Monday, August 20, 2012

Ancestral Home

For our 20th anniversary, I managed to make all the pieces fall into place so that my husband and I could take a week-long trip to Berlin. Why Berlin? Airfare was cheap, and it wasn't London (which I love but had been to twice) or Paris (which I am finally admitting is a city I don't love).

But there was a little thought in the back of my head. I've been doing genealogical research on my father's family, and I learned that his great-grandfather emigrated from Germany. I talked my husband into agreeing to an overnight trip to that small town in East Germany. He agreed. It was a 5-hour train ride from Berlin, and we decided to do it right when we arrived in Berlin.

A few weeks before we left for Germany, I found out that my great-great-grandfather had not only the 2 siblings I knew about but a total of 8 siblings, two of whom seemed to have lived into adulthood, both sisters. Armed with their last names, I sent a form letter, written in German with the help of Google translate and a friend, to every person with their last names in the area of their town. I gave them my address and e-mail address and a photo of my great-great-grandfather.

Within the week, I'd received a e-mail from the grandson of my great-great-grandfather's youngest sister. He is my grandfather's second cousin. Actually, his granddaughter (my fourth cousin) wrote the e-mail for him because he does not speak/write English. Hesitantly, I e-mailed back: "I don't mean to surprise you, but I am planning to be in your town next week." The response was surprising: utter and complete excitement. They insisted on meeting us at the train and inviting us to dinner and taking us around the town.

It was wonderful. They were truly wonderful, caring people who had never known their grandmother had siblings who emigrated to the US. It was 24 blurry (we were jet-lagged) but thrilling hours of talking and visiting other relatives and seeing the main spots in town. Here is one view of this beautiful town in Thuringia:

One of my cousins gave me two small porcelain heads made by his grandfather, a toy maker. I have to figure out how to display them. We were given photos and genealogical info and treated so nicely. I wanted to cry, not just for how generous they were but with how I wish my father had been alive to know about all this. I can't wait to share it with my uncle, who is on vacation in an internet-free location.

I'll write another post later about my feelings/education about East Germany, which is where we spent all our time. I was 23 when the Wall fell, and it's been 23 years. My relatives in Thuringia lived under Soviet/DDR rule. When we were in Berlin, we spent most of our time in East Berlin. I'm still trying to process all my thoughts/experiences.


AmyP said...

"Paris (which I am finally admitting is a city I don't love)."


I've never been to Paris and it was on my to do list, so please explain.

"They were truly wonderful, caring people who had never known their grandmother had siblings who emigrated to the US."

It being East Germany, that may have been a very closely guarded secret. People with relatives in the West were (at best) suspect in the East bloc.

I've also heard that a lot of people living in communist destroyed old letters and photographs and other precious genealogical materials in order to avoid incriminating themselves. That happened with a Russian family I know, and I've heard the same of Red China--apparently, there are almost no surviving photographs of pre-communist China within China itself. That stuff was simply too dangerous to keep.

Have you seen Goodbye, Lenin? I also like To Live, which is a Chinese film.

AmyP said...

Oh, and in China there was also wholesale government-sponsored destruction of anything old, just because it was old.

That fortunately didn't have a close analog in Eastern Europe. For all their other failings, people like Lenin and Stalin were on much better terms with their local high and traditional culture.

Incidentally, my family just hosted somebody on a similar fact-finding mission. It was the son of my grandpa's WWII Army captain (the captain was the doctor in charge of their aid station). The captain spoke little about his WWII experiences, but his son has since been collecting materials and making trips and has now more or less completely documented every single location in Europe where his father set up an aid stations.

It would be much more awkward to field questions from the descendants of the looting chaplain...

Wendy said...

I have been to Paris twice, and both times I have had major things go wrong. It just feels cursed to me. I also feel like it's not a comfortable place for me. I tried getting a hotel in the 5th arr. the second time, and still felt kind of alienated. I don't know what it was. Berlin felt like home, London felt like a wonderful smorgasbord of things to do, but Paris felt constricting somehow.

Re family and East Germany, I do get the impression that people kept to themselves a lot. My 4th cousin had never met her grandfather's first cousin (we all went over to his house when we were there). There were a lot of family photos and information, but nothing about the siblings of Mathilde, my g-g-gf's sister.

There is actually a book written about this town and its neighboring town, separated by the border, so I am going to read it as soon as I 1. stop procrastinating and 2. finish the syllabus for my new class this term.