by Pat (Player) Richley, Myrt@DearMYRTLE.com
Copyright 1996 Heritage Quest Magazine, used with the author's permission.
It was a dream come true for any genealogist - travel to my immigrants' homeland, to learn about the customs of my ancestors, in addition to finding new names for my pedigree chart! I can now die a happy woman! As a descendant of Johannes Conrad Weiser, and Hans Jost Heydt (see William Knittles's Early 18th Century Palatine Emigration), I had looked forward to ( and saved for) my recent 3 week research trip for years!
Germany certainly lives up to its wonderful reputation! The picturesque Bavarian alpine villages, the mysterious Schwartzwald, great cathedrals, and castle ruins on the Rhein each inspire awe. The people are friendly, and it is quite easy to get off the beaten track and avoid typical tourist traps. The last ten days of the trip I traveled alone, and felt quite comfortable in the southern and western German states I visited.
While our primary purpose was to locate the hometowns of our German ancestors, we were mindful of visiting places of interest in the history of Germany. Accordingly, my companion and I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, although our ancestors had arrived in America long before that reign of terror. The bleakness and deafening silence of that place prompts thought for those who pay their respects by visiting. The barbed-topped concentration camp wall stands in stark contrast to the delightful town of Dachau where we spent our first evening.
From a technical point of view, I was prepared with a printout by locality (of birth & death) of each of my German ancestors. I used PAF (Personal Ancestral File) focus & design reports options. The usual reports only list birth date and parents for an individual. Having this locality-sorted list helped. When I got to a specific town in Germany, I referred to my printouts to remind myself which families I'd be looking for. I also used PAF to print out an annantafel chart, which Germans prefer to the pedigree charts we are more accustomed to using.
Perhaps my biggest misunderstanding of research in Germany was that I assumed I'd be able to look through old cemeteries, as I have done in my Pre-Revolutionary War Pennsylvania Germans. However, grave sites in Germany are not maintained beyond 25 years unless the family continues to pay for the plot. In that case, you'd see one large marker stating “Keller Family.” The church records would detail who all have been buried in that plot. Most cemeteries used the old stones for building projects. Only a few lined the discarded memorials against the perimeter fences. I found only the two memorial plaques placed in the late 1900s by family organizations which mentioned my actual ancestors. Let me mention that you must still visit the cemetery or Freidhof for each church or town. The graves are beautifully decorated with colorful plantings in interesting geometric patterns from the headstone to the foot of the grave. This gives the cemetery an unusual garden-like setting, which adds to the quiet peacefulness you are sure to find there.
Where I DID make excellent progress, particularly on my mother's side, was in using actual kirchenbucks (church books). Luckily each locality I researched was very small. There was only one evangelical church in the area. Since my ancestors came over in the 1709 group to London and then upstate New York, the civil records are not applicable/available. In Aspach, an elder of St. Juliann's church unlocked the door on a Tuesday, retrieved the oldest church books from the fire-proof safe behind the alter and allowed me free access for several hours. The oldest entries were in 1696, but the first few pages recalled information on existing parish members including some details of their lineages. The older book had been burned with the church during a disaster in 1695.
If I could give you any advice, it would be to become familiar with the old German Script and the usual genealogical shorthand marks as outlined in Larry Jensens's tutorials on researching Germany. (See Everton.com
Personally, I found the German people to be very outgoing and friendly. Not speaking fluent German proved no real hindrance to me. The older people (who have the keys to old churches or know the old surnames in the area) are not able generally to speak English. However, they will practically stand on their heads trying to get a point across. Most younger people take English in school, and can step in to help you when necessary. At the Conrad Weiser Library at Amerika Haus, Stuttgart, the librarians spoke English fluently. At the archives in downtown Herrenberg only one person in the entire four story building could be located to understand my request in English. Much smiling and nodding add to the general feeling of congeniality.
In Afstead, a tiny suburb of Herrenberg, a younger retired person who spoke German and French translated for me the spirited comments of an 85 year old man. This town history buff, and farmer by trade, was explaining the battles of the late 1600s fought by my ancestors and their compatriots in the Blue Dragoons. I was able to understand that the wives and children of the soldiers came with them to war. The wives assisted by cooking. That explained why my JOHANNES CONRAD WEISER was born in Afstead, Herrenburg, and not in Aspach, GrossAspach the ancestral town, a two hour drive northeast. The men could not leave their families at home due to the changing fortunes of war. The women and children would simply have been left defenseless should another invading army approach during the absence of the town's men!
I made a special point of obtaining copies of old woodcuts of the castles on the Rhein River as they looked when my ancestors traversed down the Neckar River and north on the Rhein to Rotterdam in the beginning of their great exodus. All but the Marksburg, and to some degree the Reinfels Castle lay in some degree of ruin due to the many battles with the French over custody of this important shipping lane.
At one point, during a boat trip on the Rhein, I was overcome with emotions. (OK tears, too!) I realized that my ancestors had come from a tiny town of half-timbered homes defeated by centuries of war. At the beginning of the Palatine movement, my Hite and Weiser families passed these huge ruins, once bastions of great wealth and world-renowned power. I could readily see and feel the shock as they realized the powerful families inhabiting these castles could not withstand the continual onslaught. What defense or future did my humble ancestors have if even these great fortresses succumbed to battle? Surely, they were saddened to the bone to leave their fatherland. Yet, what fragile hope they must have held that life would be better in England or elsewhere. They probably didn't dare hope for much, seeing the devastating destruction of such former symbols of glory.
Walking the ancestral land and properties of my ancestors, together with a side trip to Rothenburg on der Tabour (a restored 12th century walled city) gave me new insight to my beloved German progenitors. Funny how the places they ultimately settled in the Lancaster/Reading area of Pennsylvania are VERY like Aspach. The panorama of the rolling farmland is identical. Many of the same plants occur naturally in both regions of the world. The climate is quite similar. I had fallen in love with the Pennsylvania region as I lived in nearby Maryland. This summer in Germany I felt at home.
ANY ADVICE for those planning to go? Study your Berlitz tapes. The language isn't impossible! The money is easy to figure out. Be prepared for “Mayberry RFD” type small towns. The autobahn isn't THAT scary. I found I was easily cruising at 160 KPH. (96 MPH if my math is correct.) Read everything Rick Steves writes about traveling in Germany , France, Switzerland and Austria, because you are sure to spill over into those countries, too. You'd be sad to have missed a famous site if you were too busy searching for your ancestors in the next block.
PACK LIGHT! ...I had a small wheeled suitcase, which I divided into two-day segments of clothing. Every other day I transferred a clean batch of clothes to a folding bag, which GREATLY facilitated the trip to my room often up on the third floor with no elevator. I stayed in hotels twice and found them quite nice, but not close enough to the people to be truly interesting! You can buy all the notebook paper and any supplies you'll need, provided you understand all shops close between 1 and 3pm for lunch.
DO TAKE your camera, and some film. I found film in Germany cheaper, and the prints turned out great. Also bring a hand-held tape recorder. I used this to chronicle my travels while downshifting for sharp curves in the Black Forest, and waiting in line for a car ferry on the Rhein. I was also able to catch the bells chiming at several family churches! What a special thing to hear the actual bell ringing in the hour, as it did for them centuries ago. Obtaining a bell for the church tower was a landmark event in the life of a small town in Germany just as it was for the developing towns in the “wild west” of America.
My expenses included about 60-90DM per day for a room with a shower bath. The most I spent was 210DM in Heidelberg. (I was simply too tired to look any further that night.) A half tank of petrol for my VW Golf four-door hatchback was 39DM. I filled it about once a day, never letting it drop below half for safety's sake. A Mozart concert in Salzburg, Austria cost 28DM. Oddly enough my plane fare direct from Tampa to Dusseldorf, connecting to Munich was $420 US round trip. By comparison, my last two trips to Salt Lake City in spring 1995 were $480 round trip each!
When I traveled alone, I was in town by dinner time, and only ventured to a neighboring zimmer unless I had a new-found family of friends to accompany me. A hearty breakfast of yogurt, hard rolls and cold cuts was included with every night's lodging. I preferred bottled water at local supermarkets for 1DM to spending 4DM on a tiny can of coke! I dined at gasthauses every night for 9-20DM, with the average being 12DM for the best sauerbraten I've ever tasted! My least expensive meals were purchased directly from the baker, with cheese from the market. Fruit was plentiful in June. You will spot only a few McDonalds, where surprisingly beer is on the menu! This was the only place I was able to find ice cubes, and even then, they were seemingly rationed to four or five tiny chunks for a large soda!
For all our cultural differences, you'll find travel to Germany in search of your ancestors is like “going home.” You'll LOVE the clean doorsteps, flower boxes, great Alpine views. The castles are intriguing! I toured many, though my ancestors never DREAMED of owning such elegant places! Go there, enjoy the people, the food! Don't worry! Just do it! You'll come back just as enthusiastic as I have. I believe that we ALL should travel outside the United States. It puts things in global perspective!