Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Place For Small Things

A very small book on wine from my favorite Saarburg bookshop and a wine cup from Irsch, the home of my Great-great grandparents 
A "must purchase" at Saarburg's Golden Autumn celebrarion

The shelves where my bits and pieces reside

On many visits to Germany and especially Kreis Saarburg, I have brought home a heart full of extraordinary memories, a head full of vivid impressions and often also a suitcase with large envelopes or folders filled with materials from an ancestral search which had been singularly successful. I have never been able to return home from a trip to Germany (or anywhere) without souvenirs as well.* Due to space limitations of my luggage and the strength of my back, the souvenirs were usually small things that reminded me of a happy occasion or something special I had seen. I treasured them and put them on my dining room table as soon as I unpacked and for a time, there they stayed.

After a few days I looked at them less and knew it was time to find a permanent place for them. So often, they did not fit together in a lovely grouping.  They were usually rather small and could not stand alone.  Should I pack them away?  I knew that I would want to see them now and then and be reminded of the Alte Heimat. Fortunately, I have a very large, glass-door bookcase in my dining room.  On two of the shelves I keep a few books in German and my German treasures. When I want to see my memories, they are in the best of all possible places.

Bits and Pieces for Your Ancestral Information "shelf."

This blog post is not about my souvenirs although you may be wondering by now.   It is about something that strikes me as very similar. As I write my blog posts, I will come across "lovely or curious small things" that remind me of my little souvenirs. Each is a piece of information not large enough to make a whole post. But there will be times when I, and hopefully you, will want to look at one of these little gems because it is uncommonly important to your understanding of an ancestor's way of life or because a surprisingly few sentences will sometimes be as full of information as an entire chapter in a book or a full-blown post on this blog.

The Ice Saints
This short piece of information explained a phrase I'd heard since I was a child.  One of my aunts who loved to garden always talked about the "iceman days" in spring.  I had no idea this was a Germanic piece of history.  The belief that the killing frost days in May came from the old homeland.  Sometimes only three, sometimes five saints with feast days in May were known as the "Eisheiligen" or Ice Saints.:  May 11, the feast of St. Mamertus, May 12 the feast of St. Pankratius, and May 13 the feast of St. Servatus.  Two other Saints are often added to the Eisheiligen - May 14, the feast of St. Bonifatius and May 15, the feast of St. Sophie.  The tradition seems to have been confined to northern and middle Europe, especially the areas in and around France, Germany, and later, Sweden.  Most often, the number is three, but some places also add Saint Boniface and Saint Sophia (as "Cold Sophie") to the original trio.  So beware planting before the feast of "Cold Sophie" even if the feast of Saint Boniface is a beautiful warm day.

These are little flowers that bloom earlier than any other plant in Germany. Snowdrops, the very early forest wildflowers of spring, are poisonous but beautiful. Schneeglöckchen means little snowbells in German, ("littlesnowbells"), the three words written as one, something very common in the German language The plant is native to a large area of Europe, stretching from the Pyrenees in the west, through France and Germany to Poland in the north, Italy, Bulgaria, Northern Greece, Ukraine, and European Turkey. It usually pokes it head through snow around the spring equinox although it can sometimes be found as early as late February. The flowers were probably the first welcome sign to our ancestors that spring was on the way.

In the year 1846, the Casino in Traben-Trarbach on the Mosel, came into being.  It was a rather elite club for gentlemen.   At times it was even frequented by Prince Wilhelm of Prussia.  The board members of the Casino, with a goal of saving and enhancing the culture of the area, decided an anthem should be composed to celebrate the Mosel River.  A wagon load of Mosel wine would be given to the winning entry.  A total of 171 entries were received.  Under a point system devised by the board, the song, "The German Rhine Bride," was chosen.  It told of the meeting of the Rhine and the Mosel (at Koblenz) as a wedding of the two great rivers.   It was the submission by Julius Otto of Dresden; the melody composed by his father.  The load of Mosel wine (1,350 bottles) went off to Saxony. As time passed, it was obvious that the song was not being accepted by singing societies. The text was too dry, some said.  Others thought the song was too long.  After a year, the casino jury met again and chose another song,"In many German lands" or more simply, Mosellied (Mosel Song).  The song was rehearsed by the glee club "Liederkranz" of Trier and spread like wildfire among the singing societies along the Mosel.  The new anthem's text was written by Theodore Reck and the music was composed by the Trier cathedral's organist Georg Schmitt.  It did become the anthem song for the Mosel and is still sung today.  Unfortunately, the wine stayed in Dresden. 

The Postal Coach
In the 19th century, Zerf had the service of a postal coach as did most of the small villages.   It also was available to carry passengers, but riding in it was no pleasure. Few people used this method of transportation because of the discomfort and lack of space inside, the hard wheels and thin padding of the seats. Every bump and pothole would be felt. The coach was hot and dusty in summer and cold and wet in winter. The horses were changed periodically and one of such places was Zerf, probably at the Gasthaus there. In addition to the discomfort of the ride, most of the inhabitants of Zerf and Oberzerf did not have enough money to pay for a trip, even one as short as a visit to Saarburg. Traveling on foot, or a journey by horse and wagon were the usual ways for a villager to travel to the Kreis Stadt, the equivalent of a county seat in the USA.

Stress Exclamation 
In moments of severe frustration or anger, I have been told that my Kreis Saarburg ancestors might have blurted out "Majosebetha," a combination of Maria (the Virgin Mary), Josef (St. Joseph) and Elisabetha (St. Elizabeth).  The exclamation is sometimes still used today.

*On my first visit to Irsch, I met my distant relatives and came home with a gift of three bottles of Riesling wine made from the choice green grapes grown in Irsch. I carefully packed the bottles in my carry-on luggage, and I prayed that there was no law that would prohibit me from entering the country with them. If U.S. Customs had not let me into the US with that wine, I think I might have stayed outside of the baggage claim area asking everyone in line for passport check if they had a corkscrew. 


  1. Regarding travel, since you mention the post coach, I wonder whether the Mosel River was navigable. From living in the Hunsrück a couple of years (1977 to 1979), my perceptions of the river come from its capacity because of the lock system.

    Before the locks were built around the 1960s, I've been led to believe that the flow varied seasonally—to a very great extent. Family who live on the Mosel talk of being able in some winters to cross the iced-over river, and that in summer the river was easy to cross with a small boat. But in the spring, floods would inundate houses sometimes 5 m above the normal river levels.

  2. That's an interesting question, Tom. I've read that the barge trip between Saarburg and Saarbruecken on the Saar River was extremely rough. It required the Halfen, who handled the horses, to be strong enough to ride one of the horses when they came to waterfalls along that river. That kept the horses from bolting where the going was very difficult. Passengers would have faced danger on that river. Most likely, the same was true for the Mosel.