(This is another special posting by my wife. I hope you enjoy it.)
I’d always know that my great-grandparents were immigrants from Germany. Well, almost all. On my mother’s paternal side the people were from Holland with some number of generations living in York, PA. Her father’s mother was an immigrant from England. On my mother’s maternal side they were all from Germany, well, except for my one great-grandmother who we were told was from Alsace which was Germany when she left, but is now France. On my father’s side they were all from Germany. Well, except we really know little to nothing about his father’s family who, at least, had a German name. As with many families of the migrations of the late 1800s or early 1900s we had lost contact with most of the relatives in the Old Country. Some of this was done intentionally, but often because it was just difficult to keep in touch. It was much more arduous to visit across oceans than it is today. In my lifetime I have watched the advent of jet planes for public transportation, then the government deregulation of the airlines, after which more and more middle-class people began to fly. Phone contact either didn’t exist or was prohibitively expensive, save for those who lived together in the same very narrowly defined area. Hardly anyone today remembers party line phones, which was what most people had until sometime in the 1960s. Again, it was deregulation that caused long distance phone calls to drop in price. Cell phones have made the very concept of long distance calls almost non-existent. However, for my parents, grandparents and before, long distance contact was through letters. Letters, unlike e-mail, do not come with instant gratification. We think about what we will put on the paper. We carefully select the stationery. The pen and color of ink is important. Each conveys a message. Love letters are often on floral paper and maybe scented, always written with blue ink. I preferred peacock blue. Letters from combat fronts often had the units insignia and a patriotic motto on both the paper and envelope. One carefully thinks about the choice of words because once sent, they are irretrievable. The latter should be true for e-mail and texting, but people don’t seem to think about it as much when communication is so rapid. With a letter, even if you send another the next day, it doesn’t come with the same mail delivery. The recipient may ponder it for hours, days, weeks. . . Even how one affixed the stamp had significance. Additional postscripts became borders to the envelopes. I still have a copy of a letter sent to my great-grandfather, who we all called Pop, by his father, upon the occasion of his engagement to my great-grandmother. It is in old, German script. I can’t read the letter because I cannot translate the script, and I don’t speak German. The very fact that it was passed down as part of our heritage shows the importance with which letters were regarded. The fact that it is the only letter from my immigrant ancestors shows just how completely the other branches of the family were lost.
Pop immigrated from the Black Forest in 1890, when he was 20 years old. He helped his wife bring her siblings to this country. Once they were here, Pop became the only one to maintain any contact with family in the “Old Country”. He became a US citizen before WWI. He only returned once, by himself, to see his family. He went between the Wars, so he could assure his mother, before she died, that he was doing well. After his parents were dead, he continued to write to his siblings. My grandmother continued writing to her aunts and uncles, as did her brother’s wife. After Pop’s death, Grandmom would take her letters to Aunt Emilie for translation or send them in English and allow the aunts and uncles to have them translated. When a letter would arrive, it would be in German, and everyone would gather to hear the letter read and translated. The contents would be memorized before the letter would be put safely away. Births, marriages, and deaths were all carefully tracked. They dropped contact during WWII, but resumed shortly after. So, when my father, a US Navy Chief, got orders to Naples, Italy my grandparents decided it was necessary for us to visit with the remaining family in Germany.
Thus, in July of 1961 we plotted our trip north through Italy, over the Brenner Pass of the Alps into Innsbruck, Austria, up past München, Stuttgart, and down the Murg River to Gernsbach and Hilpertsau. Grandmom and Aunt Emile had written letters to der Onkel, Pop’s youngest brother, to arrange the visit. The German relatives were warned that none of us spoke any German and given the date of our arrival. The day before we began our trip, we loaded our green and white Opel station wagon with our tent, cook stove, gas bottle, staple foods from the commissary and cotton clothes. Daddy had said that we would leave early, in an attempt to miss some of the heavy traffic, so we were to go to bed early. It was still daylight and I was excited. How could I possibly sleep? The persiana, a wooden blind with grooved slats that would rest inside each other was fully lowered, and supposed to darken the room. They seemed to glow with the outside light. The usual sounds of a summer night in the city of Napoli drifted into the room, which was getting very warm with the pesiana all the way down. I must have slept, but I don’t remember doing so. At 4:30AM, the folks gave up, we breakfasted, and were off, north out of the city toward Caserta. The city traffic wasn’t bad, but once we left the city we got caught in a line of carts going from their homes to the fields. The farmers in the province of Campana were still using colorfully painted, 2 wheeled carts drawn by any horse, ass, or mix that had four legs and could pull. The sun was coming up, it was summer and very warm and the carts looked like something out of a movie as they filled the lane in each direction preventing any car from passing. Eventually, they must have gotten to their fields because the road cleared. Soon we were approaching the outskirts of Rome. This was the one time we didn’t get lost in the city because we went around it and straight north toward Florence.
One of the best parts of traveling through Italy was lunch time. We followed our noses in a village that was along our way. We’d stop at a bakery and get a fresh loaf of bread, then a deli for some thin sliced ham and some Fanta, an orange soda. We’d find a small park or a wide spot along the road that was shaded by a tree where we would munch till not a crumb remained. The hardest part was after having gotten the bread, then waiting until we found a place to stop while the fragrance of the bread filled the car.
Daddy had taken most of his accumulated leave so instead of making our usual whirlwind trip from point to point we actually played at being tourists. Most European families, at least when we were there, went to tourist camps rather than motels. Every city we visited had one either in a lovely park in town or in a near suburb. We became expert at making camp once we found a place to pitch. Some camps allowed us to choose any place that caught our fancy, others assigned a spot. They all had mini-marts and wash room areas. Our tent had spring loaded poles. In the evening we would take them out of their bag, give a bit of a shake and they would form the outline of the tent. We then went to each joint and pushed the two pieces together until the frame was standing. Then the fabric part was thrown over the frame and Daddy drove the stakes into the ground. I became adept at asking for eggs for breakfast and a bottle of the local wine for dinner in the best I could reproduce of the local dialect. That was one of my delegated duties after we had gotten the tent up and Moma would begin cooking dinner. Jim was to set up the air mattresses and unroll the sleeping bags. The folks hoped that would tire him a bit as air mattresses needed to be blown up just like a child’s beach ball. In the morning, we reversed the process. While Moma cooked breakfast, the rest of us flattened the air mattresses, rolled the sleeping bags, took down the tent carefully unlocking the poles and folding them to fit into their bag. Daddy packed the car. We ate, cleaned up the stove, stuffed it in the back of the car, jumped in and were off.
Before leaving Italy we drove along the front of the Alps, and began to climb into the foothills. We had been driving with all the windows down. The day was beautiful and there was no air conditioning in the car anyway. We began to notice a change in the air. There was a mild warmth from the sun, but the air had a definite nip. The windows began to creep up, and up, until there was only a 1/2 inch open at the top. Soon that was closed as well. As we entered the Brenner Pass and Austria, the roadway improved and got steeper. There were many pull outs. Most were full with the many cars that overheated during the climb. Dad took it easy and our sturdy little Opel made the climb successfully. By the time we got to Innsbruck on the other side of the pass it was raining and the air was as cold as any we had felt in the year and a half we’d been in Europe. Between Innsbruck and München it snowed. Now this was 4th of July weekend. Daddy found the camp ground in München, we were, in good German fashion, assigned a spot, and we pitched our tent. We were still in sleeveless cotton tops and shorts. It was grey. It was wet. It was cold. We found the PX at the USAF base and bought corduroy slacks and sweaters for each of us. Upon returning to camp, we were sent to the showers where we discovered that to get any hot water we need to put phennig, the coins Germany was then using for money, into a box which would then give the showerer limited amounts of warm water. By the time we were clean we were really cold. That night we zipped all the sleeping bags together and snuggled to keep warm. We were really glad to get back in the car and its heater the next morning.
There is a story in our family of Pop’s sister, who at age 99 had died crossing the Autobahn. She thought she could get across before the approaching Mercedes got to where she was. Daddy decided to drive in the slow lane. Our poor, little, loaded Opel couldn’t keep up with those big, powerful Mercedes. None the less, we pushed on past Stuttgart, toward Baden-Baden, south along the River Murg past Gernsbach and into Hilpertsau. We almost missed it — both der Onkel’s house and Hilpertsau. As we left Gernsbach, Moma began searching through Grandmom’s letter for the specific directions and house address. Before she could get to the second page with the important information we were in Hilpertsau. As she found the house address we were abreast of it. It was a classic house for the Black Forest with the dark, exposed timbers. The front door was on the side street. We knocked on the front door which was opened by a lady who, though just a bit shorter, could have been my grandmother. This was Annele, Onkel Urban’s daughter. She ushered us in and up the stairs to the sitting room where we were introduced to as many family members as could be gathered in one room. The initial focus of attention was Martha Weiler, who was a distant cousin from Pop and Onkel Urban’s mother’s side of the family. She was to be our interpreter. There was a boy, Herman, who was Jim’s age. They were very alike. Neither wanted to be all dressed up in this room full of adults who weren’t quite sure how to begin. They were the first to leave so they could play. Jim spoke no German, Herman no English, and they didn’t care. I was introduced to Inge, Onkel Urban’s granddaughter who was my age, and a scattering of other girl cousins. Inge had just begun taking English in school. After some back and forth among the adults, we girls went to the kitchen. It was a wonderfully large room. Just inside the door was an alcove where high backed benches had been built along the sides and a table that left just enough room to slide along onto the benches. No one could be heavy in this family as they wouldn’t have managed to sit around the table and eat. Dieting forced by furniture. The seats of the benches could be released to open up storage chests. They explained that during WWII this is where they had hid downed American flyboys before getting them south to Switzerland. The price for that had been two brothers sent to the Easter Front to be killed in the war with the Soviet Union. Being young teenagers we tried to explain to each other how our schools worked, the differences and similarities. Inge couldn’t understand why I was studying Latin rather than German which would have been so much more useful. I really had no answer. Moma had said we would take two years of Latin, and I was sure any other language would be better. It didn’t seem like a topic to pursue. So on to the other important topic: boys. Neither of us were allowed to date so it was a meager conversation.
Meanwhile, in the sitting room, Moma had discovered a facility for German that she didn’t know she had. Her grandmother, Mom Kate, had decreed that in America, English would be spoken. However, when there were secrets to be shared between the adults, whether planning something fun or gossiping about someone, they used German to keep Moma unaware. Moma knew enough to listen, understand what was being said, and never utter a word in German. The summer before our visit, Moma’s best friend from their school years, Syb Hale, had been through and visited the Kalmbachers in Hilpertsau and us in Naples. Syb had studied German in both High School and College and was still reading papers in German. The Kalmbachers couldn’t understand her German and she couldn’t understand theirs, so they sent one of the children for Martha Weiler. Fortunately, she only live up the street. Hence, when Grandmom had said none of us had any German, Martha had been told to hold the day open to act as translator. Because both Pop and Mom Kate had come from southwestern Germany, Moma had heard and absorbed Plattdeutsch, not the Hochdeustch Syb had learned in school. As anyone who has worked with a translator can tell you, it is a slow process. Moma was impatient. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend and she had much to share. Something clicked in her mind and she soon was by passing Martha. Der Onkel had Annele bring up some of the fruit wine they had made for all to share. It was just like what Pop had made! Then it was camera time. Everyone trooped outside, Jim and young Herman were found. Both mothers stuffed in their shirttails and cameras began to click.
Moma, Daddy and I were very impressed with what seemed to be ephemeral pairings in the two sections of the family. Onkel Urban and Pop were brothers. We expected those similarities. Then it began to get a bit eerie. Pop’s daughter Katherine and Urban’s daughter Annele looked much alike and had many similar mannerisms. Urban’s son, Herman, bore a striking resemblance to Pop’s son, Edward. It wasn’t so much their faces as the way they related to those around them.
We only had the one afternoon with them. You may be wondering why, after so much anticipation and preparation we had such a short visit. Germany, in the early 1960s, was still suffering from the effects of WWII. No one had anything extra. One example was that coffee was extremely hard to get. Much of what they drank was stretched by locally grown additives. Some American military personnel conducted a black-market trade in American produced coffee by buying some at the Commissary on a Post and then trading it for German goods or services off Post. We left a spare can of coffee with the Kalmbachers as a gift. Inge and I tried to correspond for a short time. Her minimal English and my total lack of German made it unsatisfactory for both of us. My sister, Karen tried to correspond with another cousin, Sabine, for a time but it has stopped as well. I sometimes think of them and wonder how Inge’s and Herman’s lives have developed, and if their experiences are at all like what Jim and I have had. I don’t know how much contact today’s immigrant families maintain with family members in the “Old” country since communication and travel are easier and quicker. Our family’s contact with this branch seems to have ended with the third generation of Americans.
There is one more facet to this story. Several days later as we were “working” our way south we set up camp early one afternoon near Nice, France. We all wanted some beach time. The family in the tent next to ours was from Germany. We all greeted each other. Camping is a very friendly way to travel. We recognized them as German from their license plate. With her new found confidence, Moma began in German. During the course of the conversation the lady, asked Moma when she had left Germany.
“Four days ago,” replies Mom
“No. The first time.” responds the lady.
“Four days ago.”
“No. After The War, when you married your American.”
“Four days ago. The first and only time. I am an American.”
“Oh, I thought you were a War Bride.” opined the lady.
The last word:
My wife has a lot of fun going through hundreds of old pictures and boxes of paper records trying to put together our family history. The Internet has certainly made research easier. As in many American families, there are some threads that go back for hundreds of years, and some that seem to disappear in the mess that was late 19th and early 20th century Europe.
Keep your sense of humor.