You’re on a quest. That was Mark’s answer when I wondered aloud, in the middle of the trip, what, exactly I was doing.
Ever since our Germany trip last year, when I realized that I had been within a few miles of the birthplaces of some of my great-grandparents, I thought of going back. Seeing Mark’s grandmother’s house on the island of Brac, in Croatia, stirred my desire to do some digging for my own roots.
I didn’t think we would go back to Germany so soon. However, I have once again learned to be careful what you wish for. Mark had another business trip to Strasbourg like the one in June when we went to Paris. This time the trip coincided with the start of the major Muslim holiday of Eid, which is kind of like Christmas, and Mark had a week off at the end of the trip. We decided to take advantage of his free flight, reluctantly cancelled the plans we had already made to go to Oman – we love Oman, it’s like our Mexico in the Middle East – and booked me a ticket to Frankfurt.
The plan: to take it day by day. Meanwhile, with two weeks to research, I joined Ancestry.com. Both of my parents are German/Irish. All of my great-great grandparents on both sides of the family immigrated to America in the 1860’s. Fortunately, I had quite a bit of information already at hand. My cousin Sue compiled a family history of Dad’s side during the early 1990’s so I had the Schreiber/Kessler family tree and some other information from that in my computer. My Aunt Louise had done considerable research on my mother’s side, and I had a printout of her Youngblood/Schulte family tree.
Once I began building my family tree, the Ancestry.com website provided “hints” which I could view. I soon found that distant relatives had been busy on the site already, and I was able to corroborate information, add birth, marriage, and death dates, and narrow down birthplaces from regions to specific towns. Then, I mapped the towns on Google Earth.
There were two areas near Dusseldorf and Cologne where several small towns were clustered together, the birthplaces of relatives from both sides. Only Grandpa Adolph Schreiber was from the north, between Hamburg and Berlin. When I counted up the towns, they added up to … eleven! I didn’t expect to make it to all of them.
Mark picked me up at the Frankfurt airport on a Wednesday afternoon. We had eight days in Germany until my Etihad redeye flight on Thursday of the next week, with Mark following the next day in Emirates Business Class. The only hotel reservations we had made were the first two nights in Dusseldorf, at a Marriott Courtyard hotel. It’s a nice business hotel on the other side of the Rhine River from the Altstadt, or Old Town. We had agreed that this would a budget-friendly trip, as Mark earns Marriott points.
Days 1 & 2: Dusseldorf
Mark needed to unwind a bit after his week of meetings, so our main goal in Dusseldorf was to see the Altstadt. Dusseldorf’s tourism industry promotes the Altstadt as “the world’s longest bar” on weekends when the streets are lined with café tables where people are drinking inside and out at the beer halls. We were there on Thursday morning, arriving just as some of the shops and cafes where opening. This seems to be our pattern these days, usually avoiding the swarming tour bus crowds getting that “I was here” photo during the day and hordes of hipsters and other youngers roaming the planet in search of a good party at night. We get in early, and get out early.
Things were quiet. We wanted to try the city’s signature Altbier, a hoppy, amber colored brew that is light but richer and a bit fruitier than the clear, clean Kölsch brewed in Cologne. Ambling through town, we stopped in at the brewery closest to the river. Uerige has been brewing since 1862, and it operates the perfect, classic, rambling German beer hall. At 11:00 a.m. there were already a few groups occupying cozy corners in small rooms here and there, a main hall, empty this early but clearly well used by boisterous crowds, and a few tables in the front room where groups of mostly men sat, with perhaps one woman at the table. Everyone looked up and some greeted us with a “Morgen,” as we passed by on our look-around. We chose a table in the front room where we could watch the swarthy faced men and listen to their German conversation and frequent, hearty laughter. The bartender brought beers without our asking, and made pencil swipes on a cardboard coaster for each round consumed. Presently, he began to bring food to the other tables, which looked mostly like bagel sandwiches. I decided to hold off. I would be eating and drinking my way through Germany soon enough.
With a couple of rounds under our belts, we continued our walking tour of Dusseldorf, heading throught the outdoor market, down to the Rhine riverfront, then on to the Konigsallee, or King’s Lane, the “Champs Elysees of Germany,” with its Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores. On the way back to the parking garage, we stopped in a wine store. We are drinkers of wine more than beer, and Germany makes some delicious wine in the Rhine and Mosel regions.
As Mark was looking at bottles and getting advice, I thought to ask if we could taste before we made our choice. Certainly! Chatting with the young man who was advising us, I mentioned that I was looking for some family history. I mentioned the maiden name of one of my great-grandmothers, Krischer. “My girlfriend’s name is Krischer,” he said. We could be related! We’ll never know, and this was just the first of several examples of how common my German family names are. However, my search was for signs of my heritage in the landscape, not for people. We left the store with a few bottles, not all of them from Germany. Did you know that Lebanon’s Bekka Valley produces some delicious wines?
We were visiting Germany during the “shoulder season.” Between Oktoberfest and the December Christmas markets, is “wild” season, when restaurants feature dishes made with wild mushrooms, pumpkin, and game meats. Although Germany is famous for its sausage and sauerkraut, which I am proud to say I love, and its schnitzel and spaetzle, which I love not so much, they also serve many dishes that are based on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. We ate at the hotel’s Restaurant am Seestern both nights, which featured a special pumpkin menu. I had an absolutely delicious pumpkin soup the first night, garnished with roasted seeds, and a wonderful schweinfleisch (pork) and pumpkin dish the second night. It was a good start, food-wise.
Other things were not quite as great, such as the weather. The temperatures were in the 60’s and the sky alternated between gloomy and threatening. This was no problem, since we knew it would be cool and damp and had packed accordingly. In fact, I had been looking forward to wearing the warm clothes sitting in the closet in Abu Dhabi – my Italian leather boots and trench coat, and a scarf from Greece.
Without much time to plan the trip, we had the luxury of a completely open itinerary. We had nothing booked, so there was nothing to cancel. We had a comfortable rental car. It was rainy weather. We were on a road trip in Germany. Let’s hit the road.
We decided to head north to the Schreiber birthplace in Lubeck, just northeast of Hamburg. On the way, an hour east of Dusseldorf, was a cluster of ancestor birthplace towns. The first stop was Kirchveischede where my great-great grandmother Anna Asmann was born in 1825. It was rainy, everything was closed up, and there was nobody around, but what a charming village.
The small villages dotting this area are now collectively known as Lennestadt. It turns out that I have ancestors on both sides of the family who were born in four of the villages in Lennestadt. No wonder I love to wander in the woods!
The half-timbered structures, which housed people, cattle, and crops, were built in the late 18th century. My grandmother was probably born in one of these. This structure was built in 1784, renovated in 1982.
At the time of Anna’s birth in 1825, the population of the entire village was about 300, a 25% increase from the previous century – a population explosion that had begun in 1775. Back then, people subsistence farmed. As the population increased in the 18th century, arable land in this hilly, wooded country was scarce. Landless people lived with landowners or in outbuildings and worked as laborers or artisans. Political turbulence and lack of improvement in the economic structure meant times were hard.
During the years that Anna was growing up, many people emigrated, and Anna’s family was among them. They immigrated to Detroit in 1935, when Anna was 10 years old. In 1849 Anna married Christopher Kessler, who was from St. Vith, a town 100 miles to the southwest of Kirchveischede in what is now Belgium. More about St. Vith later.
In the late 19th century, after Anna’s departure, the tobacco and cigar industry brought economic opportunity to the area. Today, people work in industries such as mining and metal processing, and the area’s natural beauty attracts recreation enthusiasts for hiking and biking. If the weather had been better, we might have elected to stay around and explore the beautiful countryside, and patronizing gasthauses and biergartens.
Every city, town, village and hamlet in Germany features a church, which I was drawn to in each village. I wanted to look at the cemeteries, and see if I recognized any names. In Kirchveischede, I found graves with names from both Dad’s and Mom’s side of the family – Assman, Klein, and Schulte. They were for people who lived in the late 19th-20th centuries. Nothing older. No graves of people of Anna’s era, or earlier.
I had a printout of an old postcard, and I thought maybe I could recreate the shot but the black and white picture was too dark, the quality too poor. I can’t even make out the church steeple.
I think that perhaps the post card picture was taken from the ridge on the opposite side of the valley from where Mark and I drove to take this photo.
After spending some time exploring the church and grounds, it was time to move on to some of the other villages in Lennestadt where my ancestors were born – Odingen, Cobbenrode, and Eslohe.
We bought bread at the Schulte bakery. My great-great grandfather Anthony Schulte was born in Cobbenrode in 1818. Anthony emigrated, and he married Elizabeth Blanke, who was born in 1825 in Minden, about 25 miles northwest. In 1853, they were married in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Detroit. How, when, and where did they meet?
We stopped in a little grocery store on the ground floor of a house in Cobbenrode, similar to the one we found on Brac in Croatia. I brought out my family tree and tried to explain that my Schulte great-grandfather was born there. The two women running the store looked at it, and shrugged a little, then beckoned a man over whose name was apparently Schulte. He looked at the names, shook his head, and said, “Interesting.” Yes, they all agreed. Interesting. But nothing more.
A great-great-great grandfather on my Mom’s side, Johannes B. Schulte, was born in Odingen in 1782. His wife, Maria Emmerling, was from nearby Eslohe, where she was born in 1788. They died in 1849 and 1847, respectively. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any graves that old in any of the villages. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places. Maybe some day I can visit again, with a bicycle, in sunny weather, and look more closely. I figure, based on those good Schulte genes, I have lots of time.
It was fall, the colors were beautiful, but it was also raining miserably, and Mark didn’t feel good. In addition to a pain in his gut, which comes and goes depending on what he eats, he was coming down with a cold. Yeah. So, while I traipsed through graveyards in the rain, he waited in the car. We stopped at a bakery where I got my coffee and strudel fix, he had tea, and then we hit the road for Lubeck.
We arrived in Lubeck at dusk and checked into the Hotel Excellent on the edge of the town center, which is on an island in the Trave river. The hotel building once housed the immigration office. We had to haul our heavy bags up two flights of stairs, but our room looked out onto the water.
We walked into town for dinner and on the way back it began to rain. That night I woke up to hear a wild thrashing, and looked outside to see the trees outside our window whipping in the wind, rain beating down on the street, and waves on the water.
The melancholy weather wasn't going to deter me, but it added to my sense that I was traveling back in time, to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors, and to learn a little about what life in Germany was like for them.
Next: A taste of Lubeck, and on to Berlin.