I took a while to post this time because this may very well be the most personal one I’ve written yet! The more personal, the more careful a writer I am—so that's a good thing! Although this post is personal, I do hope others will find the history described here interesting or even relevant to their own lives. People travel for all sorts of reasons. Tracing a family history is just one reason, and it only applies to why I chose Germany as one of the stops during my year of deviation. I hope this post resonates with those of you who maybe have traveled for this reason before or perhaps you are aspiring to do so one day as well!
Lots of people have grandparents in their lives for a large chunk of their childhood and sometimes even into adulthood. Some are less fortunate to ever have any in their lives at all. I was fortunate enough to have two grandparents on my father’s side, Arthur and Shirley, and my grandmother on my mother’s side, Josephine, for at least part of my childhood. They all died by the time I was 12.
Before I was born, my maternal grandfather, Joseph, passed away from a heart attack. My brother and I never had the chance to know him. There were a few photos of him around the house growing up and my mother even kept one of his old hats carefully wrapped in plastic on a high shelf in my bedroom closet (I sometimes tried it on just to see how it felt). But these artifacts of his existence lacked context for me. Last month, I traveled to Germany to find some context. For four weeks, I reconnected with many of my relatives—my grandfather’s siblings, nieces, and nephews—some of whom I had never met before. I even had the chance to see places where he grew up, and photographs of him and the rest of the family I never knew existed. Now I feel closer to him than I ever could have before.
German for turtle
Cousin Ludwig picked me up from cousin Ulli’s house just outside of Munich. We drove an hour to his hometown in northern Bavaria where his family was waiting for our arrival. On the way, Ludwig and I were eager to learn about each other. The only problem was the language barrier. My one month of Duolingo German lessons only got me so far, especially with the Bavarian dialect he spoke. This made for an interesting car ride. Most young people in Germany know English well enough to speak it because schools in Germany now require it, but older generations never had to learn English.
Despite this, and to Ludwig’s credit, he understood a lot of what I said—much more than I understood his Bavarian-German. With the accompaniment of my offline Bing translator app, lots of flailing arm movements and facial expressions, and bits of broken English and German, we managed to understand each other on most things. The only word that got by us was the German word for turtle—Schildkröte. His daughter, Lisa, translated for me later on when we arrived at his house in Rohr. He was trying to tell me the family owns pet turtles in addition to a hund and a katze (I’ll let you guess their meaning).
Obermondsberg with a “d”
After quickly meeting his wife, Irene, and his two daughters Lisa and Anna, we got back in the car. We traveled 2 minutes down the road to Obermondsberg. Obermondsberg is the name of the family farm, also known as the farm on which my grandfather grew up. I didn’t realize I was getting to see it so immediately! I was thrilled.
Once there, we met Ludwig’s parents, my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Alfons. They both speak very good English because they went to the USA when they were young, just like my grandfather. Alfons is 87 now and my grandfather’s half-brother—they share the same father, my great grandfather Michael who bought the farm for 1700 marks about 100 years ago.
The farm used to operate with pigs, hens, rabbits, crops to harvest, fields to plow, and firewood to collect. There is no more livestock today but a large garden out back, apple trees, potatoes, and firewood continue to keep the family plenty busy year round. My mom actually got to see the farm in its near original form when she visited with her mother and father at age 9. The place changed significantly after Lucy and Alfons moved back from the USA to live there in the 1960s. Lucy, a spry 76, said to me with a glimmer of humor, “He took me, a young woman, from all of the excitement in New York City to be out here in the middle of nowhere!” Alfons, 87, waved a hand to jokingly dismiss her.
The truth is they love the farm. You can see it in how much care and and time was put into the place and the property. They raised several children there and built anew. They rebuilt the large barn, knocked out the rotten part of the main house, and then built a new house across from it. Now stands 3 primary buildings: the old house, the new house, and the new barn with its original cellar still intact and in use. An official sign out front marks the town's recognition of the farm—albeit the name being misspelled without the "d."
I visited Obermondsberg on all three days I was in town. They took me all over the property and inside each building. I walked under a tree Michael planted 90 years ago that my grandpa Joseph probably played around as a boy. I gazed up the old hole in the barn cellar through which Alfons tossed down wood for him to stack during his visits back from the USA. I even stood inside the room of the old house in which my grandfather was born. I had wanted context—and, wow, I got it.
The Hat King
On the second day visiting my family in Bavaria, we drove to Regensburg. Regensburg is a city of over 140,000 people. My cousin Lisa and Anna both go to a trade school there and its where the family, both historically and present day, go to do much of their shopping and experience a bit of nightlife.
Anna showed me around the city for the day which was really nice. But the highlight for me was the very first location we visited: Der Hutmacher (The Hatter). They produce hats with the label Hut König (Hat King). Fun fact: This hat shop was hired to create Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter hat from Disney’s recent Alice in Wonderland film.
Despite my love for Johnny Depp, the reason I was so interested in the shop was not because of the film. This shop happens to be the shop where my grandfather used to purchase his hats whenever he returned from the USA. Remember earlier in this post I mentioned my mom stores my grandfather’s hat in my bedroom closet? That hat is from this store. So I bought one, too! :)
The workers in the shop were incredibly sweet to me. After I told them about my grandfather, they snuck in a discount for me even though I was happy to pay full price. They stamped the inside rim with my initials, too—a special trademark I’m pretty sure they do for all customers. I was thrilled to say the least.
I am really interested to see my grandfather’s hat now. When I get back in a year, I will go into my closet and try it on again to see how it feels.
A village called Rohr
After Regensberg, Anna drove me through their hometown village, Rohr (population <1000). She took me up to a lookout point to get a view of the entire town. On the way there, fields of already-cultivated hopfen (hops) lined the roadside. Hops flavor beer and make up a large part of the farming industry in the area.
Anna then took me over to the town center where I learned my cousins and my grandfather all attended the same school there.
Next to the school is a Benedictine monastery and a Carolingian church. Ludwig and his wife Irene were married in this church. The architecture inside is so astonishing it actually draws bus loads of tourists to the small town on a regular basis.
Right next to the church, in a small cemetery, is the family plot where Michael, his two wives, and my grandfather’s brother, Hans, were buried. Hans died at the age of 17 from complications related to the removal of cancer.
The wave in Helchenbach
On my last night in town, cousin Ludwig and Lisa took me to visit Uncle Ludwig in Helchenbach (another tiny village just down the road). He had lots to show me and there was no time to waste! When we arrived, he led us through his living room to a circular table with a stack of loose photos and carefully labeled albums a foot high in the center. It’s a good thing we were starting early in the evening!
Uncle Ludwig does not speak any English, so I was lucky enough to have Lisa there to help translate for me. One of the first photos he handed me was of a baby I recognized. “Who is that?” he asked with a smile. “It’s my mom!” I exclaimed feeling warmed by his method to demonstrate his understanding of who I am and how we are connected.
Next, he told me great stories about growing up with my grandfather. He showed me tons of photographs of him, his siblings, and even his grandfather—my great-great grandfather and grandmother long before their son Michael ever bought Obermondsberg. Cousin Ludwig and Lisa also had the thrill of going through these photographs—many of which they, too, had never seen before.
My heart felt heavy when I came to the last of the photos. The visit was coming to an end after only 2 or so hours together. We took some new photos together to capture the moment in time just as our family in the photos scattered across the table had throughout history.
I felt honored and incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to meet and talk to Uncle Ludwig and my other senior relatives on this trip since I didn’t have grandparents at an age when I was old enough to appreciate the amazing histories they have to tell. I could have stayed and talked to them for even longer! I have many questions about Uncle Ludwig’s time in the war, for example. He fought on the German side in World War II (meanwhile, my grandfather fought on the American side). Veronika had told me he was always very frank about how motivated he was as a young man to join the military. He recognized the importance of reminding people about the strength of the national socialists’ propaganda tactics. Numerous family members told me he always refers to the loss of his leg in the war as a positive thing—it meant he got to stop fighting and go home. Uncle Ludwig has walked with a cane ever since. He is 90 next month and the family are throwing him a big party.
We walked out into the crisp night air onto the driveway flooded by a light hanging above the door frame. We embraced goodbye and then he shook my hand and said something in German. He watched from the doorway as we made our way into the car. Lisa turned to me and said, “He is so thrilled that you came all the way here and were so interested in talking to him and looking at photos. He wished he had more stories for you!” With that statement, tears welled up in my eyes. I looked out the window toward him as we pulled away. My last image is of his silhouette in the doorway, cane in one hand, waving with the other.
My cousins don’t know this, but I was pretty overcome with emotion in the back seat on the way back to Rohr. I managed to keep my snuffling under control, but tears streamed down my face as I focused out the window at the star-filled sky. I was crying somewhat out of sadness for years lost not spending time getting to know this part of my family and somewhat out of happiness for having this chance to finally meet and get to know them all. I kept thinking about what it would be like to move here and just sit with Uncle Ludwig and play cards some days, help Uncle Alfons on the farm, or chat and bake with Aunt Lucy. What a different sort of life that would be! But then I remember I have a family back home—including a few older family members and even a full sibling of my grandfather—Aunt Wally.
In the end, I plan to keep this connection going through my family back home and my relatives overseas. I also plan to emphasize to others the importance of keeping up with the family you have and with those you may take for granted or neglect. We all are busy and have certain priorities and routines. But family, whatever you call family, is precious. Keep them close no matter how far you have to deviate in order to do so.