Sunday, February 25, 2018

About Blog Post Comments

Family History Jigsaw Puzzle

I’ve written over 100 blog posts since I began “Village Life in Nineteenth Century Kreis Saarburg,” and I really enjoy it when someone leaves a comment. I am especially happy when someone says the equivalent of "good work" about a post. What a pleasure to find a "thank you" as was the case with this one:

"Thank you, Kathy, for sharing all this information. I am reading your blog posts and also starting to read your book which I recently purchased. You have done a great service to those learning about their German ancestry. Danke, danke, danke. Curtis"

In addition to compliments, people write a comment because they are happy to find the answer to a question they have never been able to find before. Others want to tell me their ancestors and mine may have been relatives or neighbors or want to know about a picture I used with the blog. Occasionally I get a comment that tells me I made a mistake and being human, I don’t like hearing that. Still I’m glad to know about it so I can correct my post. Most surprising is that some curious readers also check the entire list of comments from others and generously answer a question which I couldn't.

However, it has always bothered me that when I or some reader leave a reply to a comment, I don’t know if the commenter ever finds it, especially if it is posted months or even years after it was made. Most commenters do not leave their e-mail address and so there is no way to notify them.

That is a long explanation of my reason for writing this post; to try to prevent good information from getting lost. The following is an example of a recent comment that solved a problem mentioned by a much earlier commenter/questioner:


“Wow, this is great. I am working on some of our genealogy and am really running into a lot of stumbling blocks. One relative, now deceased, thinks that our Miller family came to the US (New Orleans) from Le Havre but I am having a hard time confirming it. All indications are that they were from "Kirberg Bavaria Germany" but I can't find a Kirberg in Bavaria, but only in Hesse.”

Sometimes I will be able to help with a problem like this, but in this case I evidently didn’t find Kirberg Bavaria either. The original comment was probably asked a short time after I wrote the post.  In January of this year, 2018, I received a surprising comment on that Le Havre/Kirberg question  from Klaus in Germany:

“Hallo, just found this utmost informative page in search for passenger-lists from LeHavre to USA. I think I can help to the Kirberg-Issue:  There is a Homburg-Kirberg, part of the City of Homburg, Saarland (see: It belongs to the Saar-Pfalz-Kreis (Saar-Palatinate). Palatinate was bavarian from 1816 til 1920. (see:

Thank you Klaus! I am sorry to say that well-known genealogical speakers, never give more than lip service to the port of Le Havre. My post on Le Havre is one of the few places to get information about the circumstances which caused ancestors from certain parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria  to choose the Port of Le Havre in France when sailing to America. (My Bavarian ancestors left from Le Havre too).  Since the Le Havre passenger lists can't be found, web searches continue to find my articles on Le Havre.  Klaus didn't find it until seven years after I wrote it.  Unfortunately, the links he gives are in German.  But if you want to know how Kirberg became Bavarian around the time these ancestors came to America, this website in English gives an explanation: Kirberg in the Palatinate

Any of the comments about the 100 plus posts I've written, especially those that answer questions or give additional information, can be valuable but do they ever find the family history searchers who need them?  I think the chances are slim, but they may be a little more findable if I highlight them.

That is why I’ve decided to post such comments as a separate entity; i.e. a separate post with the picture above, whenever I receivethem.  It may make for a very short post, but at the very least, the regular readers of my blog will see them. There is also a good chance that Google and other search engines may turn them up as separate subject entities. That will be one more way to help searchers find another piece of the family history puzzle.

So thank you for reading comments and helping whenever you can.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Kirmes Celebration

Saint Laurentius Church in Zerf

Saint Wendalinus Church in Oberzerf

What is Kirmes?  Growing up in Calumet County in eastern Wisconsin, I seldom heard the word "Kirmes" until I began my first librarian job in the public library in Green Bay.  People there knew it as a yearly celebration in two smaller towns to the north, Brussels and Luxemburg, obviously originally settled by people from Belgium and Luxembourg.

It was quite a surprise when my research on my ancestors' Rhineland culture and customs told me there were Kirmes celebrations in my ancestors' villages of Zerf/Oberzerf, Irsch, and Serrig as well as almost every village in Kreis Saarburg.  Considering the proximity of this part of the Rhineland to the borders of the small country of Luxembourg, I realized it was not surprising to find that my ancestors' part of the German State of Rheinland Pfalz,  I began to look for a description of how the villagers celebrated a Kirmes in my 2nd great grandmother's time.

Cover, House of Johann
I began each chapter of House of Johann, my historical novel with a cultural or historical background paragraph to help explain the lives of the family of Johann Rauls my 3rd great-grandfather. and his family.  It was meant to help the reader understand the events in each chapter.  

Here is some of the material I used to write that paragraph plugged into such a paragraph.

Chapter 19 - Kirmes Celebration – October 1845
One of the nicest celebrations of the year was the Kirmes (Church fair). It was an opportunity to once again see friends and relatives, for feasting and for high-spirited dancing and celebrating.  The wife of the house cleaned everything to a high luster: the walls of the kitchen were freshly whitewashed; windows and floors cleaned spotless; the copper polished and the furniture washed down. The husband thoroughly cleaned stalls, stables, and farmyard and moved the manure pile out of the area.* The Kirmes guests arrived on foot or by wagon. They were all dressed in their Sunday finery. The table in the 'Stube' was laden with good food, there was lively conversation and everyone felt refreshed and happy with life". 
Not all of the information I found would fit into one paragraph.  Here is a bit more about he Kirmes festival.  The celebration was closely tied to the villager's religion and the Catholic church of the village.  It was celebrated on the Sunday closest to the feast day of the church''s patron saint.  In the case of Oberzerf, location of the house of Johann Rauls for instance, the celebration was on the October Sunday closest to the feast Saint Wendalinus.   In nearby Zerf Kirmes was celebrated in August, on the Sunday that was closest to the feast of Saint Laurentius.

As I wrote in the Chapter 19 introduction, Saturday was an important part of the Kirmes festival.  There was no celebrating on this day.  Everyone worked from morning to night in preparation for visitors on the next day.

The Kirmes meal was served in the sparkling clean Stube; the table full of the special foods which had been planned for and partially prepared on the day before.  Family and friends sat down at a typical dinner feast such as a large ham, potatoes, and sauerkraut, with wine or Viez to drink; then perhaps a small Schnapps to aid the digestion.

The young were especially anxious to make their way to the church grounds for their customary competition.  A common type of contest was a bowling match with a fat goose as a prize.  By late afternoon, music for dancing began, often continuing to the early hours of Monday.  This was what the young men and girls had been awaiting and while older couples also enjoyed the dancing, it was the young ones who seemed never to tire and danced into the early morning hours.

Some of the guests who had traveled to attend the village Kirmes left in the evening or stayed overnight with family or friends who lived in the Kirmes village.  Before anyone left for home, the women of the house would present, wrapped in a clean napkin, a small packet of food from the Kirmes dinner for the guests who were leaving and also for any one of their family had not been able to come to the Kirmes celebration.

I' come from a small Wisconsin village and remember the "Church Picnic" held in summer each year.  Our Wisconsin Village of Sherwood near Appleton was probably 90% German at that time, almost 100 per cent Catholic, and surrounded by outlying farms whose resident made up a major part of the church congregation. There were beer, hamburger/brat, and ice cream stands, a church social dinner with three or even four repeat settings, games kids could play, and the music of a polka band.  Our relatives and friends from nearby townships or cities sometimes joined us.  It's very possible that those church picnics descended (with quite a bit of Americanization) from the Kirmes celebrations so common in the villages of Kreis Saarburg in the nineteenth century.

*(In case you were wondering, the manure pile usually was usually kept in the front of the house barn.  The explanation for what to us seems unusual was a matter of convenience since all of the barn doors, just like the house doors, opened to the wide street which was already littered with dung from the horses or oxen that trod  on it on raw way to distant fields.  A farmer's fields did not surround his house)

Ollinger, Josef,  Geschichten und Sagen von Saar und Mosel
Morette, Jean, "Landleben im Jahreslauf"
Croon, Maria, "Die Dorfstrasse."

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Usual Question

 Review of HOUSE OF JOHANN by Emma Burns
Huntley Happenings, Sept, 2017

When I began this blog, VILLAGE LIFE IN KREIS SAARBURG, RHINELAND, it was with the intention of organizing my research on the history and culture of German families in the 1800s and from information accumulated (and also shared in my blog) to write a historical novel about my ancestors and their lives before they emigrated to America.

"Why are you doing that? " Some people could not understand why a genealogist would want to turn genealogical facts, discovered after laborious searching and careful recording, into a novel; a piece of fiction. They seemed to believe that fictional touches to the genealogical facts somehow changed the facts. But my intention was always to makes sure that did not happened.

When given a choice, I have always preferred to learn history by reading a well-researched historical novel rather than a history or biography. A historical novel will imprint a previously unknown place and time on my memory by giving life to the people who took part in those historical events, especially their very human reactions to the conditions of the time and place. I wanted to learn even more about the events that brought joy or difficulty to the characters that I had come to think of not as names on someone's family tree but as real people I cared about.  For instance, after reading "THE CYPRESSES BELIEVE IN GOD," and meeting brothers Ignacio and Cesar and their sister Pilar and aching with them and their whole family as they found themselves divided by loyalty to many groups; the conservative Catholic Church, the socialistic Republicans, anarchists members of the Falange, and Catalonian separatists, they began to turn away from each other and take different sides.  After I finished that historical novel, I read all I could find about the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to1939 to help me fully understand a complicated situation that still causes discord now.

Naturally I set out to find a good historical novel about rural Germany before my ancestors immigrated to America ) from 1826 to 1872.  The histories or biographies could wait. I wanted to get to know my ancestors as real people and see the views they saw through their windows.

My search for a novel about life in 19th century Germany was a failure because there weren’t any such novels in English. There weren't any non-fiction books on the culture of that time either, not even in German or at least none that I could locate in libraries, bookstores or on line.  But there were some almost unknown local histories and the wonderful stories of Maria Croon who lived in the Rhineland in the early parts of the 20th century that gave me a lot of what I needed to know.

I took the advice of the brilliant author Toni Morrison who has said, “If there is a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  Since the bookshelves in libraries and bookstores in America and Germany could not give me what I wanted to read - a novel about the generation that decided to emigrate to America - there was still one option open to me: to research and write "HOUSE OF JOHANN" and perhaps the continuation of their story in a "Yesterday's Rhineland" series.

I decided to use my 2nd great grandmother Magdalena, her parents, siblings and her future husband as my characters, since  Magdalena and her husband Johann were immigrant ancestors.  I included parts of family stories about them.  Every date and place, including field, forest and stream names, are accurate enough to be safely taken from my novel to fill out family group sheets.

We all have had relatives who slowly backed away when Aunt Emma began to explain how her husband Norbert was related to great Aunt Anna who married the son of Hans Fischer, a double cousin of Peter Fischer.  However everyone would listen and laugh at the story about the time Aunt Kate climbed up on the teacher's desk and turned the hands of the classroom clock ahead when the teacher went outside to have a drink from his flask.  She and her classmates left the one-room schoolhouse an hour early that day. I used family stories like that one in the  "HOUSE OF JOHANN" and also made up some new ones.

My favorite step in writing the novel was to let my imagination tell me how all of those ancestors felt as they spoke, worked, played and dreamed moving through the days, months and years between 1827 and 1845. It changed none of the genealogical or historic facts, but like an unverified family story, added something anyone could read with pleasure, as did a reviewer, Emma Burns.  Her non-genealogist reaction to the book are given in the picture of her review at the beginning of this post. I know from that book review of "HOUSE OF JOHANN" that the story convinced a person who regularly reviews all kinds of books that a historical novel about ancestors can be a page turner.  She appreciated my novel just for the pleasure of the story.

NOTE:  Since the picture I took of the review of HOUSE OF JOHANN by Emma Burns in the weekly newspaper, "HUNTLEY HAPPENINGS, is somewhat difficult to read, here is a typed copy:

"House of Johann" is the story of the struggles of a rural German farm family in the 1800s. This newly released book is available on Amazon.

Kathi Gosz, a former librarian and avid genealogist, captures the difficult life of Johann and Maria Raul, and their seven children.  The reader quickly gets caught-up in the lives of each family member, from childhood through marriage, as they encounter the everyday challenges of life in Germany's Rhineland. The Rauls are Gosz ancestors.

Gosz writing is crisp, charmingly descriptive, and informative.  Each chapter begins with a brief description of German history and culture made alive within the chapter.  Details ranging from meal preparation, farm work, and everyday chores are not overlooked.  If you are of German decent, you will particularly enjoy how Gosz works in holiday and family rituals within this fascinating story.

The crux of this historical fiction is the relationship of father Johann and his children after the death of Maria.  Johann's inability to cope leads him to seek the help of Maria's cousin Eva, a spiteful and insensitive woman.  The consequences are seen in the lives of his three oldest daughters as one by one they leave the farm to escape the unhappiness caused by Eva.

Sun City resident Sue Vanderberg, and a long-time friend of Gosz, introduced me to "House of Johann."  After reading several of my reviews, Sue offered me a copy of her friends' first novel about her ancestors.  Even though I am not of German heritage, I raced through the book, eager to know the outcome for each of Gosz fascinating characters.  The story ends with the hint that Johann is planning on coming to America, making way for a second novel in the near future with an eye on daughter Leni. 

Paperbound book available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and bookstores.
E-book downloadable at 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sail Away from Le Havre

At the Port of Le Havre

Our ancestors' trip to America. I imagined it many times and read good articles to help get a picture of what these very brave people had to deal with as they left their homes, made their way to the Port of Le Havre, and sailed away.  I often tried to imagine what they were thinking as the ship left the harbor with the ocean in front of them.

To help me along my sister translated an 1844 article about leaving the Port of Le Havre on a trip to Caen in 1844.  The author, J. Morlent, was not traveling very far.  Once the boat left harbor, he would be sailing along the coast of France. The length of the journey makes no difference.  The experience of our ancestors would have been just as Morlent described it.  What he described was each thrilling movement of the ship as it left the harbor.

The captain did not just put the ship into reverse, swing around and sail away.  Pulling away from the place where the ship was moored was complicated and could be dangerous.  Obviously I am a landlubber and clueless about the very beginning of a sea journey; most likely so were many of the 1844 passengers.  Therefore I give you the rather flowery words of Monsieur Morlent and, in boldface, my less flowery interpretation of what he is describing.

Monsieur Morlent: "A few minutes ago, it lay stranded lifelessly on its bed of mud, our lovely steamer, awaiting the tide that would softly lift its graceful bow, and the tide come to reclaim it where it had left it and deliver it to its frolic without danger.  See the meekness with which it acquiesces to the movement that the tide dictates, as it awakes and takes life, as life returns to it; a slight shifting of balance, already it no longer clings to the ground : one could say that it is in a hurry to distance itself from the damp walls that mask its flanks and hide its slender shape and its stylish carriage."   
Interpretation: When the tide is right for departure, the ship is already moving slightly on the waves - the first time people who had always  lived on land became aware of the need to develop sea legs.  It is coming out of the walled dock that has held it steady up to now.)

Monsieur Morlent"Already the three strokes of the bell have sounded. The steam escapes with a sharp whistle from the long, metal tube that surrounds it and, noisily, the steam spreads in a white-ish cloud and redescends in a pinkish color on the forward and back parts of the boat, according to the direction of the wind which should shorten or lengthen our water excursion. The dockside is filled with a triple row of the curious who come to cheer our departure: there, is said a last goodbye; there, the hands of friends grip each other … but the speedy propulsion blades of Le Calvados are in motion. They have moved our sailing ship and the words “good trip,” “write to me,” intersect and lose themselves in the air in the middle of the commotion. Already the absence has begun. Words are powerless to make understood the last declarations of friendship, of affection or of politeness. It is the gesture that replaces the word while, quickly disappearing, the merciless engine takes the ship which turns and swims in the foam, leaving behind on the waters its plumes of mist."
Interpretation: The many people on the shore shout their farewells and good wishes, which at first can reach all ears on the ship but which become more faint until the sound is gone.)

Monsieur MorlentThe steamer moves proudly in front of a flotilla of little unmoored boats, vigilant sentinels of the waterway, who never fail at their assignment; it is in these small boats, of such miserable appearance, that our intrepid pilots hurry to rush into the middle of tempests, to take it can be said, by the hand, the big ship in peril, and to guide it to harbor, across the dangers that bristle at the entrance; how many pay with their life for this generous recklessness.  At the foot of these walls, beaten by the surf, lies a bank of pebbles called the southern shingle-bank. It is a deadly danger to ships who miss the entry to the harbor and then are broken by the tempest in several hours and scattered on this beach, famous, each year, for more than one shipwreck. It is the despair of the sailor who, escaping the dangers of a long sea voyage, is cruelly run aground only several feet from the object of his efforts.
Interpretation: Leaving the safe harbor, the ship encounters the sailors who mann the small, battered boats at the risk of the dangerous waves, trying to prevent the impressive large sailing ship from running aground and breaking into pieces because the ship's pilot misjudged the entry to the harbor.

We skirt the northern pier, the favorite strolling area of foreigners, maintained with a care that resembles flirtation, and visited every day by a large portion of the population of Le Havre, of which it is the meeting place at the time of high tide. A belt of granite surrounds it, a small beacon ends it, and its straight platform often has difficulty containing the crowd that jostles together to participate in the impressive spectacle of the entrance or the exit of ships, whether the sky is clear and the breeze light or whether the wind blows violently and the gray and tempestuous waves darken the strange panorama.
Interpretation: Every day, especially at high tide, crowds of people who are from both Le Havre or foreign places stroll in a special area and watch with fascination as arriving or departing ships move toward or away from the granite wall of the harbor regardless of the weather.  The strolling area is protected by a "belt" of granite with a beacon at its end.

Monsieur Morlent: "But this lovely and strong belt of granite is often powerless to protect it from the shock of ships that are abruptly pushed by the swell. One of the first days of February, last year, the American ship The Emperor, upon entering into the harbor, hit it so violently that it overturned three foundation sections of the wall cap and shook the others at a height of over eighteen feet. The stem of the ship was almost crushed. When one has seen the piers of Le Havre, built in blocks of the granite of Cherbourg, linked together by iron bolts and encased in cement, which has the hardness of rock, one is struck with amazement that the motion of the sea can succeed in overturning these constructions that appear to be resistant over centuries."
Interpretation: Granite walls as high as 18 feet are no match for the power of the water that smashes into the Le Havre harbor.

Monsieur MorlentWe have passed the pier and already the city escapes us. On a long line, that appears winding from the south to the north, are displayed in the foreground the floating warships that protect the shoreline, the ovens that forge cannon balls, a gunpowder factory, and the shipbuilding yards, above which are displayed the frames of these beautiful ships of commerce.
Interpretation: Morlent paints an excellent word picture of harbor as a ship moves away and passengers can see the last views of the city of Le Havre.  For some, that view can be their last look at the European continent.

What courage our ancestors had. I wonder how many of them, looking at the scenes Morlent describes above, wondered if they had been a little mad when they signed the contract that took them away from solid, steady earth and positioned their feet on these precarious, unmanageable waves.


Illustration from L'histoire des Antilles et de l'Afrique

Seconde édition.- Le Havre : J. Morlent, 1844. 76 pages. 2 f. de pl. ; 16 cm. (Translation to English by Marilyn Gosz, 2012)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Does Anyone Have a Map?

I used to think that people were exaggerating when they talked about having an epiphany.  But I think I had one a couple of weeks ago, and it had to do with my some 30 years of pursuing my own genealogical history with a blindness to one of the most important things any ancestor hunter should include in the story of their ancestors.  But first let me tell you a little about the inspiration for my novel, HOUSE OF JOHANN and how it fits into my "epiphany."

Years ago when I was in my early 20s, my grandmother told the story of her own grandmother, Magdalena Rauls, who was said to have been French, to have run away with a young man, a sailor from Germany instead of marrying the man her father had chosen for her.  I was fascinated.  I thought that young Magdalena had crossed the border from France into Germany, probably experiencing many hardships on the difficult journey, in order to join her true love, the sailor.

After a few years of genealogical searching and locating many ancestors on both sides of the family, I discovered that Magdalena was as German as her true love, a young farmer.    I was disappointed with the false family story Grandma told. But eventually I realized that I had somewhat misinterpreted Grandma's words.  She didn't say that young Magdalena had run away from France; she merely said she was French.  It was probable that sometime in the 17th or 18th century one of her ancestors and his family did come from the French area close to the German border and settled in the area around Saarburg in the Germanic part of the Rhineland.  Oberzerf is quite close to the French border.  The Rauls probably became well known for having French roots.  (
I also figured out the "sailor" part, once more it was my romantic misinterpretation).  The story once again had the power to fascinate me.  

Since I had alway wanted to write a historical novel, I started to think about chosing this branch of my family tree with daring Magdalena and her father and siblings as the main characters. The HOUSE OF JOHANN, published in January of this year, was the result of what I had originally regarded as a false family story. 

While I was working on my novel, I was asked to give a talk to the German Interest Group in Janesville Wisconsin about my research so 
I told them the story of my French/France mistake as a warning to be aware of the geography of your ancestors' homeland.  I called the talk “The View from My Ancestors’ Windows.”  My point: that stories of our ancestors’ lives, whether biography or fiction, should focus on the culture of the time and the place, including what any of the listeners might see or hear if given the chance to gaze out of an open window in an ancestor's house.  

I answered questions after my talk.  One of those surprised me; I had not really thought about it before, but I certainly should have. Someone asked where the farmhouse and village that belonged to my Rauls ancestors was located in relationship to more well-known places or states in today's Germany.  A lot of those German ancestor hunters only knew the area of their own ancestors and didn't know where the Rhineland was.  It was an oversight on my part not to explain the full geography of the area of my ancestors while I was giving my talk. I should have realized, that even though Germany is only about the size of Montana, very few people in the USA, even those who study their German ancestry, are familiar with the total map of Germanic kingdoms, empires, states administered by a Prince Archbishops of the Catholic Church, free cities, etc.  I include myself in this lack of knowledge. 
 I know the location and history of my ancestral villages in the southern half of today's Rhineland Pfalz next to the French border, and of other ancestors who came from eastern Bavaria almost on the border with today's Czech Republic.  I can picture their location without having to refer to the map of Germany. However, without a map before me, I would have to guess at the location of most of the other states.  

If this is the case for searchers specifically studying their German roots, imagine the confusion of the average non-genealogist without any interest in their ancestors. Yet I forgot all about location again in January when HOUSE OF JOHANN was published.  The epiphany hit me when a fellow genealogist noted my lack of a specific description or map of the geographic location of the villages where Magdalena Rauls, her parents, and her brothers and sisters lived in the 1830s and 1840s.  Very carefully, I had described superstitions that hung over a new mother who, for a week or two (depending on local belief), could poison a loaf of bread if she cut it, or draw bugs to the water she drew from the well. But never did I mentioned that the little villages of Oberzerf and Irsch were not too far from both the French and Luxembourg borders and shared many of the same customs.  How could I have forgotten to tell the readers something so basic?  I'll never forget the real estate credo again.  It's location, location, location!

Why does location make so much difference? Because so many
people and a lot of travel brochures photograph scenes in Germany with white buildings, red tile roofs, and colorful window boxes filled with flowers.  Local people usually wear traditional Lederhosen or Dirndls to serve huge mugs of beer. There are mountains in the distance, a bit of snow at their peaks. These are charming pictures but they mostly relate to the area of Bavaria around Munich or the villages and countryside of Austria which borders Bavaria. 

As I have said, my 2nd great-grandmother Magdalena lived in what is today the German State of Rheinland Pfalz at the western edge of Germany, very close to Luxembourg and France. In 1827 when she was born, she was considered a Prussian citizen, just like a child born on the same day and year in the city of Berlin, far to the northeast. And in 1783 when her father was born, he was a subject of the Prince Archbishop of Trier but soon to become a French citizen and live under Napoleon's rule for almost 20 years.  It would be hard to see any real difference among the population in his German village from their French or Luxembourg neighbors. Their dress was similar, the shape of their combined house and barn buildings were alike  The houses of the well-to-do citizens in the larger city of Trier nearby had the look of the houses of upper middle classes of France at the time of Napoleon and after.  The picture of this part of Germany would show people drinking wine from wine glasses as they sit admiring the vines loaded with bunches of grapes on the hills along rivers like the Rhine, the Saar, and the Mosel (Moselle when it crosses the border into France).

What picture should come to my mind with the German state of Sachsen?  Well, I will have to look that up, but if your ancestors come from this northern German state, you probably know. But if you write a family history about one or more ancestors for Sachsen, don't forget to tell your readers just where in today's Germany that place is located and help create as clear a picture in their minds with your description as the one you always carry around yourself.  A word map can often be just as meaningful as the cartographic kind.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Blog That Grew a Book


What would it be like to spend typical days, from morning to night, with German ancestors who lived in the mid 1800s?  How did they think and act, these people from whom we descended, and what would it be like to listen in on their conversations and even their thoughts and dreams long before they came to America?  

That's what I wondered almost from the first moment I found genealogical and cultural history sources in Germany.  Writing House of Johann brought my ancestors and their neighbors alive for me, and I hope for everyone who reads their story. 


When I began to write these blog posts, it was with the intention of organizing my research on the life lived by German families in the 1800s and write the House of Johann. There were two good reasons to take the extra step of creating a blog:

1) To make it easier to find the details that often got lost in my rather poor filing system as I started the novel about the life of my peasant farmer ancestors who lived in the villages of Oberzerf and Irsch in Kreis Saarburg in the Rhineland.

2) To share my knowledge of Kreis Saarburg farming culture and about the historical period peasant farmers lived in. I knew how much trouble and how many years it had taken me to learn German and then collect difficult-to-find information. Others might not be able to find this information, especially those things written in German (most of them), nor would they have the opportunity to make several European trips. I didn't want what I had worked hard to find to be lost to anyone with a desire to learn the same thing.

I had begun my research with the idea of looking for novels, memoirs, or biographies in English.  When I came up blank, I resigned myself to the idea of finding literature written in German, even though the amount of German I was learning was pretty limited. Surprise! Searching in bookstores in Germany turned up very little. It was not the language. Peasant farmers or craftsmen just weren't important enough to be written about,  Although Germany lost thousands of these people to immigration from ports like Le Havre in France in the 1800s and although one in four people in the U.S. have some German blood, no one ever thought them important enough to write about. They themselves were working for a better life.  There was no time to both bring in the flax crop and then write a memoir before bedtime.

It was the locally published village histories that had the kind of facts I was looking for.  And it was the people in those villages who had bought a copy who were willing to loan them to me or knew where I could buy them.  Eventually I had a faily good pile of books and a description of the Rhineland culture and customs of the 1800s.

After 11 years of research, much of which I have shared on this blog, I have just published my novel, HOUSE OF JOHANN on January 16 of this year.   The picture above is a copy of the book cover as it appears on Amazon.   Here is a short description from the back cover:


The year is 1827. Johann Rauls, a land-owning farmer lives with his family in the small village of Oberzerf in Germany’s Rhineland. Johann and his wife Maria are preparing for their best Christmas in several years. Even in an age of frequent childhood deaths, all of their six children are healthy, happy, and awaiting an exciting Christmas season which will be followed in three or four weeks by the birth of a new brother or sister. There is much to look forward to and be grateful for.

No one is prepared for a threatening event on the eve of Christmas. It pushes away all thoughts of the holiday celebration, and serves as a precursor to another tragedy that will bring a long period of grief and regret to all of their lives. This carefully researched historical novel of an actual Rhineland family imparts both their times of happiness and pain as almost 20 years pass. It also paints a picture of the class to which they belong, the peasant farmers who carried much of the weight of supporting their homeland on their shoulders, but whose absorbing life stories with their importance to history are almost never told.

If you have enjoyed my blog posts, I think you will enjoy the story of the early years of the Johann Rauls family in the novel "HOUSE OF JOHANN." If you choose to read this book, it may help you understand just how human and interesting the people on your own family group sheets probably are and how much uncertainty and struggle was contained in their everyday lives.

SOURCES:  For any readers whose ancestors came from the area near France, Luxembourg, or Germany near the Saar and Mosel (Moselle in France) and are interested in some of the locally published resources I used, this is the list.  Some may be out of print but still available at local tourist offices in the larger cities or in the possession of the mayor in the villages.  However, they will be in German:

*Croon, Maria.  DIE DORFSTRASSE; EINE BUNTE HEIMATCHRONIK, 2 vols., .Saarbrücker Druckerei und Verlag, 1990.
*SAARBURG; GESCHICHTE EINER STADT,  Stadt Saarburg, 5510 Saarburg, 1991.
*Mayer, Ewald.  IRSCH/SAAR; Geschichte eines Dorfes, Gemeinde Irsch, 2002
*Hammächer, Claus et al.  SERRIG; LANDSCHAFT GESCHICHTE UND GESCHICHTEN, Gemeinde Serrig und der Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Landesgeschichte und Volkskunde des Trierer Raumes, 2002

Many of the peasant farmers of the villages of Oberzerf and Irsch in Kreis Saarburg emigrated through the Port of Le Havre in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, including two of my ancestors.  They settled in  the village of St. John, Calumet County Wisconsin.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Time to be Thankful

St. Gervasius and Protasius Church in Irsch

There is always more to learn and to share with you.  I haven't done much of that during this past year. The reason my blog has been so inactive was my resolution to finish the book I am writing in 2016.  The end of 2016 is approaching quickly.  But there will not be any information about that until my December blog post.

Because of the holiday we celebrated today, Thanksgiving, I want to show a similar German custom that I had observed in Irsch and participated in when I rented an apartment in Saarburg.  I never thought there might be a historic explanation of either.  The German customs I took no notice of are a part of a celebration called Erntedankfest.

I would never have known there was more to the picture above if I had not read an article from the very useful "German Language Blog."  So I am thankful that "Erntedankfest German Thanksgiving" enlightened me to the historical aspects. The following comes directly from that blog post:

"First, the breakdown of the word. ‘Ernte’ means harvest, while ‘Dank’ comes from ‘Danke’, meaning thank you, and ‘Fest’ is German for festival or celebration. The word Erntedankfest therefore translates to ‘Harvest thank festival’. So Erntedankfest is a harvest festival where you express thanks for the food you have received throughout the year!"
"If you live in the USA, this will sound very similar to Thanksgiving. In the USA, Thanksgiving has become a secular holiday centred around food and family get-togethers – but in Germany it is still a rather religious occasion, centred around church services and giving thanks for the land-grown vegetation – the maize, corn, fruit and vegetables – that have fed everyone for another year."
"Erntedankfest is usually celebrated on the first Sunday in October, though this date can vary from region to region."
Photo by jeurgen-tesch on 
"Typically, the day includes a church service, a procession, the presenting of an Erntekrone (harvest crown), then food, drink and music, and an evening torchlight procession through the town. Church altars are decorated with wreaths, flowers and fruit, and Blasmusik (music played with brass/wind instruments) is played at these services and during the processions."

Closeup of the Entdenkfest altar in Irsch 
"Some towns and cities hold farmers’ markets selling fresh produce, and bring along their tractors or horses for the local people to see. It is basically a celebration of the land and of all things agricultural! There are also often lots of activities for kids at these Erntedankfest celebrations, so they are well worth getting involved with if you happen to be in Germany around late September/early October."
When I attended the "Golden Autumn" in Saarburg in 2010, and when I saw the mosaic made of vegetable materials in the church at Irsch, that was a piece of Germany's traditional Thanksiving, not just a an autumn entertainment or an interesting mosaic.  It was a traditional way of giving thanks to God for the bounty of the earth.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Family History Surprises

Once my 2nd great grandparent's farmhouse, (left front)
This is what it looked like at the end of WWII

As you may have noticed - at least I hope someone did - that I have not written a blog post for quite a long time.  It's time to explain.  A sciatica attack made sitting, difficult.   I just could not sit at a computer and capture ideas.

While I was recuperating, I got a communication that reminded me, once again, of the close bonds and relationships among people who lived in small villages like Irsch.  Many of us, who do not know each other and who are widely scattered all over the US or the world, could trace our roots to a small town in Germany and find big surprises.  (This might be an interesting idea for a genealogy television program.)

Here are three of my surprises.  Each one delighted me.


A comment came from a reader who preferred to be anonymous so I won't quote it exactly.  But this person said that my ancestors, Johann and Magdalena Meier, sailed on the same ship, the Rattler, as her great grandfather, Jacob Fisch and his parent; and all settled in St. John, Calumet County, Wisconsin.  That was not a surprise to me.  But then she listed other surnames on her family tree.  One of those surnames, Probst, and their dwelling place in Calumet County, Wisconsin, matched another of my ancestors' names although my great grandfather John Probst had no relationship to Johann and Magdalena Meier.  The connection between the Meier and the Probst surnames came together when my mother said "I do" to my dad.  I didn't expect a comment about the Bavarian side of my family tree from a reader of my blog posts about the Rhineland.

The Meier House as it looks today


When I decided to write a novel about my Rhineland ancestors,  Ewald Meyer of Irsch, Germany was a wonderful helper in my search for information about the customs and history of Irsch and other small villages in the area.  After a long search I finally learned the location of my Meier ancestors' home and property in Irsch in the years before they emigrated to America.

Herr Meyer went to that location and took photos of the building as it exists today.  He also learned that it was remodeled by a Herr Britten, another previous owner and again by Alfons Fisch.   Herr Meyer, as always, took an extra step.  He contacted Herr Fisch and explained my interest in the old Meier property.  To my surprise, the architectural plans for remodeling the Meier house still existed.  I have copies of them.

And one final surprise.  Herr Alfons Fisch is a direct descendant of Jacob and Magdalena Fisch who sailed to New York with Johann and Magdalena Rauls on the ship Rattler.  Herr Fisch has his residence right across the street from the former Meier property that now also belongs to him.


 Coincidence in Village of Irsch

Several years ago, I got an interesting e-mail about one of my blog posts, not from a family historian but because of a picture I had taken in Irsch and used in that post.  The couple who saw it wrote to me because it was the house of the husband's grandmother who still was living in that house.  They asked how I had come to know their "Oma Tilly."  Actually, I didn't know who lived in that house.  I was taking pictures to illustrate houses built wall to wall, and this was an excellent example.

We continued our e-mailing for awhile.  When the Oma (grandma) Tilly, whose maiden name was Weber, learned that my ancestors had immigrated to Wisconsin from Irsch, she asked, via her grandson, if any of my ancestors had the surname "Weber."  Yes, my 3rd great grandmother from Irsch was a Weber.  However Weber is a very common name, and I didn't know if there was any link between us.  That didn't faze Oma Tilly.  She said, "If they were Webers and they came from Irsch, we are related."  Her grandson and his wife got into the spirit and from that time on considered me their relative.  They even invited me to their 25th wedding anniversary anniversary celebration.  I was delighted to be asked and wish I could have gone.

Oma Tilly, age 93, and Bernie, her grandson
Are we really related?  I hope so.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Walking with the Immigrant Ancestors

The New York Times, 1861

The most popular posts I have written have been about the German emigrants’ travel from their home city or village to the Atlantic Port of Le Havre or their letters about the trip to people back in Europe. I may have said before that the Le Havre passenger list roll is one of the most sought after documents for the descendants of French, German, and Swiss immigrants. It is almost totally accepted that the Le Havre passenger lists have been destroyed but somehow the word hasn't gotten out to a lot of genealogical seekers.

Many of the comments or e-mails I’ve received from genealogical searchers who were looking for the actual Le Havre lists do thank me for painting a word picture of the struggles that confronted an emigrant family on their way to the port of Le Havre. It made them so much more aware that their immigrant ancestors were real people facing great difficulties even after they made their decision to leave their homes for an unknown land.

But what about the journey once the immigrant families' feet touched the earth of what was to be their new country.

I was looking through my genealogical files a few days ago when I found some notes that I made not too long after I started writing the Meier-Rauls family history. On the front page of the New York Times I had found what month and day their ship, the Rattler, had arrived in the Port of New York. The group of people from Irsch, including my ancestors, took their first steps on American soil at the Castle Garden receiving station, the place where the City of New York made a concerted effort to help immigrants feel welcome in their new country. To me, that date was a major event - 9 May 1861.   That arrival determined I would be born an American citizen instead of a dweller in one of the villages on the Sigfreid Line during World War II.

I wanted to see what other newsworthy events had happened on May 9, 1861 in addition to the arrival of the ancestors.  My 2nd great grandparents and the other passengers, most of them Germans, disembarked from a ship that had been sailing for 32 days right at the beginning of the Civil War in America.  On May 9, some southern states were still deciding whether to secede from the Union. Did my Ancestors know of that when they came ashore? Whether or not they did, they could not have missed seeing a great many soldiers on the streets of New York.  There were signs posted at Castle Garden, written in German, that offered money to young German men who were willing to enlist in the Union Army.

I read the pages of the New York Times for May 9 and 10, 1861. Here are a few things that the New York Times believed were worthy of a story, happenings which may or may not have attracted the attention of my ancestors and the other immigrants from Irsch as they walked out of Castle Garden and on to the sidewalks of New York. I can imagine them seeing sights that made them wonder if there were more difficulties ahead than they had anticipated, difficulties that would keep them from their final destinations in Ohio, Pennsylvania,Wisconsin or any other states, especially southern states like Texas.

Men and women were standing on street corners, collecting money for the men who were about to be placed in harm's way by the Civil War. The New York Times warned in that morning's edition of the newspaper that the majority of these people were swindlers. However, maybe the new arrivals  thought that their new country had many beggars, contrary to what they had been told about the wealth in America.

Volunteers for the Union Army, perhaps in uniform or perhaps in their ordinary clothes, marched along the sidewalk. Those men could have been the Wisconsin volunteers who, the Time says, arrived in New York that very day. Wisconsin was the state all of the Irsch immigrants had as their destination. Did the two groups, one at their destination as soldiers, the other on their way to be farmers in the state the soldiers had just left, meet along those very streets?  Did they talk to these former countrymen?

There were boxes containing 3,600 military garments that had been made by the famous Brooks Brothers New York store on the corner of Grand and Broadway. They consisted of coats, jackets, and pantaloons.*  These had been carefully folded, packed for delivery and were being loaded onto wagons and sent off that morning. The Times does not say where they were being taken. Did the immigrant group from Trier peer at the wagons, wagons that were probably very different than those they used in their former villages. Did they wonder what was in all of those boxes?

On May 10, the New York Times editorial called for three-year volunteers to be trained, especially new arrivals from a number of specific places; men who were "thoroughly drilled who have seen action in Schleswig Holstein, in Baden, in Italy, in Hungary and in the Crimea. The laws of their country required the most constant drill. They are hardy and vigorous men." There were immigrants from Baden on the Ship Rattler.

Prussia also had universal conscription. From what I've found in my research, many men from Prussia were probably not as desirable as U.S. soldiers.   Since the Prussians considered many of them too short to wear the uniform of the Prussian emperor, Prussian peasant farmers were freed from military service if they were shorter than 5' 2".

To have your ancestors come alive. check the day they arrived in the United States in 1846 or 1873 or some other year.  If you can find a local newspaper from the day of their arrival; or a story on the web from a major newspaper on the day those ancestors made their way along the streets of New York or New Orleans, or Montreal Canada.  Walk with them for awhile. You will learn a lot.

*Historical men's close-fitting breeches fastened below the calf or at the foot.

New York Times, May 9 and 10
Engels, Friedrich, The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers' Party