Friday, September 16, 2005

The Farmer's Life in Poetry

Sometimes you find a description of the German homeland where you least expect it - in poetry, for instance.

I was given a book of poems by Ewald Meyer when I visited Irsch in 2002. It was a very special remembrance of my visit. I also brought home several local history books. I puzzled over the local histories and put the book of poems aside for when I had "more time." One morning as I was finishing my coffee, I picked up Hennerm Plou, the book of poems, to see if I could read any of it. What I found were word paintings of the lives of the farm families who lived near the Saar. They were so evocative I could almost smell the wet earth of the spring, feel the sweat of the summer on my face, taste the roasted potatoes fresh from the fire and hear the calling, calling of the frogs in the stream.

The book I was enjoying was written by Ernst Thrasolt, who was born Matthias Tressel in Beurig in 1878. He was the son of a farmer/ wine-grower/linen weaver. His mother came from a family of shoemakers. Tressel became a priest in 1904; and, after the death of his father, he changed his name to Ernst Thrasolt and began to write using that name, especially the poetry which reflected his love of the place of his birth and the memories of his youth. He also chose to write many of the poems in the Mosel Frankische dialect of the Trier region where he had grown up. Today, there are not many people who can read this dialect. The poems which I am summarizing have been translated into high German and reworked by Ewald Meyer. They are my prose interpretations (admittedly not expert) of poetry that pays tribute to the farmers who sowed, cultivated, harvested and loved the land near the Mosel and Saar.


Come with me to the wine hills - today the heavens are clear. Today you can see far. You see how the Saar foams so wild and white; and when you reach the very top of the wine hills, you still hear it rushing. You see the whole world that lies below. You see how the many fields lie next to each other. And you see the meadows that are already so green, the buttercups in bloom, and the trees blooming, blooming. The grain has already come up and the rape is gold. The first clover can soon be cut for the cattle. And it is always a fine thing to see the bed linens bleaching, almost shining, by the side of the stream. That is when the flax and the spinning and the weaving of that cloth come to mind.

Up here we bind the grape vines, and below us runs the plow. Between wine hill and plow, between furrow and vine, that is our way of life on our farms. And year in and year out all life and all nature go back and forth; spring and fall, summer and winter between wine hill and plow. With dung spreading, digging, planting, cutting, tying, binding up, and harvesting. With plow, sower, mower, sickle and plow, so must we all struggle and toil.

So long as the sun can be seen and the Saar can be heard rushing, this race of men would not exchange with king or emperor. Yes, when you are on the wine hill, you know what heaven and homeland is; what sun and Saar and the farming life is.


The potatoes did thrive and the sacks stand full and thick, one sack behind another dense throughout the whole field. And the children roast potatoes in the fire; an enormous flame, and they scrape the potatoes and hold them on the fire. The potatoes are so delicate and so white inside and so hot. They burn mouth and fingers. God be thanked, the potatoes did thrive!

And the sacks are tossed on the wagon; it takes a strong man to lift and to carry them. The thick smoke from the fire is so blue and comes so near that one person can hardly see another. All the furrows in the field are very red with evening light. And each face is red too and joyful, shining in the setting sun.

Listen, the time for the rosary is rung and the children run: they must go inside (the church). And leisurely and contented each wagon goes home with the blessing of God. From all sides they come, wagon after wagon. And everyone sits so tired and so contented at the top of them. It is late already and dark by the time the stall and cellar doors stand open and the soup is on the table and the children come storming home from the church.


Just smell! There is not a corner in the house that is not full of the marvelous scent. In stable and stall and kitchen and bedroom and cellar comes a scent of blessing over everything. For a hundred meters over field and meadow and wine hill and mountain and valley there is the smell of hay and its aftergrowth and of potatoes and carrots and apples and pears and grapes and nuts and newly made Viez (hard apple cider). And it is the scent of the meadow saffron and fall asters as well. And you are contented and the pigs and cow are contented too. The summer with its work went on and on but now comes rest. For nothing was our worry and misery; we are safe another year.


Doors and windows are closed all round. The cattle are fed: pigs and chickens, horse and cow too; now we have rest. Let us put our feet under the stove and praise God for winter. How good the warmth feels. Listen, only hear how the wind whistles outside. Is the ice already forming on the Saar?

And now the plans (for next year) can be made. Oats and barley and wheat will be in the Hasar*, potatoes go in Krangels* and in the Acht* and on the Font*. Clover is put once again in Schadall* where it grows so good...

The peace in the winter is very good for man and horse and cow so that they are not sick and weak when summer comes. Let us praise the Lord God on high for the winter.

*The names of the open fields where each farmer can plant his share of the land.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Of Apple Wine, Cabbage, and Other Everyday Things

Helena and Ewald Meyer
at their home in Irsch

Imagine that you have been invited to the home of the author of a history of your ancestral village of Irsch
. His wife is seated nearby, and his son, who speaks English, has positioned himself where he can help if communication falters. Herr Ewald Meyer has just told you that he is available to be your tour guide for any place in the area that you wish to see, or your driver if you want to visit an archive to do research. Eyes sparkling with interest, he then asks, "Now, what is your heart's desire?"

That experience was overwhelming for me, especially since I wanted to know everything there was to know about Irsch and the surrounding countryside, see every place that my ancestors might have known, and speak fluent German as well as understand every word of German spoken to me. But that afternoon I chose to begin with the list of questions that I had jotted down as I wrote chapters in my novel. They were little questions, yet they were so important when you are trying to tell an ancestral story; the kind of questions I could answer for farm life in 1920-60 Wisconsin but which I knew nothing about for the Trier Saarburg area of 1820-1860.

Maybe Ewald and Helena Meyer were a bit surprised at how ordinary my questions were, but they answered them enthusiastically, and I took notes to the best of my ability to understand.

I began with, "What would the children call their parents? Were they Mama and Papa, Ma and Pa, Mutti and Vatti?" From them I learned that children in Beurich, where Ewald was born and in the Eifel Region, where Helena Meyer had grown up, called their parents Mutter and Vater or the less formal "Papp," and "Mamm".

Next I asked, "What kind of beds did they have? Herr and Frau Meyer said that the beds were rope tied. The mattress was usually stuffed with straw. There would be a Kisten, a cover filled with the feathers of geese or chickens. Sheets would be coarse linen, woven by hand. The pillows were stuffed with "Spreu", the hulls of the grains that were used to feed the cattle. (It took Arno's English and a drawing or two before I understood about Spreu). Three to four children shared one ordinary-sized bed.

The livestock kept by farmers in Irsch, as I expected, was similar to that found on a Wisconsin farm in the 1800's: pigs, cows, chickens, geese, horses, and oxen. Sheep too were raised in abundance in this region.

I asked how women did the laundry. The Meyers said that many women washed their clothes and bedding in the Grossbach, a small stream, as late as the 1920's or 1930's. (Later the landlord of the vacation apartment I had rented, Hans Dieter Jung, showed me a postcard picture of sheets spread out to dry on the banks of the Saar River after they had been washed there. It was my good luck to have found a landlord with an enormous collection of old postcards from the entire Saarburg area.)

We moved on to my questions about the houses, most of which were actually both house and barn under one roof. In earlier times there were straw roofs. Then in 1842 there was a terrible fire, and most of the village of Biest (today a part of Irsch) burned. The Prussian emperor forbad straw roofs after that time. So the roofs from that time on were made of tile (Ziegel) or slate. The kitchen floor would be of stone (probably sandstone), and in the older houses there were no hallways. One would enter the door from the street and be in the kitchen. The rest of the house was unheated in winter. The floors of the bedrooms would be of wood, and stamped lime was used for a cellar floor. There was a bake oven in the kitchen fireplace; meat could be smoked in the fireplace chimney. Or there might be a bake oven outside.

The bark of the oak trees in the area, known as Eichen Lohe, was used in the tanning industry. The farmers would strip the bark for the tanneries, and this was done when the trees were still quite young. Then two or three new shoots would come up and form even smaller trees, so that today there are no large oak trees in the area.

I had wondered if people drank both wine and beer in this region. People did drink some beer but wine was their usual alcoholic beverage. Each farmer had a few grape vines in cultivation and could make his own wine. In the autumn, Viez, an apple wine, was fermented from small, sour apples. (Note: Viez is still sold at farmers markets and at roadside stands today; it has actually gained popularity in the last several years. Its alcohol content varies, usually about six or seven percent. There is even a publicly proclaimed "Viezstrasse" or "Rue de Cidre" that runs between Saarburg and the Luxembourg border. The word "Viez" comes from Roman times [Lat. Vice = the second or deputy wine] and suggests this apple wine was drunk by the Roman occupiers as a replacement for genuine wine. In the Eifel, Hunsrück, Mosel Valley, and Trier the drinking container for Viez is a "Viezporz", a jug/jar made of white porcelain or stoneware, from which the name "Porz" is derived. In earlier times one stored the Viez in larger stoneware containers (Viezkrug). In the winter, people often drank their Viez warmed at the kitchen stove or fireplace. Source:

Three meals were eaten each day. During the spring, summer, and fall, many of these meals were eaten in the fields; hilly fields that were far away from the farms. (On a drive with Herr Meyer, I saw that the fields of Irsch reach almost to the village of Oberzerf, about five miles away.) Probably it would be the grandmother who cooked at home while the adults and older children worked in the fields. The young children carried the lunch to the fields where the family was working.

The families purchased very little from shopkeepers because money was scarce. While they could make most things themselves or barter with neighbors, villagers always had to buy salt and sugar. Most of their food was grown in the garden or gathered from their trees: Potatoes, cabbage (Kappus in the Trier dialect), carrots, beets, celery, leeks, onion, lamb lettuce, beans, peas, kohlrabi, mirabel plums, pears, and many kinds of apples would be found in most gardens.

Clothing was mostly of linen or wool and work and bed clothes could usually be woven at home. However, families had to take the hides from their slaughtered animals to the tannery so that leather could be tanned for their shoes, then made by the village shoemaker.

Poor farmers had only cows to do the work normally done by a horse. Some farmers could afford oxen and the richest farmers had horses. Oxen or cows wore a head yoke when they pulled a plow or a wagon. Craftsmen like shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, etc., were better off financially than the average farmer.

In the meadows, growing wild or along the roadways, there were poppies, Kornblume (cornflowers) and Ganseblumchen (small white daisies). Edeltrud Heiser, a distant cousin, told me that children weave Kornblume and Ganseblumchen together to wear as a crown. She warned about the Brenn Nessel (stinging nettle), still remembering how much it hurt when she wandered into it as a child. Chicoree (chicory), which could be used in salads, Weiden Katzchen (meadow kittens, known to us as pussy willows), and Maiglöckchen (Little May bells/lily of the valley) were familiar to me but the Schnee Glockchen (snow bells) which flower in January were not. Deciduous trees in the area were oak, chestnut, and walnut. Hickory nut trees, a type of tree found in abundance when my ancestors came to St. John Wisconsin, have never grown in the Saarburg area.

Weddings were festive occasions, but Helena Meyer explained that there was not a wedding feast as we would know it. The food for the celebration was baked Kuchen of many kinds - Obst (fruit) Kuchen in summer and in winter, streusel, dried pear, or apple compote Kuchen. Most homes would have a small bake oven either in the kitchen or outside as a separate structure. But there was also a community bake oven which could handle many more loaves of bread (or Kuchen) and could be used when there was a special event, or if the family wanted to make a lot of loaves of bread at one time.

I asked about holidays, especially the celebration of Christmas. I was told that the people would always go to Midnight Mass at Christmas. If one priest was in charge of two or more parishes, people would walk to the principal or parish church where the Holy Mass would be celebrated. Even if the person were poor, there would be a Christmas tree with candles as well as baked and decorated figures. These would be given to the children as a gift.

Baptism was not celebrated in any special way in these small Catholic villages. As soon as possible after the child was born, usually the next day (there were no baptisms on Sundays or holy days) but sometimes on the same day if the child was born in the morning, the midwife - usually a family member there to assist the mother during the birth- and the godparents would take the child to the church to be baptized. The mother and father did not attend and the mother could not enter the church until nine days after the birth. (Rev. Leonard Barbian, Pastor of St. William Parish in Waukesha, says that from about 60 A.D., the church used running water or poured water three times over the head of the child - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. At first the churches' baptismal fonts were sunken because most baptisms were of adults. But as time went on, the fonts were raised since children were baptized almost as soon as they were born)

During Holy Week, there was a procession on Karfreitag (Good Friday). It was a time when the church expressed its penitence and sorrow by foregoing music and bells. The children in the procession would use a large wooden noise-maker called a Raspeln, which looked almost like a small hurdy gurdy for an organ grinder. It had a handle connected to wooden gears inside a box. When the handle moved the gears, they ground together and there was a rasping noise that could be made rhythmic - rum--rum, rum-rum-rum, rum--rum, rum-rum-rum. Klappern or clappers were also used in the procession as well as to replace the altar bells would ordinarily be sounded at the consecration of the Sacred Host.

On Corpus Christi, a procession went through the streets of the village where each house had a small altar decorated in honor of the Body of Christ.

Musical instruments common to the area were harmonica, violin,and concertina (Ziehharmonika)

At the close of my first visit to the Meyer's home, we had coffee and Kuchen and then Herr Meyer drove me back to Saarburg, stopping along the way in his hometown of Beurig. Today it is part of the city of Saarburg but in the 1800's it was a separate village across the river from Saarburg. There were two things he thought I should see.

The first stop was a famous Pilgrim church of Our Lady. This is where people would come, making the stations of the cross as they approached. The last station was right outside the church on the church wall. Very close by on the corners of the streets leading to the church, there were bakers who sold their wares to the pilgrims who had been fasting and needed food after their pilgrimage was over. Herr Meyer told me that the pilgrims would put dried peas in their shoes as they started their journey to increase their penitence and petition. From about the 1600's until the time of Napoleon, there was a Franciscan cloister along side of the church where the brothers and priests lived, brothers on one side and priests on the other side of the cloister yard.

On our second stop, Herr Meyer showed me an old farm house. Up close, I could see that its thick walls were constructed of whatever materials had come to hand, including pieces of wood. (Few such buildings from the early 1800's exist in Irsch or Beurig. Both villages were heavily bombed and shelled during WWII.)

Old building in Beurig

Small window, upper right corner.
Stone and wood construction,
center left.

Our trip ended at the door of my vacation apartment. My head and notebook were filled with good information, and my stomach was soon to be filled with the remains of the Kuchen and Torte which Helena Meyer had sent as a dinner treat for me and my sister.

Books by Ewald Meyer:
Meyer, Ewald. Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes, ("Irsch/Saar: Story of a Village") 2002
Meyer, Ewald and Gehlen, Bernd. Beuriger Lese und Bilderbuch ("Beurich Reading and Picture Book") 2004
Thrasolt, Ernst. Hennerm Plou, ("Behind the Plow," poems and prose), translated from the Mosel-Frankischen dialect and edited by Ewald Meyer, 2000
Thrasolt, Ernst. Dahäm. Edited by Ewald Meyer, 2000