for a job as a cook for the von Trapp family in nearby Salzburg – although the family was obviously not famous yet!
Anna’s Aunt Aloisia in her younger years, far left
Aunt Aloisia applied for the job and ended up being hired as the family’s cook. But that meant she had to move in to their house in Salzburg and leave her two little children behind with her sister, who lived with my family. Aloisia would come home to visit when she could, and sometimes she would even get to bring the von Trapp girls’ outgrown dresses home for her own kids to wear. Since I wasn’t alive then, I don’t really remember any particular stories, but I know she liked the family. In 1938, when the Captain and Maria decided to leave the Nazi regime in Austria to go sing in America, they asked my aunt to go with them. She was touched, but of course did not want to leave her own children behind. She stayed in Austria, and the von Trapps always made a point to come visit her whenever they were back in the country.
The house where the von Trapp family lived and Aloisa served as a cook: Aigen, Salzburg, Austria
3. Do you have any memories of World War II (1939 – 1945, Oma, birth until age 6, Opa, birth until age 5)?
Oma: One stands out in particular – my older sister and her friends would always take the train to school, which was in a nearby village called Frankenmarkt. But one day in 1944, when the kids were in their classroom, the Allies bombed the town and the surrounding railways. With the trains out of service, my ten-year-old sister and her friends had no way to get home. They ended up having to walk home all by themselves – a nine-mile walk, for ten-year-olds, and they didn’t know the way! Their parents back at home had no way of knowing where their kids were and if they were safe – they were really worried and had no way of contacting them. It was a scary day for everyone.
Modern Google Maps showing the walking directions from Frankenmarkt, where the school was, home to Laiter – over a three-hour walk, if you did know the way…
That’s one of my strongest memories, but I also remember that throughout the whole war, there were people that died from every house in our neighborhood. Houses would get notices that one of their male family members had died in the war.
I also remember the blackout curtains that we had to put up every night, so the planes couldn’t see us, as well as the tinsel that the planes would drop down.
Opa: It was tinsel that seemed to fall from the sky. We didn’t know why the planes did that, but maybe to mess with the radar signal of the German planes.
Oma: Well, for whatever reason they did it, we didn’t mind. We didn’t have any Christmas ornaments, so we hung the tinsel that we picked up off the ground on our tree to make it more festive!
4. Do you remember the war ending (Oma – age 6, Opa, almost 5?)
Oma: I remember that only one house had a radio, so all the men would go there to listen. We had known that Germany was losing for a while, so we were relieved when we found out it was finally over. And then the Americans came and they were really nice.
5. What was it like with the Americans occupying your part of Austria (1945-1955, Oma age 6-16, Opa age 5-15)?
Opa: When I was about nine years old, I came home to find an American tank on our farm, with American soldiers standing around it. They motioned to me, saying, “Come here, little boy!” I went up to them, and they politely asked me to go buy them beer in the village. They gave me 100 schillings (approx. $8.00), which was more money that I had ever seen in my life. I took the money, ran to the village and bought the beer for them. But when I got back, the American soldiers and the tank were gone! I waited for them to come back, but days went by and they never returned. This meant that I was left with all of the change from buying the beer – 90 schillings, a lot of money for a nine-year-old boy! I saved the money and eventually bought my first motorcycle using that as my start.
Occupation of Austria. Image Cred: Euromaidan Press
Oma: We actually had two American soldiers staying in our house, as did many other houses in our neighborhood. We were required to give them room and board. But they were really nice. I remember that they loved scrambled eggs – my mom would make it for them every day!
So the people liked the soldiers?
Yes, the Americans were really kind. The soldiers gave us kids chocolate and were always friendly. The people in Linz weren’t as lucky. They were occupied by the Russians, and that’s where you heard horrible stories of how the soldiers treated people.
People of Salzburg greeting U.S. troops. Image Credit: http://www.austrianinformation.org, Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps
6. What were those post-war years like?
Oma: Times were hard after the war. I remember we would hide bread if we got it so we would have it for later. We also had gray material that we had to make clothes from, and I remember that it was really itchy.
Besides the two American soldiers, we also had some other people staying at our house. A refugee from Czechoslovakia came to our village and ended up moving in with us. His wife and children also eventually came over, and we rearranged so that the family could have one room to themselves. They got more ration cards since they were refugees, and they would share the cards and the food with us. Eventually, they built a house next door to us and moved in there. It’s still standing today!
Anna’s family house in Laiter
We also had a Frenchman staying with us after the war. Both he and the Czech refugee helped around the farm and with the rakes in exchange for their room and board. One day, the Frenchman decided to leave, but I don’t know why. He left behind a letter for my parents to send to his family if he didn’t return. But since he wasn’t legally allowed to have been staying at our house, we were too nervous to send the letter. So we never did.
Opa: We had a Russian farmhand staying at our house after the war. He was very nice and very helpful around the farm.
6 . Moving forward a bit in time, how did you two meet each other (late 1950s)?
Opa: We were 18 or 19 years old. Oma was a waitress in Oberhofen (nearby village) and I came into the restaurant one day.
Oma: Yes, I remember he was sitting over in a corner, and I thought to myself, “Who is that good-looking guy?”
Opa: But nothing really happened right away. We had some group events and we danced with each other at those, and we also went to friends’ houses and spent some time together there.
Sepp and Anna’s wedding day, 1963
7. What were the first years like as a married couple (early 1960s)?
We built our own house that first year, and eventually moved in with our new baby Rosemarie. But when we moved in, the windows on the top floor weren’t installed yet. That was a problem, because our bedrooms were on that top floor. And as our luck would have it, that year was one of the coldest, snowiest winters we had ever seen. Snow kept blowing in our bedroom windows! Needless to say, we very much appreciated having windows that next winter.
Sepp and Anna’s house today, complete with windows!
When we built the house, we knew we eventually wanted to have a bed and breakfast, so we built it with that in mind. Laiter is right on Lake Irrsee and in the famous Salzkammergut region, so we hoped that guests would come from far and wide. We were so excited when we opened the doors in 1965. Our bed and breakfast wasn’t anything sophisticated – we just had one room for the guests, with six beds in the room. We didn’t have a shower, but we did have running water. Not every bed and breakfast had running water at the time, so we were very proud of that. And the tourist office made a special point of advertising that feature as well!
And the guests did come from far and wide! As soon as one car would leave, another car full of vacationers would show up. We had many visitors from Germany and other parts of Austria, but also from Hungary and other parts of Europe – we even had one man come all the way from Uruguay!
The guest book for the Schweighofer Bed and Breakfast
Since the guests took up one room, our four daughters slept together in the other. The guests loved our daughters and would often bring them presents. We would have repeat guests over the years, and we grew to have a special relationship with many of them. We would even send each other Christmas cards! Having the bed and breakfast brought us many happy memories and, best of all, many meaningful friendships.
Sepp and Anna’s four daughters, seen with Anna’s parents and two other grandchildren
Author: Today, Anna and Sepp still live in their same house in Laiter, which has also been home to many memories for their own growing family. Complete with four daughters and their significant others, five grandchildren and their significant others and five great-grandchildren (who, at ages 11 and under, have no boyfriends or girlfriends yet!), the family gathers at their beautiful home for every special occasion. As the lone American, I’ve been welcomed into their Austrian family with open arms – although maybe next time I’l have to follow in the footsteps of my 1940s countrymen and bring them all chocolates!
Sepp and Anna with their family on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2013 (and yours truly bottom right!)