Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christmas in the Hunsrück

A popular version of the Christkind

Oberzerf, the home village of my Rauls ancestors was at the edge of the Hunsrück region in what was then Kreis Saarburg. Since my great-great grandmother, Magdalena Rauls, was born on December 25, I have a special interest in the Christmas customs of her village in 1827. The closest I have come so far is the small book called, "Die Hunsrücker Küche," (Hunsrück cooking) by Christiane Becker. Along with recipes for traditional Christmas treats, there is a description of some of the Christmas customs of the Hunsrück of the last century.

A figure of St. Nicholas from the 13th century

But first, a little history. The eve of the feast of St. Nicholas on Dec 6 was originally the time when children in German-speaking regions received gifts. Saint Nicholas was clothed in a bishop's red robe, somewhat like today's Santa Claus or Weihnachtsman. On his head was a miter, and he carried the staff of a bishop of the Catholic Church. Martin Luther urged his followers to stop this custom which had such strong Catholic church connections. The Christ child, he preached, gave the greatest gift to mankind, and children should receive presents from him on the day that commemorates his birth. The change began in the northern regions where the majority of the population was Lutheran, but by the nineteenth century, even in the Catholic regions, the Christkind brought gifts on Christmas eve. However St. Nicholas retained his popularity in the Catholic areas, continuing to bring presents on St. Nicholas eve. (There is more information on the celebration and customs of St. Nicholas eve in my archived post from January 2006).

Literally translated, the word "Christkind" means Christ child. However, in the 19th century, the Christkind was not represented by a babe in a manger but rather by an angelic figure with golden wings and long blond hair. In some parts of Germany, especially Bavaria, teenage girls clothed in white dresses and wearing golden wings played the Christkind, but customs varied. Christiane Becker, author of "Die Hunsrücker Küche," describes the Christkind custom in the small village of Götzeroth in the Idarwald as follows: On Christmas eve, the Christkind, face covered with a veil, went from house to house, accompanied by the "Stabbegloose", two figures in black clothes and hats. Both carried a staff and hid their black painted faces behind a beard of flax. The raccous sounds of staffs and bells were eagerly awaited by the children because the trio were bringing gifts. The Stabbegloose would push their boisterous way into each house in the village, followed by the Christkind. As a reward for their turbulent visit, they were rewarded with money or, in earlier times, with Kuchen. The actual visit of the Christkind was done in fewer and fewer places as the 19th century progressed, and today such a custom is a rarity.

Baking for Christmas was done during the season of Advent. At sunset in December when the sky was a shimmering red, there was an old saying in the Hunsrück: "The Christkind is baking sugar cookies." The women and children of the family were busy making familiar Christmas recipes. The aroma from the kitchen, which had been turned into a virtual bake shop, permeated the whole house. Naturally, there was quite a bit of tasting of the Zuckerblätjer, as the cookies were called in the Hunsrück dialect. But the Zuckerblätjer soon disappeared into cans and glass jars, to await Christmas eve. There were nut cookies, Lebkuchen, spritz cookies, cinnamon wafers, and chocolate balls in the recipe box of Becker's grandmother.

Except in rare exceptions like the one mentioned above, the Christkind was not seen by the children. He brought the gifts and trimmed the Christmas tree behind a locked door in the good room of the home, aided by parents and sometimes also by grandparents and relatives. The curious children waited impatiently for the door to open, but by the time the Christmas bells were rung and the door was flung wide, the Christkind had gone.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Once Upon a Tree

Blackthorn or Schlehdorn
 Eberesche or European Rowan
Late autumn was the time of the year when our ancestors, especially the women of the villages in the Trier, Saarburg, and Hochwald regions, were preparing for winter. Before the cold and snow descended on the Saar Valley and the Hochwald, each family had to ready itself for the months when there would be no more available fruits, vegetables, or herbs in the gardens, orchards, or on the open land and the hillsides. They would preserve whatever was available to them, both for sustenance, for pleasure, and for healing.

In this post and in another to follow, the trees, bushes, plants and herbs - both cultivated and wild - that were so familiar to our ancestors, take center stage once again. Their vegetation helped our ancestors make their way through the winter season when the land was barren.

The Generous Trees and Bushes of the Trier/Saar Region

*The blackthorn or Schlehdorn is a very important plant in the Trier region and is primarily used for distilling a famous schnapps, for marmelade and for medical purposes. The blackthorn grows wild in the hedges that protect the fields from wind. The berry, called a sloe or Schlehe in German, is small and so sour and acerbic that you can`t eat it as it is. The berries sweeten somewhat after a winter freeze. The bush is well fortified by thorns; harvesting the sloes could be painful as well as slow work.

*The elderberry or Schwarzer Holunder is a native plant to the Trier area. It was considered a holy tree by the ancient Germans. It grows wild, sometimes as a bush, sometimes as a tree over 30 feet high. It has beautiful, luxuriant white flowers which turned into berries by autumn. (If you dip the blossoms in a pancake-type dough and fry them, then sprinkle them with surgar and cinnamon, you have a delicious treat). In the autumn, the berries would be gathered and used to make a syrup (sometimes mixed with apple) for drinks, marmalade or jelly. The syrup was also used as a cough medicine. Last but not least, elderberry liquors could also be made from the berries. An old farmers' saying in the Hochwald: "A man takes off his hat for the Holunder."

*The  Eberesche or European Rowan(Sorbus aucuparia), which is known in Germany as the Eberesche, or Vogelbeere, was very common to the region and often grew, as does the elderberry, in the hedges that enclose the fields. The berries are edible, but too sour to eat raw. In years gone by, it would have been used for making a Vitamin-C-rich marmalade. In some parts of Germany the berries were distilled. But now the berries are mostly a food for the birds rather than a source of food for hungry households.

*The beach nut tree, Buche, was another important tree in days of old. The beach nut or Buchecker was food for the pigs that were driven into the forests in summers past. During bad times, the beach nut was human food as well, and the oil of the nut could be pressed out of it.

*The walnut tree(Juglans regia) was well known; it grew everywhere. Every farm had its walnut tree in days past. This tree was brought to the region by the Romans.

*The *sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was also brought by the Romans. The edible chestnut, called Keste (fruit and tree) in dialect, did not grow everywhere; but could be found around the city of Trier or anywhere there was red sandstone. The chestnuts were gathered and then roasted or cooked. (They are very good partnered with sweet Viez or the new, sweet wine). During times of famine the sweet chestnut was used as an ersatz flour.

*The Sievenicher Mostbirne" is a very traditional tree of the region. Its fruit cannot be plucked from the tree and eaten as a fresh fruit because it is very sour. But the pears can be used for distilling and when mixed with quinces, the Sievenicher Mostbirne makes flavorful, delicate jellies and marmalades.

*The Zwetschge (Prunus domestica subsp. domestica), is very important in the region. In the Trier dialect it is Quetsche, in English a damson, which is a small, purple plum.  The tree on which it grows looks quite similiar to the apple tree and very often occupies the same orchard. The damson is distilled, giving a schnapps called Quetschenwasser. A delicate marmelade or mush is produced from it, spiced with anise seed and cinnamon. In autumn, when the plums are harvested, they are the used to make a delicious coffee-type cake which is very typical for the Trier region and is called "Quetschekooch" in dialect.

Cakes made with yeast are traditional for the region and no autumn goes by without Zwetschgenkuchen. Here is a recipe from Ernst Mettlach, and my effort at converting the measurements to the US system:

You need Zwetschge plums cut in fourths or, if they are small, in half.
20 grams yeast (3/4 oz)
250 grams flour (scant 9 oz.)
100 mililitres Milk (about an oz.)
1 egg
60 grams melted butter (about 2 oz.)
50 grams sugar (1.8 oz)
a little salt.
Sieve the flower into a bowl and form a hole in the flour. Put the yeast in the hole and sprinkle a spoon full of sugar on it, then add 2 or 3 spoons full of lukewarm milk. With floured hands, mix into a dough and let then let it rest for 15 minutes. Mix the egg and the rest of the sugar until its foamy. Add the salt, the rest of the milk and the butter. Knead everything together and let it again rest for 20 minutes. Then knead it again, roll it out on a board covered with flour, put in a cake form and wait 20 minutes more. Then lay the plums on the dough, and put the "Quetschekooch" in a pre-heated oven (350 degrees Fahrenheit) and bake it for about 45 minutes. If the plums are sour, sprinkle them with sugar. Serve with whipped cream.

The *cherry tree; and *the mirabelle plum tree were also found throughout the region.

Information from Ernst Mettlach and from the book "Die Hunsrücker Küche" by Christiane Becker

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Apples of the Kaiser

Apple Trees in Aach

Once there was a nine-year old boy who lived in a small village near the Saar River. One day he decided to steal from the Kaiser's orchard. He made his way to the orchard and was gathering up apples when he heard someone coming. Quick as lightening, he flattened himself under a bench and hid. When he peeked out of his hiding place, he saw that the Kaiser himself was looking for him. "Where is that young rascal? I'll give him a beating when I catch him," the Kaiser threatened and shook his fist. After the Kaiser gave up the search, the boy jumped up and ran home as fast as his legs would carry him.

Many years later, Mathias Meier, my great-grandfather, told this story to his grandchildren. They were second generation Wisconsinites and at least one of them, Aunt Rose, was very impressed. She always remembered the tale; and when I began asking questions about the Meier family history, she told it to me.

I smiled to myself when I heard this story. Irsch had less than 1,000 residents in the late 1850's, and I didn't think that Kaiser Wilhelm had time to check all of the small apple orchards in Prussia, not even occasionally. Great-grandpa was a pretty inventive storyteller, I said to myself.

Over the years I became curious about the orchard in Irsch and the kind of apple that great grandpa was trying to steal. I asked my Trier relative, Edeltrud Heiser, if she remembered an apple orchard in Irsch when she was growing up. "Oh yes," she said. She told me that the orchard still stood in Irsch when she was a child but is gone now. But she couldn't remember what kind of apples grew in it. So I started to tell her the story about great-grandpa and the Kaiser's apples. "That's it," she said, before I could finish the tale. "My father said there were 'Kaiser apples'."

So whether great-grandpa was an imaginative story teller, or whether Aunt Rose didn't quite understand that the apple was the "Kaiser" and a local caretaker was the one who tried to give little Mathias a beating, I'll never know.

I e-mailed the story of the Kaiser's apples to Ernst Mettlach who grew up in the Trier area. As usual, he had a wealth of information and was very generous about sharing it. When I got his return e-mail, I knew that I had a great topic for a new post (with his permission, of course).

Ernst said it is highly unlikely that the German Emperor had his own orchards in the Saar region, since his capital city was Berlin. And if he had an orchard, it would have been guarded not by the emperor himself but by his hussars.

He told me that there are several varieties of apple named after a Kaiser. In the past there was hardly an orchard without a "Kaiser Wilhelm" or a "Kaiser Alexander" apple tree. Therefore these two types of apples probably became known just as "Kaiser" or "Kaiserapfel".

The "Kaiser Wilhelm apple is a big, round apple, quite pretty to look at. It is not an eating apple; it is used for cooking. This apple wasn't common in the Trier area until about the last third of the 19th century. Since the Meier family left Irsch in 1861, the "Kaiser Wilhelm apple was probably not the kind my great-grandpa coveted when he made his foray into the orchard.

The Kaiser Alexander apple, said Ernst, goes back to the 18th century. It may have been imported from the Ukraine in Russia, since Alexander was the name of so many Russian Czars. The tree is known for its ability to survive in harsh climates and was often planted in the higher parts of the region, for example in the Saargau, high above the Saar Valley. It was a tasty eating apple, harvested in September and lasting in storage until December. To me, this kind of apple seems to be the most likely object of great-grandpa's hankering.

Ernst gave me additional information about the regional apples and orchards. He says that in the 1930s more than 130 different apple species were cultivated around Trier. There were sweet, sour, bitter, big, small, soft, hard, red, yellow, orange or flamed apples. There was an apple for every purpose, for eating, distilling, baking, cooking or making cider. The apple was the bread-and-butter fruit of the Trier region and more important than wine. Today, most species are gone. But in his mother's time, the apple trees stood so dense that in springtime, when the apple trees were blooming, it looked like snow had fallen. The apple was so important that some villages have it in their coat of arms, and there are poems and songs about the apple. There was no village without apple trees.

In the past, the apple trees grew in what was called the "Streuobstwiese" (literally a 'straw fruit meadow'). All over the region, apple trees and other fruits like plums, etc. grew in these special pastures. The apple trees had very tall, knotty tree trunks; a traditional apple tree looked a bit like a very old man. The Streuobstwiesen gave habitat to a lot of species of animals and plants, and they were very typical in the region. The orchard floor was used by the cattle as pasture, the trees produced fruit and gave refuge to several species of birds like little owls (Athene noctua).

Most orchards were cleared when farming was industrialzed. In the 80s, the European Union paid money for every acre cleared of trees. Less than one-third of the traditional apple trees survived. Today people are recognizing that the apple tree is part of the region's culture; and they are beginning to save the traditional orchards.

Weisser Trier Weinapfel

Roter Trier Weinapfel

An old farmer from Aach, the village where Ernst's mother's family comes from, refused to cut down his old apple trees. The most traditional apples in his orchard are the "Roter Trier Weinapfel", and the "Weisser Trierer Weinapfel". The Weisser Trier is said to be the closest relative of the European wild apple (malus sylvestris). Both the red and the white varieties are used to make "Viez, the regional name for hard cider. The apples are small, hard  and very sour. They are sometimes called "Holzapfel", "Roter Trierer", "Weisser Trierer" or simply "Viezapfel".

If you've been drinking red wine as a heart-disease prevention method (or just for the pleasure of it), here is something to think about. Ernst says that one liter of the region's traditional homemade apple cider contains 3,500 milligrams of flavonoids. One liter of red wine contains around 280 milligrams!

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Life & Death Wanderings of King Johann of Bohemia

The Neumünster in Luxembourg City

In my last post, I told the story of the 1838 river trip which brought the earthly remains of Blind King Johann of Bohemia from the Mettlach porcelain factory of one Herr Bach to the Klause at Kastel, a masoleum built by the Prince Regent of Prussia. In this post, I want to explain why the bones of King Johann, who was born in Luxembourg, reigned as King of Bohemia, and who died in France, came to be in the keeping of a manufacturer in Germany.

The Travels of the Living King Johann

John of Luxemburg was born in 1296, the son of the German Emperor Henry VII. He married Elisabeth, the heiress of Bohemia and became its king in 1310. According to many accounts, he never felt at home in his new kingdom. He had enemies among the Bohemian nobility who worked against him and, a man noted for his bravery in battle, he was very much an absentee king. He never learned the language, spent most of his time at war, and allowed the country to be ruled for a time by local barons. Nevertheless it was said, "Nothing can be done without the help of God and the King of Bohemia". Bohemia was one of the most important kingdoms in Europe. John's banner, with three feathers and the motto, "Ich dien" (I serve) was that of the Bohemian kings.

After the death of his wife Elizabeth, Johann married a French princess and made France his home, leaving his son Charles to oversee the governing of Bohemia. Gradually Johann lost his sight; and by the time of the Battle of Crecy, he was completely blind. In spite of his blindness, he joined with the French in their battle against the English, binding the horses of two of his best knights to his own horse, one on his left side and one on his right side, commanding them to charge so that he, himself, might have a chance to strike blows at the enemies of France. In spite of 50 other knights protecting this odd threesome on horseback, the blind king was killed on the battlefield on August 26, 1346, along with most of his knights. Legend says that when Johann was killed, his banner was picked up by Edward, the Black Prince, then Prince of Wales. That is why, ever since, "Ich dien" has been a part of the crest of the Prince of Wales.

King Johann's Travels Continue After His Death

1. The victor of Crecy, Edward III of England, allowed the fallen Johann to ceremoneously lie in state. The embalmed heart and his entrails were housed in the Dominican Cloister Montargis, where the sister of the Bohemian king, the queen Maria of France was entombed.

2. The King's bones were taken in a ceremonious procession to the Benedictine Abbey at Altmünster in Luxembourg where his son Carl, now the King of Bohemia, erected a monument to his father.

3. In 1542 Francis 1 of France invaded Luxembourg and the outer defences of the city had to be strengthened which meant tearing down the Altmünster in order to better protect the city. The Benedictines took the bones of King John, in a simple wooden casket, to the cloister of the Franciscans in the upper city, and there the blind king's remains rested behind the high altar.

4. By about 1604, the rebuilding of the Benedictine Abbey was started at a new location in the old city, and when it was finished, the remains of King Johann were brought back to this "Neumunster." A discovery was made when his casket was opened. The wooden shrine behind the altar in the Franciscan Abbey had gone unprotected for so long that the theft of Johann's skull had occurred.

5. A report spread that the Earl of Blankenheim in the Eifel had the skull of the Bohemian king, it having been brought to him. The Benedictines wrote many letters requesting the return of the skull. After they were unsuccessful, the Regent of the Netherlands, the Duchess Isabella, interceded with a letter of her own, and in 1630, the Earl of Blankenheim finally agreed to return the skull to its rightful resting place.

6. When the French under Marshall Crequi invaded Luxembourg again in 1684, the Benedictine Abbey was destroyed. But once again the bones of King John went with the Benedictines to a place of refuge in the upper city.

7. The Benedictine Neumunster Abbey again was rebuilt, and King Johann's remains were brought once more to the lower city and given a place of honor.

8. At the outbreak of the French Revolution, fearful of looting by the soldiers who were threatening Luxembourg, the monks of the Neumünster hid the remains of the blind king in the home of a baker who had a sort of a cave under his roof which allowed for a thick wall of this house to be built into a cliff. The Neumunster Abbey was secularized and eventually used as a military hospital and a jail, among other things.

9. The baker was unsure that the location of the remains would stay protected in their cave so he took them outside of the city (some sources say that the baker gave this assignment to the Mayor or Luxembourg when the baker was on his deathbed) to Septfontaines where Jean-Baptiste Boch, owner of the earthenware factory took them under his protection.

The bend in the Saar at Mettlach

A former abbey, now the porcelain factory for Villeroy and Bach in Mettlach

10. Boch's son moved the factory to Mettlach in Germany, and the remains of the Blind King went with him, resting, for more than 40 years, in an attic bedroom.

11. Frederick William IV of Prussia commissioned Karl Friedrich Schinkel to build the Klause, a neo-Gothic chapel, on a high peak near Kastel. The Klause overlooked the Saar River, almost like one of the medieval castles along the Rhine. On August 26, 1838, King Johann's casket was placed in the Klause

A window of the Klause

12. It should come as no surprise that after World War II, Luxembourg asked that their famous king's remains be returned to Luxembourg and the request was honored. Once again, King Johann's bones were moved to a new resting place.

After eight centuries, have the bones of King Johann finally stopped their wandering? Only time will tell.

Hammacher, Klaus. Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte und Geschichten
Centre Culturel de Rencontre Abbaye de Neumünster:

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Blind King Comes to the Klause

The Klause Commissioned by Crown Prince Friedrich William IV

View from the Klause to the Saar and the village of Serrig

Klause - a German word for hermitage, cell, or den

When I saw the Klause at Kastel for the first time, I knew only that it was an impressive building, the burial site of a king called Johann. The view down to the Saar was even more impressive.

I thought no more about the place until, in 2003, I read the strange story of Blind King Johann of Bohemia, who was buried at this Klause almost five centuries after he had had been killed fighting in the battle of Crecy in 1346. He had come to the Klause by way of a porcelain factory in Mettlach.

A future king of Prussia makes a decision

The nineteenth century part of this story begins with a visit to the Saarburg area by Prince Regent Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who was destined, in just seven years, to be crowned the king of Prussia. Prussia had taken control of the Rhineland after the defeat of Napoleon. The Crown Prince was "a Rhine romantic," one of those persons who had discovered the enchantment of the winding Rhine, Saar, and Mosel rivers, each bordered by steep banks that were lush with vineyards or majestic with stony cliffs or green woodlands. He found excuses to visit this new Prussian province and took an interest in rebuilding the historic sites in the Rhineland with which he had become fascinated during the war with Napoleon when he was involved in the campaign in the Rhineland.

Friedrich Wilhelm made a trip to Kreis Saarburg in the year 1833, traveling from Saarburg City to Kastel and from there to Mettlach. As he admired the beauty of a high and scenic rocky cliff above the Saar River near the village of Kastel, the district magistrate from Saarburg, named Valentin von Cohausen, offered the prince this site in the name of the people of Kastel, explaining that it was where a holy hermit had once lived. The crown prince accepted the offer with delight. It seems to have come to his mind that here was a spot that would be a suitable place for a mausoleum to hold and honor the earthly remains of King Johann of Bohemia, a deceased member of the Hohenzollern dynasty to which the crown prince's family also belonged. He was on his way to Mettlach to the estate of Herr Jean Francois Boch (a cofounder of the firm of Villeroy and Boch that to this day makes fine porcelain) where, he had been told, the deceased king's bones now resided.

When the Prince had confirmed that what was left of King Johann was indeed in Herr Boch's keeping, stored in an attic room in his house, he set about planning for a chapel mausoleum to be built on the tall, rocky peak above the Saar at Kastel. Friedrich Wilhelm engaged the architect and artist Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and the building project was finally finished in 1838. The chapel/mausoleum was built in the gothic-romantic style, fused with and clinging to the rocks as if it had grown there.

Blind King Johann makes a stately journey

It was decided to transfer the coffin of King Johann from Mettlach to the Klause on August 26, 1838, the anniversary of the battle at Crecy. According to a Trier newspaper report of the time, people from the surrounding villages gathered at the heights of Castel on the 26th, a Sunday, for the solemn celebration.

Meanwhile many dignitaries were escorting King Johann's casket aboard a ship sailing from Mettlach to Kastel. One assumes that this vessel would have been supplied by Herr Boch or by Friedrich Willhelm, who by this time was king of Prussia. Among those aboard the ship were regional government officials, religious leaders, and Herr Boch himself, who carried the key to King Johann's coffin.

About 11 in the morning the crowd saw the vessel coming slowly along the Saar. When it landed at Staadt near Kastel, a cannon volley was fired. The arriving ship was met by four young men from Kastel and four from Saarburg who had volunteered to carry the coffin up to the mausoleum, undoubtedly taking turns carrying the burden as they struggled along the long, hilly road from Staadt to the Klause which had to be approached by a circuitous route around the back side of the cliff.

At last, with solemnity, the remains were brought into the chapel. The key was turned in the coffin, and it was opened for the inspection of several of the dignitaries. Then the casket was closed again and shut inside the sarcophagus. Muted light came through the colorful pieces of glass in the main space of the mausoleum's vault. The family tree of the Hohenzollern and the Wittelsbachs decorated the wall over the entrance and the sides. The marble sarcophagus had a bronze plate decorated with the royal Luxembourg family crest, and the king’s crown on which was an inscription telling the story of his death. The sarcophagus was decorated with stones considered precious in the first half of the 19th century. According to the Trier'sche Zeitung of 2 September 1838, there was deep silence and reverence from the huge crowd in attendance.

If your ancestors came from any of the villages near Kastel or from villages along the route the ship traveled on its way north from Mettlach, they probably came out on this August Sunday to see history taking place. The village of Serrig, directly across from the Klause, would have been an excellent vantage point, and I picture my Hauser, Maurer, Rommelfanger, and perhaps even my Rauls and Meier ancestors among the crowd.

Two questions should have come to your mind if you have read to this point. How could a blind king of Bohemia have fought and died in a major battle between the French and the English, and how did his earthly remains end up in a porcelain factory in the Rhineland? My next post will answer both of those questions.

Hammächer, Klaus, Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte & Geschichten, 2002
Saarburg: Geschichte einer Stadt, 1991

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bypassed by a Railroad

Approaching the village of Zerf - by car>>

For some of the farmers and craftsmen who lived in the Hunsruck area of the Rheinland, the building of the railroads influenced their decision to emigrate - but not always by making it easier and cheaper for them to reach an ocean port. The building of a railroad line through a remote area might give a man a hope for a brighter future, causing him to remain on his land. When his hope for a railroad line near his village was dashed, might it not cause that same man to pack up his family and try for a better life in America. The railroad line from Luxembourg to Saarbrucken is a case in point.

Villages like Irsch and Serrig had convenient access to the Saarburg-based cargo barges that sailed between Trier and Saarbrucken. The farmers in Zerf and the villages that surrounded it had much greater difficulty getting their products to appropriate markets than the people who lived nearer to the Saar River.

Then came a ray of hope. In 1844, the local city government in Trier began an active campaign to bring a railroad from Trier to Saarbrucken, fearing that the plan of running the railroad from Luxembourg City to Saarbrucken over Merzig and Remich would bypass Trier and affect the city negatively. They found an English company that was interested in a Trier-Saarbrucken railroad project. Two possible paths were debated. One was to follow the Saar valley; but the other was to go over the Hochwald through the Ollweg valley, with a tunnel from Franzenheim to the Ruwer valley, overland through Zerf, then leave the Ruwer valley and head toward Losheim. From there it would go to Illingen and end in Neunkirchen which would connect the line to Saarbrucken through the already existing Bexbach-Mannheimer railroad.

But unrest was in the air, leading up to the revolution of 1848. The foreign companies lost interest in building a railroad from Trier to Saarbrucken, so the city of Trier lobbied its cause directly in Berlin. Finally Berlin gave way to pressure from the Trier delegates, agreeing that running the rail line through Trier was a military necessity. The city was to be included in the railroad line stretching from Luxembourg to Saarbrucken. But which of the two routes originally considered by the British investors in 1844 would be the one chosen - the one running through the Saar valley or the high overland route through Zerf?

A committee of representatives from the Hochwald defended the route that would let the railroad pass over the Hochwald and through the Bliestal and the villages of Zerf, Losheim, St. Wendel and Ottweiler. They argued against placing the railroad line in the Saar valley because of its nearness to France, the higher land costs and the fact, that "all the Saar sailors, whose number are not small, would be cut off from a source of income." The Hochwald, on the other hand, needed a favorable route for its goods - wood, Lohe (tanning bark), and cattle - so that the population did not become even more impoverished. However, the petition of the Hochwald committee was rejected by Berlin, and the Saar valley gained the advantage for the railroad line. The representatives of the Saar valley industries had prevailed over the weakly structured Hochwald/Bliestal region’s committee, probably helped by the fact that the manufacturer Boch, owner of the porcelain factory at Mettlach, had never favored the Hochwald plan.

On 7 March 1857, Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV decreed the construction of the railroad line using the Saar Valley route. Zerf and the other Hochwald villages had lost their chance for prosperity.

The choice of the Saar route was not without problems. Terrain difficulty, especially in Mettlach, increased the total cost of of the project from five-and-a-half million Taler to eight million Taler and delayed the completion until 1860.

Mathias Rauls, the brother of my great-great grandmother, was one of the emigrants who left the Hochwald in 1857. He and his wife Elizabeth, along with 38 other residents of Zerf, received permission to emigrate during the months of February, March and April of 1857. I believe that these farmers and their families had already guessed that there would be no railroad line for Zerf and that most of the farmers in the Hochwald area of the Hunsruck would struggle with poverty for a long time to come.

The Rauls family settled on eighty acres of land in the Township of Berry, Dane County, Wisconsin. The plat map of 1864 shows a railroad line near their farm.

Sources: Hammaecher, Klaus. Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte, Geschichten, pp. 115-117; Wisconsin State Historical Society, Plat Map of Dane County Wisconsin, 1864

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Family Story with Extras

The Village of Irsch, 1937 and 2002

When I started “doing” genealogy, I kept my information on a form known to all genealogists – the family group sheet. While that works well for keeping track of names, dates and places, it is entirely unsatisfactory for all the pieces of information that breathe life into a family’s history. Eventually, I began to integrate historical information, especially social history, into a narrative for each family group.

While that prevented me from losing track of historical information, I soon realized that all of my ancestors from the Trier area shared a common history, leading to a lot of repetition in the text of each individual family’s story.

What to do? I invented what I call the combined family story with "extras." I put the information from the Rauls, Meier, Hauser, and Schawel family group sheets together, writing a single narrative that included all the brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, etc., from all of my Rheinland families. Then I added what I considered relevant historical happenings. I also included social customs and any other tidbits of information that would get lost if I kept them on pieces of paper in my files. When I stumbled on a new piece of information of any kind, I just added it in. Here are some illustrations of my "extras."

A Picture of the Early Years

The first years of the nineteenth century were also the early years of my four great-great grandparents. While they were growing from babes to young adults, the other members of their families, the everyday world around them, and daily events both large and small, shaped them and formed the memories which they took to their new land when they emigrated.

Johann Meier, Magdalena Rauls, Michael Hauser, and Madgalena Schawel, did not come into the world at the best of times. These were bad harvest years, especially the mid-1820s when Johann Meier and Magadalena Rauls were born. The poorer people ate mostly bread made of potato flour. Some stole wood and poached in order to survive. The farmers with land fared a little better than the day laborers, but times were hard.

The residents of Irsch, Oberzerf, and Serrig had become citizens of Prussia after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. There was no major war during the Prussian years from 1814 until the 1860's, and Irsch did not experience great changes of local governance under Prussian rule. For instance, Maximilian Keller served as Maire during the time that the Irsch villagers were French subjects. In 1814, Herr Keller kept his position as mayor. Only his title changed; he had become a Prussian Burgermeister. Unlike today, the term of office for a mayor could be lengthy. Nicolaus Bodem became the Burgermeister of Irsch in 1831 and kept this position for the next 48 years.

Even more respected than the civil authority of the mayor was the religious authority of the village priest. Like Mayor Bodem of Irsch, Fr. Matthias Guckeisen served the parish of Zerf, including Oberzerf and Greimerath, for an exceptionally long period of time, from 1824 to 1863 - almost 40 years. Father Peter Kremer was in charge of the Irsch congregation from 1817 to 1848, over 30 years. He might have served the parish longer but, like so many of his parishoners, he died during the cholera epidemic that was sweeping Europe at that time.

There is not much description available for the way that people lived their day-to-day lives in the villages of Irsch or Serrig. However, in neighboring Zerf where Magdalena Rauls grew up and which was only a few miles away from Irsch, the living conditions in the 1800's were well described by Edgar Christoffel in his history of Zerf.

"Most houses were damp...because they had only partial cellars. They were built of quarry stone, one or two stories tall, and had straw roofs. Only the public buildings, such as the mayor's house, the school, and the church had sloping tile roofs. Inside, the house was very simply furnished and rooms other than the kitchen and the 'good room' were seldom heated...[There was] an open fireplace where a large log burned. On an iron pole hung the big kettle. Meat was smoked in the open chimney..."

"Meat could only be kept by smoking it; when meat was eaten during the day, it was smoked and served with sauerkraut. The poorer people seldom had meat on the table. They had buckwheat dumplings with milk. More well off people might have bacon as well. In the evenings fried potatoes with sour milk were frequently eaten."

"In the winter evenings, the women busied themselves spinning flax, hemp, and wool. The men smoked their clay pipes...”The village streets had a slightly convex, bumpy surface, so that the horses often slipped off the road. In the dark, the men of the village sometimes did the same. Since the streets had no drainage, the water flowed in the gutters when it rained; and since the gutters lay right in front of the houses, the people had to make a huge jump to get across them or lay a plank over them. The waste water and sewage was dumped too...and there was a very unpleasant odor on some streets in the summer. Toilets were little houses with a small cut-out heart on the door. They stood near the manure pile or cesspool. Water came from village wells, although a few people had wells of their own."

Sicknesses such as typhus and scarlet fever were prevalent during the 1830's, and many children and adults died from these diseases as well as from diphtheria. I noted that two of Johann’s Meier's brothers died in those years; both were under four years of age.

The children of Irsch received their education in the schoolhouse on the Irsch/Biest border. Infant mortality decreased during the first half of the 19th century and there were so many children enrolled in the school, newly built in 1828, that by 1833 there were two teachers. The principal subjects taught were writing, arithmetic, and Bible instructions.
Zerf too needed another teacher. The school population was as high as 100 students in 1826 and eventually there was a separation of the school children into a lower form and an upper form.

Irsch suffered a terrible tragedy in the dry summer of 1842. The biggest fire in 100 years destroyed 34 houses and 22 stables within a few hours, leaving 500 inhabitants without shelter. The stables, which contained fodder for the animals and the oak bark meant to be sold to the tanneries of Saarburg, were also reduced to ashes.

In 1844, the "Holy Robe" of Christ was displayed in the Cathedral in Trier. The robe, thought to be the seamless garment which Christ wore on the day of his crucifixion, supposedly was given to the Bishop of Trier by the Mother of the Emperor Constantine. It was displayed only periodically, and it brought a great number of pilgrims through the Saar villages as they made their way to Trier Dom Cathedral to venerate the the Holy Robe.

Irsch was approximately two miles from Saarburg, the seat of government for the Kreis. But its accessibility was limited because the Saar River separated it from all the small villages to its east. Since the stone bridge across the Saar was not completed until 1861, anyone coming from Irsch would have to be ferried across the river in order to get to Saarburg.

Some Questions
Did 17-year old Johann Meier see the family's possessions go up in flames; was Magdalena Rauls, born on December 25, baptized by Father Guckeisen in the chapel at Oberzerf while the boughs of fir trees still decorated the church altar; was Magdalena Schawel, on her first day of school, excited because she was among the first group of children to be taught in the new school building? I do not know the answers to those questions, but without the "extras" in my family story, I would never have had cause to wonder.

Christoffel, Edgar, Der Hochwaldort Zerf am Fusse des Hunsrucks
Meyer, Ewald, Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes, 2002.
Photos within text taken at Roscheiderhof Open Air Museum

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Feast of Corpus Christi

Traditional German Corpus Christi altar - photo from Ernst Mettlach who says he thinks the picture is from the 1950s.

In my Catholic parish in Wisconsin, the feast of the"Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ" will be observed on June 18. Most of us still think of this religious holiday as "Corpus Christi." It is not a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States, and it is now celebrated on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday.

However in many of the Federal States in Germany, including the Rheinland, Corpus Christi, known as Fronleichnam is still a solemn church holiday as well as a national holiday. It is celebrated on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, a date that was chosen around the Thirteenth Century.

Fronleichnam Memories:

When he was growning up in Beurich (today part of the city of Saarburg) Ewald Meyer, author of a history of the village of Irsch, remembers Fronleichnam or Corpus Christi processions and the elaborate altars erected outside of the homes in his village, as illustrated by the photo above. As the Fronleichnam procession wound along the streets of the village, the village priest would bless each altar.

My German relative, Edeltrud Heiser, grew up in the village of Irsch. She says that when she was a child, the children in the Corpus Christi procession dressed in their best Sunday clothes. Little girls wore woven flower crowns of Ganseblumchen and Margarites and, if it was the year of their first Holy Communion, the girls would wear their white Communion dresses.

Ernst Mettlach also grew up in the Trier area. He is the fortunate owner of an elaborate Fronleichnam altar. He says, "I saved an old altar from the rubbish. It was decorated with flowers and placed at the feast of Corpus Christi (Fronleichnam in german) in front of the houses to honour Jesus Christ. There is still a procession today, but there are only a few house-altars left. Corpus Christi was an important day in the life of our ancestors."

As you can see from these four photos, the Corpus Christi altar that Ernst rescued is a wooden cabinet, rather like a triptych, that opens to reveal a painting of Christ and his apostles at the Last Supper. Intricate wood carving frames this picture, giving the whole piece the aura of an elaborate cathedral altar.

Some Additional Information about Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi was established in 1246 in Liege Belgium after Julianna of Mont Cornillon, a nun and mother superior who had always held the Holy Eucharist in great regard, reported a vision through which she understood that Jesus lamented the absence of a particular feast in the Church's calendar focused on his sacramental presence on the altar. When the former archdeacon of Liege, Jacques Pantaleon, became Pope Urban IV, he adopted the feast. It was (and in many countries like Germany still is) celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. The Eucharistic procession, while not mentioned in the early office and texts of the Catholic Church, came to be connected with Corpus Christi and, in time, the hallmark of the religious observance. In addition to its religious significance, the feast also came to have great social and commercial significance. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Fronleichnams-fest is celebrated throughout Catholic Germany with processions through streets that are charmingly decorated with flowers and garlands of green. Crucifixes and pictures of Christ are prominently displayed from window ledges and the steps of cottages and village fountains. In many places people display bright hangings and spread carpets before their houses in honor of the Sacrament and of the large crucifix, both of which are carried through the parish. One of the most beautiful features of the processions is the group of children, dressed in white with flower chaplets on their heads and nosegays of fragrant blossoms in their hands. Girls and women in magnificent regional costume add further distinction to the joyous event.

Cologne in 1279 had the first recorded Corpus Christi procession. Not content to adore the Eucharistic Christ exposed in a monstrance inside the church, the people appealed to have a Host consecrated during the Mass carried through the streets to be adored. The practice caught on throughout all of Europe, where it was seen as the triumph of Christ the King. In some places, the procession would wind through a town and even into the countryside. In Germany, each of the four Gospels was sung and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament took place in four spots, north, south, east, west as a plea for good weather. (From the website Angel Fire)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Thirty People on Their Way to a New Land

Sections of pages 1 and 2 of a passenger list filed with New York port authorities on May 9, 1861

In my last post I wrote about the process of obtaining permission to emigrate. This time I want to focus on a special group of emigrants from the village of Irsch, Kreis Saarburg, Rheinland. These neighbors, some of them related to each other, had all made a decision to seek a better life for themselves and their children in America; and, when they received the necessary documents, they traveled to Wisconsin aboard the same sailing ship. Among them were my great-great grandparents, Johann and Magdalena Meier and their four children. Their fifth child, Anna Maria, was left behind in the cemetery beside the church.

What was it like, I wonder, to sell your farm and almost all of your possessions, close the door of the house you had lived in for many years, and walk beside a wagon or push a wheelbarrow loaded with just those few item that you had packed into a trunk or some sturdy cloth bags. These stoughthearted men and women must have asked themselves over and over, "Will these things that we carry with us be what we need to help us survive the ocean trip and the first months in the new country?"

Did these travelers wave goodbye to their neighbors and pause for a moment to scan the still-fallow fields that they would never plant again? Did this last sight of their village happen on a day that was cold and rainy; or was it a sunny morning, the breeze tinged with a spring warmth?

While I have no way to prove it, I think it is likely that the people I am talking about not only traveled on the same ship; but also made the trip from Irsch to Le Havre together. If so, they probably boarded the train at the stop in Beurig and went on to Metz via Saarbrucken. In Metz, they changed trains in order to travel on to Paris. In Paris, one of Europe's largest and most cosmopolitan cities, these inexperienced villagers either transfered to yet another train or took a steamer up the Seine River to reach the port city of Le Havre.

The thirty emigrants whose names are recorded on the passenger list of the American ship Rattler (second page of the two documents above) were a mixed lot, ranging in age from over 50 to just one year old. There were four farmers, a wagon maker, a serving maid, and a day laborer. Six of the children listed were over 18 years of age - old enough to be a productive part of the workforce that the sparsely settled state of Wisconsin was seeking.

The Group of Thirty:

1. Maria Feilen, 23 years old, serving maid. She had received her permission to emigrate on February 22, 1861.

2. Heinrich Britten, 55 years old, farmer. He received emigration permision on February 25, 1861. He and his family settled in St. John/Hilbert, Wisconsin.

3. Elizabeth Mertes Britten, wife of Heinrich Britten, 51 years old. 

4. Peter Britten, 20 years old son of Heinrich and Elizabeth Britten.

5. Michel Britten, 18 years old, son of Heinrich and Elizabeth Britten.

6. Margaretha Britten, 8 years old, daughter of Heinrich and Elizabeth Britten.

7. Maria Britten, 7 years old, daughter of Heinrich and Elizabeth Britten.

8. Peter Hein, 30 years old, day laborer. He received permission to emigrate on February 25, 1861. He and his wife and daughter settled in St. John /Hilbert, Wisconsin.

9. Anna Britten Hein, wife of Peter Hein, 29 years old (daughter of Heinrich and Elizabeth Britten - see previous entry)

10. Elizabeth Britten, daughter of Anna and Peter Hein, 4 years old.


11. Michel Meier, 50 years old, unmarried farmer, uncle of #25, Johann Meier. He received his permission papers on February 27 1861 and settled in St. John, Wisconsin

12. Peter Lauer, 38 years old, wagon maker. He and his family received permission to emigrate on 2 March 1861. They settled in Fussville, Wisconsin which is now a part of Menomonee Falls, Waukesha County, Wisconsin. 

13. Magdalena Wagner Lauer, wife of Peter Lauer, 37 years old.

14. Margarethe Lauer, daughter of Peter and Magdalena Lauer, five years old, 

15. Johannes Lauer, son of Peter and Magdalena Lauer, two years old.

16. Mathias Fisch, 48 years old, farmer. He received his permission to emigrate on January 31, 1861. He wanted to leave, he said, because acquaintances living in American had convinced him that he could support his family better there. He settled in St. John, Wisconsin

17. Magdalena Lauer Fisch, 48 years old, wife of Mathias Fisch.

18. Magdalena Fisch, daughter of Mathias and Magdalena Fisch, 25 years old.

19. Johann Fisch, son of Mathias and Magdalena Fisch, 21 years old. He had served in the Hohenzollerschen Regiment, Nr. 40 in Saarlouis, according to information in the Koblenz Staatarchiv.

20. Michel Fisch, 20 years old, son of Mathias and Magdalena Fisch.

21. Jakob Fisch, 15 years old, son of Mathias and Magdalena Fisch.

22. Nikolaus Fisch, 13 years old, son of Mathias and Magdalena Fisch.

23. Maria Fisch, 10 years old, daughter of Mathias and Magdalena Fisch.

24. Peter Fisch, 8 years old, son of Mathias and Magdalena Fisch.

25. Johann Meier, 35 years old, farmer. He and his family received emigration permission on March 5, 1861. His reason for leaving..."that he already had two brother-in-laws there and was going to them." (One of these men was his wife's brother, Mathias Rauls, who had settled in Dane County Wisconsin about 1857.) Johann Meier and his family settled in St. John, Wisconsin.

26. Magdalena Rauls Meier, 33 years old, wife of Johann Meier.

27. Mathias Meier, 11 years old, son of Johann and Magdalena Meier

28. Anna Meier, 9 years old, daughter of Johann and Magdalena Meier

29. Johann Meier, 3 years old, son of Johann and Magdalena Meier

30. Michel Meier, one year old, son of Johann and Magdalena Meier

Early in April 1861, these thirty men, women, and children boarded the American sailing vessel, Rattler, which would take them across the Atlantic Ocean to the port of New York. Under the leadership of Captain Almay and his crew, they would live in the steerage area between decks for 32 days. By the time they stepped ashore in New York City on May 9, soldiers in dark blue Union uniform were everywhere. The American Civil War had just begun.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Government Bureaucracy and the Immigrant Ancestor

Beurig, once a village with its own mayor, is today a part of the city of Saarburg


In October, 2004 I went to the Landeshauptarchiv Koblenz Archiv in an attempt to locate a copy of the passport for my great-great grandfather and his family who left Irsch in 1861. While I didn't find the passport, I had the chance to gently handle the actual immigration documents that were handwritten by the Burgermeister of Beurig/Irsch at the time of application; a rare opportunity that I will always treasure. These documents, along with hundreds of others from the Saarburg district, were bound in a volume that spanned the time period from January of 1859 to May of 1862. (Earlier and later volumes of application papers are also held at the Archive).

As I turned pages in the leather-bound book of applications, I confirmed that within the space of a few weeks in February and March of 1861, thirty inhabitants of the village of Irsch, including my 2nd great grandfather and his family, were granted permission to emigrate to America. These thirty people would soon travel together to Wisconsin to begin a new life in an unknown land. The men were also officially renouncing their Prussian citizenship. They were ready to take an enormous risk to improve their lives and the futures of their children.


According to historian J. Bellot, the first half of the nineteenth century was a time when economic conditions in Germany were very bad. Wages were miserably poor and prices were rising. Factories were replacing the handworkers, and before 1850 there was already heavy migration out of the Trier and Saarburg districts.

Many chose to find a place where they could have land of their own and to be free from high taxes, especially the Klassensteuer of the Prussian Government. The Trier district also had exceedingly high church assessments from 1857 onward.

Then there were the "agents", men who promised to facillitate the trip. Some of these travel agents were honest; others were not. And a few of the agents in Germany were actually sent by the State of Wisconsin to find settlers to populate the state. They carried with them a pamphlet published in 1848 by German immigrant Carl De Haas. It was called NORTH AMERICA WISCONSIN; HINTS FOR EMIGRANTS. It had been written by Haas to help others who were considering the same trip he had made. Haas pointed out that Wisconsin had cheap land available - it was sold for $1.25 an acre in most cases - and Wisconsin was the first state in the Union to require just one year of residency to become a citizen (LeVern Rippley, OF GERMAN WAYS).

"America letters came from relatives or neighbors who had left their villages in the 1840's and 1850's. There were stories of cheap land, good crops, and success. In this 1846 letter, an immigrant writes to his relatives in the Rhineland from someplace near Milwaukee, Wisconsin: "Immediately I found land to purchase...I purchased a piece of property of 40 acres, which is the same as 55 Prussian acres. On this property stands a house and two pig stalls. Along with this we also received two beautiful oxen, one cow, one steer, eight pigs, eight chickens, the oven with which we cook and bake, one bed, one cabinet, one grindstone, and all farm equipment...We also got a garden, a beautiful garden, which had all kinds of beautiful plants...The beautiful melons were a special joy for me...We have enough here to live in abundance. It is a peaceful and contented life. No tax-collectors. Come here!"

By 1861 the railroads were crisscrossing Germany. Already in 1852, a rail line from Forbach (near Saarbrucken) to Havre made it easier for the emigrants from the Saarburg area to reach an Atlantic port. (Mergen, Josef, Die Auswanderungen aus den ehemals preussichen Teilen des Saarlandes im 19. Jahrhundert). On May 25, 1860, the railroad line connecting Trier with Saarbrucken was officially opened. The immigrant from the Saarburg area could finally reach the port of LeHavre in France entirely by rail. (Hammaecher, Klaus, SERRIG: LANDSCHAFT, GESCHICHTE & GESCHICHTEN, Saarburger Satz & Druck GmbH, Saarburg, 2002)


By the 1860's, the steady flow of emigrants to America was causing government officials to worry. They had assumed that the majority of immigrants would be day laborers and small farmers who teetered on the edge of destitution. There was, they had thought, little to be gained by trying to retain these people and then support them if they became improverished. But many of these first immigrants found that they could flourish in their adopted country; and they wrote to their relatives, encouraging them to leave Germany too. Hard-working, ordinary farmers and craftsmen began to leave the Rhineland in increasing numbers. In some villages, up to a third of the population had emigrated by the 1870's.

As they watched this "out wandering", government officials finally realized that the men who paid taxes and provided stability to the economy were being lost at an alarming rate. Hoping to stem this tide, the Prussian government prepared a standard list of warnings and advisements. The local mayors were required to read them to each person requesting permission to leave the country.


A typical interview between a resident of the village of Irsch or Beurig seeking permission to leave the country and Burgermeister Nicholaus Bodem of Beurig might proceed something like this:

Burgermeister Bodem would probably ask the applicant to give his - or in some cases, her - reason for wanting to renounce Prussian citizenship in order to go to a new country; then record the answer. The Burgermeister would next read from the the official list of warnings. He would caution the applicant that not everyone found a good life in the new country; some were cheated badly and found themselves living in poverty. If life in the new land is not successful, he would say, you will no longer be a Prussian citizen. You may not be allowed to return to the home country. (Because of the time period in which my great-great grandfather applied for his passport, he was also cautioned that the United States was dangerously close to a civil war that might make travel within America dangerous or even impossible).

If the applicant persisted in requesting permission, the mayor asked for the details of his financial situation. The applicant had to give proof that he had no debts or fines. He had to document that he had completed his military service. Finally, when all seemed to be in order, a fee of 15 Silbergroschen, was paid. Burgermeister Bodem would end the session with the following advice. This advice, like the warnings, was required by governmental order.

1. Use the regular immigration office in Köln or Koblenz and do not trust underhanded agents in setting up travel.

2. Keep a record of payment of any bookings made so as not to have to pay a second time

3. Get explicit statements in the contracts with shippers or other persons regarding the voyage so that all is clear and so that help can be obtained from the Prussian consulate if difficulties arise.

4. Be watchful at the harbor for anyone trying to entice emigration to a South American country where slavery will probably result.

It took from 14 days to four weeks for the documents of dismissal to be processed. Once the document had all the necessary signatures, the prospective immigrant was given his travel pass and allowed to begin preparations for his journey. He had become a foreigner in the country he had so recently called his homeland.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Revolution of 1848

Top: Today's Serrig at the edge of the Kammerforst
Bottom: The path beside the road from Oberzerf to Serrig

I asked my father, "Vater, what is the Revolution?"... '"Ach," he said, "nobody knows what it is, and everyone makes of it what he wants." Grandfather of Peter Fass, Serrig

The Revolution That Failed

Those of us who have 19th century Rhineland ancestors soon learn about the Revolution of 1848, when there was a short-lived struggle with the Emperor of Prussia for more individual liberty and the freedom to participate in the process of government.

After some initial success, the proponents of a more democratic form of government (or even a republic) in the Prussian Rheinland failed to bring it about. The Prussian emperor did not look kindly on the rebellious activities, and those identified as a threat were sought out for punishment. This caused many of those who had gained notoriety to flee.

Because America was seen as a place where democratic ideals flourished, some of the escaping so-called "48'ers" chose it as their new homeland. Most of these men were from the middle class and educated - the so-called "German gentlemen farmers." A good example is Carl Shurz who took up a new life in Watertown, Wisconsin; and in the 1860's became a leading figure in the Republican party and an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln.

Most of us are not the descendants of well-educated revolutionaries. Our forefathers were struggling farmers, craftsmen, and dayworkers. But just like the fleeing 48'ers, our immigrant ancestors wanted to escape - not from a courtroom or a prison but from economic hardship or outright poverty. This was a time when the winemakers of the Rhineland were suffering poverty because the bottom had fallen out of the wine market. New taxes and fees depleted even further the already stretched purses of the farmers, winemakers, craftsmen and laborers. They were ready to revolt.

While our Rhineland ancestors' activities during the revolution may not have put them in the history books, they, too, took part in the disorder and excitement that was sweeping the region; some as observers, others as occasional participants.

The Revolution Comes to the Saar Valley

In his history of Saarburg, Nikolaus Ritzler talks about 1848 bringing an overthrow movement to the city.

On March 25, 1848 toll stations in Trassem were destroyed. On the same day, a toll in Niederleuken was demolished. And in Freudenburg a toll was dismantled and the German flag of the revolution (not the Prussian flag) was flown. In this dangerous atmosphere, a regiment of soldiers was sent from Trier to Saarburg; but were withdrawn again because of the protests of the city government. This left the Saarburg mayor, Herr Crell, and the head of the Saarburg administrative district, Herr Von Nell, in a terribly difficult situation. The Prussian eagle was ripped from the city hall in Saarburg and ruined with excrement and dirt of the road. A pole called a "freedom tree" was planted, and the women and girls danced around it.

In his book about the small wine village of Serrig in the Saar valley, Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte & Geschichten, Klaus Hammächer included a story by Peter Fass, whose grandfather was the schoolmaster in Serrig in 1848.

The Serrig Schoolteacher's Memories of the 1848 Revolution:

Herr Fass said that people talked of the revolution and believed it would come to them from Trier. One Sunday the men in their clean blue overalls stayed under the mighty Linden at the rear of the church. They talked about the revolution in Trier that was going against the Prussians. One of the men spoke up, looking around anxiously as he talked. He claimed to know that the Trier streets had barricades and that stores were being plundered with the cry of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The mayor, the police, even the Prussians were gone. A great cry went up from the men under the tree and echoed through the Saar hills. The French of the Saar drank many glasses of Saar wine and Viez that Sunday.

The school children came to school unhappily on Monday. Herr Fass, their schoolteacher, stood quietly on the big stone steps of the school. “Are you youngsters daring to make revolution? No! Are we having school? Ja, get inside!” So the 90 students climbed the stone steps and went into the classroom. Reading, writing, and arithmetic went on as usual, but Herr Fass stood near the window and kept looking out. The students were restless. They felt something important was happening.

Men came carrying a pole which they put up in the free space between the school and the Parish house. At the top there were colorful bands of ribbon. They called it the freedom tree. The men danced around it; one started and the others followed. Their pointed caps were thrown in the air, their blue overalls flapped as even stiff legs cut wonderful figures. No more teaching today. The students ran out to the pole. People from the upper and lower village and from Kirten came running. The Herr Fass still stood at the window and was joined by his wife. "We'll have to wait until they get tired," he said. "Then we'll finally be able to hear ourselves think."

The shouting and the dancing finally died away. But the young fellows cried, "to the Kammerforscht (dialect for the Kammerforst). They went with axes and saws. They found no forest keeper but they did find the men from Irsch and Beurich already cutting. The emperor's oaks fell under the blows of the “freedom men” that had plenty of wood in their own Gehöferschaft and community woods. They brought their burdens home on wagons.

Meanwhile Prussian Hussars had been called into Trier. They were led by a small, stocky general named Schreckensteiner. He jumped on a cannon and told the “freedom men” that if they didn’t make peace, he would fire the cannon and blow the town to bits. That did little to stop them. Suddenly there was a terrible noise; a cannon shot into the air. Almost immediately a white flag fluttered from the St. Gangolf church tower. "We will listen" came the cry.

Meanwhile, in Serrig, after the excitement died down, the freedom tree stood with only a ripped red band still hanging. The farmers, wagons heavy with logs, didn't know what to do with them; and they needed their wagons for hauling their hay

The forester who had run away from the Kammerforst had sent a message to Trier, and some Hussars came to Serrig. By the time they got there, they were very thirsty and hot and so were their horses. The people raced into cellars and stalls and brought out Viez, more and more, in bucketfuls. The soldiers drank and drank. They decided to use the schoolhouse as their headquarters, so they marched to the door and claimed it in the name of Prussia. Herr Fass and his wife had no choice but to turn it over.

The soldiers had little else to do but ride out now and then. They made themselves comfortable in the classroom. Mostly they played cards from early morning until late at night. They had made Serrig peaceful just by their presence. The worried villagers took care of the soldiers' food and drink. And they were hungry! After the soldiers left, there wasn’t much left to eat but pancakes. The school was cleaned and put back into use. The school children were sorry to see the soldiers leave.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

On the Kitchen Shelves

Left: Waschkrug/
Wash Pitcher
Right: Oelflasche/
Earthen Oil bottle

Most of us with ancestors who come from the Trier area have probably thought, at one time or another, about the houses they lived in. But how many of us have considered the small items, used on a regular basis, that would be found in a cupboard or on shelves in those homes.

As I attempted to write the first chapter in my novel about my ancestors, I created a scene in which grandfather, father, mother, and children came to the table to have a meal - and discovered that I had very little idea about what would be on that table. What were the mugs and plates made from? What kind of food and drink would be in or on them? How had the meal been cooked and in what kind of pots? I had the genealogical and historical events that I needed to write about my immigrant ancestors' lives, but I certainly lacked data on the simple things.

Little by little I've found information in books and at museums about the small things, like dishware and crockery, that might have been used by a family in Irsch or Oberzerf. I've also been fortunate to have some additional help in answering that question. Ernst Mettlach, who grew up in the Trier area, was kind enough to send me photos and descriptions of some of the everyday objects that might grace the shelves of my ancestors' kitchen shelves or cupboards. His descriptions of the photos were so good that I'm using them just the way he explained them to me in his e-mail.

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Ernst says, "Most of the pieces (which he photographed) are still in use and they all are typical for the region."

"My Viezporz is my porcelain-made mug where I drink my apple cider from. It is an old one, in use since my grandfather's days. As I no longer live in the Trier region, it is an excellent medicine against homesickness. For my grandfather, ca.1910, Viez (selfmade and cheap) was an everyday drink, like mineral water is for me. But on special occasions, like Christmas and on Sundays, he preferred wine."

"For real Viez, a special apple, called Viezapfel is needed. The species mostly used are called Roter Trierer and weisser Trierer, some use the Bohnapfel or Erbachhofer, a special pear is also added, the name is Sievenicher Viezbirne. And sometimes, the fruit of the Speierling (sorb or service tree) is added, which preserved the Viez and made it very clear. Every family had its own formula, how the fruits should be mixed. All these fruits are small, very old and very sour, at least not really edible. In former days, the grassland in the countryside was covered with apple trees of this species. Today, the trees are hindering industrial farming and they`re cut. For a time, the Viezapfel was on the list for endangered species."

"The Viezkrug is very old, maybe 100 years. It was closed with cork. With the bigger Viezkrug made from Steinzeug (stone-ware), the Viez was taken from the cask in the cellar and was prepared for drinking; that is, it was placed on or near the oven, to warm it up a bit."

"These two earthen brown containers made of clay are very old too. They were used for multiple storage purposes (flour, lard...) and you can heat them up."

"The grey containers were used for storage and especially the bigger ones were used for making sauerkraut, which, as every American know, was an everyday dish in past days. Therefore, the kraut or as we say in dialect, the Kappes, was cut in pieces with a Krauthobel and put together with salt in the container. The container was closed with a wooden plank and a heavy stone on it. Then the kraut fermented. I`ll never forget the terrible smell, when Grandma opened the container the first time. But the homemade kraut was delicious and very healthy. It is eaten with boiled potatoes and smoked pork chops."

"The Bommes (dial.) or Korbflasche (German) was used for many purposes. During working in the fields, the Bommes was filled with Viez. It was a glass bottle coated with a meshwork made of willow branches."

"The wineglasses are different types: The green one is called Römer (Roman) and is still used in the region, especially along the Moselle River for drinking white wine. It is available in different sizes. The white glass is more exquisite, it is a so-called Treviris-Kristall-Glas. It was expensive and only used for special purposes like weddings etc."

"The wooden form was used to bring the self-made butter into shapes." "The mill is from the 40s or 50s and was used for grinding coffee."

"Big pots like these are made of cast iron. They were essential in every kitchen and still today after a hundred years or so, they're the best you can cook with. They become rusty if you don`t use them, so you have to oil them. I`m in posession of one and I love it. They're essential for cooking regional specialties like Schaales (a special, Jewish-inspired potato casserole with leek to be eaten with apple puree) or gedämpfd Krumpern (fried potatoes)."

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Thank you, Ernst, for adding so much knowledge to my ancestors' kitchen shelves.