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.

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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 1610. 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.