Monday, April 03, 2017

Does Anyone Have a Map?

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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.  I had carefully described the superstitions that hung over a new mother who would poison a loaf of bread or water she drew from the well, but never mentioned that the little villages of Oberzerf and Irsch were not too far from either the French or the Luxembourg borders and shared many of the same customs.  How could I have forgotten to tell the readers about that?  I'll never forget location, location, location again.


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


THE BOOK

What would it be like to spend their important days, from morning to night, with German ancestors who lived in the 1800s?  How did they think, these people from whom we descended, and what would it be like to listen in on their conversations and even their thoughts and their dreams long before they came to America?  That's what I wondered almost from the first moment I found genealogical primary resources about them.  Writing House of Johann made that happen for me, and I hope for anyone who reads the story. 


THE BLOG

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:


 SYNOPSIS

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.

FYI: One of my Village of Oberzerf ancestors emigrated to America through the Port of Le Havre in 1861.